treadwells (treadwells) wrote,

Review of Owen Davies, Grimoires

A  month ago Treadwell's was the venue for Oxford's launch party of Owen Davies seminal study, Grimoires. It is making a gradual but significant impact -- the press has not all rushed out to get excited about it, but people in the know are indeed taking notice.

One is Mark Williams of Peterhouse, and his review is below. You can read it at the original site of Salt Publishing, Horizon, but take the liberty of reprinting it here along with the link. The observant will notice that Treadwell's gets a mention.

Best to everyone, and hope this inspires you to read the book, which really I do think is one of the most important books on magic of our generation, in any country.

Review of Owen Davies, Grimoires: A History of Magic Books

Grimoires: A History of Magic Books

In his fascinating and frustrating fantasy novel Little, Big (much praised by Harold Bloom), John Crowley gives us an inventor who creates the ‘Patent Cosmo-Opticon, or Theatrum Mundi’, a complex, room-sized mechanical model of the pre-Copernican solar-system and zodiac, perfectly in sync with the motions of the macrocosm. The ‘female mage’ Ariel Hawkquill is able to sit contentedly in her green leather armchair at the centre of the Cosmo-Opticon’s interlocking gyres, enjoying this exact miniature of the occultist’s universe at the present moment: ‘Blue Venus trine with blood-orange Jupiter, each blown-glass figured sphere borne between the tropics on its own band; the mirror-surfaced moon just declining below the horizon, Saturn, milky-grey, just rising.’ Hawksquill uses the Cosmo-Opticon as a abstract tool for magic-as-mental journeying; but another, more pragmatic, spirit in the story finds that if the device is kept perfectly aligned, exactly in tune with outer reality, then macrocosm will duly align with microcosm and the Theatrum Mundi will begin to revolve of its own accord, generating rather than using up power. Thus it has the satisfying side-effect of allowing you to run the household electric off the universe, instead of having to feed the meter with small change. Magic is all about power: specifically, about making the latent machinery of creation, natural and divine, work to one’s own advantage.

By virtue of her femaleness, Crowley’s mage is unusual in her fondness for such lofty, cosmological abstractions. The history of the grimoire — ‘books of conjurations and charms, providing instructions on how to make magical objects’, amongst other things — is very largely a male history. The grimoire reflects a stereotypically masculine love for order and systematisation: like the instruction manual for a new piece of electronic gadgetry, or a piece of Windows software documentation, the grimoire of the imagination promises power but is always most obscure when clarity is most needed, and is just as liable to be linguistically baffling, whether the language of the original document is Korean or purports to be the angelic tongue Enochian.

In his excellent, stylishly-executed Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, Davies is concerned however to dispel some of the misconceptions about the exclusivity of such arcana. In particular, he demonstrates the immense democratisation of occult knowledge brought by printing, and shows that the manual of hermetic lore in fact flourished during the Enlightenment, at precisely the point when Magic, to recall Sir Keith Thomas, was supposed well and truly to have Declined.

Davies begins with a brisk, well-referenced jaunt through the ancient and medieval history of the hermetic text, and we are introduced to the double Jewish/Egyptian origin — or supposed origin — of much of the western occult tradition, presided over by the trio of Moses, Solomon and the legendary sage Hermes Trismegistus, Hermes ‘Thrice-Greatest’.  Magic in antiquity has been something of a scholarly growth area in recent years, and this complex scholarly terrain is negotiated by Davies with relaxed assurance. (Christina Oakley Harrington of Treadwells Bookshop in Covent Garden — itself a treasure house of modern-day grimoires -  has remarked acutely that these days ‘Magic’ is the hot topic academic researchers tend to arrive at once studies of ‘Gender’ and ‘The Body’, etc., have grown stale.) With the coming of Christianity, magic endured a early medieval decline into the doldrums, one of several in its history, and both that dwindling and the immense, sudden impetus given to its study by the 11th century recovery of Greek and Arabic learning is well-handled. Familiarity with the learning of antiquity transmitted via Muslim Spain could and did bestow a reputation for sorcery in the Middle Ages: Gerbert of Aurillac (later Pope Silvester II from 999-1003) was so learned in Arabic astrology that he became regarded after his death as a kind of medieval proto-Faust, his reputation permanently tainted with a faint whiff of sulphur.

Davies’ second chapter, ‘War against Magic’, traces the development and dissemination of the magical book during the early modern period, explaining cogently how natural magicians of stature — Agrippa, Trithemius, Paracelsus — could emerge and write when much of Europe was on the verge of being convulsed by the Witch-Craze. Again, Davies’s handling is fluent and convincing, showing how the grimoire made it into the age of print with the publication of Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy in Marburg in 1559.

Strong though these chapters are, it is the remaining four sections of the book, dealing broadly with the fate of the magical book in the US and in the modern age, which are most original, and very rich they are. In particular, the attention Davies devotes to African-American and Hispanic experiences of magical texts is likely to be new to most readers. The American magical book began as a WASP phenomenon; Davies  examines the flow of almanacs and magical pamphlets into the New World, pointing out that the grimoire has always flourished where religious and political power is for whatever reason most thinly-spread, and that ‘magic was a central aspect of most people’s conception of Christianity in colonial America.’

