I recently saw a rather interesting post from a friend on a social networking site in which she listed her “Top 15 Most Influential Books” when it comes to witchcraft. Since I posted a book review last week (and since most book reviews going forward will likely be shared between this site and the Pagan Bookworm site), I thought that continuing that “bookish” trend might be good. So this week I will be posting about various texts which have a place North American magical traditions. Some will be of the grimoire type, and others may just be good reads, but hopefully all of them will be tomes you get much pleasure and use from if you crack the spines and turn the pages.
To start with, however, I’m going to re-use that meme and list my own Top 15 Most Influential (Witchcraft) Books. These are not necessarily books that I think of as “great,” or even in some cases “good” books. Many have erroneous information or are, at best, a good starting place for further exploration. All of them, however, have help shape my study of magic, folklore, and witchcraft in some way, and that’s what this list is really all about. I’m presenting them in a (roughly) chronological order, since that’s how I best remember them.
TOP 15 MOST INFLUENTIAL (WITCHCRAFT) BOOKS
- The Encyclopedia of White Magic by Paddy Slade. This book was the first book of “real” magic I ever procured. I’ve talked about it on the show, but the short version is that I was about 11 or so, and I pestered my mother into buying it for me. Since then, I’ve definitely grown away from its ideas, though I periodically return to it for nostalgic reasons. It also got me thinking about magic as a folklore-based thing, rather than a sci-fi/fantasy phenomenon.
- Earth Power/Earth, Air, Fire & Water by Scott Cunningham. I know there are lots of folks who regard Cunningham with disdain, but I’m not one of them. His two books of folk magic, focused on practical spellwork using natural elements, absolutely cemented my interest in spellwork as something more than an esoteric psychological tool. I still find some of his spells useful, though I’m no longer in tune with his particular worldview or ethical stance. Moreover, I think that there are far worse books with which one could begin one’s magical studies. I’ve found over the years that many folkloric sources bear out the techniques described by Cunningham, and I still regard his work fondly. There are certainly weak points in these books, but winnowing the chaff away is fairly easy with a little work.
- Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs by Scott Cunningham. I’ll not launch into another defense of the author, but instead say that this book (and to a lesser extent, his Complete Book of Incense, Oils, & Brews) augmented my practice of magic again and helped me to start making my own spell ingredients. It also helped me to cultivate an interest in gardening, for which I am most grateful. This book also has one other great thing going for it: an amazing bibliography. While it obviously pulls from sources like Culpepper’s Herbal, it also contained references to things like Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore (which is also on this list). So I am quite thankful to this book, and this author.
- Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies by Jude C. Todd. This was an impulse buy to augment my growing interest in herbs after I had eagerly devoured the Cunningham tomes. It’s not a magical book, per se, but focuses mostly on the physical properties of herbs and their applications as health and beauty aids. It provided a wonderful resource for learning how to interact with various herbs and brew potions, ointments, tinctures, etc. at home. I still turn to it sometimes for home remedies, and it also has a place because later encounters with books like J.G. Hohman’s Long Lost Friend reminded me that most magical workers had plenty of practical, non-magical herbal info at their fingertips, too. Jude’s book filled that role for me.
- Magical Tales: The Storytelling Tradition by R.J. Stewart. In my sophomore year of university, I participated in a storytelling class that changed my life. It took fairy and folktales off of the written page and showed me something deeply vital about them emerges when they are shared with others. I also happened to be taking classes in things like fairy and folklore interpretation using academic studies like Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and Mary Louise von Franz’s The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Into this mix came R.J. Stewart’s book, which looked at the phenomenon of storytelling from the point of view of a magical practitioner. I know a lot of folks were influenced by Stewart’s The Underworld Initiation, and I think that book is absolutely wonderful. As far as my own personal influence goes, though, this is the one I’d say really connected to me. It convinced me that stories contain more than just helpful magical tidbits, but sometimes are magical rituals in disguise, if you’re willing to work through them.
- Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, & Folklore by Lady Gregory & William Butler Yeats. I couldn’t have really appreciated this book prior to encountering book no. 5 on this list (and going through the courses I did at the same time). I actually had picked up this text years before because of a passing interest in Ireland which I inherited from my mother (we have family ties back to County Mayo). After I began to understand fairy tales as something more than fanciful stories, however, this book became an absolute mother lode of good magical material. I’ve since discovered many of the tales have parallels or retellings in Appalachian and Southern folklore, too, which makes me feel even closer to it.
- The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm by Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, Jack Zipes trans. I actually borrowed this specific collection from a girlfriend, and its completeness stuck with me. It included a number of tales often omitted, and several tale fragments I’ve not seen in most editions. Particular variants aside, this collection falls into the same category as nos. 5 & 6 on the list. Again, I didn’t know what I had until long after I had it, and now I don’t think I could live without it.
- The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony by Roberto Calasso. At some point, I became a bit of a mythology junkie, particularly Greek myths. I read and re-read Edith Hamilton, Bulfinch, and the textbooks from my college classes on the topic. I went to source material by Hesiod, Homer, Euripides, Aeschylus, and anyone else I could find. I’m definitely not an expert, but as enthusiastic amateurs go, I foment with glee when I encounter new Hellenic tales. When I got to Calasso’s book, however, I was taking an advanced course on mythology at school, and everything completely changed. It was this book that taught me one fundamental thing about mythology (and likewise storytelling and therefore magic): it changes. More importantly, there is no “true” or “right” version of any story, but simply the stories themselves. Mythology isn’t linear, but a web of tales—sometimes they contradict each other, sometimes they conflict with what we think about the culture, and sometimes they don’t make much sense to us. In all cases, though, the tales are true at a level not related to cross-referencing and documentation, but someplace deeply human. Calasso showed me that by bombarding me with the stories over and over again in his book, every time a little different, but all connected together, until I got it. I really do need to send him a thank-you note for that.
