Book Review: Christian Day’s The Witches’ Book of the Dead

I don’t generally bother to review books I don’t think I’ll care for, especially with a stack of books I actually want to read waiting on me. Not being Christian Day’s biggest fan, I was reluctant to read The Witches’ Book of the Dead but I was intrigued by some of the reviews as much as I was repelled by others. So I read it, and here’s my opinion of it. Make of it what you will.

The Good

Overall, the book is good. Day has compiled an impressive amount of lore regarding necromancy and spirit communication throughout history. I found the stories and lore fascinating, and much of it was an enlightening, entertaining read. The book is worth a read for that reason alone.

Right off the bat he introduces the concept of blood magic/blood sacrifice, and throughout the book he emphasizes safe, reasonable ways to practice this. The use of human bodily fluids, especially blood, is very old and very effective in magic. This may be the best presentation I have seen of that in a book.

Day’s explanation of the use of human bones in necromancy was quite interesting and I appreciated him giving advice for obtaining the bones ethically. I’d been considering acquiring a skull, and after reading this book I’m more likely to purchase one though one of the sites that legally and ethically deal in such things.

Day does a good job of emphasizing that necromancy, like any magical work, can drain you, and therefore you should be in the best physical shape possible when attempting it. Day also emphasizes that working with the dead is a reciprocal relationship, and that dabbling is dangerous. He warns of attracting malevolent spirits or simply mischevious spiritual “gawkers,” and I’ve personally found the latter far more common than the former. Day cautions us to examine ourselves for reading too much into phenomena and encourages a healthy skepticism.

Day also, eventually, makes it clear that the dead are not to be ordered about and have a will of their own. Like cats, they do not come when called, and aren’t likely to be useful in areas outside their expertise or inclination.

I was also glad to see Day say that cursing or hexing in the name of justice is the provenance of Witches. I’m of the opinion that a Witch who cannot hex cannot heal, although a Witch should seldom find occasion for it.

The Irritating

Although I do think it’s a generally good and useful book, there were bits that irritated me. Maybe I’m nitpicking, maybe my general distaste for Day’s way of expressing himself is coloring my opinion. You’ll have to make up your own mind.

My chief complaint, and maybe this is a bit silly, is that the book contains a bit too much of Christian Day’s strange way of communicating. Hardly surprising, after all this is a book he wrote, but strange leaps of logic and obvious contradictions annoy me.

For the first half of the book Day paints a picture of the Witch as tyrant, ordering about the dead like hapless hounds in dark rituals and having them come obediently when called to lap up the food with which you bait them. Then, after pages talking about commanding the dead, he offers a sort of self-blessing or self-initiation in which the ritualist claims the living and dead hear their commands AND consider the ritualist their equal. Halfway through the book the tone changes into what is essentially respectful ancestor worship and ideas for communicating with the beloved dead. It’s fine and well to speak as if you were unfettered by morality and responsibility, working without rules, but when it’s followed up by chapters on responsibility and reciprocity, it can come off as disingenuous posturing.

Day makes a point of repeatedly describing Witches/necromancers as ragged, grisly and unkempt, yet places a lot of emphasis on appearance and particularly showering, which he apparently thinks is lacking in modern culture. Day is known for believing Pagans are dirty, unwashed and trashy, so it’s hard not read offense into this when simple instruction on ritual purification and cleansing would have done the trick. He also states his opinion that the spirits hate “boring people” and will only be interested in speaking to you if you let your freak flag fly, and then goes on to say he often advises people on how to make their altar to the dead blend in unobtrusively with their home decor. Combined with a “Bling is King”-style section on Witchy accessorizing, I was irritated.

He’s completely dismissive of Wicca and Witchcraft that can brush elbows with other religions, and takes a pretty simplistic and dismissive view of them. He’s edgy, everyone else is sanitized and impotent, and “real Witches” are few and live somewhat isolated on the fringe of society.  I have very little use for such “Hipster Paganism.” While I agree with him that Witches should pay attention to their dead, I’m a bit peeved he was dismissive of people who worship “mythological deities,” as if that was far less important than ancestor worship. He also speaks of non-Witches dismissively as “the mundane.” Mundane as a term for material reality is understandable, but when used to refer to people it smacks of elitism.