There are a number of clever set-pieces: in one section, he mischievously traces the efforts of Mormon historians — I must admit that in my ignorance I hadn’t realised there were such things as Mormon historians — to trace Joseph Smith’s knowledge of printed occult texts and their effect on Book of Mormon and the genesis of the religion associated therewith. The former, with its quasi-Gnostic pseudo-histories, oddly-named angels, appearing-disappearing gold tablets and so on, has much in common with certain types of popular magical texts, especially in that its integrity is licensed by appeal to a charismatic male figure, albeit in this case a prophet rather than a magician. (Though there is some documentary evidence that Smith and his immediate family had a reputation for occult experience, in particular for the use of ‘peep-stones’, talismans and magic circles.) Davies does not make these parallels explicit, preferring, wisely, to let such pleasing ironies emerge from the texture of his swiftly-moving narrative.

Davies is particularly good, in fact, on the historical surprises engendered by the flow and counterflow of texts. Having once had a fascinating and rather alarming reading with an African-American priest of Santería, one of several blends of west African and Catholic beliefs widespread in the US and the Caribbean, I was aware that Yoruba and Fon magical traditions had crossed the Atlantic and flourish to this day in many American cities. But I was surprised to read that the flow has also occurred in the other direction, and that western occult literature and charms have been common in Nigeria from the 1920s. Particular reverence is apparently paid to the tatty texts of an Ohio crossing-sweeper, conman and opportunistic occult plagiarist, William Delaurence (b. 1868), who appears to have been the 19th century equivalent of the Merlins and Morganas who hawk their readings and infallible love-charms in the back of Prediction magazine. Delaurence has also come, bizarrely, to be regarded as a fearsome mythical spirit in some Caribbean communities, ‘being associated with the supernatural figure of a diabolic white-suited man on a white horse that betokened death.’ Still more oddly, as Davies tells us, in Grenada ‘one man, evidently conflating Delaurence with Father Christmas, described him as a magician ‘in Chicago near the North pole [who] lives with a number of pigmy servants.’ Such are the surprising results of cross-cultural esoteric encounters.

A particularly telling juxtaposition in Davies’ narrative occurs in his chapter on 20th century grimoires, ‘Lovecraft, Satan, and Shadows’. He tells us of a 1936 short story, ‘The Grimoire’, by the self-styled ‘Reverend’ Montague Summers (1880-1946), setting it side-by-side with the Wiccan ‘Book of Shadows’. Summers was a strange, over-the-top figure who posed as a Catholic priest, and who was, it seems, quite convinced of the literal truth of the most absurd excesses of medieval and early-modern demonology — amongst other even less healthy obsessions. In Summers’ ‘The Grimoire’, a ‘mysterious book of the witches’ comes to light which brings about a terrifying demonic manifestation; and by some twenty years after the writing of the story, a retired civil servant named Gerald Gardner had, it seems, created a neo-pagan witch-cult in the New Forest, the rites of which were written down in a bricolage of Aleister Crowley and outright invention which purported to be just such a ‘mysterious book’. Gardner termed this text the ‘Book of Shadows’, or, more grandly and with cod-archaic spelling, ‘Ye Bok of ye Art Magical’. Gardner was not, in all likelihood, copying Summers; Gardner’s rather Edwardian, nature-worshipping witch-cult bears no resemblance to Summers’ lurid fantasies of diabolism. Both however were drawing on ideas that were current at the time, in particular the theories of the Egyptologist Margaret Murray (1863-1963), who thought that the ‘witches’ executed in early modern Europe had been practitioners of a surviving pre-Christian fertility religion. Nevertheless, one is grateful that Summers did not live to see the foundation of modern Pagan Witchcraft, which would probably have finished the old boy off.

Other instances occur of life imitating art in the history of the magical text. Perhaps the most famous grimoire of all is fictional: H. P. Lovecraft’s creation, the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, bound in human skin and so unspeakably evil that even to open it is to risk madness and perdition. Lovecraft cunningly wove real people and history into the backstory of his invented grimoire, and, of course, the inevitable has duly come to pass. As Davies writes:

Over the decades several authors have claimed to have discovered manuscript versions, and in the 1980s one magician even claimed to have in his possession a 4,000-year-old grimoire from which the Necronomicon derived. People now practise ‘Lovecraftian’ magic. The most successful of the print editions was the Simon Necronomicon, a ninth-century Greek text discovered by monks and brought to America in the 1970s by an Eastern Orthodox bishop called Simon. The first ‘translated’ edition appeared in a limited leather-bound edition of 666 copies. Subsequent hardback and paperback reprints went on to sell in their many thousands.

Though the Simon Necronomicon is ‘a well-constructed hoax’, ‘like other grimoires … it is their falsity that makes them genuine.’ This, I think, is a key insight: grimoires may not allow one to call demons into outward manifestation — but they can certainly cause other magical books to come into existence. The magical book emerges from Davies’ learned study as intrinsically a composite, palimpsestic and paradoxical genre, simultaneously appealing to and obscuring the tradition which brought it forth.

Davies’ style throughout is clear and readable without scrimping on subtlety, and in all, Grimoires is a fine study which will be found useful by scholars of magical history, European occultism and religious studies, as well as being of interest to the general reader.

O. Davies, Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (Oxford University Press, 2009).

The Reviewer: Mark Williams

Mark Williams is a Research Fellow in Celtic Studies at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He studied Welsh and Irish as a graduate student at Oxford, with a doctorate on astrology and celestial portents in medieval Celtic literature. Before that he studied Classics and English. He is currently working on a cultural history of the gods of Irish mythology, and lectures at Cambridge on Irish and Welsh literature.


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