As long as humanity has had beliefs in a higher power, the use of magic, spells, curses, and incantations have featured widely across cultures. A number of influential texts or ‘grimoires’ (textbooks of magic) were developed over the centuries, many of which became the books of choice for secret societies and occult organizations that endured well into the twentieth century.
Witchcraft of some sort has probably existed since humans first banded together in groups. Simple sorcery (or the use of magic accessible to ordinary people), such as setting out offerings to helpful spirits or using charms, can be found in almost all traditional societies. Prehistoric art depicts magical rites to ensure successful hunting, and also seems to depict religious rituals involving people dancing in animal costumes. Shamanism, the practice of contacting spirits through dream work and meditative trances, is probably the oldest religion, and early shamans collected much knowledge about magic and magical tools.
Witches of ancient Sumeria and Babylonia invented an elaborate Demonology. They had a belief that the world was full of spirits and that most of these spirits were hostile. Each person was supposed to have their own spirit which would protect them from demons and enemies, which could can only be fought by the use of magic (including amulets, incantations and exorcisms).
Western beliefs about witchcraft grew largely out of the mythologies and folklore of ancient peoples, especially the Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans. Witches in ancient Egypt purportedly used their wisdom and knowledge of amulets, spells, formulas and figures to bend the cosmic powers to their purpose or that of their clients.
The Greeks had their own form of magic, which was close to a religion, known as Theurgy (the practice of rituals, often seen as magical in nature, performed with the intention of invoking the action of the gods, especially with the goal of uniting with the divine and perfecting oneself). Another lower form of magic was “mageia”, which was closer to sorcery, and was practised by individuals who claimed to have knowledge and powers to help their clients, or to harm their clients’ enemies, by performing rites or supplying certain formulas.
Some argue, however, that the real roots of witchcraft and magic as we known it come from the Celts, a diverse group of Iron Age tribal societies which flourished between about 700 BC and 100 AD in northern Europe (especially the British Isles). Believed to be descendants of Indo-Europeans, the Celts were a brilliant and dynamic people, gifted artists, musicians, storytellers, and metalworkers, as well as expert farmers and fierce warriors much feared by their adversaries, the Romans.
They were also a deeply spiritual people, who worshipped both a god and goddess. Their religion was pantheistic, meaning they worshipped many aspects of the “One Creative Life Source” and honoured the presence of the “Divine Creator” in all of nature. They believed in reincarnation and that after death they went to the Summerland for rest and renewal while awaiting rebirth. By about 350 BC, a priestly class known as the Druids had developed, who became the priests of the Celtic religion as well as teachers, judges, astrologers, healers, midwives and bards.
The religious beliefs and practices of the Celts, their love for the land, and their veneration of trees (the oak in particular) grew into what later became known as Paganism, although this label is also used for the polytheistic beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Blended over several centuries with the beliefs and rituals of other Indo-European groups, this spawned such practices as concocting potions and ointments, casting spells and performing works of magic, all of which (along with many of the nature-based beliefs held by the Celts and other groups) became collectively known as witchcraft in the Medieval Period.
Humankind has long dabbled in the supernatural, lured by the promise of obtaining power and enlightenment. Several texts have been devoted to this practice, outlining complicated and mysterious rituals that were presented as the key to achieving communion with otherworldly spirits.
Here we feature some incredible, ancient manuscripts, that provide a fascinating window into the magic of the ancients.
1. Greek Magical Papyri
“The Greek magical papyri” is the name given by scholars to a body of papyri from Graeco-Roman Egypt, which each contain a collection of magical spells, formulae, hymns, and rituals. The materials in the papyri, date back from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD. The manuscripts came to light through the antiquities trade, from the 18th century onwards.
The magical Papyri, includes instructions, for how to summon a headless demon, open doors to the underworld, and protect yourself from wild beasts. Perhaps most tantalizing of all, they describe how to gain a supernatural assistant, an otherworldly entity who does your bidding.
The most commonly found spells in the Papyri are divination spells—ceremonies that offer you visions of the future. One of its most well-known passages provides instructions for how to forecast upcoming events using an “iron lampstead,” “an offering of frankincense,” and an “uncorrupted and pure” child. After being placed into a deep trance, the child sees images flickering in the flame.
Among the Papyri’s most famous components is the Mithras Liturgy. This ceremony describes how to ascend through seven higher planes of existence and communicate with the deity Mithras.
2. Sworn Book Of Honorius
Also known as the Liber Juratus Honorii, the Sworn Book of Honorius is a medieval grimoire and defense of ritual magic rumored to be the work of Honorius of Thebes, a mysterious, possibly mythological figure who has never been identified. The book begins with a scathing criticism of the Catholic church. The Church, a staunch enemy of the dark arts, has been corrupted by the devil, whose goal is to doom humanity by ridding the world of the benefits of magic.
