The World Is Your Setting Guide 4

It’s been a while, so here’s another in my series of interesting sources to look at for campaigns set in Earth (whether modern-day or historical). This time, an overview of a particular society at a particular time, a big picture view of the history of magical grimoires, and a somewhat more dated book on the same subject.

The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

This is a guide to medieval society which steps away from providing a recounting of events and focuses more on presenting a more immersive view of the times, Mortimer’s technique being to treat the period in question like an actual place and then giving a rundown of the sort of details you’d notice on an actual visit. This means that a timeline of major events is avoided (after all, how likely are you to participate in any of those if you visited?), but there’s more details given on things like the social order, overall cultural attitude, methods of travel, what you eat, how you dress, how towns are arranged, and so on and so forth.

The approach is rather similar to another book I’ve covered in this series, The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania, though I would say the two books complement each other rather than rendering each other redundant. Crucially, Mortimer’s focus is a bit geographically tighter (just England rather than England and France), and relates to a somewhat different time period – 1300 to 1400, rather than 1050 to 1300.

Mortimer’s book is incredibly useful for anyone running historical RPGs, or RPGs using settings riffing on history, at the tabletop or in LARP format. This is simply because it gives a great look at the actual practicalities of life in the era. If you want to depict a realistic cross-country journey, feast, market visit, or sailing voyage in the era, Mortimer has you covered. This is the sort of question which might often come up in a historical (or close-to-historical) campaign: Wikipedia can quickly tell you when a particular battle was or who was king, but can be a bit less helpful in giving you an idea of, say, how you would actually make your way from London to York in an era when accurate maps simply aren’t available, and those maps that do exist really aren’t made for the rigours of travel.


Grimoires: A History of Magic Books by Owen Davies

Ever since the early Call of Cthulhu rules set down the Sanity loss arising from reading the Necronomicon, magical grimoires have been a recurring plot element of games in Earthly settings, from modern-day horror to medieval fantasy. (Ars Magica, in particular, is a game where sitting around reading books is a significant component of character advancement, and acquiring books for the Covenant’s library can be a recurring adventure seed for the campaign.)

Obviously, when it comes to cooking up your own tomes of forbidden lore for characters in a horror game to stumble across, or a lost codex of astonishing secrets for wizardly characters to chase over, you can just make things up. But sometimes it can help to know a little something about the field when you’re making these things up; Lovecraft was able to make his references to the Necronomicon sound more plausible by cooking up a little history of the book, throwing in the sort of bibliographic details that would accompany the history of such a text. So there’s something to be said for knowing the real history of the subject even if your treatment is going to be largely fictional – and if you’re trying for something more rooted in real-world history, then obviously more actual knowledge is going to help you.

Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books is a fascinating account of the subject, picking things up with the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri which seem to be the earliest literary ancestors of Western grimoires and following the story through the preservation of the knowledge of Roman-occupied Egypt by the Arabic and Byzantine world, the introduction of magical texts to medieval Europe following the Crusades, the fabrication of new European grimoires based on this source material (often with spurious histories, such as the Key of Solomon and its claim to originate with King Solomon himself), the way the development of the printing press changed the field, the way changing realities in the publishing market affected this particular niche, and even how European grimoires ended up feeding into the syncretic African diaspora religions of the Americas, how fly-by-night publishers churned out grimoires into the pulp age, and how newfangled books like Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible, the Wiccan Book of Shadows, and the Necronomicon entered the fray in the 20th century.

This is a popular history, not a scholarly one, so it is not as in-depth as, say, Stephen Skinner’s careful categorisation of the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri and his tracing of these textual trends from there, via Byzantine texts, to the Key of Solomon (and from there the great galaxy of grimoires which ripped off the Key). It’s also quite wide-ranging, so it can’t drill down to the extent that, say, the Necronomicon Files does on the subject of the various forged versions of that book.

That said, the wide span of time covered by the book is an asset in its own right, since it allows Davies to tease out patterns that recur over time and take a “big picture” view of things. Davies comes to the subject as an interested academic, not a hardcore believer in the occult, so he doesn’t get hung up on arguments about which grimoires are legitimate or not; he takes the view, for instance, that whilst the “Simon” version of the Necronomicon is a blatant fake, it’s no more illegitimate or legitimate than any other grimoire, since grimoires have a long tradition of claiming a totally spurious history. He’s also interested in aspects of publishing history which occultist writers probably consider besides the point, but which could potentially provide seeds for ideas for especially bibliophile-oriented mysteries and scandals.

The Book of Ceremonial Magic by A.E. Waite

This book is of somewhat more niche interest, though I can see how it could be used for inspiration for Cthulhu By Gaslight (especially if the Pagan Publishing Golden Dawn supplement is in use) or 1920s Call of Cthulhu in particular.

