Culture
This is how the Knights of St John punished a convicted ‘magician’ in 1605
Where are Ron, Harry and Hermione when you need them?

Caroline Curmi

Walking down the streets of Valletta and Birgu wearing a hat with one’s crimes written on it is reminiscent of that infamous Game of Thrones scene where evil queen Cersei was made to walk down the Capital’s streets in her birthday suit, and although humiliating and demeaning, it’s a more pleasant ending to a trial that could have easily resulted in a hanging, or worse.

Such was the fate of one Egyptian astrologer, who found himself captured by the Knights of St John. Sellem bin al-Sheikh Mansur became a galley slave on the Order of St John’s ships, but after an accident which left him unable to walk without crutches, he was relieved of his duties and imprisoned in a slaves’ prison in Valletta.

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It is understood that during his imprisonment, Sellem made a name for himself by acting as a healer. Although this earned him a fair amount of money, his fate took a turn for the worse when a group of Maltese Christians reported him to the Inquisition. Back in the day, magic and superstition were not tolerated and were considered an act of defiance in the face of the Christian church.

Multiple claims were brought forward: a certain Giuseppe Martelli had requested ‘love magic’ after a negative ending to a wedding proposal, while another had asked Sellem for medicine after believing himself to have succumbed to illness due to a curse. The ‘magic’ he offered were in reality fake solutions to everyday problems but the accusations turned serious when a Knight weighed in.

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Not only did Vittorio Cassar accuse Sellem of teaching him geomancy, which at the time was one of the most popular forms of divination, but also that the astrologer had offered to share tips and tricks on how to summon demons. The situation reached its worst when witnesses came forward stating that demons had in fact been summoned in their presence through chants read off a magic book.

Sellem admitted to practising healing and love magic during his trial, but also claimed that he was no real sorcerer and that his act was simply a money-making enterprise. Jurors were not convinced and when it came to the more serious crimes, he vehemently denied possessing any knowledge on how to summon demons, another statement which jurors were not happy to accept. The man was subsequently tortured, but his narrative did not change with the infliction of pain.

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After being made to walk around Valletta and Birgu wearing a hat with his crimes written on it, Sellem was once again imprisoned where one can assume he lived out the rest of his days. Sellem’s story recently featured in a massive research project led by Prof Dionisius A. Agius on magic in Malta.

15th January 2020


Caroline Curmi
Written by
Caroline Curmi
When she’s not having a quarter-life crisis, Caroline is either drawing in a café, frittering her salary on sushi or swearing at traffic in full-on Gozitan. There is also the occasional daytime drink somewhere in the equation. Or two. A creative must be allowed at least one vice.

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