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Ars Notoria: Why is It Called the Notory Art?

Updated: Jan 15

The Ars Notoria (Notory Art) is a strange name for a 13th century magical handbook of prayers and figures. Why is it called that? There are three plausible perspectives on how this book of angelic magic received its name, and the most important of these perspectives is explored in depth here. The other two perspectives are studied in my book, the Ars Notoria: The Notory Art of Solomon (Inner Traditions, 2023). Those two perspectives include the study of linguistics in Aristotelian philosophy and the notarial science (also called the art of shorthand writing) which boomed in northern Italy during the Italian renaissance of Roman law. I propose that the Ars Notoria (Notory Art) is so-called because it is believed that King Solomon composed prayers “out of the subtlety of the notory art [i.e., the Judaic and exegetical interpretation[1] called notarikon] with the wonderful privilege of divine help” in his Liber Florum Caelestis Doctrinae (Book of Flowers of Heavenly Teaching). According to the mythical account recorded in the Ars Notoria, Solomon’s Liber Florum was supposedly passed down to Apollonius of Tyana, the first-century Neopythagorean philosopher, who composed a selection of Solomon’s writings into his own treatise entitled Flores Aurei (Golden Flowers). The Flores Aurei would later accrue supplements that became incorporated into the body of the text and become known as the Ars Notoria. But first, why would Solomon be connected to the Judaic and exegetical method called notarikon in the first place?

What is distinctly Solomonic about the magic of the notory art is the ritual of dream incubation and the attainment of a heavenly vision according to the biblical account (2 Chronicles 1:1-12; 1 Kings 3:3-15). This matter of dreams and heavenly visions is joined with the esoteric and Judaic tradition of interpreting sacred scripture by means of the exegetical method called notarikon. The tradition of interpreting dreams by Judaic exegetical methods is attested in the story of Daniel and the writing on the wall (Daniel 5), in which Daniel has interpreted King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. In this story, Daniel has used the exegetical method called paronomasia, which is the pun, or the play on words. He has paronomastically interpreted the Aramaic names of three coins or weights – mina, shekel, and half-mina (mĕnē, tĕqēl, and pĕrēs) as the homonymous verbs meaning “numbered, weighed, and divided” with pĕrĕs simultaneously taken to refer to Persia (pārās).[2] It is no coincidence that the glossed version of the Ars Notoria mentions this story about Daniel.[3]

In the glossed version of the Ars Notoria, the commentator explains that “certain names of holy angels with prayers in Greek, Chaldean, and Hebrew” were sent to Solomon by the angel Pamphilius and that those prayers were accompanied by “some forms depicted of a protracted and diverse manner”, meaning the notarikon-constructed forms of those prayers. The angel is said to have taught him the notarikon method along with the form and contents of the ritual operation.[4] An example of these names of angels intermingled with a prayer is “Lemaac, Salmaac, Elmay, Gezagra, Raamaasin, Ezieregomial, Egziephiar, Iosamin, Sabach, Ha, A Em, Be, He, E, Sepha, Sephar, Ramar, Semoit, Lemaio, Pheralon, Amic, Phin, Gergom, Letos.”[5]

The glossed version of the Ars Notoria strongly suggests that notarikon and other Judaic exegetical methods ought to be employed when the operator receives a dream visitation from an angel. In the Ars Notoria, section 103 gloss explains, “and if an angel carrying a standard in his hand appears as someone to you in a vision during the night while asleep, do not doubt or be afraid or reveal it to anyone, but the precepts which he will have given to you and the letters which he will have shown to you, you must guard and retain, concealing [them], because it is the most sacred sacramental mystery of God and his holy angels.” Here the angel has given the operator letters for the operator to interpret according to exegetical methods in order to properly proceed with his experiments. One can imagine that Solomon himself, who, having had a dream visitation from God would have searched the sacred scriptures and consulted the priesthood about interpreting his dream. Indeed, one can imagine that Solomon would have immersed himself in exegetical interpretations in order to extract the esoteric significance of his dream. In doing so, it is said that Solomon developed his own notory art (i.e., notarikon), having manipulated the Hebrew, Chaldean, and Greek languages by angelic assistance, which in effect, created a amalgamated and secret language for communicating with angels for the acquisition of earthly and heavenly knowledge.

Lieberman, a late scholar, points out that there is an anonymous Midrash (i.e., a commentary on part of the Hebrew scriptures) appended at the end of the Baraitha on the32 Rules, a work explaining various Judaic interpretations of biblical scripture attributed to Eliezer ben Jose ha-Gelili (fl. 2nd century CE, although the treatise is understood to be much older) remarks:

“Behold it says: ‘A dream carries much implication’ (Eccl. 5:2). Now by using the method of kal vahomer (a minori ad maius)[6] we reason: If the contents of dreams which have no effect may yield a multitude of interpretations, how much more then should the important contents of the Torah imply many interpretations in every verse.”[7]

This is a very intriguing comment about interpreting dreams in Ecclesiastes, a biblical book thought to have been authored by King Solomon himself!

