A good question from an inquiring reader:
I’m just confused about something I see many occultists do, and that is simply this: deviating from the instructions given in the grimoires. In your wand-making posts, for example, you make substitutions, additions, and combine aspects from multiple sources, and you are not the only one who does this. But this is super confusing to me since the grimoires are all like, “this is the true wisdom of true divinity, so you’d better follow every rule to the letter or oooh there’ll be trouble!” So how is it possible to deviate from the instructions and still work effective operations?
It’s certainly an interesting question to ask, and a good one, too.
Consider the origin of the word “grimoire”, in that it comes from the same word we have as “grammar”. For us, grammar (without the article) is the set of rules we use to compose clauses, phrases, words, sentences, and the like to communicate with other people using language; a grammar (with the article) refers to a book that describes and lays out such rules. If you were to learn Japanese from a Japanese grammar book, it would tell you how to properly and correctly conjugate verbs and adjectives, where to use the subject and topic particles, and the like. It would also indicate to you what would be incorrect language, with the warning that you will not be understood properly if you use it. All grammar books tend to work in similar ways to this: use these rules properly as laid out and you’ll be understood, don’t and you won’t.
But the thing is, people break those rules all the time, and they’re understood all the same. Whether they use a non-standard dialect compared to the “standard” language of the grammar, whether they’re breaking rules ironically (e.g. “cat no like banana” or “I accidentally the thing”), or whether they’re using poetry that intentionally breaks some rules to maintain senses of beauty or aesthetics—the proper rules of grammar are broken all the time, and we still manage to understand people who do so. Sometimes it’s an honest error, like when a native Chinese speaker gets the English pronouns “he” and “she” mixed up (because they don’t historically have a gender distinction for the third person singular pronoun 他 tā); sometimes it’s because people have just adapted how they talk and have formed a “new standard” for themselves even if it’s not “book standard” according to this or that grammar. This is the danger with linguistic or grammatical texts, and why there’s a distinction between “prescriptive” linguistics (which describe language as it “ought to” or “should” be spoken from a top-down authority) and “descriptive” linguistics (which describe language how it’s actually spoken in real life from the bottom up).
It’s much the same with many grimoires and magical texts. What distinguishes a grimoire from a spellbook or Book of Shadows is that a grimoire doesn’t just provide a collection of spells, but a method and methodology—a “grammar”, if you will—of ritual and magic. And grimoires, like grammars, can be traced and investigated to ascertain their origins and development across and through time, culture, and language; we know for a fact that no one grimoire just appeared out of thin air, but comes in a long line of spiritual research and development, and even if it’s an original text (rare, but it happens!), we can still trace its context for clues about what information fed into it. For instance, the Heptameron of Pietro d’Abano and the planetary invocations from the Munich Manual both share a common origin, as does the Elucidarius Magicae, and all of these texts are based on other texts in the Solomonic grimoiric textual tradition, some of which can be traced back to earlier Arabic magical texts like the Shams al-Ma`arif. When we take a broader look at these grimoires in their histories and lineages, we definitely see changes, developments, innovations, and departure from earlier texts all the time; sometimes it’s because a new author-operant of a grimoire found an improvement or simplification to make, sometimes they made a copyist’s error, sometimes they tried to “aesthetically fix” an ugly or messy symbol they found which causes changes in the shapes or appearances of seals and sigils and the like (cf. the pre- and post-Mathers versions of the seals of the 72 demons of the Lemegeton Goetia).
If anyone told me that they had the one and true wisdom and method of magic and that any deviation from it whatsoever would land me in trouble, I’d laugh in their face; that’s obviously just not factual. But what these grimoires give us (in all their variation) as a whole isn’t just the notion that there’s more than one right way to do, write, or chant something; they each give us a baseline of operations. One of the reasons I encourage people who are looking or consulting a grimoire for something to work with one specific grimoire to the letter, at least at first, is because it gives them something to establish themselves with. Either they get results with it and they know what can happen when they follow the text, or they don’t get anything and either need to check themselves for departures from it or find out that maybe that method just isn’t for them. But getting this sort of baseline is important for when you do need to change things or extrapolate from the grimoire to do something new using old methods; after all, the fundamental idea of a grammar isn’t to tell you every possible correct sentence, but how to form correct sentences. Just so does a grimoire not tell you all that can be done, but shows you how to do all things by using its own “grammar” of magic and extending it as necessary. And, when you want to innovate, improve, simplify, adapt, or otherwise depart from the grimoire for whatever reason or need that arises, you know what you can compare against as a baseline because you’ve already done what the grimoire says, and can extrapolate from the grimoire from there. Remember that these grimoires were written by people who lived and breathed that magic in them; they know it works, because that’s what they’ve done and recorded as what works. This is the reason behind the “this is the true wisdom of true divinity”, because it’s gotten them there—it’s just that that’s their truth, and there’s usually more than one way to be true.
