Book Review: The Book of Magic

BookReviewLogoIn The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment (Penguin, 2016), Brian Copenhaver, professor of philosophy and history at UCLA, has drawn together a wide variety of texts into a kind of buffet of writing on magic, defining ‘magic’ loosely. The collection stops a little short — mid-seventeenth century — for my taste but, given the massive amount of material to choose from, such a time-bound anthology makes sense. The book is already quite lengthy — taking it into the eighteenth century might have required the publisher to sell it with an accompanying lectern. Perhaps Copenhaver has plans for a second volume! As it is, The Book of Magic will be a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the interstices of medicine and magic or in the source texts drawn on by many weird lit authors.

25810353This isn’t a book that lends itself to reading in solid sittings — more perusing section by section. Copenhaver provides some context in a brief introductory essay as well as introductions to the sections of the book and to the pieces. I would have appreciated more analytic material connecting the selections one to another; however, I feel this is probably work Copenhaver has already done in Magic in Western Culture (Cambridge U.P., 2015). In many ways, The Book of Magic might best be viewed as a primary source companion to this earlier scholarly monograph.

The bibliography and notes in Magic are detailed and make for interesting reading on their own. Readers interested in going further will readily be able to find copies of most of the works cited available online, although some will require a thorough familiarity with languages (primarily Latin and Greek). Thus, Magic will be an excellent collection for anyone planning a class on, for instance, medieval medicine and finds themselves in search of readings to add to their syllabus.

For the more casual reader, it could be a little intimidating and Copenhaver is not writing for a lay audience. However, even without the context of Copenhaver’s scholarly narrative, the primary sources make for compelling reading. Consider, for example, this advice from the medieval period:

When you want to make an image to put love between two people and make their love and affection strong and solid, make images of both people with their likenesses. See that they are made in the hour of Jupiter or Venus, that the Dragon’s Tail is in the ascendant, that the moon is with Venus or else looks towards her in a good aspect and that the Lord of the seventh house looks on the Lord of the first house in trine or sextile aspect (284).

Or this from the late 15th century text The Hammer of Witches:

Since women lack strength, they look for a covert way to get what they want — through witchcraft… And because they are deficient in all the faculties of mind and body, it is no surprise that they often procure witchcraft against their rivals… The natural reason is that women are more carnal than men, which is clear from the many carnal and filthy things that they do… (346).

The Book of Magic is a fascinating collection of texts that will provoke as many questions as it answers for its readers.

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