You see, Waite originally published this in 1898 as The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, and then revised it in 1911 with the newer title. (My own copy bears the title of The Wordsworth Book of Spells, Wordsworth Editions having decided to re-title it for their reprint.) It would therefore have been still fairly current in the latter time period, whilst reflecting the understanding of the former time period.

It is, in some respects, a text which is presented somewhat misleadingly: any of the titles offered would make it sound like a sincerely-presented set of magical rituals. This is far from the case. Though Waite was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and wrote extensively on occult subjects (a version of his Pictorial Key to the Tarot is still provided with many editions of the Rider-Waite tarot deck as illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith), he was never especially keen on magic, being much keener on mysticism. In other words, he was suspicious of magical rituals, particularly those which were directed towards material ends, and was much more about seeking the divine via quiet contemplation.

Waite, indeed, was one of the Golden Dawn members who were able to figure out from textual evidence and other clues that the “Cipher Manuscripts” that formed the basis of the Golden Dawn rituals were almost certainly written in London in the late 19th Century, not shipped over from Germany as transcripts of a much older tradition. This set him at loggerheads with Samuel Mathers, the founder of the order (along with none other than Aleister Crowley, acting as Mathers’ minion); when the Golden Dawn schismed, the anti-Mathers faction coalesced around Waite, only to schism again when it became apparent that Waite really just wanted to dump most to all of the magic from the order and just have a nice club of mystics in its place.

That makes this a book with an agenda. Mathers had produced an English translation of the Key of Solomon (though he had left chunks out he felt were later interpolations); Mathers was also largely responsible for promoting the magical side of the Golden Dawn. With this book, Waite seems to have had three major intentions:

  • Provide a rundown of available grimoires, as best as he could ascertain at that time, and their relationship to one another.
  • Provide a detailed summary of the various magical techniques provided therein.
  • By virtue of the parallels between the magical techniques used, argue that texts like the Key of Solomon, which were claimed to provide a “white” magic which was morally superior to “black” magic, did in fact involve doing basically the same sort of thing, with the same sort of end in mind.
  • As a result of this conclusion, argue that far from presenting anything of worth to the modern mystic, the Key of Solomon is basically yet another atavistic relic of the bad old days, no better than more overtly Satanically-themed grimoires and in some respects worse since it pretends to be better than it is.

As a result, whilst the back half of the book offers a fairly detailed mini-grimoire in its own right, boiled down from the various grimoires Waite details in the first half, this is all pursuing the end of slamming the idea that any magical grimoire could really be adapted to a grand spiritual purpose.

Waite divides the grimoires into “transcendental magic” (those which don’t outwardly entail meddling with any evil spirits), “composite rituals” (which involve a mixture of good and evil spirits), and “black magic” (those primarily dealing with evil spirits), and fairly convincingly argues that all of them involve using broadly comparable methods in order to demand the obedience of spirits (using various names of God as a sort of spiritual bludgeon to this end) to the same general ends – becoming invisible, finding treasure, long life, making people love you and similar practical ends.

Waite puts a lot of emphasis on the idea that these intended purposes are, in his view, kind of sordid, and forms the view based on that that the practitioners of magic over the years were largely fairly sad people who couldn’t get wealth, health, or sexual satisfaction through conventional avenues and so resorted to magic out of desperation, and seems to take as axiomatic that any attempt to use spiritual methods to advance such practical goals is corrupt. Of course, as a Golden Dawn member, he’d have been aware that the magical practices of the Order were largely about emphasising personal spiritual development – but he doesn’t mention them here, likely because the book is concentrating on slamming the published literature on magic and being smug about the real secrets of esoterica being in secret clubs. (It was doubtless much to Waite’s distaste that the original edition of the book was partly responsible for kindling Aleister Crowley’s interest in magic, prompting him to join the Golden Dawn in the first place.)

So the book has an agenda, and on top of that is rather dryly written (Waite did not have an especially elegant prose style) and, because Waite took his Golden Dawn vows of secrecy somewhat more seriously than Crowley did, doesn’t cover the varieties of magical and mystical practice which Waite thought might have some actual merit. Why do I think it’s a potentially useful resource for games set in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries? Well, consider this:

  • Waite’s rundown of the available grimoires gives an overview of what was circulating in the 1890s, so if you are setting your game then and need an idea of what might be available trawling London bookshops, Waite’s got your back.
  • The grimoire section at the end gives an idea of the sort of material which was in those grimoires.
  • If you’re running a game with a plot point of “inexperience occultist buys his first grimoire, makes fumbled attempt to make use of it”, why not make it be this book? After all, that’s pretty much what happened with Crowley.
  • If you want to get a glimpse of the in-fighting in the Golden Dawn, this gives you an idea of the sort of barbs Waite was aiming at Mathers.

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