Book of Shadows
A Book of Shadows is a book containing religious texts and instructions for magical rituals found within the Neopagan religion of Wicca. Originating within the Gardnerian tradition of the Craft, the first Book of Shadows was created by the pioneering Wiccan Gerald Gardner sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s, and which he utilised first in his Bricket Wood coven and then in other covens which he founded in following decades. The concept of the Book of Shadows was then adopted by other Wiccan traditions, such as Alexandrianism and Mohsianism, and with the rise of books teaching people how to begin following Wicca in the 1970s onward, the idea of the Book of Shadows was then further propagated amongst solitary practitioners unconnected to earlier traditions.
Initially, when Wicca was still dominated by covens, "only one copy [of the Book] existed for an entire coven, kept by the high priestess or high priest. That rule has proved unfeasible, and it is [now] commonplace for all Witches to have their own copies." In the various traditions that make up British Traditional Wicca, copies of the original Book composed by Gerald Gardner with the aid of his High Priestess Doreen Valiente, along with alterations and additions that have been made since then, is followed by adherents. They have tried to keep the contents of this Book a secret, although it has been published on a number of occasions by figures such as Charles Cardell, Lady Sheba and Janet and Stewart Farrar. In other Wiccan traditions and amongst a number of solitary practitioners, alternate versions of the Book have been written that are independent of Gardner's original.
Numerous associations and traditions have since grown up around the Book of Shadows. Traditionally, "a Witch's book of shadows is destroyed upon death." The concept of the Book of Shadows has subsequently appeared in popular culture, for instance being utilised in the American television series Charmed and providing the title of films, musical albums and comics. However, in all these cases it was taken out of its original Wiccan context.
Gerald Gardner, the "father of Wicca", first introduced the Book of Shadows to people that he had initiated into the craft through his Bricket Wood coven in the 1950s. He claimed that it was a personal cookbook of spells that have worked for the owner; they could copy from his own book and add or remove material as they saw fit. He said that the practice of Witches keeping such a book was ancient, and was practised by the Witch-cult throughout history. According to tradition, Gardner claimed, the book was burned after a person died, so that it would not be discovered that they had been a witch.
Gerald Gardner did not mention any such thing as a "Book of Shadows" in his 1949 (though written three years earlier), novel about mediaeval witchcraft, High Magic's Aid. Doreen Valiente claimed that this was because at the time, Gardner had not yet conceived of the idea, and only invented it after writing his novel.
High Priestess Doreen Valiente made the claim that Gardner found the term "Book of Shadows" from a 1949 edition (Volume I, Number 3) of a magazine known as The Occult Observer. In this edition, she claimed, was an advertisement for Gardner's novel, High Magic's Aid, which was opposite an article titled "The Book of Shadows" written by the palmist Mir Bashir. The article in question was about an allegedly ancient Sanskrit divination manual which explained how to foretell things based upon the length of a person's shadow. Valiente theorised that Gardner then adopted this term for his Witches' grimoire. She maintained that "It was a good name, and it is a good name still, wherever Gardner found it".
A leather bound manuscript written in Gardner's handwriting that was titled Ye Bok of Ye Art Magical was later found amongst his papers from the Museum after his death by Aidan Kelly and was later obtained by Richard and Tamarra James of the Wiccan Church of Canada. It appeared to be a first draft of Gardner's Book of Shadows, and featured sections based upon the rituals of the Ordo Templi Orientis which had been devised by the occultist Aleister Crowley. Gardner had gained access to these rituals in 1946, when he had purchased a charter from Crowley giving him permission to perform the OTO rituals.
Some people have taken this as evidence that Gardner invented the idea of a Witches' Grimoire, perhaps sometime between 1946 (when he finished his novel High Magic's Aid), and 1949, and had named it Ye Bok of Ye Art Magical. In 1949, he had renamed it to the Book of Shadows, and soon began to make use of it with his Bricket Wood Coven.
In 1953, Doreen Valiente joined Gardner's Bricket Wood coven, and soon rose to become its High Priestess. She noticed how much of the material in his Book of Shadows was taken not from ancient sources as Gardner had initially claimed, but from the works of the occultist Aleister Crowley, from Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, from the Key of Solomon and also from the rituals of Freemasonry. She confronted Gardner with this, who admitted that the text he had received from the New Forest coven had been fragmentary and he had had to fill much of it using various sources. He also stated that "well, if you think you can do any better, go ahead", and Valiente thought that she could, later stating that:
I accepted the challenge and set out to rewrite the Book of Shadows, cutting out the Crowleyanity as much as I could and trying to bring it back to what I felt was, if not so elaborate as Crowley's phraseology, at least our own and in our own words.
