November 21, 2018

This is a guest post written by my friend Potia Pitchford, a long-time devotee of Epona. When I started blogging here I suggested to her that she might like to write a guest post or two, but then life happened and we forgot. Recently Potia asked me for an oracle reading, and when we talked about payment, I said, “Hey, why don’t you write that guest blog we’ve been talking about, and we’ll call it quits.” So here it is!

Potia Pitchford

Potia lives in Glasgow, and describes herself as a polytheist, neurodivergent mum and hearth druid. She blogs at Musings of a Scottish Hearth Druid.

I was given a challenge, to write. I didn’t have to accept this challenge but it came at a time I needed it and so I accepted it. The challenge was to write on a specific subject, one very dear to me but one I have for the past year struggled to write about, Epona.

Epona has been my most beloved Goddess from as soon as I learnt of Her. I have loved horses since I was a child although have not had the chance to spend much time with them until recently. When I found out about Epona as a newly minted pagan about twenty years ago I was immediately drawn to learning all I could about Her. I read everything I could find, which wasn’t much back then but I kept looking. One of the best online resources now available about Epona’s worship historically is Epona.net

Image by Tilemahos via WikiMedia. CC 2.0 License.

Epona was worshipped all over the Roman Empire but Her heartland was Gaul. Her name simply means “divine mare”. Not far from where I live was found an altar with Her name on it among others. It’s one of those on display in the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow as part of the permanent display on the Antonine Wall. The details on the inscription can be found on Epona.net listed as the Auchendavy inscription.

Back when I was first looking for information about Epona I would find snippets about Her in various books and soon I began to pray to Her. I called out to Her and sought Her in my meditative journeys, sometimes I would get glimpses in the distance of a figure that I just knew was Her but I could never seem to come close.

For a while I was fixed on that particular image of Her in the distance. Eventually though I learnt the important lesson that our deities are not bound to physical appearance. I can still hear Her gentle laughter as I finally came to that realisation and knew She had been speaking to me all along just not in the form I had expected!

Having learnt that She was with me and watching over me all along I then had to learn how to hear Her in the mundane world. I had to learn to listen in the right way, to notice the signs of Her presence around me. I’m still learning to do that. I have also had to learn to trust that when I need to I could ask to see Her in my journeys and She would be there.

Epona by Christian Kipping via WikiMedia. CC 3.0 License.

As mentioned above although I have always loved horses it has only been in the last two years that I have been able to spend time working with them and learning more about them. I could have read books about them, learnt about the different breeds for example but that never appealed in spite of my deep love of reading. What I always wanted was to learn about horses by being with them. Being around real horses fills a need that I only vaguely realised was there. And somehow Epona is part of both that need and its fulfillment.

Experiencing real horses and ponies, learning how to groom them, how to put their tack on and even the bliss of finally having some riding lessons has changed my relationship with Epona. I think I understand Her a little more than I did before. I think I understand why She is as She is with me. From talking with others that honour Epona I believe my experiences are not that unusual for interactions with Her.

Her presence is a gentle one in my life, Epona has a light touch. She guides and leads but doesn’t demand. She calls but lets you choose whether to run to Her or shy away. She is patient and yet there is a fierceness to Her, a wildness, a well of deep strength. If you accept Her call She doesn’t suddenly change Her approach to you. Epona remains a gentle presence, one that softly guides and coaxes. Epona wants your trust, She wants your love and if you choose to give it She will not abuse it.

A few weeks ago I woke one morning from an odd dream some of which was very vivid. In that dream I was taking part in a closing ritual at a pagan event of some kind. It might have been a camp as I think it was outside but I’m not sure of that bit. I was chosen for the ritual to be the Mare. I was wearing a pale outfit, not white, maybe an ivory or bone shade and not something that I have in real life.

Camargue horse by Wolfgang Staudt via Flickr. CC 2.0 License.

Thinking about it I am reminded of a special rug one of the mares at the stable I volunteer for has which includes head covering as she has problems with fly related itches. Someone came forward and marked me on my face with a charcoal stripe running down from the middle of my forehead, over my nose and chin. I was infused with the presence of Epona and I began to move around the ritual space on hands and feet but much more smoothly than I can move normally. I moved around the circle and someone offered me an apple which I took, almost snatched, from them.

I don’t remember much more apart from the sensation of becoming more drained as the ritual ended and Epona left my body. It was at that point I woke up. In the hours following that dream I had a number of mundane reminders of my connection with Epona including 13 apples from our own little apple tree most of which had blown off during the winds that night and a Facebook reminder that it had been two years since I first became involved with the Glasgow Group of the RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association). That dream lead to this poem and the title of this post.

