Art of the Grimoire: An Illustrated History of Magic Books and Spells

Image of Art of the Grimoire: An Illustrated History of Magic Books and Spells
Release Date: 
October 10, 2023
Yale University Press
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“A magical book about magic books! . . . Davies' impeccable research, engaging prose, and profound insights make Art of the Grimoire a must-read.

Fear no devils, witches, spells, or spirits. Owen Davies, historian and scholar, has pressed them into over 247 beautifully colored pages, meticulously curated into an array of texts and images drawn from diverse corners of the globe. Essentially, grimoires are textbooks of magic and occult knowledge passed down through the ages. Much like conventional literature, the emergence of the printing press industry also left its mark on grimoires, influencing their production and distribution. As a result, the texts evolved over centuries, and although it would be highly unusual to find a book written in dove’s blood, or to consider a bestseller for its claims on how to increase sex appeal by “keeping the eyes of a cat in a green silk bag touching the skin of the left breast,” grimoires as a form of literature remain incredibly intriguing today.

Art of the Grimoire is magical book about magic books conjuring an array of texts and images, each a testament to the nuanced interplay of ink and paper, as well as the distinctive artistic techniques that have evolved across varied regions. For the curious layperson, Davies takes deliberate pauses at significant historical junctures—spanning from the Renaissance through the Age of Enlightenment, the tumultuous Industrial Revolution, and into the dynamic Modern and Contemporary eras. By connecting these enigmatic books to broader historical trends, Davies reveals how grimoires have often been both emblematic of and influential in cultural shifts.

While shuffling a tarot deck, watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or reading the Harry Potter series, one might not contemplate the origins of the horror and fantasy genres that now permeate popular culture. It’s astonishing that grimoires have endured despite generations of religious opposition to occult knowledge and its associated elements. Equally surprising is how religion itself borrowed from certain aspects of magic. Making such connections, one might question the difference between a spell and a prayer. Those with such questions will undoubtedly appreciate Davies’ research.

How did “old magic” persist? How did we get from Byzantine bronze amulets and Solomonic charms to, where you can type your intention into an online interface and spontaneously generate a magical symbol? In their various forms and functions, magicians, including holy men, healers, scholars, alchemists, and salesman, borrowed from each other and from any ethno-religious traditions that seemed relevant at the time. In the beginning, texts were copied by hand, meticulously hand bound, annotated, and adapted with new knowledge. Many of those texts included ritual instructions and practices that we now consider unhealthy, let alone illegal. However, we also can identify more acceptable intentions behind these rituals, including healing, love, protection, knowledge, and wealth. In some ways, the grimoires are not unlike the bestsellers we’d find in the self-help section today. 

Art of the Grimoire details the varied cultural manifestations and influence of grimoire on our belief systems, from Christian mysticism to folk magic traditions. This comprehensive approach offers readers a profound understanding of the impact of grimoires on diverse societies. Davies' impeccable research, engaging prose, and profound insights make Art of the Grimoire a must-read for students, scholars, enthusiasts, and anyone intrigued by the magical and mysterious.