Before the Grimoires – A Brief History of the Main Influences

(Previously published in Magus magazine)


The origins of individual grimoires are often shrouded in mystery, due to the authors of most of the texts being unknown, making it very difficult to place the texts in the correct context and determine their provenance.  In this essay I propose to trace the main roots of the grimoires by looking at earlier texts which had a significant input on the material and practices contained in the grimoires


What is a Grimoire?

The word grimoire is derived from the root grammar, and is used to literally represent a grammar of magic, or workbook of information and techniques. The books or manuscripts commonly known as grimoires were generally written in the period from the thirteenth to eighteenth century.  The grimoires were essentially European phenomena, despite the external influences which contributed to their creation.  Thus the grimoires are usually found in English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian or Latin versions, with occasional texts in other languages such as Arabic, Czech, Dutch and Spanish.

The core components usually found in grimoires are the creation of the magic circle, consecration of the magic tools, spirit lists (being the angels, demons or other creatures summoned), conjurations of the said spirits, and other correspondences or pertinent information, such as details of purification of the practitioners and their paraphernalia (and sometimes its construction). Some works, like a number of the variants of the Key of Solomon,[1] replaced spirit lists and conjurations with lists of amulets and talismans, with details of their creation and consecration.  Nonetheless there are still common themes with both the conjurations and amulets/talismans being used for similar purposes, i.e. protection and acquisition.

Both these terms encompass a range of purposes, with protection including health, property, person whilst travelling, protection from attack, etc. Likewise acquisition may include wealth, success, love, sex, favour with a powerful figure, knowledge, good harvest, etc.

Although the popular perception of the grimoire tradition is of a heavily Judeo-Christian framework, upon inspection of different grimoires it is clear that in addition to the earlier texts which influenced the practices (discussed below) there are also many influences from the classical religions and folk practices.  The clearest indicator of this influence is the number of deities from old religions who occur in the grimoires, sometimes by their own names and at other times in bastardised forms, such as Roman and Greek deities like Apollo, Diana, Hades, Pluto, Python and Serapis, as well as other ancient deities like Astarte (Ashtoreth), Baal (Bael) and Horus (Hauros), and classical mythical creatures like Cerberus and the Phoenix (Phenex).[2]


The Roots – Proto-Grimoires and Early Magical Texts

A number of works spanning the period from the 2nd century BCE – 12th century CE may be seen as major influences on the material subsequently found in the grimoires. The ongoing and derivative nature of such magical texts and the amuletic tradition which was interconnected with them is also significant in the diversity of material which they incorporated.

The Greek Magical Papyri is the name given to a collection of magical texts found together which span the period from 2nd century BCE – 5th century CE. To these are added the collection of texts in Supplementum Magicum volumes 1 & 2, which contain contemporary material. The Greek Magical Papyri (often abbreviated to PGM) are characterised by the syncretisation of deities and spiritual creatures from numerous ancient pantheons including Babylonian, Christian, Egyptian, Gnostic, Greek, Jewish and Mithraic.  They also contain practices which are seen as key components of the grimoires, particularly the conjuration of spiritual creatures through repeated coercion, followed by a dismissal when the task is completed.  Another theme seen in many of the charms and spells is that of planetary and zodiacal attributions (such as the thirty-six decans), which would also later feature prominently in some of the grimoires.

Another significant collection of material is that published by Meyer and Smith in Ancient Christian Magic. This work spans the period from the second – twelfth century CE, and contains numerous charms, spells and conjurations written in Coptic and Greek. The flavour of the material is more Christian, with heavy Gnostic and Jewish influences. However there is also a crossover with the material found in the PGM, such as the use of the seven Greek vowels and some of the same voces magicae.[3] There are also long angelic conjurations and phrases which hint at the influence of the Jewish system of Merkavah mysticism.