      The Grey Mare’s Child

      I am the Grey Mare’s Child
      Stumbling as a new born foal.
      I gaze around in wonder.
      I breathe deeply.
      I am the Grey Mare’s Child!
      Chosen; marked; I heed Her call
      Yet still I shy and falter.
      I learn slowly
      I am the Grey Mare’s Child.
      She guides me ever onward.
      Her touch gentle on my life.
      My love strengthens
      And I trust.

July 28, 2016

It is turning darker sooner, slowly, little by little. The lengthening shadows are appearing as a sign that the nights will be winning once again, as the Wheel of the Year turns. As twilight appears it is rife with legends of the darker ones becoming more and more prominent.

The fairies of English and Scottish folklore have been classified in a variety of ways. Two of the most prominent categories, derived from Scottish folklore, are the division into the Seelie Court and the Unseelie Court.

The Unseelie Court

a young boy confronts a fairy queen
By John Bauer – Illustration of Alfred Smedberg’s The Seven Wishes in Julbocken, 1907, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Seelie court–“The Shining Throne,” “The Golden Ones,” and “The Summer Court”–are giving way to The Unseelie Court, consisting of the darkly-inclined fairies. They appear at night and are said to assault travelers, often carrying them through the air, beating them, and forcing them to commit such acts as shooting at cattle.

The time of the Seelies has ended, their reign when light appears at Imbolc to Midsummer. But the Unseelie love the dark and are growing stronger until Samhain which is their finest hour. There really is lore to correspond with ghouls and mischief abounding in Autumn. It starts now, with the first Harvest, as darkness quickens upon the air around us.

They are the Faeries that go bump in the night. The Unseelie Court generally dislike humans, and when they play their tricks, they would rather harm than help. Passion conquers love. Dark rules over light. The Unseelie way is passionate and pragmatic. They stand for the principles of constant change and impulsive action and have a reputation for fostering war and madness, despising those weaker than themselves, and valuing freedom and wildness over any chivalric code. The Unseelie see themselves as radical visionaries, bringing about vital change and transformation.

In Norse paganism, Light elves were beautiful creatures and were considered to be “guardian angels”. The god Freyr, was the ruler of Alfheim, the home of the light elves. Light elves were minor gods of nature and fertility; they could help or hinder, humans with their knowledge of magical powers. They also often delivered an inspiration to art or music.

Dark Elves

Dark Elves, the opposite of the Light Elves, resided in Svartálfheim. The Dark Elves hated the sun and it’s sunlight, because if they were touched or exposed to it they would immediately turn into stone. They like to annoy and threaten humans, to the point that nightmares were thought to be produced by the Dark Elves. These Dark Elves would sit on a sleeping person’s chest and whisper bad dreams to haunt the person. These elves could also haunt animals, especially horses.

a woman in a nightgown sleeps uncomfortably on a bed with a creature seated on her chest
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Sidhe

The Sidhe (shee) are considered to be a distinct race, quite separate from human beings yet who have had much contact with mortals over the centuries, and there are many documented testimonies to this. Belief in this race of beings who have powers beyond those of men to move quickly through the air and change their shape at will once played a huge part in the lives of people living in rural Ireland and Scotland.

The sidhe of the subterranean mounds are also seen by the Irish as the descendants of the old agricultural gods of the Earth, (one of the most important being Crom Cruaich, the Crooked One of the Hill). These gods controlled the ripening of the crops and the milk yields of the cattle, therefore offerings had to be given to them regularly. In the Book of Leinster we discover that after their conquest the Tuatha De Danaan took revenge on  the sons of Mil by destroying their wheat and the goodness of the milk (the sidhe are notorious for this even today). The sons of Mil were thus forced to make a treaty with them, and ever since that time the people of Ireland have honoured this treaty by leaving offerings of milk and butter to the Good People.

Crom Cruach, the other Wicker man

Crom Cruach was a god of pre-Christian Ireland. According to history he was propitiated with human sacrifice and his worship was ended by Saint Patrick.

He is also referred to as Crom Dubh. The festival for Crom Cruach is called Domhnach Crom Dubh, Crom Dubh Sunday.

The references in the dinsenchas poem in the 12th century to sacrifice in exchange for milk and grain suggest that Crom had a function as fertility god. The description of his image as a gold figure surrounded by twelve stone or bronze figures has been interpreted by some as representing the sun surrounded by the signs of the zodiac, suggesting a function as solar deity

Human sacrifices to the Irish God Crom Dubh were made to ensure a rich harvest and fair weather.

