ODD TRUTHS: ISLAMIC MAGIC IN MALTA

Maltese folk magic has been studied in detail by scholars such as Francis Ciappara and Carmel Cassar. However, in 2014, a research team at the University of Exeter led by Professor Dionisius Agius, Dr Catherine Rider, and Dr Alex Mallett, recovered seventeenth-century court documents about an Egyptian slave who was accused of giving magical consultations to ordinary Maltese citizens and Hospitaller knights. The slave, Sellem bin al-Sheikh Mansur, allegedly advised his clients on demonic evocations, love magic, and geomancy. What became of this mysterious Muslim sorcerer? We spoke to Professor Agius to find out more.

Valletta, Malta. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Valletta, Malta. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Custodian: Who was Sellem? What do we know so far about his personal history and education?

Professor Dionisius Agius: Sellem bin al-Sheikh Mansur was a Muslim astrologer from Cairo who was captured by the Knights of St John, based in Malta.  His father, Al-Sheikh Mansur, was an astrologer in Cairo. Sellem spent some time as a galley slave rowing on the Order of St John’s ships, but by 1605 he was no longer able to do this. As the result of an accident, his legs were injured and he was only able to walk with crutches.  In 1605, he was living in the slaves’ prison in Valletta, the new capital of Malta and seems to have made money by acting as a healer.

A Galley of Malta by Lorenzo A. Castro (c. 1680). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A Galley of Malta by Lorenzo A. Castro (c. 1680). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In the spring and summer of 1605, several Maltese Christians denounced Sellem to the Inquisition for practising magic.  The Inquisition was responsible for policing matters of religious deviance among Christians, including magic and “superstition”.  Sellem, a Muslim, came to their attention because he was deemed to be leading Christians astray.  Many of the denunciations were made by ordinary people who claimed that Sellem had performed magic for them to solve everyday problems: Giuseppe Martelli asked Sellem for love magic after his fiancée refused to marry him, while Marco Mangion had approached Sellem for medicine when he was ill and thought he had been bewitched.  But Sellem was also accused of other, more unusual and learned types of magic.

Portrait of a Maltese Knight by Bernardo Strozzi (c. 1600). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of a Maltese Knight by Bernardo Strozzi (c. 1600). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The architect Vittorio Cassar, a Knight of Malta, claimed that Sellem taught him a form of divination called geomancy, which involved drawing dots in random patterns to answer questions about the future (in Arabic called khatt-er-raml).  Cassar also gave the Inquisitors the geomancy treatises that he claimed to have written under Sellem’s direction, and we can see that Sellem who possessed one wrote his name on them in Arabic.  This is now being studied by Dr Liana Saif. Furthermore, Cassar claimed that Sellem had offered to teach him a form of magic called reuchania (Arabic ruhaniyya) which involved the calling up of demons.  Later witnesses went further and said Sellem had called up demons for them, reciting incantations from a magic book.

Aerial view of Mdina, Malta. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Aerial view of Mdina, Malta. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The trial document, now preserved in the Cathedral Archives in Mdina, Malta includes detailed testimony from these witnesses and Sellem’s replies to their accusations. Dr Alex Mallett [another member of the research team] is transcribing, translating the trial, and writing an extensive commentary.  In doing so, it gives us a great deal of information about magic and everyday life in seventeenth-century Malta.  Sellem admitted to practising healing and love magic for some clients, although he said that he did not really know about magic and his spells were “jokes” or fakes, which he made up to earn money from gullible Christians.  He also admitted to teaching Cassar geomancy, and told the Inquisition that he had learned astrology from his father in Cairo.  However, he repeatedly denied knowing anything about how to call up demons and said he had never owned a magical book.  Even when the Inquisition put him face to face with his accusers and used torture, he denied these more serious and demonic forms of magic.

Cathedral archives at Mdina. Photo by Professor Agius.

Cathedral archives at Mdina. Photo by Professor Agius.

In the end, Sellem was nonetheless convicted of using magic and sentenced to walk round the cities of Valletta and Birgu in Malta wearing a hat with his crimes written on it.  He was then imprisoned by the Inquisition.  We hear no more about him.

Sketch of the Old Inqusition House at Valletta. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Sketch of the Old Inquisitor’s Palace. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

C: What’s the next stage in the project? Are there any plans for a collaborative book or conference?

D: The “Magic in Malta, 1605” project will be publishing and translating Sellem’s trial document with Brill in the Netherlands in 2017.  It will also produce a study which will address a number of questions which the document can help to answer: What does the trial document tell us about ideas of magic? How did Christians and Muslims relate to and interact with each other in Early-Modern Malta?  What aspects of everyday life can be seen from this document?  How did the Inquisition operate? How do the events of the trial relate to wider trends in Europe and the Islamic world?

For more on the “Magic in Malta, 1605” project, visit the team website here.

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