I decided to write this post after overhearing a conversation between two young people debating which occult books to acquire. One was telling the other to simply go somewhere and download everything for free, which long-time readers know drives me up the wall. As I see things, if a person cannot afford to buy a book on ceremonial magic, there is very little chance that he can afford to use it. The counter-argument that usually appears is that there are so many things to read, and it would cost a fortune to actually pay for them. Yes, it can be expensive to build a library, but I would like to suggest an alternate strategy.
My alternative stems from my experiences in the booksellers of yore, with a choice between a commentary on Sartre and The Complete (sic) Book of Spells as the Metaphysics section of the store. I’d like to speak of three genuine grimoires and how I obtained them.
The first “real” occult book that I had ever seen was a few pages of faux parchment covered in scrawl. I had just performed a spell (“To Discover a Thief”) in the bathroom at my high school, and the thief walked into class to apologize and return my stolen lock. The boy in front of me noticed the strange behavior, and volunteered that he had a copy of something really unusual: a book of magic. Of course I asked to see it, and discovered what he called The Liturgy of Truth.
This was about twenty pages of material, written entirely in blood, with illustrations here and there depicting robed figures, birds, and esoteric designs that described a series of spells. Some were apparently safety charms, some divinatory, and some were pretty far-out on the credibility scale. I was enthralled, and arranged to meet the author after making a hasty and covert photocopy of the pages.
I found him to be an enigmatic figure in his later 20’s, living well in his own place, with a beautiful girl and a nice car. He had an enthusiasm for “Teutonic” legends and seemed to be making good use of whatever occultism he was practicing. I asked others about the guy, and though few knew him, several people had seen the little book or knew of it. One person, who had a copy of The Beast Speaks before DVD’s existed, said that he had heard the book contained a “nameless spell,” which it did. Such was the fame of the text that people who had never seen it had heard tell of its contents.
It was not until much later that I learned this book was actually a reproduction of a video game manual from Ultima 3: Exodus. This fellow had written it all out in blood, made some form of ceremonial pact whereby it would be his grimoire, and that was sufficient for him. He must have known it was a game accessory, but that was of secondary importance to the fact that he literally poured out his blood for the stuff; and that for others who were unaware of its provenance, it was more mysterious and attractive than anything Regardie ever penned.
The second book of magic I would like to describe is one well-known among occultists: The Red Dragon. On its own, this book is a series of rites resembling older forms of ceremonial magic, mixed with a dose of spellcraft and assorted bits of lore, some demonic sigils, crazy illustrations, and a few items whose plausibility make the Liturgy of Truth look tame. A particularly deranged person might be tempted to perform the ritual, but for most, this text is a curiosity representing not magic itself but ideas about magic which were in vogue just prior to Napoleon.
When I obtained my copy, I had been speaking to a practitioner of Native American medicine who I regard even today as a powerful magician. This person had given me a basic understanding of his tradition, which I did not favor on account of the tobacco usage, and had introduced me to his own personal spell-book. The majority of his spells were simple four-line charms, written in a very well-worn folio and using an alphabet that I did not recognize.
I saw the reverence with which he regarded this personal tome, drawn together from his own heart and from however many sources, and I was interested in this. For him, the book of magic was not something to be read, but it was instead a vital part of his magical practice, and could not be obtained or updated in the same way as other books.
After some time of knowing him, I was introduced to a man who wanted to make a pact with spirits, and I was selected on the basis of my knowledge of exorcism. He had a big leather-bound copy of the Red Dragon grimoire, and wanted help in deciphering the ritual. For my part, this amounted to reading the text and coming up with a rubric to define what needed doing when as part of the ritual for making a pact with Nebiros, whose power is oracular necromancy.
The rite went well for the guy, and to this day he operates a successful church whose members invoke “the spirit” for the sake of revelations which they assume come from saints and angels, but which instead come from the grand infernal necromancer. In return, I was given his copy of the book. I had never owned such a thing, an imposing trove of dark lore in French, with pictures of devils and treasure, a real black arts grimoire.
Oddly enough, despite the sinister packaging, the content of Dragon Rouge is founded from the first page upon some kind of holiness and the final send-off from the devil itself includes an admonition towards charity. For a book whose reputation could not be further into the infernal domains, this looked like a lot of God talk. In attempting to understand the context of this and similar works, I found Waite and some commentaries on grimoires and spirits, which were beginning to re-emerge in print.