The legend of Crom Cruach is a sinister one. The ancient texts of the Metrical Dindshenchas claim that the people of Ireland worshiped the God by offering up their firstborn child in return for a plentiful harvest in the coming year.

Crom Dubh, the ‘dark, stooped one’ who lived in the underworld throughout winter, emerging on 1st August to claim the ‘first fruits’, in the form of Eithne the corn maiden, and bringing her on his back (hence his stoop) down to the underworld.

He once enjoyed the unreserved worship in Ireland and other Celtic countries, before the church and tribal wars brought about the cultural and ethnic genocide of old Europe.

The Burry Man

two men holding flowers stand beside a third dressed as the Burry Man
The Burry Man and his attendants pause for a photo close to the Forth Bridge; August 2013, South Queensferry by Oliver BentonOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Burry Man is the main figure in an annual ritual that takes place in South Queensferry, near Edinburgh every August. A local man is covered from head to foot in thistle burrs. He is paraded through the town at a snails pace supported by two assistants. He is in the costume for nearly nine hours, often in sweltering heat, and can easily lose nearly fourteen pounds in weight. Able only to drink through a straw, he is sustained by a few wee drams, and lots of water.

The meaning of the ceremony has been lost but could have been to do with seeking good fortune for town or harvest.

Warding off evil Spirits, connecting with nature, and celebrating local identity, to see this would make you think he’s suffering a medieval punishment, but it’s actually a great honour to be selected.

Another suggestion is that the Burry Man is a scapegoat figure, the burrs representing the guilt of the village being collected and driven out.

Odin

It was also in August that the god Odin sacrificed himself on the World Tree to gain knowledge of the runes. He hung there for nine days and nights, staring into the abyss, pierced by a lance and losing one of his eyes in the process.

Blood and Bacchus

a sculture of a naked man wearing grapes in his hare holding a bowl of wine with a young boy behind him
Michelangelo — Bacchus. Museo del Bargello, Florence, Italy. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The grape harvest as well as grain begins at Lughnasa. Whereas bread is viewed as the body of the sacrificed god, wine is his blood. The ancients thought that the state induced by wine was a sacred one.

In the myth of Dionysus (Bacchus), Hera would try to smuggle him as a child, and later in his life drove him insane. His festivals were the Bacchantia, celebrated by those who used alcohol to overcome inhibitions that social conventions would not normally permit. Dionysus was a god that defied social order, broke taboos and customs and gained knowledge through divine madness. He was attracted to the night and dark places.

Scathach

Scathach was a warrior queen whose name meant “The Shadowy One”.  She lived in Western Scotland and ran a training academy for young warriors.

A strong and fiercly independent woman who was respected and revered by the warrior society.  She is an otherworldy character and her granting of the Gae Bolga to Cuchulainn is strongly reminiscent of the Lady of the Lake granting Excalibur to Arthur.  Through her instruction he became the champion for all Ireland while she herself remained famed for her own skills and magic.

Described as a witch and a prophetess, she was titled the Amazon Witch Queen. She knew every art of war and every weapon, every trick and every strategy. She was also a Druidess and mistress of the arts of magic, prophecy and shapeshifting.

Banshees

the figure of a robed, cowled woman crying outside a castle
Bunworth Banshee by W.H. Brooke – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Although not always seen, her mourning call is heard, usually at night.

In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seeress or banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. There are records of several human banshees or prophetesses attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings. In some parts of Leinster, she is referred to as the bean chaointe (keening woman) whose wail can be so piercing that it shatters glass.

She usually wears either a grey, hooded cloak or the winding sheet or grave robe of the unshriven dead. She may also appear as a washer-woman.

Her name is connected to the mythologically-important tumuli or “mounds” that dot the Irish countryside, which are known as síde in Old Irish.

The banshee is often described in Gaelic lore as wearing red or green, usually with long, disheveled hair and  is seen as an ugly, frightful hag.

They are said to stand on the branches of trees under the eerie light of a full moon.

§

The Witches of the past learned their magic from the fairies, meeting them in the woodlands and fairy mounds that ordinary people avoided. Given herbs, potions, and the secrets of the Craft. In the woodlands, following a path deep into the heart of the greenwood.


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December 14, 2015

My book reviews for this column are based on a five star system with each star representing a quality the book has, does not have or partially has. The five star qualities are 1) it is an enjoyable read. 2) the author is qualified to write on the topic based on experience or research. 3) the book is well edited and organized. 4) the topic is covered well. 5) awareness.

