Goetia (goh-eh-tee-ah) is a type of European sorcery, often referred to as witchcraft, that has been transmitted through grimoires—books containing instructions for performing magical practices. The term "goetia" finds its origins in the Greek word "goes," which originally denoted diviners, magicians, healers, and seers. Initially, it held a connotation of low magic, implying fraudulent or deceptive mageia as opposed to theurgy, which was regarded as divine magic. Grimoires, also known as "books of spells" or "spellbooks," serve as instructional manuals for various magical endeavors. They cover crafting magical objects, casting spells, performing divination, and summoning supernatural entities like angels, spirits, deities, and demons. Although the term "grimoire" originates from Europe, similar magical texts have been found in diverse cultures across the world.
The history of grimoires can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia, where magical incantations were inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets. Ancient Egyptians also employed magical practices, including incantations inscribed on amulets. The magical system of ancient Egypt, known as heka, underwent changes after the Macedonian invasion led by Alexander the Great. The rise of the Coptic writing system and the Library of Alexandria further influenced the development of magical texts, which evolved from simple charms to encompass various aspects of life, including financial success and fulfillment. Legendary figures like Hermes Trismegistus emerged, associated with writing and magic, contributing to the creation of magical books.
Throughout history, various cultures have contributed to magical practices. Early Christianity saw the use of grimoires by certain Gnostic sects, with texts like the Book of Enoch containing astrological and angelic information. King Solomon of Israel was linked with magic and sorcery, attributed to a book with incantations for summoning demons. The pseudepigraphic Testament of Solomon, one of the oldest magical texts, narrates Solomon's use of a magical ring to command demons. With the ascent of Christianity, books on magic were frowned upon, and the spread of magical practices was often associated with paganism. This sentiment led to book burnings and the association of magical practitioners with heresy and witchcraft.
The magical revival of Goetia gained momentum in the 19th century, spearheaded by figures like Eliphas Levi and Aleister Crowley. They interpreted and popularized magical traditions, incorporating elements from Kabbalah, Hermeticism, and ceremonial magic. Levi emphasized personal transformation and ethical implications, while Crowley's works blended various mystical philosophies. Contemporary practitioners of occultism and esotericism continue to engage with Goetia, drawing from historical texts while adapting rituals to align with personal beliefs. Ethical debates surround Goetia, with some approaching it cautiously due to the potential risks of interacting with powerful entities. Others view it as a means of inner transformation and self-empowerment. The history and revival of Goetia showcase its enduring influence in the realm of magic and spirituality.
Main article: Grimoire
A grimoire (also known as a "book of spells", "magic book", or a "spellbook") is a textbook of magic, typically including instructions on how to create magical objects like talismans and amulets, how to perform magical spells, charms, and divination, and how to summon or invoke supernatural entities such as angels, spirits, deities, and demons. While the term grimoire is originally European—and many Europeans throughout history, particularly ceremonial magicians and cunning folk, have used grimoires—the historian Owen Davies has noted that similar books can be found all around the world, ranging from Jamaica to Sumatra. He also noted that in this sense, the world's first grimoires were created in Europe and the ancient Near East.
The earliest known written magical incantations come from ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), where they have been found inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets that archaeologists excavated from the city of Uruk and dated to between the 5th and 4th centuries BC. The ancient Egyptians also employed magical incantations, which have been found inscribed on amulets and other items. The Egyptian magical system, known as heka, was greatly altered and expanded after the Macedonians, led by Alexander the Great, invaded Egypt in 332 BC.
Under the next three centuries of Hellenistic Egypt, the Coptic writing system evolved, and the Library of Alexandria was opened. This likely had an influence upon books of magic, with the trend on known incantations switching from simple health and protection charms to more specific things, such as financial success and sexual fulfillment. Around this time the legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistus developed as a conflation of the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek Hermes; this figure was associated with writing and magic and, therefore, of books on magic.
The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that books on magic were invented by the Persians. The 1st-century AD writer Pliny the Elder stated that magic had been first discovered by the ancient philosopher Zoroaster around the year 647 BC but that it was only written down in the 5th century BC by the magician Osthanes. His claims are not, however, supported by modern historians. The Greek Magical Papyri, nearly a millennium after the fall of Mesopotamia, preserve the name of the Sumerian goddess Ereshkigal.
