Review – The Conjuror’s Toolkit 1400-1800

Publications in the field of grimoires don’t come out too often, so when new ones appear, they are always worthy of note.  The most recent that has come to my attention is Travis Shores’ masters thesis, The Conjuror’s Toolkit 1400-1800: Ciphers, Images, and Magical Cultures of Power Within the Solomonic Grimoires, available on

The concept behind this thesis is actually an excellent one:  an examination of the internal elements of various grimoires to establish correlations and possible origins of the tradition.  I think this is an element many people have been seeking, and one that is certainly worth pursuing.  To do so, Shores examines eight separate manuscripts or facsimiles, along with works by Dee, Mathers, Crowley, and Dehn and Joe Peterson’s site, to identify elements in common among them.  Overall, this is a good project in outline, although the manuscripts do seem to cluster specifically in the Clavicula Salomonis (“Key of Solomon”) sub-genre.

This perhaps illustrates the primary difficulty with The Conjuror’s Toolkit.  Working with a limited range of material is not necessarily wrong; in fact, if you’re just writing a masters’ thesis, keeping the scope confined is an excellent strategy.  I think it might have been better to keep the examination strictly to the Claviculae, but it’s not that bad.  The problem is that the evidence gathered does not justify the conclusions reached.

If this work can be said to have a central thesis, it is that Agrippa’s classic work De occulta philosophia liber tres (English translation at Peterson’s site), first published in 1533, is the key source for much of the grimoire tradition.  The key items cited here are both the Malachim script and the characters of the planets from Agrippa, which do appear in later grimoire materials.

It is safe to say that Agrippa’s influence runs through much of the material in the later grimoire tradition, whether by explicit mentions or citations of him, or references to his work.  It is far too much, however, to cite him as the fountainhead based on the two items above.  Further, although I have not examined the grimoires comprehensively, the later magical circles available to me do not often contain Malachim characters, which makes the link more tenuous.

Even on smaller matters, the overreach continues.  For example, at one point Shores claimed that scholars have not explored Agrippa’s sources for his Three Books much beyond the works of the abbot Trithemius.  This is certainly not the case; Lynn Thorndike made a case (probably unjust) for the derivative nature of Agrippa’s work in A History of Magic and Experimental Science.  In fact, the Brill edition of Agrippa’s work includes detailed annotations as to the sources for Agrippa, down to particular passages.  Neither the Malachim script nor the planetary seals have sources noted therein, so it does not diminish the piece’s central thesis.  Nonetheless, it is another unsupported assertion.

For the sake of those who might encounter this work, I thought I should let readers know to proceed with caution.  As for Mr. Shores himself, he nonetheless demonstrates a deep passion for, and the tools to engage with, this topic.  With some adjustments in his approach, I can see him producing works of great value to this field.

Published in: on March 20, 2015 at 2:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Review of The Cambridge Book of Magic, translated by Francis Young

As with The Long-Lost Friend and The Friend in Need, I once again have a situation in which two works of magic very similar in time and place are published in quick succession.  In this case, one of the volumes is our Book of Oberon, while the other is Francis Young’s translation of Cambridge University Library Additional MS 3544, entitled The Cambridge Book of Magic:  A Tudor Necromancer’s Manual.  Having taken the time to read it, my opinion is generally favorable, although I do have some caveats that I wish to express.  Nonetheless, let me say up front that I think that getting as many of these magical manuals into print is an important goal and a real boon to scholarship in the area.

The book’s introduction lays out what we know about the manuscript, including its provenance before arriving at Cambridge (murky), the physical aspects of the manuscript, and the contents thereof.  Most of this is quite admirable, and it highlights some areas that I wish I’d covered more thoroughly in our introduction to Oberon (too late now, Dan).  Nonetheless, there are some caveats.  For example, Young claims that the book contains no fairy experiments, although the work contains “an experiment of Sybilla,” whose nature is not described but who is listed in such works as Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft as being a fairy.

Probably my chief beef with the introduction is Young’s insistence that, despite paleographic evidence that the book dates to about 1560, that it must date to the 1530s instead.  The reason he gives is that this was the time in which the monasteries were being dissolved, and as such the references to Catholic liturgy, relics, and other aspects of that denomination date it to that period.  Having dealt with a magical manuscript dating circa 1580, I can assure you that the use of such topics did not abate, even in a period in which Catholic priests were being martyred.

