Recommended Reading – Grimoires by Owen Davies (2009)

Last month an important new book appeared called Grimoires. A History of Magic Books, written by Owen Davies. It’s especially interesting for its description of the role of magical books in cross-cultural esoteric encounters. This is the publisher’s summary:

“No books have been more feared than grimoires, and no books have been more valued and revered. In Grimoire: A History of Magic Books, Owen Davies illuminates the many fascinating forms these recondite books have taken and exactly what these books held. At their most benign, these repositories of forbidden knowledge revealed how to make powerful talismans and protective amulets, and provided charms and conjurations for healing illness, finding love, and warding off evil. owen-davies-grimoires-2009But other books promised the power to control innocent victims, even to call up the devil. Davies traces the history of this remarkably resilient and adaptable genre, from the ancient Middle East to modern America, offering a new perspective on the fundamental developments of western civilization over the past two thousand years. Grimoires shows the influence magic and magical writing has had on the cultures of the world, richly demonstrating the role they have played in the spread of Christianity, the growth of literacy, and the influence of western traditions from colonial times to the present. Through his enlightening and extraordinary account, we see how these secret books link Chicago to ancient Egypt, Germany to Jamaica, and Norway to Bolivia, and grasp how the beliefs of Alpine farmers became part of the Rastafarian movement, how a Swede became the most powerful wizard in early America, and how a poor laborer from Ohio became a notorious villain in his own country and a mythical spirit in the Caribbean. Despite religious condemnation and laws barring their use, the grimoire has survived to the present day, and not just in Harry Potter films and Broadway’s Wicked. Here is a lively and informative history of a genre that holds a powerful fascination for countless readers of the occult.”

I searched and found some reviews of Davies’ book: a review by Jad Adams (The Guardian, Saturday 11 April 2009), and a review by Mark Williams. Here are some passages of the latter review I found noteworthy:

The history of the grimoire (…) is very largely a male history, (as it) reflects a stereotypically masculine love for order and systematisation: like the instruction manual for a new piece of electronic gadgetry, or a piece of Windows software documentation, the grimoire of the imagination promises power but is always most obscure when clarity is most needed, and is just as liable to be linguistically baffling, whether the language of the original document is Korean or purports to be the angelic tongue Enochian. Davies is concerned to dispel some of the misconceptions about the exclusivity of such arcana. In particular, he demonstrates the immense democratisation of occult knowledge brought by printing, and shows that the manual of hermetic lore in fact flourished during the Enlightenment. (…)

The second chapter, War against Magic, traces the development and dissemination of the magical book during the early modern period, explaining cogently how natural magicians like Agrippa, Trithemius, Paracelsus could emerge and write when much of Europe was on the verge of being convulsed by the Witch-Craze (…) showing how the grimoire made it into the age of print with the publication of Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy in Marburg in 1559. (…)

The remaining four sections of the book deal with the fate of the magical book in the US and in the modern age, which are most original, and very rich they are. In particular, the attention Davies devotes to African-American and Hispanic experiences of magical texts is likely to be new to most readers. (…) In one section, he mischievously traces the efforts of Mormon historians (…) to trace Joseph Smith’s knowledge of printed occult texts and their effect on Book of Mormon and the genesis of the religion associated therewith. The former, with its quasi-Gnostic pseudo-histories, oddly-named angels, appearing-disappearing gold tablets and so on, has much in common with certain types of popular magical texts, especially in that its integrity is licensed by appeal to a charismatic male figure, albeit in this case a prophet rather than a magician. (…) Davies does not make these parallels explicit, preferring, wisely, to let such pleasing ironies emerge from the texture of his swiftly-moving narrative.(…)

Perhaps the most famous grimoire of all is fictional: H. P. Lovecraft’s creation, the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, bound in human skin and so unspeakably evil that even to open it is to risk madness and perdition. Lovecraft cunningly wove real people and history into the backstory of his invented grimoire, and, of course, the inevitable has duly come to pass. As Davies writes: Over the decades several authors have claimed to have discovered manuscript versions, and in the 1980s one magician even claimed to have in his possession a 4,000-year-old grimoire from which the Necronomicon derived. The most successful of the print editions was the Simon Necronomicon, a ninth-century Greek text discovered by monks and brought to America in the 1970s by an Eastern Orthodox bishop called Simon. The first ‘translated’ edition appeared in a limited leather-bound edition of 666 copies. Subsequent hardback and paperback reprints went on to sell in their many thousands. Though the Simon Necronomicon is ‘a well-constructed hoax’, ‘like other grimoires … it is their falsity that makes them genuine.’ This, I think, is a key insight: grimoires may not allow one to call demons into outward manifestation — but they can certainly cause other magical books to come into existence. The magical book emerges from Davies’ learned study as intrinsically a composite, palimpsestic and paradoxical genre, simultaneously appealing to and obscuring the tradition which brought it forth.

Because you’re probably not going to read all of the above, I’ll just quote once more this key insight as it is formulated in Williams’ book review:

Grimoires may not allow one to call demons into outward manifestation — but they can certainly cause other magical books to come into existence. The magical book emerges from Davies’ learned study as intrinsically a composite, palimpsestic and paradoxical genre, simultaneously appealing to and obscuring the tradition which brought it forth.

The Great Google God also revealed that there is a BBC interview with Owen Davies to listen to, please find the link on Papers falling from an attic window, an intriguing blog by Necronomicon expert Dan Harms.


O. Davies, Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (Oxford University Press, 2009). 368pp; ISBN: 978-0-19-920451-9. £14.99. Publication Date: March 2009.



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One Response to “Recommended Reading – Grimoires by Owen Davies (2009)”

  1. Owen Davies’ Grimoires - Reviews Available « Papers Falling from an Attic Window Says:

    […] Davies’ Grimoires – Reviews Available The new blog Grimoires includes an article on Owen Davies’ new book Grimoires, which I’m still trying to get.  It links to two […]

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