Valiente rewrote much of it, cutting out a lot of sections that had come from Crowley (whose negative reputation she feared), though retaining parts that originated with Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, which she felt was genuine witchcraft practice. Valiente dramatically rewrote sections such as the Charge of the Goddess and also wrote several poems for the book, such as The Witches Rune. She also helped to create a poem to include the Wiccan Rede within it.
Valiente also noticed that a chant in one ritual in the book was based upon the poem "A Tree Song" from Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling, which she had enjoyed as a child. The chant in question stated that:
- Oh, do not tell the priest our plight,
- Or he would call it sin;
- But - we have been in the woods all night,
- A-conjuring summer in !
- And we bring you news by word of mouth -
- Good news for cattle and corn -
- Now is the Sun come up from the South,
- With Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!
(These eight lines are exactly the final stanza of "A Tree Song".)
This version of the ritual, written by both Gardner and Valiente, but containing sections adopted from various sources, such as Aleister Crowley, Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, and even Rudyard Kipling, went on to become the traditional text for Gardnerian Wicca.
In British Traditional Wicca
Although his own book had been put together with the help of Doreen Valiente and included material from a variety of modern sources, (notably from Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches and the writings of Aleister Crowley) it also included sections written in an antique (or mock-antique) style, including advice for witches brought to trial and tortured. Gardner claimed that these sections were genuinely historical in origin, and that witches had not been allowed to write anything down until recently, to avoid incrimination; when at last Books of Shadows were allowed, the rituals and spells had to be written in a jumbled manner to prevent any non-initiate from using them. More recent scholars however have doubted their authenticity.
It seems likely that Gardner told his three subsequent initiatory lines that the book should be copied word for word, and Wiccans descended from Eleanor Bone, Patricia Crowther and Monique Wilson have widely believed that the book was of ancient provenance. North American Gardnerians of the Long Island line allow covens to add rituals and teachings to the book, but nothing may be removed.
There sometimes exists two Books of Shadows kept by more traditional Wiccans, one being a coven book of core rituals and practises which remains unchanged and from which new initiates copy, and the second, intended for personal use, which differs from witch to witch and contains magical material collected by the initiate, such as astrology, herbal lore, and information regarding divination.
After Gardner's death, his rival, Charles Cardell, published much of the material from the Gardnerian Book of Shadows. In the 1970s, the Alexandrians Janet Farrar and Stewart Farrar decided, with the consent of Doreen Valiente, that much of the Gardnerian book should be published in its true form. Much of it was published by the Farrars in their 1984 book The Witches' Way.
In Eclectic Wicca
In non-traditional or "eclectic" forms of Wiccan or Neo-pagan practice, the term Book of Shadows is more often used to describe a personal journal, rather than a traditional text. This journal records rituals, spells, and their results, as well as other magical information. This can be either an individual or coven text, and is not normally passed from teacher to student. In many cases, this kind of Book of Shadows is an electronic document (disk or website) instead of a hand-written one. Some reserve the Book of Shadows for recording spells and keep a separate book, sometimes called the Book of Mirrors to contain thoughts, feelings and experiences.
Not all traditions of Wicca utilize the term "Book of Shadows". In Seax Wica, a tradition founded by Raymond Buckland, the Book of Shadows is called "The Tree", and in Devotional Wicca, the book is titled "The Book of Ways"; many traditions refer to their Books of Shadows as simply "The Book".
In popular culture
The television fantasy series Charmed features a fictional Book of Shadows which contains spells and arcane law, and has a supernatural ability to defend itself from harm. In the 1996 film The Craft, which some critics saw as a major influence on the series Charmed, the Book of Shadows was referred to as an object in which a witch keeps her "power thoughts".
The 2000 sequel to The Blair Witch Project was titled Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and featured a Wiccan character, despite there being no mention of a Book of Shadows during the film. The title was seen as an attempt to capitalise on the Charmed series' established market.
In the 2011 CW Series The Secret Circle, each family is shown to have their own Book of Shadows, with each book containing unique spells. As the book is passed down from generation to generation, each generation appears to write their own spells or notes, as indicated by Cassie's recognition of her mother's handwriting in her own family's Book of Shadows.
An episode of the television series First Wave featured a Wiccan with a Book of Shadows that contained the secret to identifying the alien infiltrators which were the central antagonistic force of the show.
In the indie videogame The Binding of Isaac, the Book of Shadows is an obtainable item which can be activated to provide temporary invincibility.
The Japanese horror adventure game Corpse Party: Book of Shadows deals with the eponymous book during its final chapter, in which it's revealed to be an actual Book of Shadows very much in keeping with the description in this article (albeit in the game, there is only one Book of Shadows that exists, containing a complete chronicle of all spells that exist in the entire world, be they Wiccan or not).
- Guiley 2008. p. 35.
- Guiley 2008. p. 36.
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- Crafting the Art of Magic: Book I, Aidan Kelly, page xvii, Llewellyn Publications, 1991
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- The Rebirth of Witchcraft, Doreen Valiente, page 54
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