The text of the manuscript itself includes much of interest, mainly of a ritual magic nature, but also extending at times into herbalism and natural magic.  We have not only the invocation of Sybilla into a candle, similar to that in the Folger MS., but also a conjuration of the spirit Mosacus, which appears to differ in several regards from the one in our book.  I also noted other interesting rituals, including some rites to consecrate wax images for love, a rite to acquire a magical bone from an unsuspecting mole (which the author notes as being similar to the toad-bone ritual), and a ceremony in which the magician is ceremonially wedded to a valerian plant to acquire its virtues.   Young employs a two-column format, one with the Latin and the original spelling, and the other with the translated and modernized text.  He also notes interesting passages through footnotes.

For the most part, this section is well-handled.  There are points where I think one rite needs to be split into two, but a reader knowledgeable about the ceremonies can pick these out easily.  More problematic are the illustrations.  Young states that the focus here is the text, and he employs computer renderings of many of the seals for the casual reader’s benefit while insisting that the original be consulted for more information.  Having just finished such a project, I know that they can quickly become a time-consuming part of the project, but that does not mean I do not want to see those in the MS. reproduced in a larger size.  Also, three pages of magical seals are omitted entirely, which is much to be regretted.

Overall, however, I do believe that those interested in Renaissance and early modern magic should seek out this book, as it does have much to offer.

Published in: on March 7, 2015 at 4:42 pm  Comments (3)  

On the Antiquity of Oberon

There’s been some talk lately about Oberon with regard to his origins.  As you might be aware, the first mentions of Oberon appear in the 13th century epic Huon of Bordeaux, in which he is the supernatural protector of the somewhat-dim knight Huon on his adventures.  The question has been raised as to whether working magic to call such a spirit is dealing with a fictional creature, perhaps such as those in the Cthulhu Mythos.

I don’t think we can say definitively whether Oberon originates in literature or in folklore.  I did find an interesting article yesterday by Ronald Hutton entitled “The Making of the Early Modern British Fairy Tradition.”  Hutton examines the historical reports of fairies in England and Scotland, eschewing regional differences and attempting to see how the patterns change over time.

What Hutton discovers is that the concept of the “fairy” was not a coherent one until relatively late in history.  Instead, high medieval culture recognized a wide range of phenomena that were later classified under that heading.  There were beliefs in the Anglo-Saxon “elves” who could bless or curse; tales of mysterious supernatural women who could be captured and wed, but only with great danger; contemporary accounts of human-like beings who lived alongside us in hiding; the myth of the changeling; and epics detailing how brave knights are helped by creatures, both human and human-like, in possession of strange powers.  None of these were considered to be different accounts of the same class of supernatural being, however.

As time went on, these supernatural beings began to be assembled under the heading of “faierie,” a word derived from the French that was originally used to describe bizarre occurrences.  By the time of the mid-sixteenth century, fairies had become an important part of the cultural landscape, with aspects in folklore, cunning practice, learned lore, ritual magic, and popular fiction and drama.  What is especially interesting about fairies was the deep connections between all of these phenomena, with elements appearing in one rapidly turning up in the others.  Oddly enough, fairies became immensely popular just before the Enlightenment took away the foundation in their belief.

So, where does Oberon fit into this?  I think he clearly occupies a position among the literary assistants to brave heroes that populate the epics.  On the other hand, Hutton also stresses how little we know about popular fairy beliefs of the high Middle Ages, with the written traditions seeming to be only small portions of a much more vast set of oral narratives.  If so, it might be that Oberon’s origin lies here.  Without more data, it’s impossible to be sure.

Published in: on February 26, 2015 at 9:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Now Available – Folger MS. V.b.26 (aka Book of Oberon) Transcript Online

As part of our work on The Book of Oberon, the team prepared a transcript of the original Elizabethan handwriting of Folger MS. V.b.26.  Later on, we went through and modernized the spelling, added illustrations, and inserted footnotes, chapter headers and other critical apparati to make the published book.

Now, Joe Peterson has gone through the hard work of posting the document on the Esoteric Archives website.  If you want to get a taste of the language or a preview of what’s to come in the published version, I highly encourage you to check it out.  If nothing else, it should give you an idea of the colossal scope of the project and its significance to the study of Renaissance magic.

