Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Aaron Leitch, author of several books, including Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires, The Angelical Language Volume I and Volume II, and his new Essential Enochian Grimoire.
There is a lot to be said for the mysterious and romantic nature of the old grimoires—such as the the Lemegeton, Key of Solomon, Abramelin, etc. Their pages are filled with ancient and powerful magickal formulae, the secrets of conjuring demons and calling down angels, and magickal talismans for every conceivable purpose. They represent a deep and complex occult tradition, drawing from the spirit lore, astrology, and alchemy of their day to address the problems of everyday life, politics, education, and even warfare.
But that’s not all they promise. Along with the expected spells for healing, love, protection in battle, and victory in court (things we can all use even today), you will discover the grimoires also promise you super powers. They claim that you’ll be able to fly, raise the dead, pass through locked doors, have spirits mine and coin gold for you, summon demonic armies, manifest lavish banquets, and a thousand other miracles that—in our modern world—are more associated with fantasy and Hollywood than with legitimate spiritual pursuits. Here are some examples:
- These are descriptions of talismans from the Key of Solomon:
- “The seventh and last pentacle of the Sun: If any be by chance imprisoned or detained in fetters of iron, at the presence of this pentacle, which should be engraved in Gold on the day and hour of the Sun, he will be immediately delivered and set at liberty.”
- “The fifth and last pentacle of Mercury: This commandeth the spirits of Mercury, and serveth to open doors in whatever way they may be closed, and nothing it may encounter can resist it.”
- “The sixth and last pentacle of the Moon.: This is wonderfully good, and serveth excellently to excite and cause heavy rains, if it be engraved upon a plate of silver; and if it be placed under water, as long as it remaineth there, there will he rain. It should be engraved, drawn, or written in the day and hour of the Moon.” [Key of Solomon the King]
- Here are descriptions of some of the magick word-squares from the Book of Abramelin:
- The Ninth Chapter: To transform animals into men, and men into animals; etc: To transform men into asses; into stags or deer; into elephants; into wild boars; into dogs; into wolves; or animals into stones.
- The Fifteenth Chapter: For the spirits to bring us anything we may wish to eat or to drink, and even all (kinds of food) that we can imagine: For them to bring us bread, meat, wine of all kinds, fish, and cheese.
- The Seventeenth Chapter: To fly in the air and travel any whither: In a black cloud; in a white cloud; in the form of an eagle; in the form of a crow (or raven); in the form of a vulture; in the form of a crane.
- The Twenty-Ninth Chapter: To cause armed men to appear: To cause an army to appear; armed men for one’s defense; to cause a siege to appear.
- The Thirtieth Chapter: To cause comedies, operas, and every kind of music and dances to appear: To cause all kinds of music to be heard; music and extravagant balls; for all kinds of instruments to be played; for comedies, farces and operas. [Book of Abramelin: Book III]
- And here are some of the powers of the spirits listed in the Lemegeton’s Goetia:
- The 18th spirit is called Bathin, […] he knoweth the virtue of herbs and precious stones, and can transport men suddenly from one Country into an other…
- The 23rd spirit is called Aim, […] he rideth on a viper, carrying a fire brand in his hand burning, wherewith he sets cities, castles and great places on fire…
- The 28th spirit in order as salomon bound them, is named Berith. […] he can turn all metals into gold…
- The 38th spirit is called Halphas […]; his office is to build up towers and to furnish them with ammunition and weapons, and to send men of war to places appointed…
- The 40th spirit is called Raum, […] his office is to steal treasures out of kings’ houses, and to carry it where he is commanded, and to destroy cities…
- The 42d spirit is Named Vepar […], his office is to guide the waters, and ships laden with armour thereon. He will at the will of the Exorcist cause the seas to be rough and stormy, and to appear full of ships…
Many students have run headlong into these fantastical descriptions, and have questioned what they reveal about the legitimacy of the texts. We don’t tend to scoff at spells that promise to heal a sickness or protect one during travel, but things like levitation, transmutation of metals into gold, and on-demand miracles are usually the purview of con-artists who use occultism as stage-dressing for their scams. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that students have questions about these promises of occult super powers in the grimoires.
