Classic Pagan books

Many people start out their reading about Paganism by reading classic Pagan titles and authors. This is, however, not something I personally suggest, and I want to explain why.

Learning: quill on a green background

It’s based on three core principles:

  • Our community learns and grows and changes over time.
  • Practical aspects change too – health, safety, adaptations.
  • Books are basically static.

It’s not that these books aren’t worth reading. I just think they aren’t the best choice anymore for the first books someone reads. I usually suggest people start reading them after reading some core basics (like the six topics suggested on my good starting books page) and otherwise getting familiar with current community practices and approaches through ongoing discussion (magazines, blogs, forums), local community events, or some combination. Read on for more to think about.

We grow and change:

How we talk about things changes over time, in several ways.

Our use of language changes over time.

This is the most basic thing. My father, who spent much of his professional life translating Greek plays and making them accessible to new audiences, had a theory that really, we need a new translation about every ten years.

It’s not that what we did ten years ago won’t make sense to us. Of course it will – language doesn’t change that fast, even in our current hyper-connected age. However, what sounds real to us, what sounds natural, does change.

You’ll get an idea what I mean if you listen to old news clips from the 1940s or 1950s: the way people speak sounds very different to us now. The pace is different, the choice of words is different.

This seems minor – but think for a minute about what might change in a ritual invocation, or in the pacing of a ritual. It’s not that old is worse and new is better – but they are sometimes different, and it’s good to be aware of that.

Pagan use of language also changes.

The language thing happens within our Pagan community conversations, too. Many of the early classic books about Wicca and religious witchcraft used the terms witch and Wiccan interchangeably. These days, most people realise that there’s more out there than Wicca, and use a much wider range of terms to get more specific about what they’re talking about.

This is a great thing – it makes it easier for people seeing initiatory Wiccan traditions to find them, and people looking for kitchen witchery to find that, and people looking for Feri to find something different from Faery. (Ok, so it can still get a little confusing, but it’s now easier to figure out where the confusion’s happening.)

The world changes. So should our examples.

The examples we pick will also be different, the ways we live (and the assumptions we make) will be different. The examples that make sense in a fairly similar society (like England in the 1950s) make much less sense in the America (or the United Kingdom, or Canada, or Australia) of 2011. 

We look at gender differently, at social roles, at how and where we spend our time. Job expectations have changed for many of us, and even the foods that it’s easy to get access to are often quite different.

People have all sorts of different things they’re trying to figure out how to solve in their actual practice of the religion: older books that don’t talk about these things may simply not be as useful a starting place.

Being the first is hard.

The first people who write about anything – no matter how good they are – are also writing in a vacuum. Because there’s nothing out there, whatever they do will be better than what there was. New stuff is a wonderful thing, and after all, someone has to go first.

But we get better at talking about stuff the more we talk about it. Someone writing now, with dozens of intro to witchcraft books out there, has to write something that stands out, that adds something new. And to get much attention, they’ve got to be at least as competent as what’s already out there.

And at the same time, the first books on the topic didn’t get a chance to benefit from the give and take of later conversation that leads to the refinement of ideas, and ways to explain the more complex bits more clearly, or offer a technique or practice that helps with a particular (but less common) need.

All of this means that newer books will often do some specific things better than the ones that came before them. Not all of them – and it doesn’t make the older ones worthless by any means. But enough better, perhaps, that the new things are a better place to start.

In short: newer sources stand on the shoulders of the classics. Understanding that foundation is still important – but when you’re starting out, starting with new information that benefits from years of ongoing conversation and discussion, from new ideas and explanations, might make more sense.

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Practical aspects change:

Perhaps the most critical: health, safety, and other important practical information doesn’t stop. We continue to learn and discover.

We learn more about risks.

Scott Cunningham’s Magical Herbalism book is a great example of this. It’s a great book on magical herbalism – but it can’t be trusted for safety information. For one thing, it was written close to 30 years ago, and in the meantime, we’ve learned more about how various herbs affect our bodies (and how they interact with things like prescription medications.)

More recent editions do have some additional review by herbalists familiar with the health, safety, and practical issues, but even then, the revisions are relatively infrequent, so it’s always important to double check the information in a very recent source.

Early books don’t offer a lot of alternatives.

They often assume that you’re living in a space you fully control, with a reasonable budget for tools and other expenses, and that you don’t have major health issues (or if you do, they fall in a fairly small range.)

More recent titles often have thoughtful ways to adapt all of these things. Sometimes it’s suggestions for an altar or working ritual space if you share a room (in college) or have small children inclined to grab items. Sometimes it’s ideas for inexpensive but lovely alternatives. Sometimes it’s ideas on what to do to accommodate a particular need – other approaches to incense, physical activity, or adaptations of other kinds.

We learn more about what things come up.

The group I trained with did very specific “This is a candle. This is how you light a candle safely. This is what you check for before you put the candle down.” (can anything blow over into it, will it tip, etc. etc.) Why do they do this? Because they’ve had enough students to see a pattern –  for various reasons, many of their students didn’t use candles regularly at home, so they weren’t thinking through all the pieces that went with safe candle use.

Patterns sometimes are very informative. And as we teach more and more people from a wider and wider range of backgrounds and experience, they bring wonderful new things to the Craft work we share – but we also need to look at what we assume about what people already know or don’t know.

We have more resources.

The resources that were out there for people 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, or 30 years ago or 50 years ago to find out about Wicca, witchcraft, and Paganism are different than the options we have today. If you rely solely on older books, you may miss some chances to connect with Pagans with similar interests. That’s not very helpful, especially with an experiential subject like religion.

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Books are basically static

Some authors do offer updates – both Starhawk and Margot Adler, for example, have done multiple updates to works they originally published in 1979.  Those can be amazingly educational to compare and see how things have changed – both for them as individuals, and for the community around them.

But at the same time, each book copy is still locked at a particular moment in time. When we choose to read a book, we need to remember when it comes from, and adapt accordingly. And if we want to dive into interacting with people in this day and age, it probably makes sense for our initial material to be recent, to help us join in the conversations people are having now, not the conversations people hashed out 10 or 20 or even 30 years ago.

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And what are these classics?

So, what titles do I consider classics – well worth reading, but not in your earliest reading? Here are a few of the titles. (In order of publication of the most notable texts)

  • Gerald Gardner
    • Witchcraft Today (1954)
    • The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959)
  • Doreen Valiente
    • An ABC of Witchcraft (1972)
    • Witchcraft for Tomorrow (1978)
  • Margot Adler
    • Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today (1979)
    • Revised in 1986, resources updated in 1997, third revised edition in 2006.
  • Starhawk
    • The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (1979)
    • Revised editions with additional notes and commentary in 1989 and 1999
  • Janet and Stewart Farrar:
    • Eight Sabbats for Witches (1981)
    • The Witches’ Way (1984)
    • (republished together as The Witches’ Bible in 1996 in the US.)
  • Raymond Buckland
    • Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft (1986), often referred to as “Big Blue”
  • Scott Cunningham
    • Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (1988)
    • Living Wicca: A Further Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (1993)
    • It’s also worth noting that his initial edition of Magical Herbalism was published in 1982.
Title card: Classic Pagan Books

Last edited December 25, 2016. Reformatted November 2020.

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