The All too Real Creepiness of The Codex Gigas
By Eleanor Sciolistein
Remember… it’s real.
Imagine a book. A medieval manuscript, with pages almost a metre tall. A book so large and heavy that it takes two people to carry it, making it the largest illuminated medieval manuscript in the world.
Imagine that this manuscript was once housed in a chapel with decorations made from human skeletons, standing beneath an immense chandelier that contains at least one example of every bone in the human body.
Imagine, that this book was a spoil of war and was once sold to a king who allowed live tigers and lions to roam his castle and would pay compensation to anyone attacked.
Imagine, that alongside the majority of the vulgate bible (Acts and Revelations being omitted) and numerous other works, this volume contains one singularly remarkable page. A full page given over to a portrait. A portrait in which the subject, whom legend states is also the volume’s author, wears nothing but a loincloth of ermine, an expensive fur which at the time, would have marked out the subject as a king or prince. A full page portrait, of the devil.
Now, remember, it’s real.
If you’ve been a fan of horror for anything more than twenty minutes (and if you haven’t you might have some catching up to do before you start reading articles on horror like this one. Seriously, if you haven’t at least seen The Exorcist go away and come back after you’ve been through puberty) you will at some point have encountered the familiar trope of the ‘creepy old book’. Such volumes are usually full of forbidden knowledge, arcane lore and esoteric secrets and when meddled with, cause all kinds of trouble.
For as long as they have existed books have not only contained stories but had stories told about them. There is something inherently wondrous about the idea of an object that is essentially a vessel for knowledge. What that that knowledge might be and the power it may potentially bestow is intriguing in and of itself. Throw in some cool antiquated binding and a few alchemical diagrams and you’re deep in horror country.
Whether it’s fictional texts like Lovecraft’s fabled Necronomicon or very real grimoires such the Clavicula Salomonis, terrifying tomes and wayward works have been a staple device in the horror genre, both on screen and in print for years.
It is therefore always a pleasure when history presents the horror fan with a slice of reality so wrapped up in the usual trappings of fiction, that at first it is difficult to believe that it’s true. In this case however it is.
The Codex Gigas or Devil’s bible as it is commonly known, now resides in the National Library in Sweden. As mentioned above and underscored by its name (gigas meaning giant) the book itself is immense. Standing 92 cm (36 inches) tall and weighing in at a colossal 165lbs. The pages of this massive manuscript of which there are 310 (there were 0riginally 320- more about this later) are made of vellum, either calf skin or it is alleged, the skin of 160 donkeys (not seen that much ass skin in one place since…oh, finish the joke yourselves).
The book itself is well travelled, having started life in a monastery in the Czech Republic it has variously been taken as a spoil of war by the Swedish army after the thirty years war, been the property of menagerie making monarch Rudolf II (who incidentally was so gloriously batshit crazy himself that he deserves an article of his own). But wait, it get’s better…
Just to make this almost- too -perfect sounding tale go past perfect and come out in the centre of implaus-aville, the huge medieval manuscript, known as The Devil’s Bible was once housed in the Seldec monastary in Kutna Hora. If you’ve never heard of this place, look it up. I’ll wait.
(Two minutes later…)
I know, right? For those who didn’t bother, the location is home to the Seldec Ossuary, a chapel which is decorated with skeletons of between 40 and 70,000 people. And when I say decorated with, I don’t mean in neat, pretty little piles. The bones have been used to create amongst other things an immense chandelier, monstrances on either side of the altar, a coat of arms, even the artist’s signature spelt out in tiny bones.
Momnento mori indeed. I can’t be the only one thinking that In some ways it is a shame that the book didn’t remain here.
As it turns out however, being massive and having a love of travel isn’t enough on its own to make you famous (if it were then almost everyone you’ve ever met through Tinder would be famous by now…) What makes this book really stand out is the highly unusual inclusion of a full page image of Satan.
As you can see below, the image itself is quite gruesomely detailed, the inclusion of not one but two tongues being an addition of symbolic significance. The Prince of Darkness is depicted from the front. Whilst he lacks the cloven hooves and pointy tale of some other depictions he is unquestionably bestial, sporting a pair of huge horns, green skin and fiendishly long talon like fingernails (on second thoughts he might be one of your Tinder dates after all).
The page opposite the drawing of Old Nick shows the Kingdom of Heaven, which has lead some to believe that the image is intended to be viewed as part of a double page spread, showing the contrast of good and evil. Whatever the reason for their inclusion, these pages were clearly the most popular in the text, as the vellum pages immediately before and after show discolouration not seen in the rest of the text, a result of them being those most commonly turned…or so they tell us, muwhahahaha! Seriously though, it’s just tanning because everyone wants to see the ‘satanic selfie’.
Which brings us to the legend. Rather than being simply a flippant remark (flippant Moi? How very dare you!) the idea of a ‘satanic selfie’ isn’t too far wide of the supposed story of the texts’ composition. Apparently a monk living within a monastery in the Czech Republic broke his monastic vows and in a very Edgar Allan Poe-esque punishment, was sentenced to be bricked up within the walls of the monastery alive, which I suppose was an early way of saving money on insulation.
Being less than thrilled about the prospect of becoming the most literal ‘wall flower’ in history this monk tried to worm his way out of his punishment by promising to create a document containing all of human knowledge that would bring prestige and admiration to the monastery. Not only that, but he promised that he would miraculously complete this massive undertaking work in a single night ( rumours that he also claimed Mexico was going to pay for the wall he was being bricked behind remain unsubstantiated).
Obviously, considering what a time consuming and laborious process such scribe work is (not to mention the fact that it would require the monastery to have 320 pages worth of donkey skins just lying around for him to use) the task seemed impossible. Around midnight therefore, realising that he was never going to get the job done and was going to end up like the title of a Pink Floyd song (look it up) our plucky monk decided to pray for help, from a somewhat unusual source.
Having presumably gotten nothing more than a voicemail when dialling The Almighty, our hero decided to turn his prayers southward…to Lucifer. Offering his soul in exchange for the devil’s help in completing the book, the monk also apparently inserted the portrait as a thank you, the soul apparently not being enough of a sweetener to the deal, (though some versions of the legend have the image being a self portrait completed by the devil himself, hence satanic selfie, so there).
What is even more brilliant about the book, is that analysis of the calligraphy, which experts have estimated would have taken at least five years writing non stop (that’s just the text, not counting the illuminations or illustrations) is almost entirely free of mistakes, is remarkably consistent in terms of the composition of the ink and according to some sources is particularly devoid of the tell tale signs of illness, tiredness or ageing that can usually picked up through variations in the handwriting, pointing at the very least to the idea that the entire thing was written by a single scribe (most likely Herman the Recluse) probably over the course of around thirty years, or a single night if you have horns, green skin and a fancy manicure.
But it doesn’t end there. As a gift to horror fans and writers that just keeps on giving, there’s even more. Remember those missing pages? Well, they remain just that- missing. The reason why they were removed and their current location (assuming they have survived at all) is still a mystery. What a great premise for writers to play with. A medieval manuscript known as The Devil’s Bible which at some point in its history had ten pages removed and their current location is unknown? How could you not be intrigued by that?
You can visit the text and look it from afar at the National Library of Sweden or for a closer look you can read more about it at the National Library of Sweden’s site here: The Devils Bible
Remember, it’s real.
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