Owen Davies’s Grimoires: A History of Magic Books took me a while to get through. But it’s a good thing this is a blog rather than a daily newspaper so I don’t just have to review the latest releases.
Usually “took me a while to get through” isn’t a compliment. In this case it very much is. The delay had more to do with my crazy schedule these last few months.
Every time I opened it back up to begin a new chapter I was eternally grateful all over again by their ‘completeness’. You actually can take a week in between chapters and not get horribly lost.
And, for time reasons, if that’s what you must do then it is substantially better than abandoning it because it is splendid.
Triumph Of The Moon splendid.
Little by little we are finally getting a history that has been expertly researched and critically analysed.
This isn’t however, a history of magic. It’s a history of magic books. Given the prominence of grimoires in the magical world (Solomon’s janitor keychain, Abramelin’s six month luxury retreat, etc), you would be hard pressed to find a better way to stitch together a narrative of western magic.
So we are clear, this is not what Davies is doing. This is what you -as a student and practitioner of magic- will be doing in your head as you read it.
The book runs more or less chronologically, covering Ancient texts up to the medieval period, the Catholic reaction to magic books, through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment all the way up to the modern age.
We all basically know the story -at least we know the beats. But this book shed blinding light on whole areas that I was previously only dimly aware of.
For me, this included just how much of an impact European grimoires had on emerging Afro-Caribbean beliefs, the export of magical books to the New World (pilgrims had grimoires!) and the arbitrary, geo-specific nature of which texts we now consider prominent and why.
…In Italy the Clavicule of Solomon was clearly the most ubiquitous and widely circulated grimoire. In early modern Venice versions were available not only in Latin and Italian, but French, English, and German, or a combination of them. The same holds true for Spain, and the copy confiscated from the priest in Gran Canaria in 1527 shows that wherever the Spanish clergy were to be found so too was the Clavicule. That other medieval hit, the Picatrix, circulated less widely, basically because it provided little practical help in conjuring and controlling demons. The Book of Honorius was popular amongst the practical magicians and diabolic dabblers of late-seventeenth-century Paris, but otherwise it was nowhere near as widespread as the Clavicule.
It is important to point out that in the manuscript grimoire tradition few works were ever quite the same. There was no founding text, no print template for the Clavicule for instance. Over generations copyists added their own personal touches, taking bits out, adding information from other sources. Apart from the rare cases where copies were kept by the authorities rather than burned, whenever the Clavicule or other well-known grimoire is mentioned in a trial record we usually have little idea as to what it contained or looked like. Some clearly followed the template of the learned medieval examples. Others might have the name of Solomon on them but were basically magic scrapbooks, compilations of practical magic for dealing with witches, causing rain, seducing women, and the like, culled from manuals of exorcisms, orations, prayers, and oral sources of knowledge. Some were large, imposing leather-bound parchment tomes, while others were cheaply bound paper volumes, pocket-sized for ease of carrying and so that they could be hidden up the sleeve by itinerant cunning folk.
If you considered Triumph Of The Moon to be too-Anglocentric (which I think is slightly unfair because it’s not like Hutton promised otherwise) then you’ll adore this. It’s a veritable Benetton ad of magical history. Again, that has much to do with the fact that grimoires are certainly a more global phenomenon than other topics.
It’s a frankly gripping read for magical folk and I would suspect a big part of this is down to the respect Davies has for the material. He’s not a believer by any means, but he consistently refrains from patronising those who use grimoires, either in the past or in the modern day. He even takes the time to defend the Necronomicon’s authenticity. (In that all grimoires have a fake history, so in that sense it’s part of a three thousand year tradition.)
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. There are also a number of spells he uses as examples that can easily be picked up and used. Like Kalemaris. I’ll probably share a couple more of these in the coming few days but in the meantime do yourself a favour — if you haven’t already — and read this book.
The trip through history is breathtaking. I have this habit of debating magic with imaginary opponents in my head (don’t pretend you don’t) and the overriding impression I got from this book was: If magic is a modern invention, who was reading all this books over the last two thousand years? Because they were everywhere and in every language.
Davies — like Hutton — kills a few sacred cows. But as a result of this he leaves you with the best steak you could possibly eat.
Our history just got another cornerstone.
Source: Rune Soup