There is a general rule in the South that the real magic is not to be found in books, and that the measure of a magician is not in academics. C.S. Lewis apparently felt the same:
“Peace.” Said the Witch. “I see what you are. You are a little, peddling Magician who works by rules and books. There is no real Magic in your blood and heart.”
That may be true, but there are books about magic and there are Magical Books. We have entered a time in which we finally have access to the remnants of what was once the lore known to a precious few. Books of spells and talismans which would have been the privilege of the elite are now available for free all over the internet. A person can read them, study them, collect and trade them, and grow no wiser for the effort.
Imagine that you are in the dark ages, or the 1980’s, when everywhere the rumor of occult practices catches your ear, and yet it remains almost invisible until you catch a glimpse of it in the form of a book: not some anthropology, no Time magazine tabletop book, but the real McCoy, a grimoire. That book might be written by a guy who could barely understand how to churn butter, but in that Dark Age it is a veritable gateway to the Abyss.
Hardly any book of magic can stand up to scrutiny, and the grimoires are perhaps the least stable of the books in that genre. If you look carefully, you will always find that a name has been mis-spelled, the operations a self-contradictory mess, are missing components, key phrases of the chants have been mistakenly transposed, or there is scarcely any context given for the work. The grimoires are not greatly enhanced by scholarship, but instead are often diminished by it.
Few grimoires are in such a unique position as the Lemegeton, and in particular the Goetia, in regard to its textual provenance. The book purports to be the work of King Solomon from three thousand years ago, and yet it is clearly rooted in several prototypical volumes. These books in turn have their own unmodified originals, and those also extract phrases and other components from yet older works. A person seeking the true original, or a perfect copy without mistakes and filler, will find all sorts of leads but the trail disappears eventually.
The result for the student is a pile of critical editions, and yet very little has been gained despite some updated spelling. Usually I hear people say that they wish to compile all the available related materials, and form their own system of practice. That is well and good, but it usually comes across as a person who wants to build a perfect automobile by combining junked parts of several types of cars. A purely academic approach does not permit the reader to really grasp the subject the way it was intended.
One example of the way in which this plays out in practice is the way in which the magician must adapt to contradictions between texts. The magician must face this way in one version and the opposite way in others, the spirit will only help you if you do X but in other versions you must not do X under any circumstances. Both versions cannot be correct, nor can the source text be considered that much more reliable, as it will also be suspect of the same conditions. For all that one has gained in reading and comparing the various sources, the idea of actually using them has become more complicated and the magician must always consider that he has done everything the wrong way.
Instead of amassing a library of critical editions, the alternative is to find a path or text which really inspires you. The mystical grimoire must practically demand to be opened and put to trial, or else it is just a book. Any sincere student of the occult will recognize that a fair percentage of the literature is crazy nonsense, and this has been the case since the oldest magic. At no point in study of the subject does it ever all click into place and make sense, nor will you ever arrive at some grand unified theory that suddenly translates into magical power. A person who wants to actually do the rituals has got to draw the line somewhere and start conjuring according to the best available options.
Unless a person wants to craft magic from pure imagination – a rare and wonderful sort of person – the pursuit of magic is typically derived from a Magic Book. This book should come wrapped in a shroud of awesome legend, and offer possibilities that go beyond all expectations of what one could do if given a chance. For me, that book was the Lemegeton. Aside from being a catalogue of spirits, it was a catalogue of powers and possibilities.
The spirits of the Goetia have undeniably more of a presence in the world than most other spirits of the grimoires and indeed many other deities, and I am convinced that at least the better portion of the spirit identities are intended to represent deities and other mythic beings. In so many different ways, the 72 spirits of the Brazen Vessel, specifically the infamous Crowley version, have entered the public awareness far more than the presentations of Weyer and Scot, or any of the precedent grimoires and their spirit hierarchies. I was drawn to the Lemegeton for its legendary status and not for its precision as a guide to the spirit world.
The sense of participating in something very interesting and awesome helps to keep me on track for how it is applied. I do not treat the grimoire as a cookbook, to show me the recipe for whatever my appetite requires. I regard the book and its magical system as a means of gaining access to the invisible world, the codes and etheric frameworks which make the world what it is. As something with potentially far-reaching effects, I must consider the Art to be worthy of higher purposes, and used with care.
I think that at some point a person must decide upon a book or a school of practice, or invent one, and then consider that as a personal form of magic. It makes sense to put a bit of thought and study into that choice of definition, but it is best to go ahead with it at some point and see where it leads, regardless of whether you have the details perfectly understood.