By Owen Davies
The literature on the history of magic is huge and much of it is either out of print or published in expensive academic books and journal articles. Those books suggested below provide affordable, accessible and informed accounts of the magical traditions that produced grimoires over the millennia. For a brief overview of some of the most influential grimoires, see my Top Ten.
Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt (, 2006). A very readable and well-illustrated account of the intertwined religious, medical and magical traditions of the Egyptians, who were considered as supreme masters of magic, from the time of the Pharaohs through to the influence of Greek and Roman rule.
Daniel Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy (2004). Hellenistic Egypt can be considered the home of the grimoire and Ogdens book provides a clear and fascinating account of the Greek and Roman contribution to the magical traditions contained in some of the earliest surviving magic books.
Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages ( 2000). This excellent general overview of the world of learned magic explains just how influential Arabic and Jewish magical writings were on the numerous manuscript grimoires that circulated amongst the clergy and aristocracy during the medieval period – and beyond.
Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction (2008). Goodrick-Clarke wrote a seminal book considering occult influences on the rise of Nazism, and in this accessible survey he looks at 2000 years of mystical traditions, such as Hermeticism, Kabbalah, Freemasonry and Spiritualism, all of which were important influences in the history of grimoires. See also Arthur Versluis, Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esoteric Traditions (2007).
Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History From Antiquity to the Present (2007). While Goodrick-Clarke and Versluis explore the history of high-minded spiritual traditions, Michael Bailey, an authority on medieval magic, takes the reader through the wider social roles and influence of magic in European society. As he shows, the authoritarian fear of grimoire magic played its part in the origins of the witch trials.
Yvonne P. Chireau, Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (2003). One of several much needed works looking at African and European influences on the distinctive African-American magical beliefs and practices that emerged in the nineteenth century. It helps explain how book magic influenced what was otherwise a largely oral tradition.
Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (1999). This seminal exploration of modern witchcraft as a new religion covers a huge amount of ground in search of its origins. The history of grimoires is a central aspect of the founding of modern paganism, while the contemporary interest in them is, in part, an outcome of the growth and cultural influence of Pagan witchcraft in Europe and America.
Owen Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Herfordshire. He is author of Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. You will find a great interview with the author here: http://blog.oup.com/2009/07/owen-davies/. Reprinted with permission from Oxford University Press.