Cover from Living with Honor by Emma Restall Orr

O-Books offered up several titles for columnists to review this month and I selected Living with Honor: On Pagan Ethics by Emma Restall Orr. I was excited about reading this text because of the focus on animism and ethics–topics important to my spirituality. I have read other strong offerings from both this publisher and from other Druid authors. At this point it seems most Pagan ethical thought is coming from Druidry.

I dove right in and found the author’s tone engaging. Ms. Orr intersperses sections of academic discussion with personal anecdotes and illustrative fictional vignettes in a way that is engaging for a learner.

Emma Restal Orr is well qualified to write on this topic because of her leadership and experience in the Druid community. She has done vast reading on ethical thought. She also raised her son with her ethical system and has found community with other pagans of similar worldview to support its value. Supporting her arguments are not only facts and valid points, but also a strong approach to current ethical debates on assisted suicide, veganism, stem cell research and more that were very persuasive to the author’s particular Pagan ethic.

Orr ultimately upon a philosophical ethic of human life not being a priority over other life on earth. Her Pagan ethic stated that the loss of human life was courageous and honorable if it helps the environment and animals. I could see her point all things being equal, but did not find it very socially aware. Ethics like these usually result in inequitable distribution of that loss of human life and minority people generally take the bigger burden. I think this area was the author’s main blind spot, and in my experience each philosopher has something they overlook.

Living with Honor provided an impressive survey of the Western ethical philosophical tradition. This was heavy reading made lighter by Emma’s very practical approach and her clear understanding of all the points of view. I was pleased to even see a few of my more obscure favorites in there like Sartre–who ultimately is her biggest influence on matters of choice. Her biggest focuses were on personal choice and a measure of a society based on how it treats the least of its people. For the most part she stuck to Western thinkers and I felt this was a missed opportunity to cover world animistic philosophical thought. I would have liked to see how cultures that have remained more animists’ great philosophers developed their ethical approaches too.

When it came to awareness, I was disappointed in the author’s approach to children and teens, people of color and people with disabilities. Throughout the text the author has no qualms in her dismissal and dislike of teens. She has a strange moment when she explains the during the Industrial revolution “children lost the right to work.” “Boo hoo,” as Mugato the villian from Zoolander says when he makes a similar point. I became even more pained at her disregard for the plight of labor abuse when she equated factory farming mistreatment of animals to African American slavery and the sentience of animals to that of the mentally disabled. These kinds of equations kept cropping up. I will say I think it is not acceptable to invert the continual dehumanization of People of Color and People with Disabilities in effort to humanize animals. Maybe the author isn’t aware of how much discrimination minorities face, as social justice issues were not a strong focus in her ethics text.

The book was well edited and organized into sections. I did not note any factual or historical inaccuracies and was able to use the PDF version of the book with ease.

This book earned 3 1/2 stars on my rating system. I suggest it along with other interesting books on pagan Ethics like The Other Side of Virtue by Brendan Meyers, A World Full of Gods by John M Greer, and Apocalyptic Witchcraft by Peter Gray.


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April 27, 2015

After I toss the pills and decide to live, things don’t get better for a while. Eventually there comes a day when I sit in one spot on the couch all afternoon, grasping that I was in an abusive relationship. Then, comes the time I dare saying ‘no’ to him and I suffer the consequences; with that comes the realization that he will not change. And then, there is that moment I see him for the last time:  he drops me off at the airport, waves goodbye at his wife of ten years, and walks away with the words “well, have a good life!”

In my introductory piece, I wrote about the day I lost my Christian faith. I didn’t become a Pagan right away, even though that would have made a great story:  a heroine’s quest. Sheltered and disempowered girl from a small town in Germany leaves Christianity, divorces her abusive husband, and discovers Witchcraft in a dramatic moment of conversion. I would probably buy that novel, but my life isn’t a novel. Mine is a story of apostasy, of conversion, of empowerment, and of transition, experienced from different angles all at once.

As I am sitting here writing this, I want to skip over the long season of confusion. I want to write the next chapter in which the story flows from despair to hope, from darkness to light. In reality, I tumbled from one to the other for weeks, for months. I have images, snapshots; I want to weave them into a tale. And yet, my faith journey is as much the story that is left out as the one I am weaving. I can’t settle a clean story arch, and I have no universal road map for conversion, but I can offer another snapshot of my journey.