- Aradia, or The Gospel of the Witches, by Charles Godfrey Leland. Encountering Leland, for me, was like having someone splash very cold water on my face by the bucketful. I devoured his work Etruscan Roman Remains and his Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune-Telling, of course, with all the tenacity of a budding folklorist. It was Aradia, however, that really sent me sailing when I read it. At the time, I was studying with the outer court of a Gardenerian coven, and had to read things like Gardener, Dion Fortune, and other modern occult classics. When I got to Leland’s book, though, it felt so different, so authentic that I refused to believe its wild claims and actually got angry at it for deceiving me so well. I’ve since, however, learned that this book is something special—neither entirely true nor entirely false. More importantly, it is useful, and its mythos grips me in a very strange way. I can’t come down in favor of Aradia as a piece of unsullied witchlore, historical to its last printed letter. But I can say that figuratively, it’s as close to a witch’s gospel as I’ve seen yet. In short, it just “feels” witchy, and makes me feel the same every time I read it.
- Call of the Horned Piper by Nigel A. Jackson. As I branched out and away from Wicca, looking for something I could connect with better, I began to find a lot about something called “Traditional Witchcraft.” There were dozens of websites, letters (mostly from Robert Cochrane), and books which I suddenly had to read, and in a very brief period I managed to get through most of them. While there have been a number of very influential and powerful works in the Trad Craft vein that I love, one stands out to me. Nigel Jackson’s tome is slim, barely the width of a pencil. It’s a chapbook, really, yet it contains so much information that I can’t imagine life without it (much less because finding a copy is becoming harder and harder to do). This book is probably more responsible for my religious magical practices than any other, and encapsulates in about 150 pages what many books cannot in 300 or more.
- Ozark Magic & Folklore by Vance Randolph. This is a book that I found first by accident while seeking information on weather lore, then again by chance looking for an herbal reference. Finally, I was browsing one of Cunningham’s books and saw this title again in the bibliography, and realized I needed to seek it out. I’ve since read it many times, and it always offers up a plethora of magical information to me. Randoph’s book is not a how-to, but one could build a complete magical system out of his work. Yet it also guides one to several other magical books and traditions as well. This is the book that made me realize North America is full of occult power and lore, if I was only willing to dig for it a bit.
- Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic by Catherine Yronwode. I’ve referenced this book and the accompanying website (Lucky Mojo Co.) so much on this blog and in the show you probably don’t need me to tell you it’s been an influence. I’ll just reiterate what a valuable piece of work it is and suggest that without it, I’d probably be fairly lost when it comes to making hoodoo charms, mojos, potions, and formulae.
- The Silver Bullet by Hubert J. Davis. Following the ideas gleaned from Vance Randolph, I began looking for other folklore collections from America which might contain a few sprinklings of witchcraft. A friend suggested I look into The Silver Bullet, and it truly was a revelatory experience. In the pages of Davis’ book, the complete repertoire of the American witch dances out. The book’s segments on what witches do, how to become a witch, and what to do to counter curse read like thinly veiled instructions on American witchery taken right out of a cauldron. Like Randolph, a person could likely develop a complete magical system based on what this book contains. It is a marvelous book, and one I turn to repeatedly for witchlore.
- The Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells by Judika Illes. This is another one I constantly reference. Its real influence on me lies in the fact that I share a love of it with Laine. We both get so much out of it that it acts as a sort of magical bridge between us. The Secret Garden likewise strengthens that bond—it’s one of her favorite books and another example of magic buried in storytelling which appeals to me—but Judika’s wonderful book (books really—they’re all quite good—but I decided to go with this one as we use it the most) really is our default grimoire at this point.
- The Bible. This one is the last on my list because I’ve only been able to really understand it as a book of magic recently. I’ve known that certain metaphorical elements of the Bible have always had parallels in world mythology, but it’s only since working with things like Psalms, the Blood Verse (Ezekiel 16:6), and folk Catholic prayers that I’ve come to understand it as a sort of grimoire. Magic pervades the text, though it often must be disentangled from a lot of theology, history, folklore, etc. And while I do use the Bible as a sourcebook for magic, I also am not a monotheist, so I have to struggle with certain elements of it. This is rewarding in its own way, though, and I tend to think of the Bible as a “family” book—since most of my immediate predecessors were Christian (and mostly Catholic), my use of that magic ties me to them, even though I’m not worshiping the same deities they did, exactly. I also prefer to work with some of the deuterocanonical books, such as the Book of Wisdom found in the Catholic Bible, or the Book of Enoch which is mostly found in the Coptic or Ethiopian Orthodox Bible. But that’s just a personal preference.
So that’s my list! Long, I know, and probably way too much commentary, but maybe it will give you some insight into the places I’ve come from and the type of magical person I am. Or maybe it will give you a reason to catalogue your own influences. If you do that, I’d love to see them! Please let me know what books influenced your path, and feel free to post your lists (or a link to your blog if you do a list there) on the comments.
Thanks so much for reading!