Memories of the First Books: A Treasury of Witches

Memories of the First Books: A Treasury of Witches August 31, 2017

Previously on Outside the Charmed Circle, I described the kindling of my grade-school romance with Dungeons & Dragons, and the means by which that led me to devouring fantasy novels and books on mythology. (I was particularly taken with the childhood trifecta of Bulfinch’s Mythology, Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, and D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths.) Between the exploits of gods and heroes, the sorcerous adventures of Le Guin and Moorcock, and my own imaginal ramblings, my head was abuzz with magic. It came as something of a jolt, then, to discover that there were actual practitioners of magic, real magic, in the real world. (My first encounter with a real-life Pagan—in grade school, no less!—is a story for another day.)

Not only that, but there were books, neither fiction nor mythology, which could reveal these mysteries to me. Best of all, there was one of those books at home, on my very own mother’s bookcase.

Which looked nothing like this, but hey, one can dream... (Photo of the witchcraft section at Edge of the Circle Books, Seattle, WA.)
Which looked nothing like this, but hey, one can dream… (Photo of the witchcraft section at Edge of the Circle Books, Seattle, WA.)

My first literary exposure to The Real Thing, the first grimoire I encountered as a wee slip of a child in early 1980s California, was my mother’s copy of A Treasury of Witchcraft, Harry E. Wedeck’s 1961 classic of sensationalist occultism. Sure, it was an overbaked mishmash of half-understood pieces from a double-dozen unrelated cultures, but the glances I snuck through the leaves of this grim tome sparked my imagination as nothing before, and the terms that danced before my eyes—osculum infame, Hand of Glory, Malleus Maleficarum, the Black Mass—visited me again in my dreams, rolling from the mouths of robed Inquisitors, chanted by nude women streaked with soot and rendered baby fat. That I understood almost none of what I read was not only irrelevant, it was instrumental to the ways in which my imagination ran wild. I pored over his description of the witch’s mark and searched my own body for similar markings or scars, desperately hoping to find validation for my occult desires. After all, Wedeck’s tome made it clear that something mysterious was happening out there in the world and, with care and perseverance, I could find out what it was… even become part of it.

Not long after, I found a copy of Erica Jong’s Witches (1981) at my local library.

An inexplicably unlikely installment of the Harry N. Abrams folklore series, which also included Wil Hugyen’s Gnomes and Brian Froud and Alan Lee’s Faeries, Jong’s book presented the figure of the witch as both a fairytale monster and a historical reality, part of a hidden tradition of magic and mystery. She added depth, nuance, and a whole host of complications to my nascent understanding of witchcraft. I didn’t understand half of what I read at the time, but anything I failed to grasp from her writing, Joseph A. Smith’s illustrations to accompany the text rendered as clearly as I could’ve asked. His evocative, hallucinatory images of witches gathering herbs by moonlight and embracing the Goat of the Sabbat, broken on the wheel and burning at the stake, taught me as much as the written text did, if not more. This was witchcraft as “women’s wisdom,” diametrically opposed to the faux-perfection of glorified toxic masculinity1. It was appealing, poetic stuff—dark, sexual, and powerful—but it was also frustratingly, inextricably tied to an “empowered,” quintessentially Seventies take on feminism which I knew, even as a late-tweener to early-teen, had little room for someone like… well, me. Hers was the classic binary-essentialist view of gender and sexuality, wrapped in Neo-Paganism and called “rebellion,” and in many ways it was as reactionary as a Reagan speech, as mainstream as an upsized combo meal. In Witches Jong danced right up to the edge of something truly transgressive, then backpedaled her Earth Shoes right the hell away from it.

Still, her vision had a potency and a poetry which transcended its other limitations, at least for one barely-teenage genderqueer kid lost in the 1980s. I was drawn to the witchcraft she evoked with her words, even as I was excluded from it for being a “boy,” and that calling—first heard in the pages of role-playing gamebooks and fantasy novels, amplified by my first confused tastes of what real witchcraft looked like—would haunt me for years after…

…and then, one day, an adult in my social circle handed me his copies of Drawing Down the Moon and The Spiral Dance and suggested I might find them interesting.

