May 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

Grimoires: A History of Magic Books by Owen Davies

I know that books are made out of trees, and both are in too-short supply. But there are things you can do with real books that are still impossible on the Internet -- you can ritually bless or curse them. You can anoint them with blood from your wounds. You can carry them around to ward off or conjure evil. I guess, with the right attitude, you could do that with your laptop, but it’s just not the same. There’s a certain creatureliness about books, especially scary magic books.

In his geographically wide-ranging and relatively comprehensive history of books of magic, Owen Davies points out how grimoires and books of shadows have long been treated as powerful objects in and of themselves. He also notes that, while grimoires are still valued as cultural symbols, in the prosperous, Western world of today, “only a small minority… still believe in the power of magic, let alone practice it.” Yes, medicine and technology have solved a lot of the problems that used to be addressed by books like The Long Lost Friend: A Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies, for Man as Well as Animals (with many proofs of their virtue and efficacy in healing diseases, &c., the greater part of which was never published until they appeared in print for the first time in the U.S. in the year 1820), by John George Hohman, which contained such virtuous and efficacious gems as the following adjuration to banish the colic:

“I warn ye, ye colic fiends! There is one sitting in judgment, who speaketh: just or unjust. Therefore beware, ye come colic fiends!”

With medical treatments for colic and its ilk, we don’t need to turn to the mysterious arts anymore. And, Davies argues, divorce, sexual liberation, and the pill have taken away our need to resort to spell casting to solve our love problems. But the waning of magical practice can’t be explained away by the fact that we’ve got nifty gadgets or that we’re rational and educated -- millions of us use astrology, practice logic-defying religions, and believe in angels.

Hohman’s book was mostly plagiarized from an 18th century German grimoire, and in fact, the history of magic books from ancient times through the era of Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer is slick with snake oil sales, tomfoolery, creepy ideologies, and theft. Also, a surprising number of ambitious folks through the centuries have been hell-bent on conjuring the devil, which strikes me as really inefficient, like trying to get high by huffing motor oil. Everyone knows that the devil turns against you in the end. Why not make yourself a jovial, loyal, no-bad-side-effects minion, or conjure some sexy, shape-shifting pagan deity who will help you build your empire without trapping you in a Boschian nightmare afterwards?

I think maybe the displacement of magic by science, religion, and astrology is not a sign that we’ve found modern solutions to stubborn problems, but evidence that people in today’s pop-culture West are weirdly attracted to fatalism. He’s Just Not That Into You, so don’t go trying to change his mind, ever. Accept the things you cannot change, and have the wisdom to know what those are. No one can “make” you feel a certain way; you make yourself feel that way. If you’re an alcoholic, you’re an alcoholic forever, and you should cede your power to God. And find serenity. If you have the breast cancer gene, cut off your tit before you get cancer. If you have bipolar disorder/borderline personality disorder/ADD/ADHD/other, plan on taking side-effect-riddled medication for the rest of your life. Ick. I think I might’ve been happier as a demented magician of yore. I want to levitate. I want my skull to shine. I want to turn into a raven and back, and fill my body with feathers instead of blood and bone, and see across the continent, and I want him to be Into Me. Give me some eye of newt, the powers of prophesy, healing, conjuring, and allure, and a couple of nice amulets anytime. Or, hell, get me some motor oil, and spare the newts.

Wherever magic fits into your life (or doesn’t), Grimoires is a carefully-researched and thought-provoking resource for anyone with an interest in cultural history. It’s full of meticulous notes, the kinds of details you’d be hard-pressed to find on Wikipedia, which is so rare these days in any book. I plan to prowl slowly through most of the bibliography. Davies concludes that, “Grimoires have never been more easily available. As we enter uncertain times on a global scale, who knows whether they and their magic, which in the past gave order to a chaotic and unpredictable world, will once again assume wider social importance. If they do, then they are easily at hand. There is no sign of these books being closed for good.”

I rather hope not. Sure, they’re mostly apocryphal, mostly disappointing, mostly smoke and mirrors and sleight-of-hand, as in Felix Markiewitcz’s, a.k.a. Professor S. Lanard’s 1912 totally buzz-killing secret for how to bewitch cows: “If you want to revenge yourself on a neighbor by making his cow dry, steal into the barn of your enemy before dawn in the morning and milk the cow yourself and take the milk home. Get him to leave his home afternoons on some pretext, and during his absence repeat the performance.” It’s hard to let go of the fantasy of finding a real magic book, a book that will transform the mundane into the spectacular. In the meantime, beware lazy seekers and unscrupulous sorcerers, and lock up your barn.

Grimoires: A History of Magic Books by Owen Davies
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0199204519
384 Pages