The ancient Jewish people were often viewed as being knowledgeable in magic, which, according to legend, they had learned from Moses, who had learned it in Egypt. Among many ancient writers, Moses was seen as an Egyptian rather than a Jew. Two manuscripts likely dating to the 4th century, both of which purport to be the legendary eighth Book of Moses (the first five being the initial books in the Biblical Old Testament), present him as a polytheist who explained how to conjure gods and subdue demons.
Meanwhile, there is definite evidence of grimoires being used by certain—particularly Gnostic—sects of early Christianity. In the Book of Enoch found within the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, there is information on astrology and the angels. In possible connection with the Book of Enoch, the idea of Enoch and his great-grandson Noah having some involvement with books of magic given to them by angels continued through to the medieval period.
Israelite King Solomon was a Biblical figure associated with magic and sorcery in the ancient world. The 1st-century Romano-Jewish historian Josephus mentioned a book circulating under the name of Solomon that contained incantations for summoning demons and described how a Jew called Eleazar used it to cure cases of possession.
The pseudepigraphic Testament of Solomon is one of the oldest magical texts. It is a Greek manuscript attributed to Solomon and was likely written in either Babylonia or Egypt sometime in the first five centuries AD; over 1,000 years after Solomon's death. The work tells of the building of The Temple and relates that construction was hampered by demons until the archangel Michael gave the King a magical ring. The ring, engraved with the Seal of Solomon, had the power to bind demons from doing harm. Solomon used it to lock demons in jars and commanded others to do his bidding, although eventually, according to the Testament, he was tempted into worshiping "false gods", such as Moloch, Baal, and Rapha. Subsequently, after losing favour with God, King Solomon wrote the work as a warning and a guide to the reader.
When Christianity became the dominant faith of the Roman Empire, the early Church frowned upon the propagation of books on magic, connecting it with paganism, and burned books of magic. The New Testament records that after the unsuccessful exorcism by the seven sons of Sceva became known, many converts decided to burn their own magic and pagan books in the city of Ephesus; this advice was adopted on a large scale after the Christian ascent to power.
Main article: Magic in the Greco-Roman world
The English word magic has its origins in ancient Greece. During the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE, the Persian maguš was Graecicized and introduced into the ancient Greek language as μάγος and μαγεία. In doing so it transformed meaning, gaining negative connotations, with the magos being regarded as a charlatan whose ritual practices were fraudulent, strange, unconventional, and dangerous. As noted by Davies, for the ancient Greeks—and subsequently for the ancient Romans—"magic was not distinct from religion but rather an unwelcome, improper expression of it—the religion of the other". The historian Richard Gordon suggested that for the ancient Greeks, being accused of practicing magic was "a form of insult".
Magical operations largely fell into two categories: theurgy (θεουργία) defined as high magic, and goetia (γοητεία) as low magic or witchcraft. Theurgy in some contexts appears simply to glorify the kind of magic that is being practiced – usually a respectable priest-like figure is associated with the ritual. Goetia was a derogatory term connoting low, specious or fraudulent mageia.
Katadesmoi (Latin: defixiones), curses inscribed on wax or lead tablets and buried underground, were frequently executed by all strata of Greek society, sometimes to protect the entire polis. Communal curses carried out in public declined after the Greek classical period, but private curses remained common throughout antiquity. They were distinguished as magical by their individualistic, instrumental and sinister qualities. These qualities, and their perceived deviation from inherently mutable cultural constructs of normality, most clearly delineate ancient magic from the religious rituals of which they form a part.
A large number of magical papyri, in Greek, Coptic, and Demotic, have been recovered and translated. They contain early instances of:
In the first century BCE, the Greek concept of the magos was adopted into Latin and used by a number of ancient Roman writers as magus and magia. The earliest known Latin use of the term was in Virgil's Eclogue, written around 40 BCE, which makes reference to magicis... sacris (magic rites). The Romans already had other terms for the negative use of supernatural powers, such as veneficus and saga. The Roman use of the term was similar to that of the Greeks, but placed greater emphasis on the judicial application of it.
In ancient Roman society, magic was associated with societies to the east of the empire; the first century CE writer Pliny the Elder for instance claimed that magic had been created by the Iranian philosopher Zoroaster, and that it had then been brought west into Greece by the magician Osthanes, who accompanied the military campaigns of the Persian King Xerxes.
Within the Roman Empire, laws would be introduced criminalising things regarded as magic. The practice of magic was banned in the late Roman world, and the Codex Theodosianus (438 AD) states:
If any wizard therefore or person imbued with magical contamination who is called by custom of the people a magician [...] should be apprehended in my retinue, or in that of the Caesar, he shall not escape punishment and torture by the protection of his rank.
