Rob Hardy: Author gives a look at magic books, their origin and their influence

July 14, 2009

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


If you thought you were outside the realm of magic, think again. 


There has been "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on television, for instance, with magic books central to some of the plots. When the program was popular, Owen Davies used to get e-mails from teenage girls asking about specifics of casting spells. "They had seen my personal website," writes Davies, "presenting my historical studies on witchcraft and magic and assumed I was a practitioner." 


Who knows if some of those inquiries were from your neighborhood teens with queries against you in particular? 


And even if Davies couldn''t help the petitioners, and even if magic is all bogus and never works, it is still intimately associated with orthodox religions and has been since those religions began. In "Grimoires: A History of Magic Books" (Oxford University Press), Davies gives a full and authoritative look at magic books, their origin and their influence. There is plenty of history here, but magic continues into the current day. Grimoires still cast their spell. 


You can go back to Saint Paul to be reminded how residents of Ephesus, a center renowned for magic instruction, gathered all their magic books together in a big bonfire. There seem to have been enough of them that they weren''t the possessions of a few professional magicians or learned men, but were held within ordinary households. 


Such burnings have gone on ever since, and the church has always officially opposed the magic arts, but one of the lessons in Davies''s book is that magic has often gone hand-in-hand with the church. 


Grimoires included plenty of religion. There were spells to protect from harm, spells cast specifically to Jesus or to Mary. Recipes for making magic included using the sign of the Cross or holy water. 


From the early years of Christianity, scholarly priests and even bishops were under suspicion for practicing magic. Pope Silvester II who died in 1003 was rumored to dabble in magic, and could call up spirits from hell. Pope Boniface VIII who died in 1303 was put on trial posthumously for having three demons under his control, and sacrificing a cock within a magic circle in his garden, all the while reading out a spell from his grimoire. 


"What does this tell us?" asks Davies, and answers, "That ordination, piety, and power were no safeguards against the suspicions and jealousies generated by successful career advancement, wealth, and political influence." 


Whether or not the suspicions had grounds, medieval clergy were the main practitioners of magic, and monastery libraries were important repositories of grimoires. Some popes were branded with authorship of grimoires. Parisian magicians of the late 1600s circulated the Grimoire de Pape Honorius, which Honorius III did not write, although it gave advice on how to obtain visions of God and of hell. 


Magic had plenty of specific uses beyond bringing blessings or curses. One was treasure hunting. You could go out and dig for treasure, and there wasn''t anything heretical about that, but some treasures were kept hidden by ghosts and demons. "Who were you going to call?" jokes Davies. "Why, the priests and monks who had access to the grimoires which instructed on how to conjure, exorcise, and control them." (This was the sort of work that Joseph Smith and his father did, using seer stones, magic circles, and talismans to find treasure, until Smith used some different sort of magic to be given the golden plates from which he could translate the Book of Mormon.) 


Sexual magic was popular, whether to help in a sexual conquest or to improve sexual performance. Magic was also used for medical treatments, often jointly with religious healing. Exorcisms of illness demons could be combined with ordinary prayer as well as with using charms that might or might not be Christian versions of pagan amulets. 


Doctors might have recommended such remedies. Davies shows that although grimoires and magic lore were used by clerics and doctors, when the Renaissance came, and printed books became widespread, anyone who was literate could follow a grimoire''s recipe. You didn''t have to be literate to get a grimoire''s benefit; just owning it could help you. "The Long Lost Friend," printed in America in 1856, showed the blend of magic and Christianity when it proclaimed, "Whoever carries this book with him, is safe from all his enemies, visible or invisible; and whoever has this book with him cannot die without the holy corpse of Jesus Christ nor drowned in any water, nor burn up in any fire, nor can any unjust sentence be passed upon him."  


The Bible itself is no grimoire, but has often been held to be full of magic properties. Putting it under one''s pillow would protect one from spirits, or using a written passage from it as an amulet might promote health. When Europeans started their colonies, the indigenous people (and this has been reported in Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific) were convinced that the power of the white people was coming from the Bible, but from the secret magic of the true Bible, which potent parts were not revealed to those in subjugation. 


The strangest story here of the trans-cultural power of magic is that of William Delaurence, born in Ohio in 1868. He was a railroad flagman, and then a door-to-door salesman, selling books on hypnotism. He eventually became America''s most influential occultist. For a time he was a leader of the Order of the Black Rose, a magic cult "which apparently worshipped at the feet of a perfumed, wooden cigar-store Indian" and initiated women into the cult by having sex with them. He set up his own publishing firm, to put out texts like "The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses," which he plagiarized from older texts.  


These became part of the foundation for popular religious movements in Nigeria or Ghana. Anthropologists found copies of Delaurence''s books in shrines there. The books also became part of religious practice in Jamaica, where books from Delaurence''s company are still prohibited from import. That doesn''t keep them from being influential; Jamaican practitioners of Delaurence''s "science" teach that spirits can be summoned from Chicago, Delaurence''s home, and if you have not paid the practitioner''s fee, the spirits will shred your clothes with razor blades or cause stones to fall on your house. 


"Grimoires" is no grimoire, but it does include samples of wisdom from many books of magic and descriptions of magic practice. For instance, a monk in France in the 16th century was sentenced to life imprisonment after being tortured to confess that he exerted control over women by offering to the Devil wax puppets that contained his saliva and the blood of toads. 


A skeptical modern reader will be amazed that this sort of nonsense was ever thought to have any power. We have Viagra now, and we have metal detectors that are better for finding treasure than spells will ever be, and we have antibiotics, but still the call to understand the universe by means of the supernatural seems overwhelming for many. 


Magic, often yoked to better-accepted religions, never seems to go away. Incense, for instance, has for centuries often been used for magical purposes, and certain types were marketed for certain spells. For people concerned about incense smoke setting off their smoke detectors, aerosol sprays with the same magic potency are now manufactured for ritual use. "The Necronomicon" was a fictional book of occult wisdom that fantasist H.P. Lovecraft used in his horror tales, but that has not kept "real" Necronomicons from being published and put to use by those who fancy "Lovecraftian" magic. 


Davies''s review is big and entertaining, and will serve up a good dose of dismay for those who think we ought to be done with the silliness of the supernatural. 


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]