My essential Pagan reading
by Jason Mankey
My piece on Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft opened with some comments on the Huffington Post Essential Pagan Reading list. That prompted Peg Aloi over at the Witching Hour to ask me for my essential Pagan Reading List. I’m always wary of lists like this. You’ll never please everyone, and even if you try some old crank like myself will complain that you overdid it. (Which was essentially my problem with the HuffPo list since it contained 29 books.)
I’ve divided my list up into three parts. Part one is “overview books” which contain information that most of us would feel is “essential” to Modern Paganism. I’m well aware that not all Pagans are Wiccans, but my list is heavily slanted that way since Eclectic Wicca is the predominant form of Modern Paganism. I’m also a practicing Wiccan, and I’ll admit to having a bias. Even people who don’t like the terms “Witch” and “Wiccan” have been influenced by it. This part of the list does contain a book discussing nearly every Modern Pagan tradition, so I’m not totally ignoring other traditions (or saying they are less important, because they aren’t).
The second part of my list is a bit more advanced, and could probably be looked at as my five “less essential” books. While Triumph of the Moon remains an important book, I honestly don’t expect everyone out there in Pagandom to read it. My wife, who is extremely intelligent, just doesn’t have it in her to read history books published by Oxford Press. I suspect she’s not alone; academic type reading is not for everyone, nor should it be, so consider the second five books to be for those who really love reading.
The third part of the list consists of classics from mostly long ago pagan days. We still build most of our rituals around ancient mythology, so what’s wrong with reading some? I think a good working knowledge of the gods is an important thing, whether or not you even believe in them. Just like part two of my list, not everyone is going to have the patience to slog through all of Bullfinch. However if you are someone who writes a lot of rituals or feels a particular affinity towards the Greek/Roman Gods it’s certainly something you should read.
All the links on this list will take you to Goodreads. I debated using Amazon, but if you can, you should probably support your local occult/Pagan/New Age Bookstore. Please leave some feedback on the list — you never know who might benefit from your book recommendations. Also, since I try to keep my posts here under 2,000 words, I didn’t get into why some books didn’t make the list. If you are curious about my choices I’ll do my best to give you some insight into my thinking.
Essential reading, part one
“The Spiral Dance” by Starhawk. The type of Witchcraft written about by Starhawk is not what I practice, but this book has influenced so much of Pagandom that it’s impossible to ignore. Starhawk changed the game, infusing Modern Witchcraft with social activism and a deep feminist bent. Starhawk is also one of the most talented writers to ever pen a “how to” book.
“Wicca: A Guide For the Solitary Practitioner” by Scott Cunningham. Most of us probably start out as solitaries, or at least do solitary work at home, as a result Wicca has become an essential text. I know, two books in and it’s all Witchcraft so far, but an essential reading list should be about books that are actually available at Barnes and Noble or your local used bookstore. I re-read Wicca a few months ago and I’m not sure it’s aged well (especially the rituals), but it remains an excellent starting point.
“Being a Pagan: Druids, Wiccans, and Witches Today” by Ellen Evert Hopman and Lawrence Bond (alternate title People of the Earth). In my mind, BaP is the most interesting overview of the various modern traditions that most of us think of as “Pagan.” About the only unfortunate thing about this book is that it’s destined to wind up as a “snap-shot in time.” In twenty years much of it will read like ancient history, but in 2012 it still provides the best overview of a variety of Pagan practices. This is also my attempt to acknowledge Asatru, Druidry, and more in this list.
“The Witches’ Goddess” by Janet and Stewart Farrar. TWG is full of goddess lore, rituals, and history. It’s not perfect, but for a perfectly acceptable look at The Lady in all of Her forms it’s hard to beat. I don’t think we read enough about what we worship. Ritual instruction is fine, but who exactly are we lighting those candles for?
“The Witches’ God” by Janet and Stewart Farrar. Obviously this is a companion piece to The Witches’ Goddess, and it doesn’t disappoint. Very few books talk about The God in all of his myriad forms, so to find a book that does talk about Him and does so intelligently and eloquently makes it one of my essentials.