Christopher Faralone writes that "In Late Antiquity we can see that a goddess invoked as Hecate Ereshkigal was useful in both protective magic and in curses. [...] she also appears on a number of curse tablets [...]" Robin Melrose writes that "the first clear-cut magic in Britain was the use of curse tablets, which came with the Romans. This is disputed by Stephen Yeates in his book The Tribe of Witches, which presents an investigation of the religion of the peoples who occupied the Severn Valley and the Cotswolds immediately before and after the Roman occupation: the Dobunni and the Hwicce. The name of the latter tribe is the root of the Old English words wicce and wicca, meaning female and male practitioners of witchcraft respectively.
Potter and Johns wrote that "Some classical deities, notably Hecate of the underworld, had triple manifestations. In Roman Britain, some fifty dedications to the Mothers are recorded in stone inscriptions and other objects, constituting ample evidence of the importance of the cult among native Celts and others."
In 1979–80, the Bath curse tablets were found at the site of Aquae Sulis (now Bath in England). All but one of the 130 tablets concerned the restitution of stolen goods. Over 80 similar tablets have been discovered in and about the remains of a temple to Mercury nearby, at West Hill, Uley, making south-western Britain one of the major centres for finds of Latin defixiones.
Most of the inscriptions are in colloquial Latin, and specifically in the Vulgar Latin of the Romano-British population, known as "British Latin". Two of the inscriptions are in a language which is not Latin, although they use Roman lettering, and may be in a British Celtic language. If this should be the case, they would be the only examples of a written ancient British Celtic language; however, there is not yet scholarly consensus on their decipherment.
There is also a medieval-era Templar Magic Square in the Rivington Church in Lancashire, England. Scholars have found medieval Sator-based charms, remedies, and cures, for a diverse range of applications from childbirth, to toothaches, to love potions, to ways of warding off evil spells, and even to determine whether someone was a witch. Richard Cavendish notes a medieval manuscript in the Bodleian says: "Write these [five sator] words on in parchment with the blood of a Culver [pigeon] and bear it in thy left hand and ask what thou wilt and thou shalt have it. fiat."
In medieval times, the Roman temple at Bath would be incorporated into the Matter of Britain. The thermal springs at Bath were said to have been dedicated to Minerva by the legendary King Bladud and the temple there endowed with an eternal flame.
Godfrid Storms argued that animism played a significant role in the worldview of Anglo-Saxon magic, noting that in the recorded charms, "All sorts of phenomenon are ascribed to the visible or invisible intervention of good or evil spirits." The primary creature of the spirit world that appear in the Anglo-Saxon charms is the ælf (nominative plural ylfe, "elf"), an entity who was believed to cause sickness in humans. Another type of spirit creature, a demonic one, believed to cause physical harm in the Anglo-Saxon world was the dweorg or dƿeorg/dwerg ("dwarf"), whom Storms characterised as a "disease-spirit". A number of charms imply the belief that malevolent "disease-spirits" were causing sickness by inhabiting a person's blood. Such charms offer remedies to remove these spirits, calling for blood to be drawn out to drive the disease-spirit out with it.
The adoption of Christianity saw some of these pre-Christian mythological creatures reinterpreted as devils, who are also referenced in the surviving charms. In late Anglo-Saxon England, nigromancy ('black magic', sometimes confused with necromancy) was among the witchcraft practices condemned by Ælfric of Eynsham (c.955–c.1010):
Witches still go to cross-roads and to heathen burials with their delusive magic and call to the devil; and he comes to them in the likeness of the man that is buried there, as if he arises from death.
Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) had said that demons had children with women called cambions, which added to the children they had between them, contributed to increase the number of demons. However, the first popular account of such a union and offspring does not occur in Western literature until around 1136, when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the story of Merlin in his pseudohistorical account of British history, Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), in which he reported that Merlin's father was an incubus.
Anne Lawrence-Mathers writes that at that time "... views on demons and spirits were still relatively flexible. There was still a possibility that the daemons of classical tradition were different from the demons of the Bible." Accounts of sexual relations with demons in literature continues with The Life of Saint Bernard by Geoffrey of Auxerre (c. 1160) and the Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich by Thomas of Monmouth (c. 1173). The theme of sexual relations with demons became a matter of increasing interest for late 12th-century writers.