A black cat on a space heater
Arwen on the Heater

After moving in with my parents, I spend weeks doing what Arwen, my cat, loves to do best. Together we sit on the heater in my old room, staring out the window, watching the sun rise too late and set too early. Germany’s coldest winter in decades. Whenever my parents leave the house, I secretly turn the heater to its highest setting, hoping against hope it will invoke in me the sense of a warm, beating heart.

Most nights, I cry myself to sleep. Days go by in a blur. I think about him all the time. He’s in all of the nightmares. My waking moments are filled with my hatred and my longing for him. Codependency. It’s a new word in my vocabulary, and I don’t really understand it. I reminds me of the time I was studying to become fluent in the English language. That was the year I lived in Seattle, and Seattle was where we met, where we had our first date, our first kiss. Every thought leads back to him. One night I can’t take it anymore, and I think of going upstairs and crawling into my mom’s bed and begging her to fix me. Codependency.

Then, the ice melts and the snow turns to mud. Grey and brown and slippery. I go outside sometimes, but the flashbacks come unexpectedly. His fist punching through a wall. His face coming toward me. The scenes in the bedroom. I am too afraid to drive, and I don’t walk far from home. When the hardened layers of earth are punctured by sprouting weeds, I feel a stirring of hope. Flashes of light in the darkness. At times, the contrast is so bright I feel ecstatic, if only for a moment. These moments tell me there is a life for me, life after my choice to live. There are moments in which I feel a hint of being myself, moments that feel like heaven. “Someday I know I shall actually take up residence here”, I write in my journal.

Annika's church in Germany
Annika’s church in Germany

Easter arrives, the festival of the resurrection. My family takes me to an old Lutheran church and we enter in silence, an hour before midnight. Instead of a sermon, we listen to bible passages, starting in Genesis, leading up to the resurrection. A story from beginning to end to resurrection, told in a place, a religion, a town where my own story began. We sing traditional German hymns and recite parts of the liturgy. Words I don’t remember but have heard as a child.

Once the story approaches the resurrection, the sound of a violin pierces the darkness, a cello moans, and then an orchestra proclaims the coming joy. A light flickers as the first candle is lit and tears spring into my eyes. I watch as the first candle lights another, and another, and another. Flame to flame, light to light, passed from one person to another; and the darkness flees. A wave of tiny fires bathing the ancient walls in an eerie glow.

“He is risen,” the pastor proclaims. “He is risen indeed!” The proclamation is passed just like the flame, from person to person. I am no longer sure if He is risen indeed. I haven’t known Him since the day I wanted to die. But, I want to let myself feel this ancient hope, older than the stones of this church.

Ancient mortar and bricks have witnessed these words for centuries, spoken by pastors and princes and paupers. There is a sense of hope all around me. I feel it coming from the stones, as if they remember. Year after year, through the dark ages, the famines, the plague, and the wars, through Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, they have heard these words.

I think of widows, who lost their spouses in war. I think of peasants oppressed by the heavy rule of princes. I think of orphans and knights and young maidens and old crippled women. There are stories held in these walls, stories of pain and stories of hope. I waver between them. Pain and joy, hope and depression. We heard a story today, the story of God’s creation and His plan for His people and His Son, but there are other stories here. Stories that were lived in and around this church. Stories that found expression in resurrection vigils, voices that filled this space ages ago. They were stories that no book will ever contain, no scripture will ever declare, just like my story. And they are calling to me. I can’t make them out, it is the noise of too many decades, held in the thickness of these walls, thicker with memory than stone.

I don’t remember if I give the proper response that “He is risen indeed.” My mind is elsewhere. There is a resurrection here. There has been life and there will be again, and the stories held in this space – they are also mine. I come from these stories, I was born here. These people, these walls, these memories run in my blood. I was a part of something ancient once, older than the story we read today, older than the stories of this place, older, older still, as old as humanity.

Someone touches my arm. It is time to leave the church. Lent is over and we are each given a freshly baked bread roll, baked with yeast. We gather around a bonfire, lit on the church grounds. I long to feel the joy of the resurrection like those around me, but there is heaviness on me, a density.

An acquaintance makes a beeline toward me, pulls me into an overjoyed embrace, tells me how excited she is that my husband and I are here. She points at a visitor she has mistaken for my husband. This is all wrong. I want to go back to the fire. The heaviness of the walls still cling to me, and the dance of the flames is calling me. I can’t feel the joy that everyone around me is exuding. I feel a depth, a heaviness as I stare into the fire. This fire is so old, so young, so new, it changes, every moment and every second, and yet it is as it always has been. My body burns with grief, always, and I ache to know the joy and hope of the resurrection. Joy and hope doesn’t come to me, and yet the longing tells me I am still alive.

