Owen Davies' book bears fearsome-looking symbols on the cover and begins by asking us to contemplate "the most dangerous books in the world": grimoires, books of demonic and diabolic magic, some of which threaten that even to touch them without the right preparation will suck you immediately down to Hell.
It's a high-risk pitch. One of the recurring themes of Davies' book is that grimoires' contents can never live up to their reputations. The early 20th-century Chicago occultist Feliks Markiewicz sold purported magical secrets. To make your neighbour's cow dry, he revealed, you should sneak into his barn and milk it yourself; his spell to learn Polish turned out to be a Polish-English dictionary with instructions to memorise it.
That is the extreme end, of course, but it is in a grimoire's nature to be anticlimactic. The works of the most notorious Renaissance sorcerer, Cornelius Agrippa, turned out to contain few user-friendly incantations and a great deal of fearsomely complex mathematics. The notorious Satanic Bible of 1970 is in fact a blandly derivative humanist tract. The most alluring grimoire Davies discusses is the Necronomicon, which the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft invented for his stories in the 1920s. Lovecraft invented a detailed fake history of the Necronomicon and then quoted from it, but realised it would be much more powerful if it remained unwritten. This has not, of course, stopped his successors from creating several rival texts for it and claiming them as authentic ancient works.
We are, in other words, in a hall of mirrors here, and Davies is a learned and unflappable guide. He is authoritative whether discussing medieval Icelandic farting magic or a black New Yorker travelling to England to learn phallic-Buddhist Rosicrucianism. We read about the ferocious arguments over whether Mormonism's founder Joseph Smith was a magician, and about Nazi Germany's war on (unofficial) magic and astrology. Davies takes us from the ancient world right up to the present, with the focus on Near Eastern and European traditions, but also on the recent domestication of those traditions in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Indeed, the sheer eclecticism of the subject is important. Grimoires had allure because they were seen to hail either from the ancient past or from the other side of the world. In the early 20th century, while Europeans lapped up fake Eastern magic, the US magician and entrepreneur Lauron William de Laurence built up a commercial empire in West Africa and the Caribbean so pervasive that his publications remain banned in Jamaica today.
This range means the book reads like a who's who of the grimoire business. That is more fun than it sounds, since Davies' characters are a freak-show parade of liars, quacks, geniuses, fools, lunatics, villains, visionaries, suckers and febrile, over-intense scholars. Anyone who is interested in any part of this subject will find this book an invaluable reference, and they will be entertained in the process.
Still, for all that, I found myself with some of the grimoire-reader's sense of anticlimax. There is a huge amount of material here: I want to know more about what (if anything) it means - what it means about society, religion, science and the history of the book. There are hints here on all of these subjects, but only hints. If you are not interested in this subject, there is precious little in this book to explain why you should be.
Writing on grimoires is a tricky business. Davies mentions one anthropologist who ended up being cursed by the witch-saint he was studying; he himself has so far suffered nothing worse than a spate of emails requesting spells from teenage fans of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Perhaps with this in mind, he stays po-faced throughout, with only occasional flashes of laconic wit - an impressive but slightly disappointing act of self-restraint. Presumably he thinks that most or all of what he is describing is mendacious or delusional nonsense, but we do not know.
Instead, we have the cultural historian's normal veneer of "respect", which by refusing to pass judgment ends up passing the most sweeping judgment of all. Ronald Hutton's remarkable history of modern paganism (The Triumph of the Moon, 1999) owed much of its power to its success in breaking out of this shell. Understandably but regrettably, Davies conjures up plenty of demons but never ventures beyond the safety of his scholarly pentagram.
Grimoires: A History of Magic Books
By Owen Davies
Oxford University Press 384pp, £14.99
Published 26 March 2009