Almanacs - 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

Almanacs, defined as books, typically published annually, containing useful, practical advice and information, are most familiar today as standard reference books, similar to encyclopedias or dictionaries. Although some are little more than a compilation of tables of information, many are extremely entertaining. In addition to the “useful, practical information” many almanacs also include proverbs and sayings, little stories, humor, recipes, and assorted odd factoids and miscellany.

However, these extras are the icing on the cake: almanacs are filled with information intended to help one plan one’s daily schedule and one’s work schedule, especially if you still subscribe to a “traditional” occupation like farming, hunting, fishing or seafaring. The typical contents of an almanac include farming and planting information, tide tables, tables of sunrises and sunsets, weather forecasts and ephemeredes (the fancy, technical word for astrological tables). Astrology? In a standard reference book? Yes, because the earliest almanacs were books of magic.

The modern English word almanac is believed to derive from the medieval Latin almanach, which most likely derives from the Arabic al-manAkh, meaning “an almanac.” Another theory suggests that almanac actually derives from the Saxon al-mon-aght, the name given to Norse runic clogs, carved wooden sticks detailing a year’s progression.

Almanacs have extremely ancient roots; they derive from what is known as a hemerology. Hemerologies are magical calendars listing predictions for each day. What does each day mean? What blessings does each day promise or, conversely, for what inherent dangers must one prepare? Which deities or forces possess their utmost power on this day? Intrinsic to the hemerology is the notion that there is such a thing as lucky or unlucky days. Hemerologies thus serve as a guideline for avoiding disaster and maximizing good fortune.

Hemerologies list favorable and unfavorable days within each month; positive and negative actions for each day are also listed. Hemerologies existed in places as far apart as China, Egypt, India, Mesopotamia, Mexico, and Rome.

The earliest known hemerology dates back to at least the second millennium BCE in Mesopotamia. Hemerologies typically include predictions like this:

Image On the seventh day of the month he should not take a wife; distress will befall him

Image On the eighth day of the month he may take a wife, his heart will be happy

Daily horoscopes published in newspapers derive from this concept. Among the Aztecs and Mayans, when a baby was born, the hemerological table was consulted in order to reveal the new child’s nahual, patron deity and perhaps name (see ANIMALS: Nahual).

With the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, almanacs, which were cheap to produce, became widely circulated and influential. Many people had only two books in their home, the Bible and an almanac. Scholars began producing their own almanacs, among the most renowned being Michel de Nostre Dame, better known now as Nostradamus. His predictions were first published as a feature within the almanacs he wrote, compiled, and published annually beginning in 1550. English astrologer William Lilly published his own almanacs in the seventeenth century.

By the eighteenth century, almanacs had become an extremely popular literary genre; many were bestsellers. Benjamin Franklin published his Poor Richard’s Almanac from 1732 to 1758. Benjamin Banneker, the African-American astronomer and mathematician also published a series of best-selling almanacs. The Old Farmer’s Almanac, first published in 1792, is North America’s oldest continually published periodical. The Old Farmer’s Almanac was originally a guide for farmers and remains so, although many readers who have nothing to do with agriculture, simply enjoy reading it or depend upon its renowned weather predictions. The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s weather and farming advice are based on astrological wisdom, particularly moon phases. For many, these books are their only exposure to true astrology.