Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Grimoires from Mesopotamia to Faust
Since the beginning of humankind, people have had desires that reach beyond their physical capacity to fulfill them, be they power over an enemy, the desire for love with a reticent object of affection, the acquisition of wealth, or powers and abilities beyond human limitations. The physical laws of science do not quell the longing to fulfill these desires no matter how impossible. Attempting to find ways to make what is wanted real, humans often turned to the supernatural forces that they were sure existed and could grant them their wishes.
How to communicate with these forces has been a preoccupation of humankind since we were evicted from Eden and lost our direct connection with the Universe. As each culture devised their own pantheons, there arose methods to contact these gods. Animal sacrifice, oral prayer, sacred rituals, even plants that seemed to open a door to the higher powers were used. The methods that seemed to bring results were codified and ritualized, then entrusted to special people who would practice and remember the codes and rituals. Shamans, priests, or holy men protected and preserved this special knowledge. As civilizations grew, the divisions between people, priests and the sacred became more complicated while the sacred knowledge became more arcane.
For the first several millennia of human existence, until the Mesopotamians developed writing, most magic lore (indeed most information) was handed down through word of mouth to those initiates who showed a propensity to supernatural communication. There may be one deviation of this oral tradition and that is Paleolithic cave painting. It has been conjectured that cave paintings were an early example of sympathetic magic where the image of the animal was created to invoke a successful hunt.* If this were the true purpose of the images painted in the dark recesses of caves during the Paleolithic, then they could be considered the first pictorial grimoire. For what is a grimoire, but a collection of magic spells recorded and used to call upon the supernatural to intercede in the lives of humans?
As a compilation of magical spells that attempt a dialog through ritual and invocation to communicate with the supernatural, grimoires can be a collection of clay tablets, a grouping of wall carvings, papyrus scrolls, distillations of incantations from other holy books; anything that can be seen as an accumulation of magical texts assembled for the intention of conjuring spiritual forces. All of these methods of recording have had an influence on the grimoire as it is commonly understood. For western magic, the inception of the grimoire begins with the civilizations that developed between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers: Sumer, Assyria and Babylon, collectively known as Mesopotamia.
Marking it Down
As inveterate record keepers, the Mesopotamians inscribed thousands of clay tablets with their cuneiform script. Many survive which archive their agricultural productivity, military campaigns, codes of laws, domestic disputes and astronomy. Among all of these many records are included incantations, spells, signs, portents and predictions. Prophecy and predictions were very important to the Mesopotamian culture. Rulers were invested in knowing the unknowable, such as: the propitious times of war, the glorious future of a prince, the outcome of a harvest or the end of a plague. Predicting the future and then offering methods on how to counter the outcome of negative readings was one of the crucial tasks of the mages who were consulted. There were also techniques and records on how to exorcise evil spirits, and various modes of divination. Although these tablets were not collected into one master document, it was these magical tablets that constituted the first grimoires. They form not only a document of what initiated the spell, the outcome of the magic beliefs and practices of a culture, they were also manuals and guides on how to perform the magic. Diluted through the Hebraic magic tradition and millennia of rewriting, these ancient spells still resonate through all grimoires.
Written in Stone
For all of the Mesopotamian’s dedication to reading and manipulating the supernatural, it was Egypt that was regarded as the center of magic in the ancient world. To the ancient Egyptians magic infused every aspect of daily life. For them, magic was the ability to harness the power of natural laws to achieve a goal. Natural laws were conceived as supernatural entities which created the world, sustained the world on a daily basis, healed when a person was sick, gave when a person had nothing and assured eternal life after death. For the ancient Egyptians, a world without magic was inconceivable. Magic spells and incantations were inscribed on amulets, monuments, tombs and everyday articles, each provided access to, or enhanced its power to attract the Gods. While most magic in ancient Egypt was practiced by the illiterate and therefore needed to be performed verbally, ritually or through pictorial symbols, the written word was still conceived to have power. This power in words is seen everywhere, on most objects, even making up the imagery of the object such as an amulet like the Eye of Horus, which is also a symbol of the god. The first written ancient Egyptian documents found that can be considered a grimoire that can be found in ancient Egypt are the Pyramid Texts carved onto the walls of the pyramids at Saqqara (c.2400 – 2300 BC). These texts with no accompanying images, detail how to enable the transformation of the deceased into the afterlife to be with the gods. They included many different spells that called on protection of the preserved body and the protection of the tomb from desecration, assistance from the gods to obtain food for the journey to the afterlife, to call on the gods to find direction to the afterlife and methods on how to reach it. At the time of the Pyramid Texts, these spells were reserved for only the pharaohs and royal family. As time went on, they became less elite and were allowed for use in the tombs of high officials. Later they were further popularized so most of the wealthy and priests were lain in caskets which had the spells painted on the interior. This carved wall text, was assumed to have magical properties in the carved words themselves. Just their presence animated the magic. Their importance to Egyptian burial practices can be understood because of their desire to be used by other upper classes who also believed that they should have access to the afterlife. Eventually, the spells became the basis of the sacred Egyptian Book of the Dead which was included with the grave goods of all burials that had the means to afford a tomb. Like Mesopotamian written magic, Egyptian recorded spells have also had a strong influence on the ritual aspects of the grimoire.
