The Book of Shadows

The Book of Shadows is the collection of the rites of the Wica, as they were learned, fleshed out and passed by Gerald Gardner in the mid 20th century.  There is a very common misconception today within the eclectic witchcraft community which claims that any witch can write a personal grimoire (a collection of spells, workings, magickal information, meditations, etc…) and that this book becomes his or her Book of Shadows. This is untrue.  Such a book would be relevant only to that witch and his/her experience and would have little or no bearing on another witch.  The Book of Shadows is used by the entirety of the Wica, from Gardnerians to Alexandrians to other traditions within the modern religion of Wicca which continue to pass the rites which Gerald Gardner made available.

We actually like the Wikipedia article about the Book of Shadows and recommend that each witch give it a quick read. While we have read most of Stewart and Janet Farrar’s writings, own a copy of Lady Sheba’s work, and have read Charles Cardell’s writings, we have yet to come across an actual, complete copy of the Book being made available to the public. While there are certainly plenty of little parts of the original which have been published, these writings, devoid of the oral lore which traditionally accompanies them, would leave a witch rather confused and unable to work the rites in a very effective manner.  It’s rather difficult to hold a proper rite for the Goddess of the Wica if one does not know Her Name, or how to do it, outside of some verbiage and loose, context-less stage directions.

Without getting into how Gardner developed the Book of Shadows, attention should be drawn to the purpose which it serves in modern day Wicca. The Book of Shadows is both an object of focus & learning and a tool which facilitates the actual learning process itself. There are many different mechanisms and formalities which have evolved around it and its transmission from initiator to initiate. We have heard a plenitude of accounts from others of the Wica about the wonderful time spent at the covenstead (the location in which the coven meets, frequently the home of the High Priest/ess or other member of the coven) physically copying the Book of Shadows in their own handwriting while asking questions of their high priest/ess.  In this situation, the book itself serves as the source of primary information, as well as a focal point around which learning is facilitated. We have found that much, if not most, oral lore is passed this way, in the presence of the BoS or during its copying. Some treat this process as sacred in itself, a sort of passing of the tutelary tradition within Wicca, with which we agree.

There are, however less common, plenty of covens in which physical copies/xeroxes of parts of the book are passed from initiator to initiate, for the initiate to hand copy on their own. This is a system which is usually found in situations where the coveners live at some distance from each other, which makes the ability to meet more challenging and likely less frequent.  In almost all cases, if not all, the initiate would still be asking questions as copying progresses, though frequently via telephone or online communication with his/her initiators.  Regardless of the manner in which the Book of Shadows is passed, it serves the same functions for most witches who possess it; it passes the tradition (rites and accompanying information) of Wicca and it serves as a point of learning and understanding of what is being passed from initiator to initiate.

If one were to espouse only a shallow view of the Book of Shadows, one may fall prey to the simplistic idea that any religion attached to a written text becomes old, archaic and frequently outdated. The Christian Bible espouses such awful and archaic practices such as slavery, selling one’s children into said slavery, and a host of other offences to the decency of modern man (stoning is such a lovely thing, regardless of which millennium in which it’s implemented, no?). But the Bible is also something that is interpreted differently by different sects of Christianity. The Westboro Baptist  ‘God Hates Fags’ motto is a far cry from the inclusive, loving and Christ-like attitude of the Anglican communion.  Similarly, diversity exists within traditional Wicca, with different traditions and even different covens in the same traditions placing more or less emphasis on certain aspects of traditional praxis found within the Book of Shadows. One of the old Wiccan adages is that one should not remove from the tradition, though one is certainly free to add to it (within the spirit of the Craft). In this manner, the tradition, or the core of the practice of Wicca is preserved and transmitted to each new generation of witches within our cult while the freedom to improvise, experiment and infuse new life into the Craft is assured and celebrated.

How does your tradition of Wicca view the Book of Shadows? Feel free to comment below.

(+5 points to anyone who recognizes the image!)

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11 comments

  1. Very nice article indeed! I think that the experiential character of the Craft is never expressed often enough – too much emphasis on our collection of rites. Which are awesome to us, but still, just a part of the whole picture!

    Care bear hugs (>’0′)>

  2. Y’know, HISTORICALLY, Gardner used the phrase “book of shadows” because he liked it in some poetic reference. His grimoire was still just that, a grimoire, whether you call it a Book of Shadows or a grammarye. (Note that the earliest of these, the one which survived him because it ended up on the floor of a filing cabinet underneath all the drawers and thus escaped his last-will-and-testament-specified destruction of his “magical papers”, is/was blazoned on its front cover “Ye Bok of ye Arte Magical” and not “THE BOOK OF SHADOWS”.)

    That said, certainly there is considerable commonality among the material that Gardner’s initiates copied from his Book…and considerable variance as well. (He’s known to have worked with nine priestesses between 1939 and 1964.) Gardner did not stop reading and learning and growing when he was first initiated so it should surprise no one. Alas, the religions of THE BOOK have taught the overculture all too well how to graft their fundamentalist approach to written/printed matter onto the writings passed through Gardner and a very few known others to the rest of the Wicca.

