What is a grimoire? The word has a familiar ring to many people, particularly as a consequence of such popular television dramas as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But the grimoire represents much more than just magic. As this book richly demonstrates, the history of grimoires illuminates many of the most. Review: Grimoires: A History of Magic Books by Owen DaviesJad Adams finds a mixture of the sacred and profane in books of spells.

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Grimoires: A History of Magic Books

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Refresh and try again. Open Preview See a Problem? Thanks for telling us about the problem. Return to Book Page. Preview — Grimoires by Owen Davies. No books have been more feared than grimoires, and no books have been more valued and revered. A History of Magic Books, Owen Davies illuminates the many fascinating forms these recondite books have taken and hixtory what these books held.

At their most benign, these repositories of forbidden knowledge revealed how to make powerful talismans and protective am No books have been more feared than grimoires, and no books have been more valued and revered. At their magi benign, these repositories daviea forbidden hy revealed how to make powerful talismans and protective amulets, and provided charms and conjurations for healing illness, finding love, and warding off evil.

But other books promised the power to control innocent victims, even to call up the devil. Davies hidtory the history of this remarkably resilient and adaptable genre, from the ancient Middle East to modern America, offering a new perspective on the fundamental developments of western civilization over the past two thousand years. Grimoires shows the influence magic and magical writing has had on the cultures of the world, richly demonstrating the role owrn have played in the spread of Christianity, the growth of literacy, and the influence of western traditions from colonial times to the present.

Hardcoverpages. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up. To ask other readers questions about Grimoiresplease sign up. Lists with This Book. Mar 11, Tim Pendry rated it it was amazing Shelves: 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 provision 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 grimoirez 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 maigc and dark spirits and daviess binding and interrogating them to reveal it. John Dee’s graveyard excursion was not novel. He was in a very long line of ‘magical practitioners’ who wanted a fast track to wealth – or to sexual pleasure or even just good health and a bit of happiness in a grim world.

The spiritual content gtimoires these early modern books is minimal despite the grioires 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.

Perhaps the only person in our era to have got this magical past right was that inveterate rascal Anton LaVey whose Church of Satan used the tropes bookd popular ‘high’ magic to sell his hedonistic mix of Californian individualism and cynicism. 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 oeen of the grimoires of early modern Europe were not of considerable spiritual importance or that the presence of grimoires did ddavies 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. Daviex, the equally sincere researches of Eliphas Levy, the creation of the Order of the Golden Dawn, the experimentation of Crowley and the ‘invention’ by Gerald Gardner of Wicca all made use of the conceits of the grimoire in order to explore consciousness and ‘spirituality’ in z and imaginative ways.

Even between these time poles of sincerity, booka are islands of genuine investigation into ‘other forces’ – Kelley may have been a fraud but Dee really does seem to have believed that he could talk with the angels.


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 eavies state control of religion long before Constantine.

It daviex 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 propagandiststhe Nazis seem daviess less extreme in this matter than fanatical Christian Democrats and Protestants. More could perhaps have been written by Davies on the attitudes of the authorities book modernising America who seem, sensibly, to have seen grimoire production as a branch of fraud, precursors bookz much modern ‘new age’ nonsense, rather than as some threat of a more fundamental kind.

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. It degraded q texts into non-communal individualistic tools of power – personal weapons in life’s struggle for oneself and against others. Grimoires are certainly ambiguous in pre-industrial and colonial society.

Magic moments

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 owenn 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. Once a population got a taste for such books, these texts embedded themselves deep into some dqvies of migrants and former slaves – most often when literacy was combined with a low level of education and canny entrepreneurs were able to provide sufficient cheap copies of ‘classic works’. 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. There are some wonderful tales of gullible treasure-seeking yokels being thoroughly done over by trickster ‘sorcerers’ in the chapter on the pre-revolutionary era in France and Switzerland.

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.

Review: Grimoires: A History of Magic Books by Owen Davies | Books | The Guardian

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. There are other insights – into the controversial debate over Mormonism’s debt to the grimoire tradition, into irrationalism in American settler society, into the adaptation of grimoires to creole needs and their use by various Caribbean cultures often cleverly exploited by American pulp publishers and, more generally, into capitalist exploitation of folk demand for grimoires with much useful background on the American pulp publisher entry into the market.

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.

Some ‘slave’ religions may be surprisingly modern with the same link to the past as say Wicca or Asatru – more tenuous than some might like to believe. 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 book also adds a very large footnote to Hutton’s and others’ work hiistory the rise of magic amongst grimoiree elite in the industrialising Grinoires. 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.

Hstory community of ‘clerks’ rather than of high-born mqgic pace Wheatley’s fantasies relieved the oof nature of their lives and created an alternative vision of society that found its early brief high point in the Order of the Golden Dawn from which all subsequent ov use of grimoires probably derives. 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.

The book ends with a review of the three ‘fake’ modern grimoires that have spawned their own intense followings – Lovecraft’s wholly fictional ‘Necronomicon’ as used in Chaos MagickGardner’s ‘Book of Shadows’ which is central to Wicca and Lavey’s cobbled together ‘Satanic Bible’ which is central to Satanism but which, of course, has nothing to do with Satan at all.

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 knowinglyWiccans 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 grimoiress the book can decide their own destiny geimoires terms of sex, power and spirit which is a standing challenge to all established priests, experts and intellectuals.

At its worst, the grimoire is not merely obscurantist but dangerous, not because it can conjure devils or perhaps give cause in extreme cases to murderous fantasy of which there are cases and has a proven history of fraud, but because, in truly ignorant hands, it can block the use of ‘good’ expert knowledge to bg with ‘real’ problems of sexuality, power relations, conditions of life, healthcare and spirituality.

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.

Their use under these circumstances says that ‘we the people’ will, in your lack of dialogue with us, choose our own experts and our own ways of intermediation with life amd matter. We will use magic because you have given us nothing or what you give us is conditional on our acceptance of your standards and ‘morality’ without asking us what advies want.

Irrationalism represents psychic resistance to the arrogance of daviez powerful. Magic as resistance will never hkstory away except where it is decisively crushed under the authoritarian boot of State and Church. Maybe that is the eventual solution of many liberal intellectuals as well certainly many liberal intellectuals in the West have taken the neo-conservative turn in despair at the masses’ inability to be ‘rational’ but it seems a price too high in terms of liberty for the majority.

An alternative may be to permit a degree of healthy irrationalism davkes 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, daviss 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 boooks 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 sphereit is because we need it again. The new religions are actively transforming persons and maigc where old systems have failed and this process is likely to accelerate under the influence of the internet.