Arbatel de Magia Veterum (Arbatel: Of the Magic of the Ancients) is a 16th-century Swiss grimoire: a book of magic. It purports to be the revelations of an angel named Arbatel “concerning the greatest secrets which are lawful for man to know, and to use them without offense unto God”. It may contain the earliest descriptions of so-called ‘Olympic spirits’: natural spirits of the heavens which, like demons, can be summoned and commanded – yet may be dangerous if mishandled. These Olympic spirits make great NPCs, foes, and outright villains for your ongoing RPG campaign!
Just to be unambiguous, I’m treating the Arbatel as a work of folklore. Obviously, Olympic spirits aren’t real.
This post is brought to you by beloved Patreon backer Justin Moor. Thanks for helping keep the lights on! If you want to help keep this blog going alongside Justin, head over to the Patreon page – and thank you!
The Olympic spirits live in the firmament and in the stars. Their primary task is to allot destinies, though their ability to allot fatal destinies to pious Christians is limited. Godly magicians may summon and command these spirits without fear. The Olympic spirits only pretend to obey wicked magicians so they come to rely on them. Then the spirits will expose the wicked magicians “to the deceits of the devils, and cast them into diverse dangers”. What’s interesting about this is that elsewhere in the Arbatel grimoire, the author cautions magicians to beware of spirits’ lies and to rely upon their faith in God to tell them which words to trust and which not. So it may be that the Olympic spirits actually lie to everyone, but only pious and godly summoners can tell when they’re lying and when they’re telling the truth. The author also warns the reader that devils will appear to you in the form of the Olympic spirits and you must be able to tell the difference.
To summon an Olympic spirit, you must pray to God that he send you one. Specify which by name and explain what you’re going to ask it to do. When you’re done with the spirit, thank it politely and give it leave to return whence it came. The Arbatel author cautions the reader not to keep the spirit for longer than an hour – though he does not tell us what bad thing will happen if you don’t.
The Olympic spirits have a hierarchical organization. They’re divided into 186 provinces, which are themselves grouped into seven governments. Each government is composed of a variety of kings, princes, presidents, dukes, ministers, familiars, and messengers. At the head of each government, above all these ethereal potentates, is a governor that is a visible star (planet). A single governor is chief among the seven. Which governor is chief ruler rotates every 490 years. Despite all this falderal, the Arbatel author seems to think that summoners will only interact with the seven governors.
Aratron is the true name of the planet Saturn. Summoners and magicians may speak with him on Saturdays. He was chief governor 550-61 B.C.. Eighteen million spirits are his subjects. He has a variety of excellent powers he can offer to those who communicate with him. He can:
- Turn anything to stone.
- Turn treasures into coals and coals into treasure.
- Offer you one of his subjects as a familiar.
- Teach alchemy, magic, and physics.
- Make subterranean spirits like you.
- Turn men hairy.
- Turn you invisible.
- Make barren women fertile and grant them long life.
Bethor is the true name of the planet Jupiter. He is most communicative on Sundays but comes soon after being called regardless of the day. He was chief governor 60 B.C.-429 A.D. He has fourteen million subjects. He can:
- Grant great power, provided the subject is already dignified.
- Open locked or hidden treasures.
- Convince spirits of air to give you true answers.
- Transport precious stones.
- Make medicines more potent.
- Offer you one of his subjects as a familiar.
- Prolong your lifespan to 700 years.
Phaleg is the true name of Mars. Summoners may communicate with him on Mondays. He was chief governor through what the Arbatel author would have seen as the violent period of Late Antiquity, 430-919 A.D. It’s unclear whether he has any subjects. To summoners who are already warlike, he grants great honor and skill on the battlefield.
Och is the true name of the sun. He can be reached on Tuesday, was chief governor 920-1409 A.D., and has eighteen million subjects. Even when he is not chief governor, he is the seniormost of the Olympic spirits. He can:
- Convert anything into gold and precious stones.
- Prolong your lifespan to 600 years with perfect health.
- Bestow great wisdom.
- Teach perfect medicine.
- Give gifts of gold.
- Make you be worshipped as a god by the kings of the world, provided you were already dignified.
Hagith is the true name of Venus. He was chief governor 1410-1899, which includes when the grimoire was written. He may be communicated with on Wednesdays. He has only two million subjects. He can:
- Convert copper into gold and gold into copper.
- Offer familiars that are addicted to you.
- Make you beautiful, provided you were already dignified.
Ophiel is the true name of Mercury. His day is Thursday and he’s the chief governor today (1900-2389). He has the most subjects: fifty million. He can:
- Teach all the arts.
- Teach you how to convert quicksilver into the philosopher’s stone – provided, of course, that you are dignified in character.
Phul is the true name of the moon. His day is Friday, and he will be chief governor 2390-2880 A.D. It’s unclear whether he has any subjects. He can:
- Cure dropsy (edema).
- Offer spirits of water as familiars, which are both visible and corporeal.
- Expand your lifespan to 300 years.
At your table, these Olympic spirits are obviously up to no good. The Arbatel author tells us that devils will come disguised as Olympic spirits, but really they’re all devils – the ‘real’ Olympic spirits do actually have the properties and organization described above, but they’re just as devilish as the rest. The PCs might encounter summoners who think they’re controlling an Olympic sprit but are really being used by it for its own evil ends. Other Olympic spirits might visit the PCs on their appointed days with offers of gifts in exchange for little actions. These events can be stand-alone scenes or mini-adventures in the larger campaign you’re already running. But if you run a few such scenes or adventures and the players really get into it, you can always provide the party with a means to ascend into the heavens. There, they can do battle with the Olympic spirits’ starry forms while holding off their legions of subjects!
Olympic spirits can be adapted to fit a diversity of settings. You can use ‘em as-written in any modern or premodern ‘real-world’ setting. Change the names of the planets and they work in most any fantasy setting. But I really love the idea of using them in a science fiction setting. The idea of the true spirit of Mercury causing you trouble becomes a lot more evocative when Mercury is a real place you can visit! Get creative with what each governor’s subjects may represent. Conveniently (except for Mercury), the numbers of subjects map pretty well onto their discoverability. The moon and Mars are easy to check for alien spirits, so Phul and Phaleg don’t have subjects. Venus is mostly protected by dense sulfuric acid clouds, so Hagith has a mere two million subjects. As for the Sun, Saturn, and Jupiter, who would even know if there were weird, mostly-insubstantial aliens living on and in them? So naturally those are the bodies with the largest populations!