The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Books of Magic and Witchcraft
In 1277, the Archbishop of Paris issued a condemnation of “books, rolls or booklets containing necromancy or experiments of sorcery, invocation of demons or conjuration of demons, or conjurations hazardous for souls.” In other words, grimoires.
The term “grimoire” is the name given to the genre of books of magic spells and rituals. Grimoire is a French word and is most usually pronounced “grim-wahr.”
Variants exist in other languages like Latin (grimorium) or Spanish (grimorio) although an English variant does not exist, the French version being used instead. In general, the grimoires were a European phenomenon. Many of the classical grimoires weren’t translated into English until well into the nineteenth century (S. L. MacGregor Mathers, founding member of the Golden Dawn, is responsible for some of the earliest translations).
The closest English word to grimoire is “grammar,” meaning a textbook or, more specifically, an instructive manual teaching correct construction of language. At their simplest, grammars are spelling books and so are grimoires. They just teach different spelling skills.
The first thing one must understand about grimoires, if one wants to understand the genre at all, is that they were illegal. These aren’t merely textbooks of magic and magical ritual; they’re forbidden textbooks; to be precise, forbidden texts of forbidden practices. Back in the Middle Ages, if you were caught with a magical book, punishment was dire. You’d be arrested and arrest almost inevitably led to torture. Oh, you could confess voluntarily to every charge but it gained you little. It wouldn’t earn you a faster, more painless death because voluntary confession was rarely enough. Inquisitors were convinced that arrested witches and sorcerers were always hiding something; it was in the nature of witches to be cleverly evasive and secretive. So they’d torture you until they deemed that what you confessed under pain, terror, and duress was sufficient. Only then would you be burned alive with your magical book at your feet, lest you forgot what got you into this mess in the first place. The book prominently displayed and burned was also a warning to others to stay away at all costs from forbidden texts. There are very excellent reasons why until recently you couldn’t openly buy any sort of magical work in a regular bookstore.
Historically, however, no matter how many have been willing to kill for a forbidden book of magic or spirituality, many more have been willing to risk their lives and die for these books and the knowledge they contain.
Grimoires are based on awareness of how precious and endangered magical and spiritual traditions were and how difficult they were to access. Persecution of witches and the destruction of their books pre-date Christianity. Roman authority, although pagan, feared and wished to suppress magical information; they destroyed works by the thousands too.
There were always people, however, who regretted this loss and attempted to forestall and prevent it, albeit usually secretly. Fragments, pieces and individual pages of these magical texts were saved and preserved. Those who had read them sometimes attempted to recreate them. A black market for these invaluable suppressed magical texts soon sprang up, as did forgeries.
Magical texts, even in fragments were treasured. People copied them by hand from other people’s copies. These copies, each perhaps slightly different, were circulated and copied again and again.
Few knew what to expect from these books because by definition they were scarce and mysterious. Few could understand or even read them: many texts were in archaic or unrecognizable scripts. Some are written in obscure foreign languages. And for a population that was largely illiterate, perhaps any writing is obscure and mysterious. Those little details didn’t stop people from copying them and making attempts at translation. Some early manuscripts are written in several languages at once; your speculation as to why is as good as anyone else’s. As to whether these manuscripts were authentic or whether translations were anywhere near accurate, there was rarely anyone to ask. Even if there was someone, who could trust that that person wouldn’t inform the Inquisition of your curiosity, especially if they’re arrested and tortured themselves?
The results of these hand-written magical manuscripts are the medieval grimoires. Pretty much across the board, they’re a garbled mess. Some are believed based upon genuinely ancient magical texts. Others may contain fragments of these texts, while still others may be forgeries, written to discredit sorcerers or despised ethnic groups or just to earn small fortunes on the black market. Some are a combination of all of the above.
Grimoires as we know them began to appear in the twelfth century. Authorship is generally unknown. New editions were made by handcopying old ones at great personal risk. It is a dream-like genre. Books were written in code, so that only adepts could understand what they were really saying. Some grimoires are attributed to famous names from the past like King Solomon, Albertus Magnus, and various occult masters. (Many are largely cribbed from the works of Cornelius Agrippa although this is rarely acknowledged.) Inevitably attributed authors are long dead and gone for obvious reasons: dead men tell no tales; dead men can’t be prosecuted for witchcraft. Did these famous authors write the entire grimoire? Definitely not. Did they write some or any of the book? Maybe. It can’t be conclusively determined.
