Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Three Kinds of Magician’s Books


 Here’s another example of me typing up a common discussion for the archives. Hope everyone is enjoying the turning of the secular year, and had a gladsome solstice season.

Readers here will know that I’m fetished for magical books. Stand back, oh ghosts of Caesar’s Druids, who turned nose-up at sacred writing. I’m using the tech I have to preserve the lore I need, and for me that has meant creating various handwritten books of my own collected and constructed magic. As I’ve said, that phase may be over now, as I font-whore my way through creating self-designed printed personal books with a keyboard.
A pile of typeset
personal spellbooks.
There is a trend in modern magic to discard those portions of the old methods that may seem outdated or unpleasant. I’m a moderate traditionalist in such matters, but one thing I recommend to any serious student of magic is the keeping of a personal, preferably handwritten, spellbook. The intimacy of the tool, the body-reality of the writing, and the undeniable symbolic link of pen and flat-stuff that leads back through ancient magic all recommend it. The introduction of literacy produced such amazing new powers in humans that letters and written or drawn symbols have remained central to the practice of magic ever since.

This tradition does actually seem to continue in modern popular occultism. The symbol of the Book of Magic is so powerful in our culture – as central as the broomstick witch or the thrown fireball – and is something that can be achieved by any diligent student. I encourage students to copy out any ritual they intend to work, painful as that may be when one has a well-contructed modern ritual book.

Just to say so, I do consider typing something in to be the rough equivalent, though typing will never have the neuro-somatic component of handwriting. The ability to doll-up a page with graphics using modern type methods is hard to argue with. Composing an evocative page of type seems a reasonable wizard’s skill in our day.

There are several terms floating around occult-land for this custom. Most commonly one hears of Books of Shadows, or grimoires. The terms are used loosely, and can cause confusion. As usual, I’ll try to parse some of these terms. First let me paraphrase a famous quote and say that there are books about magic, and books of magic. Books of magic are those which are the tools of magicians, rather than the tools of scholars. There is some crossover, but note that no custom of handwriting bits of Levi or even Crowley has really happened. Books of magic are tools of magical work. My basic analysis divides traditional books of magic into three types: The Book of Secrets, the Grimoire, and the Book of Shadows. All three of these are commonly kept and transmitted in handwritten form – certainly so until the modern wave of type.

• The Book of Secrets: This is the most common type of handwritten magician’s book. Once literacy reached most households it became common for the literate person (often the housewife) to keep personal books containing everything from kitchen, brewing and distilling ways to healing charms, charms for recovering lost objects, and occasionally more occult material. These were called Recipe Books (recipe is spelled ‘receipt’ until the 20thc. or so) and, more evocatively, Black Books, the latter especially in Scandinavia. 

To be a magician of any note almost certainly meant literacy. The magician’s Book of Secrets is a general
Pages from a Magician's
Book of Secrets
repository of collected occult lore. The examples we have are filing-cabinets without the organization – ‘experiments’ in magic designed and tried, occasional bits of theory or aphorisms copied out, and the copying out of whole ‘books’ of magic circulating at the time. (Think of those ‘books’ as the lengths of biblical ‘books’ – chapters.)


This is probably the most common kind of personal spellbook among solitary students today. I have two or three from my earlier days, filled with everything from veves to Taoist magical diagrams that I don’t understand to this day. Nevertheless I collected them, and have them. A handwritten book never becomes unsupported.

• The Grimoire:  ‘Grimoire’ is from the French for ‘grammar’. A grimoire is a grammar – a schoolboy text of magic, intended to allow a student to bypass years of personal collecting and go straight for magic that works. The tradition of magical books picks up steam in Europe as literacy begins to extend beyond the church, say in the 1400s and onward. While there are a very few organized instruction manuals from before
Grimoires were the first
popularly-published books of magic
that, almost all are later. A grimoire is walk-through training manual, from personal preparation through the construction of tools and temple, to the summoning of the key spirits of whatever system is presented. Many grimoires contained chapters of the ‘book of secrets’ sort, following the basic instruction. In the more integrated grimoires these spells and methods call on the spirits revealed in the instructions.

