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Grimoires: A History of Magic Books [Paperback]

Owen Davies
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Dec 2010
What is a grimoire? The word has a familiar ring to many people, particularly as a consequence of such popular television dramas as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed. But few people are sure exactly what it means.

Put simply, grimoires are books of spells that were first recorded in the Ancient Middle East and which have developed and spread across much of the Western Hemisphere and beyond over the ensuing millennia. At their most benign, they contain charms and remedies for natural and supernatural ailments and advice on contacting spirits to help find treasures and protect from evil. But at their most sinister they provide instructions on how to manipulate people for corrupt purposes and, worst of all, to call up and make a pact with the Devil. Both types have proven remarkably resilient and adaptable and retain much of their relevance and fascination to this day.

But the grimoire represents much more than just magic. To understand the history of grimoires is to understand the spread of Christianity, the development of early science, the cultural influence of the print revolution, the growth of literacy, the impact of colonialism, and the expansion of western cultures across the oceans. As this book richly demonstrates, the history of grimoires illuminates many of the most important developments in European history over the last two thousand years.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (1 Dec 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199590044
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199590049
  • Product Dimensions: 21.3 x 13.5 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 140,190 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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For anyone interested in magical writing and publication, it's essential. (Steven Moore, Fortean Times)

Undoubtedly an important contribution to the field...The range of research here is, frankly astonishing. (Steven Moore, Fortean Times)

About the Author

Owen Davies is Reader in Social History at the University of Hertfordshire. His previous books include The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts; Murder, Magic, Madness: The Victorian Trials of Dove and the Wizard; and Cunning-folk: Popular Magic in English History.

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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A legacy revealed 17 Jan 2011
Hardbound Copy 368pp, fully indexed with notes and central cache of illustrations

Davies announces in his Introduction that he considers Grimoires to be the `most dangerous books ever written.' He goes on to qualify that statement by extolling their role within and throughout History. He makes an excellent case for their immeasurable influences upon variant paradigms and events. As pivotal catalysts for change and innovation, these books are held accountable as tomes `feared and revered in equal measure.' Clearly, this book asserts itself, not as a critique of the contents of the considerable number of Black Books known to have graced the shelves of all levels of Occultists, but as a serious study of in exactly how history was molded by the dissemination of that knowledge.

Included within this comprehensive study of historical occult literature is a subtext explaining the chronological demograph of influence from the ancient Middle East through Europe and across into the New World. Davies sources their origins as books from within the French `Grammaire' traditions of rhyming Latin scripts, drawn mainly from religious volumes, including the Bible. Incantations and formulae derived from the countless verses and prayers therein are briefly exampled. Because popular belief assumed the removal of all magickal [and therefore all forms of self-empowerment] elements from these stalwart religious tomes, Davies affirms their usage as `an essential companion to the Bible.' Emphasis is stressed upon the legality of the written word over that spoken.

Political and religious considerations are given vent through topics that include the democratization of magic at the popular level and their subsequent usage by all manner of tradesman, apocatheries and cunning folk.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book covers the entirity of the written history of the book. Its examination of magic books includes investigation into the groups, societies, fraternities and religions that have been involved (pro or anti) with grimoires. It examines some of the sociology of who writes magic books, who buys them, why, what they do with them, and who tries to stop them.

Davies traces the history of modern magic books from the very first book-producers to the modern printing presses in a country-by-country, era-by-era way. In the process he brushes with many quacks, crazy men, religious zealots and the Inquisition. It is a great book for anyone interested in alternative religion, the dark ages, magic, superstition. The book provides enough background information to be readable to those who aren't history buffs, and enough detail and methodical evidence to be of use to those who *are* history buffs.

Like Professor Hutton, Own Davies sticks strictly to an evidence-first approach to history. At worst, the book the quite dry and dense. The author makes it clear that these magic books are often historical mistakes, but, in order to do so in a balanced way, the book is devoid of judgements, pronouncements and seemingly devoid of heartfelt conclusions. On the plus side, you can be assured that it is accurate and well-researched. There are a few pages about The Satanic Bible (about which I know a great deal), and I found that even in that niche Owen Davies had his facts right.
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12 of 18 people found the following review helpful
I thought that this review of the book by Mogg Morgan (I have permission) who is a publisher and expert in ancient magick might be of help.

Grimoires: A History of Magic Books /
by Owen Davies
ISBN 978-0-19-920451-9
Published by Oxford University Press
366pp / Hardback

*"The production of grimoires was an entrepreneurial enterprise that thrived wherever the influence of secular and ecclesiastical censors was restricted by geographical, educational or political factors. The opening up of America created just such an environment, and hucksters, quacks, astrologers, fortune tellers and occult practitioners of all shades thrived." p. 188*

Which may indicate that the primary audience for this book might not be the "hucksters, quacks, astrologers, fortune tellers and occult practitioners" some of whom might even read this newsletter. Owen Davies has built a strong reputation for himself as author of the groundbreaking /Cunning Folk: Popular Magic in English History/ re-branded with an eye to the MBS marketplace as /Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History. /Here again he has taken up a largely neglected topic with some verve and produced a page turning history of the grimoire.

