Life, The Book of Four Wizards, Fairy Magic, Traditional Witchcraft, Magic Bowls, and Gaming

Still in lockdown, even though the region has opened up slightly. I don’t have a lot of a faith in our ability to deal with the opening responsibly, especially over a holiday weekend.

I’m continuing work on The Book of Four Wizards. I’ve spent some time delving into the Eye of Abraham, the classic charm to detect theft by hammering a nail into a drawn eye while saying an incantation, in response to which the thief cries out or has their eye water. I’ve got at least seven different examples of various lengths and taken from different sources. I sometimes wonder whether this is an expression of antiquarian interest, or an attempt to acquire different versions to ensure efficacy through comparison.

I’ve recorded a talk on fairy magic for Treadwell’s lecture series, so keep an eye out for that.

In the comments, Michael Craft asked whether I might review a book dealing with traditional witchcraft. Speaking generally, I try to avoid literature that attempts to recreate traditional European folk practice. When I have tried to read a book, or listen to a podcast, or otherwise engage with this material, I often struggle, because I can see the seams between materials, the rhetorical flourishes covering up questions, the proposed ideas that solidify into certainties, the use of outdated sources, the anachronistic usage of later ideas, the lack of footnotes, etc. etc.

I’m not saying that people cannot get spiritual fulfillment out of these texts, or that others can’t admire a recombination of elements of the past and present done through a compelling narrative or inspiring poetry or resonating prose or magical exploration. Yet, at the same time, I prefer to focus on history in an attempt to understand it, not to evoke or interpret it, and much of that involves unlearning the fundamentals of what today’s occultism teaches and seeking works that provide a framework for doing so. That sort of process doesn’t really accommodate itself to writing reviews of modern works that are chiefly desirable to people who are seeking something else in their literature. We certainly have better reviewers for that.

(EDIT: Just to be clear, this isn’t aimed at particular authors or paths, among which there might be those engaged in careful, thoughtful examination of historical evidence and conscious and admitted reconstruction. Yet this isn’t the norm.)

For those who find it useful or interesting or spiritually compelling to read more historical material – or who just put up with all of the above – you might appreciate Dan Levene’s A Corpus of Magic Bowls, available cheaply through Lulu. My copy came slightly banged up, and I’m not sure whether the black and white photographs were plates in the original, but it’s certainly worth the price.

I’m wrapping up my long-term Rules Cyclopedia campaign in the next few months. Pendragon is going strong, and I’m running a potentially short-term weekly Dungeon Crawl Classics game for some colleagues and friends during the shutdown. I’ve been enjoying the latter, for what it’s worth. DCC publisher Goodman Games also published a good number of Cthulhu scenarios back in the day that I reviewed here over the years. I can see why them tapping their DCC authors to write them was never compelling to me, as the design goals of the two are diametrically opposed. This is more light yet deadly gonzo stuff, which is perfect for particular groups.

Stay safe and healthy, as always.

Published in: on May 24, 2020 at 9:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – Book of Saint Cyprian (Bibliotheca Sufurina I)

The recent upsurge of Anglophone interest in the magical traditions surrounding St. Cyprian of Antioch has led to many fascinating translations of material from other languages (some of which I’ve reviewed here, here, and here). One that I missed reviewing on its initial release was Humberto Maggi’s edition of the Spanish Book of Saint Cyprian, attributed to Jonas Sufurino, from Nephilim Press. This was intended to be a trilogy, and it’s uncertain to me where the plans for the other two volumes are.

The book itself is quite attractive, bound in black with red highlights, including a small devil and a cloth bookmark. After a brief introduction that perhaps favors earlier Cyprianic material more than might be immediately relevant, we arrive at the text itself,  a translation of the 1920 edition from Barcelona’s Casa Editorial Maucci. (As typical, I’m not going to evaluate the translation here, due to a lack of time and expertise.)