While I’m familiar with attempts to cast Jesus as a Witch, dragging the Buddha into that conversation stuck me as odd. I also have an issue with the idea that you can work entirely outside of Christian cosmology and theology and yet use the saints and the archangel Michael as tools. That jars when placed alongside the sections on respect and reciprocity regarding the dead.

He claims the dead feed off our energy (aka the Witches Teat), and then later suggests the idea that the dead leech life from the living is merely anti-necromantic propaganda. There’s also some idea of a Pagan conspiracy against Witchcraft and necromancy that pre-dates Christianity. While there are certainly ancient prohibitions against malevolent magic, I can’t help but feel this is speculation fed by Day’s own disdain for modern Paganism. And I’d be curious what P. Sufenas Virius Lupus has to say regarding the idea theat Hadrian sacrificed Antinous for the purpose of necromancy.

Also, the book is written so that those with very little knowledge in these matters can get a good, practical grounding, yet occasionally concepts are referenced without definition or explanation. Vibratory levels of energy aren’t something you can reference and then walk away from if you’re writing a beginner’s book. Also, from my understanding of the Craft, some of his instructions are ineffective, if not useless, if you’re left-handed. Also, at one point I think he references reincarnation but never follows up on it. His insight on that would have been interesting, including his insight on phenomena such as Jimahl di Fiosa’s claim of contacting Alex Sander’s spirit after he had reincarnated.

I dislike commercials on television, but despise them in books. I could have done with a bit less self-promotion and name-dropping.

Verdict

This is a good book. It’s pretty solid and a good resource if you’re interested in ancestor veneration or communicating with the dead or spirits. Like many Pagan books, it needs to be read with a critical eye. Since it does contain a few obvious typos, I think a good editor could have turned this from a good book into a great book. All-in-all, I liked the book. I’m still not a fan of Christian Day’s, but after reading this book I can see his value and why he has gained a following. He’s got a lot of good insight and a good bit of wisdom to share behind the sometimes obnoxious persona he presents.

If you’re a Christian Day fan you will love this book absolutely. If you’re not but still curious enough to read it, you might find a glimmer of something admirable in him, even if it doesn’t make you a fan.

As usual, if you want to buy the book be sure to support the publisher by buying directly from Weiser Books.

*This book was provided for the purpose of review and that has not influenced my review. If it had sucked, I would have said so.

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

    “For the first half of the book Day paints a picture of the Witch as tyrant, ordering about the dead like hapless hounds in dark rituals and having them come obediently when called to lap up the food with which you bait them.”

    I haven’t actually read the book, I’ve just read through some reviews on Amazon and used their feature that let’s you look through some of the book and I got the same impression as you describe above. The idea is appaling to me since, from the perspective of Finnish Paganism, honoring and respecting the ancestors is incredibly important.

    “I’m a bit peeved he was dismissive of people who worship “mythological deities,” as if that was far less important than ancestor worship.”

    I definitely don’t agree with the first part of that statement’s implication that such deities don’t exist, the second part, though, is actually a common point of view among Finnish Pagans (myself included). I have an ancestral shrine in my house, but none for any deities (if I felt compelled to honor a deity and give offerings to them I would go somewhere outside, say to some woods if I were honoring Tapio, the god of forests or to the sea to honor Ahto). I’ve even read that from the Finnish perspective the ancestors collectively have more power than most Gods. My ancestral shrine is enormously important to me regular spiritual life, and I regularly leave offerings there, the next most important would be to honor the haltijat, spirits of the land. I guess in suomenusko (Finnish paganism) it’s more important to spend time honoring those two groups because they have more impact and presence in your everyday life, while the Gods have bigger concerns.

  • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

    “For the first half of the book Day paints a picture of the Witch as tyrant, ordering about the dead like hapless hounds in dark rituals and having them come obediently when called to lap up the food with which you bait them.”

