A Starting Occult Library, Part 1

Commenter Jake wrote me to ask about assembling a library dealing with the Cthulhu Mythos and the occult.  The first part is easy – the Latter-Day Lovecraftian’s Library is relatively up-to-date – but the second requires more thought.  When one looks at the amount of information on occultism that is dated, inaccurate, expensive, or intended for specialists, finding what works are useful for a newcomer to the field can be difficult.  Nonetheless, I can take a stab at it, beginning with the history of magic.

For the most part, massive works attempting to cover the magic of all times and places are about a hundred years old and largely inaccurate on particular points.  (If anyone knows of one that’s better than the rest, please chime in!)  If you’re interested in overviews of Europe and the Near East, you might look at the Witchcraft and Magic in Europe series from Pennsylvania Press (here’s the first book on Amazon, and the others will be further down the page).  I’ve had success picking these up as I find them for about $7-$10 each used, though I’m still waiting for the 18th-19th century volume.  Other works specializing in particular eras can also be good summaries for newcomers.  A good example for the medieval period is Richard Kieckhefer’s Magic in the Middle Ages, while Geraldine Pinch’s Magic in Ancient Egypt does the same service for that time.

From there, I’d recommend the more challenging route of reading the actual documents of magic.  Sure, this is tougher than reading other people’s summaries and interpretations, but you’re likely to engage and discover more through doing so.  Works such as Betz’s The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Luck’s Arcana Mundi, whatever Joe Peterson has out at the moment (especially the Esoteric Archives CD), and Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy are all good choices for their particular eras.  (Agrippa’s books are on Joe’s CD, but the Llewellyn edition is more accessible for new readers.)  The Malleus Maleficarum was not as influential as is often thought, but it should certainly be a part of the library of someone interested in witchcraft.

At this point, I’ll stop and see if anyone has any suggestions, comments, or caveats on the list above.

Published in: on February 5, 2009 at 7:31 pm  Comments (8)  

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  1. When I read the words “Cthulhu Mythos and the occult” I assumed he was looking for works on the overlapping of the two subjects, like in the works of Grant, Hine, and Satanis. If that’s not what was intended, I think “H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction”, published by Barnes and Noble would be an excellent starting place for a good Lovecraft collection.

  2. As far as old voluminous tomes on history goes, if you can get them I think Thorndike is the most accurate (for the time anyway!). I like the books in Penn States “Magic in History” series. Includes some classics by E.M. Butler and a lot of new material. Occultism is a funny thing though, you have to sample the waters and find something you enjoy so you can figure out what you want in your library. Bibliographies are usually your best friend😉

  3. Quick glance at a couple of favorites on my shelves:

    I think Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic is useful not just for the witchcraft angle, but for filling in the greater social context in which works like Turner’s English translations of the Fourth Book and Ars Notoria and Scot’s Discovery were published. Granted, this work is decades old, but meticulously referenced and the footnotes often point to a wealth of interesting material that has not yet been sufficiently explored (- one that always intrigues me mentions the use of diving equipment, the design of which was dictated by angels!).

    McLean’s edition of the Magical Calendar makes a valuable appendix to Book II of Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy, but also see Joe’s note about further research into the sources of this (- the BL ms. McLean notes that he didn’t have a chance to examine seems to be the precursor of the printed text).

  4. Quick comment on a comment: Enoch, H. P. Lovecraft: The Fiction is indeed a very good Lovecraft collection (complete except for the revisions; cheap; and an exceptionally nice cover), but it is so riddled with typos and inexplicable, unsanctioned changes that my blood pressure shoots through the roof just from thinking of it. The second printing, which will probably appear this fall, will be much more reliable, since yours truly has spent virtually all his spare time over the past two months comparing the text against the Arkham House editions (and it’s a labour of love — no money involved). All the differences that I’ve found so far can be found at http://www.sffchronicles.co.uk/forum/47876-errata-for-the-b-and-n-volume.html

  5. Excellent! I wish there were more pages like yours! Really excellent material, thanks!

  6. Martin A,
    Yeah, I can’t wait until there’s a second printing. Although Joshi only mentions one Arkham House book by name, he says that the Arkham House editions had “typographical and textual errors”. A short while after first reading that I laughed when I saw some of the more obvious errors and typos in the Barnes and Noble book. But the Arkham House editions also contained errors. So, although I am not a professional in the field of textual criticism, I see the trouble of correcting one faulty text with several faulty texts.

  7. Enoch,
    the AH editions of the 80s are so far the most reliable versions — what few errors made it into them were usually due to flawed readings of the original manuscripts, and there were very few proofing and typesetting errors. Hence, if the B&N says “knew in their heads” and the AH text says “knew in their hearts”, for example, then the AH is far more likely to be correct. And if I’m ever uncertain, I have at least four other editions in my library that I can compare against to find out the most likely reading.

  8. […] Starting Occult Library, Part 2 After my previous post about assembling an occult library, we had some suggestions in the comments.   I’ll add […]

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