Shamanism and Vision Questing
When we look into the beliefs and practices of primitive tribal shamans, we find many of the same powers that would later be included in the grimoires. The shaman was supposed to be able to fly in the air (either unaided or by riding a winged steed, flying reindeer, etc.), to manifest spiritual armies or banquets, to summon spirits to visible appearance, and much more.
However, when we look deeper into these supernatural experiences, we discover they were never intended to be taken literally. Richard Kieckhefer covers this in his Forbidden Rites, where he classifies these occult powers as “illusory”—or what I personally term “visionary” due to their relationship with shamanic vision questing. This is also discussed at length throughout Mercia Eliade’s Shamanism.
One of the primary jobs of the shaman was to leave his body and enter the spiritual realm for various reasons—such as to rescue the soul of a sick person from the underworld, or to fly into the heavens to petition the tribe’s patron deity for favors. These spiritual adventures didn’t happen in waking reality. The shaman would perform his rituals—often including the consumption of some form of hallucinogen—and then fall over as if dead. Any witnesses would see nothing more than that, but the shaman would later awaken with tales of his travels in the spirit realm.
A great number of such vision-quests took place in the underworld, and over time these visions became codified into “Books of the Dead,” such as the Egyptian Pert Em Heru (the Book of Coming Forth by Day). Here we find detailed descriptions of the journey the departed soul will take in the underworld, along with all the spells, weapons, and protective talismans he’ll need to make it safely to his spiritual resting place.
These practices also made it into the medieval grimoires. There you find spells to summon demonic armies, which date back to shamanic spells to summon armies of spirits specifically for protection from hostile entities while in the underworld. Likewise, we find spells to summon banquets and parties—populated entirely by spirit hosts and guests—that have links back to shamanic visits to the divine courts of their patron deities. There are spells in the grimoires to fly (sometimes unaided, sometimes on winged steeds), become invisible, transform into animals, and more—all of which have much more application to travels in the spirit realm than actions taken in the physical world.
But the authors of the grimoires did not include that information in their books. They wrote as if those powers were something one could achieve in the real world. It could simply be that they saw little reason to explain the distinction in their texts (as the information would have been a “given,” or at least something that should have been taught orally). But there is another, even more likely reason they wrote the way they did: Fakirism.
The term “Fakir” is borrowed from Arabic, where it originally indicated a specific sect of Sufi ascetics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fakir). They fed themselves by putting on street demonstrations of their supernatural powers—such as pushing knives or pins through their flesh, hanging from hooks, walking through fire or across hot coals, swallowing swords, eating fire, dismembering and restoring bodies (resurrection), walking on water, changing sticks into living serpents, etc. If you do a Google image search for “fakirism,” you will see plenty of pictures of these shows in action (https://www.google.com/search?safe=off&hl=en&site=imghp&tbm=isch&source=hp&biw=1280&bih=886&q=fakirism&oq=fakirism).
You will likely recognize most or all of these miracles as sleight-of-hand or stage illusions. Their techniques were studied and adopted by modern stage magicians and psychics alike, and the word has taken on the idiosyncratic meaning of “fake” (no pun intended) or “illusionist.” Today, at least here in the West, we tend to view these practices as fraudulent and divorced from true magick. It’s the kind of thing Houdini exposed the spiritualists for using during the early 1900s. James Randi continues to expose these practices to this day. And you can still see aspects of it in use during tent revivals, faith healing, spiritual cleansings, and other practices that tend to attract both frauds and the gullible upon which they prey.
But this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when such illusions were perfectly accepted and respectable aspects of the shamanic tradition. Even today, especially in non-Westernized cultures, they are still employed by shamans and healers. Real magick isn’t very exciting for a lay observer to watch. So, if a shaman wanted to win the confidence of his tribe—that is, if he wanted to inspire confidence in his magickal ability—he needed to put on a show. He needed to prove the vast extent of his mighty power to heal or harm, and prove that he was more capable than the shaman down the road, if he wanted to continue to work.
