8 November 2010


Owen Davies. Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Oxford, 2010.

Davies's review of the grimoire is a fascinating book, and although scholarly, it is written in an accessible and often amusing manner. It traces this form of literature back to the classical period, where the Roman Empire collected and melded the magical traditions of the Egyptian and Hebrew worlds.
The very existence of a book as a physical object made it something special and mystical in a world where few could read. The Greek, Roman, Arabic or Hebrew letters on a page seemed to be mysterious symbols which only the initiated could interpret. The very written word itself was a source of power. Some magic amulets described in these books consisted simply of arrangements of written characters with no actual meaning in the words they formed.
With the earliest grimoires the ink and paper or parchment of the book itself would be an important part of its magical powers: the parchment should be prepared in a particular way, sometimes it would be from a virgin, or even unborn, animal to preserve the purity of the spells written on it. Sometimes the ink would be mixed with herbs, minerals or even blood to give it extra force.

These books were attributed to Hermes, Moses, Simon Magus and other figures from the past. At first grimoires, precious and hand written, were circulated by travelling scholars and clerics, and stories arose of great collections of books and schools of occult magic in places such as Salamaca.

The introduction of the printing press eventually led to the production of a more populist form of grimoire, often taking the name of a Biblical or Classical figure but having little connection with that person's actual life and work. The 'Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses' is a title that has survived from the tenth century to the present, although the contents have changed over the years. These grimoires became instruction books so that anybody could have the powers to change the world which previously had only been available to priests and prophets.

With their charms for attracting lovers, increasing sexual prowess, finding hidden treasure, curing illnesses, and ensuring prosperity, many of them seem to be the early equivalent of the spam messages that fill up email inboxes! The development of printing and its role in spreading grimoires and other 'subversive' literature was recognised by the church and civil authorities, one Catholic clergyman warning: "we must root out printing, or printing will root out us", a fear which is again reflected in attitudes to the Internet.

This lead to what Davies describes as 'The War Against Magic', in the period of the witchcraft trials. It was believed at the time that the sort of conjuring that the popular grimoires prescribed was actually worse than witchcraft. A person cursed by a witch was a victim and did not lose their immortal soul, but someone following the instructions given by the 'cunning folk' who used grimoires were dealing directly with the devil and risked damnation.

The prosecution of their publishers and users did not stop the spread of grimoires to the New World with the increasing numbers of colonists. Interestingly, the subsequent spread to the West Indies and West Africa came from America, rather than via the colonial powers in these areas, A great range of magic books were sold by mail order from publishers in the USA. (Chicago was home to a number of African-America occult organisations and publishing houses) One of these was founded by William Lauron Delaurence, who has been described as "part con-artist, part genuine idealist and pioneer of racial equality".

Delaurence's books circulated widely and were viewed with great suspicion by the European authorities in Africa and the West Indies, and later by some of the independent governments in the region, to the extent that the Jamaican Customs service still announces that "all publications of Delaurence Scott and Company of Chicago ... relating to magic, divination, occultism or supernatural arts" are banned from importation."

The story of divination continues to the present day, through the cheaply produced 'pulp' grimoires of the 'thirties and 'forties, which circulated in working class and immigrant communities across America, and through such fictional grimoires as H. P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon, and creations like Anton LaVay's 'Satanic Bible'. One area which was completely new to me was the continued prosecution of grimoires and books of divination in post-war Germany, where a number of prosecutions of publishers by anti-occult campaigners seems to prefigure the growth of skeptic groups such as CSICOP (CSI) in later decades. -- John Rimmer

Hear Owen Davies talking about his book:

No comments: