This text originally appeared in Issue 10 of the British Journal of Thelema, under Reviews. It is our intention to make available here on the site all of the book reviews we’ve published. Grimoire Publishing, by Jake Stratton-Kent, was compiled as an essay rather than as individual book reviews.
‘Goetia is the new black’ – Sorita de Este
The above quote neatly encapsulates our thrust in this review: the grimoires are back, if indeed they ever went away. Modern radicals may ask whether these old texts have anything to teach us, given that magic transforms from one era to the next. The simple answer is yes, since constantly reinventing the wheel is not a feature of this evolution. Granted that re-examination and re-evaluation is more effective than blind emulation, the grimoires have much to teach us, as does an understanding of their origins, rather than the fictions bequeathed us by past orthodoxies. Research into these older sources of magic – preceding the Golden Dawn and Saint Ed, let alone Wicca, ‘Chaos Magic’ etc. – is enjoying renewed interest and experiment. Blind modernism aside, this is a very welcome and productive development. Like other ‘adolescents’ of course the Occult Revival goes through phases, and this interest may pass in a few years. However a new high water mark has been reached in the meantime and the occult world is much richer for it. There is an explosion of well researched editions of the grimoires, plus well informed and diverse studies of the genre. Our collective impression of the grimoires will never be the same again.
To illustrate this – following on from the review of Aaron Leitch’s excellent Secrets of the Magical Grimoires in our last issue – other examples of this phenomenon are here surveyed in an integrated mass review:
Howlings. Various contributors. Scarlet Imprint.
Grimoires – A History of Magic Books. Owen Davies. Oxford University Press.
The Veritable Key of Solomon. Stephen Skinner and David Rankine. Trade edition from Llewellyn, deluxe editions from Golden Hoard.
Both Sides of Heaven. Various contributors. Avalonia Press
Guides to the Underworld Series. Various authors. Hadean Press.
The demand for Howlings far outstripped the original limited edition, and braving the disapproval of bibliophiles the Scarlets have re-released the title, and are soon to follow it up with another compilation, entitled Diabolical. Among the many virtues of the former title, it is a useful place to begin this survey of current interest, practice and research of the grimoires; consisting as it does of a collection of essays by various magicians with varied interests and stances, and a diverse collection of magical texts.
THE ORIGINS OF THE GENRE
The barrage opens with a wonderful piece on the Picatrix, very appropriately since this is the earliest of the grimoires in widespread use. This is a beautifully written essay which places the Picatrix in the context of the Hermetic search for Truth. While utterly traditional in source and inspiration, Hafiz Batin accomplishes the remarkable feat of bringing this context into the post-modern world; a feat more genuinely radical than mere dismissal of magic’s former manifestations.
The Hellenic sources of the Picatrix are indicative of the real roots of the entire genre. The form and style of the grimoires were determined millennia in advance by magical texts in Greek. This far predated the influx of Christianised Kabbalah into Western magic in the late 15th century; erroneously credited with supplying the basis of Western occultism. The 19th century revival reinforced the latter assumption, which is absurdly endorsed and perpetuated by prominent ‘Scientific Illuminists’ to this day. The overdue rise of academic interest in magic combined with the current wave of interest in the grimoires may yet force a reappraisal of the Greco-Roman inheritance. Of course it is patently ridiculous that the fountainheads of Western civilisation have been consistently overlooked as sources of its occult traditions. The long delay prior to the appearance of a definitive edition of the Magical Papyri (reviewed in the previous issue) is at least partially to blame. The prejudices of earlier academics – unwilling to deconstruct the image of rational Classicism – are just as blameworthy in this respect as the follies of occultists; whether in rejecting the past or misinterpreting it.
The real origins of the grimoire genre are also evident in Skinner and Rankine’s superb Veritable Key of Solomon which cites the Byzantine Nigromantia as a proto-key and illustrates a Roman talisman portraying Hecate and Solomon. This last has been the subject of considerable interest among some aficionados, and is mentioned on Joseph Peterson’s superb website: https://www.esotericarchives.com, the talisman itself can be seen at https://www.ostia-antica.org/vmuseum/small_2.htm.
GLOBAL CONTEXT AND ENDURING RELEVANCE
On another tack, Owen Davies’ Grimoires is a wonderful academic study of the grimoires, and extremely readable. As Ronald Hutton says on the blurb, it must become the classic work on the subject. Note well that it completely explodes the notion that the grimoires are the exclusive preserve of white, straight, male bibliophiles. In glorious accord with the New World section of my own True Grimoire, Davies shows clearly that the grimoire genre is rooted in worldwide popular culture, as relevant today as it has ever been. We encounter mail-order conjure books in the Caribbean, Africa and downtown America. The place of the grimoires in the ‘pulp genre’ is beautifully explored. Their importance and influence more than justifies the inclusion in this review of the excellent line of pamphlets from Hadean Press.
Davies also shows us that grimoires are a vehicle of cultural exchange: ‘what links Chicago to Ancient Egypt, Germany to Jamaica, and Norway to Bolivia? How did a Swede become the greatest wizard in America? What did Rastafarians and Alpine farmers have in common? Who is the ‘Little Albert’ famed from Canada to the Indian Ocean? And how did a poor crossing sweeper from Ohio become a feared mythical spirit in the Carribean? Grimoires provide all the answers. They not only reflected the globalisation of the world but helped shape it’.
In short, with impeccable scholarship Davies shows us how and why the grimoires have been and remain important and central to the cultural role of magic past, present and future. The extent to which they have effected the diffusion of magical thought is truly mind-blowing in its extent. If none of this sounds familiar to you, all the more reason to read this book, it will transform your impression of the grimoires forever.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS, LIMITATIONS AND OBSTACLES
Turning to occult authors now, Skinner and Rankine’s Veritable Key is a prime example of the superbly informed research, by practitioners rather than professional academics, which is transforming modern occultism. There may be some minor instances, as I suspect there are in my own work, where their non-scholastic background falters in its scrutiny. Identifying the characters on the Roman talisman as Celestial Script is perhaps such an instance; they are just as likely ancient ‘characters’ associated with the 36 decans, from which the Celestial alphabet was perhaps subsequently derived. Nevertheless this is a magnificent book which completely transcends the incessant flow of dated reprints with which we are all too familiar. Weighing in at 446 pp it delivers a huge chunk of Solomonic lore, no less than three 18th century texts of the Key of Solomon, not to mention a very well researched commentary by practitioners at the forefront of grimoire studies. It is also superbly illustrated, including reproductions of curious marginalia which are a strong feature of the manuscript genre. One of the many gems is the use of talismans constructed identically to the ‘rite time specific’ magic circles of the Heptameron. This provokes thought on the evolution and nature of circles and perhaps elucidates the ‘standing on characters’ cited by Iamblichus in his Theurgy.
It is still all too common to see the word ‘goetic’ and its variants misapplied. All too often it is misused as if it represented the spirits of a certain 17th century English conjure book which has been, to say the least, over emphasised. This misuse has a major role in obscuring goetia as an important and ancient line of magical tradition. It has also obscured or prevented our understanding manifestations of the grimoire tradition outside the contemporary ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sphere.
The redundant and unthinking defence of such misuse, that it represents an ‘evolution’ of language, is utterly fallacious given the emphasis placed by grimoire magicians on literary and historical sources. This obviously requires an understanding of the terminology in its original sense. This misuse simply perpetuates the devaluation and neglect of goetic magic. It also demonstrates the narrowness of many occultists research and their over-dependence on commercial outlets. Properly understood goetia is the only continuous tradition represented in the entire western revival of magic. It is also the oldest, having roots in the late Bronze Age.
