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In the fifteenth century, parchment was superseded by paper made from linen rags, and this transition was assisted by the invention of the printing press.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.

Simon Magus: magician or victim?

In my previous discussions on grimoires (here and here), the focus was primarily on Old Testament pseudepigrapha such as the books of Enoch and The Testament of Solomon, both of which influenced the angelology and demonology for my Los Nefilim series. The Key of Solomon, probably the most well known of grimoires, was allegedly translated from Hebrew; although, according to Owen Davies in Grimoires: A history of magic books, "there is no substantive evidence for a Hebrew version [of The Key of Solomon] before the seventeenth century."

Likewise, there are enough Christian references in both The Testament of Solomon and The Key of Solomon to raise doubts that either of the documents were ever originally Jewish, much less authored by Solomon. However, I would argue that this is not a case of seventeenth century cultural appropriation.

When examining grimoires, it is essential to remember that Christianity began as a Jewish Reform movement before the end of the Second Temple period in 70 A.D. when the Jews were seeking the promised Messiah that would conquer the Romans and return Jerusalem to Jewish rule. Unfortunately, the prophet of this reform movement, Jesus of Nazareth, left no written records.

However, a Pharisee convert to Christianity, Paul of Tarsus, left many letters written to the early Christian churches, detailing the meaning of Christianity as he understood the young religion. These early Christians placed a large emphasis on textual documents with the predominant literary form of the New Testament comprised of letters (Erhman 180); twenty-one of the twenty-seven documents that embody the New Testament are of letters or epistles. Of these twenty-one, fourteen of these letters are attributed to Paul as he attempts to address several concerns of the early Christian communities. (Metzger 204) The major issue that split the Jewish Christians from Paul and his Gentile converts was the question of Gentile conversion to Judaism, or should Gentile converts to Christianity be required to adhere to Mosaic Law? (Ehrman 97)

Over time Paul's interpretation of Jesus's teachings took precedence over Peter's, which in turn created different sects of the youthful religion. Each of these sects carried forward the original teachings and added their own embellishments to the emerging Christian doctrine. The bottom line is the early Christians didn't appropriate Jewish beliefs insomuch as they carried their own Jewish traditions into a new religion. The usage of Jewish texts and prophecies in Christianity is actually more syncretic than appropriated.

The reason this is important is because as Christianity struggled to define itself, it also had to define what it was not, or how it differed from rabbinical Judaism. The psychological dynamics of early Christianity’s need to establish itself as a community different from Judaism utilized "three distinctive forms of anti-Jewish polemic ... the Christology polemic, supersessionist polemic, and defamatory polemic." (Kille 293) The first two of these polemics, Jesus as the Messiah and the New Covenant/Testament between God and Christians, are reiterated throughout Christian literature establishing the theological differences between Christianity and Judaism. However, when the question of Jewish traditions continued to intrude on the early churches, Christian literature and sermons slid into the third, and most dangerous of these polemics, the defamatory polemic that dehumanizes Jews (Kille 293), or as will be discussed in our case here: Simon Magus.

Simon was, in all probability, a very real person. Josephus mentions a magician named Simon in The Antiquities of the Jews (20:7:2) as a friend of Claudius Felix, procurator of Judea in 52-58 A.D.. The Simon of Josephus's history was born in Cyprus and did claim to be a magician. His power was such that when Felix fell in love with the beautiful Drusilla, he hired Simon to persuade Drusilla to forsake her husband and marry him. Whether Simon accomplished this act through magical means or not is not mentioned.

There is some dispute over whether this particular Simon was the same Simon Magus mentioned in Acts 8:9-8:24. The footnotes of my copy of The Works of Josephus (translated by William Whiston) discount Simon of Cyprus as the infamous Magus in Acts. Whiston's argument is that in The Antiquities of the Jews (20:7:2) Josephus calls Simon of Cyprus a Jew whereas the anonymous author of Acts 8:9-8:24 describes Simon Magus as being a Samaritan. This is an important distinction, because the Samaritans observe a form of Judaism that accepts only its own ancient version of the Pentateuch as Scripture.

While Samaritanism is related to rabbinical Judaism, the two groups do not consider themselves the same. The Samaritans believe that they practice a pure form of Judaism that was observed during the pre-Babylonian captivity, whereas they see rabbinical Judaism as an amended religion, which was brought back from the Babylonian captivity.

The anonymous author of Acts might not have realized the religious differences and merely distinguished Simon Magus based on a geographical basis; although I find that hard to believe. More likely, s/he was attempting to divorce Simon from any association with rabbinical Judaism, and by later extension, with Christianity as well. We'll see why in a moment.

First let's look at Acts 8:9-8:24 (NRSV), where we're told:

9 Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10 All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11 And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12 But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.

14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16 (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! 21 You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” 24 Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”

It seems here that Simon repented of his greed and asked for the apostles' forgiveness and blessing. So why did the early Christians seek to slander Simon Magus's reputation?

