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William Hansen - Review of Claude Lecouteux, King Solomon the Magus: Master of the Djinns and Occult Traditions of East and West, translated by Jon E. Graham

William Hansen - Review of Claude Lecouteux, King Solomon the Magus: Master of the Djinns and Occult Traditions of East and West, translated by Jon E. Graham

An ethereal man and woman, seated

For all his staid credentials as Professor Emeritus of Medieval Germanic Literature at the Sorbonne, Claude Lecouteux is a veritable factory of popular presentations on magic, folklore, and fabulous beings. He has produced some two dozen books with titles such as Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages; The Hidden History of Elves and Dwarfs: Avatars of Invisible Realms; Secret Grammar of Magic; A Lapidary of Sacred Stones: Their Magical and Medicinal Powers Based on the Earliest Sources; and Dictionary of Gypsy Mythology: Charms, Rites, and Magical Traditions of the Roma. “Pagan,” “ancestral,” “hidden,” “secret,” and “mysteries” are common in his titles and subtitles, promising his readers revelations of precious and little-known lore.

Sources for traditions about Solomon include the biblical book of Kings (1 Kings and 2 Kings); writings of the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus; the Talmud; the Qu’ran (Koran); and later written and oral narratives, especially from Arabic lands. The Solomon of the Old Testament was a son of King David who succeeded his father as ruler of Israel. He wed the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh. He enjoyed exceptional wisdom and understanding, given to him by god; indeed, part of the biblical book of Proverbs is attributed to him. On another front, he was a notable builder, responsible for the construction of his palace and of the Temple of Jerusalem. His 700 wives and 300 concubines indicate his fondness for women. In later tradition these traits were elaborated in various directions. For example, ever lustful, Solomon had 1000 wives. He was a wondrous explorer, devising a means to descend to the bottom of the sea and to fly high in the sky. His realm extended beyond Israel, for god eventually made him lord of animals and demons (djinns). He became a great magician, possessing a magic ring and a flying carpet. Different writings were attributed to him, especially books of magic, the most famous being the grimoire known as The Key of Solomon. It is this aspect, Solomon the magician, that the title of Lecouteux’s book emphasizes.

King Solomon the Magus is a collection of ancient, medieval, and modern traditions associated with King Solomon. Lecouteux says that his plan is to reconstruct the legend of Solomon, drawing upon as many documents as possible (4). Since the author seems to be at home in an unusually large number of languages, including Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, German, Dutch, English, Arabic, Ukrainian, and Russian, he is able to make and appropriately document a wide-ranging gathering of legends and other traditions.

The author divides his Solomonic materials into three parts, which he calls The King, The Magician, and Solomon in Folklore. The first contains material having to do with the biographical tradition of Solomon. The third chapter, for example, focuses on Solomon’s constructions, which include the Temple of Jerusalem, built without making any noise; the walls of Jerusalem; numerous steam baths; various castles; and the impregnable City of Copper, built for Solomon by the djinn.

The second part of his book explores different magical writings attributed to, or associated with, Solomon as a magus, or magician. Thus, chapter 15 discusses the famous grimoire, or magician’s handbook, known as The Key of Solomon, that dates to the thirteenth century CE. There is a careless error in the presentation of five illustrations reproduced from a Latin manuscript (163-165) of a book attributed to Solomon. The illustrations and their labels are not coordinated. Thus, the sheet titled Spiritus Lunares (“Moon Spirits”) in the manuscript is mislabeled in the reproduction as “Intelligence of the Sun,” while the manuscript page called De Intelligentia Solis (“On the Intelligence of the Sun”) is misidentified as “Spirit of Mercury,” and so on for the remaining reproductions.

Part III is a collection of traditional stories featuring Solomon that the author classifies as folkloric, perhaps because they are entertaining. One of the narratives, for example, is a Bulgarian tale about Solomon’s lust for a beautiful and wealthy woman. When the woman declined to become his mistress, he threatened to abduct her. Concluding that she would not prevail in a contest of power, she pretended to acquiesce, telling Solomon to come to her during the night. When he arrived, she let down a basket from her room on the third floor, instructing him to get in it, so that she could hoist it up to her room. Solomon climbed into the basket, but the woman merely hoisted the basket halfway up, leaving the lustful king suspended in midair. He begged her to free him, which she did after pointing out that his passion had blinded him. Shamed, he apologized.

Does the author succeed in his goal of reconstructing the legend of Solomon? When Lecouteux comes to the end of his book (232-234), he is content to say that he has “been able to extract the various facets of the legend of Solomon,” “to have shown the extent of its extraordinary popularity,” and to have pursued traces of the king on paths that “have been forgotten by all except a few specialists.” I think these are fair assessments, and perhaps the impressively eclectic assemblage of texts answers to the author’s stated aim.

Lecouteux somewhat muddles his conclusion, however, by throwing out at the last moment an interpretation of the Solomon story that he says was suggested to him by the Norwegian folklorist Ronald Grambo, namely, that certain details of the legend (for example, Solomon’s descent to the bottom of the sea) “speak in favor of a shamanic component,” that is, suggest an origin in shamanism. It is hard to see how this idea, which is briefly argued but not really developed, can add anything to our understanding of the Solomon tradition.


[Review length: 956 words • Review posted on November 19, 2023]