Nothing for 150 years then BANG!


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.

A little worse for wear, but I'm all original like...

A little worse for wear, but I’m all original like…

The title goes on and on (and on...)

The title goes on and on (and on…)

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)

Will you take a look at those page edges...

Will you take a look at those page edges…

Go on go on, have a closer look - lovely lovely lovely

Go on go on, have a closer look – lovely lovely lovely

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:

Fallen Angels

Fallen Angels

Vessels of Wrath

Vessels of Wrath

Ophis and The Spirit Antichrist

Ophis and The Spirit Antichrist

Heads of Evil Daemons Powers of Evil

Heads of Evil Daemons Powers of Evil

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:

The Angel of Saturday. Bet Gabriel is jealous of the tail.

Cassiel, The Angel of Saturday. Bet Gabriel is jealous of the tail.

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.

This copy is just so clean...

This copy is just so clean…

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:

Mystic semaphore anyone?

Mystic semaphore anyone?

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?

Folding table - even this big book was not big enough!

Folding table – even this big book was not big enough!

Like an advert for secret agent writing on the back of a comic

Like an advert for secret agent writing on the back of a comic

I've gotta sigil and I'm gonna use it...

I’ve gotta sigil and I’m gonna use it…

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:

Feels good, doesn't it?

Feels good, doesn’t it?

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4 Responses to Nothing for 150 years then BANG!

  1. David says:

    I recently acquired a first edition copy of the Magus. I have the “1801” watermark on certain pages, uncolored page showing the king riding the dragon, as well as the many old English “s” that looks like an “f”. The paper is truly different in texture than the 1875 second edition (which I have held and inspected before). That being said, I found an interesting inscription in the back inside cover of my edition which states “one of the first 25 copies printed with page 158 figures transposed”. I checked and, in fact, the page that is supposed to be numbered 158 is numbered 185 in Book 2 (2nd half of book). Can anyone verify this information? I had never heard of this error in printing being made. If true, this may be an even rarer edition. Thank you.

    • Blair Cowl says:

      Hi David, Thanks for reading. I seem to remember reading something about the transposed page number in a catalogue description a few years ago, but had forgotten all about it. I don’t have a copy of the first edition at present, but I will contact the owner of this copy and see how the numbers are printed. It may well be a ‘state’ or ‘issue’ point, but publication details for The Magus are almost non-existent and where the writer of your inscription came to the conclusion of ’25 copies’ I don’t know.

      • David says:

        Blair, thank you so much for the prompt reply. If you find anything out, I would appreciate it. Admittedly, I would love to have owners of true Magus 1st editions to coordinate and discuss this most interesting volume. I’m sure we could all learn a lot. As you stated, not much is known about the printing / publication details. Two questions are : How many copies were originally printed. And what is estimated to still exist? Again, difficult questions to answer. Thanks again.

        • Blair Cowl says:

          David, I checked on this copy and the numbers are not transposed, so at some point the mistake was noticed. I checked with a colleague who has the 1875 facsimile and the numbers are correct in that. I will try and check the numbers on any copies I see from now on. Is there any provenance to your copy or any indication who wrote that note? I don’t believe Lackington’s records still exist, so as far as I’m aware there are no print run details available. I would imagine a quarto book of this quality would have a print run of around 500 copies, but this is of course merely an educated guess based on general figures for 18th Century works (I realise this is just inside the 19th Century). As for how many extant copies, I have seen or heard of about 15 since 2002 when I began to specialise in occult and esoteric works. There are at least 7 copies in UK library holdings and certainly more in the USA and around the world. I would suggest it is ‘uncommon’ rather than ‘rare’ although copies in very good condition are definitely very difficult to find.

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