WHAT IS A GRIMOIRE? A history of grimoires

A brief history and introduction to grimoires. These are personal notes belonging to Y. Leigh and they cover etymology; most famous grimoires; the rise and fall and rise again of the grimoire.

The word itself, grimoire, if we go just one or two steps backward, is derived from the Old French word grammaire. Old French was spoken in Northern France between the 8th and 14th century. It translates as grammar (which we’d have guessed); but it can also translate as magician or conjurer. Which is notable.

A grimoire is an occult book of instructions and teachings, around alchemy, magick, rituals, spells, but more specifically (and this was originally a defining staple of grimoires), it contains spells for summoning, conjuring demons.

Note: just because your book of magickal knowledge is not an object of demonology, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a grimoire. But the first grimoires were specific in this regard, and most shared the same source of magickal knowledge, too - and that is King Solomon. The most famous and arguably most important grimoire, The Key of Solomon, is attributed to King Solomon. He was a wise and wealthy king and commander of demons. He was born in Jerusalem, and reigned over the Kingdom of Israel from about 970 to 931 BCE. He is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, the Quran, the Talmud, Hadiths, and more.

The material in grimoires (traditionally speaking) is derivative from Hebrew, Hellenistic Greek, and Egyptian, magickal lore and texts, and over the centuries, they have been influenced by the religions of Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism and Christianity, to name a few. However, although based in ancient wisdom, myth and legend, a lot of the famous grimoires that we actually still know of today, were written in the 17th and 18th centuries, and authors would claim them as being far older. This could be a disappointing fact, but their knowledge was still picked from extremely old scriptures and beyond, which we’ve probably lost most of by now, and grimoire was a term invented to describe aggregations of this knowledge. Magick, also known as the Old Religion in Wicca, has been around for far, far longer than Christianity, for example.

So, let’s move on to discuss the most famous grimoires, starting with the previously mentioned Key of Solomon. Also known as The Greater Key of Solomon and the Clavicle of Solomon. There are so many versions that dating it precisely is impossible - but a physical Greek version, which can be seen at the British Museum, dates back to the 11 to 12 hundreds. There IS record from the first century of a Jewish historian called Josephus, talking about a magickal book apparently authored by Solomon, but who knows. The Key of Solomon is the book usually cited as the source for most grimoires.

It wasn’t until the 1400’s that Solomon’s works (plural, he has more than one attributed to him and we will get to those) that they became well-known and widely circulated, and along with the rise of Christianity, in 1350, Pope Innocent the 6th ordered that all copies of the grimoire were burned; in 1559, the grimoire was deemed dangerous by the Holy Inquisition of the Church… etc. etc. Grimoires were branded as heresy, and this is when witch hysteria and hunting begins in Europe, kicking off in the 1400’s. Almost 80,000 supposed witches were executed during the witch trials of the late Middle Ages, considered servants of the Devil, although it is estimated that up to 9 million people were killed at the hands of witch hunters, because they would often destroy entire villages as punishment.

King Solomon’s name is also given to the Lemegeton, or Lesser Key of Solomon; and the Testament of Solomon. Lemegeton’s origins are unknown, and there are four parts to it, all with differing authors, or contributors if you like. These four parts are Theurgia (light magick), Goetia (dark magick), Pauline Art (the zodiac, the planets, and time), and the Almadel (which is about 20 governing spirits of the zodiac). Lemegeton lists 72 Fallen Angels (demons), their names and powers and weaknesses, and this was most likely taken from the Hebrew scripture Schemhamphorae, which lists 9 orders of 72 angels who bear the hidden name of God. *note to self: write up and scan in the 9 orders.

Then the Testament of Solomon, was written between the first and third centuries, so potentially the oldest of the trio; it is a Greek text brimming with magick, medicine, lore, demonology, angelology, astrology - and it discusses in depth the stellar bodies (the stars and planets) and the heavenly bodies (groups of demons of the world of darkness). Rosemary Ellen Guiley, a demonologist of our day, says that based on the contents of the Testament of Solomon, the author was probably familiar with the Babylonian Talmud. I think this says a lot about it’s origins, as the Babylonians were some of the first to begin writing down historical and current events, essentially kicking off the timeline of “recorded history” between 4 and 3 thousand BC. The Babylonians inhabited Mesopotamia, the homeland of the first agricultural revolution which was around 12,000 years ago, but they were there for many years before that, too. If you go way back into the earliest history we know of magick, spiritualism, the literary archetypes of lore… a lot of it will lead you back to the Mesopotamians.

Grimoires, which were once only owned by a select few, who bore the secret wisdom of the heavens down to hell, have spread uncontrollably across the globe over the centuries. They became some of the most read publications of the Middle Ages, second only to the Bible, but when the Church in Europe proclaimed magick and witchcraft to be heresy, a grimoire became a potential piece of evidence against you. I imagine they were still pored over, but absolutely in secret. By the 18th century, after thousands of grimoires had been burned by order of the powers that had been, world-changing improvements to the printing press made print cheap, and magickal books became accessible to whomever dared read them.

Since then, we have seen more recent grimoires published, such as the founding text of the Wicca religion, The Book of Shadows. Although some people debate whether this counts as a grimoire, I know that Wiccans themselves differentiate grimoires and Books of Shadows, but by definition, they are extremely similar.

*note to self: scan in Secret Grimoire of Turiel for Resources page

I’ve only touched the very surface of the history of grimoires, but will end with The Black Pullet. The author is unknown, the book surfaced in 18th century France, and it teaches control of the universe by the power of talismanic rings. It is very short and entirely derivative but still entertaining, written like one long diary entry and scattered with diagrams and instruction. Behold, the full title of The Black Pullet:

The Black Pullet; or, the Hen with the Golden Eggs, comprising the Science of Magical Talismans and Rings, the Art of Necromancy and of the Kabalah, for the Conjuration of Aerial and Infernal Spirits, of Sylphs, Undines, and Gnomes, serviceable for the acquisition of the Secret Sciences, for the Discovery of Treasures, for obtaining power to command all beings, and to unmask all Sciences and Bewitchments. The whole following the Doctrines of Socrates, Pythagoras, Zoroaster, Son of the Grand Aromasis, and other philosophers whose works in MS. escaped the conflagration of the Library of Ptolemy. Translated from the Language of the Magi and that of the Hieroglyphs by the Doctors Mizzaboula-Jabamia, Danhuzerus, Nehmahmiah, Judahim, and Eliaeb. Rendered into French by A.J.S.D.R.L.G.F.