Latin Hell (for Halloween)

Getting to Hell is supposed to be easy. Yet, if one were to take a survey of popular culture, it seems rather a difficult task. A not insignificant part of this difficulty is the necessity of knowing Latin to get there.

At the beginning of Christopher Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dr. Faustus, we find Faustus in his study surfeited with the sorts of learning available to mere humans. Opening up books of theology, medicine, and law, he casts them aside and, having first claimed that Aristotle’s Analytics had ravished him, changes tack and says that it is magic and necromancy which occupy his soul.

Perhaps we should be more inclined to think that his famous bargain had already been struck in order to outfit him with the kind of heroic polymathy which could encompass three such disparate and apparently endless subjects. But Faustus is tired of the merely human, and decided to consult with Cornelius and Valdes, two dabblers in the demonic, about the procedure for summoning spirits from Hell. These two characters equip him with the requisite conjuring knowledge, but it is surprising that someone of such apparently limitless erudition would require help to be initiated into this art. Nevertheless, they provide him with the necessary incantatory formula, and later than night, Faustus expends a fair amount of breath on his Latin invocation of Mephistopheles:

Sint mihi dei Acherontis propitii!  Valeat numen triplex Jehovoe! Ignei, aerii, aquatani spiritus, salvete!  Orientis princeps Belzebub, inferni ardentis monarcha, et Demogorgon, propitiamus vos, ut appareat et surgat Mephistophilis, quod tumeraris: per Jehovam, Gehennam, et consecratam aquam quam nunc spargo, signumque crucis quod nunc facio, et per vota nostra, ipse nunc surgat nobis dicatus Mephistophilis!

We, in our own state of enlightenment, know that the Demogorgon invoked by Faustus is an entirely fictive deity, conjured into existence by a scribal error for demiourgon. Perhaps Faustus should not have abandoned book learning so early. But to return to the point: Mephistopheles appears after this lengthy invocation, but informs Faustus that the incantation was merely incidental to his appearance – the real trick being to abjure God and the Trinity:

     MEPHIST. That was the cause, but yet per accidens;

     For, when we hear one rack the name of God,

     Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,

     We fly, in hope to get his glorious soul;

     Nor will we come, unless he use such means

     Whereby he is in danger to be damn’d.

     Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring

     Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity,

     And pray devoutly to the prince of hell.

There is something slightly suspicious in this claim, given that Faustus first needed to seek out two known conjurers to learn the incantation, and received no visit from Mephistopheles earlier despite making clear his intentions to indulge in necromantic art at the potential price of his soul. Later, when Faustus is waiting for the return of Mephistopheles, he bids him to come, but Mephistopheles only arrives after Faustus delivers the command in Latin:

     FAUSTUS. Of wealth!

     Why, the signiory of Embden shall be mine.

     When Mephistopheles shall stand by me,

     What god can hurt thee, Faustus? thou art safe

     Cast no more doubts.—Come, Mephistopheles,

     And bring glad tidings from great Lucifer;—

     Is’t not midnight?—come, Mephistopheles,

     Veni, veni, Mephistophile!

          Enter MEPHISTOPHELES.

Given that he conversed with Faustus earlier in English, the problem cannot simply be chalked up to a linguistic barrier. Devils, demons, and spirits appear to respond far more readily to Latin invocations. Though Mephistopheles claimed that abjuring God would suffice, he yet does seem to be a stickler for the niceties of a learned language.

In the utterly execrable film, The Ninth Gate, rare book detective Bob Corso is enlisted by antiquarian and Satan enthusiast Boris Balkan to validate the authenticity of his demon summoning tome:

BALKAN: Nemo pervenit qui non legitime certaverit.

CORSO: You only succeed if you fight by the rules?

BALKAN: More or less. Ever heard of the Delomelanicon?

CORSO: Heard of it, yes. A myth, isn’t it? Some horrific book reputed to have been written by Satan himself.

BALKAN: No myth. That book existed. Torchia actually acquired it. The engravings you’re now admiring were adapted by Torchia from the Delomelanicon. They’re a form of satanic riddle. Correctly interpreted with the aid of the original text and sufficient inside information, they’re reputed to conjure up the Prince of Darkness in person.

