Books for Beginners

Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order.

The Spiral Dance

Starhawk

The Spiral Dance was written around 1979, when there were almost no beginner Wiccan or Pagan books on the market. Many, many people were introduced to the Craft through this book. It’s well-structured and full of great information and extremely useful exercises, meditations, and rituals. I have some quibbles with Starhawk’s view of the Goddess in history, and this book is a bit female-centric, but it is gorgeously written and can help women and men alike build a strong foundational practice. Get the most updated version if you can.

Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner

Scott Cunningham

Some people have made the argument that solitary Wicca exists because of this book. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but Cunningham was certainly one of the first to take all of the core ideas and practices of Wicca and make them useful, accessible, and practical for solitary Wiccans. This book and the follow-up, Living Wicca: A Further Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, are clear, easy to follow, and deceptively simple. There’s a lot more meat in these titles than what’s obvious at first glance. A beginner could practice Wicca for quite a while using these two books alone.

Positive Magic

Marion Weinstein

Personally, I see Wicca as a path of transformation, so I love that Weinstein writes that the purpose of our path is to “transform, uplift, and so fully develop the self that the whole Universe may benefit thereby.” Positive Magic covers the beginner basics while focusing on ethics in a positive, warm, and accessible way. The Words of Power are particularly useful.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft

Denise Zimmerman & Katherine Gleason

Yes, you read that right. I’m recommending an “Idiot’s Guide” book. Why? Because it is an easy-to-understand, comprehensive, “just the facts, ma’am” introduction to Wicca that gives an overview of everything from history to deities to magic and even throws in some astrology for good measure. The tone is light, positive, and practical, and the content is broken up into easily digestible chunks. Will it become your book of shadows? No. Is it a sound jumping-off point for deeper exploration and practice? Absolutely.

A Book of Pagan Rituals

Ed Fitch

Legend has it that after Alex Sanders published King of the Witches, in which he said he was initiated by his grandmother into an ancient Craft tradition, there was a rash of Wiccans claiming that they, too, were initiated by their grandmothers into traditions as old as the cave paintings. As evidence they offered up some lovely rituals that supposedly came down to them through the ages, but which were traced back to this book, which was written around 1974. This earned Ed Fitch the affectionate nickname “Grandma Fitch” and enshrined this book as a Wiccan classic. It is a very useful collection of rituals that are great as written or easily adapted to suit your needs.

Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium

Vivianne Crowley

Crowley applies Jungian theory to describe Wicca not only from a practical point of view, but also from a psychological and sociological one. This book provides a solid, thorough foundation in the Wiccan basics, with a lot of exploration of why Wiccans do what they do. It has more of a traditional than an eclectic perspective, but it can be useful and thought-provoking for anyone learning Wicca. I recommend reading it after finishing a couple of the more “nuts and bolts” titles, because it’s the kind of book that will have you deepening your exploration of the path. A personal favorite.

The Inner Temple of Witchcraft

Christopher Penczak

The first three things I teach my students are grounding, meditation, and visualization. The Inner Temple of Witchcraft is a thorough introduction to these types of practices and psychic and energy work, all of which are foundational to Wicca. This book goes beyond the mechanics of Wiccan practice and gets into the why and the how. It’s particularly useful for beginners who have trouble initially visualizing or meditating, which—judging by the questions in my inbox—is pretty common.

Ancient Ways: Reclaiming Pagan Traditions

Pauline & Dan Campanelli

The Campanellis have written several books, all of which attempt to help readers reconnect with the cycles of the seasons and integrate magic into their daily lives. Ancient Ways includes rituals and crafts for each of the eight Wiccan sabbats. The Campanellis’ strength lies in how beautifully they evoke the feeling of each sabbat, and Ancient Ways will help you think meaningfully about what each one means to you. The material is a little bit on the bucolic fantasy side—it’s hard to achieve some of what they suggest if you are a city-dweller—but it’s warm and inviting, like sitting by the fire drinking chamomile tea, and it will definitely bring out your latent Martha Stewart.

Witchcraft Today

Gerald Gardner

Whether they’re eclectic or traditional, many—if not most—Wiccan practices today have their roots in the work of Gerald Gardner. Gardner’s books, published in the 1950s, brought Wicca into the public consciousness. Rather than being a “how-to” book, Witchcraft Today describes practices and beliefs of a group of Witches Gardner met in the New Forest in England in the 1930s, and details Gardner’s (sometimes fanciful) theories on where their traditions originated. Gardner, like anthropologist Margaret Murray, believed the Wicca he found was the survival of ancient Pagan religion. This theory has been largely discredited, and Gardner’s writing is a rambling reminder of the Victorian age in which he was born, but this book gives valuable insight into the philosophical underpinnings that gave birth to modern Wicca.

