Bookshelves of an Old Library

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 Essential Enochian Grimoire.

I would like to talk about grimoires. Not a specific grimoire, like the Key of Solomon, or Heptameron, or Lemegeton. This isn’t even about their contents, or their history. No, what I want to talk about are the actual physical grimoires—those dangerous things made of paper and cardboard, with arcane scribbles of ink on their pages. Books that at various time and places (including to this very day) could get you arrested and worse. That pretty thing you might like to display prominently on your bookshelf, or perhaps hide away from prying eyes. Most of what we know about the medieval and Renaissance Solomonic tradition comes from those books, and they continue to be a treasure trove of new insights (and magical formulas) as more and more texts are discovered and translated into English (or other modern tongues). They are truly the heart and soul of the modern Solomonic movement, the foundation upon which the tradition ultimately rests.

But the modern movement has lost something that was paramount to the old-world Solomonic tradition: the grimoires themselves. And, once again, I’m talking about the actual physical read-y things that require manual page-flipping to fast-forward or rewind them. You see, in the medieval era, it was believed that a book containing magical spells, names and descriptions of spirits, seals, and characters was itself an object of magical power. There were even spells intended to empower and enliven your grimoire—as preserved in books like the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy and the Key of Solomon. However, common thought at the time was that such a ritual was not necessary for a grimoire to be possessed by the spirits listed within it, or even a living demon in its own right. There are medieval records of public burnings of occult books, where witnesses swore they heard the screams of the spirits issuing from the flames as the books were consumed.

It was no different in the view of the practitioner, either. For a medieval Solomonic mage, much of his or her power was seen as residing within their personal grimoire. Like the Wand, or the Sword, the Book was an active magical tool, wielded during one’s evocations or spellcasting as a living thing in its own right. Often, mere possession of the book was considered enough to work miracles. We’ve all heard the old tales of horrible things happening to those who have the wrong grimoire in their home, or foolishly go reading through it, viewing the talismans and characters, etc. Those tales originate from a time when hand-written grimoires were considered as living objects of power. However, the opposite was also once true, and the miraculous powers attributed to wizards were often credited to the books.

When we talk about the grimoires today, we tend to talk about the people who wrote them. We describe the Solomonic tradition as a highly intellectual pursuit, often engaged by clergy and intellectuals of the day. However, we (including myself, unfortunately) have tended to ignore that fact that, once written, the grimoires tended to spread out beyond the exclusive purview of intellectuals and the wealthy. There was an entire class of “street level” Solomonic conjurers. They were the folks who lived in your village (or maybe its outskirts) and could be hired for everything from curing warts to cursing your enemies. They were commoners, often the cunning-women and -men who were so often in danger of the Inquisitions, along with local midwifes and healers. (This is truly where Solomonic magick and medieval Witchcraft meet. Check out Gerald Gardner‘s High Magick’s Aide for a great fictional depiction of this.) However, they could also be roaming snake-oil salesmen, actors, “gypsies,” prestidigitators, prostitutes, and other social ne’er-do-wells.

For these folks, who were more often than not illiterate, having possession of the Book was everything. It was how they promoted themselves: “If you want real magick done for you, don’t bother with those pretenders! Come to me, I possess the Key of Solomon.” To be honest, in a great many cases, the claims to own a legitimate copy of such a book were fraudulent. (Even moreso were claims of owning the actual original editions.) And, as I stated, it was just as likely the person couldn’t read it anyway. However, that didn’t lessen its status as a magical weapon in its own right. Just having it in your hands, along with a little natural talent as a witch, was considered enough to increase your power.

Today this has been entirely lost. We may give a nod toward the power of the written word, and treat our grimoires as sacred texts of a sort, but the actual physical thing made of paper no longer holds us under sway. We order them from Amazon (or, if you love your author, you buy directly from the publisher!) and leave them lying around the house. As often as not, we are likely to type out the rituals we want to perform and print them out—carrying a stapled stack of papers into the ritual instead of the actual book. Sometimes we even just bring up what we need on our electronic devices and get on with it. It is rare indeed for a modern practitioner to even bother hand-copying their own grimoire, and even more rare for one to utilize one of the rituals intended to enliven their book.

Believe it or not, I’m not lamenting this. I don’t think it’s exactly a deficiency in the modern Solomonic movement. I think it is simply a sign of the times, a result of how easy it is to find copies of these books now. In the old days, a mage would spend a lifetime questing for chances to get a look into old grimoires, and when he did he wasted no time in copying every bit of it he could into his own personal book. (See The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet as a shinning example.) We simply don’t have to do that today, and so the mystique of the books—in and of themselves—has worn off to a great extent.

Still, I know there are some folks out there who like to hand-copy their own grimoires. And a few who even utilize the methods to enliven them as active magical tools. Personally, I believe one should have the grimoire you are utilizing—even a store-bought one—on the altar when you do your Work. I see no problem with printed-out rituals and I’ll admit I’ve grabbed my phone mid-ritual to look up something on EsotericArchives when its has been necessary. But I see the Book itself (whichever grimoire it happens to be) as a talisman of sorts, which should at least be present in the temple space. (Often along with my Bible and a copy of the Gnostic Gospels.)

It is not likely we are going to return to the way things were. The old books are certainly important, and I believe we should still regard them as sacred and powerful. However, we aren’t as astounded by books as folks were back when books were new and rare. We don’t have to spend years questing to find them, or have to hand-copy them before the originals slip through our fingers. You are no longer regarded as special just because you own a copy of the Key of Solomon.

Well… unless perhaps you really do own one of the originals penned by King Solomon himself! If you do, please contact me…

Our thanks to Aaron for his guest post! Visit Aaron Leitch’s author page for more information, including articles and his books.

Written by Anna
Anna is the Senior Consumer & Online Marketing Specialist, responsible for Llewellyn's New Worlds of Body, Mind & Spirit, the Llewellyn Journal, Llewellyn's monthly email newsletters, and more. In her free time, Anna enjoys reading an absurd number of books; doing crossword puzzles; watching ...