In 1651 someone finally got round to translating Agrippa’a masterpiece of Renaissance magic: Three Books of Occult Philosophy into English . It was originally published in 1533, so no points for haste there. However the wait was even longer for the next compilation of esoteric knowledge and the star of this particular show: The Magus, or Celestial Intelligencer; Being a Complete System of Occult Philosophy… London: Printed for Lackington, Allen and Co., 1801.
The author, Francis Barrett, a much maligned hero of mine, has been wonderfully described by my ex-colleague (he’s not dead, I just don’t work with him anymore) Jonathan of Bibliodeviant fame, so I’m going to talk about the book itself and in this case, a truly wonderful example. It’s in a contemporary, possibly even publisher’s binding with gorgeous ‘come hither’ untrimmed edges and is clean as a whistle (though why something you spit drool through is clean I haven’t got a clue)
I confess this make me go weak at the knees. This is easily the best copy I’ve seen of one of my all time favourite books of magic. It’s got the lot: size, breadth of content (including alchemy, kabbalah, planetary magic, ritual magic, crystal gazing, magical alphabets, biographies of famous Magi and lots more), plates, diagrams, tables and of course the famous hand-coloured portraits of demons:
Which leads me to another point: Stop Getting the Magus Wrong! There seems to have been a long tradition of confusion between the 1801 first edition and the so called facsimile or second edition of c.1875 because they are identical (well almost, as we’ll see…) right down to the same publisher and date of 1801. So, after spending years grumbling in the shadows like a Gollum obsessed with issue points instead of a ring, I will present you with ‘the keys of the kingdom’ (the sort of thing some book dealers would say when other book dealers are threatening to give their customers useful information…) and explain how to tell them apart and dispel a couple of myths:
1. Well for starters the first edition comes in all sorts of bindings, often in not brilliant condition, while the vast majority of the second come in a publisher’s binding of half or quarter leather with this chap in gilt to the spine:
I’ve seen copies with various coloured cloth sides, red, green, black and there may be others. If the book you are holding has been rebound and you’re not sure if it’s a first or second fear not, you can check the paper.
2. As you can see from the pictures, the first is printed on glorious regency paper stock, which feels almost powdery to the touch. It is also watermarked. The second is a thinner and more shiny paper, without watermark.
3. Going back to our friend the Angel of Saturday, in the second edition he’s hand-coloured along with the four plates of Demons, making five hand coloured plates. This is often mentioned as a point between the two editions, but it’s wrong. Most firsts do just have the four Demon plates coloured, but some have Cassiel coloured too and this particular copy has another plate altogether coloured; something I haven’t seen before:
4. Finally, the reason the second is not a straightforward ‘facsimile’ is the long ‘s’, the one that looks a bit like a tall ‘f’. This was already old-fashioned by 1801, which is probably why Barrett decided to use it. The second edition has the normal ‘s’ throughout, so somebody made a change at some point. I don’t know why exactly – the rest of the book is pretty much identical so why bother?
There, the secret’s out. Probably not that secret anyway, but I feel much better for it. For some reason, some bibliographers have been a bit sniffy about The Magus – ‘it’s just a compilation of previous works’ ‘Barrett added little himself’ ‘inconsistencies and mistakes’ ‘blah blah blah’. They all miss the point. The Magus is exactly what most people imagine a magic book to look like, from the bookshelf of Faust or in the laboratary of Frankenstein to Anthony Head leafing through a tome in Buffy, this is the real deal. It also played a role in the Gothic Revival and without doubt set us on the twisting path to the formation of the Golden Dawn and the synthesis of myriad philosophies and systems of belief. And what the hell? Let’s look at those page edges once more: