The Witches Almanac: Sorcerers, Witches and Magic from Ancient Rome to the Digital Age

The Witches Almanac: Sorcerers, Witches and Magic from Ancient Rome to the Digital Age

by Charles Christian
The Witches Almanac: Sorcerers, Witches and Magic from Ancient Rome to the Digital Age

The Witches Almanac: Sorcerers, Witches and Magic from Ancient Rome to the Digital Age

by Charles Christian


    Qualifies for Free Shipping
    Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Thursday, March 7
    Check Availability at Nearby Stores

Related collections and offers


Real Witches. Real Lives. Real Magic. Real History. Take a magical tour through the lives and times of 359 of the most important sorcerers and witches throughout history.

For millennia there’s been a fascination and a fear of people possibly wielding magical powers and a stigma surrounding practitioners of ancient rituals and practices. Yet, in the last 70 years, witchcraft, as well as Wicca, have gone from taboo beliefs pursued by a handful of eccentrics and misfits to major global, spiritual movements. Meet the troublemakers and rebels who pushed for change in The Witches Almanac: Sorcerers, Witches, and Magic from Ancient Rome to the Digital Age. You’ll be introduced to the history, persecutions, conjurings, and magic of some of history’s most consequential witches, sorcerers, wizards, and mavericks, including … 

  • Circe, Medea, Hermes Trismegistus, the Chaldean Magi, and other Ancient Roman and Classical Greek witches
  • Merlin, Morgana le Fey, Nimue, the 10 Queens of Avalon, and sorcery and witchcraft in the Arthurian legends
  • San Cipriano, the obscure 4th century bishop whose influence today still plays an important role in folk magic and Hoodoo practices
  • Baba Yaga, Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais, Alice Kyteller, Lord Soulis, Michael Scott, the Golem of Prague, and medieval witchcraft
  • King Henry VI, Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII, Catherine de Medici, John Dee, Queen Elizabeth, and witchcraft in the British royal court
  • Isobel Gowdie, illusive Scottish witch whose voluntary confessions provided the template for traditional witchcraft beliefs
  • Isaac Newton, Friar Roger Bacon, Nicholas Flamel, Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, Robert Boyle, and other alchemists
  • The Burning Times of the late 16th to early 18th centuries
  • The Berwick witch trial
  • The Salem witch trial
  • Aleister Crowley, W. B. Yeats, MacGregor Mathers, Eliphas Levi, the Golden Dawn, Thelema and ritual magic, and the rise of esoteric movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries
  • Jack Parsons, described as the “Jet-Propelled Antichrist” whose life of sex, rockets, and magic ended prematurely in a mysterious explosion
  • Gerald Gardner, Old Dorothy Clutterbuck, Alex Sanders, Robert Cochrane, Raymond Buckland, Lady Sheba, Marjorie Cameron, and others in the modern Wicca and witchcraft movement
  • And much more!!

You’ll get a deeper understanding of the obscure history of witches with this enchanting and bewitching tome! The Witches Almanac brings you their rich histories and extraordinary biographies, plus it includes a helpful bibliography, an extensive index, and numerous photos, adding to its usefulness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781578597604
Publisher: Visible Ink Press
Publication date: 02/28/2023
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 513,693
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Charles Christian is an English lawyer and a Reuters correspondent-turned-writer, editor, award-winning tech journalist, and sometime werewolf hunter. Charles was born a chime-child with a caul and grew up in a haunted medieval house by the harbor in the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough. According to folklore, a caul-shrouded chime-child can’t drown at sea but can see and talk to faerie folk and also has protection against spells cast by malevolent witches and sorcerers.

His father’s side of the family was related to Fletcher Christian, the leader of the infamous 18th-century mutiny on HMS Bounty, while his mother’s side was descended from Anne Hunnam (or Marchant) the “Witch of Scarborough,” who was acquitted of casting a fatal spell on a child in 1652. And “yes,” an English newspaper once really did commission Charles to take part in a werewolf hunt on the night of a full moon. Spoiler alert: he didn’t find one. He lives in Waveney Valley, England.

