Books of Shadows - Books of Magic and Witchcraft

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Books of Shadows
Books of Magic and Witchcraft

According to its most basic definition, a Book of Shadows is a book of spells or rituals copied by hand. That’s crucial; by definition, a Book of Shadows is a personalized, hand-written book. No two are identical, if only because the handwriting is different. Although various authors have published their personal Books of Shadows, these are usually intended as guidelines or methods of preserving traditions. If you use a printed, published Book of Shadows for spellcasting, which many do, then by definition it is being used in the manner of a grimoire. In order to possess an authentic Book of Shadows it must be hand-written, even if all you do is copy it word for word. A not insubstantial portion of the tradition’s power and beauty derives from the magical art of putting pen to paper.

Books of Shadows derive from the notion that because magical practices and/or pagan religion were persecuted with total eradication as the goal, witches (variously defined) kept secret books. Secrecy was crucial because possession of a magical or pagan text (and that’s a distinction the Inquisition would not have made) was grounds for arrest and conviction for witchcraft. The title of the genre, which may or may not have been coined by Gerald Gardner, father of modern Wicca, refers to the necessity of keeping these books hidden or “in the shadows.”

If one uses the purest, narrowest definition of a Book of Shadows as a hand-written, personalized book of rituals and magic, then in essence, all magical manuscripts created prior to the invention of the printing press, not least the medieval grimoires, are Books of Shadows. They were, by necessity, hand-copied. There was no other way to make a book.

However, that pure, narrow definition of Books of Shadows is rarely used, and the equation of them with medieval grimoires would horrify, appall and anger many Wiccans, because a Book of Shadows is more than just a handwritten ritual guide.

Many would object to considering medieval grimoires as Books of Shadows because these grimoires are virtually all associated with a type of selfish, frequently malevolent, male-oriented sorcery, heavily steeped in Christianity (many who used and perhaps wrote them were theologians) and with a type of magic that is diametrically opposed to traditional Earth-centered witchcraft.

Historic Books of Shadows, as opposed to those created in the wake of Gerald Gardner, are understood to have been books written by individual female witches or by covens in a desperate attempt to keep traditions alive. They are shadowy because normally this material would never have been written down but transmitted orally—but desperate times require desperate action.

This is the definition of Books of Shadows as taught by Gerald Gardner, who claimed to have learned of the tradition when he was initiated into a long-secret coven. Gardner wrote his own Book of Shadows together with Doreen Valiente and Aleister Crowley, and this book is among the bedrock on which Gardnerian Wicca is formed.

Since Gardner, Books of Shadows are an integral part ofWiccan religion, manifesting in various ways.

Image Solitary witches may create their own book to suit personal needs.

Image Some traditions maintain one copy, entrusted to the High Priest or High Priestess; initiated individuals may copy from the book as needed.

Image In some traditions, initiation involves copying and understanding the Book of Shadows over an extended period of time.

Image Not all traditions create Books of Shadows; some prefer not to put everything in writing.

In this sense Books of Shadows transcend spells. They are books of ritual. If one belongs to a specific spiritual or witchcraft tradition, this sacred book is where the laws, rituals, spells, and crucial information of that tradition are written.

This notion of the historical Book of Shadows grounded in the witch-hunts is controversial. Academics specializing in witchcraft often object to it, convinced it didn’t exist. Many believe Gerald Gardner created the concept himself and only claimed that the tradition was old, similar in fashion to the way grimoires authored in the eighteenth century claim to be based on ancient manuscripts. Because so few ancient magical or Pagan texts survived, it’s impossible to verify—or disprove—these claims.

Scholarly objection stems mainly from the fact that the type of witch Gardner describes tends to be female and is generally believed to be at best functionally illiterate. However, this is assumption and incredibly difficult to prove, one way or another.

Witch-trial records do show that when witches were burned, books were burned with them. However because the books were burned there is little if any evidence of what was burned. It’s an old political trick: first burn the evidence, then say the evidence didn’t exist. And maybe it didn’t. Maybe the scholars are right. But maybe they’re wrong—at least some of the time. Secrets have a way of emerging from the shadows: one historical reference survives. According to seventeenth-century Venetian Inquisition records, charges of witchcraft were levied against a woman named Laura Malipero. When the agents of the Inquisition searched her home they discovered a copy of the banned grimoire The Key of Solomon, together with a private, hand-written book of spells and rituals into which Laura had copied portions of that classical grimoire. Laura Malipero was obviously not illiterate. Her handwritten book fulfills Gerald Gardner’s concept of the individual witch’s Book of Shadows and straddles the fine line between them and medieval grimoires.

And whether Gerald Gardner or someone else made up the notion of Books of Shadows may be irrelevant; it is a beautiful tradition. The completed books (and some are never complete, perpetual works in progress) are beautifully embellished works of art, power, magic, and spirituality. Some are written in magical scripts; some are illustrated. No two are exactly alike.

Wiccan Books of Shadows are traditionally kept secret. Many covens administer an oath of secrecy to initiates. You have to enter and commit yourself to that twilight world of shadows to gain access.

In 1971, the American Wiccan Lady Sheba (Jessie Wicker Bell, died March 25, 2002) was the first to publish an entire Book of Shadows, under the title Lady Sheba’s Book of Shadows. Lady Sheba was a pioneer of Wicca as a public religion. She was among the first to officially register her religion as Wicca at a time when many people were ignorant of Wicca and associated it with Satanism. (The United States armed forces now acknowledges Wicca as a religious option, something not afforded to various Native American or African-derived spiritual traditions.)

Lady Sheba’s Book of Shadows was published to tremendous interest but also tremendous animosity. By publishing her personal Book of Shadows Lady Sheba ignited a firestorm, not from outsiders but from within the Wicca community. Many felt betrayed and believed that she had violated her oath of secrecy. She was accused of making precious spiritual secrets public. (This was a time when comparatively few metaphysical works of any sort were published.)

In addition, many misunderstood the concept of a Book of Shadows being a compilation of earlier material and traditions. Because her Book of Shadows was published under her name, many accused her of claiming to be the author of the material in her book, some of which was traditional. However, other material in her book had been composed by Doreen Valiente, Gerald Gardner’s High Priestess and co-author of Gardner’s Book of Shadows. Because it was never entirely clear exactly how much of Gardner’s material was old and traditional, and hence in the public domain, and how much was created to fulfill the needs of a new spiritual tradition, various issues of copyright infraction, on the ethical level if not also on the legal, were raised.

Lady Sheba’s response to this controversy and the hostility engendered was that the time of secrecy was over and that she had never claimed that the material was original. She was merely passing on the Gardnerian tradition as she had received it. The book remains in print. It is not a book of magic spells but of Wiccan ritual and theology.