Grimoires are books containing descriptions and instructions for performing magical rituals. The earliest were written as expressions of a Christianized Esotericism in the Middle Ages. As they were in essence heretical, grimoires existed as handwritten volumes carefully guarded by their owners. The information any grimoire contained would be passed only to a few highly trusted colleagues or students, hence the tradition that young magicians carefully copy the grimoires lent by their instructor in the magical arts.
Among the oldest of the medieval grimoires to survive was The Key of Solomon, the manuscript of which (written in Greek) has been tentatively dated to the thirteenth century. In the sixteenth century, in the wake of the relative freedom provided by the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the invention of moveable type, a very few grimoires (or portions thereof) were published although the average person remained ignorant of their contents or even their existence.
These earliest grimoires were written with an understanding of a world inhabited by a variety of supernatural beings, most prominently angels and demons. The materials in the grimoires thus included a list of the names of the inhabitants of the supernatural world, how to contact them in relative safely, how to command them to carry out one’s wishes (the essence of the magical act), and how to banish them from one’s presence. There were also details of physical objects necessary and/or helpful in conducting a magical ritual, including various seals that protected the magician should things go wrong. Grimoires could be divided between those that centered on contact with angels and those professing contact with demonic forces.
The seventeenth and eighteenth century were marked by a changing worldview in which the ready ability to contact angels and demons by magical (or other) means was widely questioned, both by Protestants and by religious skeptics. As a result, the popularity and knowledge of magical operations and the materials needed to conduct them declined markedly. However, in the nineteenth century, a revival of magic took place. The fountainhead of that revival was the publication of the English text of a demonic grimoire, The Magus, by Francis Barrett in 1801. The book gave instructions in conjuring a variety of evil spirits.
A full half-century later, Eliphas Levi (1810-1875), the most important magical writer of his generation, published a number of books explaining magic in a post-scientific world, ascribing the success of magic to a cosmic power not unlike that described in the writings of the mesmerists, rather than placing demons and supernatural beings at the center of the action. However, in his 1856 volume, The Ritual of Transcendent Magic, Levi discussed the several grimoires with which he had become familiar. In 1889 Samuel L. MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918) published The Key of Solomon, which became the basis for constructing a whole new set of magical rituals for a group led by Mathers, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the most prominent of several ceremonial magic groups of the period.
The Golden Dawn’s most eminent scholar-member, Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942), surveyed a number of grimoires in his 1898 book, The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, Including the Mysteries of Goetic Theurgy, Sorcery, and Infernal Necromancy. Six years later, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), the bad boy of the golden Dawn, all but destroyed the organization by revealing many of its inner secrets when he published a copy of The Lesser Key of Solomon (also known as The Lemegton), which he had acquired from Mathers.
Crowley, completed the psychologizing of magic, revamping it apart from the trappings of the medieval supernatural world and the Christian presuppositions assumed by the early grimoires. Through the twentieth century, the grimoires were replaced by the instruction books published for use within the several magical orders, most notably the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), that emerged as the Golden Dawn declined. A number of English editions of the medieval grimoires were published during that time, more as curiosities than as arcane texts sought by the slowly growing magical community.
In the last half of the twentieth century, another new generation of grimoires began to appear. A few attempted to fit within the continuing tradition of post-Crowley ritual magic, such as Nathan Elkana’s The Master Grimoire of Magickal Rites and Ceremonies (1982), but most originated from a totally new branch of the Esoteric community, modern Neo-pagan Witchcraft, or Wicca.
Wicca emerged as a new religious movement in the 1950s, the brainchild of Gerald B. Gardner (1884-1964) and his early associates, including Doreen Valiente (1922-1999). It is an attempt to recreate ancient Pagan religion with a focus upon worship of the Great Mother deity, her consort the Horned God, and a number of lesser deities. The Goddess is evoked in a magical setting, and practitioners learn to make their way through life by utilizing magic to assist them in both their mundane and spiritual goals. Gardner and Valiente put together a grimoire that contained ritual material for Wiccan covens, including instructions and rituals for the regular biweekly meetings (esbats) and the eight annual festivals (sabbats). Variations on the gardnerian rituals (which were held in the nude) began to circulate in the nascent Wiccan community in the 1970s.
Very soon after the mergence of Gardnerian Witchcraft, in 1964, while information on the community was still a matter of intense interest by the tabloid press, a dissident member in England anonymously published the Wiccan rituals. Through the 1970s, several variations of the rituals were published by members of the growing community who felt that keeping them secret was no longer important, most notably American priestess Lady Sheba (1972). In recent years, a large number of new Wiccan grimoires have been issued, some as a means of attracting members to new Wiccan groups. The publication of such books has provided resources for the large number of solitary witches, those who practice apart from participation in any coven.
The effect of the publication of all the grimoires in the late twentieth century has been to make all of the secrets of the worlds of ritual magic and Witchcraft available to the general public. Those who continue to practice magic do so with an understanding that the true secrets of their craft are revealed not in the texts but in the practice, and thus the secrets of the esoteric realms remain just as hidden today as in centuries past.