Read an Excerpt


Between the Middle Ages and the mid-18th century there existed in Europe a category of magical practitioners who occupied a mid-ground between sorcerers and scientists. These were the alchemists who saw themselves as seekers of an ancient wisdom first identified in Greco-Roman Egypt in the years before Christianity, then explored in the Islamic world from the 8th century, before finding its way into the monasteries and universities of Western Europe in latter part of the 12th century.

As this is not a book about alchemy, I won’t get bogged down in details save to say that from the time of the classical Greeks there was a recognized distinction between the practical and theoretical aspects of alchemy. 

For the practical alchemists, their main concern was looking for the Philosopher’s Stone: a formula or mechanism for transmuting base metals into noble metals, particularly gold (this is sometimes called chrysopeia) and the Elixir of Life, or at least the Universal Panacea, that would cure all medical ailments and prolong life almost indefinitely. Some alchemists took the view the Elixir of Life was merely another aspect of the Philosopher’s Stone – find that and everything else followed – and all described their efforts to find the Stone as the ‘Great Work’.

For the theoretical alchemists, their perspective was more mystical and philosophical. For them, alchemy was about understanding how the universe worked and mankind’s position within the cosmos, with the search for the Philosopher’s Stone an allegory or metaphor for attaining enlightenment or heavenly bliss, as the alchemist transmuted from a base human being into purer, wiser, spiritual being. 

It was for this reason that the latter part of the 17th and early 18th centuries saw people, now regarded as the founders of the modern scientific method such as Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton, still pursuing alchemical studies. In fact, Newton’s archives contain more writings on alchemy than any other topic – prompting him to be described as “the last of the magicians.”

What is intriguing about the quests for the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life is they did accidentally throw up many valuable inventions in the fields of metallurgy, chemistry and medicine. For example, gunpowder was a by-product of Chinese alchemists attempts to create a potion for eternal life. But, despite some breakthroughs and the worthy motives behind the philosophical side of alchemy, by as early as the 14th century alchemy had earned a widespread reputation in Europe for being the last refuge of thieves, liars and charlatans because of their fraudulent and obsessive attempts to transmute base metals into gold.

As far back as 1317, Pope John XXII (taking time off from persecuting witches) issued an edict forbidding the practice of alchemy. Interestingly his motivation was not theological but moral, targeting fraudsters who claimed to be selling alchemical gold. That said, over in England the authorities did their best to get the best of both worlds with at one point the Crown selling licenses to people wishing to attempt to make gold alchemically, while at other times hanging alchemists found guilty of producing fake gold. By way of an ironic touch, these would-be alchemists were hanged on gallows covered in gold-colored foil. As with Pope John, the English authorities were not interested in the philosophical side of alchemy, solely the practical consequences: fake gold being an anathema at a time when a nation’s economy was based on the purity of its gold and silver coinage.

In addition, while many of the earliest church commentators, people such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, were confident the theoretical aspects of alchemy were compatible with Christianity, alchemists still needed to tread carefully to ensure their theories did not conflict with Church doctrine and so constitute heresy. An added complication was all alchemical and scientific activities had to be based upon knowledge already found in the Bible and other Christian gospels, or else was knowledge a God-fearing Christian might reasonably discover. If, however, it was perceived to be based on secret or hidden knowledge, then that was deemed to be demonic knowledge and the alchemist risked being accused of sorcery.

Over time all these distinctions faded into insignificance as by the early 18th century the rise of modern science with its emphasis on quantitative and qualitative experimentation was making alchemy and its enthusiasm for ancient wisdom look increasingly dated. Just as the newer science of astronomy supplanted the pseudo-science of astrology, so the new sciences of chemistry and physics became divorced from the old pseudo-scientific practices of alchemy, with alchemists becoming indelibly associated with gold making frauds.

By way of a quirk of history by the 20th century the development of nuclear transmutation technology made it actually possible to synthesize gold from other elements in a particle accelerator, but the process was prohibitively expensive and in some instances the gold was dangerously radioactive. Ironically it was a lot simpler to transmute gold into a based metal, such as lead.

