The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage – Abraham of Würzburg (Translated by S.L. MacGregor Mathers)
Dover – 1975
Wow, 100 posts! I don’t think I realized how much work I was going to put into reviewing dumb books when I started. This blog now contains more words than most of the books that have appeared on it. To celebrate this momentous achievement, I’m going to briefly review the Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, a curious grimoire of angelic magic. I first heard of it in the BBC documentary about Aleister Crowley’s house by Loch Ness, and I remember soon thereafter watching a video of Robert Anton Wilson discussing how he had attempted to perform part of the Abramelin ritual while tripping on acid, but it wasn’t until I heard the name of the text being mentioned in Ghoulies, one of the finest motion pictures ever made, that I knew that I needed a copy for my library. This book of spells purports to have been written in 1458, but the oldest surviving copies date from 1608. Many grimoires claim to be far older than they really are as that makes them seem more mysterious, but if this text was written in 1608, you’d imagine that the author would have set it back more than 150 years. Regardless of its authenticity, this is a rather interesting read.
I don’t want to spend too much time going into the plot details as there are plenty of summaries of this book to be found online, but the idea here is that in 1458, an old man named Abraham wanted to give his younger son, Lamech, a present. He had already let his eldest son in on his knowledge of Kaballah, so he decided to initiate Lamech into the secrets of Sacred Magic instead. He himself had come across these secrets from a hermit named Abramelin. We never find out much about Abramelin, but his magical secrets had supposedly made their way to him from the lads in the Old Testament.
There are three books within this book. The first of which gives Abraham’s account of how he came by this magic, and the second book gives the instructions for a 6 or 18 month ritual that one must go through in order to use the spells that make up Book 3. The lengthy ritual puts the magician into contact with his guardian angel. (I use the masculine pronoun purposefully here; women aren’t really supposed to practice this magic.) The guardian angel then grants the magician the power to control demons. This makes for a weird form of whitened-black magic. The practitioner is commanding legions of evil spirits to do his bidding, but he is doing so under the guidance of a good spirit. The standard how-to-turn-invisible/tell-the-future/get-money spells are all here, but it is presumed that the magus will only utilize these abilities for the good of all humanity. Abraham strongly advises that this system of magic never be used for evil purposes, but he nevertheless includes instructions on how to cast spells upon Men, to bewitch beasts, to cast spells upon the liver, heart, head and other parts of the body, to demolish buildings, to ruin possessions, to excite emnity in general, to excite quarrels and fights, and to cause a general war.
Each spell comes in the form of a magical square. These look a bit like wordsearches, and each one must be used in a certain way. You generally have to make a copy of the square, rub it on your bum or keep it in your hat for a few days and then plant it close to the thing you want to bewitch.
The Spell Square to “make work done in inaccessible places”
It’s pretty hard to imagine anyone being in the position to give up 6 months of their life to perform the ritual as described in Book 2. The ritual must also be performed in a very specific type of building, so unless you’re a millionaire, you’re probably not going to have the opportunity to get this done. Aleister Crowley tried in 1901, but he didn’t get to finish it. The fact that he didn’t finish the ritual meant that the demons he evoked were never banished and were left free to haunt the house where he had evoked them. (Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page bought the house in 1970, but it has since burned down.) The book is fairly clear that its instructions must be followed very carefully, and I doubt many people have had both the determination and the means to actually go through with it. A few of those who have claimed to complete the ritual have published the diaries that they kept throughout. I would imagine these accounts are very boring indeed.
The Mathers version of the Book of Abramelin, the text that I read, was translated from an incomplete, already translated version of the original text. The manuscript that Mathers translated is of a later date than the copies that have since been discovered, and it only contained 3 books while the earlier German versions contain 4. The missing book is about the Kaballah though, so I’m actually pretty relieved that I didn’t have to waste my time reading it. The other big differences between the texts are that Mathers got some of the ingredients for one of the potions wrong, his version of the ritual is 6 rather than 18 months long, and his versions of the magic squares are missing some letters.
Unlike many grimoires, the Book of Abramelin is actually a fairly entertaining read. The narrative of the first book reads like a novella, and the unique bad-angels-working-for-good-angels-working-for-the-magician-working-for-God concept makes the magical instruction fairly interesting too. George Dehn and Steven Guth put out a translation of one of the older manuscripts, but unless you were seriously considering performing the ritual herein described, I wouldn’t bother shelling out the extra money. The Mathers translation may not the most authentic version of this book of spells, but it still includes all of the bits I’d be interested in. That being said, if I ever come across a cheap copy of the newer translation, I’d probably take a look.
If you want a far more in depth look at Abramelin’s magic, check out this blog.