Why you should study the history of magic and where to begin

One of the many issues that face newcomers to the occult, paganism and witchcraft is that of authenticity.  It is the eternal bugbear of modern witchcraft, which has a rather messy relationship with its own history (or lack thereof). Looking back on my own journey, I can see how important authenticity once was to me. I spent years tunnelling further down the rabbit hole, looking for ‘real witchcraft’ – the further down I went, the more I began to doubt that such a thing existed. Thankfully, I now have a more relaxed relationship with the witch archetype but in the process of searching I became fascinated with the history of magic itself.

The quest for validity is often ignited by a disillusionment with the poor history of some occult and pagan authors. If what you’ve been fed is largely fiction masquerading as historical fact then the desire to know the ‘truth’ is completely natural. There are entire systems, like reconstructionist polytheism, born out of the desire to be historically authentic. In occultism, there has been a hunger for ‘ancient’ knowledge since at least the early modern Renaissance. Magicians placed great value on the writings of the sage Hermes Trismegistus, a supposedly pre-biblical figure who, among other things, invented astrology and predicted the birth of Christ. However, in 1614 Casaubon dated the hermetic corpus to no earlier than the 3rd or 4th century AD, damaging the image of Trismegistus as idol of prisca theologia. The occult and pagan communities would suffer similar ‘revelations’ in the 20th century, leading to disillusionment with the historical claims of their authors.

In the 1970s and 80s, a couple of English magicians decided to look at the problem from a different angle. They came up with a system that values results over tradition – chaos magic. Most magical systems are eclectic and syncretic, but chaos magic is openly so. Its practitioners may use the Greek Magical Papyri one day and the Simonomicon the next. Both are considered valid – as long as they work. In this instance, authenticity is provided by results and experience, not historical precedence. After all, what is the point of calling the Gods with ancient hymns if they don’t answer? Why write your curse in Latin if English will suffice?

I agree with the chaos magicians that results matter, but I’m also a historian by training and I recognise that chaos magic, like all occult systems, is a product of its time and takes on many elements of the late 20th century world view (while apparently rejecting others.) Historically sourced magic may not be more authentic purely because of its antiquity, yet there is a great deal of benefit to be gained from a thorough study of the subject.

The most obvious reason for taking up the study of the history of magic is that it will make you more discerning. You are less likely to buy into a system, idea or author on the basis of a false history if you can spot such claims the minute you open a book. This background knowledge will also allow you to pick apart syncretic systems like the Golden Dawn, Wicca, Thelema or ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ and discern their influences.

Crucially, an awareness of the history of magic will liberate you from the search for the ‘one true’ or valid path. There have been many effective systems of magic developed over the centuries and all have been eclectic and syncretic rather than pure streams of ancient magic. It highlights that modern magic, of any variety, is part of a non-linear tradition of adaptation and innovation, valuing the old but reworking it alongside new ideas and a changing world view.

The history of magic is also worth studying as a resource, a treasure trove of old charms, incantations, herb lore, spirit names and amulets. It’s juicy stuff and relevant to the needs and wants of modern practitioners. People in Hellenic Alexandria or 18th century France used magic for many of the same needs and desires we have today. Modern popular magic has retained some historical elements, but many methods have been forgotten and may be worthy of re-examination and incorporation into your practice. At the same time, the claims of historical magicians for the miraculous properties of certain stones or the abilities of certain spirits to influence the physical world might inspire healthy scepticism about the verity of all ancient magic.

However, the reason I am passionate about the history of magic, and the wider history of ideas, is that it allows us to try out different world views. If we want to understand how a Renaissance magus or a 19th century cunning woman practiced their magic, we need to come to terms with how they saw the world. Essentially, we are made to rearrange our mental furniture from the default set-up of our disenchanted culture to one in which magic is far more widely accepted as a part of reality. By studying the history of magic, you will encounter a diverse range of practices and a wide variety of ideas about how and why those practices work. The study of history requires as much imagination as it does fact checking, although this is an imaginative exercise inspired by evidence rather than in spite of it!

The difficulty, I openly acknowledge, is in knowing where to start. Unless you have studied history at a tertiary level, it can be daunting to the face the mass of scholarship available, even though the field we call the ‘History of Western Esotericism’ is comparatively small. At the end of this essay, I’ll list a few resources I’ve found invaluable, although none of them are definitive. However, there are some basic academic concepts that are good to familiarise yourself with before you begin. Perhaps the most important is the difference between primary and secondary sources:

  • Primary sources are documents or other objects created in the period of history being studied. A 15th century manuscript or a Roman lead curse tablet is a primary source.
  • Secondary sources are documents from a later period, attempting to interpret primary sources. A book by a modern scholar or a podcast on medieval magic is a secondary source. 