Stuck in the Middle
In the land between Mesopotamia and Egypt called the Levant, the Hebrew culture developed with its own magical tradition. Due to their geographical proximity between both Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Hebrews of the Levant were nearly in constant conflict with these neighboring kingdoms. The Hebrews were held captive by the Assyrians in 740 BC, and then by the Babylonians in c. 598 BC. Concurrently, they had been a presence in Egypt since at least 650 BC and probably since the 1200 BC. Because of these conquests by the various kingdoms of Mesopotamia, and their presence in Egypt, there were cross influences in their cultures including mythologies and a shared interest in magical practices. The Biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood is mirrored in the Assyrian Epic of Gilgamesh which is dated from the 7th century BC. It became part of the Hebrew canon at about the same time that the Assyrians captured the Hebrews. Still, what set the Hebrews apart from Egypt and Mesopotamia was their tenacious adherence to their own particular culture based on monotheism. The international importance of the Hebrew’s monotheism cannot be overstated, because it provided not only the source of Judaism, but of Christianity as well. There are three canonical documents historically attributed to the Hebrew religious traditions that became major influences in European grimoires and ritual magic. All of them share the common line of influence from the written spells and rituals of Mesopotamia and Egypt.
A Hebrew Tradition
The Book of Enoch is an apocalyptic religious text ascribed to Enoch, the great-grandfather of the biblical Noah. It describes the origins of angels, demons, and fallen angels. It reasons the the morality of the Genesis Flood and prophesizes on the appearance and reign of the Messiah. The Book of Enoch marks the genesis of the Judeo-Christian idea of the existence of devils, demons and angels. These supernatural beings were considered intermediaries between God and humans. While angels were purported to be advocates of God’s Word, and devils and demons were proponents of evil to lead humans away from God’s true message, each were supernatural beings believed to be approachable and able to provide otherwise unknowable information. Discovering and practicing the means with which to summon these entities would become a major preoccupation of European ritual magic recorded in grimoires.
The Old Testament book of Exodus and the biblical figure of Moses provided the inspiration for a majorly influential grimoire, which has gone by many titles but is best known as The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. Moses the prophet, miracle worker and emancipator of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt was considered certainly to be initiated into the tradition of Egyptian magic because of his upbringing in the royal household of the pharaoh. His identity as a magician was further accredited through his ability to cause by supernatural means the Ten Plagues. Finally, during his revelation on Mt. Sinai, where he was given the Torah by God, it is assumed by scholars of magic, that he was also given other secret knowledge. Even the New Testament Book of Acts (Acts 7:22) has this to say about his abilities: “And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was mighty in words and in deeds.” This supposed magical knowledge was eventually compiled and revealed through the grimoire titled The Six and Seventh Books of Moses. (The first five Mosaic books are the Torah and Old Testament books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy and are not part of the grimoire.) The Six and Seventh Books of Moses has its roots in Practical Kabbalah, especially the text of Sefer Raziel HaMalakh (The Book of Raziel the Angel) parts of which were used in popular magical pamphlets that began appearing in Germany in the 18th century. The tracts claim that it was indeed written by Moses and passed down as hidden books of the Hebrew Bible to give the text the prestige and approval of having had its provenance in religious doctrine. It offers incantations, seals and spells that will enable the user to recreate the miracles of the Bible. In the mid 19th century, Johann Scheible (of more later) collected and published these pamphlets under the title of The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses as part of his series of books on German folklore and magic Das Kloster. From there this compilation of presumed Mosaic magic became one of the most copied and widely distributed grimoires in the annals of western magical practice. It is found in various editions and abridgements all over the world where Europeans have founded colonies.
The Secrets of Solomon and other Solomonic magical texts derived from it, are the ultimate source of all other grimoires in Western ritual magic. They have their inception from The Testament of Solomon, a document ascribed to the Biblical King Solomon. The original text has its precedents in Greek 1st century AD manuscripts, which makes it too recent to be by Solomon’s hand. It was further revised and given its present form in the medieval era. The Testament of Solomon is not considered canonical scripture by either Jews or Christians. Its contents describe the first person exploits of King Solomon of the Old Testament and how he came by the power to command and control all demons through the presentation of a magic ring provided to him by Michael the Archangel. It continues as a catalog of the demons that Solomon encounters, along with their names, attributes, abilities and how to counter them. It is this list of demonic names and the attendant information on each that has fascinated religious scholars and magic practioners alike for centuries. Attempts to invoke these demons has been a major preoccupation for those interested in occult ritual and provide the bulk of most grimoire texts.
