The loss of an empire, leading to smaller self sufficient nations in competition or cooperation with each other, can affect every aspect of daily life, leaves a scar on architecture. The Pyramids were a marvel to the Caliph, who could imagine building nothing of the sort in his own era. The intricate workmanship standard at the court of the Tsars is rarely even attempted today. The Holy Roman Empire could only hope to achieve the engineering feats of the actual Roman Empire. Of all things lost, one of the first to go is usually the volumes of accumulated knowledge, especially those things which are held in reserve for an elect few.
It is after such events that the bulk of the lore of magic comes to us in the present day. What we now possess as the literature and material legacy of magic record fragments of ideas which have been taken from the more productive eras, jostled together, and many of them have become badly damaged. The entire subject of magic, while giving wings to the imagination, is a minefield for the intellect.
There is no grand editor of the essential library of magical lore, nor any standard interpretation. The idea of magic exceeds books and artifacts, and is also a matter of living discourse, making any sort of comprehensive study difficult to undertake.
There are a variety of ways to look at the subject. Rather than select the best one, I would prefer to illustrate a few of the stronger positions and allow the reader to examine their strengths and weaknesses. I shall refer to these as the Four Empires of Solomonic Demonology. The first is the Christian interpretation, the second is the Pagan interpretation, the third is Muslim, and the last is Judaic.
1. Chock Full o’ Demons
Imagine that you are, at this moment, required to produce an essay on world religion. You must convey the entire scope of human belief in one small book with just enough space to give several dozen deities a paragraph of text. Unless you have some background in mythology, you might have a difficult time completing the assignment from memory. Without a library or personal reference, it would be a daunting task for someone unaccustomed to tales of the ancient world, and the result would be highly flawed. This is the situation common to the construction and development of grimoire literature.
The world in those dark ages was unfortunately ignorant in so many obvious ways, and literacy was not nearly as common as it is today. Books were scarce and hand-made by specialists, and the trade was overwhelmingly dominated by the Catholic Church. In several periods, there were efforts to establish a non-canonical production of books whose scope exceeded the collection of Scripture. These projects were vigorously opposed by the Church in its mission to maintain total supremacy in all abstract ideas.
From those brief interludes when books other than the Bible were in vogue, there developed periods of upheaval or revolt. People like Charlemagne campaign for the dawn of a new age, a revelation that there is something worth learning beyond the Gospel. There were several other revolts against the Church and its insistence on holding the absolute truth, and all the while, Muslims and Jews carried on with the pursuit of knowledge regardless of the opinion from Rome.
It can be disconcerting, to say the least, to understand that the authorities who are in power over you, and almost all of your fellows, are absolutely wrong or crazy. You might observe barbaric warfare, holy warfare which is even more barbaric, or people doing all the bizarre things that go along with religion, with explanations for the questions of morality attributed to talking snakes and flaming chariots. As an educated person in the medieval world who gradually awakens from the mass delusion which took the place of natural philosophy in those days, it would be a nightmare to realize how atrociously wrong and cruel your world has become.
The literature which would lead people to question the Church authority was suppressed, and so those rare glimpses of a world beyond the Vatican doctrines were, for the average person, obscure and arcane. They might have been associated with insanity and rejection of Church teachings. They expanded awareness of the reader outside the confines of the limited Catholic dogma, with no clear guidance on the manner of judging which spoke of truth and which spoke fables.
The viewpoint of the Medieval Church, antiquated as it may now appear, was in its own day the standard by which all other forms of thought and learning were to be judged. There may have been significant portions of the population who disagreed with the Church on important matters, but they left precious few books of their criticisms, owing to time and suppression. In those days, it was not considered proper to present the gods of ancient cultures as credible, but rather to portray them as the product of superstitious beliefs.
Any reference made to those gods, or the hordes of spirits relegated to mythology rather than theology, would not be tolerated by the Church. Writings which made mention of these and other characters, effectively rendered as devils since at least the days when St. Benedict destroyed the shrine of Apollo and was said to have been followed by the wrathful deity in the form of a malignant black dwarf. The very small department of literature from those days which proposed to deal directly with spiritual powers other than those sanctioned by the Church developed in secret, and it was embellished both by the fantastic indulgences of the authors and also by their relative ignorance of the world.
The Christian magician attempts to access the spirit world at all costs, even at the peril of his body and soul, for the sake of communion beyond that allotted to mortal men. In this effort he must rely on the Old Faith which existed before the codification of ritual by the Church, and inspired also by ideas which were dismissed by the Church or not considered canon. This form of ceremonial magic appears throughout the Christian world, always in some respect a pantomime of the standards Christian rituals and doctrines, but with reference to esoteric elements drawn from obscure apocrypha and local pre-Christian traditions.
