My Essential Pagan Reading

My piece on Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft opened with some comments on the Huffington Post Essential Pagan Reading list. That prompted Peg Aloi over at the Witching Hour to ask me for my essential Pagan Reading List. I’m always wary of lists like this. You’ll never please everyone, and even if you try some old crank like myself will complain that you overdid it. (Which was essentially my problem with the HuffPo list since it contained 29 books.)

I’ve divided my list up into three parts. Part one are “over-view books” which contain information that most of us would feel is “essential” to Modern Paganism. I’m well aware that not all Pagans are Wiccans, but my list is heavily slanted that way since Eclectic Wicca is the predominant form of Modern Paganism. I’m also a practicing Wiccan, and I’ll admit to having a bias. Even people who don’t like the terms “Witch” and “Wiccan” have been influenced by it. This part of the list does contain a book discussing nearly every Modern Pagan tradition, so I’m not totally ignoring other traditions (or saying they are less important, because they aren’t).

The second part of my list is a bit more advanced, and could probably be looked at as my five “less essential” books. While Triumph of the Moon remains an important book, I honestly don’t expect everyone out there in Pagandom to read it. My wife, who is extremely intelligent, just doesn’t have it in her to read history books published by Oxford Press. I suspect she’s not alone; academic type reading is not for everyone, nor should it be, so consider the second five books to be for those who really love reading.

The third part of the list consists of classics from mostly long ago pagan days. We still build most of our rituals around ancient mythology, so what’s wrong with reading some? I think a good working knowledge of the gods is an important thing, whether or not you even believe in them. Just like part two of my list, not everyone is going to have the patience to slog through all of Bullfinch. However if you are someone who writes a lot of rituals or feels a particular affinity towards the Greek/Roman Gods it’s certainly something you should read.

All the links on this list will take you to Goodreads. I debated using Amazon, but if you can, you should probably support your local occult/Pagan/New Age Bookstore. Please leave some feedback on the list, you never know who might benefit from your book recommendations. Also, since i try to keep my posts here under 2000 words I didn’t get into why some books didn’t make the list. If you are curious about my choices I’ll do my best to give you some insight into my thinking.

ESSENTIAL READING PART ONE

The Spiral Dance by Starhawk. The type of Witchcraft written about by Starhawk is not what I practice, but this book has influenced so much of Pagandom that it’s impossible to ignore. Starhawk changed the game, infusing Modern Witchcraft with social activism and a deep feminist bent. Starhawk is also one of the most talented writers to ever pen a “how to” book.

Wicca: A Guide For the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham. Most of us probably start out as solitaries, or at least do solitary work at home, as a result Wicca has become an essential text. I know, two books in and it’s all Witchcraft so far, but an essential reading list should be about books that are actually available at Barnes and Noble or your local used bookstore. I re-read Wicca a few months ago and I’m not sure it’s aged well (especially the rituals), but it remains an excellent starting point.

Being a Pagan: Druids, Wiccans, and Witches Today by Ellen Evert Hopman and Lawrence Bond (alternate title People of the Earth). In my mind, BaP is the most interesting overview of the various modern traditions that most of us think of as “Pagan.” About the only unfortunate thing about this book is that it’s destined to wind up as a “snap-shot in time.” In twenty years much of it will read like ancient history, but in 2012 it still provides the best overview of a variety of Pagan practices. This is also my attempt to acknowledge Asatru, Druidry, and more in this list.

The Witches’ Goddess by Janet and Stewart Farrar. TWG is full of goddess lore, rituals, and history. It’s not perfect, but for a perfectly acceptable look at The Lady in all of Her forms it’s hard to beat. I don’t think we read enough about what we worship. Ritual instruction is fine, but who exactly are we lighting those candles for?

The Witches’ God by Janet and Stewart Farrar. Obviously this is a companion piece to The Witches’ Goddess, and it doesn’t disappoint. Very few books talk about The God in all of his myriad forms, so to find a book that does talk about Him and does so intelligently and eloquently makes it one of my essentials.

FIVE POSSIBLY LESS ESSENTIAL, BUT STILL VERY IMPORTANT, BOOKS

Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton. Triumph stirs strong feelings in the Pagan Community. There are many who praise Hutton’s rigorous academic approach towards shedding light on our origins, and there are just as many folks who have serious reservations and disagreements with it. No matter where one stands on Triumph it remains essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the origins of Modern Paganism.

Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival by Philip Heselton. No book makes a better argument for Gerald Gardner being initiated into a coven of Witches in 1939. I’m not sure Heselton “proves” anything in Wiccan Roots, but he does open a door of possibility, and he opens it very wide indeed. This and Triumph (along with Doreen Valiente’s Rebirth of Witchcraft) are among the best books written on the origins of Modern Paganism.

A Witches’ Bible by Janet and Stewart Farrar. I really didn’t mean to make this a list about Janet and Stewart Farrar, but I just couldn’t help myself. What I love most about this book are how serious the rituals are. There’s real meat (or tofu) in this book, something that’s often lacking in other “how to” volumes. When I’m writing an open ritual and looking for inspiration, this is the book I turn to. It’s probably a little heavy and a little too British for a lot of folks, but the ideas in it are pretty adaptable to any situation.

Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches by Charles Godfrey Leyland. (Since Aradia is in the public domain there are several different editions of it. My favorite is the revised edition by Mario Pazzaglini which contains extra information.) Aradia contains the legends, mythos, and folk magick of an alleged group of Italian Witches. Aradia has a hold on the occult community since it was first published in 1899, and many of the things Modern Witches do come directly from its pages. It’s not always a comfortable read, but it remains an important one.

Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism by Issac Bonewits. Hey, I’m getting away from my Wiccan bias! It’s hard to be a Modern Pagan and not have some interest in Druids or Druidry. Even if you have no interest in Druids, as a topic of conversation within Pagandom it’s almost impossible to escape. Bonewits writes about both ancient and modern Druids, and does so while using actual facts (something a lot of “Druid Writers” have trouble with).

MYTHOLOGIES AND/OR OLDER AND CRUSTIER BOOKS THAT MIGHT NOT BE ALL THAT FUN TO READ, BUT STILL REMAIN ESSENTIAL

Bullfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bullfinch. When I was in junior high I read the “three volume” version containing the Ages of Fable (Mostly Greek/Roman Mythology) and Chivalry (King Arthur), along with the Legends of Charlemagne. That’s still the version I suggest, but the Age of Fable portion is probably the most important for our purposes, and remains the most well known. The Age of Fable also contains some Hindu, Celtic, Egyptian, and Norse myths, though those collections are far from complete. Bullfinch’s retellings can be a bit bland, but they remain the most well known versions of many of our most cherished myths.

Penguin Book of Norse Myths: Gods of the Vikings by Kevin Crossley-Holland. There are several books of Norse myth available, this is a pretty basic one recommended to those whose understanding of Norse Mythology comes from the movie Thor. I’d be wary of picking up a bargain book on Norse Myth, much higher likelihood of mistakes and/or inaccurate information. In other words, make sure you pick up a collection from a reputable publisher.

The Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest (and others, there have been many translations over the years). I’ll admit to not being a big fan of the Mabinogion. Out of all the mythology listed in this section it’s the one I find the most dull (and I’ll use this opportunity to fess up to my Hellenism), but “Celtic” (or Welsh in this case) ideas and mythology infuse a lot of Modern Paganism. Because of that, it’s something people should be familiar with.

The Witch Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Murray. Since Murray has been discredited by most modern scholars, this book is kind of like mythology, so it’s inclusion in this section of my list makes perfect sense. Even though I think Witch Cult is largely false, it’s still an essential Pagan building block. There are many Pagans today who still buy the Murray Thesis (that those who were executed during the Renaissance/Middle Ages were practicing an organized “Witch Religion”), I’m not one of those folks, but I understand why the idea is so appealing and so many people hold onto it.

The White Goddess by Robert Graves. To me, The White Goddess is prose poetry. It’s a stunning collection of re-imagined mythology and lore that has had a strong impact on Modern Paganism. Graves was not an historian so some of what he writes about has to be taken with a large grain of salt, but that doesn’t detract from the power of the writing or the influence it has had on many of us.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bernadette.montana Bernadette Montana

    A most excellent list of books Jason!

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Okay, I know I’m speaking from my own bias here, but…Lady Guest’s version? Really?!? The one that is bowdlerized, watered-down, and which removes a good bit of sex and violence that she thought unsuitable to a civilized audience? No wonder you find it boring!
    Patrick Ford’s translation of The Mabinogi (and, note, his rendering is the correct one–Guest’s is based on a poor single attestation in one manuscript) is much preferable, and exciting, and a cracking good read, especially when read aloud amongst friends. (We read Culhwch ac Olwen from his translation aloud in an all-night Samain vigil a few years back, and there was so much roaring laughter that it took a lot longer to read than we expected!)