These three traditions of Enoch, Moses and Solomon became the basis of Western ritual magical practice and spawned hundreds of copies, distillations, imitations and variations of magical books and grimoires. The information in these books was coveted by some and suppressed and destroyed by others. It cannot be emphasized enough that these texts of Enoch, Moses and Solomon, however modified, revised or annotated, are the basis of all western grimoires. However, this supernatural information while available in Asia Minor did not reach Europe until Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 331 BC, and the wisdom of the ancient world was collected in the Library of Alexandria.
All the Knowledge in the World
When Alexander conquered Egypt, he envisioned a great and necessary port city to glorify his name. However, he left the actual building of the city to Cleomenes an ambitious Greek living in Egypt whom Alexander appointed governor of the new territory. Cleomenes began the transformation of the insignificant ship building town of Rhokotis with its prime location, into the grand port that Alexander needed for his empire. However, Alexandria would not become the grand capitol and important trade port of Egypt until the reign of the first Greek ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy I. It was Ptolemy I that conceived and executed the great Library of Alexandria and began the collection of books and manuscripts that became renowned in the ancient world. At its height, the Library of Alexandria is estimated to have held around 500,000 books, from all across the known world. This huge store of knowledge attracted scholars, scientists and artists to study there. It was through the famed library and the scholars it attracted, that the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and the Hebrews and their magic practices, began to trickle into the Greek Hellenistic world, and later into the Roman Empire.
A New Landlord
Rome began its gradual takeover of Alexandria in 48 BC. The third Punic War (149 – 146 BC) gave them their final, lasting defeat of Carthage and helped catapult Rome into a major power in the Mediterranean. After a series of political maneuvers and intrigues involving Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, by 30 BC, Alexandria and its desirable port, had become a province of Rome. Although, since 331 BC the city and its great library had been razed and rebuilt several times after various conflicts in the intervening centuries, it was still attractive as a seat of learning and a distribution hub of wisdom and information.
With the conquest of Alexandria by Rome, the confluence of cultures and beliefs converging in the city also brought about much intermingling of magical ideas. There are Greek magical documents from this time such as the Mithras Liturgy, a text that invokes Providentia (the Roman goddess of providence) and Tyche
(the Greek goddess of luck) to “assist the seeker in having a revelation that will help them gain understanding about the Universe and immortality through the guidance of a high messenger” (or more simply, a ritual to become enlightened in the ways of the gods). There were magical Hebrew texts derived from the divine canonical scripture of the Books of Moses and Solomon that were used as the basis of protective amulets or curses inscribed on shards of pottery or parchment. The ancient and sacred traditional magical tracts of the Egyptians were translated into other languages and became available to other cultures and further popularized. Each culture and magical tradition influenced the other until following the threads to the origins of traditions becomes nearly impossibly tangled. Each magical document has also left its imprint on the grimoires of later ages. Their veracity is purported to be of greater validity the closer the text can be claimed to be of antique origin.
A New Conflict of Belief
By 3 AD, a change was underway. The handful of followers of the apoplectic preacher known as Jesus had grown in population and in influence in the two centuries after his death. By 313 AD the Roman emperor Constantine in an effort to bring peace to the Roman Empire, had decreed religious tolerance through the Edict of Milan. The edict simply allowed the Christians to practice their religion without persecution. It did not give Christians special protections, but it did allow the Christians tolerance to not worship the Roman Emperor as a god since their beliefs forbade it. However, this relaxation of Roman law soon emboldened the Christians into demanding more protections, since the pagans still attacked them despite the Edict of Milan.
Emperor Constantine died in 337 AD, becoming a Christian on his deathbed. This final sovereign act officially made Christianity a state sanctioned religion. By 379 AD Theodosius I ascended to the throne of the Eastern Roman Empire. In the second year of his reign, Theodosius I decreed Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire and by 392 AD he had outlawed paganism. This rise in the acceptance of Christianity unleashed a backlash against paganism by the Christians. They showed an intolerance to the pagans as the pagans had shown intolerance to them. Pagan temples were plundered and destroyed for being offensive to the one true God. Many texts and documents that were deemed to be unchristian and were burned. This caused the loss of many magical texts of Greek, Roman and Egyptian origin. The copying and distribution of books and written material not sanctioned by the Christian Church was stopped, especially books which included references to pagan gods and practices. This began the dichotomy in the Christian Church between what was God’s Word to be beatified and what was of Satan and to be despised and destroyed.
Until the advent of Christianity, there was little division in magical thinking between white magic and black magic. Magic was part of religion and it could be used positively or negatively as the Gods saw fit. In the western world, it was the Christians who polarized religion into clear divisions of good and evil. This is where the idea of the grimoire as a book of evil associated with the Devil comes from. A good part of the ritual and magic that is recorded in grimoires, is derived from pagan sources and it was the Christian war against paganism that considered such practices diabolic.