A magician who operates within the context of the Christian religion must understand that he does so at the expense of credibility among adherents to mainstream Christian denominations.
2. The Magick of the Beast
In the late 1800’s, three men among the lower rungs of nobility formed a famous society of pseudo-Freemasonry which permitted women and which professed to teach ceremonial magic. The literature of the group, and much of what is known of its activity, comes to us from the figure of a man named Samuel Mathers, who used his position and his covert sect to foment the outbreak of the First World War. The other members of the sect were, by and large, against this, especially those who felt that their leader was treacherous and engaged in treason. The ousted leader discharged to them his own vassal, a Mr. Aleister Crowley, who by that time had also arrived at the conclusion that the leader had done everyone a foul deed. In retaliation, Crowley decided to publish a paper acquired from Mathers, with a symbol and invocation in Greek on the front page, cursing his former mentor with torment in the name of the god of plagues and evil wind. Mathers died of the Spanish Flu, which was ironically developed for the war he helped to begin.
The result for the general public was a spectacle such as had not occurred in centuries, a mixture of high-impact world events and legends of black magic ceremonies and a grand heresiarch. Lurid photos decorated worthless tabloids describing tales of sexual torture and other things barely fit to print in those days but hum-drum for the modern reader. Very few people took the time to read anything by the Great Beast, but they kept his reputation alive so that his works would be preserved on behalf of those few who do care to actually read them. As it is one of his less dense and philosophical volumes, and geared especially toward those interested in the dark art of demon summoning, The Goetia remains an all-time hit with the occult studies crowd.
Three things make this book so beloved by so many. First, it is illustrated by Louis Breton’s engravings for DePlancy’s Dictionairre Infernal and in some editions with Crowley’s own sketches. Second, it has several features to assist a student, with attempts at organizing a work which is not so well-defined in manuscript form. For better or worse, the list of demons is divided and aligned to astrological tables, making them easier to commit to memory. Finally, it includes an essay which attempts to rationalize the spirits as powers of the human consciousness.
This doctrine, mingled with others surrounding the rise of Thelema and the New Age, has resulted in an overall reinterpretation of the work by most modern authors. The subject of demon summoning is instead re-cast as self-mastery and an exercise in achieving unusual states of consciousness. In order to facilitate changes in consciousness, this approach often appears in conjunction with techniques designed to alter perceptive acuity, such as hypnosis, drugs, and a variety of physically intensive activities.
A very large amount of focus is given in the literature of Thelema to the concept of Will as the source of an individual identity, representing both power and purpose. It is difficult to reconcile, within the religious mandate to spread freedom, that a person like Crowley would so resolutely endorse the impetuous tone of the original conjurations as an exemplary form of interaction with spirits. Rather than giving the spirits a relaxed and welcome treatment, however, the Thelemic doctrine prescribes that the magician must employ the Magic Sword which is symbolic of the Intellect to defend himself from the malicious spirits. They must be put to the test, and their every operation scrutinized, so that the magician is not harmed, cheated, or misled by the spirits but rather that they serve as instruments of the individual Will.
3. The Genie Masters
The Arabic tradition, spread from Morocco to Pakistan even in the old days, had its own tradition regarding commerce with spirits. The Muslim scholars had their own detailed spiritual hierarchies which were every bit as complicated and confusing as anything produced by the Catholics. The Arabs, Christians, and the Jews could all agree that King Solomon had once held traffic with the gods of the infidel; but only the Muslims consider Solomon to be exonerated from the sin of idolatry.
Perhaps as a result, the Muslim world is full of tales of Solomon, magic rings and carpets, brass vessels in which spirits are imprisoned, and other topics deemed unsuitable for Christians.
The Muslims were also doing wonderful things at that time with mathematics, engineering, music, and other fruitful endeavors. They were a fierce competition for Christian Europe, and as with all things Jewish, Muslims and their literature stayed long on the ban list. While it is possible to view the subject of ceremonial magic as a remnant of pre-Christian Europe, it can also be viewed as a relic of Islam during the time of the Caliphs, who sent emissaries across the world in search of knowledge.
In the modern age, the idea of magic is more connected to displays of power than to any sort of philosophy. The public demands special effects, or at least charms and hexes. Aside from the miraculous tales of great saints and masters, the subject of magic has been the pursuit of top minds for thousands of years, back to the days of the ziggurats or even before then. In Persia, some eight thousand years ago, the idea of what magic meant was much different than the meaning it has today.
Civilization was not at that time built upon older civilization. There were few historical models for things like government, logistics, military campaigning, and legislature. It was not easy to decide who was right or what course of action would be best for the nation. They turned to the more intelligent people for aid. Some of the more intelligent among them decided that if they were ever going to develop a functional society, they had best begin by knowing who they are as a people and where they stand in the universe, and proposed to do that by observing nature and keeping track of things.
