Reading Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires, Chapter 2

As I’ve discussed previously, I’m slowly making my way through Aaron Leitch’s Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires.  The salient point of interest was Leitch’s connection of the grimoire magic of the medieval and Renaissance eras with shamanic practices.  His next chapter, “Shamanism, Tribal to Medieval,” deals with that issue head-on.

Drawing on Eliade’s Shamanism:  Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Leitch describes the shaman as follows:

He engages in ecstatic trances that grant him magickal flight and ascent to the heavens, descent into the underworld, mastery over fire, etc. … It is, in fact, the ability to journey into the celestial (and subterranean) realms to interact with gods and spirits that marks the shamanic practice… The healing art is bound up entirely with the shaman’s role of psychopomp – one who guides the souls of the dead to their proper place in the underworld. ..  the most important role the shaman played in his community was that of healer… Another peculiarity of shamanic magick is that it is often learned almost entirely from spiritual beings…

I think this is quite a good summary of how Eliade describes shamanism.  On the other hand, one could hardly come up with a description of spiritual magic less like that in the grimoires.  That last quote, I think, should really settle the difference definitively – after all, if spirits are teaching magic, one should have little use for a tradition of books.

The chapter then moves on to the Biblical prophets, describing activities that might seem to parallel to shamanism, before moving onto the grimoires – or, rather, to discussions of the writings of John Dee and Henry Cornelius Agrippa, with occasionally dipping into Abramelin or the Goetia.   One is reminded of the old joke about the man who lost his keys in a dark corner but looked for them under a streetlamp because the light was better there.  At points, Leitch seems to be stretching for similarities:

… there is plenty of evidence that many of the grimoires were put together with the good of the community in mind.  Apparently, the typical grimoiric mage of the late medieval era collected spells for the express purpose of selling his services – a fact that speaks strongly for the shamanic nature of the material.

I am not sure what constitutes “plenty of evidence” for this, and I wish Leitch would have presented more of it.  I think he would have a much stronger case if more spirit operations had healing functions, but it is likely more spirits exist for killing foes or making women dance naked than for that purpose.  Further, though some grimoire users did sell their services, I do not know how he determines that such are “typical,” nor what in particular is “shamanic” about doing so.

I am not sure how the use of shamanic techniques in grimoire magic might play out, but it seems misleading to label this magic as “shamanic.”

Published in: on September 18, 2009 at 12:07 am  Comments (8)  

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  1. I have noticed a tendency to connect some magical practice or other with shamanism, maybe because of Carlo Ginzburg’s work. I am not sure how many magical practicioners have actually read Ginzburg, but plenty seem to be familiar with him. But I have also noticed that Eliade is popular with the occult community, both the shamanism thing and what he wrote on alchemy. I think he is very accessible, which accounts for a lot of his popularity, but I also think that his appeal rests fundamentally on his reactionary, Christian perspective on history, where no one can ever do anything new, the whole world does nothing but reflect my own ideas, and legitimacy is lent primarily through associating oneself with “ancient” practices. To my mind, this is a identical with the Church’s desire to co-opt Judaism because its age lent Christianity legitimacy and to reinterpret its texts through their own ideological lens, saying what it really means is what Christianty imposes upon it. IME, the “everywhere I look, I see my own face” perspective permeates the occult. I think this is a profoundly reactionary way of seeing the world and it makes great sense then that Eliade would be such a favorite of many people involves in the occult (much like certain of Jung’s ideas which fit in perfectly with these views).

    That said, some people working with grimoires do approach the spirits much as perhaps not a shaman but a witch would approach a familiar–as a partner and guide and teacher rather than as a being to be commanded. I think Emma Wilby in Cunning-Folk made a good argument that this type of witchcraft (she was studying 17th-century British witchcraft) had shamanistic aspects.

    I should also point out that although a magician might start out using a grimoire instead of learning directly from a spirit, it seems to be normal that s/he moves on to working directly with the spirit. The grimoire is then like a primer. To my mind, a grimoire is like the Wiccan Book of Shadows, which should be a NEW product, one created through one’s own practice.

    As for benefiting the community, I don’t think there is much of that in grimoire magic. But there isn’t much of it in witchcraft either.

  2. Harry,

    Though I’d disagree with labelling that sort attitude with Christianity – for example, traditional Chinese society internalized the same assumptions – I’d say that Eliade’s appeal really does come from his authoritative construction of an “archaic” shamanism.

    I’d say there’s more of a “shamanic” approach to grimoire magic today, but I think the evidence for it is limited. I’d also assert that magic that benefits the community was indeed present at the time – it’s just that the people using grimoires were a different group. At later times, it became a different matter; the Long-Lost Friend, to me, would be a good example of a (non-spirit-summoning) grimoire intended to aid one’s fellows.

  3. Not a disagreement but an addition – In reconstructionist circles (where the various cross-comparative scholars are instrumental to the practices – e.g., Dumezil, Duwell, Polome, and Eliade) Eliade’s work regarding Initiation, Mythic vs. Historical time, and the ritual uses of Cosmogonic and Eschatologic myths are more influential than Shamanism. Especially “The Myth of the Eternal Return” and “Myth as Reality/Reality as Myth” are where a lot of reconstructionist practitioners mine for information – specifically to be used practically.

    And his true personal expertise was really in his work on Yoga where his academic interests really met personal praxis.

    Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy is what he’s best known for but a lot of the people who find value in Eliade look to his other areas of study.

  4. Oh, and to agree with Dan regarding healing intent, Wilby’s book, mentioned above, also provides pretty good evidence of healing intent in English ‘witchcraft’ times. That’s where the differentiation between ‘cunning folk’ and ‘witches’ comes in. Similar to Brujos and Curanderos, or Bonpo and Bokshi, or even the Icelandic magic in the various Galdraskraedur and ‘black books.’

    But that doesn’t make any of that ‘shamanism’ except in the loosest of metaphoric ways.

  5. “…good of the community..” & “…selling his services…” huh? That’s like saying “I’m growing weed in my greenhouse for the good of the community, I’m gonna sell it and make a bunch of money.”

    I agree with your comment to Harry above, Leitch seems to be confusing Grimoire’s with Pow-Wows, Egyptian Secrets, Romanusbuchlein, or even the texts published in the Black Books of Elverum. Folk magic and grimoires are two different beasts entirely. Actually he seems to be confusing three things, folks magic popular with everyone (such as pow-wow’s etc.) cunning folk, hexenmeisters, etc who sold their services, and magicians practicing the grimoire related tradition.

    My own comment on something in Harry’s post, he writes today spirits are approached “…as a partner and guide and teacher rather than as a being to be commanded.” That may be what some do today, but it basically goes against what the Grimoire’s themselves prescribe. The Key of Solomon alone must have at least 10 (if not more) pentacles that gives the magician control, dominance, obedience, etc over spirits. While today people tend to take a sort of Afro-Caribbean view on the spirits of the grimoires, those in the past viewed them as dangerous, lying and untrustworthy.

    Personally, I find a lot the throwing around of the term Shamanism seems to be a modern tendency of attempting to turn the grimoire and magical practices into it’s own religion / psychotherapy. They ignore the fact that 95% (or more) of the grimoires are concerned with materialistic or other mercenary issues, and instead try to ascribe some deeper meaning to it and turn it into a system of self discovery and exploration.

  6. I didn’t want to dive too far into it, but the 19th century folk magic grimoires are indeed closer to what Leitch hopes the medieval and Renaissance ones will be. He never goes there in making his argument, however.

  7. Modern Grimoire Magick – by Aaron Leitch

  8. Thanks for the update, Aaron!

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