The rest, as they say, is history. And there, at long last, is my real answer to the “what was your first book?” question.

So, beautiful creatures, what was your first book—or books? Tell us about them in comments below, or on the Facebook page!


  1. In all fairness to Jong, she does spend a couple of paragraphs on the subject of male witches:

    “And yet, there were men witches, too—though as archetypes they are seldom depicted, either in paintings, literature, or in our fantasies. Many men were condemned to death for being witches, widowers of witches, fathers of witches. However much we know this to be true historically, the notion of the witch as male never quite sticks. In some sense, the word ‘witch’ is synonymous in our minds with the word ‘woman.’

    “Perhaps this is because we associate woman’s creative powers with the manipulation of vast, unseen forces. Or perhaps we intuitively understand that during the long centuries when women were the semislaves of society, they were naturally drawn to witchcraft as a cure for their powerlessness, a means of manipulating a world that otherwise painfully manipulated them. In any case, we always imagine the witch as female—and the Devil as male.” (Witches, p. 69)

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4 responses to “Memories of the First Books: A Treasury of Witches”

  1. I can remember being dragged in to a Dungeons&Dragons game with my older brother and sister in about 1979, the game having come out the year I was born in 1974. They didn’t want to do a “solo adventure” so the needed a third. I remember being really happy to be included for a change. So they helped me roll up a Thief with 2 hit-points… and I promptly got “killed” in my first battle with goblin. At 5-years-old, I was “dead” in my first inglorious battle, barely in to the dungeon, never even got to see a dragon. This was, of course, very upsetting to my 5-year-old self, and I went crying in to the house to complain about the unfairness of it all to my mother. It took awhile to calm me down and get me to understand that “dead” wasn’t permanent in the game, and I could roll up another character and continue to play in the next game, or even this one later.

    When I was in the 6th grade, I asked for and received an anniversary edition boxed set of The Hobbit And The Lord Of The Rings… complete with appendices in the back translating dwarvish runes and elvish writing among other “facts” about Middle Earth. Later in my mid-teens a friend introduced me to the DragonLance novels. I grew up watching the Dungeon&Dragons animated TV series (and now I own it on DVD). My childhood was a mix of science fiction and high fantasy, history and mythology.

    But the first inkling I had that there was something I wasn’t being told about the world, was when my friend Brian loaned me a copy of “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn at age 17. I was a Senior in High School at the time, and Brian was a Freshman in College. He was studying Psychology, and his Professor at the time was having them study Utopian Novels to show how society’s image of the perfect culture had changed over the years. First he loaned me “Utopia” by Sir Thomas Moore… which resembled the High Fantasy novels I’d been enjoying. A country without money where the prisoners served as slaves in gold chains? Ridiculous! Next he loaned me “Herland” by Charlotte Perkins, written during the Women’s Suffrage Movement. A bit over the top in some areas, but the general message of gender equality struck a chord with me. Ishmael was the last. Quinn’s writing of “The Great Forgetting” and the history that we weren’t taught in school. Of course teenage me hated having things keep from him, so this sent me off on a flurry of study involving history, ancient cultures, and tribal societies, and developed in me a love of “the old ways”… which strangely, coincided quite nicely with my interest in traditional wood and metal working, my mom had also allowed me to go to spinning and weaving classes with her in San Jacinto. At age 14 I’d started attended a martial arts school looking not only to learn how to defend myself, but also wanting to learn the more esoteric philosophies behind the arts. You see I’d also grown up watching “Kung Fu”, “Shadow Warriors” , assorted Hong Kong martial arts films shown during “Kung Fu Theater” after school right along with “The Book Bird” and “Cover To Cover”, and “Gather Round”… storytelling shows where an artist illustrated the fairytale on camera while the narrator read. Magic, History, traditional skills….. Looking back now, I would be very, VERY surprised that I didn’t become some sort of Pagan the way my childhood went…..