There is no conclusion of hope here; no expectation that this moment changed the arc of my story. It is true that something stirred in me that night. I suppose a Christian would say that it was Jesus showing up in a way I didn’t appreciate, in the walls and in the fire. A pagan interpretation would talk of trance, a calling from the ancestors, a connection with place. Maybe both are true or maybe neither. I had lost my religion and my framework for understanding, so that night came to me uninterpreted, divorced from all meaning, just like myself. It was a time outside of time, after my Christian narrative had died. I wouldn’t gain a new framework until the day I stepped into my first circle where encountered the unexpected and saw my narrative be reborn.

Germany's coldest winter
Germany’s coldest winter

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September 15, 2014

Some more metaphysical booksLast column I laid out a list of recommended reading for witches.  This column continues that list.  A little reminder of my conditions: As I said last time, some of these books are by Pagan authors and some are not.  Some are a little scholarly, but since I said “every Witch,” I have deliberately excluded anything that is geared strictly to the academic.  Some might require a little explanation as to why they should be included.  Please keep in mind that this list is entirely subjective, and in based entirely in my own opinions.  I am well-read but no expert, so I’m sure that I will add to this list over time, and maybe there will be more articles on the subject in the future.  If you have books to recommend, I’m always excited to find new material, so please let me know in the comments!

Liturgy and Philosophy

Liturgy for the modern Pagan movement is, at best, problematic.  There are no writings that are consistently used by all of us.  The Charge of the Goddess comes closest, but even that has many variations.  So if I’ve recommended something here for liturgy, it’s because I think it offers a good essential grounding in Wiccan liturgical concepts.  The recommended reading on philosophy was a little easier.  I include the works that I do because I think they illustrate important concepts in Pagan and Wiccan philosophy quite well.

The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess by Starhawk – Yes, if you didn’t read it for its value to the Craft, read it for its liturgy.  Starhawk is a gifted poet.

The Practice of Witchcraftby Robin Skelton – Skelton was a professional poet as well as a well-known Witch.  This book, which has been republished with many different subtitles and also under the title “The Practice of Witchcraft Today,” offers meaningful witchcraft rituals in beautifully written poetry.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein – I doubt that Heinlein had any concept of how influential this sci-fi story would be.  But a whole church organization was founded on it, and that group published the most influential Pagan publication in history, and thus, these ways have been fully integrated into modern Paganism.  Concepts with origins in this story include the Divine Within, the Gaia Hypothesis, and polyamory.  And grokking.  I’m certain Heinlein didn’t invent any of them (except the word for grokking,) but because he wrote about them, we have these powerful elements in the modern Pagan movement.  Besides, Heinlein was a great writer and you should read him anyway, just because.

The Wyrd Sisters and I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett – These books are, probably quite unintentionally, some of the greatest dissertations on magick, myth and the Craft ever.  As a matter of fact, it won’t hurt any Witch to read the whole Discworld series.  If it doesn’t make you seriously think about the structure of the Universe, I don’t know what would.

The Other Side of Virtue: Where Our Virtues Come From, What They Really Mean, and Where They Might Be Taking UsandA Pagan Testament: The Literary Heritage of the World’s Oldest New Religion by Dr. Brendan Myers – Myers is a professor of philosophy and a Druid.  He’s been considering Pagan ethics and philosophy for many years and writes about them well.  I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but his writing provokes thought and encourages you to come to your own conclusions.  “The Other Side of Virtue” examines Pagan ethics from the Rede to the Nine Noble Virtues, and “A Pagan Testament” (and its clever subtitle) covers all liturgies that are important to modern Paganism, from the Charge of the Goddess to the Mabinogion.  Well worth owning for that alone.

The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future by Riane Eisler – I had to chew on it a while before deciding to put this book on this list, because it is very political and not all will agree with its conclusions.  I don’t agree with all of them myself.  Eisler’s thesis is that patriarchy and a fascination with war are intrinsically linked.  At any rate, it’s certainly been influential in the modern Pagan movement and it’s worth consideration.

Magick

If you have an interest in the practice of magick, these books are a great essential primer.

The Inner Temple of Witchcraft: Magick, Meditation and Psychic Development by Christopher Penczak – It gets criticism for being very New Agey; but keep in mind, most of us come to the Craft through the New Age movement these days, and this is the first language we hear to describe these concepts.  It’s a good book with simple and intelligent explanations.  If you’re just beginning to study magick, this is a great place to start.