OD's book is likely to be of special interest to those with some knowledge of the genre. Davies gives very few examples of a grimoire's actual content, so there is an assumption that the author has already read one or two. The small examples OD does give tend to underline his thesis that the grimoires are at best a debased form of ancient magick or worst cynical, gibberish.
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8 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excel·lent llibre. Ben documentat i de gran interès. Molt amè de llegir.
Potser l'únic defecte, per indicar-ne algun, és que manca una bibliografia més extensa i no necessàriament anglosaxona.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
53 of 55 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Entertaining Historical Overview of Grimoires 6 July 2009
By Thaumagnost - Published on
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Davies has written an entertaining survey of grimoires, surpassing in different ways Christopher McIntosh's earlier and shorter text on the subject The Devil's Bookshelf (1985), which is still a well-informed although limited introduction to the topic. The subtitle of Davies' book needs clarification. This is not a history of magic books in general, but a history of a specific type of magic book. As Davies states in his introduction, "grimoires are books of magic,... but not all books of magic are grimoires, for as we shall see, some magic texts were concerned with discovering and using the secrets of the natural world rather than being based on the conjuration of spirits, the power of words, or the ritual creation of magical objects". Although his history is limited primarily to "grimoires" as he understands them, he does touch on magic texts in general and looks at their relationship to the magical aspects of writing itself, including the ritual use of materials in book production and the eventual democratizing of literary magic through print and cheap productions, leaving only illiteracy as an obstacle.

Davies' approach is strictly that of a social historian writing a popular history, not a practitioner of magic. He is more concerned with the social influence of grimoires and any controversies surrounding them than their content (which is generally and lightly touched on) and effectiveness, and he considers the "lineage of magic" as "dubious" (page 11). At the top of his list in terms of "the greatest influence on the modern world of magic and religion" is The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses followed by "the most enduring, influential, and notorious Solomonic book," The Key of Solomon (pages 11 & 15). Other grimoires discussed include the Picatrix, the Sworn Book of Honorius, the Little Albert, the Grand Grimoire (and a version of it called the Red Dragon), the Book of St Cyprian, the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, Francis Barrett's The Magus, the Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin, and Gerald Gardner's Book of Shadows among others. However, some may be disappointed by the low degree of coverage of certain texts. The American book pirate L. W. de Laurence and his publishing influence, on the other hand, receives ample coverage. Some may also be surprised to find Simon's Necronomicon, which Davies calls "a well-constructed hoax", treated as "no less 'worthy'" as a piece of magical literature than other grimoires. Of this and other Necronomicons he states: "Like other famous grimoires explored in this book, it is their falsity that makes them genuine" (page 268). These type of statements show that although false authorship and fictive elements are used in many grimoires, Davies lacks the discerning eye of a skilled practical magician and more careful scholar of magic.

Given the above caveats, Davies' text is still an enjoyable and informative read. It will certainly introduce some readers to grimoires they did not know existed and provide a historical context for them. For further context, Davies highly recommends Michael D. Bailey's Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present (2007) as "an ideal companion" (pages 286 and 291 [Note 4]). Like Davies' text, it too has its weaknesses, but each book is strengthened by the other if used together. In addition to being well bound with an attractive dust jacket, Davies' book also contains 27 illustrations, 17 plates on glossy pages, a six-page Epilogue, as well as chapter notes, an index, and a useful Further Reading section.
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing yet scholarly account of American magical tradition 29 April 2009
By Christopher Marlowe - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Grimoires: A History of Magic Books

Writing in similar vein to his "Cunning Folk: Popular Magic in English History", Davies has penned an enjoyable yet scholarly account of the evolution of magical spellbooks from earliest times to the present day, opening up new territory in his exploration of their development and proliferation in the United States by following a murky thread of tradition, complex borrowings and multiple piratings. In this, Davies' book splendidly supplements the work in European fields first undertaken by E. M. Butler, and now more recently, by Kiekhefer, Fanger, Luck, Klaassen, Peterson, Mathiesen, and Hutton. Well illustrated with previously unpublished material such as Francis Barrett's handwritten title page of his manuscript for "The Magus", Davies' book should be of as much interest to the student of the occult as to the historian.
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Follow the Books! 24 May 2010
By Christopher Warnock - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was surprised because "Grimoires", while it is a very good survey of magical books in the West from the Middle Ages to the present, actually is much more, the best one book study of esotericism in the West I have yet seen.

