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.