On the Shelf Review – Dillinger’s Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America: A History

It’s not often that we see a book on early modern magic that covers a specific genre of incantation while addressing material in both the historical record and the written traditions of magic.  Releases in ancient and medieval magic are rare enough, but those that reach more recent times are more difficult still.  Johannes Dillinger’s Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America: A History deserves credit merely for covering such a topic, as it focuses on those who used magic to hunt treasure in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

The work is divided into eight chapters, with attention being given to the laws governing treasure trove, beliefs surrounding treasure, the magical nature of treasure itself and the curious beings (ghosts, fairies, demons, and even Venetians) that guarded it, how this led to the use of treasure magic, the law’s attitude toward these magicians, the social makeup of magical treasure-hunting groups, how treasure hunting was practiced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the significance of such hunts.  All of this is well documented with accounts from trials, popular works, and even grimoires themselves.

Dillinger has done an excellent job of providing documentation of magical treasure hunting, and beyond that, he has some especially strong points worth mentioning.  The discussion of the legalities of treasure hunting illustrates the complexity of a situation previous authors have been glossed over, and the chapter on the social status of treasure hunters is not only revealing of the dynamics in their groups, it’s also the best historical justification for a Dungeons and Dragons party I’ve ever seen.

That being said, one aspect where I wish the book would have been expanded would be the discussion of grimoires.  Usage of such material is somewhat problematic, as grimoires often describe what should be done rather than what was actually done, but they provide an interesting counter-balance to other historical material, which often is skewed toward treasure hunts which have been called to the authorities’ attention.  It seems odd to discuss supernatural guardians of treasure without addressing the Grand Grimoire, for instance, or mentioning the tradition of using animals as treasure hunters without referencing the Black Pullet, the Green Butterfly, and other such works.

Magical Treasure Hunting does fall short in one area, but I think I can put this into context.  Just after Grimoires was published, I met Owen Davies, who had just read my review of the book, in London.  He told me that some of the material that had been glossed over on the ancient world had been longer originally.  Oxford had asked him to cut it out and add material about grimoires in the United States to appeal to a transatlantic audience.

It’s dangerous to speculate on processes that occur behind the scenes at publishers, but reading Magical Treasure Hunting gave me the same impression.  For a book supposedly covering two continents, most of the North American material is rather sketchy and in some cases stands apart from the rest of the text.  The chapter on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries especially seems to be tacked on, and it probably constitutes the weakest section of the book.  The discussion of Joseph Smith’s treasure hunting does little to address how usual or unusual his profession was in the Mid-Atlantic States in the 1820s, as previous authors have done.  The same piece leaves one major question unaddressed:  if treasure hunting was indeed declining during this period, why did books such as The Old Man of the Pyramids and Scheible’s printings of Faustian grimoires remain so popular?

Putting this aside, this book should be required reading for anyone interested in the field of early modern magic, with a possible interest to those interested in various aspects of treasure folklore and Renaissance era law.

Published in: on January 31, 2012 at 12:26 pm  Comments (5)  

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  2. You’ll forgive for excitedly misreading this as John Dillinger. That said, it does look good although I shall wait for the paperback.

  3. I note that Dillinger’s description of the typical makeup of a treasure-hunting crew in Chapter 6 (artisan/scammer, learned magician, folk magician/shaman, muscle, and courtier) is clearly the ur-source of the AD&D adventuring party (thief, mage, cleric, fighter, bard).

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