The Sworn Book makes lofty demands of its practitioners. Only three copies of the book can be made, anyone in possession of the book who cannot find a worthy magician to inherit it must take it to their grave, and all adherents must “utterly forbear the company of women.”
Like many other grimoires, its rituals focus largely on summoning angels, demons, and other spirits to gain knowledge and power. By repeating long-winded orations, the practitioner is promised a wealth of scintillating abilities. These powers range from the awesome (causing floods and destroying kingdoms) to the eerie (seeing into purgatory and knowing the hour of your death). Among its most malign spells are ones to “to cast sickness into whom you will,” “to cause discord and debate,” and “to kill whom you will.”
3. Pseudomonarchia Daemonum
Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, also known as the False Hierarchy of Demons, is a great compendium from the 16th century dictating the names of sixty-nine demons. The book is like a catalog, of 69 noble demons—prominent members of Hell’s monarchy—their specialties, and the methods of conjuring them. Naberius, for example, is a marquess who comes in the form of a crow and “maketh a man amiable and cunning in all arts.” Foras is a president who “recovereth lost things and discovereth treasures.” Other members of the demonic aristocracy include Haagenti, who can turn water into wine, Shax, who steals horses and robs people’s sight and hearing, and Eligos, who can see the future of wars and the fates of soldiers.
The list initially appeared as an appendix to a book about demonology and witchcraft by Johann Weyer. Johann Weyer was a Dutch doctor and occult practitioner born in the Netherlands in 1515. Well versed in Latin from a young age, Weyer quickly became a student of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, a famous magician, theologian, and occultist in Antwerp.
It appears that Weyer’s fascination with magic began while working under Agippa, but later escalated after he became a doctor in his own right: he was summoned to a particular fortune teller’s court case and thereby asked by the judge for advice on the topic. This court case started his interest in researching the witchcraft way of life, culminating with his decision to attempt to defend those who were accused of practicing. Twenty-seven years after this case, when Weyer was sixty-two years old, he published Pseudomonarchia Daemonum.
Weyer’s work claims that while demons and the monsters from hell could have illusionist power over people, the affected people were not witches on trial—the “mentally ill”, as Weyer stated—but rather the magicians who played tricks on common folk for an easy coin. Weyer’s intention was to create a creed to vet out the accused who were, in fact, innocent. How helpful Weyer’s efforts for the accused witches were remains unseen, yet there is evidence that his pleas for their mercy went predominately ignored.
4. Ars Notoria
As part of a larger collection known as the Lesser Keys of Solomon, the Ars Notoria is a book that is said to allow followers a mastery of academia, giving them greater eloquence, heightened senses, a perfect memory, and wisdom. The Ars Notoria is one of five books within a grimoire called the Lesser Keys of Solomon, an anonymous text that was compiled from other works in the 17th century, and focuses on demonology.
The Ars Notoria is the oldest portion of the Lesser of the Keys grimoire, dating back to the 13th century. However, the texts contained within are a collection of orations, prayers, and magical words which date back to well before the 1200s. The prayers are in several languages, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. It was not a book of spells or potions, but a book of prayers and orations that are said to strengthen and focus one’s mental powers, by beseeching god for intellectual gifts. Among these intellectual gifts is the concept of a “perfect memory.”
The Ars Notoria promises practitioners the mastery of liberal arts—geometry, arithmetic, and philosophy among them—through a lengthy daily process of visualization, contemplation, and orations. Within, it describes a daily process of visualization, contemplation, and orations, intended to enhance the practitioner’s focus and memory. Through these orations, you can beseech God for intellectual gifts, including eloquence, heightened senses, wisdom, and perfect memory.
As a book concerned primarily with enlightenment, the Ars Notoria eschewed some of the more malevolent aspects of magic. However, not everyone was convinced of its benign nature. One notable 14th-century monk, John of Morigny, devoutly followed the teachings of the Ars Notoria and had haunting visions, until he claimed that the visions themselves were demonic in nature. He warned people of the diabolical nature of the Ars Notoria in his own mystical manuscript, called the Liber Visonum.
5. Arbatel De Magia Veterum
The Arbatel de magia veterum (Arbatel: Of the Magic of the Ancients) is a Renaissance-period grimoire – a textbook of magic – and one of the most influential works of its kind.
Composed late in the 16th century by an unknown author, the book is unlike some other occult manuscripts that contain dark magic and malicious spells. Instead it’s a comprehensive handbook of spiritual advice and aphorisms. The Arbatel contains guidance on how to live an honest and honorable life.
The Arbatel is claimed to have been written in 1575 AD., and although the author remains unknown, it has been speculated that it was written by a man named Jacques Gohory, a Paracelsian (a group who believed in and followed the medical theories and therapies of Paracelsus).