Magick in Theory and Practice by Aleister Crowley – This is the seminal text on why and how it is that magick works.  If you hate everything else Crowley has ever written, read this, because it was brilliant.

Psychic Self-Defense by Dion Fortune – Now that you understand how magick works, read this guide to protecting yourself magickally.  Even if you don’t believe in spirits and magickal bugaboos, it’s good psychology.

The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews by Scott Cunningham – There are better books on herbalism.  There are better books on incense-making and creating dyes and inks.  There are better magickal formularies.  But no other book I know of gives you such a good grounding in the basic techniques, and offers varieties of possible magickal substitutions along with essential herbalism and a basic formulary.

Real Magic: An Introductory Treatise on the Basic Principles of Yellow Magic by Isaac Bonewits – Even the Amazon description is brief because the subject is complex.  Bonewits breaks down the essential laws, forms, and commonalities of magic with an acerbic sense of humor that makes what could be a very boring and dry (but important) text of classifications into a fun and informative read.  I keep referring back to it in my own descriptions and explanations.

Modern Magick: Twelve Lessons in the High Magickal Arts by Donald Michael Kraig – When I read this in the late eighties it was only eleven lessons.  Most Witches will dismiss this book immediately because it’s about ceremonial magick.  Here’s why you shouldn’t.  First, because the Western occult tradition is foundational in Wicca and this book will teach you just enough of what that’s all about that you will understand any reference to it, at least vaguely, from then on.  Second, because it is a very effective course in teaching the skills that make you into a skilled practitioner of magick.  I picked up this book when I was fourteen years old.  DMK suggested it would take a year to work through.  I did it in six months.  And I’ve never looked back.

Blink: The Art of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell – This is not a book about magick per se.  It’s a book about how “intuitive flashes” might actually be collected knowledge that lingers in our subconscious.  In essence, we know things that we don’t realize that we know.  Why this is important to practitioners of magick is that first of all, it offers a rational, scientific explanation for how psychic phenomena might work; and second, it points out that some of our subconscious “knowledge” is based in cultural biases and assumptions that we pick up that have no basis in fact.  I think that this sort of self-awareness is important, and that it makes your magick more effective.

The Game of Wizards: Psyche, Science and Symbol in the Occult by Charles Ponce – Also published in a later edition with the subtitle “Roots of Consciousness and the Esoteric Arts,” this book illustrates how we invent occult symbolism due to the particular way our consciousness is consistently seeking to make patterns, and how symbolism is our attempt to map our own consciousness.  I think this is a great piece of information for any aspiring magickal practitioner to be aware of.

The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physicsby Gary Zukav – It’s a bit dated, but this introduction to quantum physics will probably make most educated Witches froth at the mouth as we see the principles of magick and mysticism illustrated in the very fabric of reality; and science is beginning to prove it.

Teaching and Mentoring

These books are of greatest interest to those who teach and mentor others.

Deepening Witchcraft: Advancing Skills and Knowledge by Grey Cat – So you think you’re past all the 101 material and you want to start teaching?  Then do yourself a favor and read this.  From ethics to advanced magickal theory to leading group ritual to “feces coagulation,” this is the perfect primer for all who want to take their Craft to the next level.

The Outer Temple of Witchcraft: Circles, Spells and Rituals by Christopher Penczak – Again, if you want to start leading others, this is a must-have book.  It explores the nature of spells and rituals, what makes them work, and what the meaning of Wiccan priesthood is.

Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals that Work by Isaac Bonewits – Mostly this is a gripe about Bonewits’ pet peeves in public rituals.  But he had a point, so read this to learn what not to do, and why.

Wicca Covens: How to Start and Organize Your Own by Judy Harrow – Harrow was a Wiccan high priestess in a BTW descended tradition with a master’s degree in counseling and a history of interfaith work.  We just lost her this year, but this excellent work on group psychology and dynamics is a fitting legacy that I think will guide new Craft leaders for generations to come.

Great Lies We Live By by Dr. Stephanie Burns – This book has nothing to do with Witchcraft.  It has to do with how we learn, why we think we can’t do certain things, and how we can break that cycle.  It will make you a better student and a better teacher, and a better magickal practitioner too.

Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict by Kenneth Haugk – This book was written for Christian priests.  Hold your nose and read it anyway.  Why?  Well, have you noticed that there always seems to be some jerk in every group who always has “suggestions” for “how things could be done better,” or who seems like s/he won’t be happy until the group is destroyed?  This book explains why these people do what they do, shows you how to identify them at the early stages, and tells you how to get rid of them.