It is possible, of course, that deviation from the rules can (and does) land you in trouble; to use a food-based metaphor, there is no safe way to incorporate arsenic as an ingredient into a meal, even if you’d like for that meal to be colored a brilliant green, and there’s no way to use food to perform physical equations in the same way as you would with pen and paper. But if a recipe calls for buttermilk and all you have is Greek yoghurt, you can substitute one for the other and still come out with a great dish, and the recipe will still work. Sometimes it works because the thing you’re substituting and the thing you substituted are similar enough where you got your point across, or where they’re functionally and spiritually identical and it’d work either way; sometimes it works because you have no other choice but to make it work, because perhaps the original thing called for is unavailable or otherwise impossible to get or do anymore; sometimes it works because you make systemic changes that overall achieve the same goal by compensating in one area what you lacked or goofed on in another. What the grimoires often show is an ideal, perfect method of doing something, but the world we live in is hardly ever ideal; we do what we can to make things as ideal as possible, and what we can’t, we make up for in substituting, rearranging, or otherwise putting in elbow grease to make it work the rest of the way. An engineering textbook can give you the principles of building a bridge, and even show how to build a bridge under ideal conditions, but where on Earth is there a place where those ideal conditions actually exist? Living engineers using real engineering must make concessions to reality and work around things that aren’t ideal in order to make a safe and sturdy bridge that fulfills its travel throughput needs—but using the principles of engineering in that textbook, and following whatever governmental, market-based, and other regulations and restrictions they need to along the way (which the engineering textbook itself may not take into account).
For my part, with my Wand of Art, it’s not so much that I was deviating from a grimoire I was working, since I wasn’t really working from any one grimoire—at least, not intentionally so. But I was taking inspiration from and adapting several sources at once for an all-around all-purpose sort of tool that covers different aspects of wands from several grimoires. For that reason, I wasn’t so much “deviating from the instructions” as I was making new instructions entirely, just based on old ones. Besides, many of the grimoires offer designs and instructions not just as an ideal case, but also sometimes as a minimum requirements standard: so long as you do X, Y, and Z, it doesn’t matter what else you do, whether A, B, or Θ, even if you happen to mix the two. In this case, I read the grimoires in question as giving a minimum set of requirements for my wand to fulfill, and as such, I’m able to work with both. There’s also the matter of interpretation, such as by using Hebrew names of God instead of Latin ones, but since they’re effectively the same thing one way or another, it’s a clean substitution in many ways.
This is probably a bit longer of an answer than they (or you, dear reader) were anticipating, so to offer a summary: it’s possible to deviate from the instructions and still work operations because the instructions themselves are only an example of ideal situations and case-studies, and the fundamental method and methodology of a grimoire allows for making whatever improvements, adjustments, or fixes along the way to account for real-world scenarios—but no more than what’s necessary. Even then, each grimoire is just a snapshot of a particular book-based magical tradition and lineage, and each snapshot we can get shows how varied the real-time, real and living magical tradition can be. There is never “one true way”, but many ways to truth; it’s just up to us to find them and follow them, and sometimes we can take a detour along the way that ends up being better for us but not for others.
Oh gosh. People deviating from prescribed processes. How astonishing. *stares in recipe instructions*
THANK YOU, Sam! This is a great piece and everybody who is intimidated by grimoires should read it.
Yes. Another thing to mull over regarding ‘following the recipe’ is that we are using ‘imaginal’ ingredients. They are real, they have real presence and actual properties in the ‘middle air’ or ‘battlefield of the mind’ or however we understand the realms where magic is taking place, but they are not solidly solid and relatively immutable the way, say, foods and spices are. The ingredients and operations of magic always have properties and effects that can escape our concepts and descriptions, and they sometimes change places, turn into each other, etc. So if you think, for instance, wands “=” air, and I think wands “=” fire, we (probably, maybe, we’d have to try it and see) can’t both be right in the same place at the same time, but we can both make sense, be consistent, and do successful operations (that is, be “right”) within our own operative frameworks.
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