The focus of the Arbatel is on nature, and the natural relationships between humanity and a celestial hierarchy. It centers on the positive relationships between the celestial world and humans, and the interactions between the two. The Arbatel was an extremely influential work for its time.
The Arbatel reads much like a mystical self-help book, stressing the importance of Christian godliness, productivity, positive thinking, and using magic to help instead of harm. Its kernels of wisdom include “live for yourself and the Muses; avoid the friendship of the multitude” and “flee the mundane; seek heavenly things.”
The Arbatel reveals a series of rituals to invoke the seven heavenly governors and their legions, who rule over the provinces of the universe. The governors include Bethel, who brings miraculous medicines, Phalec, who brings honor in war, and Aratron, who “maketh hairy men.” However, the ability to perform these rituals is only for a person who is “born to magic from his mother’s womb.” All others, the Arbatel warns, are powerless imitators.
In addition to angels and archangels, the Arbatel mentions a coterie of other helpful elemental spirits that exist beyond the veil of the physical world, including pygmies, nymphs, dryads, sylphs (tiny forest people), and sagani (magical mortal spirits that inhabit the elements).
Perhaps not as well-known as other grimoires, the Galdrabok, an Icelandic ‘book of magic’, is one of the most important surviving documents for the practices and understanding of occult practices in Iceland in the late Medieval era. It offers a unique insight into the various elements that contributed to a national magical tradition in Iceland at the time of its compilation.
The Icelandic grimoire, originated in 16th century, and according to Dr Flowers, no other document of comparable age gives so many details about the archaic Germanic gods, cosmology, and magical practices, as does this manuscript.
The Galdrabok is a collection of 47 spells, compiled by multiple magicians. Like most Icelandic magic of the period, the Galdrabok relies heavily on staves—runes that have magical properties when carried on the body, carved on objects, or written out. Among the staves drawn in the Galdrabok are ones to attract and curry the favor of powerful men, incite fear in your enemies, and put someone to sleep.
The manuscript does not represent a comprehensive composition but rather it is a collection of spells that appear to be randomly pieced together. The current known version of the Galdrabok is known to have been written by four scribes, working over a period of around one hundred years. The majority of the spells found in the Galdrabok are “apotropaic spells,” benign remedies designed to protect the practitioner and heal various maladies. These include tiredness, difficulty with childbirth, headaches, and insomnia.
Other spells are pretty peculiar in nature. Spell 27, for example, when drawn on someone’s food, will make them sick and unable to eat all day, while Spell 30 is designed to kill another person’s animal. There are also staves to prevent your house from unwanted visitors, catch thieves, and “get satisfaction in a legal case.”
The Galdrabok is essentially composed of two kinds of spells: a groups of spells working by means of prayer formula, invoking higher powers and by which the magical end is effected indirectly. Only a small number of spells in the Galdrabok (8 in total) fall into this category. The second group consists of more commonly used spells which supposedly worked as a direct expression of the magician’s will, expressed in forms of signs, written, or spoken formulas. Three of the spells in the Galdrabok do not involve either prayers or signs but are more like a recipe, or a potion, using natural substances that were supposed to work with magical effects. This kind of natural magic is often found in “leech-books”, or physician’s manuals.
The Picatrix is an ancient Arabian book of astrology and occult magic dating back to the 10th or 11th century, which has gained notoriety for the obscene nature of its magical recipes. The Picatrix, with its cryptic astrological descriptions and spells covering almost every conceivable wish or desire, has been translated and used by many cultures over the centuries, and continues to fascinate occult followers from around the world.
The Picatrix was originally written in Arabic, titled Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm, which translates to “The Aim of the Sage” or “The Goal of the Wise.” Most scholars believe it originated in the 11th century, although there are well-supported arguments that date it to the 10th. Eventually, the Arabic writings were translated into Spanish, and later into Latin in 1256 for the Castilian king Alfonso the Wise. At this time it took on the Latin title Picatrix.
The book spans a mammoth 400 pages of astrological theory. Alongside are spells and incantations to channel the occult energies of planets and stars to achieve power and enlightenment. The text is composed of both magic and astrology. One element that has contributed to the notoriety of the Picatrix is the obscene nature of its magical recipes. The gruesome concoctions are intended to alter one’s state of consciousness, and may lead to out-of-body experiences, or even death. Ingredients include: blood, bodily excretions, brain matter mixed with copious amounts of hashish, opium, and psychoactive plants.
