Owen Davies picks his top 10, and yes, HP Lovecraft makes the cut Buffy gets to grips with a grimoire. Last month Oxford University Press published his most recent work, Grimoires, the first ever history of the books of spells whose origins were first recorded in the ancient Middle East. Buy Grimoires: A History of Magic Books at the Guardian bookshop "Grimoires are books that contain a mix of spells, conjurations, natural secrets and ancient wisdom. Their origins date back to the dawn of writing and their subsequent history is entwined with that of the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the development of science, the cultural influence of print, and the social impact of European colonialism. The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses Although one of the more recent grimoires, first circulating in manuscript in the 18th century, this has to be number one for the breadth of its influence. From Germany it spread to America via the Pennsylvania Dutch, and once in cheap print was subsequently adopted by African Americans.
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Shelves: cultural-studies , modern-european , esoteric , history , five-star , literature-general , religion-spiritual , north-american , eighteenth-century , mythology This is less of a social history than it might have been but one cannot complain if the title is crystal clear about what is being offered - a history of magic books.
And, as such, it is excellent. At times, it seems not much more than a compilation of information about these books century by century but this serves one important purpose - it strips away any notion that the bulk of these books served any other purpose than personal aggrandisement in an age of poverty and lack of welfare This is less of a social history than it might have been but one cannot complain if the title is crystal clear about what is being offered - a history of magic books.
At times, it seems not much more than a compilation of information about these books century by century but this serves one important purpose - it strips away any notion that the bulk of these books served any other purpose than personal aggrandisement in an age of poverty and lack of welfare provision. Men and women had every reason to clutch at straws. One common theme from earliest times until quite recently has been the use of such texts to discover treasure by calling up demons and dark spirits and then binding and interrogating them to reveal it.
The spiritual content of these early modern books is minimal despite the attempts of later generations to read back their own spiritual searchings into the grubby grab for power and money of what probably amounted no doubt with exceptions to a succession of charlatans, fraudsters, small time criminals and half-educated cunning folk determined to prey for profit on the unhappiness of the masses.
This was the same carnival gulling of country folk, in the tradition of medieval hucksterdom, that underpinned the eighteenth century French bibliotheque bleue. This is not to say that some of the original sources of the grimoires of early modern Europe were not of considerable spiritual importance or that the presence of grimoires did not prove vital to the creation of modern alternative spiritualities as ready-mades for interpretation.
The Hebrew cabbalistic tradition and pagan hermeticism as well as alchemy and possibly the tarot - alongside attempts to come to terms with the demonic lore of the religions of the book - were all sincere paths for the exploration of consciousness and alternative realities.
Many others took demons to be really existing creatures who could be bound safely for service without threat of eternal damnation. The fears of the Church and the authorities were part fear of the heretical and part fear of new thinking but, on closer investigation, they were equally related to the potential for grimoires to be used to part peasants and small townpeople from their money or to promote unacceptable distance between community and church.
Immense efforts have gone into rooting out popular grimoires including the terminal force against sorcerers over the centuries. The first relevant book burnings were of pagan writings by the newly assertive and totalitarian Christian communities of the late Roman Empire although the Roman authorities were quite happy to burn books that defied state control of religion long before Constantine. It is little known that book burnings continued in Germany long after the Nazis lost power.
Instead of Jewish and liberal books, religious campaigners were burning books of magic. Indeed, though they disapproved of magic despite the fantasies of Western propagandists , the Nazis seem far less extreme in this matter than fanatical Christian Democrats and Protestants. It might be argued that the detachment of these texts from educated high society and their survival out of that context also detached them from their pagan spiritual meaning and folk purpose.
Grimoires are certainly ambiguous in pre-industrial and colonial society. Davies is excellent in tracing their path from Europe into the New World and other Western colonies and back and forward across Europe, linking their influence to practical factors such as the availability of the printing press and the willingness and determination of the authorities to suppress them.
Levels of literacy are key in both permitting grimoires to flourish they require someone to read them and defining their acceptability and use. Magical sub-cultures emerged that were both proponents of sometimes unutterable nonsense and the basis of a culture of resistance to a non-inclusive high culture that had nothing to say to the poor and uneducated. This, one suspects, was very different from the highly cultured world of Toledo in the High Middle Ages where Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions and thought mingled to create the radical thinking of which the early modern grimoires were but a pale reflection.
The folk memory of Toledo as centre of dark sorcery reflected this cultural debasement of a high intellectual tradition. In successive totalitarian Christian reformations, magic became debased into a presumption of evil when all it really was was a challenge to intellectual authority.