In 1901 the pioneering nuclear physicists and radiochemists Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford discovered that radioactive thorium could convert itself into radium. At the moment of realization Soddy reportedly shouted: “Rutherford, this is transmutation!” To which Rutherford replied: “For Christ’s sake, Soddy, don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our heads off as alchemists.”

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) Cornelius Agrippa was a German scholar, physician, lawyer, soldier, theologian, and occult writer. Agrippa’s Three Books Concerning Occult Philosophy (or De occulta philosophia libri tres) were published in 1533 and drew heavily upon Kabbalah, Hermeticism, and neo-Platonism. 

The Three Books were widely influential among occultists of the Renaissance period as they argued for a vision of magic whereby the natural world combined with the celestial and the divine, so natural magic was validated by a kind of demonic force sourced ultimately from God. Despite arguing magic was compatible with the Christian faith, Agrippa’s Three Books were condemned as heretical by the Inquisitor of Cologne. Agrippa himself somehow managed to avoid prosecution for heresy and died of natural causes. 

There is a story that as Agrippa neared death, his dog jumped into a river and vanished, prompting rumors it was his demonic familiar returning to Hell. In his lifetime he is known to have argued against the persecution of witches.

Roger Bacon (circa 1215-92) Also known by the scholastic accolade of Doctor Mirabilis, Roger Bacon was an English philosopher, Franciscan friar and scientist who studied and wrote about mathematics, optics, alchemy, astrology, astronomy, cyphers and cryptography. Among other things he is credited with being one of the first Europeans to perfect the formula for gunpowder and while most of his writings on alchemy are very much of the theoretical/philosophical persuasion, his activities still earned him a posthumous reputation as a sorcerer. 

The most memorable legend concerns his collaboration with fellow friar, scholar and alchemist Friar Thomas of Bungay, who incidentally was born about eight miles and 800 years from where I’m writing this book. The story tells that Bacon and Bungay created a talking brazen head (a bronze or brass automaton), powered by ‘necromantic forces’, that was intended to be able to answer any question put it and help erect a wall of brass around England to protect it from its enemies.

The two friars were warned by the spirits they raised to create the head (possibly ghosts or demons) that they must not miss the first words the head said, or it would never speak again. Unfortunately, after hours of waiting, the two friars fell asleep delegating to their servant, a youth called Miles, the task of continuing the vigil. 

Shortly afterwards the head came alive and said: ‘Time is’. Miles apparently thought this message was too stupid to mention to his masters, so he ignored it. The head then said: ‘Time was’ but again Miles didn’t wake his masters. Finally, it said: ‘Time is past’ then fell to the floor and exploded. According to the story, one of the demons promised the incompetent servant Miles a job in Hell as a tapster (or bartender) to avoid Friar Bacon’s anger.

There is also a theory Bacon was the author of the mysterious document known as the Voynich Manuscript which, just over 300 years later, was sold by John Dee to Emperor Rudolf II for the equivalent (at today’s values) of £90,000/$120,000. However, another theory suggests the manuscript is an early 20th century forgery, possibly involving Aleister Crowley but written on 15th century parchment. 

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) As mentioned earlier in the narrative section, Medieval and Renaissance alchemists had to tread a fine line between innovation and Catholic church orthodoxy if they were to avoid being accused of heresy. One person who spectacularly failed in this regard was the 16th century Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet, cosmological theorist, and occultist Giordano Bruno.

In common with many scholars of these times, Bruno wandered Europe for many years taking up teaching posts here and seeking patrons there. He was even in England for a couple of years, becoming acquainted with John Dee and, according to some reports, spying on Catholic conspirators. Unfortunately, Bruno had what we’d now call an unfortunate attitude, espousing controversial views, using tactless language, as well as displaying a contemptuous and condescending manner that not only made enemies but also alienated friends. Or as the historian Mordechai Feingold later put it: “Both admirers and critics of Giordano Bruno basically agree that he was pompous and arrogant, highly valuing his opinions and showing little patience with anyone who even mildly disagreed with him.”

