In France, books of natural magic, spells and conjurations were commonly found under a variety of names and in Brittany the most infamous of such works was the Agrippa; a massive, mysterious book that was widely believed to have been used by priests to harness the elements, evoke demons and foretell the future.
Books of magic spells and incantations have existed for as long as the written word; some of the well known examples contain fairly benign recipes for treating illness while others are far more malevolent and feature deadly curses and charms for summoning spirits and demons. Such books were commonly referred to as egremonts or grimoires in France and the latter word has long since passed into the English lexicon.
In Brittany, the most famed grimoire was popularly known as the Agrippa, named after Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, a German theologian and astrologer who, between 1531-33, published some of the earliest works on the occult in his De Occulta Philosophia; a trilogy of books of occult philosophy which dealt with the relationship between natural magic, religion and ritual magic. Ironically, it is unlikely that Agrippa was the author of the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy which appeared under his name shortly after his death in France in 1535. This latter work, on the summoning of spirits and demons is likely the book lying at the root of the Breton myth of the Agrippa.
The Agrippa was widely held to be a most dangerous book, particularly for the curious reader or those who had not been schooled in its proper handling. Reputed to be the size of a grown man, the mighty volume was said to have been written by the Devil himself in red letters on black paper although some accounts say that the pages were blood red and inscribed in black ink. The book was thought to be alive and when not being used it was necessary to restrain the binding with a stout chain and padlock. The locked tome then needed to be secured by an iron chain and hung from the strongest twisted beam in a room especially set-aside for the purpose of containing the Agrippa.
This notion that the book was alive may account for the name once popularly given to it in Lower Brittany, Ar Vif, which is Breton for ‘the lively’. Although some sources suggest that the book derived its name from its ability to imbue the written words with life in the form of fulfilled prophecies. The book was said to be reluctant to share its dark secrets and needed to be coerced and dominated as aggressively as one might tame a wild horse; the prospective reader needed to physically grapple with the book in order to win the opportunity to glimpse its secrets. Strength and patience were needed in order to tame the Agrippa and some tales tell of arduous battles that sometimes lasted for hours before the book yielded its mysteries. Only once the reader had established his dominance, would the Agrippa’s seemingly blank pages reveal their written words.
It was believed that only consecrated priests rightfully owned Agrippas; each having their own copy which had been mysteriously gifted to them. Apparently, the newly ordained priests awoke on the morning after their ordination to find the book inexplicably standing by their bedside with no indication of how it came to be there. The priests were thought to have studied the book and learned how to use it during their time at the great seminary in Quimper. It was also said that the priests who studied at the seminary of Pont-Croix were initiated into the secrets of a less dangerous book of dark magic which nevertheless gave them the power to perform many of the same extraordinary acts or magical deeds known as Ar Fizik (a Breton word covering the physical sciences). However, anti-clerical sentiment and the massive programme of dechristianisation that followed the French Revolution saw thousands of priests forced into exile or imprisoned and in the chaos many Agrippas were said to have been lost.
Over time, these lost Agrippas found themselves into the hands of laymen who were unable to control the book or interpret its writing correctly. The priests knew that the owner of an Agrippa needed to possess not only physical strength but also mental fortitude. It was crucial that one knew when to stop reading; reading too much at a time, the reader ran the risk of being dragged to hell by demons. Evading the clutches of the ever-watchful fiends was said best done by reading the book backwards.
The knowledge contained with the pages of the Agrippa was commonly thought to give priests the power to control the weather, to evoke demons and force them to hell, to discover the fate of souls in the afterlife and even to see the secrets of the future. Such terrifying powers were not attributed to a gift from God or the Devil but regarded as an inherent force contained within the very words themselves. This belief in the power of the word was commonly held in Brittany in the 19th century and is a tradition that stretches as far back as the Celts of antiquity.
Frequently the only formally educated man for miles around, priests were often viewed by their predominantly uneducated congregations as sorcerers in the rural Brittany of yesteryear. They were popularly endowed with supernatural powers such as the ability to control the weather, to ride the whirlwind and to possess the power to transform unbelievers into werewolves and to be able to shape-shift during Advent.
At a time when the division between the natural and the supernatural was, at best, opaque, sorcery and witchcraft were accepted as reasonable explanations for natural effects. Concepts such as holy miracles and transubstantiation, coupled with the ability to interpret the wonders of the words of God and his authority over many of the ancient sacred sites added an aura of mysterious otherworldliness to the local priest who was often called an fizikar (a practitioner of science).