As for the contents – I’ve been watching some episodes of Metalocalypse, and it’s that over-the-top heavy metal attitude toward the grimoires that best describes this book. Forget finding a grimoire in a monastery library or tomb – the monk Jonas Sufurino gets the book by calling on Satan, who delivers a self-translating version of Cyprian’s book dipped in the Lake of Red Dragons so it couldn’t be destroyed by any means. Speaking of the Red Dragon or Key of Solomon – while other works might content with these being somewhat metaphorical, this book of Cyprian states that both should be literal talismans, with the Red Dragon being the prized possession of Moses himself. This is the first book in which I’ve seen a robe with planetary symbols on it, like a stage magician, required as a key item of equipment.

Yet the compiler does display some degree of self-awareness in all of this. Chapters which are clearly later than the year 1001 are explained away as marginal comments which have nonetheless been included in the text. There are also occasional bits of levity, such as the flight spell that only works if the magician keeps their eyes closed and returns to the same spot.

Overall, the work is something of a late mashup of a number of different texts – the Grand Grimoire, the Key of Solomon, the Arbatel, the Old Man of the Pyramids, and other works. In some cases, the material is truncated – for example, only one talisman from the Key is given for each planet. Likewise, the Old Man of the Pyramids section jumps over most of the Napoleonic-inspired narrative, to our author-magician just visiting the Old Man because he hears he knows magic, and the Old Man dying very quickly to give away all his knowledge. On the other hand, the Grand Grimoire is expanded to provide a more comprehensive pact-like arrangement with Lucifer than the more treasure-hunting emphasis of the normal rite. The book concludes with a number of the usual rites for acquiring the magician’s desire by being cruel to animals.

Most of the presentation is relatively bare bones; it does not include an original Spanish text, extensive notes, a bibliography, or an index.

Thus, who is this book for? I’d say this is probably of interest to those interested in the Anglophone Cyprianic revival, folk magic enthusiasts and practitioners, and those who are interested in the transformations of ritual magic for new audiences. It’s not a great compilation of the magical texts listed above, due to their truncated nature in the work, but it does possess a fascinating charm all of its own.


Published in: on May 15, 2020 at 1:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Oberon and Privacy, Podcasts, Hell Fire Update, and Various Methods of Divination

A happy Beltane or May Day, for those who celebrate either.

I presented on Folger V.b.26 (The Book of Oberon) at the University of Copenhagen Centre for Privacy Studies’ Practices of Privacy: Knowledge in the Making symposium. I’m looking forward to writing it up as an article and sharing it more broadly.

Along with my regular duties and avocations, I participated in a podcast on magical books for Treadwell’s, and a podcast on Averoigne for the People’s Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos. I hope to give you more links to other items soon.

Most of occult publishing seems to be on hold, due to the challenges of our present situation. If you do see an announcement of a publication in the grimoires field, please let me know in the comments.

About two weeks ago, Miskatonic Books posted that they will no longer be carrying books by the publisher Hell Fire Club. They don’t report having any trouble with HFC in their business arrangements, but they were becoming the focus for all of the queries from authors and purchasers who couldn’t get in touch with HFC themselves.

I have made considerable progress on Humberto Maggi’s translation of the Sufurino Cyprian, so that will likely be my next review.

I’ve spent some time working with a few items from Four Wizards – short rituals for divination using the psalter and key, the sieve and shears, and the bread and knives. I’ve yet to find good coverage for any of these – it’s more pulling together some mentions from different sources to see if I can figure out a general picture. Willy Braekman’s Middeleeuwse witte en zwarte magie in het Nederlands taalgebied (1997) is helpful, but it tends to concentrate on usage in the Netherlands. If anyone has seen a more comprehensive coverage of these with proper references, I’d love to hear about it.

Stay healthy, safe, and secure, everyone.



Published in: on May 1, 2020 at 7:59 pm  Comments (3)  

Staying at Home, Book of Four Wizards, Penn State Specials, New Esoteric Archives Documents

Still home, still well.

I wanted to make a few more comments on the last section of Douce 116 I talked about here – specifically the section on capturing animals using toxic substances – with regard to my previous discussion of Liber 420. Although one should be careful about extrapolating from a single example, I think this is compelling evidence that the reason that copyists were not omitting psychotropic substances from the grimoires because they were concerned about social censure.

