What are the best books on...

Owen Davies

Owen Davies is professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire. He has written widely on the history of witchcraft, magic, ghosts and folk medicine. He argues that despite persecution, magic has been with us since the first recorded written word and it’s still very much part of popular culture today.

Save for later

Owen Davies

Owen Davies is professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire. He has written widely on the history of witchcraft, magic, ghosts and folk medicine. He argues that despite persecution, magic has been with us since the first recorded written word and it’s still very much part of popular culture today.

Save for later
 

When did the whole history of magic actually kick off?

According to Lynn Thorndike, author of the eight-volume treatise History of Magic and Experimental Science,  it dates back to the earliest form of writing in Ancient Babylonian stone tablets.

And there’s this idea that books and magic go hand in hand, books being a way for people to record their secrets.

Yes, some cultures put oral knowledge above written works as a means of transmitting the truth, but when you record something in writing it’s preserved, so it doesn’t get corrupted by oral tradition.

And what is it about this book that really grabs you?

It’s not a book where you read all eight volumes in a row, but it has a huge wealth of information from a polyglot scholar who spent decades researching his subject. He used so many extracts from original sources. Also, when Thorndike was writing in the early 20th century, there was this academic notion of societal progress as a linear progression. There were three stages of human intellectual development from magic to religion to science. But Thorndike came along and said, actually, when you look at the history of science you find that magic is central to it right up until the 18th century.

What did he see as the link between magic and science?

His idea was that the basis of science is experimentation and a lot of learned magic is actually about trying to discover the secrets of the natural world. To a certain degree, magic and science had exactly the same aims.

“When you look at the history of science you find magic is central right up until the 18th century.”

So why was it that reviewers at the time weren’t happy with his theory?

Well, because it screwed up the whole idea of there being some sort of linear progression. For 2,000 years scientists were exploring aspects of magic to help them with their work. Alchemy is a classic example. Even Newton was interested in it, because scientists knew so little that any form of experimentation that could help them understand was a good idea.

Your next choice is The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts.

Yes, Waite is a very interesting character. He was one of the early members of the Golden Dawn which grew up in the late 19th century. It’s the first real organised group of ritual magicians who practised magic as a religion rather than as an aspect of science.

Yeats was also a member. What was the lure for someone like him?

There was a whole fascination at the time with Ancient Egypt – the excavations by the French, the Germans and the British. The cracking of the hieroglyphs had led to a boom in knowledge about Egyptian magic. Once you could translate it you could start practising it. There’s also the whole idea of the crisis of faith in the second half of the 19th century.

There’s a lot of talk of grimoires in there – can you explain what they are?

My definition of a grimoire is essentially a book of magic which contains conjurations and spells. Waite thought that many grimoires were complete nonsense at best and downright diabolic at worst.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

They were very popular in France.

Well, that’s because the French were entrepreneurial booksellers, printers and publishers. It was all illicit, they shouldn’t have been publishing information on them and of course people were drawn by the lure of the forbidden.

In the late 17th century there had been the huge affair of the poison scandals in which the French high society had been knee-deep in magical rituals, employing Parisian magicians and purchasing grimoires.

But, you’ve made a case that grimoires weren’t all bad and there’s even a link with the angels.

That’s right. Waite’s book gives you all the bad stuff, the idea of the pact with the devils. But, there are a lot of grimoires from medieval times and onwards where they look at communicating with the angels. Actually a lot of grimoires are based on Catholic worship.

Your next book, Ritual Magic, is all about the Germans.

Yes, Elizabeth Butler wrote a series of books just after the Second World War. Ritual Magic is one of them. She also wrote a seminal book on the Doctor Faust legends. Her view is that there is something specific in the German make-up which had led to centuries of fascination with magic.

And why does she think that?

Her views are never properly explained. Obviously the books she wrote are coloured by the Second World War and the Nazi regime and it’s difficult to know to what extent she held these anti-German views before.

It sounds like you’re sceptical of her views; what’s the value of the book for you?

Its value is all the translations of texts from German. So, any historian scholar who doesn’t read German can finally understand what the German grimoire traditions are all about. What they show you is that essentially they are no different from grimoire traditions elsewhere. In other words her thesis crumbles because as a specialist in Germany she is only studying German material. But actually all the traditions are linked up.

There are some grand claims for your next book, The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses by Joseph Peterson.

Like a lot of the grimoire tradition they claim Biblical origins. The Old Testament is made up of the first five books of Moses as received from God. Even 2,000 years ago there were rumours and manuscripts circulating in the Middle East which were reported to be other texts of messages that Moses had received, but which weren’t included in the Torah or the Old Testament.

Were these claims actually true?

Oh no, they are all bogus. The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses originated in the 18th century. But, even though it’s bogus there is still that central message of secret materials transmitted by God which is at the heart of Christianity and Judaism. So there’s the idea that the religious authorities over the centuries have withheld secret knowledge and this is hugely potent.

This is real Dan Brown territory.

Very much so and it explains his success. This is something authors like him are feeding off. And when this kind of thing spreads it always chimes in with popular culture. For example, in somewhere like Africa there’s this idea of the religious authorities, originally controlled by white men, withholding knowledge. And the cheap print format means that finally they had access to the knowledge which they think has held them down. Through the entrepreneurial salesmanship of the American occult book publisher William Lauron Delaurence, its influence spread to West Africa and the Caribbean, where it became a founding text of Rastafarianism

Your final book puts us very firmly in the modern day. This is the Book of Shadows which you see as more of a genre than a particular book.

The Book of Shadows was essentially invented by Gerald Gardner, who is the founder of Wicca. He was a civil servant before the Second World War, very interested in the occult and in the writings of the Golden Dawn. In the 1940s he invented the modern religion of Wicca. He claimed that he had discovered a secret tradition of ancient fertility magic which had been maintained over the centuries by witches who had been persecuted by the authorities. So much so, that by the 20th century there was maybe only one coven left, and he said he got hold of their secret from a coven in the New Forest.

And this book or genre has proved immensely successful in today’s popular culture.

Yes, with programmes like Charmed, the three sisters actually have the Book of Shadows and, of course, it’s there in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So there are all these attractive young women who have their own grimoires. There was this sudden boom of interest among teenagers. And I think that’s because as teenagers there is always a fascination with the idea that you can have some sort of control over your life or others.

They are on the brink of adulthood and frustrated that they don’t have enough power.

Yes and you’re exploring possibilities and belief systems. The interesting thing is that the authorities have always tried to suppress all the books I’ve been talking about, but here we are in the third millennium and they are still thriving. TV companies are producing programmes in which magic is presented as a reality in modern settings. It’s still a vibrant tradition.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount, or by visiting our site before you make purchases from Amazon. Since we are enrolled in their affiliate program, we receive a small percentage of any product you buy, at no extra cost to you.