Owen Davies’ ‘Grimoires: A History of Magic Books’

Michael Bailey

Michael Bailey

Owen Davies is quick to recognize that large areas of magical practice exist entirely in an oral culture. Yet one of the most important points he makes in this book is that “grimoires” are not just rare and expensive tomes available only to the elite, learned magicians. At least from the time of the printing revolution, magic books were making their way into the hands of simple cunning folk (the subject of a previous book by Owen Davies), and this trend only increased as time went on, culminating here in Owen Davies’ fascinating chapter on ‘“pulp magic.” So what is a grimoire, exactly? It does not have to be a long, complex, or erudite text, but neither can it be so simple as a single spell or written amulet. It is, rather, a compilation containing “conjurations and charms, [or] providing instructions on how to make magical objects such as protective amulets and talismans.” Yet not all magical books are grimoires.

Owen Davies excludes esoteric texts that purport to deal with occult forces in the natural world, such as works on alchemy or astrology. The distinction is not absolute, of course. Books of astral magical rites and conjurations, such as the famous medieval ‘Picatrix’ — a book by Maslama al-Majriti originally written and published in Arabic under the title ‘Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm’ — definitely fit the category of the grimoire, and occult books of secrets are treated at various points, if not as grimoires themselves, then for elements that they contributed to the grimoire tradition. Owen Davies’ study of this tradition is, then, a survey of a broad and diffuse but still particular kind of magic — not “learned,” necessarily, but literate and by definition bookish.

Owen Davies surveys this tradition in “the West,” that is, Europe and its overseas colonies. Islamic magical texts are mentioned only for their influence on medieval European magic, and again later for their prevalence in French West African colonies that were largely Muslim. Traditions from South or East Asia are mentioned only insofar as they get appropriated into works of nineteenth and early-twentieth-century European occultism. This is not a study of esoteric books of any kind, but specifically of magic books, and magic, already difficult enough to define in Western European culture, becomes even more problematic a concept when applied around the globe.

Probably for similar reasons Owen Davies has little to say about ancient pre-Christian magical texts in the West. In a later chapter, he will discuss how the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs in the nineteenth-century allowed for various ritual texts, such as the famous ‘Book of the Dead,’ to be translated into Western European languages and to influence Western occult traditions. But in their own era, such texts were as much “religious” as they were “magical,” a troublesome enough distinction in Christian culture, but virtually inscrutable in antiquity. In his treatment of the antique world, Owen Davies is less concerned with ancient texts in their own right, and more so with the origins of supposedly ancient textual traditions on which later European grimoires would draw, such as the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus; various books attributed to Solomon; or the supposed sixth, seventh, and subsequent ‘Books of Moses’ (beyond the first five that went into the ‘Torah’).

The first real grimoires, for Owen Davies, appear in the early Christian centuries, certainly by the fourth-century CE, although they, of course, claimed more ancient roots. In the remainder of his first chapter, he examines medieval times of astral spirit magic, angel magic, and more straightforward demonic magic — Picatrix, the Clavicula Salomonis, the Almandal, and the various texts of the ars notoria. In his second chapter, he covers the early modern period, discussing first the great texts of Renaissance magic, and their incorporation of Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and other elements. He also discusses the effects of printing and the “democratization” of magical texts as inexpensive chapbooks made their way into the hands of cunning folk, healers, and diviners of various sorts. The sort of people most typically accused of witchcraft in this era were not literate, and the sort of magic — simple maleficium — that underlay most accusations was decidedly not bookish, but Owen Davies can still recount a few cases of accused witches who possessed books, and more importantly he examines how authorities constructed witchcraft and the supposed practices of witches through demonological texts and conceived of witchcraft in a way as a bookish transgression via the notion of the “devil’s book,” in which Satan carried the signatures or marks of all the witches who had sworn loyalty to him.

While the medieval and early modern periods might be thought of as the classic age of the grimoire, in fact, the great majority of Owen Davies’ book focuses on the modern period. He stresses that far from “disenchanting” Europe, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment actually saw a steady increase in magical texts, as literacy rates climbed and Europe’s publishing industry expanded. When thinking of modern grimoires, one is likely to think first of Enlightenment occultists, nineteenth-century spiritualists, and proponents of bourgeois ritual magic like E ́liphas Le ́vi, Aleister Crowley, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Such men and movements receive attention, to be sure, but Owen Davies points out how limited such circles ultimately were. The far greater and more fascinating story of modern grimoires is their widespread distribution in relatively cheap formats, such as the French ‘Bibliothèque bleue,’ which began to circulate in the eighteenth-century and continued to great success for well over a hundred years. Not only were such books sold in Europe, but they flooded Europe’s New-World colonies, where they circulated not only among transplanted Europeans (in British North America, the Pennsylvania Dutch were great consumers of occult literature) but also among native and African-American populations. Exploring these corners of the occult book market takes Owen Davies into territory rarely explored by scholars of magic. With the advent of pulp publishing in the early twentieth century, magic books attained yet a new level of distribution, and again the market included Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa, as well as the United States of America and Europe. Owen Davies notes that even to this day, the products of one occult publisher, Delaurence Scott and Co., remain officially banned from Jamaica by that country’s customs office.

Owen Davies concludes with fictional grimoires from the later part of the twentieth-century. These include the ‘Necronomicon,’ invented by Howard Phillips Lovecraft as an element in several of his stories, and only later actually written, in several versions, by devoted fans, or simply those who sensed a market. The other great example is the Wiccan ‘Book of Shadows,’ composed initially by Gerald Brosseau Gardner, but expanded by others, and now published in several forms. Such works are in no way “false” grimoires, in Owen Davies’ estimation, since from the time of early Christianity, grimoires standardly have asserted false authorship, claimed greater antiquity than they actually possessed, willfully blended elements from multiple traditions as suited their purposes, and circulated in multiple variations.

Owen Davies covers an enormous amount of territory in this book, much of it having to do with some significant but less studied corners of the history of magic. As such, his arguments, while always reasonable, are not always as fully developed as one might wish. From the ‘Bibliothèque bleue’ to twentieth-century “pulp magic,” for example, he stresses the broad diffusion and popularity of magical texts. Only occasionally does he have solid publication figures to support this. Undoubtedly such books were popular, but to gauge exactly to what degree, we need not only data on their own print runs, but also comparative numbers for other kinds of books. Such points, however, are hardly criticisms of a book that opens up so many new and fascinating areas in the history of magic.

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