Acts 8:9-8:11 gives the answer: Simon practiced magic and alluded to his own greatness, much as Jesus did. Nor was Simon Magus a charlatan, because according to the author of Acts, "All of them, from the least to the greatest," meaning the people of Samaria, "listened to him eagerly, saying, 'This man is the power of God that is called Great.' And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic."

Of course people often said the same things about Jesus. Therefore, in order to protect the sanctity of Jesus's miracles, a thorough attack had to be launched on Simon Magus's power in order to distinguish the two. This is where Kille's defamatory polemic comes into play. Remember: in order to validate one philosophy, it becomes imperative to show how the other failed in logic or was false. Without the ability to fall back on either the Christology or supersessionist polemics to explain the differences between the miracles worked by Jesus and Simon Magus, Christian detractors seized the defamatory polemic.

Thus began a gradual form of character assassination that started in Acts and continued through the centuries. One of the early church fathers, Justin Martyr, was one of the first to besmirch Simon's reputation, nor was he the last. Each tale about Simon Magus became more malignant in the telling. Christians seeking to differentiate Jesus's "good" magic versus Simon's "evil" conjurations spread rumors that Simon used "semen and menstrual blood in his incantations." (Davies 16) Of course, the sexual connotations of semen and menstrual blood were seen by early Christians as vile, especially in contrast to Jesus's application of his own saliva to the eyes and ears to cure the blind and deaf, which was holy and clean, because Jesus was God's son, or so the argument went. 

Sometime during the second century, Simon is said to have founded the Simonian Gnostics, a sect that was denounced by Orthodox Christians because the Simonian Gnostics were said to be "addicted to magic." At some point during the fourth and fifth centuries, Simon Magus's reputation grew from a magician engaging in dark spells and leading a Gnostic sect to becoming "the father of all heresies." Each tale grew wilder than the last until, by the medieval period, Davies is able to cite apocryphal accounts that claim Simon possessed "the demonic ability to fly, his conjuring up of vicious dogs to attack the apostle Simon Peter, and his ability to render himself invisible." (Davies 16)

On the other hand, great care was taken by the New Testament authors to guard Jesus's reputation so that he wouldn't be placed in the same category as a magician such as Simon. This was achieved by relying on Old Testament prophecies for the Messiah to cultivate the appropriate origin story for Jesus. By being cast as the promised Messiah and as a son of God, Jesus's sanctity was cited as the motivation for his miracles. Therefore, Jesus was always presented as humble and sought to help others while Simon Magus was spoken of in terms of derision due to his arrogance and base motivations. Jesus followed the dictates of rabbinical Judaism whereas Simon Magus was a Samaritan, and so on. 

So what does all of this have to do with grimoires?

Recall that Enoch, Moses, and Solomon were all known for the written forms of their occult knowledge. Because they authored numerous texts, it was equally valid to assume that they also wrote secret texts of more arcane knowledge. All three were recognized by both Christians and Jews as being wise, pious, and learned, with a heavy emphasis on pious.

This is in direct contrast with Simon Magus, who is portrayed as arrogant, evil, and vain. Given Simon Magus's medieval reputation, one would believe that a grimoire of his magic might have appeared sometime in the seventeenth century. However, the only magic book Davies found that can be linked to Simon Magus was the Book of Simon the Magician, a copy of which was owned by the German abbot Trihemius (1462-1516). Davies also located a reference to Simon Magus's magic in "a Hebrew manuscript entitled The Book of the Key of Solomon (Sepher Maphteah Shelomoh), which dates to no earlier than the late seventeenth or eighteenth century and was probably translated from Italian," and "contains a Satanic conjuration called 'The Operation of Simon Magus'." (Davies 17)

Compare these meager references with the proliferation of various books and texts attributed to Enoch, Moses, and Solomon--all of whom were seen as devout followers of God and the angels. For example, Enoch went up through the levels of Heaven and met the angels; God spoke directly to Moses; and Solomon was granted God's favor and a magic ring, which gave him dominion over the demons. The grimoires of these figures tend to exemplify the nature of good over evil through God's glory, along with wisdom regarding the spiritual world.

Remember also what I said at the beginning of this rather lengthy post, regarding the fact that The Testament of Solomon and The Key of Solomon might have been authored by Christians. Since, by the seventeenth century, Simon Magus had been dehumanized as the antithesis of Jesus--who was called a son of David, thereby linking him to Solomon through genealogical lines--any book by Simon Magus could "only be a work of evil, and therefore indefensible by those magicians who believed they were acknowledging the glory of God through their rituals and invocations." (Davies 17)

Likewise, while there are enough Christian references in both The Testament of Solomon and The Key of Solomon to raise doubts that either of the documents were ever originally Jewish, much less authored by Solomon, these grimoires did contain references to both rabbinical Judaism and Christianity. Given his Samaritan background, Simon Magus could not possibly have authored a text that fell into line with the rabbinical Jewish/Christian texts that the seventeenth century magicians utilized.