Here we have all of the prerequisites for talking about the demonic: a little bit of Latin, a book of incantations with some fictive erudition to trace its history, and a couple of assholes engaged in dialogue which would embarrass even the most pretentious undergraduate. (Why would two people with fluent understanding of Latin would translate it to each other like they’re in an intermediate reading class?) The plot of the movie is ridiculous and in no way worth recounting, but much time and money has been spent and many lives have been lost before Corso finally has the engravings necessary for conjuring the Devil himself. But why should it be so hard?

Of all the cinematic or literary treatments of soul selling, only The Simpsons has caught the true spirit of the enterprise. One day, Bart casually remarks that he would sell his soul for a Formula 1 race car, at which point the Devil appears and tells him that it can be arranged. That’s it. No book hunting, no incantations, no experts on demonology, and most importantly no Latin.

We are reliably informed that the Devil is preeminently concerned with enlarging his kingdom as much as possible by ensnaring souls to drag to Hell. Indeed, in certain lines of Christian thought, going to Hell is for all practical purposes the default fate for most of humanity. And so, it strikes me as peculiar that admission to Hell is guarded by something resembling an entrance exam to an elite college in the 19th century: the formulaic repetition of recondite knowledge couched in a learned language. Surely, the Devil is multilingual, or at least has a translation team at hand. Indeed, if the plan were to ensnare souls, one would expect that there would have been a shift away from official demoniacal use of Latin to guarantee broader and more democratic access to eternal damnation. Maybe Satan should have taken a cue from Vatican II.

As it stands, there are still firm believers in Latin both on this earth and below. Consider this little bit of pompously introspective douchebaggery from The National Catholic Register:

I felt like a bit of a fraud that day. Any idiot can pray in their native tongue. And given the panoply of televangelists, it seems like many idiots do. Moreover: our Church HAS an official language: Latin—hence the term, “The Latin Church.”


“Well, so what?” a reader might well ask. Well, for one thing: it takes effort to pray the Office in Latin. The pre-Vatican II Liturgical Hours are all longer than the post-Vatican II vernacular version (and there are more of them), so more time is spent in prayer.

Plus, I think God appreciates effort. […]

I am no more conversant in Latin today than I was the first day I picked up the Latin-English Little Office. However, I am convinced that the Devil, whom we are constantly being told does not exist, must truly hate anyone who, with a sincere heart and extra effort, prays in the official language of the Church—a language which traces itself back to the great Fathers of The Church and their inestimable writings. For that matter, I’m pretty confident that the Devil hates prayer in language of any sort, but I like to think Latin drives him absolutely crazy—and keeps him away.

Well buddy, I have some bad news for you: it seems that the Devil appreciates the extra effort, too. All of the Latin one learns for hymnals and the Vulgate is really just jeopardizing young souls who could easily turn conjugations in to conjurations. Worse still, they could then read all of the smutty parts in Ovid. Perhaps we ought to counsel an abstinence-only educational approach to ancient languages. Indeed, if its effectiveness for sexual education is a reliable indicator, we may still be able to save most university Classics programs by letting high school students know that the only way to safely avoid bodily and spiritual damnation is to avoid studying Latin. This has the inestimable benefit of not even being a lie.

Latin’s association with both the liturgical and the demoniacal is likely too firmly rooted now ever to be shaken, and I suspect that as Latin recedes farther and farther both from public life and from general educational accessibility, its association with the dark arts will likely become stronger. When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin for his Vulgate edition, Latin was still a living, vital, spoken language. Consequently, there was no sense at the time that Latin was the particular language of the Devil and his dark arts. Indeed, it is only after Latin ceased to be a language for daily speech and began to be used only among ecclesiastics and other highly learned functionaries that it took on its associations as especially apt for liturgy, exorcism, and conjuration. The farther Latin recedes into dusty obscurity among the archives of arcana, the more potent its current cultural associations will become. For those of us who have taken the time to master it, we can take comfort in the fact that we have earned ourselves a special spot in Hell.

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