Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, by Owen Davies
Oxford University Press, 978-0-19-959004-9, 380 pp., 2009
I need to acknowledge right now that I am not a ceremonial magician, but then again, this book is written for people like me. This is not a compilation of grimoires, nor is it a distillation of those books. It is a broad overview of magick books and books about magick (which are not necessarily the same thing). There is a fairly thorough discussion of the suppression of magick books, which makes it abundantly clear that, although most of us think in terms of the Christian church’s efforts in this respect, Christianity was a “Johnny come lately” to that game. There had been suppressions long before the beginning of the Common Era.
This type of book often falls into one of two categories. It is either heavily influenced by pop culture, or it is full of erudite, academic attitudes which leave you grabbing your dictionary as you read. This book walks the middle ground quite nicely. It answers questions with easily understood words, and saves the inevitable citations for the end of the book.
One thing which modern readers often forget when reading about the grimoires of the past is that simply because two (or more) books had the same name did not mean they had they same content, especially in a time when the books in circulation were manuscripts, as opposed to printed volumes. Religious scholars has this brought home to them with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library where there were numerous books with identical names and widely varying contents. Grimoires were, generally, perceived as having more power if they were handwritten (magicians would make handwritten copies of books which they had in their library to impart more power to them). What this means is that even those grimoires which have survived in printed form may only be one version of numerous ones which circulated during the Renaissance and later periods. Continue reading
Biographies are a lot of fun. While I like getting to know a person through their works, learning more about the circumstances that produced them lends additional weight to certain turns of phrase, and often frames ideas in contexts not previously considered.
I read Thomas Williams’ biography of Éliphas Lévi (titled: Eliphas Levi, Master of the Cabala, the Tarot and the Secret Doctrines) about six months ago in preparation for a workshop that was drawing on his influence in the occult tarot and I wanted to better understand where he was sourcing his material.
I read the second edition and was not impressed with the number of typos and general lack of editing, however, this may be the only full length biography of Lévi in print in English – it’s certainly the only one I’ve been able to find. Despite its flaws, it serves as a decent introduction to Lévi’s life and thought. Continue reading
The Weiser Field Guide to Witches, by Judika Illes
Weiser Books, 9781578634798, 272 pp., 2010
When a field guide is well done, it gives the reader the means to distinguish between species and can be an incredible aid to study, classification, and practical knowledge. When a field guide is not so well done, it can very quickly become a mess.
I really wanted to like The Weiser Field Guide to Witches. For one thing, I like and admire Judika Illes, whose Element Encyclopedias I consider useful as well as beautiful, well-researched, and wonderfully organized. I was prepared to thoroughly enjoy spending more time with her blend of wit and erudition. The subtitle, “From Hexes to Hermione Granger, from Salem to the Land of Oz”, is marvellously enticing, as well as the idea given in the back cover copy that the field guide could help you, the reader, discern if you are a witch. Continue reading
Barbarian Rites: The Spiritual World of the Vikings and the Germanic Tribes, by Hans-Peter Hasenfratz, translated by Michael Moynihan
Inner Traditions, 978-1-59477-421-8, 173 pp. (incl. Translator’s Foreword, Introduction, Notes, Bibliography, and Index), 1992, 2011
Barbarian Rites is an English translation of Die religiöse Welt der Germanen: Ritual, Magie, Kult, Mythus ,by Hans-Peter Hasenfratz.
It is a book that straddles categories. It fills the awkward space between lay-oriented summaries and academically oriented historical analysis. Insofar as it is one of the few academically inclined pieces that has been translated into English, it is invaluable, but it is likely too academic for individuals not of a scholarly bent, and too brief to satisfy a curious historian. It serves as a litmus test for whether it is worth one’s while to learn German and access the greater pool of scholarship that exists. It’s worth noting at this point that Germanic is a broad umbrella that includes what most of us will know as Norse.
Hasenfratz begins his introduction by questioning the meaning of the word ‘Germanic,’ bringing into question our very ability to define or describe both the Germanic peoples and their religion(s), noting that the availability of sources and accounts varies highly from region to region. Continue reading
The Starry Rubric: Seventeenth-century English Astrology and Magic, by Alexander Cummins
Hadean Press, 9781907881213, 166 pp., 2012
Alexander Cummins is a new name in the field of historical research, but you will hear more of him in the future, I hope. This review is based on an electronic copy of the work, but having seen the quality, appeal and sheer tactile beauty of Hadean’s previous output, buyers of the physical book are in for a treat; the production standards and quality of materials in use are both extremely high. These books are going to be around for centuries, which is pleasing.
Both (some) academics and lay readers might ask “Astrology? A load of old nonsense isn’t it?” Maybe, but it still has a power to influence behaviour and beliefs in the 21st century (for example I bet you can tell me your star sign, without even pausing?) when we are all supposed to be rational scientific thinkers. Imagine the added power, then, of a system that was so all-encompassing, some four centuries ago, before the advent of mass literacy, TV and the internet. Wisely this book does not delve deeply into whether the systems in use ever worked, instead this worthy book concentrates more on the history and social function of how believing that it did work affected how people acted, what they did and believed, and what they thought, and said, and wrote. That is definitely fertile ground for the researcher, and this book plants many seeds in that ground. The harvest is exceptionally interesting, with chapters covering both prophetic and propaganda uses of astrology, and the personal, the societal, the political and the practical implications for those who consulted astrologers in those times (and, indeed by implication, those who do so now). Continue reading