"Range, Readability and Spirit..."
Reviewer: Don Karr
Notice must be given here to Aaron Leitch’s Secrets of the Magical Grimoires: The Classical Texts of Magick Deciphered (Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2005). Leitch, a practitioner himself, has made a valiant effort to offer a single-source epitome of the “classic grimoires” with descriptions, tables, and excerpts clearly and logically presented through 400+ oversized pages. The book is in two parts: (1) “history and scholarship,” and (2) “practical work,” including experiments and how-to instructions.
In Part One [Oculta Philosophia], CHAPTER ONE, Leitch provides an efficient if not particularly nuanced historical background. He then offers an account of the major grimoires, describing 22 texts, including the Solomonic texts discussed below, plus Picatrix, The Sacred Magic of Abramelin Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia and the pseudo- Agrippan Fourth Book, Heptameron, John Dee’s diaries, Barrett’s Magus, etc. Unfortunately, the preamble to these descriptions is marred by some irksome errors. For example, on page 9, Leitch writes,
The Ethiopian Book of Enoch, the Hebrew Book of Enoch, the Pirkei Heichaloht (sic), and even such canonical biblical texts such as Ezekiel and the Revelation of St. John are all centered upon—or connected to—the Merkavah tradition. The Merkavah’s use of ritual drugs, its focus on talismans and seals, the summoning forth of angelic gatekeepers, and the gaining of mystical visions are elements that run throughout the grimoiric spells. As an example of a work “centered upon…the Merkavah tradition,” the Ethiopian (more correctly, Ethiopic) Book of Enoch is an odd choice to set next to the Hebrew Book of Enoch and Pirkei Hekhalot. Yet, with “or connected to” interjected, Leitch allows enough slosh room for its inclusion as well as that of the Revelation.
More serious is Leitch’s putting drugs and merkavah together, apparently through reading—but not thoroughly—James R. Davila’s accounts of shamanic techniques. In the article which Leitch used (and in Davila’s book Descenders of the Chariot, Leiden: Brill, 2001), use of drugs is indeed mentioned as a shamanic technique, and comparison is made between shamans (generic) and merkavah mystics (specific). However, Davila states, “Nothing in the Hekhalot literature indicates that the descenders to the chariot made use of psychoactive drugs to induce their visionary experiences” (“The Hekhalot Literature and Shamanism” at the web page DIVINE MEDIATOR FIGURES IN THE BIBLICAL WORLD at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~www_sd/mediators.html - the article Leitch cites). Leitch does go on to give a fairer account of merkavah mysticism, again based on Davila, later in the book (CHAPTER TWO: SHAMANISM, TRIBAL TO MEDIEVAL, page 54-5), where there is no mention of drugs and hekhalot is spelled more conventionally. Leitch’s approach to the grimoires is best expressed in CHAPTER THREE, “The Art of Ecstasy: Way of the Prophet-Shaman,” which begins,
The altered mental state is the most essential and critical aspect of magickal practice.
A few pages before (page 71) Leitch states,
Some of the material in the grimoires may be, in fact, outdated. However, my focus is not upon the content or intent of the spells but on the foundational occult philosophy upon which the magick itself is based. It is my hope that this book will outline the processes by which this kind of magic works, and allow the practitioner to experiment with gaining conversation with various entities.
Part Two [Oculta Practique] mixes Leitch’s prose with tables and extracts from the grimoires on all the technical matters: times, tools, and talismans; purification and prayer; angels and spirits.
As a first or stand-alone book, Secrets… has much to recommend it. Leitch has reached beyond the old stand-bys (Waite, Mathers, original and later Golden Dawn material, E. M. Butler) and utilized some recent scholarship (James R. Davila, Claire Fanger, Richard Kieckhefer, Robert Mathiesen), though perhaps not enough (Leitch does not draw on the work of Michael D. Bailey, Charles Burnett, Ioan Couliano, Valerie Flint, David Halperin, Deborah Harkness, Gosta Hedegard, Naomi Janowitz, Frank Klaassen, Christopher Lehrich, Rebecca Lesses, Marvin Meyer, or Robert Turner, to name a few who have dealt directly with the texts and topics in Secrets…; Lynn Thorndike and Joshua Trachtenberg are also neglected. See my bibliography below: “Works of Related Interest”). Nearly all of the texts and scholarly sources Leitch refers to are readily available (in English), thus, the book has little new to offer, save Leitch’s synthesis and organization, which sets the “grimoiric” material out in the form of a unified system— which it certainly is not.
Despite all of the times I furrowed and bristled while poring over Leitch’s book, because of its range, readability, and spirit, I recommend Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires, especially to those who intend to do the stuff. For the practitioner, Secrets… could serve well as a hard-copy anchor to the mass of texts available on Internet sites such as TWILIT GROTTO at www.esotericarchives.com, SACRED TEXTS at www.sacred-texts.com, and NORTON’S IMPERIUM > “Classics of Magick” at www.hermetic.com/browe-archive. Academics, however, would do better to go directly to Leitch’s sources—and well beyond.
Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires
Copyright © 2005 C "Aaron Jason" Leitch.
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