His most controversial view endorsed the still novel Copernican model that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of our solar system, but he took it further, going on to argue all the stars in the sky were suns that not only had their own planetary systems but could also support life. This was known as ‘cosmic pluralism’ and the suggestion there were alien life-forms was heresy. In 1592 he made the mistake of returning to Italy to take up a teaching post at the University of Padua but alienated his host and was denounced to the Venetian Inquisition, who subsequently handed him over to the Roman Inquisition. 

Bruno then spent the remaining seven years of his life as a prisoner in Rome where his heretical views were investigated by the Inquisition before he was put on trial. His trial was overseen by the notorious inquisitor Cardinal Bellarmine. The “bearded man” whose face appears on the earthenware ‘witch bottles’ that were so popular in the 17th century is said to have been based on Bellarmine’s visage.

Bruno faced a number of charges including blasphemy, immoral conduct, “dealings in magics and divination,” claiming the existence of a “plurality of worlds” (the aliens on other planets), and multiple counts of holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith and the Church’s dogmatic teachings.

Once again Bruno’s contemptuous, condescending attitude was his undoing, in fact he even went so far as to threaten his judges. Little surprise then that he was declared a heretic and sentenced to death although his execution was unusually cruel. In February 1600, in the Campo de’ Fiori market square in the center of Rome, with his “tongue imprisoned because of his wicked words,” he was hung upside down naked and burned at the stake. His ashes were then thrown into the River Tiber. Today he is widely regarded as a martyr to science however as recently as the year 2000, the official Vatican view was still that the Inquisition had been justified in condemning him.

Count Alessandro Cagliostro (1743-95) While opinion may have been split on the merits and credibility of characters such as Christian Rosenkreuz and the Comte de Saint Germain, when it came to Alessandro Cagliostro even during his lifetime he was widely regarded as a charlatan and imposter. Born to a poor family in Sicily – his real name was Giuseppe Balsamo – he was reasonably well educated but in his teenage years he turned to crime and fled to the island of Malta.

By 1768 Balsamo was in Rome but now calling himself Cagliostro and claiming to be a count who had acquired occult knowledge while travelling through Egypt and Arabia. He then began a career as a self-styled magician, specializing in alchemy, scrying, and psychic healing, traveling around the royal courts of Europe. In addition, Cagliostro was a notorious forger and also actively involved in the international Freemasonry movement, particularly in the creation of the esoteric Egyptian Rite.

Cagliostro’s exotic reputation caught up with him when he was named in the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace,” a pre-revolutionary French high society scandal, and thrown into the notorious Bastille prison for nine months before being acquitted. Four years later in 1789 he was arrested in Rome by the Inquisition on charges of trying to found a Masonic lodge in the city. Some accounts say Cagliostro was betrayed by his wife Lorenza “Serafina” Feliciani, possibly out of revenge for him having on occasions, when he stood to benefit from the transaction, prostituting her out to his acquaintances. The Inquisition sentenced him to death, but this was later commuted to life imprisonment in the mountain-top Fortress of San Leo, which is where he died in 1795.

Cagliostro and Saint Germain are believed to have met when the two were in London, and some 150 years later Aleister Crowley would claim Cagliostro was one of his previous incarnations. Cagliostro himself claimed to be over 3000 years old and that he had once met the legendary Helen of Troy.

Giovanni Mercurio da Correggio (1451-c. 1506) The saga of Giovanni da Correggio is so bizarre that for a long time many historians believed he never existed and was merely a fictional character. He can best be described as an itinerant Italian preacher, Hermeticist, and alchemist, who may have been the illegitimate son of a noble family.

Giovanni’s moment in the spotlight came on Palm Sunday 1484 when, wearing blood-stained linen garments, a crown of thorns, on top of which was a silver crescent moon-shaped disk, he rode on a donkey into St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and proclaimed he was a manifestation of Jesus Christ, the prophet Enoch and Hermes Trismegistus. Not surprisingly he was arrested for heresy but managed to escape, going on to spend the rest of his life snatching meetings with popes, cardinals and dukes, while all the while staying out of the clutches of the Inquisition, before dying in obscurity. Despite the paucity of information on him, he seems to have made an impression on later Italian and German alchemists, including Cornelius Agrippa.