But rising religious unrest was only the beginning of a greater decline in the Roman Empire. Attacks by the Huns from the northeast were driving refugees south into the Empire. This unchecked migration became too great a burden on the Roman state to support. Ineffectual leaders and a weakening army hastened the political collapse of Western Rome. Since 286 AD the Roman Empire had been divided into two regions, each entrusted with its own ruler. Eastern Rome, with its capitol at Constantinople, survived the collapse of the Western Empire.
Western Rome met its end in 476 AD, while Eastern Rome under is new name of Byzantium and its capitol at Constantinople, held on for another thousand years. But continued wars with the Empire of Iran gradually depleted its resources. By the 7th century, the rise of Islam provided a new enemy. At this time Syria, the Middle East and Egypt were taken by Islamic forces and most of the scholarly resources that had been born from Mesopotamia, the Hebrews and Egypt were cut off from Europe by the infidels until the First Crusade in 1096.
Into the Dark
Much of Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire was fractionalized and in political chaos. The trade, agricultural and distribution systems that were developed by the Romans were now disrupted and broken. There was widespread famine and disease. There was little cultural activity outside of the Catholic Church. The Church developed the monastery tradition and kept alive the Latin language as its holy language. It also kept alive writing and visual arts through the production of illuminated manuscripts for bibles and prayerbooks. Since the Bible was considered the Word of God, it was the Holy Word of the faith and not considered evil or part of the books that became known as grimoires. During this time the Christians still had a deep-set interest in driving out every hint of paganism or any tradition that was not considered the Word of God. It’s preoccupation with pagan beliefs had to do not only with proliferating its own doctrine, but also it increasingly began to equate pagan gods with demons and the pagan practices and rituals with magic and sorcery. The Church teachings took as its sources the Biblical condemnation of spell casters or those who communicate with the dead. (See Deuteronomy 18: 11-12) And it was also concerned that those who conjure up devils expose their souls to being condemned to Satan. However, the division between bad magic that transgresses on God’s covenant and good magic that implores the grace of God for help became a matter of ecclesiastical opinion. This division allowed some magical books to slip by the censors of the clergy, especially if they did not specifically mention demons or pagan practices.
Magic Finds a Way
There were manuscripts compiled at this time called leech books (from the Old English “laece” meaning doctor), which offered medical advice for alleviating
or curing many maladies. Many of the prescriptions were Christianized versions that had survived of Classical Roman spells and incantations for protection and healing. There were examples of sympathetic magic where a dagger would be consecrated by an inscribed incantation in order to make the knife receptive to driving out the negative aspect that was causing the medical problem. Some of this medical practice was derived from the very pagan books of magic that the Church was preoccupied with seizing and burning as Black Magic. Leech books, as a compilation of folk medicine and magic spells were on the border of grimoires. They kept the door ajar for later true grimoires to enter and preserved some ancient magical thinking from the purifying fires of the Church.
The Catholic Church was never able to definitively demark and maintain the line between what was acceptable religious practice and what was sinful magic. In many instances, the practices were so ingrained in particular communities, the Church had to simply put a Christian name to it and accept the practice (such as the Roman festival of Lupercal becoming St. Valentine’s Day). This amorphousness allowed the use of magical books that were based on Biblical characters (Moses, and Solomon) some latitude depending on how far into the study of demonology the text veered. All grimoires that relied too much on demonic magic were not acceptable and were often seized and destroyed. Those books that were concerned with natural magic, or the power of nature that was created by God (like the leech books) were tolerated but looked upon with suspicion.
From the 5th century until the invention of moveable type in the mid 1400s, all books were being transcribed by hand. Until the 14th century, the vast majority of those who could read and write were either royalty or the clergy, with only the clergy involved in the production of illuminated manuscripts and other sacred books. The non-sacred books that were officially transcribed were in some way sanctioned by the church. Non-sacred books usually were bestiaries, leech books, and books on Christian theology written by leaders in the Church. These books were considered acceptable, because they could be associated with God’s creation and the spreading of his grace. This would mean that until the secularization of scriptoria in the 14th, century, grimoires were copied by clergy in opposition to their holy vows. This does not mean that all priests were clandestinely copying down satanic spells when they were alone in their cells, but there were the few curious and defiant who were open to further knowledge. Books on magic were very rare at this time and any that came to light were quickly destroyed rather than preserved. It took the opening of the Holy land and the European reconnection with the Islamic nations to rediscover the ancient authors and pagan knowledge that was being kept alive in the Middle East.