And here's why. In "All the President's Men" the source Deep Throat says, "follow the money" because that's how all of the seemingly disparate secrets are connected. When it comes to astrology, alchemy, magic and esoteric knowledge in the West, it's follow the book, or rather the books! In the East there are traditions that have continued their oral and direct transmission of wisdom and technique until the present day. In the West oral transmission essentially ceased and the esoteric traditions of the West from the Middle Ages onward have been heavily literary, dependent to a great extent on learning from books. Therefore, when you trace the history of grimoires, books of magic, as Davies has done, you can see the importance of magic books.

I was particularly taken by the incredible notoriety of DeLaurence, who I'd always taken as a plagiarist and publisher of pulp [Davies has a whole chapter called Pulp Magic!] In South America, in the Caribbean and especially in Jamaica, DeLaurence became notorious and the possession of his "Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses" the key to magical credibility. Amazingly enough I encountered this personally recently. I shipped a talisman to Jamaica recently and of course included my usual instruction booklet. The talisman was confiscated by Jamaican Customs! When I checked the Jamaican Customs regulations I found that there was no restriction on jewelry, but that magic books published by DeLaurence were specifically banned in Jamaica. What a synchronicity! Particularly since Davies mentions the Jamaican Customs regulations in his book.

So we have everything, King Solomon, Greek Magical Papyri, Hermes Trismegistus, Picatrix, Ficino, Agrippa, Key of Solomon, 17th & 18th century Europe and America, Petit Albert, Red Dragon, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th Books of Moses, Freemasonry, Joseph Smith, Voudun, Santeria, Allen Kardac, Hoodoo, Paschal Beverly Randolph, the Golden Dawn, Crowely, Necronomicon, Anton Levey, Gardner and Wicca. All the disparate strands of Western esotericism, all connected by grimoires!

I'm reading this and saying, "Why haven't I heard of this book before?" Well it was only published in 2009. Excellent, really excellent! This is exactly what an academic study is useful for, placing things in historical perspective. Definitely extremely useful and worth getting!
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Informative to a point 15 Jun 2010
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Not a bad book, the way it reads feels more like a fast ride through the many major grimoires throughout history. I did also find myself jumping around, I was more interested in specifics of the books, but mostly you find just a rough brief on dates, etc... I think what readers may get out of this book is that there is nothing new under the sun. Spells, astrology, etc., all seem to be a slightly different versions of an already worn out tale. There are only a handful of real grimoires, but all go back to the basics of the ancients... Solomon, the Chaldeans, etc... Over time these things developed into what you find in these books. I agree that because of the fascination of things like this, the 'real' printed book will be around for a while longer even in this digtal age. A real book has a life force of its own, not just magic books, but all good books.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting... Comprehensive 5 April 2011
By S. Pactor - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Sometimes, I'm forced to tip my hat to the Algorithm that determines the recommendations. I am, frankly, impressed that this book was recommended to me. First of all, I loved it. Second of all, it was published in the US in 2010, and I've noticed that the Amazon Recommendation Algorithm works better for older books.

In a world where Harry Potter has his own Florida theme park and Americans talk to Astrologers over the phone for 1.99 a minute, the continued relevance of Magic is beyond doubt. One of the surprises of this book is the narrow band within which Magic operated, historically speaking. For example, a major focus of interest in regards to Grimories was their use to locate treasure. Davies has a fascinating chapter in the middle of the book about the relationship between contemporary Magical practice and the divinations of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church.

Magic Books existed before the printing press was invented, it's a tradition that stretches clear back to antiquity and many of the historically grounded Magic Books of Europe owe some influence to Egypt, Israel or Baghdad. Like many other emblems of literate culture, the tradition of Magic Book was sustained through the pre-printing press era by Church Officials and Monks, which is certainly evidence of a freedom of thought that one typically WOULD not associate with a Monastery circa 500 AD.

The Printing Press made the distribution of Magic Books easier, but it remained a very esoteric phenomenon until the late 18th/early 19th century till a host of related conditions: Discovery of "folk culture" by intellectuals, grown of Esoteric Societies among the lower and Middle classes (Freemasonry, etc.), growth of English language literacy among Colonial societies; brought the magic book into what we call "the Modern Era." Certainly, Magic loses a bit of its charm after the Industrial revolution, though whether that is due to the Industrial Revolution itself OR whether the Industrial Revolution is itself a manifestation of the same shift in outlook that caused Magic to lose its status as an emblem of free thinking intellectualism.

Contemporary Magic devotees fall into two main groups: People who are into it because they practice Wiccanism or some offshoot, and Harry Potter/Fantasy fans. These are large, powerful Audiences, but they bear little resemblance to the Audiences described for most of Grimories. I would have liked a chapter on "Mass Media and Magic" but it's a small point that doesn't mar an otherwise splendid treatment of an esoteric subject.
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