It worked out well enough, and the results include things like arithmetic, architecture, and agriculture. That last one also gave them something to fight about, and so the entire state religion took on warlike overtones. Life was depicted as a conflict of opposing teams, and people would congratulate themselves for being on the winning side in a colossal battle of good and evil that gave context to humanity. The people who worked professionally for this new set of ideas, who incorporated them into things like architectural planning and government, were dedicated not only to the making of marvels but to the improvement of life in general. The Greek writers who lived in the royal palace at Persepolis and got to interact with these people on a daily basis called them Magi, from whence we obtain the word magic.
By the time the Caliphs had come, the religion of the Magi was all but dead, but the reference to mysterious and powerful societies of cunning priests in the Orient was extremely interesting to the Medieval scholars, who knew of Magi only from the Nativity story. In those faraway lands, the Muslims were working on all sorts of wonderful concoctions and doing great deeds, fortified by the lessons given them in the books of forbidden lore. There was an insatiable thirst among those who were not bound by canon law to seek out these fabulous tomes, and draw from them something fresh and useful.
If we consider that the classical grimoires of the 16th and 17th Centuries were rooted in documents penned from the time of Charlemagne, the basic format of spirit conjuration in Solomonic magic is contemporary with the formation and rise of Islam. No greater power has historically opposed the Catholic Church than Islam, which was born at the same time as Christianity unified into a centralized power with its own continent.
The Islamic concept of Solomonic demonology is simply that the spirit can be commanded to do what is righteous, and that it can attempt to trick or trap the unwary magician into making foolish mistakes. The magician is himself liable for the moral justice of what he compels the spirit to accomplish, and the spirit is forced to obey out of reverence for the names of God.
4. King Solomon
There is not a shred of proof that most of the top people in the Bible, like King David and Jesus, ever existed. It is beyond doubt that people of the ancient world held their beliefs in the historical veracity of Hercules and other figures out of the same type of respect. There is more proof for Bigfoot.
Today in Tanzania, the gemstone miners consider their work to be part of the legacy of King Solomon, as though they searched for the treasures of the lost empire. It is in this sense that the literature of magic is attributed to Solomon the Wise, illuminating and righteous, invested with divine authority. The figure of Solomon in legend is a stark contrast to the fiercely nationalistic warlords competing with each other for territory. His character is a symbol of a global society that includes all of its people and creatures, varieties of customs, and advanced learning.
The Biblical figure of Solomon is a man who receives from God the right to rule the nation of Israel. Rather than fight its enemies, he welcomed them to coordinate activity that would benefit everyone, and it was acceptable to all. He became a true Prince of Peace, and the boy king is said to have ruled 47 years. Like his ancestors, he received a special blessing, in that he would have authority over all aspects of the temporal world, both seen and unseen. In his legend is found a love of knowledge and discovery.
The Bible is simply not the sole authority on the history of humankind. It is, however, a foundation for the practice of ceremonial conjuration in the medieval literature of magic. It is not the only source. In addition to the Bible and the apocryphal works which carry the same thematic elements, the literature of magic incorporates ideas from all over the world, and is explicitly understood to be universal in scope. The detailed hierarchies of spirits and names used in Solomonic literature intend to convey an understanding of the role and relative position of people within a universe ruled by God and populated by various spirits.
A key point of the story of Solomon and the Brazen Vessel, into which the wicked spirits were sealed, is that the vessel was never properly opened. According to the tale, the Babylonians who recovered the vessel had imposed upon a captive Jew to provide information about the supposed treasure it contained. The captive was supplied the requisite answer by spirits, an element of the story which suggests that the spirits are never fully at the mercy of their conjuror. The story illustrates the idea that the tradition of Solomon is inherently broken, flawed, and must be assembled with a margin of error, but where those errors exist is not explicit.
Just as Solomon attempts to coordinate government over the temporal world by negotiating peace among hostile and impetuous rulers, the magician in the tradition of Solomon attempts to subdue the vanity of the spiritual dignitaries who compete for control of the human race and interact with them to arrange for a better world. It is often remarked that there are many lecherous and dastardly applications of the powers attributed to the spirits of the grimoires, but such things are also party to major events and many are not at all suited to personal matters.
According to the Biblical story, Solomon inherited a troubled kingdom and a world prepared to go to war. He might not have been able to destroy all the surrounding nations, putting their people and their entire religion and culture to the sword, but he could most assuredly destroy any particular one. Rather than perpetuate conflict, he found a truce among the nations, and established himself as the hub of a vast military and commercial network. King Solomon demanded, and received, impressive revenue of gifts, services, and tributes from the entire known world. A magician operating within this tradition issues a kind of subpoena to the spirits, who are then constrained to make obligatory service, provide an answer, or otherwise make a tribute due the one who had called it to appear.