A Window to the Light
After the First Crusade in 1096, the barriers that isolated the West from the East began to erode. Aside from a wealth of covetable goods and exotic food the West’s crusading armies encountered in Moslem lands, they also found ancient and modern scholarship. Much of the diversity of learning that had been encouraged during the Roman Empire and had flourished in Alexandria had been continued by the Moslems. The art of astrology was one system of knowledge that had been preserved, continually studied and perfected by Arabic scholars and magicians. Astrology in the West after the end of Roman rule became fragmented and unsophisticated due to the loss of scientific practice and the condemnation of the Catholic Church and any practice that included divination was still forbidden by Biblical law.
By the mid-1200s, the Arabic text of the Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm (The Aim of the Sage) had been translated into Latin as Picatrix (a Latin transliteration of the name Burqratis who is mentioned several times in the text but who’s identity is obscure) and clandestinely made its way into Europe despite the suspicions of the Church. Now considered a seminal grimoire, Picatrix is a composite work (over two hundred sources according to its anonymous author) of astral magic and astrology. In addition to rekindling an interest in astrology, it also emphasized and encouraged a belief in the concept of planetary correspondences, a belief that each hour of the day and each day of the week were dominated by one of the classical luminaries (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). This system of dividing the day into times of astrological influence, determined what magic would be most auspicious at that day and time. The idea of planetary hours became an important factor in subsequent grimoires, as it was said to determine the potency, or the success or failure of the magic and rituals.
The Grimoire Appears
The study of magic in the Renaissance became a pursuit of the intellectual who referred to ancient texts to conjure up mischief. These ancient texts of magic and pagan ritual would be compiled into books we now call grimoires. Magic became the study of unreason, as science is the study of reason. Magic and sorcery could answer the questions that science could not.
In his book English Literature in the Sixteen Century, Excluding Drama, C. S. Lewis writes about the Middle Ages and magic, “In medieval stories there is, in one sense, plenty of “magic”. Merlin does this or that “by his subtilty,” Bercilak resumes his severed head. But all these passages have unmistakably the note of “faerie” about them.” During the Late Middle Ages magic was believed in and even practiced, but it was done by people who had either an inherent aptitude or it was practiced as a folk art by the populace and it was often done in opposition to Church teachings. The opening of the Moslem world to Europe brought on a new interest in commerce and exploration. The rediscoveries of classical literature and philosophy found preserved in the Middle East brought about the Renaissance and the promotion of art, literature, science and humanism. The new interest in the humanities had the elite and the wealthy collecting antiquities which not only included art but ancient manuscripts as well. There was also wave of refugees and migrants of Byzantine Greek scholars escaping from the conflicts of the Crusades, who were able to assist the European collectors with obtaining and translating these antique texts that may have been written in languages other than Latin such as Arabic. Soon there were translations, copies and interpretations of the historical documents. New books based on the antique were commissioned and collected. The idea of magic as having “the note of the faerie about them” transformed into “He to his studie goes; books are opened, terrible words pronounced, souls imperiled.” (C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteen Century, Excluding Drama)
The growing Renaissance interest in ancient texts gave rise to a new demand for secular books. All books were still written out by hand. In magical thought, the act of handwriting is a method of conjuring your desires. Writing is spell making in and of itself when done in the proper mindset. The ancient Egyptians, by inscribing everything they created, understood that a written consecrated text in itself has the ability to manifest its content simply by its presence. As the Hebrews practiced, certain Bible passages when written out, can be used as protective amulets. The Bible itself, is used as a holy object that can bind an oath, bless a space or serve as a symbol of the presence of God. Given this idea that the act of writing has divine power, the tradition of grimoires claims that to enhance the power of magical books, they should be written in the hand of the practitioner. To further empower the magic, control of the materials is also encouraged. A grimoire should be written on virgin parchment. Virgin parchment is defined as parchment made from a newborn animal (preferably a lamb). Parchment created from a newborn animal has the distinction of being uncorrupted by the influence of corporality. The preference for lamb is for its perceived innocence, conformity and vulnerability – it is a tabula rasa that will attune itself to whatever it is call upon to do and will purify what is written on it.
The ink was another aspect of the creation of grimoires that would be under the control of the adept. Ingredients could be added to the ink to intensify its power. Blood was a possibility because of its life sustaining and binding properties under its association with the concept of an indestructible union. The ink could also be consecrated and blessed before using to further the idea that the writing has been sanctified and purified by God’s grace.
All of these materials: virgin parchment, special ink and the adept’s own hand, are attempts to protect the seeker from the malevolent forces that they intend on contacting. As illustrated in the following quote from the introduction of the grimoire Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis, the seeker of occult knowledge must be pure in his mind and body as a defense from the negative forces they may encounter.
“If you desire the arts, sciences or something else, then you must call the spirit that rules over them. But note however, that no spirit should notice that you:
1) you are not well experienced in the divine scriptures;
2) It is necessary that you explore your own nature: whether the spirits are devoted to you;
3) Whether you have committed sacrilegious or reckless sins.