I just finished the modernized version of the manuscript. Now comes a few enciphered passages, translations of the Latin, compiling the footnotes, writing the introduction, and probably making another trip in post-lockdown to the area I think it was composed to see what I can find. Nothing major, right?

If you’ve been thinking about getting some Penn State Magic in History books but balked at the price, this is a good time to check again. Some are unavailable, but others are available a bit cheaper. For example, Making Magic in Elizabethan England by  Frank Klaassen (my review here) has dropped to $19.99 in some e-book formats, which is very nice.

If you’re strapped and looking for new magical material, Joe Peterson comes through for us again. Mihai has collated his blog posts into a single document detailing The Book of the Seven Rings of the Planets of Messalah. He’s also got a new transcribed version – albeit in Latin – of the famous Key of Solomon version known as the Zecorbeni, taken from the Bodleian MS. Aubrey 24. This is particularly welcome to me, as I photographed the rest of that manuscript’s contents the last time I was at Oxford.

Once again, I hope you are well, safe, and secure.



Published in: on April 17, 2020 at 1:50 pm  Comments (2)  

Quick Stay-at-Home Update, Fishing Lore, and the Rings of Messalah

Still home and healthy.

I’m still working on Douce 116, The Book of Four Wizards. I’ve come to the section of the book that includes recipes for creating different sorts of fish bait, capturing birds, and the like. For those who are curious, this seems to be the section that is biggest on the incorporation of cannabis, belladonna, and other rites. I’d love to find the origin for this section, but I’m not optimistic; I can find some similar recipes, but nothing that serves as a template, or where I can find multiple examples in the same order. That might help me to narrow down the time frame of the original author, though, so I’ll give it a shot and see where it goes.

Mihai Vartejaru is working on a comparison of different manuscripts that contain a magical treatise called the Rings of Messalah, detailing rings to be made under the power of each planet. You can see this series on his blog.

Stay safe, everyone.

Published in: on April 4, 2020 at 12:11 pm  Comments (1)  

Update – COVID-19, Cypriana, Hadean, More Hadean, Ouroboros Special Offers

At this point, I am sequestered away from the world, an opportunity I sincerely hope all of you have been given. The future is unknown, but for now I am healthy, safe, and well-provisioned. May all of you be well, in all aspects of your life, in these uncertain times.

As a librarian, I should remind everyone to try to seek out reputable information in these times, and to refrain from sending on what is inaccurate.

Also, if you have ever found yourself saying, “I wish I had time to read these books / learn a language / write,” and you are secure enough to proceed with those plans, this might be the time. It’s hard to do those things when surrounded by stress, but it can also serve for a temporary escape.

I wish all of you the best, and I hope I will meet and speak with each one of you face to face someday when this is over.

Published in: on March 28, 2020 at 11:26 am  Comments (2)  

Review: The Key of King Solomon, Clavicula Salomonis, for George Graham

We might as well face it – my reviews queue is seriously backed up. In fact, it’s so backed up that the book I’m reviewing today went out of print before I could talk about it.  I’m just going to start working my way down the stack to see where that takes me.

Today, it brings me to this edition of the Key of Solomon, which is a late-period manuscript created by Frederick Hockley for the infamous balloonist George Graham, the subject of my latest book, and the role I played in its production for Aeon Sophia that they might not even know about.

The Key of King Solomon with Transcript

I’ve been keeping an eye out for interesting manuscripts, and several years ago I stopped by the Cleveland Public Library to see this odd Clavis that was listed in WorldCat. It was an interesting document, and I started talking with Ben Fernee about publishing an edition with Caduceus. Ben paid for the digitization of the book and I started working on it, for whenever Bellhouse was done. This took long enough that the library took the images and made them available online  under a public domain license. Then Aeon Sophia took the images – which were freely available online – and published them as a book, which pretty much invalidated our own efforts. That’s why you have this curious little short book on George and Margaret Graham.

I have to admit I was quite miffed at the time – and please bear that in mind when you read this – and I won’t speak for how Ben felt about paying out of his funds to finance what essentially became another publisher’s project. Yet there was no way to for Aeon Sophia to know about any of this, as far as I can tell, and publishing a book in which others are interested is by no means an unforgivable sin.