What is notarikon? Notarikon (Hebrew נוטריקון, Romanized as either notariqon or notarikon and derived from the Greek νοταρικόν, which in turn, is derived from the Latin, notarius, meaning “shorthand writer”) is one of three exegetical methods of interpretation (the other two being gematria and temurah) for finding the substratum of biblical text in order to understand its esoteric significance. Notarikon sought to “discover” hidden interpretations in sacred scripture. Notarikon is explained as an exegetical technique in the Baraitha on the 32 Rules. Considering the ancient origins of notarikon, it is understood as kabbalistic in the sense that it belongs to an old and esoteric Jewish tradition. The word “kabbalistic” does not mean that body of medieval literature, such as the Zohar, for which the word would later acquire its modern connotations.

Essentially, there are two kinds of notarikon, the protracted method and the contracted method. The protracted method interprets every letter in a particular word as the abbreviation of a whole word; these new whole words then constitute a sentence. For example, the first Hebrew word in the book of Genesis is בְּרֵאשִׁית (Romanized as either berashit or bereshit), which can be protracted into ‘Berashith Rahi Elohim Sheyequebelo Israel Torah,’ which means ‘In the Beginning, God saw that Israel would accept the law.’ The contracted method does the opposite in which an acronym is made from an entire sentence. For example, the divine name AGLA, is a notarikon for גִּבּוֹר לְעוֹלָם אֲדֹנָי‎ ʾAGībōr Ləʿōlām ʾĂḏōnāy, which means ‘O Lord, you are mighty forever.

The Ars Notoria speaks of its name, “it is to be called a notory [art, i.e., notarikon] . . . because it teaches [through] incomprehensible [language] the knowledge of all things out of writings with some [of the] shortest notulis.”[8] In other words, the mental process of acquiring knowledge is gained through this notarikon-constructed language. This language is amalgamated, encoded, and secret, meant for communicating with angels, who, being excited, grant the desired knowledge to the operator. Through notarikon, certain names of angels are addressed in long and prayerful petitions. The divine and angelic names are understood to be constructed from the contracted method (i.e., the acronyms), while the prolix or long-winded prayers are understood to be constructed from the protracted method (i.e., creating a new sentence from a single word).

Notarikon works well with the Hebrew and Chaldean (i.e., Aramaic or Syriac) languages because they use an abjad writing system in which only consonants are represented, leaving the vowel sounds to be inferred by the reader. Exegetical interpretations were not limited to Hebrew or Chaldean but also extended to Greek to make a demonstration to Gentiles and Hellenized Jews.[9] Thus, it is now plausible to explain how Solomon composed Hebrew, Chaldean, and Greek prayers by means of the notory art (i.e., notarikon, related exegetical methods, and their rhetorical schemes).[10] Furthermore, it explains how Solomon interpreted the divinely revealed books by means of textual exegesis to discern the divine will and compose his Liber Florum.

Hence, the Ars Notoria explains that the Greek, Hebrew, and Chaldean prayers hold an occult virtue which human reason cannot comprehend (sections 6, 12, 17, 35, 37, 49, and 56), and that “Solomon first wanted the [notarikon] form [of the prayers] ordered thus, so that every [notarikon form was] to lack a translator, knowing so great the subtlety of Chaldean, Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic with the profundity of an extracted speech, so that no one is able to explain the scheme of the entire speech. And Solomon shows what its own efficacy [and] its condition is concerning the splendor of wisdom in the book Eniclyssoe, (Ars Notoria, section 8).”

This explains why the Latin prologues are not a true translation nor contain the esoteric significance of the notory art prayers, but rather are only a superficial and introductory explanation of what they contain. This incomprehensible quality of the notory art prayers, constructed by the Hebrew notarikon, is somewhat analogous to the Greek magical formulas called the ephasia grammata, which also has a list of unintelligible words and syllables spoken in magical rites (See the special gloss in Version A about the first prayer of philosophy, Castle, Ars Notoria, page 307). An example of ephasia grammata is a group of six words: ΑΣΚΙ(ΟΝ) ΚΑΤΑΣΚΙ(ΟΝ) ΛΙΞ ΤΕΤΡΑΞ ΔΑΜΝΑΜΕΝΕΥΣ ΑΙΣΙΟΝ (or ΑΙΣΙΑ), transliterated in Roman letters as aski(on) kataski(on) lix tetrax damnameneus aision (aisia). Both the Hebrew and Greek formulations are used in composing prayers in magio-religious rites.