Any claim made by a historian in a secondary source should be backed up by evidence in a primary source. Sometimes, in entry level books or overviews of a subject, these claims will be backed up by other secondary sources – but these will be referenced. You should always be able to follow a statement back to the primary source(s), that is good history. Secondary sources are full of interpretations, theories and opinions about the primary sources. They’re helpful to our understanding, but don’t take them as verified fact.

The second concept to keep in mind is the difference between the history of magic and the history of witchcraft. If you attended an academic conference on witchcraft hoping to learn about historical magic, you might be a little disappointed. That’s because the study of the European witch trials is not primarily the study of people who were actually practicing magic, but of the strange cocktail of religious, social and political factors that led to the torture and death of ordinary women and men as ‘witches’. That’s not to say there is no overlap between the two, fairy beliefs and the medieval grimoire tradition certainly influenced the idea of witchcraft in the minds of persecutors. However, the focus of this field of study is very different and less concerned with the practice of magic than popular beliefs about witches. Likewise, the history of magic is not exclusively, or even predominately, a ‘pagan’ or polytheist history, it spans religions and cultures, transforming and adjusting to the dominant world view and religious structures of each place and time.

So, where does one start chronologically? The obvious answer would be the beginning. As far back in time as we have written or archaeological records. However, I would explicitly caution against doing this. The truth is that it’s much easier to start in a later period and work backwards as you build up a familiarity with concepts, authors and even the language needed to grasp primary sources. Our modern, western world view is perhaps more similar to that of the 19th century CE than the third, and thus more recent history may be more approachable. To that end, the reading list below has been arranged, roughly, from modern to ancient. Of course, if you have a particular interest in one period over another, by all means begin there.

You may notice that I’ve only included academic studies of magic, and not those produced by occult publishers. This century has seen a resurgence of evidence-based history in occult publishing, a trend we should applaud. However, there is also another sort of history – let’s call it ‘mythic history.’ All religions and many esoteric traditions have a mythic history alongside the history of their foundation and development as supported by the sources. Mythic history serves a vital purpose, inspiring practitioners through the power of story, filling in gaps with potent symbolism and linking the physical with the immaterial. I do not wish to dismiss mythic history, or those who write in this vein, but simply to differentiate the two.

A very short History of Magic reading list

This list is not meant to be exhaustive but hopefully provides a good starting point for the history of magic in Western Europe. If it is weighted towards the middle ages, this betrays my own research interests. I have chosen to include books I have actually read, rather than trying to cover periods I am less familiar with. I have opted for more general and approachable studies over edited collections and those that feature specific texts or individuals and, in doing so, have no doubt left out some classics of the field. Further reading may be found by perusing the bibliographies of these works or searching within the period of interest.

  • Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern pagan witchcraft.
  • Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British occultism and the culture of the modern
  • Owen Davies, Popular magic : cunning folk in English history and Grimoires : a history of magic books
  • Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe
  • Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age and Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition*
  • Anne Lawrence-Mathers and Carolina Escobar-Vargas, Magic and Medieval Society
  • Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages
  • Catherine Rider, Magic and Religion in Medieval England
  • Bill Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo Saxon Magic
  • Matthew Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World

*Yates was a pioneer in this field and her books are engaging and well worth reading, however, some of her theories have since been discredited.

While some of these books are available as affordable paperbacks online, or from your favourite occult bookshop, others can be difficult or expensive to acquire. I suggest looking into your local university library and their access options. You may be able to take out a membership, or get a reading card to peruse their shelves without being an enrolled student.

Academic journals in this field include:

Additionally, there is an exceptionally good podcast, SHWEP (The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast) which aims to trace the evolution of esoteric ideas in the west. I cannot recommend it highly enough for those seeking an in-depth education in the history of magic.

I hope this will inspire practitioners not already immersed in the history of magic to begin to explore it. We’re living in an exciting time, where this field of study is expanding and becoming more accessible through exhibitions, popular and academic books, podcasts, video lectures and conferences. Whether you are searching for authenticity, ancient incantations and recipes or simply a better understanding of where modern systems of magic come from, you will find many rewards for your exploration of this fascinating subject. I must warn you however, that the history of magic is a thoroughly addictive pursuit.

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