Wednesday 28 October 2009

Review: Grimoires - a History of Magic Books

Grimoires - or books of conjurations, charms and spells - have played an immensely important part in the history of magic and the occult, yet there is so much about them that is shrouded in mystery.

They have been called "the most dangerous books in the world" because of fears that reading them could drive people insane, lead them to commit horrendous acts and that just owning a grimoire could constitute a pact with the Devil. Yet grimoires have also been seen as holding the hidden secrets of power, wealth, success and divine knowledge.

Grimoires: A History of Magic Books is a serious attempt by author Owen Davies, professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire, to reveal the truth about these books, their origins, authorship and influence throughout the world and through the ages.

The story begins in ancient Egypt, Persia and Babylonia, when some magical writings that are still used today have their origin. The book ends in the 21st century when grimoires are available to freely download from the internet, for anyone who wants to read or use one.

In between, Grimoires travels through the medieval era; the war against magic and the Inquisition; the Enlightenment and the use of grimoires for treasure seeking; the spread of magic books among American settlers; the rediscovery of ancient magic in the 19th century; the American boom in mass-produced grimoires of the 19th and 20th centuries; fictional grimoires such as HP Lovecraft's the Necronomicon; and the modern Wiccan Book of Shadows penned by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente.

I'm not going to try to precis the book - it is far too long, convoluted and intricate to do the content justice in short review. But it is a fascinating tale - perhaps mostly because of the amount of deception, fabrication and misdirection involved in the spread and creation of grimoires.

Pretty much every grimoire that has ever been inscribed, penned, copied or printed has had has some degree of fakery about it - and I'm not just talking about the spells they contain. They have often been attributed to authors who almost certainly never wrote them - and sometimes didn't even exist. The date and place of production is often made up - as is the history of how they were found.

One excuse is certainly that publishers of grimoires during times of persecution had good reason to pretend their books came from another country and another time, but it goes much further than that. Biblical Moses almost certainly never wrote Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses- among the most famous grimoires but which probably come from Germany in the 18th century. Saint Cyprian would probably turn in his grave if he knew The Book of St Cyprian - a grimoire widely used for treasure seeking in the 19th century - was was attributed to him. Even a crusading 13th-century Catholic pope - Pope Honorius III had a grimoire with an evil reputation named after him - The Grimoire du pape Honorius. Some scholars have said this was a deliberate act of vengeance by persecuted medieval magicians.

Grimoires: A History of Magic Books has certainly filled a big gap in my knowledge. The only grimoire I have ever used is the Wiccan Book of Shadows. I'd never read any grimoire from earlier than the 20th century and, although I was familiar with one or two older titles, I couldn't have told you what the books contained.

Owen Davies' book is not only full of information, it is also well written and entertaining. I believe Grimoires will become one of those books that anyone interested in the history of magic and the occult is going to want to have read - and probably want to own.

Grimoires: A History of Magic Books is published by Oxford University Press and has an RRP of £14.99 for the hardback edition.

Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses
Grimoire du pape Honorius : Avec un recueil des plus rares secrets
A Witches' Bible


Anonymous said...

so it basically explains info that you can easily find on the internet for free in 2 minutes that should already be common logic to any occult user.

Badwitch said...

Hi Anonymous - that wasn't my thoughts on reading the book at all. I found it very well researched and informative. Considerably more informative than anything you could find on the internet and read in two minutes. It took me many hours of reading to finish the book - it is quite long.