Have you ever met a conjuror from another country—often somewhere from Africa, South America, or the Caribbean—and immediately encountered a personality conflict? The person in question will often make ridiculous claims to super powers and hidden occult knowledge, and will disparage all Western magick and anything learned from or recorded in a book. His magick is bigger and badder than yours—the real thing (unlike your silly practices)—and he by God wants you and everyone else to know it. Oh and, yes, he is for hire. (I even wrote a blog rant on this very subject.)
We Westerners often walk away from such encounters feeling that person is a bombastic and arrogant fraud. And maybe he is. But we often fail to realize that attitude is actually common in non-Westernized cultures, even among real healers and witch doctors. Just like the ancient shaman, they need magickal “street cred”—and the attitude to match—to stay in business.
Now, we can take all of this into account and apply it to what we see in the grimoires. Like the Sufi Fakirs, they claim to provide spells for raising the dead; to make you impervious to injury by water, fire, or weapons; have spirits seek and mine gold for you; teleport you to distant locations; allow you to walk on water; to gain superhuman strength; to read and/or control the minds of others; and a myriad further occult super powers.
Any medieval wizard seeking to sell his services to laypeople would necessarily have to possess the same kind of magickal “street-cred” I mentioned above. His magick book—the source of his power—needed to include such fantastical spells, and he needed to insist he had either seen them accomplished or done them himself.
And while I’ve never encountered a fully developed tradition of fakirism among the medieval Solomonic wizards, I have seen records of them making some good use of lights, sounds, and even hallucinogenic substances to “put on a show” for observers. In one such story, the officiating mage offered everyone present a horrible-tasting drink before the ritual. Everyone but the author of the story accepted the drink—and everyone but the author went on to see and hear the summoned spirits during the ritual.
Even John Dee seems to have engaged in some necessary fraud—quite possibly writing “predictions” from the angels into his journals after the events had already taken place, and in one case using misdirection to convince a room full of observers that he had destroyed all of his angelic books, only for them to magically “restore” themselves later on. e and Edward Kelley may have also engaged in some sleight-of-hand in Prague to convince Emperor Rudolph they could transmute lead into gold.
So the grimoires would appear to be the culmination of (or have borrowed from) many ancient traditions—with real magick mixed liberally with fantastical claims. The existence of some fakirism in their pages does not indicate fraud as we Westerners would know it. A shaman or magician who makes use of illusions as part of his magick is engaging in a practice that was (and remains) necessary within a culture that accepts magick as real. We modern Western magicians take our purely magickal practices for granted—but those outside of our circles would find what we do boring and uninspiring. And, as a consequence, laypeople do not seek our services nearly to the same extent as they do Santeros, Houngans, and folk conjurors.
Before I sign off, I do want to make it clear that none of this is intended to write off every fantastical magickal operation as merely vision-questing or fakirism. Any occultist with enough experience can tell you that literally anything is possible. (I’ve personally seen things that defy scientific explanation.) Plus, you should always summon the appropriate spirit and ask about what it can do for you before you make a judgment. Maybe it will tell you the spell is metaphorical—such as “summoning an army” resulting in the arrival of police, or “teleportation” simply meaning to make a trip quickly and safely, or “invisibility” merely meaning to go unnoticed. Or, perhaps, the spirit will tell you it really can make you stronger, faster, and nearly impossible to kill. You don’t know until you try it for yourself.
But even with that being said, it’s very unlikely you’re ever going to see an Abramelin adept flying through your city and casting thunderbolts from his fingertips like Dr. Strange. And, of course, the mere existence of spells to raise the dead or fly through the clouds do not automatically devalue the grimoires. They are simply hold-overs from a different time, when there were different requirements for wizards.
Our thanks to Aaron for his guest post! Visit Aaron Leitch’s author page for more information, including articles and his books.