4) Whether you have gone religiously to church and received the Eucharist in Christmas ‘eve and on such days.
5) Whether you have stayed celibate and without any wantonness towards women.
6) Whether you stay honorable and in pure clothes and with sweet odor, as well as in silence, and whether you are in a secret place.
7) Whether you have been taught the way to carry out on an exorcism. Also, whether you have good knowledge of writing and reading.”
Attributed to Doctor Joannes Faust, Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis (translated by Nicolás Álvarez
Writing the texts out by hand was also the only way books could be reproduced before moveable type. This made books expensive and their distribution slow. Another way of meeting the increasing demand for books was needed. By 1440, Guttenberg had perfected moveable type. Moveable type and the printing press made books cheaper and more accessible for a larger segment of the population. Grimoires were no exception. Grimoires were first printed in the Protestant countries of Germany and Switzerland. Here the censorious eyes of the Catholic church had no influence. There was also a tradition of German mages that had already determined a greater regional interest in magical books. Faust, Agrippa, Paracelsus among others, were the noted necromancers who had gained negative notoriety in Germany. Print played an important role in democratizing literary magic. The printed versions of grimoires could not hold the magical power or integrity of the handwritten magical text. What the printed versions could do was to get the information out for greater access and influence (not always positive influence). The mechanically produced version of the grimoire was not an integral part of the ritual performance, but a record of it. The latent magic could be activated through transcription of the spell. Contrarily, printed versions of magical texts did not lessen their aura. Instead, their infamy was enhanced by their accessibility and the romance of their forbidden content.
A Famous Pact
Johann Faust holds a major share of influence when it comes to grimoires and the conjuring of the supernatural. His story whether fictionalized or true, has been the inspiration for many exceptional works of art in literature, opera and symphonic music. His life and adventures have been so distorted and mythologized, that who the historical figure was is difficult to determine. The very year and place of his birth are in question. His birth date is given as either 1466 or 1480, while the town is given as either as Kittlingen or Heidelberg, Germany. There may in fact be two different Faust's who contributed to the legend: Johann (active 1530s) or Georg (active 1505-1515). What comes through the confusion is that Faust was a university graduate with advanced degrees, who became an itinerant magician, alchemist and astrologer. His infamy was known throughout southern Germany as he was often accused of fraud. He often boasted about his powers and claimed that he could easily recreate the miracles of Christ. This blasphemy got him denounced by the Church and accused of being in league with the devil. After receiving a teaching position in Sickingen, he was accused of abusing his position by engaging in sodomy with his male students and needed to affect a hasty escape. This scandal added to his negative characterization. Faust’s death is recorded as 1540/41 at the Hotel zum Löwen (the Lion Hotel) in Staufen in Breisgau. It was caused by an explosion from an alchemical experiment. His body was discovered so badly mutilated, that his clerical and scholarly enemies proclaimed that the devil had come to collect him in person. These declarations of infernal retribution in his demise became the genesis of the Faust legends.
The rumors and stories of Faust’s association with the Devil circulated for decades after his death. They were so common and passed around that by 1587, the first Faust book had been printed by Johann Spies. It contained much religious commentary since the Spies publishing house had built its reputation on theological publications. It was translated to English in 1588 and by 1611 it had appeared in French and Dutch. Each edition contained additional tales about Faust that further obfuscated and mythologized the historical Faust. The English version of The Faust Book was the basis for Christopher Marlowe’s play “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus” (1589). Marlowe’s interpretation of Faust as an arrogant scholar doomed by his own hubris, set the general story and subject matter of Faust as a literary character.
Faust’s seeking of magical knowledge was not forgotten in all of the tales surrounding him. Capitalizing on his association with nigromancy, the supernatural and especially his reputation of conjuring the Devil, many grimoires have been ascribed to him. At least thirteen different magical texts have Faust’s name attached to them. Some are postdated to the early 1500s to give the impression that they are truly from the hand of the diabolical sorcerer. Most of them are dated between 1580 – 1692, contemporary with the appearance of Faust Books and are intended to capitalize on the scandalous reputation of the Faust legend. All of them rely on the expertise of Faust’s interactions with the infernal powers and so provide lists of demons, the rituals to conjure them and the means to control them.
A Romantic Ideal of the Devil
By the late 1700s, a new movement in European culture was on the rise that was characterized by an emphasis on emotion, individualism, the glorification of the medieval past and of nature. In part, a reaction against the fast changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution, Romanticism sought to slow down the changes happening by the new mechanization of labor and its effect on society and look to the past and to within for what is true and natural in life. In Germany, Romanticism was initiated by the publishing in 1774, of The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Goethe. Werther is the story of a young man and his unrequited love for a woman who marries another. Werther’s suffering in this situation is so great that he ultimately takes his own life. This novel caused hundreds of young men to exemplify the young protagonist of the novel and explore their passionate and sensitive temperaments. For literate Germans, it provoked an interest in nature, Germanic myths, and folklore including the Faust legends.