John Dee (1527-c. 1609) + Edward Kelley (1555-1598) John Dee was the giant of the English occult scene in the 16th century, managing also to steer clear of charges of witchcraft and heresy although posthumously he has attracted a probably unjustified reputation as a sorcerer and necromancer. 

The first years of Dee’s career were relatively conventional: he was a mathematics scholar which in turn led on to him studying astronomy and from there astrology. In 1555 he had his first series scrape with authority when he was accused of the crime of “calculating” in that he had cast horoscopes for Queen Mary and her half-sister Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I). This was a very serious offence, as Margery Jourdemayne had discovered to her cost, as an unfavorable horoscope could potentially destabilize the monarchy and echoing these concerns, the charge against Dee was raised to slander. 

Dee was able to talk himself out of trouble and when Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in 1558, he became her scientific and astrological adviser, even calculating the most favorable date for her coronation. In the years that followed his mathematical skills were targeted at improving maritime navigation, a valuable asset in the “Age of Discovery,” when English mariners were first exploring the globe. But, by the 1580s his influence in royal court circles was in decline and he began exploring occult methods of acquiring knowledge. 

Dee believed that if he could communicate with angels, he would be able to learn their ancient wisdom although this would involve using an “Enochian” language or ‘celestial speech’ that had been spoken in antediluvian times before the Great Flood of the Old Testament. To achieve this communication, Dee sought the services of scryer or crystal-gazer who could act as in intermediary between him and the angels. It was this search that led Dee to meeting Edward Kelley, a self-professed alchemist and spirit medium.

Kelley was a rogue – it was said he always wore a cap on his head to hide the fact his ears had been cropped after he was convicted for forgery and counterfeiting although it is unclear whether he was an out-and-out charlatan or merely deluded. Whatever his motivation, Kelley seems to have impressed Dee with his skills, even going so far as to convince Dee that the angel Uriel had commanded that the two men share all their belongings, including their wives. At the time Dee was married to a woman nearly 30 years younger than him and it probable one of children of this marriage was actually fathered by Kelley.

In 1583 Dee, Kelley and their respective families left England to travel continental Europe seeking royal patrons to fund their research but, disillusioned with the itinerant lifestyle, in 1589 Dee split with Kelley and returned to England. Although Queen Elizabeth appointed him warden of a college in Manchester, his influence at court was by then almost non-existent and with witch trials regularly taking place across England, Dee’s occult skills were no longer in demand. Dee spent the last few years of his life living in poverty at his old home in Mortlake, London.

As for Kelley, he initially enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle in Europe, thanks to his claim he could transmute base metals into gold. Following rumors he was planning to return to England to make gold for Queen Elizabeth, he was arrested by his royal patron Emperor Rudolf II. He was subsequently released but shortly afterwards rearrested when it became apparent he was unable to make gold. There is a suggestion he may have been running what we’d now call a pyramid fraud, using money from his latest patrons to pay a dividend to earlier patrons. He is reported to have died from the injuries he sustained falling from a wall in an attempted escape.

Along with supposedly owning the Voynich Manuscript, which he sold to Emperor Rudolf, Dee also owned a hand-held “spirit mirror” or speculum he used for scrying. This has now been identified as black obsidian of Mexican origin and originally used by the Aztecs for magical purposes before being looted and shipped to Europe by the Conquistadores in the 1520s.

John Dee’s lifelong obsession with secrecy and refusing to disclose details of the projects he was involved with, not only led to a suspicion in Europe that he was a spy but also gave rise to slanderous rumors about his occult activities, including the use necromancy to raise and interrogate the dead. The widely reproduced illustration of Dee and Kelley standing within a protective magic circle in an English churchyard with the spirit of a dead person before them was not engraved until 1780, 170 years after Dee’s death, and depicts an incident that never happened. Incidentally William Shakespeare based his character Prospero in his play The Tempest on John Dee.

Johan Georg Faust (circa 1466 or 1480-1541) Faust was an itinerant alchemist, astrologer, magician, and caster of horoscopes who moved around what we now call Germany during the first part of the 16th century. In common with other alchemists of this era, he walked a fine line between respectability and being denounced as a trickster and fraud. One year we hear of him casting a horoscope for the Bishop of Bamberg, whereas in another year the Church was accusing him of being a blasphemer in league with the Devil.

