Books and articles of interest to witches

Most of the books on Wicca, witchcraft and magic available nowadays are nothing more than a waste of trees, full of the same few rehashed bits of ritual and the same pastel prose about the "three-fold law". There are a few gems still around, though, capable of inspiring and expanding knowledge—you just have to find them amongst the dross. We list a few of them here, and often they are older works that have never been surpassed. Some of these relate to practice, some to history; some are purely oddities that we think are worth knowing about. Annotations are provided so you can figure out which of these might be most useful to you. Other books will continue to be added to this page.

And remember, reading can introduce you to new ideas, but only practice will bring knowledge.

Carlo Ginzburg
Ecstasies: Deciphering the witches' sabbath
London: Hutchinson Radius. ISBN 0 09 174024 X.

An astonishing work by the meticulous microhistorian who in 1966 discovered the sixteenth century Italian Benandanti, individuals who, having been born with a caul, would participate in spirit journeys, battling with evil spirits or attending feasts. This work builds on his earlier findings, as he sifts through obscure trial documents as well as folklore and mythology, and finds that popular beliefs about witches reflected the experiences of small groups of people throughout Europe who, like the Benandanti, were marked out as sorcerors and followers of a night-time goddess. These beliefs turn out to be rooted in very ancient mythical themes, threads of which go back at least 6,000 years and are spread across all of Eurasia. Even today echoes of these themes are found throughout European folklore. These findings have had a dramatic impact in the academic world, which had previously reached the consensus view that the witch trial documents could reveal nothing of the beliefs of the accused. Ginzburg is now at the center of the academic elite dealing with the historical anthropology of witchcraft.

This book is slow and difficult reading, not because of a dry or pedantic tone, but because it is so densely packed with information, much of it of great interest to modern witches. One gets the idea he had difficulty keeping his book to a manageable length as he picks his way in and out of cultures, and through the millenia. The implications to witchcraft mythology are as great as those of Graves' White Goddess, and they are academically solid. Ginzburg is remarkably meticulous, even at one point spending an entire chapter developing a hypothesis only to disprove it in the following chapter.

This book, more than any I've found, gives me some idea of how our Goddess has appeared to her hidden children in the ancient past, and how she was honoured. Much that was foreign to me about these ancient goddesses is now intelligible, for Ginzburg has opened a path between the face of the Goddess that we know from modern Wicca, and the face that has smiled on her children throughout the ages.

Philip Heselton
Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration: An investigation into the sources of Gardnerian witchcraft
Milverton, Somerset: Capall Bann Publishing. ISBN 186163 1642.

If you read Ronald Hutton's take on the origins of Gardnerian Wicca and wondered "is that all?", this book may be the perfect remedy. Heselton has superseded Hutton by providing vast quantities of new evidence regarding Gardner and his associates. The majority of this book, well over 400 pages, is a straightforward presentation of primary data regarding members of the New Forest Coven, along with such colourful characters and groups as the nudist clubs, the Druids, JSM Ward and the Ancient British Church, Harry 'Dion' Bingham and the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, Cecil Williamson, Aleister Crowley, and members of the Witches' Mill coven. Heselton engages in relatively little speculation on this data, and he is at pains to point out what is speculation and what is fact. He should be commended for his great restraint against jumping to conclusions, especially considering how excited he must have been at some of the things he discovered.

This is more thrilling than his previous book, Wiccan Roots, because the data-to-speculation ratio is even higher here (and that too was a brilliant work, providing large quantities of new data about the New Forest Coven, which is at the crux of the Wiccan history debate). So many threads of history that had been declared dead by researchers like Hutton have been nurtured and borne fruit in Heselton's two books. They are the product of years of work from a devoted and highly resourceful researcher, and he has reopened our history books for us.

Dion Fortune
The Secrets of Dr. Taverner
St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications. ISBN 0-87542-227. First published 1926.

