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Top 10 Grimoires

Owen Davies, professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire, has written extensively about the history of magic, witchcraft and ghosts. His most recent book, Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, is a history of magic books that takes us from ancient Eygpt, through Kabbalah, Scandinavian witchcraft, 19th-century Egyptology, West African folk religion, a Chicago mail-order charlatan whose books are still banned in Jamaica today, and – of course – Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the post below, which originally appeared on The Guardian’s website, Owen Davies chooses his top 10 grimoires.

“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.”

1. 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. With its pseudo-Hebraic mystical symbols, spirit conjurations and psalms, this book of the secret wisdom of Moses was a founding text of Rastafarianism and various religious movements in west Africa, as well as a cause célèbre in post-war Germany.

2. The Clavicule of Solomon
This is the granddaddy of grimoires. Mystical books purporting to be written by King Solomon were already circulating in the eastern Mediterranean during the first few centuries AD. By the 15th century hundreds of copies were in the hands of Western scientists and clergymen. While some denounced these Solomonic texts as heretical, many clergymen secretly pored over them. Some had lofty ambitions to obtain wisdom from the “wisest of the wise”, while others sought to enrich themselves by discovering treasures and vanquishing the spirits that guarded them.

3. Petit Albert
The “Little Albert” symbolises the huge cultural impact of the cheap print revolution of the early 18th century. The flood gates of magical knowledge were opened during the so-called Enlightenment and the Petit Albert became a name to conjure with across France and its overseas colonies. As well as practical household tips it included spells to catch fish, charms for healing, and instructions on how to make a Hand of Glory, which would render one invisible.

4. The Book of St Cyprian
Grimoires purporting to have been written by a legendary St Cyprian (there was a real St Cyprian as well) became popular in Scandinavia during the late 18th century, while in Spain and Portugal print editions of the Libro de San Cipriano included a gazetteer to treasure sites and the magical means to obtain their hidden riches. During the early 20th century, editions began to appear in South America, and copies can now be purchased from the streets of Mexico City to herbalist stalls high in the Andes.

5. Dragon rouge
Like the Petit Albert, the Red Dragon was another product of the French cheap grimoire boom of the 18th century. Although first published in the following century, it was basically a version of the Grand grimoire, an earlier magic book which was infamous for including an invocation of the Devil and his lieutenants. The Dragon rouge circulated far more widely though, and is well known today in former and current French colonies in the Caribbean.

6. The Book of Honorius
Books attributed to Honorius of Thebes were second only to those of Solomon in notoriety in the medieval period. In keeping with a strong theme in grimoire history, there is no evidence that an arch magician named Honorius lived in antiquity – as manuscripts ascribed to him stated. Through prayers and invocations, books of Honorius gave instructions on how to receive visions of God, Hell and purgatory, and knowledge of all science. Very handy.

7. The Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy
Cornelius Agrippa was one of the most influential occult philosophers of the 16th century. He certainly wrote three books on the occult sciences, but he had nothing to do with the Fourth Book which appeared shortly after his death. This book of spirit conjuration blackened the name of Agrippa at a time when the witch trials were being stoked across Europe.

8. The Magus
Published in 1801 and written by the British occultist and disaster-prone balloonist Francis Barrett, The Magus was a re-statement of 17th-century occult science, and borrowed heavily from an English edition of the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy. It was a flop at the time but its influence was subsequently considerable on the occult revival of the late 19th century and contemporary magical traditions. In the early 20th century a plagiarised version produced by an American occult entrepreneur and entitled The Great Book of Magical Art, Hindu Magic and East Indian Occultism became much sought after in the US and the Caribbean.

9. The Necronomicon
A figment of the ingenious imagination of the influential early 20th-century writer of horror and fantasy HP Lovecraft, this mysterious book of secret wisdom was penned in the eighth century by a mad Yemeni poet. Despite being a literary fiction, several “real” Necronomicons have been published over the decades, and today it has as much a right to be considered a grimoire as the other entries in this Top 10.

10. Book of Shadows
Last but not least there is the founding text of modern Wicca – a pagan religion founded in the 1940s by the retired civil servant, folklorist, freemason and occultist Gerald Gardner. He claimed to have received a copy of this “ancient” magical text from a secret coven of witches, one of the last of a line of worshippers of an ancient fertility religion, which he and his followers believed had survived centuries of persecution by Christian authorities. Through its mention in such popular occult television dramas as Charmed, it has achieved considerable cultural recognition.

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Recent Comments

  1. [...] is peppered with gossipy anecdotes, characters all to willing to offer some sort of revelation, Top 10 Grimoires – blog.oup.com 04/15/2009 Owen Davies , professor of social history at the University of [...]

  2. [...] Top Ten Grimoires [...]

  3. Vince

    This is a really great top ten list, The Magus is one of the best books, I enjoy Barret’s writing style. I had no idea about being a balloonist or plagerist, nice new facts to know. Anyone can post their own list to our site http://www.toptentopten.com/. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.

  4. [...] The literature on the history of magic is huge and much of it is either out of print or published in expensive academic books and journal articles. Those books suggested below provide affordable, accessible and informed accounts of the magical traditions that produced grimoires over the millennia. For a brief overview of some of the most influential grimoires see my Top Ten. [...]

  5. [...] Top 10 Grimoires : OUPblog blog.oup.com/2009/04/grimoires – view page – cached [...]

  6. [...] OUPblog posts on Grimoires can be found here and [...]

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