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Book Review: The Clavis or Key to the Magic of Solomon

Review:  The Clavis or Key to the Magic of Solomon


I guess I’m just may be too inclined to try and stuff things into categories and bins but it has always escaped me why ceremonial magic and Paganism are often tied together.  I understand that modern Paganism is a broad net that sweeps up all the little fishes it can find, but I do sometimes think we have to draw the line somewhere.   Given the recent debate about who is and isn’t and does and doesn’t want to be a Pagan, I think this is a valid question [1].  In my opinion, ceremonial magicians are inherently Christian, given that their originating materials are all focused on angels and devils and whatnot.  That does not mean we can’t learn from them, or even participate, but we should at least know what we’re doing.

This screed is relevant because I’m reviewing an original “talismanic grimoire” The Clavis or Key to the Magic of Solomon, by a late 18th century magician, Ebenezer Sibley [2].   Joseph Peterson [3] is a scholar of renaissance occultism who has been translating and publishing several of the grimoires of that time period.  His previous books, such as the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, Arbatel and the Lesser Key of Solomon, have been absolutely beautiful books [4].

Peterson’s version of Sibley’s Clavis is in four parts, an introduction outlining the history of the text, a facsimile reproduction that makes up the bulk of the text, a series of notes to the facsimile, and a critically established text that reproduces the text of the facsimile in regular typography.    What I am referring so breezily to as the “Clavis” is actually eight manuscripts bundled into one book.  The Clavis, or Key to Unlock the Mysteries of Rabbi Solomon makes up the bulk of the text.  It focuses on the manufacture of talismans and pretty much has all your talismanic needs covered, from being invincible to winning in games of hazard.  The Complete Book of Magical Science (by Hockley) concludes the book and focuses on conjuring spirits.  In between we find a series of “experiments” on the conjuration of spirits and a manuscript on magical rings (of the planetary, not Tolkien, kind).

The Clavis continues in the same tradition of Peterson’s previous books, but amps up the beauty by several notches.  The color facsimile is in itself a work of art, nearly flawless despite both its age and the fact that it was originally copied by hand.  It is perhaps the best-done grimoire that I have seen, even better than Skinner’s amazingly useful and well laid out books [5].   If you want to see how an 18th century magician executed the various seals, figures, and talismans you can’t do much better than this short of the original manuscripts.

So, basically, that’s my review.  If you care about Grimoires, or if you care about magic, you should be aware of both Skinner’s and Peterson’s projects to bring beautiful and meticulously crafted versions of them to us.  And Peterson’s Clavis is pretty much the zenith of the current art of reproducing such things.  So you should buy it.

But it is unlikely that I’m going to stop at one page for such an amazingly beautiful book.  Instead I’ll go on to tackle what I think are the important questions:  What is a Grimoire?  Why should you care?  And why should you care about this grimoire?

Ok, so what’s a grimoire? A grimoire is a book of magic, typically specializing in charms and protection as well as conjuration of spirits.  It is most likely, though not exclusively, western European and Christian in orientation.  Of course all these features are not exclusive, many of the earliest Grimoires were of Middle Eastern origin.  Christianity and Judaism are often rather oblique features of these books, as they focus on angels and daemons, not the baby Jesus.   They were typically written by cunning men or ceremonial magicians and date from ancient times to the present day.  Their zenith in terms of power and frequency occurred in the late middle ages where their authors, mostly men and priests, were busy not being burned at the stake despite their active practice of magic and conjuration of devils.  Because they were men and priests they got a pass on real demonology, while a bunch of poor hapless women got burned for, well, being poor hapless women [6].

These books were used as practical tools right up until the 1800s (and beyond).  Cunning men and women sold their services to find, protect, or heal by using symbols and knowledge they gained from Grimoires, or fragments of Grimoires.  Grimoires also form the basis of modern, ceremonial, magic.

The problem with these texts is that it is hard, if not impossible, to map their interrelationships.  Just reading Peterson’s exhaustive and fascinating introduction to the Clavis shows why this mapping is hard.  Sibley apparently had a series of manuscripts on magic that he referred to but never intended to publish.  These were copied in his own hand from even older source documents, probably in the late 1700s.  But not too old, as Peterson points out a lot of the symbology and material can be traced to other popular Grimoires, including Scott’s Discoverie [7].

A series of booksellers obtained the texts from Sibley’s estate, and eventually the booksellers asked Hockley, who was one of the foundational members of modern occultism and magic, to write some copies.  Hockley made several copies, but perhaps not the copy that is reproduced in facsimile in Peterson’s text [8].  These copies have all come down to us, but not the original that was in Sibley’s library.  Peterson goes into an interesting amount of detail in tracing all of the influences that went into Sibley’s Clavis, ranging from the Discoverie to Arbatel de Magia Veterum. These books all intertwingle with Francis Barrett’s The Magnus, Levi, and other occultists of the 18th and 19th centuries  [9].  All of this influencing and being influenced makes it tough to figure out the original source for a lot of this magic, was it Scott or did they have other sources from either England or the continent?  Who influence Barrett and Levi, and who, in turn, did they influence?  Just like today with our froth of Pagan groups, the early 1800s were awash in different occultists and beliefs.