Oh, but there are indeed unforgivable sins. One of the chief ones is sending any book thicker than a pamphlet across the Atlantic in an unpadded cardboard envelope. I’ve been keeping this particular packaging for months, just so I could put up a picture here:

Dan's Aeon Sophia Packaging

To be clear, the books did arrive fine, and I think most people on the used and rare market are sensitive enough to customers not to even attempt this. I would keep it in mind for future Aeon Sophia orders, though.

As for the books themselves, they consist of a large black hardback facsimile of the book, along with a smaller paperback volume that holds a transcript of the book. The binding looks all right to my untried eye, though I should notice it has no lettering on the spine, which is not encouraging and makes it more difficult to find on one’s shelf.

Graham’s Key is quite the intriguing book. The book is quite different from the Sibley Clavis with which Hockley is usually associated (I’ve reviewed the publication of various editions by Caduceus, Golden Hoard, and Ibis). Instead it representing an Italian and French line of tradition usually attributed to one “Armadel,” not to be confused with the magical book of the same name. Yet this book deviates even more even from this template.

First, we have the spirit list, which, as Joe Peterson observes, is closest to that in the Venetian Secrets of Solomon.  The book also features a wide collection of unusual talismans for various purposes, using the parchment and blood of all manner of creatures – including elephants, camels, tigers, and lions. It wraps up with a curious rite to summon up Lucifer near a body of water.

Yet the thrust of the book – and the topic of many insertions into Lansdowne 1202, to which I compared it – is the proper training and consecration of a magician’s disciples. The procedures ranging from admonitions against improper behavior, such as consorting with women (I do wonder how Margaret Graham felt about that), to consecrating talismans meant to protect the disciples during rites. We even see a talisman meant to pass on a magician’s power to a chosen student at the time of his death, provided they have some ape blood on hand to write it.

Was George attempting to start his own magical order? If so, how far did he get? Perhaps future researchers will find the answers.

The transcript in the accompanying booklet is… seriously lacking. On the first page alone, I found four errors that were easily correctable, and the others I’ve glanced at haven’t been more encouraging. Our transcriber appears to have copied what they saw on the first reading, but I see no signs that they read the transcript for context to catch any errors. Just because a document passes spellcheck doesn’t mean it makes sense. On the upside, the handwriting is not too bad, so if you’re familiar with cursive it shouldn’t be too difficult to get the readings out of the facsimile.

As I said above, the book is currently unavailable in print form, but you can find the Cleveland Public Library’s images here. It’s an intriguing late-period Key with unique aspects worth checking out.

Published in: on March 9, 2020 at 9:28 pm  Comments (4)  

Just Released: An Excellent Booke of the Arte of Magicke

The latest release from Scarlet Imprint is An Excellent Booke of the Arte of Magicke, a work edited by blog-friends Phil Legard and Al Cummins, featuring an introduction by me. A quick intro from the website:

The magical experiments conducted by Elizabethan explorer, soldier and courtier Humphrey Gilbert, along with his scryer John Davis, during the spring of 1567 are notable for their forceful methods and stripped down Protestant ritual. The spirits are called into a ‘crystal stone’ by way of a large number of conjurations, charges, constraints, curses and bonds. The work includes the practical conjuration of Bleth, Aosal, Assassel (Azazel) and the four demon kings of the winds, namely Oriens, Amaimon, Paimon and Aegyn. It is evidently based on an older text or texts, adapted to the Protestant outlook of the period, and has also been supplemented with revelations and guidance received first-hand by Gilbert and Davis over the course of its composition. As such, the texts are a rare example of the poiesis, or coming-together, of a ritual magic book. The texts attest to the continuity of medieval ritual magic into the early modern period.

Visions is a record of visions in the crystal, detailing events which took place before, during and after the composition of the Excellent Booke. In the course of this work, the master – Humphrey Gilbert – and scryer – John Davis – converse with a wide-range of spirits as well as religious and occult personalities, including Assasel, Solomon, Roger Bacon, Cornelius Agrippa and four angelic evangelists. The pair experience a series of remarkable sights concealed behind the seven-keyholed door of the house of Solomon. On occasion the visions bled into the waking world in encounters with great demonic dogs and the physical manifestation of the prophet Job.

