Books of Magic and Witchcraft

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Books of Magic and Witchcraft

Scholars and anthropologists suggest that the need to record rituals, formulas, prophecies, spells and their results may have stimulated the creation of writing. Among the earliest surviving writings from many lands, languages, and scripts are divination results and recommended magic rituals.

(Documents pertaining to taxation are also heavily, if less romantically, represented in these early texts.)

Some acknowledgement of this history may be found in myths revealing the identity of the first book. Inevitably it’s a book of magic spells. In ancient Egypt, Thoth was believed to have authored the first book, the eponymous “Book of Thoth.” It allegedly contained various spells, rituals, and names of power. Names of power were words so powerful that if uttered correctly (and you had to pronounce them just right!) virtually anything was in your grasp: spirits would be summoned to accomplish your every desire.

The ancient Jews knew similar legends although they had a different first book: the angel Raziel, witnessing the expulsion from Paradise, felt sorry for Adam and secretly slipped him this book engraved on a sapphire tablet. Raziel knew that without a guide to spells, rituals, amulets, and talismans life would be much more difficult, painful, and joyless. Jewish mystical tradition names this book after the angel, The Book of Raziel.

The neighboring Samaritans had an almost identical legend, although they called their first book, “The Book of Signs.” And according to Etruscan traditions in ancient Italy, their ancestors were plowing a brand-new field when a strange figure emerged from out of the Earth, with the head and body of a handsome young man but possessing snakes for legs. This sacred being identified himself as Tages and he, too, bore a book of spells, rituals, and mysticism that he gave to the Etruscans along with verbal instructions. It was upon these materials that the Etruscans claimed to have founded their great magical, oracular, and spiritual traditions.

It isn’t all legend. We know that the classical Greek magicians wrote handbooks that integrated spells, rituals, and instructions for creating amulets, magical tools, and curse tablets.

Books have been used to teach witchcraft, encompassing spiritual traditions and magical arts. They’ve been used to store and preserve information; they’ve also been used as magical tools, as sacred objects of power.

Historically magical books have not represented the diverse realities of witchcraft. Women’s magic, folk magic, Earth magic has traditionally been transmitted orally. Until very recently, what was found in books, with very few exceptions, consisted largely of ceremonial or high ritual magic. Perhaps because of the literacy factor, ceremonial magic was considered the province of adepts, while folk magic (“kitchen magic”) was considered foolishness and superstition, even among occultists. This situation has changed drastically today—the pendulum may even have swung in the opposite direction—but only since the 1970s.

Because so few magical books survive and so many unknown manuscripts were destroyed it’s impossible to know whether this split between male and female magic was always the case. The stereotype suggests that only men were literate but that’s also misleading: once upon a time, few men could read either.

What you won’t find in this section:

Image Works of fiction featuring witches as characters or otherwise inspired by witchcraft. Please see CREATIVE ARTS.

Image The literally thousands of “magical texts” including Books of Shadows, spell-manuals and modern grimoires published since the 1970s.

This stereotype of literate male magicians conducting high ritual in some tower while female witches played in the dirt below may be nothing more than stereotype, however: approximately thirty years before the Common Era, the Roman poet Horace wrote about exclusively female witches and their power to draw down the moon. He described them as devotees of Diana and Proserpina who celebrated in secret nocturnal ceremonies. According to Horace, these witches, too, had a book, the Libros Carminum, the “Book of Charms” or Incantations.

Before the invention of the printing press, making a book was an extremely laborious, time-consuming process. Everything was done by hand, one copy at a time. Very frequently only one copy of a book ever existed so when a book was lost, it was gone for ever. Each book was unique, just as each person is unique—parallels that were not forgotten when books were burned, neither by those who destroyed them nor by those who loved or valued them.

Printing was revolutionary; it changed everything. Printing is the process of making multiple copies of a document by the use of moveable characters or letters. The process was developed independently in both China and Europe. Printing made it possible to make more copies in a few weeks than would have been possible in a lifetime by hand. Johann Gutenberg began building a printing press in 1436 although it took him until approximately 1450 to perfect the process. Although the number of books expanded exponentially there were not nearly as many publications as there are today: your choices were very limited, so what existed was very influential.

Quite a few of those early books, a fairly substantial percentage, had to do with magic and witchcraft, one way or another. Among the earliest and most widely distributed publications were witch-hunters’ manuals, guides for trial judges, Inquisitors and witch-finders. For years, the world’s second most popular bestseller, second only to the Bible, was the Malleus Maleficarum, “The Hammer of the Witches.” Although witches have always been eyed with suspicion by authority and various levels of persecution certainly pre-dated the printing press, perhaps without its invention such massive witch-hunts would not have happened.

On the other hand, simultaneously printing presses were used to bring magic traditions, albeit sometimes incredibly convoluted traditions, to more people than ever before. At great tremendous personal risk, printed grimoires, books of ritual magic, began to appear in Europe. They may be understood as an act of brave defiance against censorship and against the witch-hunts.

In 1951, the last law against witchcraft in the United Kingdom was repealed; this opened the floodgates of a new phenomenon: the witch as author. Gerald Gardner is credited with authoring the first factual book about witchcraft written by a self-identified practitioner. Witchcraft Today was published in 1954. (See HALL OF FAME: Gerald Gardner.)

Many people now learn magic, witchcraft, and Wicca from literary sources rather than from other people. (In many cases this is the only option.) Once upon a time, every town and village had at least one wise woman or cunning man with whom you could consult. That opportunity doesn’t exist anymore and so books and authors have stepped in to fill the void.