Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 10, Vol. 1, Vernal Equinox 2006
Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century, Richard Kieckhefer. Pennsylvania State University Press; University Park, PA, 1998. 384 pages. $23.95 USD.
review by “Aaron Jason” Leitch
Professor Kieckhefer's book is unique in that it does
not attempt to gather and cross-compare a large number of medieval grimoires,
which is the more common method - as we see in texts like Waite's Book
of Ceremonial Magic or my own work on the Solomonic cycle. Instead,
the Professor dedicated Forbidden Rites to a single, and very
obscure, German manuscript. Because the first couple of pages are missing,
the name of the grimoire, as well as its author, is lost to history.
Kieckhefer simply refers to it by its catalogue designation: Codex Latinus
Monacensis 849 (CLM 849), or the more romantic title The Munich
Handbook of Necromancy.
The introductory chapter finishes with some discussion of the art of necromancy in medieval Munich. Here Professor Kieckhefer makes a distinction between the conjuration of the dead and of infernal spirits. Both are called "necromancy", though Forbidden Rites focuses primarily upon the evocation of demons. This brief introduction to classical necromancy - which is continued in a later chapter - is vital to understanding any text of spirit conjuration.
In the next chapter, the Professor introduces and outlines
the Munich Handbook itself. Herein, he proposes a distinction,
though by no means a hard one, between "integrally composed"
books, usually dedicated to occult theory, like Agrippa's Three
Books of Occult Philosophy, and "miscellanies," collections
of practical magick without much theory, usually compiled by one person
over a period of time. Most of the grimoires we know today are of the
miscellany type, including the Key of Solomon the King, Lemegeton,
etc. Finally, Kieckhefer uses the contents of the Munich Handbook
to conjecture about the author of the text - thereby creating a wonderful
illustration of the life and times of a "typical medieval wizard."
As I previously stated, the author examines each aspect of the Handbook alongside of anecdotal medieval records - throwing some light onto the motivations behind such magick, and placing them into their proper historical context. Unfortunately, space does not permit me to outline the contents of these chapters in depth. Suffice it to say that there is much practical magick found in these chapters, and the anecdotes are thrilling. (Indeed, I find myself wishing there were more collections of medieval stories about wizards at work, such as those found in Elizabeth Butler's Ritual Magic.)
Having examined the intent and nature of the spells of
the Munich Handbook, Kieckhefer then turns his attention in
chapter six to the conjurations and exorcisms used throughout the grimoire.
This is another incredible piece of historical scholarship, as the Professor
explains the broader practice of exorcism in medieval Europe and compares
it to grimoiric conjurations. He illustrates that exorcising malignant
spirits from the sick is
In chapter eight, Professor Kieckhefer explores the magickal seals found throughout the Munich Handbook. Most of these figures are for magickal circles drawn upon the ground, or drawn with blood on parchment to command the spirits. The author examines their forms, the words written within them, the images drawn upon them and their proper uses. Hands down, this is the best explanation of the magick circle I have ever read. For instance, no modern source has suggested such a circle could be held in the hand as a talisman- yet the practice does appear in various grimoires. It is also rare to learn that magickal circles were primarily an aspect of exorcism - where modern traditions tend to use them for every kind of magickal work.
Finally, Kieckhefer outlines an elaborate method of circle-creation
found in the Munich Handbook. See the tables on pages 181-183,
where the divine names and other considerations for the circle are given
for each day of the week and hour of the day or night. Also see page
296ff for the material in its original Latin. He claims that this material
draws much from the Picatrix, an Arabic book of astrological
magick, but he does not mention that the whole of this section is also
found in the Heptameron or The Magus. As it happens,
this is my favored method of circle-creation, so I was excited to
To complete his book, Professor Kieckhefer includes the entire Latin text of the Munich Handbook of Necromancy. Unfortunately, he does not provide an English translation, except for the portions he translated for earlier chapters of his book, which fortunately are considerable. However, he has organized the manuscript very neatly, placing all recitations in italics, breaking the conjurations down into their component parts. That makes this book potentially very useful to someone who knows Latin and might wish to translate the text for the rest of us.
Though it may be redundant, I will say once more how
highly, very highly, I recommend Professor Kieckhefer's book Forbidden
Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century. It makes
no difference if you are a practitioner or an academic (or both), you
will immensely enjoy this wonderful exploration of medieval magick,
and you will find it foundational to your understanding of the magickal