You’re a new witch* and excited to be learning as much as you can about Wicca. You have been steadily building your reference library. Happily, you attend the teaching circles from a local coven and the public open circles from another local coven. On the whole, you feel confident and delighted with your new found faith. Only one problem is in front of you – your first Book of Shadows. You have lots of questions. What do you put into your Book of Shadows? What is the best type of book to use? Should it be hand written or typed? Can it have illustrations?
Several common misconceptions surround the Book of Shadows. A few Traditions* strongly encourage the practitioner to hand write their Book of Shadows. These Traditions, however, are in the minority. The reason given for hand writing one’s Book of Shadows (BoS) are varied. The most popular is the argument that it serves to make the BoS more uniquely one’s own by way of the additional effort incorporated. This argument does not preclude the typing or other possible methods of assembling a BoS. The key to making the BoS your own is the effort you put into it. Any personalizing touches you include by way of scrap-booking or illustrations only serves to heighten this quality.
The second most popular argument is that it is the ‘traditional’ way to do so and has been held over from during the Burning Times**. This second argument fails to consider that a large many of the folk practitioners of magic were illiterate. The traditional method of passing on knowledge actually is via oral tradition such as folk remedies and old wive’s tales. It was during the post Victorian era when it started to become popular to view the earlier eras with a romantic perspective. Thus, all the victims of the Burning Times became persecuted women; Ceremonial magic was the predominant form of magic; and secret societies were the latest fad. As with all popular trends, this one waned but left a significant body of work behind it.***
From the people outside of the pagan community, the BoS is frequently viewed as a collection of spells and pacts made with an assortment of malevolent beings, chief of which is the ubiquitous Devil of Christianity. This belief is an echo of older concepts that were set down in the Malleus Maleficarum, the infamous Hammer of Witches, a guide for Inquisitors and others engaged in the work of witch-hunting. It is possible to encounter people who continue to argue that witches are in some form of relationship with the Christian Devil and there by derive their ‘powers.’ This argument is nonsensical when viewed in the light of the beliefs of Wicca and mainstream modern witchcraft.
The role of the Book of Shadows in modern witchcraft is multifaceted. Firstly, it is a journal of the experiences of a given witch in their growth and development in their faith. It is also a notebook of spells and their results, much like the lab notebook used in any of the hard sciences. The BoS is also a record of religious rituals of importance for the witch who owns it. As such a record, it will include liturgical notations and documents. The BoS further serves as a record of research and study conducted in various different aspects of one’s practice of Wicca. This can include herbalism, divination techniques, geomancy, and many other occult practices.*****
As one can tell, a BoS holds a great deal of information. Part of the key to a truly useful BoS is how easily one can access the information contained there in. Some witches use multiple books to comprise what others keep in a single volume. They have herbals, dream journals, spell books, and ritual books in addition to their BoS. In this situation, the BoS is most often more of a journal then a compilation of their work. The multiple book aspect doesn’t always appeal to a person and can be more confusing/upsetting then a single volume.
With a single volume book, it is helpful to divide it evenly into sections, reserving a single page to act as a table of contents. The different sections cover the various aspects of your practice of Wicca that you wish to explore or record for future reference. Sometimes, it is helpful to use a three-ring binder with tabbed dividers. Others apply dividers in blank books, labeled for their respective focuses. In either method, information is collected together and sorted according to topic.
Here, the witches who use their computer could be argued to have an advantage. The copying of researched material from the internet and other digital sources is accomplished in seconds rather then hours of effort. Regardless of the methodolgy used, it is wise to make sure that information does not get misfiled. Organization, by what ever method you prefer, is your biggest ally in keeping a BoS. As time passes, your BoS will expand. Even those who choose to use a single volume for their BoS will find that they fill up one volume and need another as they learn more on their path.
Here is a sample of how a BoS can be organized:
- Journal entries by date
- Rituals and notes by date
- Spells and their results
- Herbs and recipes
- Dream journal entries by date
- Divination notes by date
- Liturgical stories, chants, and ephemera
The addition of images, diagrams, tables, and similar items can be treated like any other contents of your BoS. If you are a person who loves scrap-booking and wishes to include elements of that into your BoS, you can easily do so. If you prefer strictly text based information, it also is possible. The personalization of your BoS is always an important part of this valuable tool. The most important thing is to remember that your BoS is uniquely yours and special because of the effort you have put into it.
* The terms Wicca and witchcraft are used interchangeably, except where noted. The term Wiccan and witch are also used interchangeably, except where noted.
** Tradition – another way to say sect or denomination of Wicca.
*** Burning Times – a euphemism for the period of time when people were burned at the stake and otherwise brutally murdered for crimes of heresy, including but not limited to witchcraft. The most well known events of this period are the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch trials.
**** An excellent book discussing the history of modern paganism is Jeffery B. Russell and Brook Alexander’s A History of Witchcraft.
***** The term ‘occult practices’ includes all practices engaged in by the community of pagans and magical practitioners that fall outside of the religious scope as understood by common convention. Thus, prayer, meditation techniques, and other commonly recognized religious activities are not considered ‘occult practices’ but rather liturgical.