8. Ars Almadel
The Ars Almadel is Book Four of the Lesser Key of Solomon, also known as the Lemegeton, a significant grimoire of demonology compiled in the 17th century by an unknown author. This particular book of the Legemeton provides a blueprint for constructing an Almadel—a magical wax altar, somewhat like a ouija board, that allows you to communicate with angels. The magical Almadel alter, has roots in Ancient Jewish and Arabian Magick, used to invoke and communicate with a specific group of angels with a crystal ball. The Almadel consists of a square plate of wax engraved with magical names and characters, which rests upon four candles constructed with special feet for suspending the plate in the air. The plate has holes in the corners, and mastic incense is burned beneath it so that the smoke flows through the holes and the angel descends.
The angels in the system relate to the seasons and the year’s astrological calendar.
The Almadel is composed of four Altitudes, or “Choras,” each of which corresponds with a unique set of angels with different domains. The text provides the names of the angels of each Chora (Gelomiros and Aphiriza, for example), the proper way to direct your requests to them (ask only what is “just and lawful”), and the best calendar dates for invoking them. It also includes brief physical descriptions of these angelic manifestations. The Angels of the Third Chora, for example, come in the form of “little women dressed in green and silver” wearing crowns made of bay leaves.
9. The Black Pullet
The Black Pullet is a narrative written in the 18th century, in the first person, in which a French soldier in Napoleon’s army is rescued, while on expedition in Egypt, by an elderly mage who teaches him the art of creating talismans. The Black Pullet focuses on the study of magical talismans, special objects engraved with mystical words that protect and empower the wearer.
The Pullet includes detailed instructions for how to construct talismans out of bronzed steel, silk, and special ink. Among these invocations is a spell to call upon a djinn, a creature made of smoke and fire who will bring you true love. If your ambitions are slightly more cynical, then the Pullet also provides talismans that will force “discreet men” to tell you their secrets, allow you to see behind closed doors, and destroy anyone who is plotting against you. The book contains 22 talismans and rings.
The apex of the book’s mystical teachings is acquiring the Black Pullet itself. Perhaps the most wonderful secret revealed is the power to produce the Black Pullet, otherwise known as the “Hen with the Golden Eggs.” Unlimited wealth was granted to the person who achieved the creation of this incredible Hen. The grimoire contains instructions for acquiring the Black Pullet, which has the ability to find buried treasures.
10. The Book Of Abramelin The Mage
Written in the 15th century, the Book of Abramelin the Mage is one of the most prominent, mystical esoteric grimoire, of Kabbalistic knowledge of All time. It is the work of Abraham von Worms, a Jewish traveler who purportedly encountered the enigmatic magician Abramelin during a voyage to Egypt. Abraham was believed to have lived between the 14 th and 15 th centuries. The Book of Abramelin the Mage involves the passing of Abraham’s magical and Kabbalistic knowledge to his son, Lamech, and relates the story of how he first acquired such knowledge. Abraham begins his narration with the death of his father, who gave him ‘signs and instructions concerning the way in which it is necessary to acquire the Holy Qabalah’ shortly before his death. Desiring to acquire this wisdom, Abraham said he travelled to Mayence (Mainz) to study under a Rabbi, called Moses. Abraham studied under Moses for four years before travelling for the next six years of his life, eventually reaching Egypt. It was in Egypt that Abraham met Abramelin the Mage, an Egyptian mage who was living in the desert outside an Egyptian town called Arachi or Araki. Abramelin is said to have then taught Abraham his Kabbalistic magic and gave him two manuscripts to copy from. Pne of the highlights of this grimoire is an elaborate ritual known as the ‘Abramelin Operation’, which is said to enable a mage to gain the ‘knowledge and conversation’ of his/her ‘guardian angel’ and to blind demons. The manuscript was later used in occult organizations such as Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley’s mystical system of Thelema. Abramelin’s ritual, referred to as “the operation,” is an arduous one. It consists of 18 months of prayer and purification, which is only recommended for men of sound health between the ages of 25 and 50. Women in general are discouraged from undertaking “the operation” because of their “curiosity and love of talk,” although an exception can be made for virgins. If the tenets of “the operation” are adhered to strictly and with unwavering devotion, you get in touch with your Holy Guardian Angel, who will grant you a wealth of powers. These powers include necromancy and divination, precognition, control of the weather, knowledge of secrets, visions of the future, and the ability to open locked doors.
The book relies heavily on the power of magic squares—unique words arranged into puzzles. Like the Icelandic staves in the Galdrabok, these squares contain mystic and occult properties when written out. The word “MILON,” for example, reveals the secrets of past and future when written on parchment and placed over the head, while “SINAH” brings war. The author warns that some magic squares, like “CASED” are too sinister to ever implement.
This text had a profound impact on famed occultist Aleister Crowley, who claimed to have experienced several supernatural occurrences after embarking on the ritual, and on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a 19th-century British magical order. Crowley later used the book as the foundation for his own system of magic.