The author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe himself had read one of the many reprints of the old Faust Book that had by then been in circulation for nearly two hundred years. The story of Faust’s interactions with the power of darkness and his eventual downfall began a sixty-year preoccupation for the author. The culmination of Goethe’s nearly lifetime rumination on Faust and his damnation, was his epic play/poem Faust (published: Part 1, 1808; Part 2, 1832 posthumously). However, of the several changes Goethe made to the legend, perhaps the most important was the ending. Goethe does not have Faust make good on his pact and become a victim of Satan. Instead, in true Romantic tenor, he allows Faust to be redeemed and his soul accepted into God’s grace. Goethe reasoned that a just God would not allow one of his souls to remain in the grasp of sin. Goethe’s Faust is considered the greatest work of German literature, from one of Germany’s greatest cultural figures. Goethe’s reputation as a towering figure in German literature contributed enormously to the legitimizing and revival of interest in the Faust stories and texts.
Hoping to profit from the German Romantic Era’s interests in Germanic folklore, and with Goethe’s Faust fueling a further resurgence of the original legends and origins of Faust, a German antiquarian and bookseller, Johann Scheible, began to publish a complete collection of German folklore. Styled by Scheible as “popular, miraculous, curious and comic literature,” he published 12 volumes of Germanic folklore between 1845 and 1849 under the umbrella title Das Kloster
, (The Cloister). Volume 2 at 1074 pages, includes all of the legends and grimoires attributed to Faust. Among the texts that Scheible resurrected was the grimoire Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis. (Magic Natural and Unnatural).
In his Forward to Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis, Johann Scheible asserts that the manuscript that he reprinted for the book apparently dated from 1505 which would put the writing of the manuscript within Faust’s lifetime. This assertion is erroneous. Research shows Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis dates from 1612. This is far too late for Faust to have authored it since he died in 1540/41 which puts the writing of the book at least 71 years after his death. The spurious authorship of this grimoire places it as part of the corpus of Faustian literature that appeared after the success of Spies’ Faust Book. Its content has been influenced by several older grimoires, among them: Steganographia by Johannes Trithemius (1499), Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Cornelius Agrippa (1531-33); Arbetel: On the Magic of the Ancients, author unknown (1575); and Heptameron attributed to Pietro d’Albano (1496). The common denominator of all of these magical books, is that they all name various demons and angels, provide what that entity rules over and offer a method for conjuring them. This is the major content of Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis, along with information on magic circles, how to interpret sigils (symbolic representations of a supernatural entity), the correct sigil for each demon and the tools needed for conjuring. This content of magic circles, sigils and conjuring tools also connects Magia with the long tradition of the Solomon grimoires. One of the most striking aspects of Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis, is its copious amount of color illustrations, the bulk of which are purported portraits of the forms each entity will take when they appear.
I had the rare opportunity to view an original 1849 Scheible edition of the Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis grimoire.** It was displayed with the book open to an accordion folded, double sized page of an illustration of the demon Barbiel. Barbiel is portrayed in the center of the page, dressed in bright red coat and trousers. He wears a crescent moon shaped headdress. His large, pointed ears, equal to the height of his head betray his animal nature. His face is frowning as he gestures to the right with a taloned hand. Winged demonic creatures fly around him. Barbiel’s appearance in this grimoire takes on the chimeric aspects of demons and devils since ancient times. The infernal is always depicted as an aggregate of the wicked features of dangerous or profane animals. Thus, Barbiel sports pointed ears, talons and slanted eyes as a means to accentuate his soul as having not lifted above the bestial. Additionally, these attributes convey his danger and wickedness. On the far right and left of the image, are sigils, which may be protective against him, but whose meanings are unclear. These sigils surrounding the image of Barbiel do not match the sigils on the next page that claims to be Barbiel’s own and should be used to conjure him.
The text tells us that Barbiel is the first Grand Prince of Hell. His Moon shaped headdress is probably meant to be his crown and it indicates his preference for appearing at night. His planet is Saturn, according to the planetary correspondences this means that he can only be called upon on Saturday at 1, 3, and 8 AM, 9 PM and Midnight. Saturn is also the ruler of transformation and death and speaks to Barbiel’s dangerousness. The description claims he appears as depicted in the illustration provided, surrounded by spirits which he calls his subordinates. He can be invoked to assist in finding that which is stolen and reveal who the thief is. He can also assist with achieving the ability to see in a scrying mirror and aid with the interpretation and understanding of what is seen there.