Solomon asserts that the Rasay Lamac prayer (Version B, Assaylemaht) is constructed from a prayer in Moses’s Pentateuch by means of notarikon. The Ars Notoria says, “This is a holy prayer without any danger of sin from which Solomon affirmed ‘to be inexpressible to the actual human senses.’ He added, ‘Its explanation is more prolix,’ he said, ‘than it is able to be considered by man, excepting its very secrets, which it is not permitted nor given to man to speak, [any] much more [than] of the same prayer in Moses’s Pentateuch.’”[11] In other words, he says the prayer is more prolix because he has applied the protracted method of notarikon in which he has interpreted every letter of every word in the prayer as the abbreviation of a whole word. Thus, the explanation of the entire prayer is greatly protracted. The protracted method explains why the Ars Notoria warns the reader, “Still, you must not ponder because every word of the aforesaid prayer must be [as long as an entire] speech translated into Latin, with some words of the prayer itself containing more sense and mystical profundity within themselves.”[12] Undoubtedly, this encoded language puzzled and frustrated its readers because they did not know Solomon’s Liber Florum in which he explains his notarikon-based constructions. Any attempt to translate the secret language of angels failed, rendering the words into a series of meaningless and nonsensical letters and words. According to the mythic account of the Ars Notoria, Apollonius of Tyana had access to Solomon’s Liber Florum and was able to compose his Flores Aurei (Golden Flowers) from it. The glossed version of the Ars Notoria says that ‘Apollonius, expounding some things and extracting as much explanation with more subtlety about the prayers as he could (that is, the deprecations [i.e., the prayers] mixed between the names of the holy angels)’, and he understood those two methods of notarikon employed by Solomon, but even Apollonius himself did not fully comprehend Solomon’s work.[13]

In conclusion, the Ars Notoria is so-called because it is based on the belief that King Solomon received the most ancient books of the Hebrews (i.e., Eniclyssoe, Gemeliot, Lengemath) and compiled those into his Liber Florum Caelestis Doctrinae (Book of Flowers of Heavenly Teaching) in which he composed notarikon-constructed forms of those prayers, thereby constituting a secret language for communicating with angels through ritual magic, in order to attain earthly and heavenly knowledge. King Solomon allegedly followed the Judaic tradition of interpreting dreams through exegetical methods, methods which undoubtedly became popular during the Middle Ages, which saw the rise in esoteric Jewish literature. The Ars Notoria describes both the protracted and contracted methods of notarikon, which strongly suggests that the original reason it is called the notory art is because of the notarikon method of interpretation. This is also reflected in its description of a dream visitation by an angel who gives the operator certain alphabet letters to interpret in order to execute the ritual proper. The notarikon proposal fits nicely with the Ars Notoria’s idiosyncratic and technical definition of a nota, which is the knowledge contained within the notarikon-constructed prayer and the pictorial figure. In other words, the nota has a hidden or esoteric knowledge, which the operator seeks to acquire; the nota’s symbols, or “containers” as it were, are the prayer and the pictorial figure. My book explores further the multitude of interpretations of these strange prayers as symbols in relation to Aristotelian philosophy as it is applied to linguistics and the art of shorthand writing.

[This article is an expansion upon a passage from my Ars Notoria: The Notory Art of Solomon (Inner Traditions, 2023).]

This digital edition by Matthias Castle, Copyright 2023. All rights reserved.

Please do not copy this text to your website, or for any purpose other than private use.

Ars Notoria: The Notory Art of Solomon translated by Matthias Castle, published by Inner Traditions International and Bear & Company, © 2023. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of publisher.

[1] Exegesis is the critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of sacred scripture. The quoted passage comes from the Ars Notoria, section 31. [2]Arnold, Bill T. “Wordplay and Narrative Techniques in Daniel 5 and 6.” Journal of Biblical Literature 112, no. 3 (1993): 479–85. See also Tigay, Heffrey H., “An Early Technique of Aggadic Exegesis,” in History, Historiography, and Interpretation, (ed.) H. Tadmor and M. Weinfeld. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1983, 169-89. [3] Ars Notoria, Version B, section 12 Gloss. [4] Ars Notoria, prologue gloss. [5] Ars Notoria, section 22. [6] Kal vahomer is Hebrew meaning “light and heavy.” It is a kind of argument which means that what applies in a lesser instance will certainly apply to a greater instance. The same concept is known in the Latin idiom, a minori ad maius (“from the lesser to the greater”). [7]Lieberman, Saul. Hellenism in Jewish Palestine. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1962, 69-77. [8] Ars Notoria, section 20b. Latin notulis means “the littlest notes.” [9]Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, 73-74. Hellenized Jews are those Jews who lived and become assimilated into Greek culture. [10] See also Ars Notoria, section 8, which reads, “Solomon first wanted the [notarikon-constructed] form [of the prayers] ordered thus, so that every [form was] to lack a translator, knowing so great the subtlety of Chaldean, Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic with the profundity of an extracted speech, so that no one is able to explain the scheme of the entire speech.” [11] Ars Notoria, section 17. [12] Ars Notoria, section 12. [13] Ars Notoria, section 10 gloss.

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