Circle Round: Raising Children in Goddess Traditions by Starhawk, Diane Baker and Anne Hill – If you are intending to do any work with children and youth, you should really read this book.  ‘Nuff said.

The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings and Meditations on Crossing Over by Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare and Reclaiming – Sooner or later, if you are in a position of spiritual leadership, people will come to you for help in dealing with pain and grief.  There is no better book for Pagan leaders that I know of.  Chock-full of helpful ritual (which, after all, is the essence of Wiccan practice,) this book handles death, divorce, abuse, trauma, and more.  One of my favorite elements is a ritual for grieving an abortion or infant-loss.  As a mother who has miscarried, it was invaluable to me.

Handfasting and Wedding Rituals: Welcoming Hera’s Blessing by Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein – When you are asked to do your first handfasting, get this book.  It covers all levels of Pagan ritual, from the most overt to covert multi-faith options, and every variation of marriage from heterosexual to homosexual to polyamorous to BDSM.

Advanced Practice

The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer – Published in many editions, from abridged to twelve volumes, and with several subtitles, this highly influential book was probably the origin of our concept of the God.  But it’s dry as toast, and most of its anthropological theories are now in disrepute.  You’ll want to read it as part of your practice once you’ve been doing it a while, but if you’re not inclined as a scholar, it’s likely to be a bathroom reader.  Read the first three volumes; those are the important ones.

The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth by Robert Graves – As above, only applied to our concept of the Goddess.

Summoning Forth Wiccan Gods and Goddesses: The Magick of Invocation and Evocation by Lady Maeve Rhea – There is no other book that I know of that offers details and practical advice for learning how to draw down the moon.  If you want to Aspect divinity, read it.

Wicca 404: Advanced Goddess Thealogy by Ezra Free – While again I don’t agree with all of her conclusions, and certainly the Amazon critiques that advise applying an ego-filter are valid, I know of no other book that so thoroughly questions: what IS the goddess exactly?

Honorable Mentions

The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches by Margaret A. Murray – While, again, the influences of these books are without question, most of their theories have been disproven now.  You can still see their influence in the work of Gerald Gardner – which, to me, is sufficient.  If you’re a history buff like me you’ll want to read it, but if you aren’t, don’t.

Aradia: Gospel of the Witches by Charles Godfrey Leland – The origins of the Charge of the Goddess lie in this book, but its accuracy is debated and it really isn’t how we view the gods these days.  Still worth the read if the origin of liturgy interests you like it interests me.

The Gardnerian Book of Shadows by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, compiled by Aiden Kelly – The link will take you right to www.sacred-texts.com, where you can read it in entirety.  As a matter of fact, you can find plenty of interest to Pagan theology at that site.  I think it’s a good thing for most Witches to read, but I don’t know if it’s essential, especially if you’re not BTW.

777 and Other Qabalistic Writings by Aleister Crowley – This was probably first book of correspondences in wide circulation.  It’s still highly influential, though probably not as essential as it once was.

The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries by Z. Budapest – While the influence of this book is without question, and certainly it’s worth a look to understand modern feminist witchcraft, it is very misandrist.  Don’t make your male students read it because it will make them angry.  And honestly, it should.  I believe the pendulum swing was important at its time, and I think that women’s anger is legitimate, but I think the challenge of our modern Craft is to find inclusive solutions for all and this book will not do that.  I consider myself a feminist and I still found myself cringing at much of the language in this book.

The Collected Works of Rumi – Rumi’s ecstatic poetry, grounded in Islam, is probably more influential to modern Paganism than we’d care to admit.  It’s not specifically Pagan, however.

The Complete Works of Ovid – Ovid’s devotional work to the Greek deities is still every bit as relevant as it was in his day.  I have incorporated much of his work into my rituals and I think it improves them considerably.

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer – Anglicanism probably influenced modern Wicca more than we’d care to admit too.  This essential Anglican book lays out a practice and liturgy for the seasons, and I can’t help but see how it must have influenced the beliefs of Margaret Murray and Gardner.

Beyond Good and Evil and The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche – Nietzsche is problematic because his work was used to bolster Nazi propaganda and is sometimes shaded with fascism and violence.  These two works helped define both our ethics and our practice, however.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman – Humanism is part of modern Paganism.  This book of humanistic poetry is a marvelous declaration of Pagan theology.  Read the older editions, not the newer ones.

This is my list of recommended reading for all Witches.  I am sure that there are things that I have missed, and I am sure you have your own thoughts to add, and I invite you to do so in the comments.

Next column: The Downward Spiral – Depression and Suicide in Paganism


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