Books of Magic, Spells, Charms, and Incantations

Owen Davies —

The contents of magic texts represent much more than magic itself. Their little-studied artistic qualities reveal unique traditions of illustration, design, and imagination. Text and image were often literally entwined on the page, the potency of both inextricably linked. Here I have chosen seven texts from across time and across the globe that show the enduring creative power of magical art. 

Book of the Dead of Reri (Egypt, 305–30 BCE)

The funerary practices of the elite in ancient Egypt included the creation of a “Book of the Dead” or the “Book of Coming Forth by Day” which was placed in the coffin or tomb of the deceased. It consisted of a series of illustrated spells written on papyrus that would be of great use in the afterlife. The Book pictured here was for a man named Reri who was a priest in charge of the administration of a temple at Thebes, managing offerings to Amun, the patron deity of the city. His Book of the Dead, like others, contained spells for protection against snakes and crocodiles, which were deemed just as much a threat in the spiritual world as they were in earthly life. One vignette illustrates a spell against crocodiles that begins: “Get back, you dangerous one! Do not come against me, do not follow my magic’, and ends with, “no crocodile which lives by magic shall take [my magic] away!”

Avalokiteśvara dhāranīs (China, 10th century CE)

During the 9th and 10th centuries, a print revolution took place in China. The well-established technology of wood block printing was applied to the more recent development of paper making. Sheets of religious texts and images could now be printed cheaply in their thousands and were sold in China’s urban centres as a protective amulet. These dharani sutras often display impressively intricate interplay between text and image. This Avalokiteshvara dharani, found in Dunhuang caves, China, depicts Avalokiteshvara, the hugely popular figure of Buddhist legend who is the earthly manifestation of the eternal Buddha. More to the point, he guards the world, and his compassion knows no bounds. Hence, he was, and is, a popular figure to include in protective talismans. Around his figure is the dharani or mantra written in Sanskrit. A version in Chinese is also provided at the side so that lay people could also recite it for protective purposes.

Ahmad ibn al-Būnī’s Shams al-ma‘ārif (The Sun of Knowledge) (Arabic, thirteenth century)

Shams al-maʻārif (“The Sun of Knowledge”) was a practical manual of Islamic and Islamicised magic. It was written by Aḥmad ibn al-Būnī, who was born in Algeria but was based in Egypt. He was a thirteenth-century Sufi scholar of mathematics, philosophy, and the occult. Once copies of the Shams al-maʻārif began to circulate in various versions beyond Sufi scholars the book went on to have an enduring influence on Islamic magic tradition and practice. It contained relatively little theory and was full of recipes and instructions for creating talismans.  Al-Būnī argued that the only way to talk to or harness the jinn, angels, and other spirits was through the potent combination of Arabic letters known as ilm alhuruf (the science of the letters), magic number and letter squares, the 99 ‘beautiful names of God’, and occult geometry.

Key of Solomon (Europe, 15th century)

According to the Old Testament, Solomon was the son of King David and his successor to the throne of the kingdom of Israel. In the Bible he was known for his great wisdom and for building the great temple in Jerusalem that housed the Ark of the Covenant. There is no mention of Solomon as a magic worker, though. Yet from the early centuries of the Common Era, books of magic were attributed to him. In the fifteenth century, a new Solomonic grimoire appeared in Europe, the Clavicule or Key of Solomon, that would further place Solomon at the centre of the European magical tradition. It came with its own discovery narrative or ‘find story,’ which is a fictional device common to grimoires and other esoteric texts from the ancient world to the present. Solomon tells his readers that he wrote the Key for his son Rehoboam and told him to conceal it in his tomb after his death. Many years later some Babylonian philosophers embarked on repairing the tomb and discovered it. The numerous versions of the Key of Solomon that circulated were remarkable for the ritual and talismanic circles, pentagrams, and pentacles they contained.

Ethiopian incantation scroll (19th century)

In the age of nineteenth-century empires, there was a particular colonial interest in Christian Ethiopian manuscripts with thousands plundered and traded by Europeans. Amongst them are numerous works of magico-religious significance. Collectors were particularly fascinated with the distinctive amuletic scroll texts written in Ge’ez, an ancient ‘dead’ language that remained the official liturgical script of various Ethiopian Christian churches. They were mostly written on parchment by the debtera, a cadre of Orthodox holy men who made money from healing and offering magical services as well as providing religious duties. The small scrolls they sold, which also included stylised Christian iconography, were kept in cylindrical leather containers or were tied up with cloth and worn on the person for protection against the evil eye and ill fortune. Larger scrolls consisting of stitched together parchment leaves were sometimes hung on walls unfolded.

The Great Pustaha (Sumatra, nineteenth century)

Pustahas are books of magic that were written down by Batak magician-priests (North Sumatra). They were made from wood bark and consist of a series of glued, folding leaves that open like a concertina, rather than having separate pages and a spine. Some had elaborately carved wooden covers. They contain a mix of magic, mythic stories of gods and monsters, astrological tables, divination, and medicine. There were instructions for reading omens from the shape of clouds or divination by the entrails of a chicken, accompanied by an illustration of a chicken in black and red ink. A common image is that of the four-legged dragon-demon known as the Naga Padoha, who holds up the earth and was thought responsible for earthquakes. One of the pustaha divination rituals requires the drawing of such an image on the ground.

The Cyprianus book (Central and South America, 20th century)

European magic books had circulated across Central and South America since the early days of the colonial era, but during the twentieth century presses across the region produced a range of cheap, mass market magic books. The biggest selling, and most culturally influential, was a genre of Spanish and Portuguese books of spells and charms attributed to the legendary Saint Cyprian. Known as the Livro de São Cypriano in Brazil and the Libro de San Cipriano in Spanish speaking countries, they contain a variety of healing charms, recipes, and instructions for finding treasure. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a significant increase in the number of distinctly Brazilian editions, fuelled by the growing market for manuals concerning the Afro-Brazilian syncretic religions known as candomblé and umbanda, which mix Catholicism with African religions, spiritism, and indigenous beliefs.

The Art of the Grimoire: An Illustrated History of Magic Books and Spells will be published in October 2023 by Yale University Press. Owen Davies is professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire and president of the Folklore Society. He is the author of numerous books on the history of witchcraft, magic, ghosts, and popular medicine.