Mystery surrounds his death, but he seems to have been killed in an explosion when an alchemical experiment went wrong, leaving his body ‘grievously mutilated’. His enemies (like Giordano Bruno, Faust had a knack for antagonizing people) said Faust’s mangled corpse was caused by the Devil coming to collect him in person and drag him away to Hell.

The life of the historical Faust would have probably been forgotten long ago had not it become the subject of a folk legend subsequently popularized in chapbooks about 40 years after his death and then adapted for the stage by the English playwright Christopher Marlowe for his drama The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. Since then, and there have been other adaptations of the Faustian legend including by Goethe, Faust has become the archetypal Renaissance sorcerer who makes a pact with the Devil but then rues his folly when time runs out and Devil comes to take his soul.


There’s a wonderful folk tale or urban legend that says Marlowe’s play was so realistic that during one performance Edward Alleyn, the actor playing Faust, accidentally summoned a demon who was waiting for him in the wings when he left the stage. The incident so shocked Alleyn that he soon after retired from the theatre and devoted the rest of his life to charitable causes.

Nicolas Flamel (circa 1340-1418) The historical Flamel was a wealthy French scribe and manuscript-seller who lived and died in Paris. After his death a legend grew up that he had also been an alchemist who had discovered the Philosopher’s Stone, allowing him and his with to accumulate great wealth and achieve immortality. The story is he acquired a manuscript that a Jewish sage in Spain identified as a copy of the grimoire Abremelin the Mage. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, over 200 years after his supposed death, there were reports across Europe of sightings of Flamel – and he lives on today in the Harry Potter novels and movies.

Robert Fludd (1574-1637) Flood is another of the polymaths of the Early Modern period who managed to combine an almost conventional scientific career – medicine, chemistry and mathematics, he would go on to become a prosperous London physician – with occult interests, including astrology, numerology, the Hermetic Qabalah, Rosicrucianism, alchemy and other aspects of “natural magic,” as distinct from ceremonial magic. 

Perhaps his most out-there belief was in the value of “weapon-salve” cures, a form of sympathetic magic-meets-animal magnestism. The idea was if a patient had been wounded by a sword, along with dressing the wound in lint, a salve made of the patient’s blood and human fat would be applied to the sword blade. Despite all this, in the 19th century one historian described Fludd as “the great English mystical philosopher of the 17th century, a man of immense erudition, of exalted mind, and, to judge by his writings, of extreme personal sanctity.”

Paracelsus (circa 1493-1541) Born Theophrastus von Hohenhein, Paracelsus was a Swiss physician, alchemist, and theologian, who is credited as a pioneer of medicine and one of the first people to study poisons and toxicology in any scientific fashion. Although he believed science and religion were inseparable, with scientific discoveries being direct messages from God, by the 17th century he had also earned a reputation as a prophet among the Rosicrucians (the followers of Christian Rosenkreuz) after his works on astrology and divination were posthumously edited and published as the Prognostications (Prognosticon Theophrasti Paracelsi).

Table of Contents

About the Author



1. Witchcraft and Sorcery in Classical Antiquity

2. Magic in the Middle Ages

3. The Renaissance: When Everything Changed

4. Witchcraft and Sorcery in the Royal Courts of Europe

5. The Time of the Alchemists

6. The Burning Times

7. The Great Witch Trials

8. Salem and the North American Colonial Experience

9. Witchcraft and Magic: The Empty Years

10. The Return of the Cunning Folk

11. The Rebirth of Esotericism and Ceremonial Magic

12. Aleister Crowley and his Circle

13. The Birth of Modern Witchcraft – or a Revival of a Cult?

14. The Great British Witchcraft Revolution

15. Covens Across the Ocean: The American Dimension

16. Budapest and Starhawk: Feminism and the Craft

17. Strange Interlude: Witchcraft in Post-War Germany

18. Witch-Hunts and Black Magic in Modern Times

19. Witchcraft in the Digital Age: OK Boomer?

20. Afterword: The Last Witch Trial?



From the B&N Reads Blog

Customer Reviews