Prophetiae Merlini (The Prophecies of Merlin), a Latin work of Geoffrey of Monmouth in circulation by 1135, perhaps as a libellus or short work, was the first work about the prophet Myrddin in a language other than Welsh. The Prophetiae was widely read — and believed — much as the prophecies of Nostradamus would be centuries later; John Jay Parry and Robert Caldwell note that the Prophetiae Merlini "were taken most seriously, even by the learned and worldly wise, in many nations", and list examples of this credulity as late as 1445.
It was only beginning in the 1150s that the Church turned its attention to defining the possible roles of spirits and demons, especially with respect to their sexuality and in connection with the various forms of magic which were then believed to exist. Christian demonologists eventually came to agree that sexual relationships between demons and humans happen, but they disagreed on why and how. A common point of view is that demons induce men and women to the sin of lust, and adultery is often considered as an associated sin.
Goetia and some (though not all) medieval grimoires became associated with demonolatry. These grimoires contain magical words of power and instructions for the evocation of spirits derived from older pagan traditions. Sources include Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon paganism and include demons or devils mentioned in the Bible, such as Asmodeus, Astaroth, and Beelzebub.
During the 14th century, sorcerers were feared and respected throughout many societies and used many practices to achieve their goals. "Witches or sorcerers were usually feared as well as respected, and they used a variety of means to attempt to achieve their goals, including incantations (formulas or chants invoking evil spirits), divination and oracles (to predict the future), amulets and charms (to ward off hostile spirits and harmful events), potions or salves, and dolls or other figures (to represent their enemies)".
Medieval Europe saw the Latin legal term maleficium applied to forms of sorcery or witchcraft that were conducted with the intention of causing harm. Early in the 14th century, maleficium was one of the charges leveled against the Knights Templar.
Maleficium was defined as "the practice of malevolent magic, derived from casting lots as a means of divining the future in the ancient Mediterranean world", or as "an act of witchcraft performed with the intention of causing damage or injury; the resultant harm." In general, the term applies to any magical act intended to cause harm or death to people or property. Lewis and Russell stated, "Maleficium was a threat not only to individuals but also to public order, for a community wracked by suspicions about witches could split asunder". Those accused of maleficium were punished by being imprisoned or even executed.
Sorcery came to be associated with the Old Testament figure of Solomon; various grimoires, or books outlining magical practices, were written that claimed to have been written by Solomon. One well-known goetic grimoire is the Ars Goetia, included in the 16th-century text known as The Lesser Key of Solomon, which was likely compiled from materials several centuries older.
One of the most obvious sources for the Ars Goetia is Johann Weyer's Pseudomonarchia Daemonum in his De praestigiis daemonum (1577). Weyer relates that his source for this intelligence was a book called Liber officiorum spirituum, seu liber dictus Empto Salomonis, de principibus et regibus demoniorum ("The book of the offices of spirits, or the book called Empto, by Solomon, about the princes and kings of demons"). Weyer does not cite, and is unaware of, any other books in the Lemegeton, suggesting that the Lemegeton was derived from his work, not the other way around. Additionally, some material came from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy (1533), and the Heptameron by pseudo-Pietro d'Abano.[a]
The later Middle Ages saw words for these practitioners of harmful magical acts appear in various European languages: sorcière in French, Hexe in German, strega in Italian, and bruja in Spanish. The English term for malevolent practitioners of magic, witch, derived from the earlier Old English term wicce. A person that performs sorcery is referred to as a sorcerer or a witch, conceived as someone who tries to reshape the world through the occult. The word witch is over a thousand years old: Old English formed the compound wiccecræft from wicce ('witch') and cræft ('craft'). The masculine form was wicca ('male sorcerer'). In early modern Scots, the word warlock came to be used as the male equivalent of witch (which can be male or female, but is used predominantly for females).
Probably the best-known characteristic of a sorcerer or witch is their ability to cast a spell—a set of words, a formula or verse, a ritual, or a combination of these, employed to do magic. Spells traditionally were cast by many methods, such as by the inscription of runes or sigils on an object to give that object magical powers; by the immolation or binding of a wax or clay image (poppet) of a person to affect them magically; by the recitation of incantations; by the performance of physical rituals; by the employment of magical herbs as amulets or potions; by gazing at mirrors, swords or other specula (scrying) for purposes of divination; and by many other means. Johannes Hartlieb (1410-1468) wrote a compendium on herbs in ca. 1440, and in 1456 the puch aller verpoten kunst, ungelaubens und der zaubrey (book on all forbidden arts, superstition and sorcery) on the artes magicae, containing the oldest known description of witches' flying ointment.
