A while ago, I reviewed Stephen Skinner’s Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, noting that it was the first published work based upon his dissertation on the topic of books of magic. The second section, Techniques of Solomonic Magic, has just been released.
This particular work deals with the transition of magical texts, beginning with the magical papyri, leading to the key Greek magical text, the Hygromanteia, from the Byzantine world to Western Europe, where it transformed into the Clavicula Salomonis, or (Little) Key of Solomon, that has become the most famous of the grimoires. It’s not a new hypothesis, but Skinner’s achievement here is to lay out the evidence thoroughly, by going through both works systematically to identify the commonalities among them. Toward that end, we get sections on purification, magical circles, days and hours of operations, incense, techniques of evocation, spirits, angels, and all manner of other aspects of the books, with comprehensive comparisons of a wide range of manuscripts. Skinner lays out the evidence for each of these in a detailed yet easy-to-understand manner.
In doing so, we uncover some surprising revelations. For example, it becomes apparent that the pentacles of the planets that form so much a part of the Key were later additions from a Hebrew manuscript that presents symbolism much more intricate than what has survived in the editions commonly available today.
Nonetheless, the book is not quite as thorough as I would have liked. One notable omission is a comparison of the actual prayers, invocations, and other religious texts used in the Hygromanteia and the Clavicula. Even a cursory examination reveals that these are often quite divergent from each other. If so, when did the change occur, and why? Do the prayers and individuals that are referred to provide any clues as to the transmission route? Such an examination has the potential to reveal a great deal about the sources and transmission of these books.
As with the previous volume in the series, I also have serious qualms about the first theoretical section. It’s likely best that I deal with them in a separate post, so I can lay out my arguments more thoroughly.
Nonetheless, the book is excellent in most respects, and it serves an important milestone in the history of the grimoire tradition. Possibly just as valuable, Skinner’s in-depth research has provided an easily-accessible window into a great deal of the academic writing on the grimoire tradition that has not been available to general readers before. This is a good book for anyone interested in the grimoire tradition, or practitioners who want a deeper understanding of the roots of particular practices in the genre. The latter might also benefit from the Hygromanteia and the Veritable Key, of course, and I’d suggest those as purchases before moving on to this work.