Dion Fortune was an influential and widely respected occultist, a Golden Dawn adept and founder of the Society of the Inner Light. She wrote a number of classical works on occultism, including that cornerstone of the modern magical tradition, The Mystical Qabalah; however her works of fiction are widely regarded as being even more effective vehicles of magical teaching. While not a "witch" as such, the themes she explores in novels like Moon Magic and The Goat-foot God are remarkably close to Wiccan sensibilities, and really are witchcraft in all but name, a fact which her Society has always distanced itself from. She had even more "pagan" writings, I understand, which they burned after her death.

The Secrets of Dr. Taverner leans more towards ceremonial magic than Moon Magic or The Goat-foot God, but it is densely packed with useful information. A series of short stories about a senior magical adept who operates a nursing home for extraordinary psychological cases, it was modelled on Fortune's teacher, and according to her the stories are based on real cases: "far from being written up to make exciting fiction, they had to be toned down to make them fit for print". Each story explores and explains different phenomena of magic and the spiritual world. The volume also contains at the end of it an essay on The Work of a Modern Occult Fraternity by Gareth Knight, which is recommended reading in several magical orders I have encountered, and which contains much of interest regarding the spiritual development of individuals and groups, as well as some rather Christian conceptions of building "the Heavenly Jerusalem on Earth". All true and good, but with a rather different emphasis than what us witches might have put on it.

Jimahl diFiosa
A Voice in the Forest: Spirit conversations with Alex Sanders
Southborough, MA: Harvest Shadow Publications. ISBN 0-9741740-0-9. Revised and expanded first Harvest Shadows edition.

A New England coven makes contact with Alex Sanders, the deceased "King of the Witches" and founder of the Alexandrian tradition of Wicca. Not one to go quietly, Alex returns from the grave with messages for the entire initiatory Wiccan community. Or such is the claim. As bizarre as this sounds, it is compelling: it reads not as a piece of sensationalist trash, but as the honest and touching record of a series of necromantic workings, a rare glimpse through the veil. Several of Alex's personal acquaintances have endorsed it, saying they clearly recognise his voice in these communications. The book mostly documents the process of making contact and how this affected the people involved; Alex's actual message for the Craft is simple: love the Goddess, remain true to the Craft, count our similarities rather than our differences and make the Craft strong. He also gives hints as to where he will be/has been reborn! Whether or not you believe it, this is great reading, and it depicts some of that dark, potent side of Wicca which is increasingly often swept under the carpet.

Paul Huson
Mastering Witchcraft: A practical guide for witches, warlocks and covens
London: Corgi Books. ISBN 0 522 08992 3.

How rare it is to find an author with an obvious grasp of witchcraft who also has the ability to clearly transmit his knowledge in writing. Equivalent Wiccan workbooks just don't exist, because the only people willing to publish our oathbound teachings are either uninitiated faux-Wiccan outsiders or else incompetent and misdirected. Huson is a little critical of Wicca, despite having adopted several elements of our particular style of working; I in turn am critical of his disregard for morality, which could potentially put the unexperienced reader in great danger. Huson seems to have decided to just throw his readers in the deep end and let them either sink or swim. I'm not wagging my finger about "harm none" or the "law of three", but pointing out the simple fact that focusing on negativity tends to cultivate negativity in oneself. I've seen enough dabblers in black magic to know where it leads, and Huson doesn't warn his readers about this.

That said, he describes many effective techniques which (depending on how they are applied) are compatible with Wiccan values, and he promotes experimentation, which I think is very healthy. If the reader is ethically aware and responsible, then this can be a valuable book. Note: I'm not in favour of an overbearing or repressive morality, just a bit of forewarning, and a kind regard for ourselves and our fellow creatures.

Francis Barrett
The Magus
London: Lackington, Alley and Co.