Published in: on February 17, 2015 at 4:52 pm  Comments (1)  
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Just Released; The Cambridge Book of Magic

Paul Foreman has just released, via Lulu, a book of Tudor magic.  It’s a translation of Cambridge Additional MS. 3544, of which I had heard nothing before now.  Here’s some more information:

The Cambridge Book of Magic is an edition of a hitherto unpublished sixteenth-century manuscript of necromancy (ritual magic), now in Cambridge University Library. Written in England between 1532 and 1558, the manuscript consists of 91 ‘experiments’, most of them involving the conjuration of angels and demons, for purposes as diverse as knowing the future, inflicting bodily harm, and recovering stolen property. However, the author’s interests went beyond spirit conjuration to include a variety of forms of natural magic. The treatise drew on astrological image magic and magico-medical texts, and the author had a particular fascination with the properties of plants and herbs. The Cambridge Book of Magic gives an insight into the practice and thought of one sixteenth-century magician, who may have been acting on behalf of clients as well as working for his own benefit.

If you’d like to check out the table of contents for yourself, you can do so on the book’s Lulu page.  I can already see a couple chapters of interest, such as the ceremonies to raise Sibyllia and Mosacus, which overlap with The Book of Oberon.  I’ll be ordering a copy for my own use.

Published in: on February 15, 2015 at 7:06 pm  Comments (1)  
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Some Excursions into Cornish Folklore

I’m sure some of you might have doubted my Cornish folklore addiction, but I can assure you it is both a rare and serious condition.  Now that Oberon is off to the printer and my next project still awaiting additional information, I’m indulging deeply in its depths.  Here’s a quick summary of what I’ve been reading.

If you’re going to start with 19th century Cornish folklore, there’s no better place than Robert Hunt‘s Popular Romances of the West of England.  Hunt covers all of the major topics – giants, fairies, saints, megaliths, witches, King Arthur, etc. – at exhaustive length and with an eye to all manner of folkloric oddities.  Plus, just about everyone else who writes about Cornish folklore is going to be referring back to Hunt frequently, so why not just read the original?

But what about Hunt’s sources?  His chief one was William Bottrell, a former teacher turned world traveler turned folklorist, who later took it upon himself to write three more books, being two volumes of Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (volume 1 and volume 2) and Stories and Folk-lore of West Cornwall (which I have yet to read).  Bottrell is much more steeped in the Cornish “droll” tradition, which means that his stories give you a better taste of the interests of his audience.  This is sometimes very interesting, but other times quite tedious, given the Cornish penchant for the young lovers who are separated, with the woman pining as the man goes off to sea, is captured by pirates, takes over the pirate ship, etc., or detailed descriptions of the manor grounds of Trewoofe.

For a more up-to-date take, including many legends up to modern times, Folklore of Cornwall by Tony Deane and Tony Shaw is a pretty good book, covering many of the same stories as above with more references to recent additions, such as the Beast of Bodmin Moor and the Owlman.  The book is more of a summary than an in-depth look at any of these, and its lack of footnotes on particular entries can be frustrating if you want to find out more.  (Where am I going to find references to that Victorian killer octopus on the northern coast?)  Still, for most of these, a Google search or a reference to one of the above books can turn up quite a bit of information.

These books are more for broad overviews.  Later on, I think I’ll discuss my new Cornish folklore book-buying habit.

Published in: on February 5, 2015 at 10:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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Charm Wands and Charm Sticks, An Addendum

As an addendum to my three part series on charm wands, here’s a passage from Ithell Colquhoun’s The Living Stones: Cornwall (1962), in her chapter describing her visit to William Paynter:

In the West Country the ‘witch’s stick,’ a rod with a crook-end made of glass from Nailsea near Bristol, is the equivalent of the magician’s ‘wand of power.’  Sometimes these rods were twisted, sometimes hollow and if so were filled with coloured threads or the tiny sweets called ‘hundreds and  thousands.’  The stick was suspended above the chimney-piece so that if an ill-disposed member of the craft entered the house he or she would be obsessively compelled to count the contents of the glass tube, and so dissipate the energy intended for magicking.  These sticks are called ‘medicine-rods’ since disease ‘settled’ upon them; but if carefully wiped each day they could be used as a cure-all.

Published in: on January 21, 2015 at 5:59 pm  Comments (1)  
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I Have a Problem

So, with the new year, it’s time to admit I have a problem.

I might be addicted to Cornish folklore.