Five possibly less essential, but still very important, books
“Triumph of the Moon” by Ronald Hutton. Triumph stirs strong feelings in the Pagan Community. There are many who praise Hutton’s rigorous academic approach towards shedding light on our origins, and there are just as many folks who have serious reservations and disagreements with it. No matter where one stands on Triumph it remains essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the origins of Modern Paganism.
“Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival” by Philip Heselton. No book makes a better argument for Gerald Gardner being initiated into a coven of Witches in 1939. I’m not sure Heselton “proves” anything in Wiccan Roots, but he does open a door of possibility, and he opens it very wide indeed. This and Triumph (along with Doreen Valiente’s Rebirth of Witchcraft) are among the best books written on the origins of Modern Paganism.
“A Witches’ Bible” by Janet and Stewart Farrar. I really didn’t mean to make this a list about Janet and Stewart Farrar, but I just couldn’t help myself. What I love most about this book are how serious the rituals are. There’s real meat (or tofu) in this book, something that’s often lacking in other “how to” volumes. When I’m writing an open ritual and looking for inspiration, this is the book I turn to. It’s probably a little heavy and a little too British for a lot of folks, but the ideas in it are pretty adaptable to any situation.
“Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches” by Charles Godfrey Leyland. (Since Aradia is in the public domain there are several different editions of it. My favorite is the revised edition by Mario Pazzaglini which contains extra information.) Aradia contains the legends, mythos, and folk magick of an alleged group of Italian Witches. Aradia has a hold on the occult community since it was first published in 1899, and many of the things Modern Witches do come directly from its pages. It’s not always a comfortable read, but it remains an important one.
“Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism” by Issac Bonewits. Hey, I’m getting away from my Wiccan bias! It’s hard to be a Modern Pagan and not have some interest in Druids or Druidry. Even if you have no interest in Druids, as a topic of conversation within Pagandom it’s almost impossible to escape. Bonewits writes about both ancient and modern Druids, and does so while using actual facts (something a lot of “Druid Writers” have trouble with).
Mythologies and/or older and crustier books that might not be all that fun to read, but still remain essential
“Bullfinch’s Mythology” by Thomas Bullfinch. When I was in junior high I read the “three volume” version containing the Ages of Fable (Mostly Greek/Roman Mythology) and Chivalry (King Arthur), along with the Legends of Charlemagne. That’s still the version I suggest, but the Age of Fable portion is probably the most important for our purposes, and remains the most well known. The Age of Fable also contains some Hindu, Celtic, Egyptian, and Norse myths, though those collections are far from complete. Bullfinch’s retellings can be a bit bland, but they remain the most well known versions of many of our most cherished myths.
“Penguin Book of Norse Myths: Gods of the Vikings” by Kevin Crossley-Holland. There are several books of Norse myth available, this is a pretty basic one recommended to those whose understanding of Norse Mythology comes from the movie Thor. I’d be wary of picking up a bargain book on Norse Myth, much higher likelihood of mistakes and/or inaccurate information. In other words, make sure you pick up a collection from a reputable publisher.
“The Mabinogion by Lady” Charlotte Guest (and others, there have been many translations over the years). I’ll admit to not being a big fan of the Mabinogion. Out of all the mythology listed in this section it’s the one I find the most dull (and I’ll use this opportunity to fess up to my Hellenism), but “Celtic” (or Welsh in this case) ideas and mythology infuse a lot of Modern Paganism. Because of that, it’s something people should be familiar with.
“The Witch Cult in Western Europe” by Margaret Murray. Since Murray has been discredited by most modern scholars, this book is kind of like mythology, so it’s inclusion in this section of my list makes perfect sense. Even though I think Witch Cult is largely false, it’s still an essential Pagan building block. There are many Pagans today who still buy the Murray Thesis (that those who were executed during the Renaissance/Middle Ages were practicing an organized “Witch Religion”), I’m not one of those folks, but I understand why the idea is so appealing and so many people hold onto it.
“The White Goddess” by Robert Graves. To me, The White Goddess is prose poetry. It’s a stunning collection of re-imagined mythology and lore that has had a strong impact on Modern Paganism. Graves was not an historian so some of what he writes about has to be taken with a large grain of salt, but that doesn’t detract from the power of the writing or the influence it has had on many of us.