    • JasonMankey

      I had to be honest while putting together this list and stick to what I’ve read and what was actually in my library. The version of the Mabinogion I own is the Guest version, oh the shame! There’s a whole host of problems with Guest’s “scholarship” and I realize her version is not ideal, but it’s also probably the most well known (and read) version, making it note worthy for that reason alone. I’ll have to check out the Ford translation this Spring when I have time to read for pleasure again.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Ford is definitely worth checking out when you have a few moments…
        As far as Lady Guest goes, though, I don’t know that something being well known and commonly read constitutes noteworthiness. By that logic, a reading list on gnosticism should include The Da Vinci Code…!?!
        But, as you said, it is your list, and you were honest, and there’s certainly a great deal to be said for that! ;) (Alas, though, that honesty is now noteworthy rather than common…)

        • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

          Oh, and as far as other translations go: Sioned Davies’ (published by Oxford) is the most recent, and is pretty good, too. She does include almost all the tales that Guest did, whereas Ford does not, and instead sticks with the traditional Four Branches, plus Culhwch ac Olwen, Lludd a Llewellys, the earliest version of Taliesin’s birth-tale (one of Ford’s specialties), and a translation of the poem “Cad Goddeu,” better known via Robert Graves as “The Battle of the Trees.” The translation that Welsh people and scholars have preferred, though, is that of Gwyn and Thomas Jones, which is from the Everyman library, and often available rather inexpensively. It’s a no-nonsense, pretty literal translation. Ford’s is entirely accurate, but has more of a drmatic flair; American Celticists tend to prefer it over the others.

          • WhiteBirch

            The advantage of Lady Guest’s version is that you can get it as an ebook free because it’s public domain now. Sadly, this armchair scholar can’t afford anything else right now. But Ford’s is on my “to buy when next employed” list.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Davies is the translation I have.

            The Jones translation sounds good – I prefer the more literal translations over the more ‘dramatic’ interpretations simply because they are as close to the source material as I can get without learning the source language.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I must confess, I find it odd that you admit to a Wicca bias, yet include nothing by Gardner himself.

    Beyond that, I still don’t get why the Eddas are not featured on these lists. Enough people claim to follow the gods of the Germanic tribes that you’d think they’d want to read the best source material on the subject.

    I would say that the Eddas, along with the Mabinogi(on), are probably the best sources of information about the Western European gods we have in written form. (Not huge on the Hellenic or Eastern pantheons, so am unsure what to suggest for these.)

    I like the distinct sublists. The distinction between the practice of any modern Pagan path and the source mythology is important.

    • JasonMankey

      I’ll confess to not being a huge fan of Gardner’s books, I also don’t think they aren’t particularly well written. A lot of the material in his books does show up in “Wiccan Roots” and “Triumph” so it’s not like I’m ignoring him. Heck, Wiccan Roots is all about Gardner and a much better read than either of his books. If I had to choose a Gardner book it would probably be “High Magic’s Aid” over the two “non-fiction” ones.

      The Eddas are a good choice, I just tried to keep the list small.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        That’s fair. Just seems a little odd to leave out the man who invented Wicca from a ‘Wicca-biased’ book list.

        Of course, it is a lot easier for me to criticise a book list than to make my own.

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      I love Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi dearly, but I don’t know if I’d go that far, especially considering the evidence for most of its characters being gods is near-negligible or specious at best. Cath Maige Tuired is far better in terms of the range and number of Irish deities that it gives, and deities who we know pretty certainly were deities, too…

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Unless reading them in the original Klingon, I find that such source material has to be judged by its translations. The more well known writings will have more translations, and we all know that multiple translations are better than only one. (I need to work on my collection, I must admit.)

    • http://twitter.com/lofrothepirate Eric Scott

      Crossley-Holland’s Norse Myths also includes most of the content of the Eddas in a form that is much, much more accessible to a newcomer to the Norse myths. To a confirmed Heathen, sure, the Eddas are preferred, but to someone who is just exploring the mythology, Crossley-Holland is great. (I may be biased, since that is the exact path I took en route to Heathenry.)

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I’m not a Heathen. I just think that the closer to source, the better. That said, my interest is largely historical, which would explain my bias.

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    I would also highly recommend, “The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries,” too!

  • Aurifex

    It’s kind of ironic that you list “The Witches Bible” as an essential read. After I read it, I walked away from wicca for several years and only came back to paganism after finding a different pagan path to follow.

    • JasonMankey

      I did put it in my “5 less essential books . . . . . . . . .”

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I’d say that makes it pretty important to you.


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