In general, with few exceptions, these books are compilations of materials from varied sources, often reflecting very different and even contradictory traditions. Some may be “made up”—an attempt to gouge money from book collectors. Sometimes however even in a book that seems 99 percent invented, a glimmer of genuine occult wisdom suggests that at some point something was real.
For a living person to actually take credit for authoring a grimoire would have been tantamount to suicide, so inevitably they are always “found” manuscripts. An old trunk was opened and an old book discovered within. Or more frequently the story is that someone was minding their own business when a mysterious stranger handed them the text and disappeared. Are these stories true? Maybe. Books were hidden away in chests; someone transporting an illegal magical text probably wouldn’t stop for a chat, tell you where they came from or give you enough information to find them later. On the other hand, maybe these mysterious stories are the required excuses needed for possession of a magical book, or maybe the person telling the story was really the one who first produced the book.
The exclusively male orientation of this genre may be appreciated when one considers that magical books are attributed to Enoch, the Angel Raziel, the Egyptian deity Thoth, and the master magician King Solomon as well as his arch-rival, the master demon Asmodeus. Even a pope is credited with a grimoire. Why then are there no grimoires attributed to such legendary sorceresses as Isis, Circe, Medea or Morgan le Fay?
Grimoires frequently begin with an explanation of who wrote them, where, and why. Conjurers inevitably conjure up glamorous pasts and reputations for themselves. They were trave-ling in Egypt; they met a holy man in India. Are these stories true? Maybe.
The printing press was invented and popularized in Europe during the era of witch-hunting. Magical texts remained forbidden and illegal, however the new technology offered the possibility of making these texts more accessible. After the invention of the printing press, grimoires were published and circulated in secret. Surviving classical grimoires seem to have been printed and standardized between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries although they preserve older material within their pages, although by the time a work was published in a standard edition, it often bore little relation to the original manuscript upon which it was based.
Several versions of the same book may exist, frequently in different languages. It may be impossible to determine which was published first or whether all derive from a now missing source.
Medieval grimoires are in general not books of practical magic. They reflect the predilections, needs, and desires of their intended readers: educated male sorcerers, many with a background in Christian theology.
The grimoires were inspired by various sources. Any one grimoire may include spells and rituals based on one or more of the following:
Egyptian magical papyri
Jewish angelology and magical handbooks including Kabalistic texts
Pagan magical texts, especially surviving remnants from classical Greece, Rome, and pre-Christian Byzantium
Roman Catholic ritual, especially rites of exorcism
Alchemical traditions and mysteries
In general the grimoires emphasize a school of magic known as Ceremonial Magic or High Ritual magic. Further details explaining this school of sorcery may be found in MAGICAL ARTS: Commanding and Compelling. However, the basic premise is that the magician attempts, via a series of often lengthy rituals, to summon spiritual beings and command them to perform various actions on their behalf.
There are three components to this style of magic:
1. Spirits, frequently identified as demons, must be summoned or compelled to come to you.
2. Once you have them, you have to tell them what to do and enforce their compliance.
3. Finally, at the appropriate moment the spirits must be banished or compelled to leave.
The orientation is almost exclusively male. Angels and demons are summoned but not to reveal spiritual secrets, or at least not for the sake of mere knowledge. They’re called upon to locate treasure or forcibly deliver the woman (frequently someone else’s wife) who’s already rejected you. There is relatively little herbal magic (some grimoires contain remedies, although these tend not to be practical or based on established herbal medicine), which was considered the province of women. Sorcerers weren’t interested in this type of magic. Instead, grimoires are handbooks of magic for personal satisfaction, often rooted in selfish desire, rather than for the magical worker who serves her community.
As a whole, the medieval grimoires are not representative of modern witchcraft practices, Wiccan or otherwise. Those who are unfamiliar with them will likely be shocked. To describe them as mean spirited is an understatement (however this is true of many old magical documents, especially surviving texts from Alexandria). Although few if any are literally diabolical, many advocate brutal animal cruelty, magical rape, theft, and murder.
The most important surviving manuscripts from the Middle Ages and Renaissance are preserved in the British Museum in London and the Arsenal Library in Paris.
A sampling of the most famous grimoires follows. Also included in this list are a few books that are not medieval grimoires but were consciously written to follow in the tradition.