In the West, the image of a wizard with his books is ubiquitous, and the idea of the talismanic “holy” book is just as common. Especially in this digital age, bound books are not just a sign of knowledge, but of certain kinds of insight. And while we like our science fresh, we often like our magic old and musty.
The “occult” is, by definition, hidden knowledge; and we like to imagine that that knowledge is hidden in books. To that end, modern Paganism has no seeming end of publications.(1)
Books are more than a single author imparting knowledge to the reader. The thousands of Pagan tomes, especially en masse, are a slow-moving conversation about our experiences, thoughts, and revelations on the nature of reality. The books cover varying perspectives on all sorts of important things, like life, the gods, and human nature.
While occult books are admittedly of varying quality, good or bad is not the most important distinction. Books on the occult, in particular, tend to fit certain categories: training manuals, spell books, and treatises. Understanding these three types will help beginners both find what they need, and deepen their libraries as their own Great Work matures.
The Growth of Paganism
Occult books have long been available in the West. Social approbation, the relative rarity of people interested in the such topics, and limited access to training have long limited the growth of the community.
But now, we live in a time where many of the religious bonds of society have been loosened. Further, communication has become instantaneous. More than anything else, over the last two centuries this pair of factors has created a renewed interest in the occult and mystical. And the trend has done nothing but speed up.
Occultists and mystics have been around forever. We are only “new” to the Western experience insofar as we have historically been isolated and silenced, unable to communicate with each other. Like so many other groups, we are just now finding our voices.
Realistically, a new religious Paganism is not going to rise up and overwhelm traditional Western religion. We not a rising tide of revolution, but rather a part of the increased complexity and diversity of experience in a changing world. And there is value in that.
This a brave, new world, not because of the ideas we carry (which are generally not new), but because we can connect at all. For the first time, everyday practitioners can share, bond, and generally work together. We can build things never seen before. And in this setting, books are more important than ever.
The Growth of Information
Humans are experiencing unprecedented change in the world. Despite that, books remain an effective way to pass and store information. While technologies have changed quickly, our understanding of life has shifted more slowly.
For a long time, knowledge was a serious bottleneck in learning mysticism. Things have changed. The human capacity to take in information, let alone understand it deeply, is more limiting.
One aspect of our changing world is that the barriers to sharing information have lowered. More books does not always equal more knowledge.
For the serious practitioner, the multiplying of “information” doesn’t mean reality has changed. All the blogs and books and art and communication-writ-large, are just a plethora of descriptions. All the communication is pointing seekers to seek in new ways.
But the goal of magic is not to collect descriptions. We are humanity’s attempt to reach (not “own” but “reach”) something real. If we give up and imagine that we cannot touch a deeper reality, then we might as well be collecting Pogs.(2)
If we want to make sense of all this information — to turn it from a collection into a useful tool — then we need to begin to analyze what we have. Not all Pagan books have the same aims. To that end, I want to examine three types: training manuals, spell books, and treatises.
The first type of Pagan book is the training manual. These are books aimed at helping the practitioner develop starting magical skills. They are the closest thing that Paganism has to proselytizing, and generally appeal to specific target markets.
These days, many manuals have an identity hook that the new practitioner can use to get a handle on a new worldview. This trend seems to originate with Raymond Buckland’s The Tree: The Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft (1973). That book broke new ground by not relying on initiation (and thus lineage) to create magical authority.
Instead, The Tree connected the practitioner to a fictive but powerful pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon identity. Its authority rested on an implied equivalence with ethnic spiritualities.(3) In doing so, it deeply changed how many Westerners studied magic.
As a side note, when discussions arise about the need for “advanced” books, people are generally looking for more advanced versions of this category. Unfortunately, such books do not make any real sense. Beyond the steps of basic cultivation, there is no real guide that can be given in a book. We must, as they say, “do the work.”
Instead we see endless refinements of what people call “101” books.(4) And, in many ways, those books contain all that can be said. A training manual need only contain as much as a practitioner needs to get started: a path to connect with the practice, guidance to build a habit of magico-spiritual cultivation, and a way to see some results.
The second category is the spell book. These are the cookbooks of magic. In other words, they are generally popular, usually attractive, and occasionally practical.