(the color areas). It is evident that the illustrator, Karl Kohl used existing images for inspiration, such as Jacques Callot’s Temptation of St. Anthony printed in 1635. This image of a large flying demon obviously influenced Kohl’s illustration of a winged demon. Other images seem to be contemporary and possibly original to the publication. The diagrams of magic circles and sigils have some of the characteristics of similar diagrams in Arbetel: On the Magic of the Ancients as well as The Secrets of Solomon. The human figures depicted in the book are wearing clothing consistent with late 1700s to early 1800s European peasant classes. While this is not consistent with clothing from the period either of the original 17th century manuscript or of its the mid-19th century reprint, the fashion of the clothing was probably used as a standard overall style and not to depict trends of the day. The demons wear a range of clothing styles from nude, to animal skins to Gothic influenced which is assumed to enhance their otherness and antiquity.
Kohl shows a naïveté with the human figure. His figurative proportions are less than classical, even leaning toward the endomorphic. In the Barbiel illustration, it is difficult to tell where the demon’s legs meet his torso under his coat. His feet are tiny compared to the bulk of his body and his left had is much smaller that his right. I realize that a supernatural being is depicted and the Greek standard of beauty is not to be expected, but these visual traits and anatomical eccentricities appear across all the images in the book. Still, the images have the charm of their age even if they do not approach agelessness. The book as a whole is more an obscure curiosity than a work of art. It is not a major grimoire like the other Schiebel publication in this series, The Sixth and Seven the Book of Moses, which caught the imagination of the German populace and was appropriated by other publishers, reprinted in cheap versions and disseminated worldwide. Instead, Magica represents a curious piece of Faustian folklore and it provides a window of what was important to occult thought in the 1600s. The major interest lies in the illustrations which are unique for their interpretation of the entities that the practitioner may encounter. Schiebel includes this grimoire in his Das Kloster project in the interest of completeness, and for the abiding interests that captured the imagination of the German Romantics.
No One Said It Would Be Easy
As I researched the development of the grimoire, I kept asking myself why would someone want to deal with all the complications that were considered necessary to contact the spirit world? Much of the ritual magic that is explained in grimoires needs very specific things, whether that be special equipment that must be created, ingredients that must be procured, particular locations that must be found and definitive times of day that must be adhered to. There are so many considerations, magical procedures, important words and necessary props that it is easy for something to go wrong. In fact, there have been detractors that insist that something will be wrong and that is the point. The failure of the magic can be blamed on the high probability that the magician made some error in the procedure. The failure of contacting the Otherside lies with the process, not with the possibility that there is no Otherside.
My question lies not with the existence or not of demons, but in the simple notion of what is the motivation? Surely the grimoires themselves lay it out: acquiring wealth, power over enemies, and attracting an object of desire. These seem to be historically why the grimoires were written and why they have continued to be an item of interest, although I would add that in modern times, some ritual magic practitioners are seeking validation that their belief in the spirit world is not in vain. Still, if as Christians believe, that God will answer all prayers and the true ritual is to attend Mass and pray, then that seems on the surface a far easier method, than trying to adhere to all of the regulations of conjuring up a demon who may be belligerent and disposed to do you great harm rather than grant your request. There is the theater of the ritual that can be attractive. There is the romance of following the arcane methods that may put one in a particular emotional state that can be alluring. Or there is the draw of the taboo which has its own adherents. The problem seems to be that God doesn’t work the way we often want. For Christians, God has already claimed to love poverty, humility, kindness and giving. These are the traits that His Son Jesus personally exhibited and taught were the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
These are also the traits that the aspiring magician are expected to express and live if they are to be protected and successful in their magical endeavors. The irony that is not expressed in the grimoires is that the desire to obtain wealth, have power over others and force love on another are not Christian qualities. To cavort with demons in itself is considered to welcome sin. There is a moral disconnect between living and expressing the life of sanctity that is a precursor to attempting occult ritual and then going ahead and practicing the ritual. A truly holy person wouldn’t engage in such a profane ritual.
“Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1: 14-15) The Epistle of James is telling us that desire is not sin, but desire can lead to sin. The grimoire is a document that feeds off of our desires. It offers an alternative that the strictures of spirituality would deny. We know what is necessary to obtain our highest nature, but the temptation to work around our fate and find shortcuts to our wants is strong. The grimoire is an instruction book that may offer the seeker another path to obtain what they most desire. The entities that may be encountered to assist in this alternative path we are warned can be fickle but may be bridled with the right precautions. Do we stare at the page in hopeless want or do we seize an opportunity? •
Arthur Bruso © 2020
*Zoologist R. Dale Guthrie in The Nature of Paleolithic Art believes differently: ”… to recognize that so many of the preserved Paleolithic images were done casually, by both sexes and all age-groups, more often than not by youngsters, who even left their tracks under renditions of wounded bulls and swollen vulvas, in no way makes Paleolithic sites less hallowed. The possibility that adolescent giggles and snickers may have echoed in dark cave passages as often as the rhythm of a shaman’s chant demeans neither artists nor art.”
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