Picatrix: A Medieval Treatise on Astral Magic, by Dan Attrell (a problem with etymology)

This is a preliminary assessment derived solely from the preview available on Amazon and should not be construed as conclusive in any fashion.

Reading through the introductory material there is a disconcerting tendency to switch between using Arabic script and Romanization. For those who can read the script the former is of course preferable but the latter is acceptable and is certainly more accessible. It is the switching around that is annoying.

More problematic is the statement that talisman is “from the backward reading of the Arabic word musallaṭ, yielding ṭillasm, which means “that to which power over something is conferred.”

This is an example of spurious etymology and betrays a lack of understanding of etymology and Arabic both. To be clearer the claim is that the word talisman derives from the Arabic word مسلّط. This would in fact be read musallaṭ and the meaning is intriguing. The root is سلّط with the initial م being added to form the active participle.

  • سلّط: to give someone power or mastery (over), set up as overlord, establish as ruler (over); to impose, inflict (on); to bring to bear, exert (force, pressure, etc., on); to load, charge (as with electrical current)

The only problem is that there is no road from مسلّط to talisman. The argument that you achieve this “from the backward reading” is analogous to arguing that god comes from dog. That simply isn’t how etymology works and suggests confusion about right-to-left languages. The real etymology for talisman is:

  • mid 17th century: based on Arabic ṭilsam (طلسم), apparently from an alteration of late Greek telesma ‘completion, religious rite’, from telein ‘complete, perform a rite’, from telos ‘result, end’.

For what its worth the dictionary entry for طلسم is:

  • طلسم: ṭilasm, ṭillasm pl. -āt, طلاسم ṭalāsim talisman, a seal, or the like, inscribed with mysterious words or characters; charm, magical combination of words; pl. طلاسم cryptic characters [Hans Wehr]
  • طِلَسْم، طَلَّسْم، طِلْسَم talisman, charm; enigma, mystery [Al-Mawrid]

Since the actual origin of talisman is well known and, while it came to English through Arabic, is not itself Arabic in origin it is concerning that the author would make such a fanciful claim.

Fortunately for him he is working from a Latin, not Arabic, text — but it takes only the most modest amount of diligence to avoid the error made here.

To be blunt it introduces a concern that further spurious and fanciful claims will be introduced in the text that are not so readily demonstrated as false which makes it difficult to trust the author for adding new information.

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