Most spell collections follow a specific theme. Some books take spells all from one tradition. Others are ethnic collections. Either way, they are usually built along themes that provide wide appeal.
Like cookbooks, people rarely take up a spell book and work it from end to end. Rather, we pick and choose the items that appeal to us. They might appeal magically, aesthetically, or practically.
Modern collections tend to address the same things that everyday people worry about. Both tend to focus on money, sex, and success.
However, that is not always the case. Just to mention one of my favorite examples, there is Trolldom: Spells and Methods of the Norse Folk Magic Tradition. This book is well researched and at least seems historical. (I am not qualified to have an opinion.) It was a great find, though I have never worked a single specific spell from it.
Last but not least, we have treatises. These are, as you might expect, books that treat a specific topic in depth and attempt to survey a whole subject.
Not every treatise is a slog. We might assume that these books are all “advanced” — heavy and serious in nature — but that is just not true. For examples of books that fit into this category but are readable and accessible, you might consider The Witch’s Tools series from Llewellyn.
Treatises, despite their reputation, can never really cover everything there is to know on a subject. Whether that subject is astral projection, theurgy, magical theory, or anything under the sun, the books will take a position to explicate and promote.
A book is the correct length to develop, explain, and promote an idea. A blogpost can touch on something, imply it, or even suggest it, but the idea needs to stand on its own, and therefore must be close to “what everyone knows.”
A book, however, can go well beyond this. As an example, you might take a look at Patrick Dunn’s Magic, Power, Language, Symbol: A Magician’s Exploration of Linguistics. Most of us use magic words, but a book like this can help us understand what that really means.
The Real Importance of Pagan Books
It is not necessary to publish a book in order to be a committed Pagan, or even a serious one. Nonetheless, publishing a book on magic is a rite of passage for certain types of “serious” Pagan. There are other ways to grow, and other ways to raise your status. But that does not alter the fact that Pagan writers form a certain “thinking class” of Pagans.
My working theory on the prevalence and value of Pagan writers is that, with our general lack of infrastructure, the publishing industry manages the gatekeeping function of the Pagan literati. A writing contract is the carte d’entree into certain circles. We argue the validity of initiations. We do not always share beliefs. Still, the symbolic power of the book remains.
Pagan-friendly publishers and imprints, like the universities of academia, have their own specialties and reputations. Just think about how much it matters, in the everyday world, whether you went to university and which one. In the same way, your publisher matters. It is not necessarily a judgement on the value of a person’s ideas, but rather a stand-in for social status.
True story. Half a decade ago, when I asked a local metaphysical bookshop about using some of their space to teach meditation (something I am more than qualified to do, and I had a couple of core students at the time) I was asked if I had a book published. That was the expected credential.
Now, despite my not having a published book, I am not against this system. In the grand scheme of things, I find it fair. As a religio-social movement (or whatever you want to call us) we have paid professionals who vet ideas and share the ones that, in their professional opinion, will make the greatest impact. Perhaps it is an imperfect system, but it works.
(1) A brief search for Pagan books on Amazon shows somewhere north of seven thousand titles. From any historical perspective, that is a lot of books.
(2) These comments in their original form can be found in the comments for Pondering Occult Personality in Modern Witchcraft on A Modern Traditional Witch by Laura Tempest Zakroff.
(3) Forty-five years later, we take the idea of “ethnic” magic for granted. But if we examine this practice, there are some interesting implications. Pagan “ethnic” magic arose as it abandoned fixation on the lineage model. If I am right, this was not a coincidence.
As briefly mentioned in Three Gates to Transformation, the everyday person’s “identity” is the where they spend their spiritual resources. Each of us, like all living beings, draws vitality from the fundamental ground of existence. Humans, being self-aware, transmute that fount of life into a construct that is designed to protect us and keep up separate from the larger universe. And we feel like that construct is who we are.
In short, “identity” is where we expend nearly all of our sacred power. In order to free up resources, we might reduce the drain identity puts on our resources. But an alternative approach is to use that “identity” as a battery. We can infer from this that Westerners use “identity” as a hook for accessing the spirit because the identity is the part of us closest to our source of magic.
(4) A “101 book” is any introductory grimoire that is designed to get people through the basics of training. They are named after university courses that are the primers for college majors. They are, in a larger context, magical textbooks designed to be the first book you ever pick up.
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