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What’s In Your Spellbook?
In the library of the University of South Carolina, you can peruse—with the help of a librarian and a pair of cotton gloves—a rare and marvelous text called Joshua Gordon’s Commonplace Book, which dates to 1784. Gordon’s little tome contains herbal remedies, recipes for treating livestock and human ailments, and a number of magical charms which call upon Christian concepts—the Trinity, the name of God, etc.—to do everything from revealing a thief to treating demonic torment to dealing with cuts, scrapes, and bruises. In 1820, John George Hohman produced a now (semi-)famous book called The Long Lost Friend, which outlined a number of cures from the Pennsylvania-Dutch tradition, as well as methods for magically gaining a dog’s loyalty, treating skin lesions with homemade salves, helping cherries maintain a longer shelf (or branch) life, and a method for guaranteeing a good catch while fishing which involves rose seed, mustard seed, and “the foot of a weasel.” Some houses in Berks, Lancaster, and York Counties, Pennsylvania would have had copies of Hohman’s book, and some would have manufactured their own collections of spells and recipes more in line with what Gordon did. In some places, the possession of a strange and mysterious publication known as The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses provided a person with magical powers by mere virtue of the book’s ownership—the spells within being an added bonus.
When I was training with a Gardenerian Outer Court (and I should emphasize that I never went beyond the dedicant phase, and so the inner workings of that tradition are not expressed here), I remember the concept of the Book of Shadows being explained to me as a sort of hand-copied and inherited text. Each new initiate would likely have copied down his or her own version of the High Priest and/or High Priestess’ book, and perhaps have added to it over time with new spells and rituals. Over time, the book could evolve and change, but the process would be slow and meticulous, growing with the tradition itself.
At the other end of the spectrum from the hand-copied books are the mass-marketed spellbooks available from publishers like Llewellyn or Weiser, which may cover only a set of thirty love spells or which may be encyclopedic in their scope. A few artisan publishers produce excellent and lovingly crafted grimoires which have their own life force from the moment you remove them from their slipcovers (Xoanon’s Cultus Sabbati books or the range of gorgeous texts from Scarlet Imprint are fine examples). In these cases, the spells come pret-a-porter, but may already have the essence of magic in them by dint of their ink, book boards, and binding.
I am always fascinated by the myriad ways in which magical folk craft their magical texts and acquire or compile their spells. I think almost every witch or magician I know who has seen the film Practical Magic has an itch to make or buy the spellbook used by the Aunts, whether they’ll admit it or not. Some sorcerers make digital spellbooks, or use e-readers to house their occult libraries, and some recoil at the thought of doing so. How many varieties of magical books we find, and what wonders they contain! It seems to me that every person piecing together a magical book for his or her own use is confronted by so many questions:
· Do I assemble the book all at once or make it little-by-little over time?
· Should it be perfectly inked, handwritten, and free from errors, or does a “working” look with cross-outs, corrections, and notes seem right?
· What do I do when I outgrow my book? Get a new one and copy the old one in, or start a second volume?
· Should I include spells found in published books, or only ones that are my own originals or variations?
· Do I include holidays, rituals, lore, etc.?
· Do I lock it away from prying eyes, or should it always be around, ready for use at a moment’s notice?
Those, at least, are some of the questions I always struggle with when I am putting together my magical compilation. Assembling a book of spells, then, becomes its own sort of folk art. It seems so individualistic, yet so widely spread, that I cannot help but think of a spellbook as an expression of personality and culture.
My own spellbook, for example, reflects a lot about me:
· I use a Moleskine notebook which I carry with me most places (I am a portable person with an inclination to move about and travel, and a need to be able to make notes at a moment’s notice)
· My book contains pages on which I’ve written and snips, baubles, and clippings from other sources (I have a junk-shop approach to my interests, picking up and putting down things all the time)
· I only put spells which I’ve tried out with success into the actual book (The book must be practical for me)
· I collect spells not only from other spellbooks, but from friends and other magical practitioners and frequently from folkloric sources, such as Irish fairy tales or African American folk tales (The book contains my influences and my cultural surroundings)
· I almost always note my source for a spell (My academic background bleeds through)
In so many ways, my spellbook is a biography. I don’t have holidays in the book because I will likely craft a different book for those someday, but for others the inclusion of holiday rituals is absolutely essential—perhaps more so than spells.
I guess all of this is my big build-up to the question: What’s in your spellbook? What does your collection of recipes, spells, and charms say about you? Where do you get your magical texts, and how important is the aesthetic of the book to you? Does it live and breathe and grow? Does it capture your magical practice between its covers? Is it focused on magic at all, or do you flip through its pages and find rituals and techniques more than herb lists and correspondences? Does your book function as the center of your magical library, or as more of an index to your other books of magic?
In Awash in a Sea of Faith, scholar Jon Butler says this of Joshua Gordon’s book:
Its compiler arranged its contents with ritual-like care. Two pages of charms common to the English magical tradition opened and closed the volume. The phrase ‘Behold him Seized Maliciously Abused’ was copied seven times to fill the first page, and the phrase ‘Your Saviour Sweeting Blood wch is yours,’ (sic) repeated nine times, filled the second page. The same phrases, copied again to fill the manuscript’s final pages, linked popular conceptions of supernatural power to Christian practice (231).
Gordon’s little book of the commonplace reflects his time, his place, his beliefs, and his cosmos. When I browse through my own little grimoire, I can only hope it does the same for me.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on spellbooks and the craft behind them with me, either in the comments here or by emailing me at email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you!
All the best,
Sources & References:
1. Anonymous. The Sixth & Seventh Books of Moses (reprint 1996)
2. Butler, Jon. Awash in a Sea of Faith (1992).
3. Davies, Owen. Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (2010)
4. Gordon, Joshua. Joshua Gordon’s Commonplace Book (1784 – housed at University of South Carolina)
5. Hohman, John George. The Long Lost Friend (1820).
6. Xoanon Publishers – makers of fine grimoires for the Cultus Sabbati tradition
7. Scarlet Imprint – talismanic bookmakers focusing on esoteric works
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