    And *that* is the difficulty I have with this blog post in the first place. It reads “THE book of shadows” instead of “a book of shadows”. While I do not agree with the bootstrap witch who thinks s/he can become heir to an initiatory tradition (mystery school) by the words s/he uses to describe hir collected writings, I further do not agree that Gerald Gardner had ownership of the phrase he selected (not created) to use for his book. So call yours what you will.

  3. For us, the “Book of Shadows” was the book that had the Coven rituals such as Initiations, Casting the Circle and Sabbats. It also had the “Witches’ Alphabet” and “Runic Script”. I obtained permission from my High Priestess to add the basic Egyptian Hieroglyphs at the end of mine, and some of the other members wanted a copy for themselves, but that was by choice.
    The Grimoires that each of us had were more personal: they contained spells that we had done, both individually and collectively and we had a further book, unique to each Witch, that kept a personal, magickal record: Dreams, meditations, personal knowledge (Especially knowledge that had been gained by the individual, which had been nicknamed “The Frying Pan of Enlightenment”, after a phrase that a Covener had seen in a book) and workings that we had done (complete with a record of the results of each working).
    One thing is that our High Priestess stressed was the necessity of recording information while the memory was fresh, rather than leaving it for a few days. The result of this was that recollection was sharp, rather than patchy.

  4. Excellent post. The distinction is an important one — between “The Book of Shadows” as a term that refers directly to the material passed on by Gardner (on the one hand) and (on the other) “a book of shadows” as a term used by a wider Pagan world to refer to a personal collection of rites, spells, and other miscellany.

    Gardner’s early notebook, “Ye Bok of Ye Arte Magical”, was not either “a” nor “the” book of shadows. It was a research notebook into which Gerald copied some rituals and other material he came across in his readings, and into which he also copied the first rites he was given by his Wican teachers after his Initiation. As far as is known, he never referred to it as “The Book of Shadows”, or even as “a book of shadows.” Indeed, the term “Book of Shadows” seems to be a term he began using rather late, and was likely a term taught to him by the Witches with whom he studied.

    Much speculation has been done concerning what the term means. All sch speculation is simply that – speculation. No one has put forth a single quote from Gardner which explains either where he heard the term, nor what he thought it meant. None of the proposed meanings I’ve seen make much sense to me. Here are my thoughts on the matter, which should be taken with no more (and no less) authority than anyone else’s:

    One old meaning of the word “shadows” is as a synonym for “shades” (indeed, the two words share the same etymological root) which means “souls” — specifically, the souls of the dead. Gardner said many times that the Mighty Dead were of importance to the Witches he knew. He spoke of “Witch families” and of communing with those who have gone before. He stressed the importance of reincarnation, and of one goal of Witches being to be born again among those they loved, and to meet and know and remember and love them once again.

    Perhaps the Book of Shadows is the Book of Shades, the Witches’ Book of the Dead. As with the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, perhaps it is intended to provide hints and techniques for managing, understanding, and dealing with the afterlife and with the entities one will encounter there.

    This intimate contact, which is to follow naturally from the rites and mythic imagery described in The Book of Shadows, would give Witches the ability to find one’s way back to rebirth in a time and place of our choosing, as well as the ability to commune with the denizens of the Land of the Dead — to talk with our ancestors, and to help them to rebirth at the right time and place.

    I heartily approve of the Neopagan tendency to encourage seekers to find their own paths. I also approve of the Gardenian dedication to keeping the insights, imagery, and procedures as laid out in the Tradition as Gardner gave it to us. It’s a very powerful and useful set of writings and other teachings.

  5. I always thought that the phrase “a book of shadows” for a personal book was a misunderstanding of the grimoire called “THE book of shadows” – a phrase Gardner chose from an article about a form of divination, I believe. A term having a known origin does not mean it cannot mean something specific, I suppose.

  6. Hey Archie, would you be so kind as to provide us with a reference for where you’re saying Gerald got the term? We’d love to see it, and we’d love to read the article you mention. Thanks for mentioning it. Cheers!

    1. I’m not Archie, but Doreen Valiente made the claim in “the Rebirth of Witchcraft” that Gardner found the term “Book of Shadows” in a 1949 edition (Volume I, Number 3) of a magazine known as The Occult Observer. In this edition, she claimed, was an advertisement for Gardner’s novel, High Magic’s Aid, which was opposite an article titled “The Book of Shadows” written by the palmist Mir Bashir. The article in question was about an allegedly ancient Sanskrit divination manual which explained how to foretell things based upon the length of a person’s shadow.[3] Valiente theorised that Gardner then adopted this term for his Witches’ grimoire. She maintained that “It was a good name, and it is a good name still, wherever Gardner found it”.. [Actual quote and citation via the Wikipedia article on Book of Shadows for convenience, I remember it from reading her book.]

      1. I’ve heard it claimed that Gardner took the name from Cecil B. Williamson’s “Book of Shadow” that he is thought to have come accros when they worked together in the 50’s as part of the fledgling Museum of Witchcraft. Cecil Williamson was supposed to keep a familiar spirit in his Shadow which he would consult and commune with, hence the name. I believe this is discussed on “The Black Chair” YouTube episode that interviews the author of the recently released Cecil B Williamson partial grimoire (the rest of his papers and research having been destroyed by his daughters after his death) that was found The Museum of Witchcraft after it’s refit.

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