Sunday, May 4, 2014

Daemonologie of King James

Ouroboros Press 2014. 120 pages. Duodecimo (Twelvemo). Black and white illustrations.

Available in three editions:

Standard Edition: Cloth and letterpress dust jacket. Limited to 600 copies.

Goat-Skin Edition: Full black goatskin. Limited to 45 copies.

Hellmouth Edition: Quarterbound in snakeskin and cloth with folding plate depicting the Hellmouth. Limited to 25 copies.

First published in 1597, Daemonologie of King James is a fascinating treatise on late 16th century attitudes regarding witchcraft, magic, sorcery, folkloric creatures, ghosts, and demons. The book is written in the form of a dialog between two gentlemen, Epistemon (Greek for sciences) and Philomathes (Greek for lover of knowledge). Epistemon presents a series of arguments (20 in all) on the nature of witchcraft, necromancy, magic, and sorcery. Philomathes plays the role of the doubter, or Devil's advocate, by questioning the validity of Epistemon's claims. Their dialog offers a curious glimpse into late 16th century rationality and logic. For example, Epistemon is portrayed as somewhat unsophisticated and naive, as he is ignorant of the powers of witches and sorcerers, even doubting their existence. Philomathes plays the part of a worldly scholar well-versed in witchlore and occult powers.

The irony is that while Philomanthes is supposed to be the uninformed common man (the "Joe Public" of today), he actually comes off as the more reasonable of the two. His skepticism, no doubt intended to be dangerously foolhardy and ignorant in his day, seems completely rational and levelheaded to the modern ear. In a reversal of roles, it is Epistemon who strikes the modern reader as sounding irrational, like a smug fundamentalist. Thus a work that was used as paranoia-inducing anti-witch propaganda in its day sounds rather quaint and jejune today.

The book is dived into three parts, each with a central argument followed a series of minor arguments and elaborations.

  • First Booke: The exord of the whole. The description of Magie in speciall.

  • Second Booke: The description of Sorcerie and Witchcraft in speciall.

  • Third Booke: The description of all these kindes of Spirites that troubles men or women. The conclusion of the whole Dialogue.

As you can see, the book is written in Elizabethan English. Those unfamiliar with it may find it challenging.

One observation that I found particularly interesting: the high value placed on information. It seems that no matter what the time period, knowledge is power. We like to say we live in an "Information Age" where information is everything. In reality it has always been everything; we just have more of it now. When describing the diabolic powers the Devil (or Deuill in Elizabethan English) grants his followers there is particular emphasis on the ability to know things beyond one's natural ability, such as the outcome of future battles, or whether a sick person will recover or die. For example:
"Sathan ... will oblish himselfe to teach them artes and sciences, which he may easelie doe, being so learned a knaue as he is: To carrie them newes from anie parte of the worlde, which the agilitie of a Spirite may easilie performe: to reueale to them secrets  of anie persons, so being they bee once spoken for the thought none knowes but GOD; ... Ye he will make his schollers to creepe in credite with Princes, by fore-telling them manie greate thinges; parte true, part false:"
As you can see, not only was information incredibly important and powerful, but also the speed at which it could be obtained -- something we take for grated today with Google at our fingertips. Those who had foreknowledge of what was to come, or advanced knowledge of something that has already occurred, had a significant strategic advantage over others. Speedy information was so powerful it was worth selling one's soul to get.

In one of Epistemon's arguments there is a passage that reminded me how little things have changed in 400 years.  Epistemon describes the sinful path of magicians and how simple curiosity can lead to far greater heresies.
"...they are so allured thereby, that finding their practize to prooue true in sundry things, they studie to know the cause thereof: and so mounting from degree to degree, vpon the slipperie and vncertaine scale of curiositie; they are at last entised, that where lawfull artes or sciences failes, to satisfie their restless minds, even to seeke to that black and vnlawfull science of Magie."
I seems that even back in 1597 people tried to use the "slippery slope" fallacy to win an argument. If Epistemon were around today he would probably be a pundit on FOX News.