Part of my mother’s side of the family comes from Cornwall, and I’ve made two trips there over the years tooling about West Penwith and seeing the sights.  Over the past month, though, I’ve been compelled to look into it further, starting with the standard works on the area’s folklore and moving on to more obscure journal articles and local publications.

At this point, I’ve got a growing library of small-press publications, and a map with over four hundred separate locations with detailed notes on the legends connected with each.  So I have to figure out what to do with it.

The idea is not to publish scholarly articles, or even Mythos fiction or gaming material.  I do feel myself in need of a creative outlet, alongside the factual publications on magic.  Most likely it would fall into the present market for folk horror (see the original Wicker Man for the most obvious model, but I’d add such movies as Kill List, Wake Wood, and Curse of the Blair Witch, as well as some of the psychogeographic work of Phil Legard and others).  I’m not quite sure as to the format or the venues yet, but I’ll see if I can’t figure out something to do with it.

I suppose the other option is that I’ll get tired of it and never mention it again.  We’ll see.  Suggestions are welcome.

Published in: on January 1, 2015 at 8:29 pm  Comments (4)  
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2014 in Review

This year has been somewhat quiet on the blog front, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been idle, by any means.  James, Joe, and I have been wrapping up our notes on the proofs of The Book of Oberon.  It can be a slog at times, but then I think about how our readers will react when they see the immense work for themselves, and it makes it worth it.

Ben Fernee is hard at work on his latest release, so I’ve been making a few minor tweaks to my articles on witch bottles and wax images that should accompany the Bellhouse book.  I have to say, in a marketplace that has so many derivative books churned out, it’s great to be working on material that’s ground-breaking and has a good potential to stand the test of time.

I tooled around for a while seeking my next big project, and I think I’ve found one.  One aspect (and one of many, I should add) is digging back into the Mesopotamian corpus and dealing with aspects of its beliefs and ritual practices not touched upon much in my previous works.  That’s a long-term project, however, so I might not discuss it here for a while.

I’ve got a couple of publications to announce.  First, my chapter on the Book of Dzyan maybe read in the new anthology The Starry Wisdom Library, along with pieces by Ramsey Campbell, F. Paul Wilson, Don Webb, Wilum Pugmire, Donald Tyson, and many, many others.  Second, the third issue of the Arkham Gazette has been successfully Kickstarted, which will bring my brief folkloric article on Goody Fowler into print.

If anyone was anticipating meeting me at NecronomiCon this coming year, another obligation has taken precedence.  Nonetheless, I hope everyone has a great time, and I hope to see all of you at future conventions.

That’s all for now.  Yiggie and I (or rather, I) wish all of you happy holidays and a great new year!

Published in: on December 30, 2014 at 7:29 pm  Comments (1)  

The Maqlu Text: An Update on its Publication

For some time, I’ve been waiting for a new published English translation of the Maqlu Text, the first millennium BCE exorcistic rite in Akkadian that gets so much attention in the Simon Necronomicon.  I have greatly appreciated Marie-Hélène Hoffmann and Ross Caldwell’s online translation of the book, but what I have been waiting for is the edition by Tzvi Abusch, the foremost scholar on the incantation series.  So, I feel quite odd relating this announcement from Dr. Abusch, from the American Schools for Oriental Research blog:

During my stay at the AIAR, I completed and submitted: 1) A volume for the SBL Writings from the Ancient World series: The Witchcraft Series Maqlû: Transcription and Translation. This volume contains a transcription of the full text of Maqlû with notes, a translation, and detailed introduction. 2) A volume for students in the State Archives of Assyria, Cuneiform Texts series, Maqlû: A Student Edition and Selected Commentary containing an edition of the Maqlû standard text in transliteration together with the cuneiform text. This volume will also provide both historical/critical and exegetical commentaries on selected incantations. These commentaries will draw upon and synthesize the many individual studies that I previously published.

I continued to work on The Magical Ceremony Maqlû: A Critical Edition (Ancient Magic and Divination; Leiden: Brill), which will contain the main edition of Maqlû. I reviewed and made some last minute corrections to the synoptic edition (“score”), revised the bibliography of sources, and drafted the preface.I hope that this volume will be submitted to the publisher by the end of June, 2014.

Really?  I’ve waited so long for this book, and now we’ll be seeing three different versions?

I’m eagerly awaiting more information, so I can figure out which one I want.

Published in: on December 20, 2014 at 2:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

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