Manuscripts got mangled, attributed inappropriately, given antiquities that do not stand up to scrutiny. Whether manuscripts or printed books, these texts became systematically degraded from their origins in a tolerant High Mediterranean Culture. Perhaps some of the more genuine intellectual magicians were still being hunted to extinction as late as the early seventeenth century in Catholic Europe but it is fairly clear that the printed versions of their texts in the eighteenth century and their adaptations in America and across Europe and their colonies in the nineteenth were little more than gobbledy-gook for cunning folk.
Davies is usefully corrective on one widespread assumption, derived no doubt from the lurid stories of Montague Summers and Dennis Wheatley that witchcraft and demonic grimoires were closely associated. The witch trials were about There may have been occasional links between sorcery and witchcraft but, outside Iceland, they were rare. This is, again, probably down to levels of literacy at the height of the witchcraft trials. You could scarcely blame a witch of sorcery by grimoire if she could not read or write.
Iceland, on the other hand, had a high level of literacy for women at the time of its witch trials. There also seems to have been a greater chance of sorcery being invoked in a witch trial elsewhere if priests were being implicated in the alleged crime - their literacy permitted use of the grimoire.
The influence of the specialist publisher Delaurence on the creation of new religious forms in the Caribbean and Africa whose antiquity has probably been much exaggerated would be worth an anthropological study in its own right. A thoroughly Western literary form appears to have assisted in constructing new forms of religion on a basis of inherited tribal magic and cultural dislocation.
This is quite a dense book but perfectly readable. It comes alive, becoming more than a linking of antiquarian facts, when it gets to the eighteenth century. Here, the narrative starts to strengthen, especially with the narrative of migrant and former slave use of grimoires that really requires yet another historian to interpret, perhaps more theoretically.
Davies certainly seems very loath to experiment with theory. What people did with grimoires is well covered. Why they used them, much less so. The key figure here is the autodidact Eliphas Levy, an eccentric who played an important role in re-presenting the grimoire and the high magical tradition as a possible source for attaining access to an alternative reality.
This was a moment of cultural sea-change that in France, Britain, America, Germany and Italy led to many different forms of creative irrationalism that are still transforming society as we write.
All three made use of grimoire lore. Before we get hyper-critical about their provenance, we might ask just how reliable the claims of divine authorship of the books of the Bible or the Koran are if we really, really think about this instead of accepting claims on faith.
From this perspective, the leap of faith made by Chaos Magicians who are just playing with belief quite knowingly , Wiccans who, in fact, are honest that each text is personal and to be recast by every practitioner in the light of their own needs and Satanists who have no illusions that LaVey wrote their text and know full well that Satan does not exist seems less absurd than that of their rivals.
Perhaps this may be one clue to the determination of the authorities to suppress the grimoire - in its cack-handed way, the grimoire says that no intermediation is required between the punter and his book. Any person with the power to interpret the book can decide their own destiny in terms of sex, power and spirit which is a standing challenge to all established priests, experts and intellectuals.
It is probably why socialists and progressives loathe it as much as any cardinal. But, at their best, their use represents a revolutionary act under conditions where there is no power for the people, where sexual repression is normal, where conditions are poor and life short and where religion represents social order rather than personal meaning.
Irrationalism represents psychic resistance to the arrogance of the powerful. Magic as resistance will never go away except where it is decisively crushed under the authoritarian boot of State and Church. An alternative may be to permit a degree of healthy irrationalism within a culture based on communication and general welfare where grimoires as symptom have no cause to be used for fraud or criminality because their function has changed.
Under new conditions, they can be used, as they increasingly are being used in the modern West, for fun and for spiritual growth rather than for the assertion of power by the powerless over circumstance and the even less powerful.
Davies makes one very profound point - perhaps his only attempt at deep analysis in a largely narrative history. It is quite simply that most of us in the West no longer need magic in our lives.
Economic development, mass education and technology provide our magic because magic is nothing more nor less than a means of empowerment. If we see magic re-emerging today albeit mostly in the spiritual and social sphere , it is because we need it again. The new religions are actively transforming persons and cultures where old systems have failed and this process is likely to accelerate under the influence of the internet. As Davies suggests, magic and grimoires are unlikely to disappear from our culture very soon.
Finally, let me add that the illustrations of various texts, scattered throughout the book, are extensive and well placed. Oxford have done a fine editorial job and there are copious and detailed footnotes and signs to further reading. The book is also very broad-based with information on all the main Western and Northern European markets and on North America and the European colonies. There will be gaps but a book that covers Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland and Norway as well as the different Caribbean Islands cannot be called parochial.
Grimoires: A History of Magic Books
Owen Davies's top 10 grimoires