RECONSTRUCTION OF AUTHENTIC PRACTICE
A particularly important concept in ancient and modern grimoire practice is described by Stephen Skinner in an essay in Both Sides of Heaven appropriately entitled “The Thwarting Angels”. Similarly “Order and Chaos” (one of two essays by David Rankine in Howlings I) bears the subtitle “The Use of Adversarial Angels to Control Demons in the Grimoires”. This concept is first encountered in the Testament of Solomon, where an angelic name is listed for each of the spirits encountered (interestingly ‘Asteraoth’ is one of the former). Thus, while perhaps these authors often rely a little too heavily on Dr. Rudd, the main thrust of their argument is soundly based on an older tradition. Indeed Aaron Leitch (whose opus was reviewed in our previous issue) follows and advocates a similar approach completely independently. Another aspect of our authors’ researches adds to the picture. This is mentioned in conjunction with the conjuring of spirits in the names of superior demons, particularly – in their source – ‘Lucifer, Beelzebub and Satan’.
In Skinner’s recent talk at Occulture this was mentioned as a distinct alternative rather than an adjunct to the ‘adversarial angels’, while these essays apparently consider it alongside the adversarial angel approach. It is interesting that a similar trinity is found in both Verum and the Grand Grimoire, namely Lucifer Belzebuth and Astaroth. In my True Grimoire I show how this triad and the Four Kings rule the spirits from the later two grimoires as well as Weir, Honorius and the Goetia; Skinner and Rankine come to similar conclusions regarding Rudd’s trinity and the Four Kings. While traditional within the Solomonic genre adversarial angels should not be considered indispensable or compulsory. As is fairly obvious they are out of place in both pagan and Verum related work.
Rankine’s extraordinary erudition is represented twice in Howlings, his other contribution being Agrippa and Magic Squares. This shows how Agrippa’s planetary sigils are less straightforward than appears in conventional wisdom. For example they routinely employ the 11th square – rather than the 10th and 1st as might be expected – to represent the letters Yod and Aleph. The exception appears to be when the A forms part of the AL termination, so perhaps Agrippa considered IA to represent Yah. It is often little understood how this construction of sigils connects to gematria; whose role is thus shown to more practically oriented than is all too often assumed.
PAPERBACKS AND PAMPHLETS
Both Sides of Heaven is another compilation, with a most impressive list of contributors (including ardent grimoirists Aaron Leitch, David Rankine, Stephen Skinner, plus Charlotte Rodgers and yours truly). There is much of value here, and I mention but two personal favourites. Gifted academic and occult practitioner Kim Huggens gives an excellent appraisal of the daemons intermediary role between gods and men in the Hellenistic era. Maestro Nestor shares a personal account of his liberation from a truly demonic pact made in his youth, which marked the beginning of his mature path as a grimoire traditionalist.
The pamphlets from Hadean Press are an ‘Anglo’ example of what Davies refers to as the ‘pulp’ genre; more common in the Botanicas and Yerbarias of the New World tradition. They contain solid material in an easily affordable format, aimed at enhancing the magic of popular tradition. Elelogap – Spirit of the Waters is the first of a series, the goetic equivalent of the excellent Orisha series published by Original Publications. The few lines devoted to individual spirits in the grimoires are paltry, whereas this booklet portrays one of them as a rounded individual with a role in varied magical processes and in myth. Goetic Divination on the other hand begins the task of fleshing out the current limited understanding of goetia, showing its role across the spectrum of magical practice; in this case in divination through spirits.
Also from Hadean comes Liber Pyramidos, this is an affordable publication of an important Thelemic ritual. The rite is rarely seen in print but is more important than many with more exposure. The Grimoire of the Sixfold Star develops from EQ exegesis, involving 22 spirits encoded in the verse translation of the Stele of Revealing, These correspond to the Tarot, and the pamphlet describes their method of conjuration. More pamphlets are in preparation, but this line is already attracting worldwide interest and exemplifies an important strand of the grimoire tradition.
All of these titles – and their publishers – deserve the attention of ‘hands on’ magicians.