Books: Introductory

(If you haven’t read the Book Suggestion Index, you might want to go look at that first.)

My assumptions about you:

I have a horrible time doing book recommendations in a vacuum, so in order to write this up, I’ve made some assumptions about the typical person looking for suggestions.

  • You’re relatively new to Paganism (though much of this list has books that are great for non-beginners.)
  • You’re comfortable with the idea of learning from books to begin with, with all their limits
  • You’re interested in a thoughtful discussion of the entire path – not just how to do spells. A number of these books talk about magic, but few of them have extensive spell discussions or spell recipes.
  • You’ve got reasonable access to books (I’ve identified my “If you’re only going to buy 3 books” titles, but you’ll be much better off if you can get access to about 10 books). This might be your library, a used bookstore, or wherever. I encourage you to support small Pagan and esoteric stores, but I know they’re sometimes not an easy option for everyone.

Learning the basics: Where to start

These are not my top five because they have all the answers – but because I think they’ll give you a good chance to figure out more of what your questions and interests are, and how to move forward from there.

Elen Hawke’s In the Circle

This is my first choice for people who really prefer to learn by stories or examples. Elen does a great job of interleaving personal experiences and stories of rituals with short essays about different major topics. I remember liking the other books of hers I’ve read, but don’t own them, so can’t comment as easily on content. (If you’re very limited on funds, pick either this one or the next one: they cover similar ground.)

Either Jennifer Hunter’s 21st Century Wicca or Thea Sabine’s Beginning Wicca

While Hunter’s book is now over a decade old, it’s still one of my first recommendations, because Jennifer does a great job of combining general information, comments from a number of other people (so you don’t just get how she does things), and of touching on many different areas (ethics, ritual, magic, community.) The last chapter is specifically for people in late high school or college, but has some useful thoughts for older readers as well. (It’s second on this list because while it’s beginner-focused, it goes a bit deeper than the previous title.)

Thea Sabine’s Wicca for Beginners is a more recent title, but one that handles many common early questions with grace and a recognition that what she does is not the way everyone does something. She includes explanations (it’s not just “Try this ritual”) and defines why she’s using terms and ideas the way she is.

Either Amber K‘s True Magick or Marion Weinstein‘s Positive Magic.

Both are older titles, but they do a good job of explaining magical theory, approaches, and some other concepts that are very useful for understanding both magic and ritual, while not simply giving you a recipe of what to do. Many people I’ve talked to have found True Magick easier to understand than other similar titles, but it doesn’t oversimplify (give you wrong info for the sake of making something easier to understand.)

Dana Eilers: The Practical Pagan

A great introduction to the Pagan community – not as a religion, but as a group of people with some of our own customs and culture. She also addresses things like how to handle wearing religious jewelry at work or in public, attending your first event, and other things that new Pagans often worry about.

Other great introductory titles
(in about the order I’d suggest reading them in)

Robin Wood‘s When, Why … If

This title can be a little tricky to come by (you can order it directly from her, or from any bookstore that takes orders: many esoteric stores keep it in stock.) It’s worth it: this book is an excellent overview of ethics from a Wiccan perspective. Broken into 8 different topics, there is a discussion (on themes like honesty, love, and justice) along with questions for you to reflect on. She does note that she’s got some things she views differently these days: you can find her comments on those here.

Dianne Sylvan‘s The Circle Within.

First, a disclaimer: I’ve known Sylvan online since shortly before she got published – but this book is a fabulous introduction to developing a personal devotional practice, something that should be a key to whatever else you do. She includes a number of examples. However, as she points out, it’s not a 101 book: you should be familiar with basic terms and concepts before you read this.

Ellen Cannon Reed’s The Heart of Wicca

A must for anyone trying to figure out if they’re interested in an initiatory path or group – and good reading for everyone else! Discussions of symbols, cycles, experiential practice versus book-learning, and many great examples.

Nancy B. Watson’s Practical Solitary Magic:

A good overall guide to magical theory and practice (focused, as you might guess, on solitary practice.) She discusses everything step by step, with a number of different techniques and good discussion on when they might be most useful.

A Year of Learning

One tradition in Wicca and other paths is the idea of learning for at least a year and a day before making a significant commitment to the path (like initiation or a lifelong dedication to the path or a deity.) This makes good sense – you want to know what you’re committing to. A year gives you time to learn about and celebrate each of the eight Sabbats, and to learn over time, which can help prevent frustration and feeling overwhelmed.

There are several books out there that are designed to help with this – they give exercises that build slowly during the year. Chances are, one of these will be a better fit for you than the others – this is a good time to find more information about each and see what fits your needs and style.

Marian Green‘s A Witch Alone

A great book for developing solitary practice on your own, broken down into 13 moons worth of work. The techniques used here don’t require a lot of equipment – just time, and quiet to focus. This is not traditional Wicca, but it is a very good preparation for many related paths.

Starhawk and Hilary Valentine’s The Twelve Wild Swans

Starhawk is, of course, best known for her Spiral Dance, one of the first books in the modern American Craft movement. However, I recommend this one instead for several reasons. First, it’s a more recent title and avoids some problems with outdated historical understanding. But more than that, it’s got an amazing collection of resources, exercises, and ideas. It’s also less directly political than some of Starhawk’s other works (though the issues of social justice and how we live in this world are still a major theme, this book comes at them from the direction of internal understanding as much as external action.)

The book is divided into three paths: Elements (introductory and beginner focused), Inner Path (focused on personal healing), and the Outer Path (this would be the externally focused, most obviously political one.) You can read one or all three (but if you’re just beginning, start by *doing* the stuff in the Elements path first. You can always come back later.) While many of the examples include group work, most of the exercises can be done on your own with a little rearranging.

Timothy Roderick‘s Wicca: A Year and a Day

The most recent of the books in this section, this actually has exercises to work through day by day. Some days have a short essay. Others have meditations, rituals, or simple magical workings. Roderick lists the specific items you need each month early on (so you have time to plan), and they’re largely fairly simple to get at your local grocery or drugstore. That said, this is probably the most object-intensive book of the three. While I’ve looked through it fairly closely, I also don’t own it.

Books that might be in your local library:

Your library is likely to have some useful titles: check these out for additional information and ideas. Take a look at your mythology and religion sections, as well.

Religion and American Cultures: An Encyclopedia of Traditions, Diversity, and Popular Expressions (edited by Gary Laderman)

This has one of my favorite encyclopedia entries on Wicca: it’s a good overview (without being overly simplified) and nuanced without being overly complex. The first volume is about a number of different religious paths (including Wicca and several other modern paths. The second looks at different concepts (like sacred space) and how they are developing in modern culture. The last one (and probably the least useful for our purposes) has a wide range of primary historical documents about religion in the United States.

Man, myth & magic : the illustrated encyclopedia of mythology, religion, and the unknown (edited by Richard Cavendish)

A great starting point for research on a wide range of topics – everything from common symbols to the folklore associations with hair, to different mythological figures. While this doesn’t cover everything, the topics they do cover get a couple of pages of commentary – plenty to start you going on further learning.

The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft (edited by Rosemary Guiley)

This one volume encyclopedia of witches and witchcraft covers both historical witchcraft and modern practices. It includes some brief bios of major figures, but also definitions for a wide range of topics – everything from pentagrams to talismans to historical events.

The Encyclopedia of Religion (edited by Lindsey Jones)

This massive encyclopedia is a great and detailed overview of a wide range of religious practices and beliefs. Take a look at entries like those on ritual, liturgy, or music for a wealth of ideas from different religious traditions, and a way to put what you’re reading about Wicca into context with other paths you may have grown up with.