What is a Book of Shadows?

Put simply, a Book of Shadows is a book containing details of spells, rituals, teachings and important texts found within the Wiccan religion. In Wicca’s early days, a Book of Shadows tended to be kept by the High Priest or Priestess of each coven. However, this proved to be an impractical idea and it is now common for each practising member of a Wiccan coven to have their own Book of Shadows.

Sometimes known as the Magical Grimoire or the Book of Magic, a Book of Shadows is part of a personal journey for each Wiccan and a tool that they simply would not be without. Let’s take a look at the history behind these arcane tomes and see just how you can go about making your own.

The founder of modern Wicca

The first Book of Shadows belonged to Gerald Gardner, a pioneering Wiccan who is often referred to as the founder of modern Wicca. In the late 1940s, Gardner decided to create a “personal cookbook of spells that have worked for the owner”. He recruited the help of his High Priestess, Doreen Valiente, and began to commit a number of spells to paper.

However, as the book grew, it became less of a spell book and more of a guide to the Wiccan faith. In it, he recorded details of rituals and rites and suggested that any Wiccans who wanted to could copy these notes, so that the Wiccan faith followed some sort of order. Gardner purported that the keeping of a Book of Shadows was an ancient tradition that dated back to medieval times.

However, Valiente told a slightly different story. She reports that Gardner discovered the term ‘Book of Shadows’ in an occultist magazine, The Occult Observer. This edition held an advertisement for Gardner’s latest novel. Opposite this was an article about an ancient method of Sanskrit divination, which involved measuring the length of someone’s shadow, in order to tell their future. This article was entitled ‘The Book of Shadows’. Valiente said that, regardless of how he came to choose the name, “it was a good name and it still is a good name, wherever Gardner found it.”

The High Priestess – author and editor

Valiente is credited as the co-author of that first book. However, even she admits that her role was more editorial than contributory. When she read Gardner’s first draft, she found that some sections of the work were direct transcriptions of work by the famous occultist Aleister Crowley and from various literatures recording the activities of Freemasons. Valiente reviewed Gardner’s draft and cut most of the plagiarised or lifted material, arguing that it didn’t give a fair representation of Wicca. However, some texts from their original source material remained and this book set the template for a branch of Wiccan thought, known today as Gardnerian Wicca.

Part of Gardner’s reason for creating the first Book of Shadows seems to be to through a desire to bring order to the rapidly spreading religion that was gaining ground in the UK. However, it also seemed that he wanted the religion to maintain some sense of mystery. Wiccans were forbidden to discuss the book outside of the faith and publication was strictly prohibited – although a few versions did make it to the printers’ presses.

In addition to trying to keep it a secret, Gardner advised that anyone who created their own Book of Shadows must follow an ancient rule and have their books burnt with them, at the time of their death. That way, no one would ever know that that person had ever been a witch and the secrecy of Wicca would be maintained.

Your own Book of Shadows

However, as Wicca evolved and changed, the idea of an all-governing book soon became outmoded. Certainly, there were – and still are – those who used Gardner’s tome as a template through which to conduct rituals and keep certain traditions alive. Yet Wicca evolved as a very personal religion and Wiccans were encouraged to keep their own books as records of their personal experiences - the “cookbook of spells”, rites, rituals and observations that Gardner had originally conceived. In some circles, these books are shared and their contents discussed. In others, they are passed down, rather than burnt, but some uphold Gardner’s wish that they be destroyed at the time of their owner’s passing.

Today, a Book of Shadows can take many forms. Some are leather-bound Grimoires, steeped in arcane ritual and Wiccan lore, while others are simply spiral-bound notebooks that serve as a personal record of the experiences of those who write them. However, Wicca is an evolving religion that likes to keep up with the times and there are even online Books of Shadows in which you can check out the experiences, observations, rites and rituals of other witches.

There is a certain amount of controversy over what makes a Book of Shadows. Some believe that they should be written on particular paper, using particular inks. However, most people who purport these ideas tend to be online merchants who will write a pseudo-Wiccan blog on the rules and regulations of authoring such a book. The truth is that it’s not the materials you use, but the content with which you fill it. A Book of Shadows is a personal and individual response to the Wiccan environment and lifestyle. Substance is the important thing, not the arcane bells and whistles that some so often mistake for authenticity.

21st Century Wicca

Contrary to his wishes, the first Book of Shadows wasn’t burnt with Gardner on his death. Copies of it were leaked to publishers and it can now be viewed freely on the Internet. Whatever Gardner’s true intent, he created a living record of the evolution and changes within the Wiccan movement. While it may have demystified the religion, it has also made its ideals and practices that much more accessible to those who think they feel the calling of a very personal belief system.

Wicca is an ever-changing religion and the existing Books of Shadows serve to keep it fresh and in touch with current challenges, whilst allowing its followers to refer to the lessons of the past – as recorded by fellow believers.


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