The Excellent Booke and Visions are, as Legard writes in his Preface, ‘unique documents of sixteenth century magical practice: ones that deserve to be widely read and studied by scholars and practitioners alike since they preserve a detailed account of both the making and the use of a grimoire.’ A book of particular note to those interested in Azazel, the fallen angel and necromantic traditions, students of the grimoires and the practical workings of dirty medieval magic.

There’s more – but I’ll let you go to the website and order it. I was sent a hardcover as my contributor’s copy, and it’s a large, handsome book.

Published in: on February 29, 2020 at 8:00 am  Comments (1)  

Review – Ars Notoria: The Grimoire of Rapid Learning by Magic

Students haven’t changed much, at least in some respects. Those in western medieval Europe crowded into the universities of their day, went to lectures, stomped about drinking establishments, and approaching their studies with varying degrees of ability and dedication. As is the case today, some seek shortcuts to attaining knowledge – yet one route was available to the students of the time that has since been lost. A manual of mystical illustrations, or notae, and prayers provided a means for mastery of any topic in the curriculum, through study and devotion. So it was that the Ars Notoria became the most popular ritual magic work of the era. (For more on the topic, check here, and if you want to know the curious spiritual journey of one of its practitioners, see these books.)

As the medieval curriculum lost its significance, so did the Ars Notoria.  Robert Turner published his own English edition in 1657, but omitting the notae necessary for the Ars Notoria Coverpractice of the magic. More recent releases have included the critical edition from Julien Véronèse, although this reproduces only a few notae, and mostly in black and white. We’ve also seen the annotated copy of Hockley’s edition published by Teitan five years ago. Now we have a truly impressive work, with a few flaws – Skinner and Clark’s edition of the Ars Notoria: The Grimoire of Rapid Learning by Magic. (It should be noted that this is Volume 1 of 2.)

Let’s unpack what’s inside the book. We have a lengthy introduction detailing the history of the Ars Notoria, from its potential origins to the cultural context to the many editions that have appeared since. Next come biographies of many figures, including the putative authors, copyists, publishers, and scribes of the work (although John of Morigny is not mentioned in this section). We have an amazing amount of detail on the major manuscripts and their backgrounds, including detailed tables on the manuscripts, as well as the notae and the prayers. There’s also a brief section laying out the proper procedures for using the notae as a practical experiment.

What is most impressive about the book, however, are the illustrations. Not only do we have a full-color reproduction of one particular manuscript, Yale Beinecke Mellon 1, but also the same for the notae taken from four different manuscripts, that can be employed for the purposes of pursuing all manner of learning for various topics, along with some other minor magical operations.

There is a great deal to like about this book, yet I do have concerns on two points. First, there are times when Skinner seems to narrow down a range of possible interpretations to one. For example, when we discuss the Ars Notoria‘s putative author, Euclid. We have a few choices of whom this could be: the famous mathematician Euclid of Alexandria, the Socratic philosopher Euclid of Megara, and Euclid of Thebes, the father of the supposed author of the magical work Sworn Book of Honorius, according to that book’s introduction

Now, “Euclid of Thebes” doesn’t appear as an author in any of the Ars Notoria manuscripts that Skinner and Clark have compiled. Where Euclid of Thebes does appear is in the introduction to the Sworn Book, which is problematic for two reasons. First, the Sworn Book appears later than the Ars Notoria, and in fact derives many of its prayers from that work. Second, the introduction to the Sworn Book contains some fairly unusual statements, such as the pope’s corruption by demonic forces, and how 811 magicians met in Thebes to encourage Honorius, with the aid of the angel Hocroel, to write that text. In other words, this is a text with a particular purpose and agenda, which makes a straightforward reading as a piece of history problematic.

Skinner himself recognizes this and states he thinks it unlikely that a “Euclid of Thebes” actually wrote the book – yet both the footnotes and the index both gloss any in-text reference to the Ars Notoria‘s “Euclid” as “Euclid of Thebes,” which confuses the matter considerably.

