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  • Writer's pictureDavid Rankine

Books of Secrets & Keys of Solomon

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

[Previously published in Witchcraft & Wicca] “Heare begineth the prologue of ye Booke of Clavicles of Salomon contayninge the secrets of all secrets of all crafts magicall of Nigromancy, the which booke of craftes as, Ptolomeus the most wisest philosopher in Greece, doth testify…”[1] A fact which has struck me a number of times when researching material on the roots of modern magical practices is that over the last thousand years there have been several distinct streams of Western magical practice. One is the Grimoires, which focus on preparation and complex procedures to produce effective communication and interaction with spiritual beings. To this category belong such major works as the Key of Solomon, the Lemegeton and the Sworn Book of Honorius, which have influenced many modern magical traditions and practices, from Wicca[2] to Voodoo. Another stream includes rather simple rule of thumb procedures, which do not involve much preparation, and which might have been used by local village witches or cunning men.  From the sixteenth century these latter procedures were often to be found in works known as Books of Secrets, which focused on simple techniques that could be practiced by anybody rather than long and complex rites.  Effectively such works made magic available to anybody who could read a book and gather simple ingredients, rather than the moneyed classes with elaborate paraphernalia and expensive hand-copied grimoires.  I am currently working on a unique and very exciting document called The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet, a seventeenth century London Cunning-man’s Book of Practice which combines material from Grimoires and Books of Secrets. The popularity of such Books of Secrets can be seen when you look at the number of editions published.  The most famous of all of these books, Secreti by Alessio Piemontese was published in 104 editions in nine European languages between 1555 and 1699.  These books were amongst the early best-sellers, and contained a diverse spectrum of useful remedies from magical to medical, gardening to cosmetics and metalwork!  Such books sold not only to the middle classes, but also at village fairs and wherever an audience could be found. From the mid-seventeenth century scientists would start to repudiate Books of Secrets as propagating fake secrets and vulgarities with no basis in fact, and as purveying dubious folklore and esoterica which were challenged by the ongoing Scientific Revolution.  Nevertheless in societies where a university education remained an expensive privilege, the Books of Secrets remained popular into the eighteenth century. These two streams of Grimoires and Books of Secrets are sometimes found together in the same manuscript. It is common for the pages of a working grimoire to have been supplemented by its owner with other formulae that he had successfully used or picked up in his course of reading. These snippets are often drawn from books like Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia, and the works ascribed to Albertus Magnus, and may be in a different handwriting. In the course of time these notes in the back of a grimoire were copied along with the grimoire as if they were part of it.  Indeed the nineteenth century French pseudo-grimoires of black magic, such as the Grimoire of Pope Honorius III, the Red Dragon and Grimorium Verum are often full of such procedures. A number of Book of Secret type manuscripts were bound with grimoires, and the result of such a practice was the end material in Wellcome MS 4669, a manuscript used by Stephen Skinner and myself as one of the source texts for the Veritable Key of Solomon.[3]  Such collections provide us with insights into the practices of the previous owner of that particular grimoire, and in some instances may be traceable and help further follow the thread of practices and see how different strands were woven together. The Book of Secret material was ideal for cunning-folk, who drew on such works, as well as books like Thomas Heydon’s Theomagia, Francis Barrett’s The Magus, Agrippa, and others for material to use in their written charms.  Such charms were the stock-in trade of the cunning-folk, and were a large component of their power in a largely illiterate rural environment.  In this they were continuing the Church tradition of written amulets which only started to move into secrecy in the fifteenth century. Of course the use of grimoires and Books of Secrets was not exclusively a British preserve.  In the detailed records of the numerous trials of the seventeenth century Venetian witch, Laura Malapiero, there are some extremely significant details about the documents in her possession.  These sound like both Books of Secrets (crudely written spells) and also the Key of Solomon: “When Laura’s house was searched by the Capitano of the Sant’Ufficio in 1654, a number of manuscripts were found.  Some were rather crudely written scongiuri [spells]; others were sophisticated herbals and copies of the Clavicle of Solomon.”[4] The Italian connection is a significant one, as it was the entry point into Europe, through which the material preserved in Byzantium passed.  Such material included the Hygromantia, the proto-Key of Solomon written in Greek, as well as works from the Arabic world.  Combined with the explosion of material from Italy during the Renaissance on Kabbalah, Hermeticism and Neo-Platonism, Italy’s role as the midwife of the grimoire tradition cannot be overstated. The Key of Solomon is the most significant of all the grimoires, being effectively the manual of practice which unlocks the other grimoires.  The fact that more than one hundred and forty manuscript copies of the Key of Solomon, survive dating between 1440-1825 CE, clearly shows how much more common it was than any of the other grimoires, none of which can be found in more than half a dozen extant copies.  The Key of Solomon describes all the necessary preparation, of the magician, place, and equipment, from robes to the magic circle to the appropriate prayers.  Armed with this knowledge, which is often absent or only partially present in other grimoires, the magician could then perform the ceremonies other grimoires contained.  Based on this frequency and the nature of the material, it seems likely that the Key of Solomon was the essential primer which any self-respecting grimoire magician would have to acquire, as it provided all the instructions of the art which enabled easy practice of the other rarer and more obtuse grimoires. So between Solomon’s Key and the Book of Secrets, everything an aspiring mage, witch or cunning-person might require was to hand.  And of course we should not forget that King Solomon married a witch, the Queen of Sheba,[5] but that’s another tale for another day! Bibliography Conybeare, F.C. (trans); The Testament of Solomon; 1898; in Jewish Quarterly Review, October D’Este, Sorita, & Rankine, David; Wicca Magickal Beginnings; 2008; Avalonia; London Eamon, William; Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture; 1994; Princeton University Press; Princeton Fanger, Claire (ed); Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic; 1998; Sutton Publishing Ltd; Stroud Rankine, David ; The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet; 2011; Avalonia; London Scully, Sally, Marriage or a career? Witchcraft as an alternative in seventeenth century Venice, in Journal of Social History, Summer 1995 Skemer, Don C.; Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages; 2006, Pennsylvania State University Press; Pennsylvania Skinner, Stephen, & Rankine, David; The Veritable Key of Solomon; 2008; Golden Hoard Press; Singapore Skinner, Stephen, & Rankine, David, & Barron, Harry (trans); A Collection of Magical Secrets; 2009; Avalonia; London [1] Sloane MS 3847, 1572. [2] See e.g. Wicca Magickal Beginnings, d’Este & Rankine, Avalonia, 2008, for many such examples of the influence of these grimoires and others. [3]The Veritable Key of Solomon, Skinner & Rankine, Golden Hoard, London, 2008. [4] Marriage or a career?,  Scully, 1995 [5] The Testament of Solomon, 2nd century CE.
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