This vastly influential grimoire is distinguished by its readability. Far from being an obfuscated assortment of barbaric formulae, it is a clearly organised explanation of classical magical theory. Much of it is copied wholesale from other sources, particularly the 500-year-old Three Books of Occult Philosophy of Agrippa, which could also be well-recommended, however Barrett's book contains most of Agrippa's good stuff and more, and his English is more readable than other translations of Agrippa. The Magus provides a key to understanding much of ritual and ceremonial magic, which are strong influences upon Wicca, particularly Alexandrian Wicca. It's a huge book, and trying to read it cover to cover might be a mistake, but it's worth familiarising yourself with its general outline and treating it as a magical encyclopedia. If, for instance, you ever feel like creating a talisman invoking the power of a certain angelic being, look it up in The Magus and you will find Barrett's instructions to be as good as any published since, and in many cases clearer, simpler and better.

An online version can be found here.

Frederic Lamond
Fifty Years of Wicca

Frederic Lamond was a member of the Bricket Wood coven in the early days, along with Doreen Valiente, Jack Bracelin, Dayonis and others. Fifty years on, he is probably our oldest living practitioner, and his stories reveal much about the early development of Wicca under Gardner, including challenging a few myths about the way things have "always" been done. Lamond's anecdotes also express very well the feel of Wicca, our relationship with the Gods and how magic manifests in our lives.

His descriptions of Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders are less than flattering—in fact they are some of the more negative descriptions I've heard from a Wiccan historian.

At a certain point in the book, about half-way through, Lamond's anecdotes cease and he moves on to suggest major alterations to Wiccan practices. Some of his suggestions are really good, but I don't agree with his alterations to the ritual. Because he witnessed some of the early development of Wicca, and saw how arbitrarily things could come together, it seems he has failed to grasp what a rich and effective tradition it has evolved into. It would seem a pity to throw away fifty years of development and building of the egregore to replace it with something entirely new. Remember that the tradition never stopped growing and developing after the early days. Also, many of Lamond's criticisms of Wiccan ritual are based on his belief that the symbolism is confused or inappropriate; however, my training in Alexandrian Wicca resolved these symbols quite satisfactorily and revealed deeper levels of understanding contained within them. I had assumed this was common teaching amongst initiates, but clearly not.

This book is still well recommended, for its historical glimpses and its clear and easy depiction of what magic and communion with the Gods really feels like.

Ramsey Dukes
SSOTBME: An essay on magic

An absolute gem of a book. For all those who love magic and miracles, or would love to love them, but their intellect keeps getting in the way. This witty book charms the intellect but puts it in its place. An impeccably well-considered explanation of the magical world-view to be enjoyed by magicians and sceptics alike. It also contains many hints for how to go about expanding your world-view so that magic and miracle can blossom into your conscious world; however I disagree with the author that this process must of necessity involve an intermediate phase of insanity. If undertaken carefully, one can get by with only feeling a little neurotic for a while. A key is to assume from the outset that anything is possible, and that any explanation of how the world works can be readily discarded if it is found deficient. Constantly reminding ourselves of our ignorance helps with this.

This book is accessible and addictive reading, with plenty of chuckles. Pure elegance.

Maxine Sanders
Firechild: The life and magic of Maxine Sanders 'Witch Queen'
Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford.

This is about as real an account of Alexandrian Wicca (the real, good old stuff) as you're likely to get. It's also one of the most magical autobiographies you're likely to read. My sense is that Maxine has tried to re-educate the Wiccan world with this book, reminding us of what is most important, and where the pitfalls are, as well as giving us a boot up the arse to take our priesthood and training seriously. That doesn't mean she's a 'stickler for correct ritual'; but she is a highly experienced witch and occultist, and she knows what she's on about.

This is also a fantastic lowdown on the workings of the English occult community from the late sixties onwards. Maxine was extremely well connected, and introduces us to numerous interesting, odd, unsavoury and wonderful characters, and gives us insights into the workings of several occult orders. The whole account is given candidly, without any attempt to pull punches, even from those she's close to.

A beautifully written book, and a real page turner, but possibly daunting to anyone who's new to the path and wonders whether they'll ever gain the sight, learn magic and be able to make Homepride flour men dance across their piano. Don't fret: sort out your motives first (that's the most important thing), and then get some training. If you can't find training (are you looking hard enough?), follow the best training regime you can find in a book. If the intent is there, everything is possible, and easier than you might imagine.