The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East is a 14 volume subscription set, published in 1917. Composed of selections of various length drawn mainly from scholarly works of the late 19th and early 20th century, the content is grouped by volume according to period, region and similarity. Although dated in several respects, these translations influenced many movements of the period, e.g. Theosophy, the Golden Dawn and Ordo Templi Orientis. Better translations are available in many instances, but this collection provides an opportunity to sample and subsequently pursue particular interests elsewhere. An "Arian" theory of cultural and racial diffusion can be detected in some of the introductory material and notes. This theory was prevalent in the West until the end of the IInd World War. Based on a fallacy which confused a religious heresy with a few sound-alike tribal terms in Asia, the "Arian" label became further confounded with Caucasian racial type and the more respectable theory of Indo-European language dispersion. An additional fallacy which drove the Arian theory was rooted in the belief that only a bit more than 5,000 years had passed since the creation of the world. Since so little time had passed, it was apparent that no great complexity could have developed in cultural diffusion. Darwin's popularization of the old Roman notion of evolution of species at first lead to strengthening the Arian delusion through "Social Darwinism", but discovery of the great age of the earth debunked and helped resolve some of these misconceptions. The discovery of popular error is an essential of history. Underlying the false, there is always a kernel of truth. In the case of these texts, that truth is a key to the development of religions and social systems through changing trends in belief over the centuries. See the notes under the volume headings on this page for more.
The entire set is also available at: http://www.archive.orgThe copy linked at that site is provided in several different scan formats and a text OCR version. The copy here is in smaller PDF files, scanned from a different subscription set of the edition, OCR'd and formatted to resemble the original. The certificate of the original owner and a prospectus for the series is included in the volume I PDF.
Mainly containing cuneiform translations by Morris Jastro, this volume provides examples of the earliest known texts that seem to be precursors to the traditions of the Grimories and much more. These consist of spells and interactions with the gods of old Sumer and Babylon. Mundane and historic material is also included. Content includes a financial contract for ridding fields of locusts by the services of a Sumerian priest, The Epic of Gilgimesh, the Tell-el-Amarna "Letters", several creation stories, the code of Hamurrabi, dealings with the seven evil spirits, very unpleasant Assyrian boasts, an interesting set of prayers to deities of the region and much more — along with one very unfortunate illustration (among better) facing page 320 . . .
The Palermo Stone, The Pyramid Texts, Inscription of Unus, Tales of the Magicians, Precepts of Ptah-Hotep, Coffin Texts, Budge's Book of the Dead (Ani), Prayers of Ikhn-aton, The Book of the Breaths of Life and many other historic accounts, inscriptions and stories. Illustrated with the plates from Budge's The Gods of the Egyptians (many editions only have these in black and white, but they are in color here). Translations by Breasted, Budge, Maspero, Gardiner and Flinders-Petrie — Maspero and Flinders-Petrie were available in the time of the formation of the old Golden Dawn.
These two volumes provide a study of selections from the Talmud and traditional Kabbalah, including material from the Zohar which mimics and name-drops from the Talmud. Westcott's Sepher Yetzirah will be found in the second volume. Mathers' Kabbala Unveiled is partly present in the second item, but one of the major Zohar portions is omitted and the introduction is abridged. The Mathers' edition here is early and contains fewer footnotes than may be found in later editions.
The Talmud displays evidence of influence from Avestan religious texts (see vol. VII, below) and includes many details regarding ritual contamination, purification and procedures for sacrifice. Descriptions of state religious events and prohibitions of private ritual practices shed light on later views concerning Western magic. The names and history of Rabbi who later resurfaced in the Zohar provide background to that work. The story collected from the Midrash, of "Ashmedai, the King of Demons", on pg 133 of volume IV is an important contribution to the study of Goetia. There's a lot more.
Volume V includes the few surviving "Hanged Poems" (pre-Islamic poetry hung up inside the Kabba at Mecca as exemplars), and selections from each chapter in the Koran. Useful to trace the development of one of the world's great religions, this and the next volume provide insight into the practice of "single prophesy" (by one prophet) in the formation of religion by revelation or "channeling" day-to-day as circumstances progress. Clearly, there are better translations of the Koran available now, endorsed by Imams. However, the material in this volume serves as an introductory and also provides insight into conceptions, both accurate and inaccurate, about the sacred book of Islam that entered the West during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Volume VI mostly contains poetry but also has selections from works on science, philosophy, history, religion and stories. Also here: early versions later appearing in the Arabian Nights on magical practices and beliefs.
Volume VII Provides a good selection of Avestan texts, beginning with the Gathas and including portions of Arda Viraf, precursor to Dante's Inferno. Ancestral to Christian morality, mythology and prayer styles, these works are a key to understanding European magical and mystical concepts. A long selection from the Shah-Nameh concludes the volume — some names might be confusing at first: Dara = Darius, Sikander = Alexander, Kaus/Kausru = Cyrus. There's even a plate illustrating an ancient Persian flying machine, in the form of a chair kept aloft via tethered eagles lured by shish kabobs. The suppression of the deities of nature through Zoroasterian esotericism is recorded in detail.
Volume VIII is mostly Persian poetry, ranging from a non-Fitzgerald translation of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat to the Yussuf and Zuleika of Jami, which also happened by chance to be the featured manuscript illumination of my 2009 kitchen calendar. This volume discusses and provides examples of early Sufism.
Volume IX provides extended samples from Hindu mystical and religious literature through the earliest survivals to more varied social developments. The old Persian suppression of nature deities as demons did not dominate in India. That which is denounced in volume VII is still alive and respected in volume IX.
Volume X has material from the beginning of Buddhism through the development of the later Indian schools. The early travels of Buddhist missionaries from the court of Ashoka in India to the communities of the Thereputes in pre-Christian Egypt are mentioned, and some writers have conjectured that the Beatitudes of the New Testament Gospels ultimately originated by that route.
Volume XI provides a selection from Chinese literature (books with "King" in their titles signify "Classic"), including histories, religious and mystical literature. A portion of Legge's Yi King and some additional selections from his translations are included. Primary Confucian texts are presented.
Volume XII focuses more on Taoism, with additional historic material and derivations from Confucianism. A contrast is made between the Alexander and Legge translations of the Tao-Teh King, illustrating distortions made by Western approaches and assumptions. The inscription on a Nestorian Christian Chinese tablet is included in this volume.
Volume XIII provides a wide selection of Japanese texts from c. 600 CE to the 19th century. The earliest Shinto deity texts (Kojiki) are included, as well as the "polished" re-writing done by Chinese scholars at the Japanese Imperial Court (Nihongi). Shinto rituals for seasons, deities and planets, haiku (not well translated, but the Japanese phonetic text is provided), much of the Story of Genji and portions of the Man-Yoshu (classic exemplars of poetry for all occasions) are among the more interesting items.
Volume XIV provides a very good sampling of apocrypha, although other anthologies carry texts at greater length for the New Testament period. The Old Testament apocrypha presented in this volume contains many spirit lists that were directly taken over into the grimories. Perhaps not always "the" primary source, these texts are none-the-less part of the chain from antiquity to the magical systems of the middle ages.