Epistemon describes the differences between practitioners of the black arts. He lumps them into two groups, magician/necromancers and witches/sorcerers. The main difference between the two groups, according to Epistemon, is that magicians and necromancers generally mean no harm; they unknowingly fall into the trap of prideful lust for knowledge, including forbidden knowledge. In contrast, witches and sorcerers are out to do harm to others and lust for wealth. Magicians and Necromancers have high, yet sinful, aspirations while sorcerers and witches have lowly and base desires. Interestingly, later in the book Epistemon says that the sins of magicians and necromancers are actually far greater than those of witches and sorcerers because their sins come within closer proximity to God, that is, god-like understanding. My goodness, the arrogance...  Again, knowledge is power. If people learn too much they become a greater threat. This is why it was a burnable offense, according to those in power, unless the magician or necromancer worked for them of course.

In the latter part of the book Epistemon and Philomathes discuss the nature and existence of folkloric creatures. This amounts to a compendium of monsters and their respective natures and habits. Epistemon pontificates on the nature of lycanthropy and the existence of ghosts, dividing the latter into various subgroups: specters, wraiths, etc.. Additionally, fairies, brownies, incubi, succubi, and demonic possession are also addressed.  

Now on to the part you've been waiting for, the book itself:

For this review I will be reviewing the "Hellmouth Edition" of Demonologie of King James. Credit to Mr. William Kiesel of Ouroboros books for coming up with such a colorful edition title. I cannot say it without cracking a smile. I say, who wouldn't want a Hellmouth edition? The Hellmouth Edition is half-bound in white snakeskin and black cloth. I have no idea if the skin comes from an albino snake or if it has been bleached, though the former would be more appropriate. The magical properties of albinism is well known in witchcraft traditions throughout the world. (Unfortunately it has recently lead to savage butchery of albino people in Africa with the belief that albino limbs possess magical power.) The contrast between the white snakeskin and black cloth is striking and also appropriately symbolic. It represents how magic with good intentions can actually be something black underneath.

The snakeskin feels very smooth, has a remarkable shine, and begs to be touched. The black cloth is sturdy with a tight weave and is stamped front and back in gold with Ouroboros Press' colophon, the ouroboros circumscribing a Maltese cross. The spine has seven raised bands, each edged with gilding. Matching snakesking head/tail bands. The title, Daemonologie 1597 is stamped in gold on a black leather spine label. The book comes with a black ribbon bookmark. Opening the book reveals black and white hand-marbled endpapers. Paper is of medium-light weight and pale cream in color. The folding "Hellmouth" plate is lightly marbled parchment in color. The book begins with an spectacular period illustration of the Devil (see pic) and has several other equally attractive decorative ornaments and illustrations. This is a very elegant little book and one of the most unique to come from Ouroboros press. It marks a slight departure from their usual three-tiered business model (vellum, goatskin, and cloth). To further break with tradition, one of their newest releases, the Brazen Serpent Edition of Nicholas Flamel's Hieroglyphical Keywill feature a full Cambridge binding hand bound by Michael Atha of Restoration Books. The early pictures look incredible.

With Daemonologie of King James Ouroboros Press continues its wonderful service of providing high-quality editions of important long out-of-print works. They cater to a specific strata of the esoteric community that values source-works and is not put off or intimidated by archaic language. Like the Malleus Maleficarum, Glanvil's Saducismus Triumphatus and other anti-witchcraft treatises of the 16th-17th centuries, Daemonologie of King James provides a wealth of information about the practices and activities of magicians and witches, that is, if one is to believe testimonies given under torture. Many of the alleged diabolic acts are likely less a reality than they are a reflection of societal insecurities, namely, the rising power of the merchant class and its threat to the aristocracy, schisms within the church, and of course the ever-present fear of intelligent women with power. Fascinating and historically insightful as these books are, they were, sadly, used as tools -- even guidebooks -- for the persecution of countless people. As I alluded to earlier, books like these are valuable in that they can teach us something about the past, but they can also become an uncomfortable mirror reflecting society's age-old failings and highlighting fears that remain to this day.