Was there really a grimoire written by Simon Magus? Probably not. Aside from the reference to Book of Simon the Magician there is very little evidence that seventeenth magicians relied on any grimoires by Simon Magus. Furthermore, there is even less evidence that Simon Magus actually authored any books whatsoever, so that any seventeenth century grimoires attributed to Magus were most likely the same as the grimoires attributed to Solomon--fabrications authored by sixteenth and seventeenth magicians that combined rabbinical Judaism with Christian beliefs to form the fabled grimoires of old.

This was a rather in-depth post and took me several hours to compile. I don't keep a Patreon page, but if you would like to compensate me for my time, you can buy me a coffee at the link below:

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Works Cited

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

Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: the battles for scripture and the faiths we never knew. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephus, Flavius (trans. William Whiston). The Works of Josephus: new updated edition. MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008.

Kille, D. Andrew. "Unconsciously Poisoning the Roots: Psychological Dynamics of the Bible in Jewish/Christian Conflict." Pastoral Psychology, 53, no. 4 (March 2005).

Metzger, Bruce M. and Murphy, Roland E., eds. The New Oxford annotated Bible with the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical Books. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

grimoires: a brief overview

The written word has always carried a certain power. Early attempts at spell casting include include written prayers and talismans designed to assist the bearer in everything from finding sexual fulfillment to warding off disease--two things that sometimes went hand-in-hand in the days before penicillin.

 From   clavis inferni  , 18th century

From clavis inferni, 18th century

With spells being somewhat complex, and the various number of gods/angels/demons and their numerous properties more so, many enterprising individuals sought to write down all of the pertinent information for future generations. Some of the earliest known forms of these writings go back to Mesopotamia, where the spells were inscribed in cuneiform on clay tablets. The ancient Egyptians also preserved their magical system, which was later influenced by the Macedonians when Alexander the Great invaded Egypt. Macedonian culture and magical beliefs merged with those of the Egyptians to form new belief systems.

During the third century BC, the Library of Alexandria began to flourish. The librarians--compulsive collectors of words that they are--in all likelihood preserved magical texts alongside what our twenty-first century minds would call more scientific texts.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before enterprising individuals began to compile all of these various incantations and spells into volumes. In order to give authenticity to the secretive nature of the proceedings, these volumes were sometimes encoded. The authors used multiple languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and cipher) to keep the grimoires out of the hands of the uninitiated. This added to the mystique of the forbidden texts.

Grimoires were usually a combination of astrology, common herb lore, and sympathetic magic, mashed together with with angelic and demonic hierarchies compiled from Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature and testaments such as The Book of Enoch, The Testament of Solomon, etc. Nor were all grimoires Judeo-Christian. The Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm was an Arabic book of astrology and magic, which was written in Al-Andalus and eventually became known as The Picatrix.

Grimoires regulated and outlined the proper spirit, day, and hour by which certain rites should be performed. Sigils and names were highly important to each ritual, which was to be given the same deliberation as any High Mass. Care was needed, because should the magician call forth a spirit that he or she could not control, then their soul was forfeit.

This esoteric knowledge was once considered sacred or profane, depending on your viewpoint and/or ties to the Church. Texts, such as the manuscript found and examined by Richard Kieckhefer in his book, Forbidden rites: a necromancer's manual of the fifteenth century, are still being discovered in libraries. Finding an intact manuscript can be rare, because during the early fourteenth century, the very possession of magical writings was illegal and might bring the owner under suspicion of witchcraft. Most of these texts, when found, were burned ... sometimes along with the owner if it could be proved that the individual used the texts to work magic. At the very least, mere possession of the manuscript could bring a prison sentence.

As I said earlier, there is power in the written word.

Nowadays, researchers and casual readers can find many of these texts online. Other web sites, such as Res Obscura, address specific texts in detail.

I must warn you, though, to be careful out there. Some things, once summoned, cannot be banished. However, just in case you're looking to explore more about grimoires and magical texts in general, you can check out some of these books:

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

Kieckhefer, Richard. Forbidden rites: a necromancer's manual of the fifteenth century. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Mollenauer, Lynn Wood. Strange revelations: magic, poison, and sacrilege in Louis XIV's France. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.

a [very brief] history of Slavic vampire lore

I promised to write a blog post on vampires and while this might not be the post everyone was expecting, it's the post that was written. The reason for this is two fold: 1) I simply didn't find a lot of evidence for the erotic nature of vampirism in folklore; and 2) I didn't want to talk about the vampire in popular literature or movies because, quite frankly, the material on these subjects is voluminous. Most of the imagery regarding the erotic vampire originated in nineteenth century Gothic literature.

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