For those people uninitiated into the secrets of handling an Agrippa, reading but a little of the book could bring a great deal of danger and there are several stories told of people, who, having entered the book out of curiosity, were only torn from the very threshold of hell by the extreme intervention of a learned priest. The morals behind such tales are strong in their implication that meddling with this book results in harsh punishments for the imprudent and curious.
However, a knowledgeable layperson able to read and interpret an Agrippa might become a most formidable sorcerer or witch; the book being said to contain the names of all the demons of Hell with instructions on how to successfully evoke them. It was by consulting each demon in turn that the priest was able to ascertain whether the soul of his recently buried parishioner was damned or saved. Having been summoned, the demons were dismissed by the priest calling them again by their names, starting aloud with the name of the demon who appeared last and working backwards.
It was said that anyone, other than a priest, who possessed an Agrippa felt constant pain because they dealt too closely with the Devil and his demons. Such a person was thought to be identifiable by their smell; the odour of sulphur and smoke betraying them. Those people believed to be in possession of an Agrippa were dreaded and shunned, likewise those who were dreaded in the community were often accused of owning such a book.
Priests were thought able to sense the presence of lost or illicit Agrippas and knew the names of those parishioners who secretly held them. Some stories tell of priests working desperately to recover Agrippas held in the wrong hands, while others speak of priests intervening only when the undisclosed owner was near death. The heavy burden of possessing the book was said to continue after death and the owner would be forever doomed; unable to ever reach Heaven on account of the tremendous weight they were cursed to carry.
Similar to other traditions concerning grimoires, in Brittany the Agrippa was thought only able to be destroyed by fire lit by a priest. Those who possessed an Agrippa were traditionally thought to be unable to rid themselves of it’s grip without the help of a priest and often only when on the very cusp of death.
There is a story of a farmer who had inherited an Agrippa and was anxious to dispossess himself of it. Pleased to have found a man, who farmed in a neighbouring parish, happy to accept the gift of the volume, the farmer spent several hours one night leading his ox along the dark pathways, pulling the book by its chain to deliver it to its new owner. His duty discharged, he returned home happily but his joy was short-lived and his heart sank when he discovered that the Agrippa had already returned to reoccupy its former place.
Sometime later, the farmer prepared a massive bonfire and summoned all his strength to lift the book into the flames but instead of devouring the Agrippa, the flames moved away from it. Seeing the book was feared by fire, he therefore resolved to drown it in water and dragged it to the nearest stretch of coast. Taking a boat, he rowed half a league out to sea and, having attached several heavy stones to the Agrippa’s chain, cast it into the depths of the ocean.
Finally rid of the book, he rowed hard for land and just as he had finished dragging the boat ashore and securing its anchor chain, he heard the rattle of another chain and turned to see his Agrippa shaking loose the big stones that he had so recently attached to it. The farmer was stunned cold as the great book swept past him as fast as an arrow. At home, he found the book hanging from its usual beam; the binding and pages were as dry as though water had not even touched them. Reluctantly, the unhappy man was forced to resign himself to keeping his Agrippa.
Perhaps the origin of the Agrippa myth, which was still reported as being widespread in western Brittany at the end of the 19th century, lies not with Cornelius Agrippa’s books of occult philosophy but with the Malleus Maleficarum; a practical guide to identifying and confounding witchcraft and its practitioners popularly known as The Witches’ Hammer, first issued by Dominican Inquisitors in 1487. This was a work that was heavily drawn upon by the leaders of the 17th century Jesuit missions to Brittany and thus might have entered into the popular consciousness and eventually folklore as a magical book.
Alternatively, the myth might have arisen out of the boom in interest in books on the occult which were a feature of the Age of Enlightenment in France and elsewhere; the evolution of cheap printing techniques in the early 18th century saw many grimoires gain wide popularity. The two most popular being the works known as the Petit Albert and the Dragon Rouge; the first was noted for its spells for healing and instructions on how to make oneself invisible while the latter was held to be a reworking of the infamous Grand Grimoire and was notable for including an invocation of the Devil and his demons.
The Grand Grimoire, sometimes called the Gospel of Satan, is often cited as one of the darkest occult books in print and is believed by some to have been written in the 16th century by a man possessed by the Devil. The book is noted for its focus on black magic and like the Lesser Key of Solomon contains incantations for evoking demons and raising the dead. However, such terrible powers come at a price and it is said that anyone reading this volume is, by such an act, freely offering their eternal soul to the Devil.