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 Academia.edu.
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.