Sunday Surprise – What Is A Book Of Shadows

June 29, 2008 at 3:15 pm (Book of Shadows, Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Elements, History, Lore, Ritual, Spells, Sunday)

I could use this day and space to do a general Lammas/Lughnassadh overview, but that wouldn’t really be a surprise, would it? And today’s theme is “Sunday Surprise”. So I decided to deviate from the expected, and do an overview of Books of Shadows .

According to it’s most basic definition, a Book of Shadows is a book of spells or rituals copied by hand. That’s crucial; by definition, a Book of Shadows is a personalized, hand-written book, No two are identical, if only because the handwriting is different. Although various authors have published their personal Book of Shadows, these are usually intended as guidelines or methods of preserving traditions. If you use a printed, published Book of Shadows for spellcasting, which many do, then by definition it is being used in the manner of a grimoire. In order to possess an authentic Book of Shadows it must be hand-written even if all you do is copy it word for word. A not insubstantial portion of the tradition’s power and beauty derives from the magical art of putting pen to paper.

Books of Shadows derive from the notion that because magical practices and/or pagan religion were persecuted with total eradication as the goal, witches (variously defined) kept secret books. Secrecy was crucial because possession of a magical or pagan text (and that’s a distinction the Inquisition would nor have made) was grounds for arrest and conviction for witchcraft. The title of the genre, which may or may not have been coined by Gerald Gardner, father of modern Wicca, refers to the necessity of keeping these books hidden or in the shadows.”

If one uses the purest, narrowest definition of a Book of Shadows as a hand-written, personalized book of rituals and magic, then in essence, all magical manuscripts created prior to the invention of the printing press, not least the medieval grimoires, are Books of Shadows. They were, by necessity, hand-copied. There was no other way to make a book.

However, that pure, narrow definition of Book of Shadows is rarely used, and the equation of then with medieval grimoires would horrify, appall and anger many Wiccans, because a Book of Shadows is more than just a handwritten ritual guide.

Many would object to considering medieval grimoires as Books of Shadows because these grimoires are virtually all associated with a type of selfish, frequently malevolent, male-orientated sorcery, heavily steeped in Christianity (many who used and perhaps wrote then were theologians) and with a type of magic that is diametrically opposed to traditional Earth-centered witchcraft,

Historic Books of Shadows, as opposed to those created in the wake of Gerald Gardner, are understood to have been books written by individual female witches or by covens in a desperate attempt to keep traditions alive. They are shadowy because normally this material would never have been written down but transmitted orally-but desperate times required desperate action.

This is the definition of Book of Shadows as taught by Gerald Gardner, who claimed to have learned of the tradition when he was initiated into a long- secret coven. Gardner wrote his own Book of Shadows together with Doreen Valiente and Aliester Crowley, and this book is among the bedrock on which Gardnerian Wicca is formed.

Since Gardner, Books of Shadows are an integral part of Wiccan religion, manifesting in various ways.

  • Solitary witches may create their own book to suit personal needs

  • Some traditions maintain one copy, entrusted to the High Priest or High Priestess; initiated individuals may copy from the book as needed

  • In some traditions, initiation involves copying and understanding the Book of Shadows over an extended period of time

  • Not all traditions create Books of Shadows; some prefer not to put everything in writing.

In this sense Books of Shadows transcends spells. They are books of ritual. If one belongs to a specific spiritual or witchcraft tradition, this sacred book is where the laws, rituals, spells, and crucial information of that tradition are written.

This notion of the historical Book of Shadows grounded in the witch hunts is controversial. Academics specializing in witchcraft often object to it, convinced it didn’t exist. Many believe Gerald Gardner created the concept himself and only claimed that the tradition was old, similar in fashion to the way grimoires authored in the eighteenth century claim to be based on ancient manuscripts, Because so few ancient magical or pagan texts survived, it’s impossible to verify – or disprove – these claims.

Scholarly objection stems mainly from the fact that the type of witch Gardner describes tends to be female and is generally believed to be at best functionally illiterate. However, this is assumption and incredibly difficult to prove, one way or anther.

Witch-trial records do show that when witches were burned, books were burned with them, However, because the books were burned there is little if any evidence of what was burned. It’s an old political trick; first burn the evidence, then say the evidence didn’t exist. And maybe it didn’t. Maybe the scholars are right. But maybe they’re wrong – at least some of the time, Secrets have a way of emerging from the shadows: one historical reference survives. According to seventeenth-century Venetian Inquisition records, charges of witchcraft were levied against a woman names Laura Malipero. When the agents of the inquisition searched her home the discovered a copy of the banned grimoire The Key of Solomon, together with a private, hand written book of spells and rituals into which Laura had copied portions of that classical grimoire. Laura Malipero was obviously not illiterate. Her handwritten book fulfills Gerald Gardner’s concept of the individual witch’s Book of Shadows and straddles the fine line between them and medieval grimoires.

And whether Gerald Gardner or someone else made up the notion of Books of Shadows may be irrelevant; it is a beautiful tradition.The completed books (and some are never complete, perpetual works in progress) are beautifully embellished works of art, power, magic, and spirituality, Some are written in magical scripts, some are illustrated. No two are exactly alike,

Wiccan Books of Shadows are traditionally kept secret, Many covens administer an oath of secrecy to initiates, You have to enter and commit yourself to that twilight world of shadows to gain access.

Source: The Element Encyclopedia Of Witchcraft:

Disclaimer: No one involved in this blog or its contents may be held responsible for any adverse reactions arising from following any of the instructions/recipes on this list. It is the reader’s personal responsibility to exercise all precautions and use his or her own discretion if following any instructions or advice from this blog.

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1 Comment

  1. Thursday This Is Your Spell Swap – Monday Make A Child’s Book of Shadows « A Witch In Time…Wandering The Path of Life said,

    […] more ideas on creating a book of shadows, you can go here, here, and […]

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