    I haven’t actually read the book, I’ve just read through some reviews on Amazon and used their feature that let’s you look through some of the book and I got the same impression as you describe above. The idea is appaling to me since, from the perspective of Finnish Paganism, honoring and respecting the ancestors is incredibly important.

    “I’m a bit peeved he was dismissive of people who worship “mythological deities,” as if that was far less important than ancestor worship.”

    I definitely don’t agree with the first part of that statement’s implication that such deities don’t exist, the second part, though, is actually a common point of view among Finnish Pagans (myself included). I have an ancestral shrine in my house, but none for any deities (if I felt compelled to honor a deity and give offerings to them I would go somewhere outside, say to some woods if I were honoring Tapio, the god of forests or to the sea to honor Ahto). I’ve even read that from the Finnish perspective the ancestors collectively have more power than most Gods. My ancestral shrine is enormously important to me regular spiritual life, and I regularly leave offerings there, the next most important would be to honor the haltijat, spirits of the land. I guess in suomenusko (Finnish paganism) it’s more important to spend time honoring those two groups because they have more impact and presence in your everyday life, while the Gods have bigger concerns.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Well, thanks for asking, Star!  ;)

    I know where he got that idea:  Daniel Ogden, who mentions it in Greek and Roman Necromancy, Night’s Black Agents, and at least one other book.  I like Ogden’s scholarship, he’s quite solid on pretty much everything he discusses; but, I find that particular bit of his work speculative and “gutter-press”-ish, as it relies on the statements of a few ancient historians who pretty much looked at everything with an eye for the potentially lurid and scandalous.  I think this idea paints anyone with an interest in magic, astrology, or religion in the ancient world–like Hadrian, who was heavily into all of those things–as someone who is inherently odd, and even immoral, if they can imagine that he’d just up and decide one day to essentially murder his boyfriend in the name of sacrifice so that he can have his own personal nekromanteion with a daimon that used to be someone he knew.  But, this kind of treatment of the Hadrian and Antinous story is pretty common from scholars, and from people who are dismissive of “superstition,” and from people who don’t think it is possible to have humans undergo apotheosis (which includes a lot of modern Pagans, actually, including some recons, who think this despite the existence of hero cultus on a widespread level in the ancient world), and also from homophobes.

    The idea that Hadrian “made” Antinous into a god is also an extremely common mistake that even some Antinous-fans make.  No, Egyptian custom made him a god, independent of who his boyfriend happened to be; Hadrian just heavily patronized the resulting cultus, founded a city in his honor, and helped it to spread throughout the Empire.  However, the misperception that Hadrian did decide to make Antinous into a god makes for great straw-man arguments for those who are skeptical about the cultus for any number of other reasons.

    Anyway, that’s my take on it–I don’t think Christian Day came up with the idea himself, not because he isn’t creative or well-informed, but because I know this argument well, and know where it comes from.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Well, thanks for asking, Star!  ;)

    I know where he got that idea:  Daniel Ogden, who mentions it in Greek and Roman Necromancy, Night’s Black Agents, and at least one other book.  I like Ogden’s scholarship, he’s quite solid on pretty much everything he discusses; but, I find that particular bit of his work speculative and “gutter-press”-ish, as it relies on the statements of a few ancient historians who pretty much looked at everything with an eye for the potentially lurid and scandalous.  I think this idea paints anyone with an interest in magic, astrology, or religion in the ancient world–like Hadrian, who was heavily into all of those things–as someone who is inherently odd, and even immoral, if they can imagine that he’d just up and decide one day to essentially murder his boyfriend in the name of sacrifice so that he can have his own personal nekromanteion with a daimon that used to be someone he knew.  But, this kind of treatment of the Hadrian and Antinous story is pretty common from scholars, and from people who are dismissive of “superstition,” and from people who don’t think it is possible to have humans undergo apotheosis (which includes a lot of modern Pagans, actually, including some recons, who think this despite the existence of hero cultus on a widespread level in the ancient world), and also from homophobes.