Two early Jewish texts of particular note are the second century CE Testament of Solomon and the fourth century CE Sepher ha-Razim (Book of the Mysteries).  The Testament of Solomon tells the story of the subjugation of sixty-one demons by King Solomon, who uses a magical ring given to him by the archangel Michael to bind them and learn the name of their controlling angels.  The Testament of Solomon not only includes spirits of all thirty-six decans, but also emphasises the use of a controlling angel to bind the more chaotic nature of the demon to the service of the magician.  Sepher ha-Razim is largely planetary in nature, and contains conjurations of numerous angels and also the use of a wide range of paraphernalia including engraved metal lamellae, an ancient Greek practice which can be seen later in the grimoires in the form of the engraved pentacles. Another feature of Sepher ha-Razim is the use of the so-called Celestial Script, which is also found on contemporary amulets from this period and the following centuries.

A theological text from the late fifth century CE would also have a significant effect on the grimoire tradition.  The Celestial Hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite was the first text to detail the hierarchy of nine orders of angels which would form the basis of the hierarchies found in orthodox Christianity, the grimoires and the Kabbalah.  The Sword of Moses may also be mentioned here, as this tenth century CE text (which may date back as far as the fourth century CE) has some similarities to the grimoires that would follow, with numerous angels to be conjured to gain the sword (a long string of divine names used in the charms), and a long list of possible acquisitive and protective results which can be achieved using the text.



It is clear that the roots of the grimoires are essentially planted in a synthesis of components from Greco-Egyptian magic and Judeo-Christian magic.  With the research now being conducted by magical scholars and academics alike, a clearer picture of the scope, depth and importance of the grimoire tradition as a corpus of practices at the crossroads between the ancient and modern worlds is emerging.




Alexander, Philip S. (2003) Sepher ha-Razim and the Problem of Black Magic in Early Judaism. In Magic in the Biblical World, pp170-90

Betz, Hans Dieter (ed) (1996) The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Betz, Hans Dieter (1991) Magic and Mystery in the Greek Magical Papyri, in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic & Religion. Oxford, Oxford University Press

Conybeare, F.C. (1898) The Testament of Solomon. In Jewish Quarterly Review, October 1898

Daniel, Robert W. & Maltomini, Franco (1990) Supplementum Magicum Volume 1. Koln, Westdeutscher Verlag

Daniel, Robert W. & Maltomini, Franco (1992) Supplementum Magicum Volume 2. Koln, Westdeutscher Verlag

D’Este, Sorita and Rankine, David (2008) Wicca Magickal Beginnings. London, Avalonia

Fanger, Claire (ed) (1998) Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic. Stroud, Sutton Publishing Ltd

Flint, Valerie I.J. (1991) The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. New Jersey, Princeton University Press

Greefield, Richard P.H. (1988) Traditions of Belief in Late Byzantine Demonology. Amsterdam, Hakkert

Luibheld, C. (trans) (1987) Pseudo-Dionysus: The Complete Works. New York, Paulist Press

Meyer, Marvin W., & Smith, Richard (1999) Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton, Princeton University Press

Morgan, Michael A. (1983) Sepher ha-Razim: The Book of the Mysteries. USA, Society of Biblical Literature

Rankine, David (2009) The Book of Treasure Spirits. London, Avalonia

Skinner, Stephen & Rankine, David (2009) A Collection of Magical Secrets. London, Avalonia

Thomas, Keith (1980) Religion and the Decline of Magic. London, Penguin Books

Thompson, C.J.S. (1927) The Mysteries and Secrets of Magic. London, John Lane

Thorndike, Lynn (1923) A History of Magic and Experimental Science Vol 2 The First Thirteen Centuries. New York, Columbia University Press

Torijano, Pablo A. (2002) Solomon the Esoteric King: From King to Magus, Development of a Tradition. Leiden, Brill







[1] See The Veritable Key of Solomon, Skinner & Rankine, 2009.

[2] Examples of these may be found in The Goetia of Dr Rudd, Skinner & Rankine, 2007.

[3] Voces magicae are words of unknown origin and meaning, which are often included in charms to focus power and heighten the awareness of the practitioner.

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