[All three of the Testament of Solomon pieces by M.R. James mentioned here are in the Ghosts & Scholars Archive (including one which did not actually appear in G&S itself). For links to them go to the end of the introduction.]
M.R. James seems to have been fascinated by demons, and several of his so-called "ghost stories" are peopled by demons rather than ghosts. Yet this fascination was evidently against his better judgment. He once described Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal (a demonological dictionary) as "an appalling book" (Michael Cox, M.R. James: An Informal Portrait, p.38), and of another demon-related work, The Testament of Solomon, he wrote: "the book is without any doubt very foolish, and superstitious, and corrupt, and bad; but...at the same time, it is extremely interesting...".
The Testament of Solomon, written in New Testament Greek and dated by current scholarly opinion to the third century A.D.,(1) purports to be King Solomon's own account of the building of the Temple of Jerusalem, in the course of which he enslaved and conversed with a series of demons. The wisdom of Solomon as described in 1 Kings was, of course, legendary, and it came to be assumed that such wisdom must have included great knowledge of the magical arts and power over the spirit world. Out of this tradition arose The Testament of Solomon and, later, the various medieval grimoires attributed to him.
M.R. James returned to the subject of The Testament of Solomon several times in his writings. He must certainly have had it in mind in the early 1890s when he described the scrap-book scene of Solomon confronting the demon in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", although the depiction of the terrible demon resembling "one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form" owes more to MRJ's well known arachnophobia than to any of the creatures in the Testament (grotesque as some of those undeniably are). A few years on, in 1899, he wrote a fascinating article about the Testament for the Guardian Church Newspaper. It is reprinted for the first time in this issue of Ghosts & Scholars. In the article, as well as describing the Testament's "plot" (MRJ's word) in entertaining fashion, he complains about the sorry Greek text which was then available and asks that someone should consider producing a more definitive edition. He got his wish two decades later when a new recension, edited by Dr C.C. McCown of the University of Chicago, was published (Chester Charlton McCown, The Testament of Solomon, 1922).
In his preface and introduction to this volume, McCown fully acknowledges his debt to MRJ, who read the book in manuscript "very carefully and made numerous suggestions which have been gladly used" and sent him a partial transcription of a version of the Testament at Holkham Hall in Norfolk (McCown pp.viii,11; see also R.W. Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James, p.162). Soon afterwards, MRJ contributed a brief but enthusiastic review of McCown's work to the Journal of Theological Studies Vol.24 (1923, pp.467-468). Although the review is highly technical, it does contain one line concerning a mention by McCown of his correspondence with MRJ, which will resonate with all who have tried to read the latter's handwriting: "Lastly, in a quotation from a letter of mine on p.73, please read list for bit."
MRJ's other main published involvement with The Testament of Solomon occurred in 1913 when he retold and paraphrased several stories from Old Testament pseudepigraphic works for a youthful audience in his Old Testament Legends. Possibly some parents will have considered (and still may consider) such a demon-laden text as The Testament of Solomon unsuitable for young minds, but MRJ must have enjoyed writing this particular chapter, and the likelihood is that it was the only one which many children read. A stunning illustration of the demon of the Red Sea by H.J. Ford [see below] will have been further enticement to them. The entire book is charmingly written (and very hard to come by today), but the chapter on "Solomon and the Demons" is the highlight.
For the accompanying, first-ever reprint I have annotated "Solomon and the Demons" with reference to two translations of The Testament of Solomon. MRJ will have been familiar with the first: F.C. Conybeare's 1898 translation (Jewish Quarterly Review Vol.11, pp.15-45) of the sole (much-criticised) Greek edition which was in print at the time when "Solomon and the Demons" was written.(2) Not until 1983 was an English version of McCown's definitive 1922 edition published, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (ed. James H. Charlesworth's, Vol.1, pp.960-987, translated and introduced by D.C. Duling). In my annotations I have referred to these as "TSC" and "TSol" respectively. I have also had occasional recourse to McCown's Greek text. The small but notable differences between MRJ's descriptions of demons and events, and those in these sources, may often be due to carelessness for he was not always the most meticulous of scholars. At one point, however, it is not carelessness but pure Jamesian imagination which causes a variation from the original!
(1) But see "Dating the Testament of Solomon" by James Harding and Loveday Alexander on the St Andrews University Old Testament Pseudepigrapha web site.
(2) The complete text of the Conybeare translation is on the Twilit Grotto web site.
Copyright © 1999 Rosemary Pardoe
Go to: "The
Testament of Solomon" by M.R. James (from Ghosts & Scholars
"Solomon and the Demons" by M.R. James; annotations by Rosemary Pardoe (from G&S 28)
M.R. James's review of McCown's edition (reprinted here for the first time anywhere)
Illustrations: (above) Demons appearing before King Solomon from Das Buch Belial, reproduced in Witchcraft, Magic & Alchemy by Grillot de Givry (Dover reprint, 1971); (below) "Ephippas and the Demon of the Red Sea bring the Great Pillar to Solomon" by H.J. Ford from Old Testament Legends.
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