    The idea that Hadrian “made” Antinous into a god is also an extremely common mistake that even some Antinous-fans make.  No, Egyptian custom made him a god, independent of who his boyfriend happened to be; Hadrian just heavily patronized the resulting cultus, founded a city in his honor, and helped it to spread throughout the Empire.  However, the misperception that Hadrian did decide to make Antinous into a god makes for great straw-man arguments for those who are skeptical about the cultus for any number of other reasons.

    Anyway, that’s my take on it–I don’t think Christian Day came up with the idea himself, not because he isn’t creative or well-informed, but because I know this argument well, and know where it comes from.

  • George Gardiner

    Hello. As the author of a recent novel on the Hadrian/Antinous relationship who aimed to encompass the most plausible views from ancient writers in the book’s fictional plot, I felt obliged to be reasonably true to those sources. However, they are scant, often much later, sometimes highly prejudicial in their reports being Christian, or possibly bogus or forgeries. 

    The two closest sources are Cassius Dio, who was born about 25 years after Antinous’ death, plus the ‘HISTORIA AUGUSTA’, a late 4thCent work of uncertain provenance, which probably derives from 250 years after the events it describes.

    Very briefly, on the issue of whether Antinous was ‘sacrificed’ in some way by Hadrian, both these sources are actually unclear. Cassius Dio’s ROMAN HISTORY (Book 69, Epitome, 11.2) writing about 50 years later says Antinous “had died in Egypt, either by falling into the Nile, as Hadrian writes, or, as the truth is, by being offered in sacrifice”. But then he soon adds how Hadrian after the death “honored Antinous .. because of his love for him”. Scholars have questioned the original translator’s term for ‘sacrifice’ as a misread.

    The HISTORIA AUGUSTA (Hadrian 14.6-8) says “during a journey on the Nile he lost Antinous, his favorite, and for this youth he wept like a woman”. It then adds “some claim that he had devoted himself to death for Hadrian.”

    As an author keen to find ways to incorporate these historical reports in my fictive storyline was guided by the way both sources closest to the events in Egypt in 130CE highlighted Hadrian’s affection for Antinous. One proclaims Hadrian’s love for Antinous, the other tells us of Hadrian’s weeping for his deceased favorite. Both lead me to believe Hadrian is therefore unlikely to have commanded or instructed Antinous to self-sacrifice (though Antinous’s view of the matter may differ). My novel therefore takes an entirely fictional resolution to the matter which embraces most of the options.

    George Gardiner
    Author “THE HADRIAN ENIGMA: A Forbidden History”
     

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      Although, George, one must also account for the fact that the section of Cassius Dio in question, as the work survives, was not written by him, but was a later Christian epitome made by Xyphilinus in the 11th century (if I am not mistaken), and so we really don’t know how “close” what survives there actually matches Dio’s original writing.

  • George Gardiner

    Hello. As the author of a recent novel on the Hadrian/Antinous relationship who aimed to encompass the most plausible views from ancient writers in the book’s fictional plot, I felt obliged to be reasonably true to those sources. However, they are scant, often much later, sometimes highly prejudicial in their reports being Christian, or possibly bogus or forgeries. 

    The two closest sources are Cassius Dio, who was born about 25 years after Antinous’ death, plus the ‘HISTORIA AUGUSTA’, a late 4thCent work of uncertain provenance, which probably derives from 250 years after the events it describes.

    Very briefly, on the issue of whether Antinous was ‘sacrificed’ in some way by Hadrian, both these sources are actually unclear. Cassius Dio’s ROMAN HISTORY (Book 69, Epitome, 11.2) writing about 50 years later says Antinous “had died in Egypt, either by falling into the Nile, as Hadrian writes, or, as the truth is, by being offered in sacrifice”. But then he soon adds how Hadrian after the death “honored Antinous .. because of his love for him”. Scholars have questioned the original translator’s term for ‘sacrifice’ as a misread.

    The HISTORIA AUGUSTA (Hadrian 14.6-8) says “during a journey on the Nile he lost Antinous, his favorite, and for this youth he wept like a woman”. It then adds “some claim that he had devoted himself to death for Hadrian.”

