Grimoire Purism: Logical, Rational, and Historical Considerations

This entry has been stewing in my head for a bit, but reading Davies’s Grimoires really brought it out to the surface.

I’d call myself a Solomonic magickian, a lot of my work revolves around the communion with spirits from grimoires in that style. Yet unlike many I don’t think I’m really “bound” to one text. Granted most of the grimoire spirits I use are from Book I of the Lemegeton, the Goetia, but my summoning circle is based on a design from the Heptameron, using Angel and Godnames I spent over two years skrying, my robes are adorned with the Shem ha’mephorash around the edge, and a variety of angelic and demonic seals on the chest and sleeves. So even though I’m Solomonic, my practice in that regard is all over the place a little.

Why? Because it works. There are some people that this boggles greatly, grimoire-purists. We’ve all seen them, people who are convinced that grimoires can’t and don’t work unless you perform everything exactly to the letter. (These are most notably though people who despite this claim lack the fame, fortune, and harem of King Solomon.)

Now, do not get me wrong, I believe grimoires should be used by the book, or as close to as possible until you are proficient with them. I wouldn’t say everything in them is absolutely necessary, but until you know how they work (and that takes experience, not educated guesses based on other systems or your intuition or lack of drive) I recommend keeping as much of the system intact as possible when you use it. Some things are most definitely symbolic I’d say, others are more relative, others might not be important at all, and some are crucial. If I gave you a recipe for amazing cookies, you shouldn’t make substitutions until you’ve made them my way and think I like my cardamom a bit too much. Follow the recipe the first several times, then you have a sense on what can be shifted.

This is where I get trapped in the middle ground. On one hand “Follow the book” on the other hand “Don’t be a slave to it.” What I wanted to address through was some of the issues with the notion of Grimoire-Purists.

Basically, why do you assume the text is right? Just because King Solomon (didn’t) write it, doesn’t mean it’s perfect. How many of us would pick up any modern occult book and say “The author is 100% right, and we have to do everything as they say or it won’t work”? If you’d do that with any magickal text I think you should re-evaluate your critical thinking skills.

As a subset of that issue, just because it is right, doesn’t mean it’s the only way it can be right. Sure, frankincense might be the right incense to summon a King of the Sun, but that doesn’t mean copal wouldn’t work, wouldn’t work just as well, or even better. Right does not have to be this binary exclusive category. Tied into this is the realism of it being 100% exclusively right. Just because my cookie recipe is awesome doesn’t mean you couldn’t make awesome cookies using a variation on my recipe. Good cookies are good cookies. One thing that came up recently in a discussion group around Solomonic magick is the necessity of wearing a belt made of lion skin. People battled back and forth on why it was or wasn’t necessary, names were called, it was the internet. I made a comment, which largely got glossed over though. Lions are going extinct, and while they’re doing better than they were 15 years ago, they’re still endangered. What happens when the last lion is killed? What happens when the last piece of lion fur deteriorates with use and age? Will these spirits then be forever beyond our ability to communicate with? It seems silly, but that’s the way some people think about it when they go hardcore grimoire-purist.

Lastly I want to question the idea of the texts being 100% right from a historian’s perspective. One of the first things I was ever taught as a historian was “Cui Bono” meaning “To whose benefit?” or “Who benefits?” Thousands, and millions of documents have been lost since humans started writing, and each one that survives there is a reason. The first question a historian asks is “Cui Bono” who benefits from this text still existing? Why was this text preserved when others weren’t? In the case of magickal and religious texts you can say belief, divine intervention, or because it works.

The trouble with this notion is not all texts were preserved on purpose, and not all were lost on purpose. For instance the autohagiography of Christina of Markyate was preserved by chance. The only known copy was in a house that caught fire, and it was one of the few texts near the window that the owner saved by throwing it out before having to flee the fire. If not for its random placement in the library we would have lost the first example of Self-Insert Biblical Fanfiction.

Did grimoires survive by luck or human choice? Well, according to Davies they survived by sheer volume. Why were there so many grimoires though? Because they were big business, forbidden texts that teach you to find treasure and get laid, who wouldn’t want that. The trouble is twofold though, not every person who manually copied the texts, or later every printer, had access to the grimoires, and eventually if there are only two or three or whatever grimoires, soon enough everyone who wants them, will have them, or know how to do what it is them. What is the solution to these problems? Make up grimoires, and that’s exactly what happened. As an idealist you can look at the similarities to grimoires and say that shows a continuation of thought and practice, and to some extent that might be right. What it probably shows more often is plagiarism. You own two grimoires and a book on herbs. Well include the prayers and circle from one text, the spirits from the second text, and mix in the herbs from the third, then make up a story about how some great mystic wrote it, it was found somewhere amazing, and boom, next grimoire craze.

Now the tricky part is, just because its random stuff cobbled together doesn’t mean it doesn’t work (doesn’t mean it will either). Here is the thing though, we know virtually nothing about these grimoires and their creation, we have myths, and ideas, and historical theories, but we don’t know. For all we know the Heptemeron or the Lemegeton were just forgeries crafted by a bored innkeeper looking to make some extra money, and by fluke they became popular, printed in large numbers, and got preserved.

So if you’re considering being a grimoire purist, think about the issues, rationally and historically with that, and see where it takes you. Remember, I do advocate trying to be as much by the book as possible, especially until you’ve worked with the system, but don’t assume that everything in it is 100% right, and that right information is exclusive of all other.


One Response to Grimoire Purism: Logical, Rational, and Historical Considerations

  1. Andrew says:

    An excellent, and entirely appropriate, analysis of the grimoire problem. Yes, yes — following a grimoire literally and exactly from beginning to end is likely to result in some interesting and useful results, especially if it’s a good one.

    But some of the herbal combinations in Picatrix, for example, are toxic, and that hasn’t lessened its reputation as a grimoire — rather, it’s probably enhanced it, because of its own peculiar warnings that this is a book for the WISE and not for the dummy. Its own careful direction to pay attention, and to be careful, and to attend to every example, is rather more potent in the face of the reality that being too literal may kill you. 🙂

    Maybe that’s part of the reason why the grimoiric tradition died out — the printed book made it possible for Agrippa and others to create pre-made grimoires, rather along the lines of the modern Llewellyn or Weister publishing ’empires’ (or at least pocket kingdoms) where one could follow through a pre-established set of scripts toward a specific set of practices. The book, Celtic Golden Dawn that I’m following so deliberately, is no less a grimoire for having been published six months ago, than the Lesser Key of Solomon. It may be aimed at a different set of goals, but it’s still a set of training exercises to produce a competent magician or druid…

    And there’s maybe where the literalist problem lies? The further up and further into magic I go, the less I do things “by the book”, and the more according to a broad system of tools and philosophies. What works with my Christianish neighbor is not what works with the ladywho followed the Grateful Dead on tour for almost two decades. The grimoires teach us how to begin, but some of the essence of becoming a magician seems to be in leaving the grammar behind, and learning the logic and rhetoric more thoroughly and internally…?

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