Sunday, May 03, 2009

Grimoires: A History of Magic Books by Owen Davies, isbn 978-0-19-920451-9

Grimoires: A History of Magic Books by Owen Davies, isbn 978-0-19-920451-9

366pp, £14.99 hbk

"The production of grimoires was an entrepreneurial enterprise that thrived wherever the influence of secular and ecclesiastical censors was restricted by geographical, educational or political factors. The opening up of America created just such an environment, and hucksters, quacks, astrologers, fortune tellers and occult practitioners of all shades thrived." p. 188

Which may indicate that the primary audience for this book might not be the "hucksters, quacks, astrologers, fortune tellers and occult practitioners" some of whom might even read this newsletter. Owen Davies has built a strong reputation for himself as author of the groundbreaking Cunning Folk: Popular Magic in English History re-branded with an eye to the MBS marketplace as Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History. Here again he has taken up a largely neglected topic with some verve and produced a page turning history of the grimoire.

OD's book is likely to be of special interest to those with some knowledge of the genre. Davies gives very few examples of a grimoire's actual content, so there is an assumption that the author has already read one or two. The small examples OD does give tend to underline his thesis that the grimoires are at best a debased form of ancient magick or worst cynical, gibberish. Modern magicians tend to approach the grimoire as an exercise in magical creativity but also as a possible source of Pagan wisdom and occult knowledge that has somehow survived the hands of Christian iconoclasts.

Academic authors are obviously quite keen for the practitioner community to read their work although they are less keen to read anything the practitioners write about the same subject. So you won't find much here of the contemporary magicians approach to the grimoire, apart that is from old chestnuts such as the Necronomicon and the Satanic Bible.

Even so, there is much in here of interest to the contemporary practitioner, once one gets over the slight disappointment at the absence of any mention of the "Goetia", the most popular example of the genre. There is also nothing of what surely be the most famous of all occult trials involving a grimoire, that of Gilles the Rais - Bluebeard. For those with an interest in Aleister Crowley, there is also very little in this book. Crowley of course, represents the way the practitioner community has reframed and rationalised the grimoire over the years. And Crowley penned what is considered to be the best and most cogent of all modern grimoires - Liber ABA.

However most of the book's contents were new to me - although one passage where I would take issue with the author is when he discusses the Theban Magical Library alternatively known as The Greek Magical Papyri or Greco Egyptian Magical Papyri. Davies tells us that these are somehow connected with the very first grimoires in the sequence - which would be my own intuition. But he then says that "There are distinct differences between the magic they contain and that found in the earliest magical inscriptions and papyri from the time of the pharaohs" (p 9) . I read that and thought that must be wrong and wondered where he could have found such a view amongst Egyptologists? My heart sank when I saw the reference to Geraldine Pinch's seminal work on Egyptian Magic, could she really be so out of step with all her colleagues? But there again what does Geraldine Pinch actually say (p. 160-1):

"The openly expressed malevolence of these spells seems un-Egyptian but similar desires may lie behind some of the earlier Letters to the Dead. These do no specify exactly how the akhu are to deal with the writer's enemies. . . Many spells in the Graeco-Egyptian Magical Papyri describe how to make a deity appear and answer questions. The appearance may take the form of a dream for the magician or a vision for the child assistant. These spells are the private equivalent of consulting a temple oracle, or of incubation - sleeping in the temple to receive a divine dream". (my emphasis)

In other words there is quite a lot of Ancient Egyptian religion in the PGM and I suspect the grimoires. Afterall doesn't it say in the Goetia that the spirits speak the Egyptian tongue?

These small issues of the beginning aside, Davies' study is soon on stronger ground after fifteen hundred years of development we arrive at the era of the printed book, when the grimoire really did make it big on the world stage. As the book's publicity confirms, "to understand the grimoire is to understand the spread of Christianity, the development of early science, the cultural influence of the print revolution, the growth of literacy, the impact of colonialism and the expansion of western culture across the oceans."

One tantalizing parallel between the PGM and later grimoires is the "Sixth & Seven Books of Moses" discussed in fascinating detail by OD. These books began circulating in Germany in the eighteenth century and were to become popular in USA. One could of course argue that given the well known existence of the first five, it is just human nature to want to supplement this with a sixth, seventh or even more; just as some bright spark penned a "Fourth" book of Occult Philosophy, a "Fourth" Veda or even "Fourth" chapter of Crowley's "Book of the Law". Interestingly no ancient edition survives of a "Sixth" and "Seventh" Book of Moses. The PGM jumps straight in there with "The Eighth" . There may never have been a sixth or seventh in classical Greco-Egyptian magic, none has so far been found. The explanation advanced for this hiatus is that the number "eight" has special symbolic resonance, perhaps connected with Hermes and the Company of Heaven .

OD calls these "modern" versions "pulp . . . to signify not just the quality of the paper but also the merit of the contents printed on it - worthless, pappy, throwaway literature fit only for those too intellectually limited to digest more serious fare. They were not the sort of publications that found their way into academic and public libraries. Yet their influence was such that, by the late 1930s, American educationalists were waging war on the genre." p. 233. Looking at the few examples of the contents given in OD's study, these would not be so out of place in the PGM - so I wonder where their real provenance lies?

If you want gnosticism and theurgy, one maybe needs to look elsewhere than in this study of grimoire. Owen Davies is revealing the dark underbelly of the magical tradition. I suspect he might even side with the shrinking minority of academics who still follow Frazer's division of magic and religion. Religion from this perspective, being all about social networking and rationality; magick the malign, irrational, solitary practice, bent on material gain. Drive a wedge between Egyptian religion and its magick, downplay the philosophical aspect of the grimoire and it all begins to look that way. It is in these areas that Davies book certainly has an colourful tale to tell. No surprise then that coming up to date, we venture into the explicitely fictional grimoires as instanced in H P Lovecraft's Necronomicon. The book concludes with a discussion of the huge popularity of Anton LaVey's Satanic Bible and the promise that, in case you didn't know it, the history of the grimoire is hardly likely to be over. "As we enter uncertain times . . . There is no sign of these books being closed for good. " p. 283

[Reviewed by Mogg Morgan with some assistance from David Rankine and Jack Daw]

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