Peterson addresses a lot of this in both his introduction and his notes, and the results seem to point to Scott as a major influence at least on this grimoire.  That is kind of disappointing.  Scott’s Discoverie was perhaps the first skeptic’s view of magic and witchcraft, written with the hope that reason would prevail over superstition.  Which is why King John I burned all the copies he could get his hands on in 1603.  The tie with Discoverie is disappointing because the book’s information was drawn from witch trials, which means that the information may have been obtained through torture.  And, if you believe the FBI, torture is not perhaps the best way to obtain accurate information, even today.

But why should modern Pagans care about any of this?  Well, as I said before, Sibley and Hockley both had significant influence on the people who started the Golden Dawn movement: Israel Regardie and AE Waite.  They, in much the same fashion that the shinbone is connected to the knee bone, influenced Crowley in return who influenced Gardner.  This means that these late 18th and early 19th century grimoires are some of the foundational documents for modern magic, if not Paganism.  They don’t quite look like it, but they are.

Much of what passes for “standard Wicca operational plan 100” comes from these sources.  The elements, the circle, calling and evoking, all stem from ceremonialist influences.  The wands, the swords, the Athame, the magical writing also all were inspired or directly derived from these influences.  Not to mention that much of modern Masonry, Rosicrucianism, and Thelema hark directly back to these gentlemen and their influences.

But why should you care about this particular grimoire?  If you are the kind of magician who cares whether their instrument kit’s “little green stick of [hazel] wood” is from a year old branch or not (pp. xx and 31 Clavis), then you are already going to buy this book and there is nothing extra I need to do to convince you.  If you are not that guy, and you probably are not, then you may wish to pick up a grimoire just for the fun of it.  Typically the Lesser Key of Solomon is pretty much the standard baseline grimoire [8].   But, if you have special interests in manufacturing talismans, rings, or in conjuration then you may want to pick up the Clavis.  Or if you just really want to see what a “real” 18th century grimoire actually looked like in facsimile, you may want this book.

But, lets be honest, if you are a guy like me who collects magic books and loves the lore of ancient texts and magical tomes, then you need this book.  In fact, I’d say you need all of Peterson’s books.   It won’t be cheap, but it will be worth it.

[1] Of course this whole terminology thing is a hot topic this month, see my column and the Pagan portal at Patheos (http://www.patheos.com/Religion-Portals/Pagan.html).  Not much discussion of this issue by the ceremonialists, however.  Though I suspect that the traditional Witches problems with the term Pagan could also extend to them.

[2] Joseph Peterson (ed.), Ebenezer Sibley and Frederick Hockley, The Clavis of Key to the Magic of Solomon, Ibis, 2010.  Joseph Peterson is responsible for putting the book together, and writing an extensive introduction and set of notes.  I suspect he also transcribed the facsimile reproduction as well.  Not to mention that he is a Chemical Engineer, which certainly recommends him as someone who is both careful and capable (not to mention highly intelligent – perhaps you can tell my profession).

[3] His web site explains a lot: http://www.esotericarchives.com/

[4] This is not just me Amazon shopping as I review, I happen to own all of them except the Grimorium Vernum and I’m fixing that right now based on the Clavis.

[5] Skinner’s books are quite similar to Peterson’s, including a version of the Clavis.  However Peterson’s Clavis totally beats Skinner’s as Skinner tends to rely on black and white and lacks Peterson’s graphical pizzazz.  http://www.amazon.com/Stephen-Skinner/e/B001HOA5US/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

[6] The best history of grimoires is:  Owen Davies, Grimoires:  A History of Magic Books, Oxford 2009.  It is a remarkable history because it is factual, readable, well organized, and make sense.  I have not found this to be a common feature in books on this subject.  Davies is mentioned in the Clavis, but his book in turn does not mention the Clavis, though he does mention Sibley.  He emphasizes Sibley’s role as the pre-eminent astrologer of his time.  This is logical if the Clavis was taken from Sibley’s unpublished papers since it would not have been part of his public persona.

[7] Reginald Scott in 1584 published The Discoverie of Witchcraft.  This text has been very influential, from being cribbed in later grimoires and cunning men’s materials (including Joseph Smith who was perhaps more of a cunning man than Mormon’s would admit).  In another section of the text Scott also tries to show how some of the things conjurers would do were actually slights of hand, making it one of the earliest books of magic (See Robert Kaufman’s forward to the Kaufman and Greenberg edition of Discoverie.)  Reginald Scott, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, Kaufman and Greenberg, 1995 (a beautiful hardbound version by a stage magic publishing company).

[8] In reading about the various copies and Sibley and Hockley you get an appreciation for life before laser printing technology and the ability to easily copy words and documents.  If you wanted a copy back in 1825, you got out a pen and wrote yourself a copy.

[9]  Arbatel de Magia Veterum is another Peterson book, http://www.amazon.com/Arbatel-Concerning-Ancients-Joseph-Peterson/dp/0892541520/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1307312039&sr=1-1, and there are many versions of Barrett and Levi’s books out there:  http://www.amazon.com/History-Magic-Eliphas-Levi/dp/0877289298/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1307312089&sr=1-1;

http://www.amazon.com/Magus-Complete-System-Occult-Philosophy/dp/0877289425/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1307312114&sr=1-1-spell

[10]  Of course Peterson has come out with a wonderful version:  http://www.amazon.com/Lesser-Key-Solomon-Joseph-Peterson/dp/157863220X/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1307315567&sr=8-2 but the standard text is Waite:  http://www.amazon.com/Lesser-Solomon-Arthur-Edward-Waite/dp/1163064300/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1307315640&sr=8-1