During the Renaissance, the many magical practices and rituals of goetia were considered evil or irreligious and by extension, black magic in the broad sense. Witchcraft and non-mainstream esoteric study were prohibited and targeted by the Inquisition.
In Christianity, sorcery came to be associated with heresy and apostasy and to be viewed as evil. Among the Catholics, Protestants, and secular leadership of the European Early Modern period, fears about sorcery and witchcraft rose to fever pitch and sometimes led to large-scale witch-hunts. The key century was the fifteenth, which saw a dramatic rise in awareness and terror of witchcraft, culminating in the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum but prepared by such fanatical popular preachers as Bernardino of Siena.
The Malleus Maleficarum, (Latin for 'Hammer of The Witches') was a witch-hunting manual written in 1486 by two German monks, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. It was used by both Catholics and Protestants for several hundred years, outlining how to identify a witch, what makes a woman more likely than a man to be a witch, how to put a witch on trial, and how to punish a witch. The book defines a witch as evil and typically female. The book became the handbook for secular courts throughout Renaissance Europe, but was not used by the Inquisition, which even cautioned against relying on the work.[b] In total, tens or hundreds of thousands of people were executed, and others were imprisoned, tortured, banished, and had lands and possessions confiscated. The majority of those accused were women, though in some regions the majority were men.
Johann Weyer (1515–1588) was a Dutch physician, occultist and demonologist, and a disciple and follower of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. He was among the first to publish against the persecution of witches. His most influential work is De Praestigiis Daemonum et Incantationibus ac Venificiis ('On the Illusions of the Demons and on Spells and Poisons'; 1563).
In 1584, the English writer Reginald Scot published The Discoverie of Witchcraft, a book intended as an exposé of early modern witchcraft. Scot believed that the prosecution of those accused of witchcraft was irrational and not Christian, and he held the Roman Church responsible. Popular belief held that all obtainable copies were burned on the accession of James I in 1603.
In 1597, King James VI and I published a treatise, Daemonologie, a philosophical dissertation on contemporary necromancy and the historical relationships between the various methods of divination used from ancient black magic. It was reprinted again in 1603 when James took the throne of England. The widespread consensus is that King James wrote Daemonologie in response to sceptical publications such as Scot's book.
European witch-trials reached their peak in the early 17th century, after which popular sentiment began to turn against the practice. Friedrich Spee's book Cautio Criminalis, published in 1631, argued that witch-trials were largely unreliable and immoral. In 1682, King Louis XIV prohibited further witch-trials in France. In 1736, Great Britain formally ended witch-trials with passage of the Witchcraft Act.
The magical revival of Goetia gained significant momentum in the 19th century with the contributions of figures like Eliphas Levi. Levi, a French occultist and writer, played a pivotal role in reinterpreting and popularizing magical traditions, including Goetia. His works, such as The Key of the Mysterie and Transcendental Magic, synthesized elements of Kabbalah, Hermeticism, and ceremonial magic. Levi's perspective framed Goetia as a means of harnessing and mastering the forces of the spiritual world for personal transformation. He emphasized the moral and ethical implications of magical practice, reflecting the changing intellectual landscape of the time.
Aleister Crowley, a central figure in 20th-century occultism, continued the magical revival of Goetia. A member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Crowley was deeply influenced by its teachings and rituals. His exploration of Goetia can be seen in his The Book of the Goetia of Solomon the King, which offered his perspective on working with spirits. Crowley's approach blended his interpretation of ceremonial magic, Eastern mysticism, and personal experimentation. He emphasized the magician's willpower and authority in commanding spirits, reflecting his individualistic and transformative magical philosophy.
The magical revival of Goetia has persisted into modern times within the realm of occultism. Contemporary practitioners of ceremonial magic, occult traditions, and esotericism often incorporate elements of Goetia into their practices. These individuals draw from historical grimoires, including the classic Lesser Key of Solomon, while also interpreting and adapting its rituals to align with their personal beliefs and spiritual goals. While some view Goetia as a path to self-mastery and spiritual empowerment, others engage with it as a historical curiosity or a means of connecting with symbolic forces.
The magical revival of Goetia has sparked discussions about ethics, responsibility, and the boundaries of magical practice. Some practitioners approach Goetia with caution, recognizing the potential risks and consequences of invoking powerful entities. Others emphasize the symbolic and psychological aspects of the practice, focusing on inner transformation rather than literal spirit conjuration. As with any magical tradition, the revival of Goetia showcases the diversity of perspectives within the occult community, reflecting the evolving understanding of magic in the modern world.
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