Friday, May 11, 2012

A History of Grimoires Through the Ages

The history of grimoires is as long and tumultuous as human interest in magic has been. From early Mesopotamia through the witch hunts of Europe during the Early Modern period to the present day, the occult has both fascinated and repelled. Grimoires are fascinating because they reflect that interest as well as document the ebb and flow of trends and belief in the occult.
The word grimoire comes from the Old French word "grimmaire," meaning a book that was written in Latin. Over time the meaning has evolved into what we think of today: a book about magic, much like a textbook, that contains information about charms, spells, how to summon magical entities such as angels or demons, as well as how to make magical objects. Many of these books were thought to have magical properties themselves.
Interestingly enough, even though the word is European, the first known grimoire was written in the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia, sometime during the 5th century B.C.E. The ancient Egyptians of the same period also had a rich system of incantations, called heka, that focused on charms that provided protection and good health. This slowly changed as time passed, and by the time the Library of Alexandria opened, grimoires contained charms focusing on finances and sexual fulfillment.
Many other ancient peoples had occult traditions as well. The Jewish people were viewed as knowledgeable in the magical arts; many Biblical figures also had ties to the occult. Moses was purportedly able to subdue demons, while the Book of Enoch had a section devoted to astrology. King Solomon was also seen as a magical figure. However, these beliefs began to be suppressed after the Roman Empire became wholly Christian.
This trend of suppression continued into the Medieval period. By this time, the Church had separated magic into "good" or "natural" magic, and "demonic" magic, which was deemed unacceptable. However, interest continued and grimoires reflecting current influences continued to be written. During this time, Moorish influences increased in the form of astral magic. Famous works include Arabic books such as the Picatrix and Sefer Raziel Ha-Malakh, as well as grimoires based on Biblical figures such as the Sworn Book of Honorius, based on King Solomon.
Early Modern Europe was not a friendly place for magicians. Though the advent of the printing press meant books of magic were more widespread, and there was renewed interest in Hermeticism and the Jewish mystical teachings of the Kabbalah, there were many events that would make Europe a dangerous place to be. The Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and the Inquisition, and the witch hunts that followed, were devastating. Many grimoires were placed on the "Indexes of Prohibited Books" and some were destroyed outright. Despite this, magicians continued to write. Paracelsus, a Swiss magician, focused on the differences between good and evil magic in his work "Of the Supreme Mysteries of Nature," while others produced demonological grimoires such as "The Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy."
European anti-magic zeal died down as the world entered the age of Enlightenment. Rationalists and scientists still strongly opposed magic and witchcraft, yet grimoires were widely available. Many of the works of this period, such as the "Libra de San Cipriano" focused on discovering treasure; others focused on astrology.
During the last century, there have been only a few books of magic produced. The Book of Shadows, the Wiccan Grimoire, was written by Gerald Gardner in the 1940s; another well known work is the "Simon Necronomicon," which is based on a fictional grimoire found in H.P. Lovecraft's books. Enough people are interested in the Lovecraft's Necronomicon that it is a popular request at libraries - unfortunately, the actual book doesn't exist. These days, most grimoires exist only as references in video games, fantasy books, or television shows.
Although these books of magic may not be written much anymore, interest in the occult will never die. If nothing else, the long history of grimoires should tell us that much.
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