    Then for my 17th birthday, my maternal grandmother offered to take me wherever I wanted to go for my birthday. I’d been talking about Wicca with people on the local computer bulletin board systems (BBS’s) for about 6 months and was interested in this supposedly “Old Religion Of Europe”, Shinto, Buddhism, Shamanism, and Daniel Quinn’s description of “Animism” as having once been the universal religion of humankind. So I told her about this book store I’d heard about up by the local community college called “Ananda’s Books”. She took me there, and I picked out a 10th anniversary edition of “The Spiral Dance: The Ancient Religion Of The Great Goddess”. I had the money for it, I’d been saving up from doing chores around the house for it since it was recommended to me….. grandma bought it for me with a wink for my birthday present. I still have it, along with the new 20th Anniversary Ed. with the updated author’s notes.

    Many, many more books on “alternative religions” followed after that as I got my first job, and eventually started working at one of the local “metaphysical” stores here in Riverside. Not Ananda’s, they went out of business years ago, as did most of the others when the Recession struck. I eventually fell in love with the store owner’s daughter, and now I’ve been here, at the “family store”, for about 20 years now. My living room looks like a small library. My significant other, is Wiccan, she got ordained as a non-denominational minister so she could perform legal wedding ceremonies. Every time a new book comes in, we both read it, and a copy goes home for reference. On our shelves there’s Buckland and Cunningham, Webster and Conway, Penczak and Grimasi, Telesco and Ravenwolf, and many others. I’m not sure I can call myself Wiccan, I’ve never been sure what to call myself. I currently have “The Essence Of Shinto” my Motohisa Yamakage, “Shinto: The Kami Way” by Sokyo Ono, “Shugendo: The Way Of The Mountain Monks” by Shokai Koshikidake w/ Martin Faulks, “Tales Of Adam” by Daniel Quinn, “The Ninja And Their Secret Fighting Art” by Stephen K. Hayes, and “The Kojiki” by O No Yasumaro, translated by Gustav Heldt (Recommended by Patheos’s own Megan Manson (aka PaganTama), riding around in my lawyer’s case with my computer, candle box, and calligraphy set that I take to work with me to work everyday. Still, I never seem to have the reference books with that I need that day. C’est La Vie.

    • That’s a marvelous journey! Thanks for sharing it with us. ^_^ Even if you don’t necessarily have a name for what you’re doing, it sounds like you’ve got a pretty decent handle on where you’re going with it.

      That whole “first character dying an ignominious death” thing seems to be part and parcel of old-school roleplaying, doesn’t it? I’ve heard of OSR games where they just have you roll up five characters to start with, because you’ll be burning through them until one manages to not die…

    • That’s a marvelous journey! Thanks for sharing it with us. ^_^ Even if you don’t necessarily have a name for what you’re doing, it sounds like you’ve got a pretty decent handle on where you’re going with it.

      That whole “first character dying an ignominious death” thing seems to be part and parcel of old-school roleplaying, doesn’t it? I’ve heard of OSR games where they just have you roll up five characters to start with, because you’ll be burning through them until one manages to not die…

      • In truth, 5-years-old was probably to young for me to have started playing. Later in my teens I ended up playing with a bunch of friends from grade-school and middle school. I took one dumb-as-a-doorknob Fighter (he had an intelligence of 9 and a Strength score of 18…. so the character was the epitome of “Big And Stupid” and I played him that way…. no strategy, rushing in to battle headlong without thinking, and somehow he survived) all the way from the Basic rules, through the intermediate, and advance rules, to the gold “Immortals” boxed set, basically becoming a big, dumb, super powerful god of a character. At which point it was getting boring…. so it’s good that we all got in to Advance Dungeons&Dragons and I got to play as a Human Ranger for many years, and then as a Human Ninja/Bushi in the “Oriental Adventures” book. Which I loved, because I had been in to Japanese culture since my dad got hired at Mitsubishi, and I grew up watching the “Shadow Warriors” TV series starring Sonny Chiba as “Hattori Hanzo”. Between growing up watching Kung-Fu Theater after getting home from Kindergarten in Colorado, and then finding “The International Channel” and watching “Shadow Warriors” every week starring Sonny Chiba, I developed an early interest in not just the martial arts, but Chinese and Japanese philosophies associated with them. Shinto, Buddhism, Shugendo, etc.