We are in a period of new grimoire construction. Those who have spent the last decades collecting and experimenting are putting out their synthesized instructions. That bodes well for the future of magic.

• The Book of Shadows: This term was created by Gerald Gardner to name the book of practices of his witch-cult. His original Book of Shadows – the first to be named as such – contained the laws and rules of his sect, methods for making and consecrating the tools of ritual, a group-meeting ritual that included both festive games and the chance for operative magic, and invocations and lore for the eight-fold annual round of witches’ Sabbaths. It also contained some organized instruction in various forms of practical magic. This
One of the more popular modern
compromises is the magical three-ring binder...
book was (and is, to my knowledge) required to be hand-copied by each student. As I understand the actual cult-book of the Gardnerian lineages has evolved over the years, but of that I know no details.

So a ‘Book of Shadows’ is the grimoire, if you will, of a specific cult of witchcraft or Pagan sorcery. Now, some students go right ahead and produce one for themselves – that’s a fine experiment, though it takes a year to work one’s way through the exercises. Often this lore is just part of a Book of Secrets – at least until someone goes to the trouble to reorganize and edit it into a more usable form.

As a couple of end notes let me begin with the notion of ‘talismanic books’. Traditionally, any of these books of collected or synthesized magic were themselves viewed as powerful objects, by virtue of the many words and symbols of power contained in them. At the most specific, we find the ‘Liber Spiritum’, which contains both the rites for summoning spirits, and the pages of their ‘signatures’ and the ‘pacts’ made by the mage. This is the full extension of the book as operative magical tool.  This notion was supported by the churches, which treated magical books as portals of demonic power, occasionally burning them with their owners. Later the Protestants applied the same superstition to Catholic prayer-books and other examples of ‘idolatry’.


However some grimoires recommend formally consecrating book, pen and ink for the personal copying of rituals and to house the signs and details of the magician’s ally spirits. The personal working book of a magician is a consecrated tool. That is rather different from the modern fashion for talismanic books. In that case the writer/publisher undertakes to formally consecrate each copy of a book to some spiritual power or purpose connected with the book’s subject. This is a new occult venture, and an interesting one. Let’s watch…

Finally let me mention a category of handwritten book that I exclude from any of the above – the personal journal. One cannot say that ‘journaling’ is simply not a part of the magical tradition; more specifically, the keeping of journals is quite separate from the preparation of a book as a tool of magical performance or teaching. I seem to recall that it was with Starhawk and the rise of therapeutic spirituality that journaling became part of what Neopagans now often call a Book of Shadows. Some degree of personal observation and record of events is common in household Books of Secrets, but traditional magicians commonly separated their personal journals, even their records of experiments, from their ritual and lore text collections. I recommend the same to modern students. Keep your personal processing separate from your collection of magic.

I hope these categories help make thinking about magical texts a little clearer. Again, I recommend the keeping of handwritten (or, sigh, handtyped) personal books as a valuable part of a magician’s training.

2 comments:

Scryanne Brown said...

As a HPS in the Gardnerian trad, I just wanted to validate your assumption on Gardnerian BOS, using your definitions it is both a book of secrets and a Grimoire.

andrewbwatt.com said...

I love the handwritten spell book, and I agree with the body-knowledge that builds up. I think it was Gordon White's Rune Soup that first pointed out to me that there's a very frail, porous grid of lines between books of magic, books of medicine, books of mathematics, books of religion and books of divination or of astronomy, Accordingly, I am working on a book of geometry, a book of astronomy, a book of beasts, a book of medicine, and a book of spirits as both scribe and magician. But truth be told, they're really all much the same thing. Geometrical play keeps my mind active, medicine and cooking keeps my body active, astronomy awakens my wonder of the world, and spirits awaken my sense of poetry and mystery. And the books themselves awaken these powers in others.