Phyllis Currott‘s Book of Shadows This is, more or less, the story of her initial Craft training. (I understand from second-hand sources that some individuals and events are combined, but the overall feel comes through.) A couple of notes. First, don’t trust the history – she’s talking about Craft history as understood at the time, and people do better history now. Second, she’s working in a female-only group. And finally, she was working as a young lawyer in New York City: she’s pretty frank about the ups and downs of that life, but I know people who’ve struggled with it.
Celebrating the Pagan Soul (edited by Laura Wildman) A collection of essays from many Pagans (some well-known, some less so) on all facets of Craft life. Everything from finding the Craft to ritual experiences, to the joys and pains of building community. This is great if you like short essays.
Keepers of the Flame by Morganna Davies and Aradia Lynch If you’re interested in British Traditional Wicca (or its various offshoots), this is a great book for looking at different opinions and approaches. The editors interviewed a number of elders from various traditions and groups (the first half of the book), and then asked them all a series of questions about common Craft issues and practices. The answers to each question make up the second half of the book.
History: Where we’ve come from
Careful readers will notice that there’s a group of books I haven’t mentioned yet – because, for various reasons, I think they’re not good beginning reading these days. While I think it’s very important to read these works, I think they’re problematic as the first few books someone reads, because the Craft these days is somewhat different: some terms have changed, a few ways groups approach things have changed (for example, many groups have a far more structured pre-initiatory process than Gardner did). Because of this, I’d suggest having at least a solid understanding of the basics before you read these. It’ll help you put everything in perspective.
- Pretty much anything by Gerald Gardner is worth reading. Including the novel.
- Doreen Valiente, ditto – especially looking at the language she uses to describe the Craft.
- Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon is a classic title (and with some revision in a new edition). However, many of the groups she discusses are no longer as prominent, and the community has moved in different directions. Definitely read this for where some of the things we take for granted (festivals!) got started.
- Starhawk’s Spiral Dance (and her other work from the 80s and early 90s like Dreaming the Dark) also falls in here: it has a lot of great material in it (and looking at the anniversary editions with added notes is a great way to understand how someone’s path and focus changes over time.) She’s had a tremendous influence on American witchcraft, espeically in terms of how we discuss power and the assumptions we bring to ritual. However, as mentioned, I think Twelve Wild Swans is a better starting point for many people these days.
Scott Cunningham‘s work is a beginner favorite for a lot of people. However, regrettably, due to his death, many of his books give a somewhat simplistic view of the community (in the sense that we’ve gotten more complex since his death.) Because of this, I suggest other, more recent titles, first, or alternately, titles that go into more depth on specific topics. His books on herbs (get the second edition – it’s got better safety notes) and on incense are still very popular and useful resources.
Finally, a note about Silver Ravenwolf I do not recommend her books for beginners, for several reasons. First, she fails several of my critical reading of Pagan books requirements – especially the one about generalisations. (Accuracy and ethics are also issues in several of her books.) There are many books out there focused on beginner learning that don’t have these concerns.
Her tone also encourages people that the Craft is easy, or just like everyone else. This is not true of my Craft, not sure about yours. (Joyful, yes. Beautiful, yes. Complex, yes. Very hard work, also yes. Sometimes painful, yes. Requires thinking, very much yes. Easy or simple? Not so much.)
That said, the period of time when her first three books were coming out was a watershed change in Pagan publishing: understanding where we are now has to do with what happened then. Because of this, I do think it’s useful people who are looking at teaching the Craft to others to read at least a few of her books at some point: it will give you an excellent idea of what some of your prospective students will have come across (both directly from her books, and from people online who’ve read a couple of her books and put stuff on webpages.)
I find fiction to be a fascinating tool for learning more about topics. Many fantasy books – because they generally have magic as an assumption in the world – have some very interesting lessons in ethics, the use of power, the use of knowledge, or making difficult decisions: all things that can be very applicable when learning the Craft.
- Rosemary Edghill’s Bast books,collected as Bell, Book, and Murder (there are various short stories, too) focus on Bast, a 3rd degree Gardnerian priestess in New York City who gets caught up with various ethical issues and murders. They’re even more fun when you’ve been around the Pagan community for a bit: Edghill nails a number of common personality types beautifully.
- Words of the Witches, an anthology edited by Yvonne Jocks, has short stories about modern day Witches and Pagans – there are some great stories touching on many common issues (being in or out of the broom closet, dealing with religious biases, finding one’s path, and so on.)
- The M.R. Sellars series about Rowan Gant features a Wiccan priest and priestess who also get caught up in various legal cases. It’s quite a long series at this point, and I haven’t read all of them, but I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve read. (That said: events somewhat exaggerated. This is fiction, naturally.
- If you can lay hands on Katherine Kurtz‘s Lammas Night (not the anthology of the same name!), it is a theory of why the Battle for Britain may have turned out like it did : there’s an old bit of tradition that joined covens of British witches helped turn Hitler back at the channel. Regrettably out of print, but worth tracking down. (See below for more of her work.)
A little further out:
- Lois McMaster Bujold is one of my all-time favorite authors, because of how her characters approach difficult situations (of which there are many). But my favorites are her Chalion series (Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt). From a Craft point of view, the first two are a take on interacting with deity that rings true with many witches I know. (The last one is more of a shamanistic interaction, but also worthwhile.) Her fan website is easier to find info on than her MySpace.
- Diane Duane’s So You Want To Be A Wizard is a young adult series featuring magic and some serious ethical issues. The second book, Deep Wizardry has one of my favorite discussions of the issues of sacrifice and commitment to one’s goals. (But read the first book first. Really.)
- Katherine Kurtz‘s books are also excellent on an esoteric level. Her Deryni series is set in something like a medieval Wales, with some people who have energy-manipulating and healing abilities (among others), but her Adept series involves a modern ceremonial mage, and the first few books are particularly notable for the training of one of his students. Again, they’re fiction. Unusually weird things happen.
- Like many folks, I’m also a fan of Charles de Lint‘s work: he’s got a knack for combining magic and modern life in unusual and thoughtful ways. Figuring out where to start is often tricky: for purposes of this list, I suggest Jack of Kinrowan (which includes two separate novels), or the Dreams Underfoot anthology for the Newford books. This link has more on order of books, for the curious.
Why you should not assume the Fae will be nice to you
- Pamela Dean‘s Tam Lin retells the tale of the Scottish ballad on a Minnesota college campus in the late 1970s: it’s about belonging and not belonging, and about the consequences of our choices. (I’ve known Pamela socially for over five years now, but I loved the book long before I met her.)
- Emma Bull‘s War for the Oaks is another similar book, and one of the reasons I fell in love with Minnesota the first time I visited (and moved here later.) This one deals with a battle between the Seelie and Unseelie Court. Her other stuff is all excellent, too.
- Elizabeth Bear‘s Blood and Iron is yet another book in this vein – and staggeringly dense in its mingling of folklore, various traditions, and characters who are imperfect (though not always human.)
- I highly recommend A Companion to Wolves (not the animal companion novel you may be expecting), which Bear wrote with Sarah Monette. You can read more of my comments about why over on my reading blog.
- Any of the Terri Windling Fairy Tale series (she’s the editor, with many authors contributing) or the related anthologies. (Tam Lin and Jack the Giant-Killer are both in the novel series.) I also highly recommend her Wood Wife, especially if you’ve an interest in Southwestern myth and tale.