Grimoires: A History of Magic Books – Owen Davies
Oxford, 2010, 368pp., 9780199590049
If you’re an academically and/or history driven ceremonial magickian, then Grimoires is a book you really need for you collection.
After reading a few reviews about this book, I feel I have to make one point clear: This is an academic text, this is not a book about magick, it is not how to understand or use the grimoires, it is a look at the texts, the social influences on them, historical documents, and how they have changed over time. If you want an overview of grimoires for your magickal practice, look elsewhere.
Davies covers the history of grimoires, going as far back as we can and still understand the texts as grimoires, arguably sometime around the BCE/CE crossover, up until the present day. Along this journey he touches on a variety of factors that influenced the grimoires. It would be too easy to conceive of them as something isolated in the field of magick, but they’re not. Grimoires grew and were shaped by pressures from the Church, by popular fiction, by technology, cultural exchanges, and perhaps something spiritual. “They not only reflected the globalization of the world but helped shape it.” (5) Davies doesn’t write as a magickian, doesn’t write as a believer, but as a historian analyzing the texts and the histories, and that’s to the benefit of this book, otherwise it would be too easy to assume lines of thought persisted only due to magickal reasons.
When we think of grimoires we tend to think of the same handful over and over, but what really intrigued me was how many grimoires were identified and created in the Middle Ages. All of the text was interesting, but the interplay of the grimoires and the medieval Church were really fascinating. Davies covered how various grimoires survived, but more importantly why they were used, and how they were viewed. You could see some of the push and pull around the Church and the grimoires, as both an organization threatened by their existence, and yet obviously making use of them. In that same period Davies makes a case for the “democratizing” magick through the printing press.
Another plus for the book is that lot of magickal histories tend to drop off in the Renaissance, pick up with the Golden Dawn, maybe address the OTO, and then jump to the present. Davies on the other hand covered all that time between, as grimoires flowed into North America, becoming pulp books sold everywhere, in mail order catelogues even, and how they were a part of rural American cultures right up into living memory. This type of continuous thread of thought and practice is just what he traced from the earliest records, through the Dark Ages, into the Renaissance, to the present.
The data itself in this book is amazing, unfortunately Davies has a habit of throwing in random knowledge which seems less to illustrate a point, and more to illustrate his knowledge of something obscure. At first these little side-trips were interesting, but by the end of the book these details felt like they were detracting from the big pictures. When discussing an interesting text, there will often be an inclusion of one of the more unusual spells, even when it is irrelevant to the discussion of the text itself.
As someone who recently finished a university degree in History, with my final paper on Liber Iuratus Honorii, I found this book an excellent resource for creating the context and background for my paper. As a ceremonialist magickian I find this book invaluable to help me centre my practices both in their own magickal tradition, as well as a historical reality.