Grimoires travel fast ... kill it with fire

The earliest magic spells were written on clay, wooden, or stone tablets, which were not exactly light or portable. The invention of papyrus scrolls enabled the reproduction of magic books to climb until, by the fourth century BCE, there was no doubt that magic books were here to stay.

The ancient Egyptians learned how to use the papyrus plant to manufacture the plant's namesake papyrus. Books made of papyrus were created by gluing sheets of papyrus together, and these combined sheets could be as many as ten feet in length, sometimes more. The sheets were pliable enough to be wrapped around wooden rods to form scrolls.

As the manufacture of papyrus and writing became more prevalent, so did the proliferation of various types of grimoires. These magic books were kept not only by professional magicians but also by common healers.

When most people think of grimoires, they think of thick tomes made of parchment, but parchment didn't make its appearance until around the third century BCE and wasn't widely adopted until a few centuries later. Since parchment was made of thinly stretched animal skin, religious considerations prevented it from being adopted in Hindu and Buddhist Asia, because writing on the skin of butchered animals was considered offensive.

Likewise, Jewish religious laws dictated that parchment couldn't be used for ritual purposes if it was made from the skins of unclean animals, such as camels, pigs, and hares. Because of this, deerskin eventually became the preferred parchment for Jewish amulets from the medieval period onward.

In the fifteenth century, parchment was superseded by paper made from linen rags, and this transition was assisted by the invention of the printing press. However, parchment was still preferred for legal charters, religious documents, and--because it was made of animal skins--in magical practice.

Just as important as the parchment was the ink. Understand that ink was made from burned wood, which was pulverized before being mixed with water. In order to prevent the charcoal and water from separating, oils or resins were mixed into the solution. One such popular resin was myrrh, which was also used in some charms. The use of myrrh in both the ink and in charms subsequently led to the belief that making the ink with magical ingredients conferred more power into the grimoire.

With the flexibility of both papyrus and parchment, magicians could write spells for their clients to carry with them. These incantations were written on scraps and rolled into a small cylinder in order to be worn as a charm. Here, too, the ink also conferred assistance in making the spell more effective. Davies cites the use of baboon blood for a sleep spell, because the baboon was the sacred animal of Thoth-Hermes.

Charms, grimoires, and the belief in magic were quite widespread throughout the ancient world. Early Christians waged an unending battle against both paganism and any pagan symbols such as magic books, which were considered to be antithetical to Church doctrine. Upon conversion, most pagans cast their grimoires into a fire as a symbol of leaving their old religion for the new one.

Not everyone cast their book into the fires willingly, nor were the Christians the only book burners in the ancient world. The Romans were greatly concerned about any literature that threatened either religion or undermined state control. The concern was centered around divination, because the people believed in these predictions, which might have political or military ramifications beyond the state's control.

A few of the more famous books burnings from this time period include:

  • 186 BCE: the Roman senate asked Roman magistrates to locate and burn any books on soothsaying;

  • 181 BCE: on order of the senate, a buried chest of books purporting to be the work of Pythagoras were burned;

  • 168 BCE: Antiochus Epiphanes, kind of the Seleucid Empire, orders Jewish religious texts to be seized and burned;

  • 303 CE: Roman Emperor Diocletian issues an edict to destroy all copies of Christian Scriptures.

Of course Christians did burn their share of books, and their reasoning wasn't much different than that of the Romans. The written word has the power to change minds, and for as long as there were magical books in existence that contravened the Scriptures, the Christians were determined to round them up and destroy them just as they sought to eliminate paganism.

However, pagans weren't the only ones in possession of grimoires. Davies relates the tale of John Foulon, a Christian law student from Thebes who studied in Beirut in 480 CE. Foulon became enchanted with a woman who had no interest in him, so he decided to use magic to enchant her into loving him. He wanted to call up a demon by sacrificing an Ethiopian slave that he owned.

Fortunately Foulon, along several classmates who intended to help him with the rite, were discovered in time, and the Ethiopian, who was more than likely less than enchanted with the whole affair, reported his master's actions. Investigators were sent to Foulon's house, where they located a box hidden beneath a seat. In the box were several grimoires, one of which contained "drawings of perverse daimones, barbaric names, and harmful, presumptuous commands replete with arrogance and quite fit for perverse daimones. Certain of the incantations were attributed to Zoroaster the magus, others to Ostanes the magician, others yet to Manetho."

In a preview of Church history to come, Foulon gave a full confession, and spread the blame to other students that also practiced pagan magic. Foulon burned his grimoires in the presence of the investigators, who then went after the other people on Foulon's list.

One of the investigators, Zacariah of Mytilene noted that "the entire city was in a state of uproar because [the students] were spending their time studying magic books instead of applying themselves to law." The tension bled into the streets when a suspected magician planted some rough drafts of grimoires as a ploy to disrupt the officials and their searches. The whole affair finally died down once the magic books were gathered in one of the city's squares to be publicly burned in a great bonfire.

Even as that controversy ended, another one began, but this time within the Church itself.

Next week: Rooting out the evil within the Church ...


Source: Davies, Owen. Grimoires: a history of magic books. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.