    As an author keen to find ways to incorporate these historical reports in my fictive storyline was guided by the way both sources closest to the events in Egypt in 130CE highlighted Hadrian’s affection for Antinous. One proclaims Hadrian’s love for Antinous, the other tells us of Hadrian’s weeping for his deceased favorite. Both lead me to believe Hadrian is therefore unlikely to have commanded or instructed Antinous to self-sacrifice (though Antinous’s view of the matter may differ). My novel therefore takes an entirely fictional resolution to the matter which embraces most of the options.

    George Gardiner
    Author “THE HADRIAN ENIGMA: A Forbidden History”
     

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      Although, George, one must also account for the fact that the section of Cassius Dio in question, as the work survives, was not written by him, but was a later Christian epitome made by Xyphilinus in the 11th century (if I am not mistaken), and so we really don’t know how “close” what survives there actually matches Dio’s original writing.

  • Anonymous

    A good many of us keep ancestor shrines and honor our Beloved Dead.  I love the Dia de los Muertes celebrations that happen at the same time of year as Samhain. Adding in the autumn colors, the harvest festivities, the outdoor music festivals taking advantage of the balmy Northern California “Indian Summer” warmth, the many Pagan and Wiccan Samhain/Hallows events, the Bay Area (and, much of the SW) becomes a glorious and colorful time of year sacred to our Beloved Dead (and, to our lovely children all dressed up for Halloween). 
    I find people who are (publicly) espouse the idea that  “…everyone else is sanitized and impotent, and “real Witches”
    are few and live somewhat isolated on the fringe of society.  I have
    very little use for such “Hipster Paganism.” Generally have very little idea or real experience of … well … life in general.  I agree with your critique whole-hardheartedly – at least on this point. 
    “For the first half of the book Day paints a picture of the Witch as
    tyrant, ordering about the dead like hapless hounds in dark rituals and
    having them come obediently when called to lap up the food with which
    you bait them. Then, after pages talking about commanding the dead, …”  Frankly, the very idea of ordering the dead around strikes me as juvenile – as well as being extremely rude.  When we’ve passed on to Fair Avalon, we have other, more interesting things to think about an do besides the (usually trivial) wish-fulfillment.  My ancestors have spoken to me as needed.  That’s quite enough, after all, they are my Elders, and therefore, to be spoken to with respect.

  • LezlieKinyon

    A good many of us keep ancestor shrines and honor our Beloved Dead.  I love the Dia de los Muertes celebrations that happen at the same time of year as Samhain. Adding in the autumn colors, the harvest festivities, the outdoor music festivals taking advantage of the balmy Northern California “Indian Summer” warmth, the many Pagan and Wiccan Samhain/Hallows events, the Bay Area (and, much of the SW) becomes a glorious and colorful time of year sacred to our Beloved Dead (and, to our lovely children all dressed up for Halloween). 
    I find people who are (publicly) espouse the idea that  “…everyone else is sanitized and impotent, and “real Witches”
    are few and live somewhat isolated on the fringe of society.” generally have very little idea or real experience of … well … life in general.
    “I have very little use for such “Hipster Paganism.”   I agree with your critique whole-hardheartedly – at least on this point. 

    I also found this aspect of Day’s book mentioned by you disturbing: “For the first half of the book Day paints a picture of the Witch as
    tyrant, ordering about the dead like hapless hounds in dark rituals and
    having them come obediently when called to lap up the food with which
    you bait them. Then, after pages talking about commanding the dead, …”  Star, you are far too polite. Frankly, the very idea of ordering the dead around strikes me as juvenile – as well as being extremely rude.  When we’ve passed on to Fair Avalon, we have other, more interesting things to think about and do besides the (usually trivial) wish-fulfillment of people like Day.  My ancestors have spoken to me as needed.  That’s quite enough. After all, they are my Elders, and therefore, to be spoken to with respect. Real Witches are,apparently, IMHO, far too polite and civil for the likes of Mr. Day. We’ll all get there soon enough, do we really want to spend any time with so-called “necromancers” like Day badgering us for power, money and a good lay? Ptooey! I will be far too busy, thank you very much! -and – I suspect everyone else posting will be as well.


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