Another problematic item, from my perspective, is Skinner’s link between two particular notae and two inverted Medusa heads found at the bottom of a cistern in Constantinople. I’ll put up the images of one of each here:

According to the introduction:

These columns in the cistern of Constantinople are so unique that it is very likely that the person using this image to design two of the notae was a native of Constantinople, and familiar with this particular cistern.

Here are somequestion:

  1. Was this sculpture at the bottom of a municipal cistern, which probably was filled with water in this era? If so, how familiar would the authors of the Ars Notoria have been with it?
  2. If the authors were indeed familiar with the sculpture, what accounts for the ears, fur, and other animalistic features not present on it?  Could another explanation be that the depiction on the right might have a link to art showing the medieval concept of the Hellmouth, for instance?

These assertions are a tiny fraction of a book that has much to recommend it, yet they are important. A huge barrier to our understanding of the grimoires – and to their acceptance in the broader culture – has always been their blatantly false and ridiculous attributions of authors, dates, places, etc., to their contents. When we read, edit, and publish these books, I think we have an obligation to engage with these questions and explain why we take a position, rather than making assertions that run the risk of replacing one myth with another.

My other concern about the text is the transcription and translation to use. I recently reviewed the Opuscula Cypriani, and its archival documents followed what I feel is the standard in dealing with such texts: we get a facsimile, followed with a transcription thereof, and a translation of that. What this Ars Notoria presents, however, is the Latin text from Agrippa’s Opera omnia (c. 1620) and Turner’s English translation of 1657, both of which are late texts differing in order and content from the medieval texts closer to the source. There’s probably a story to account for how exactly the authors made this unusual decision, but it’s not provided in this work.

A final minor note: the biographical sections could use more footnotes. For instance, I’d love to know if the section on Sir Hans Sloane was informed by Delbourgo’s biography Collecting the World.

Is this Ars Notoria worth picking up? I can see two points against it. The first is the high price point, which is to be expected for a large book with color illustrations from a small press. The second is its specialized nature; a four-month series of devotions undertaken to master the medieval university curriculum may not interest many readers today. Yet for those who find that appealing will appreciate this work, as it is arguably the first accessible and complete published edition of this important medieval text .

Published in: on February 22, 2020 at 9:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Graham Ballooning e-Book, Cyprian in the Movies, Troy Books at Llewellyn, Distaff Gospels, Review Backlog, and Other Matters

Some of you requested an e-book copy of my book on the Grahams, ballooning, magic, alchemy, and other topics. It should be live above, if you’re interested. This is an experiment, so if you have any concerns about format or how the link works, please let me know.

Those of you Cyprian aficionados might want to check out the horror film El Bosque Negro, or Black Forest. The travails of an impoverished young woman as she attempts to use a Book of Cyprian to escape her situation is handled with all the sensitivity that movies usually bring to folk magic traditions. I did enjoy it as campy fun, so you might view it in that light.

The independent UK publisher Troy Books is always putting out books of interest to those interested in local myth and folklore, especially for Cornwall, even if they don’t have enough footnotes for my tastes. They’ve just made a deal with Llewellyn to distribute their works in the States. I’d particularly recommend Mark Norman’s Black Dog Folklore and Gemma Gary’s Silent as the Trees, but you should check out their line if you’re interested in British folklore and magic.

I keep meaning to mention The Distaff Gospels, a fifteenth-century French satire on the beliefs of women. Despite the author’s bias, it does have little nuggets of information on mandrakes, witches, and incubi that might be of interest to some of you.

I’ve still got quite the backlog of grimoires to review, which is something of a new situation for me. I think the Ars Notoria will be next, but I’ll have to find a place to fit it into my schedule. One of you put me on to The Complete Illustrated Grand Grimoire, or the Red Dragon, but that’s going to be somewhere in the back.

I received my copy of the Opuscula Cypriani, and it is huge. You can check out my review on what’s inside here.

I’m working on a section of Douce 116 in which someone apparently puts an angel named after Judas Iscariot into a box.

That’s about all for now.

Published in: on February 8, 2020 at 2:10 pm  Comments (2)