Witchcraft for Tomorrow

Doreen Valiente

If Gerald Gardner is the father of modern Wicca, Doreen Valiente—who was one of his priestesses and is credited with writing many poetic ritual texts—is its mother. Witchcraft for Tomorrow is a very accessible, down-to-earth beginning book that includes both Wiccan basics and a full book of shadows.

Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca

Isaac Bonewits

This is a collection of writings from the late, great Isaac Bonewits. It’s a concise, thoughtful, honest, and irreverent look at the history and practice of modern Wicca and Witchcraft. If you’re a fan of cutting through the fat to get to the meat, this book is for you. Bonus points for including Jenny Gibbons’ excellent essay “Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt,” which (in my opinion) should be required reading for new Wiccans.

Finally, at the risk of sounding a little self-serving, I’d like to recommend my own beginner book, the oh-so-creatively titled Wicca for Beginners. It’s a practical, down-to-earth introduction to Wicca with lots of helpful exercises. I think it’s pretty cool.

The Wiccan Welcome Wagon

There’s a weird paradox with open Wiccan events. Many of these events exist to help newcomers learn more about Wicca and get a foothold in the community while providing local Wiccans a chance to do ritual or socialize together. But when a community comes together regularly—even if there’s acrimony and witch-bitching between some of the members—it forms a culture with relationships and expected behaviors. These dynamics are often just background noise to longtime members who figured them out long ago, but they’re unintentionally off-putting to newcomers. The shared history and behaviors make it appear as if the established members are closing ranks rather than welcoming people with open arms.

You’re reaching out to groups so you can learn more, but an important thing to remember is that you joining a group will change the group as much as it changes you. Bringing in new people means group dynamics will shift, new relationships will be formed, and old relationships may change—not to mention having to build trust with new people. It can be a lot of work, and some established social groups are happy the way they are and don’t want to put the effort into accommodating new people. The truth is, when it comes to group dynamics, Wiccans are just like anybody else. Some are more sensitive to newcomers’ needs, some are oblivious, and some are afraid of change.

Oftentimes larger events, such as annual festivals with camping, have some sort of Wiccan Welcome Wagon, which can consist of anything from designating people to greet and help get newcomers oriented, to workshops geared toward new people. But at smaller events, the onus is probably going to be on you, not the organizers.

Here are some things to try when reaching out to people in an established group or community. Some of these will sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t do them.

Before the Event

Make sure you read the event website before attending. It may include important information about parking or public transportation; policies about bringing food, pets, or alcohol; policies about children; what to wear and/or expect at the event; and whether there’s a fee.

If you’ve read through the site and still have questions, ask the contact person your questions before the event. Be aware that he or she may not be able to get back to you quickly. Don’t waste his or her time by asking a question that’s already been answered on the website.

Be on time, if there’s a set arrival time. Yes, Pagan Standard Time may be in play—which means things start when they start, rather than when it says they start—but getting there on time shows respect and helps the group get going sooner.

If the event information says to bring something—potluck food item, beverage, ritual robe—bring the item unless doing so would cause a financial hardship.

When you reach the site, introduce yourself to a few people. Don’t just hang back and get lost in the crowd, waiting for someone to notice you. But don’t corner someone into talking to you, either.

During the Event

Be polite. It will help people trust you more quickly, or at least not write you off right away.

Find out who the group leader(s) are. If they’re not so busy managing the event that interrupting them would cause problems, introduce yourself ask them if you can help set up.

Show interest in things people are doing, and ask polite questions. People enjoy talking about the things they love, so this can open a conversation. It also shows people that you’re willing to put in a little time to get to know them.

Don’t interrupt a conversation to ask questions or introduce yourself. Nothing will make you look and feel more like an interloper. Wait for a pause in conversation and make eye contact before you speak.

Don’t interrupt a ritual unless something is on fire or someone’s safety is at stake. You’re in space that’s sacred to the people you’re trying to get to know, so show respect for what the group is trying to do.

If there is a speaker at the event you particularly enjoyed, tell him or her you enjoyed the talk and why. Be sensitive to the fact that the person might be tired and need a break. Sometimes presenters give out contact information, so you can also ask questions after the event.

If you’re at a camping event where you have to sign up for a work shift, use this opportunity to get to know the other people on your shift. It’s much less intimidating than trying to join a larger group, and if you strike up a conversation, the work shift will seem to go faster.

If it’s appropriate, bring something to do that tells people a little bit about you. For example, my husband always brings carving tools to camping events. People ask him about his work or if he can help them with one of their projects, and he gets to know them while talking about something he loves.

After the Event

Thank the organizers, tell them specifically what you liked about the event, and offer to help clean up.

If there’s a mailing list, get your name on it. Show that you’re interested in learning more.

If you’re interested in studying a particular tradition or skill—such as divination or herbalism—ask the event organizers if they know anyone in the community who teaches it. It shows interest in the community, and event organizers often know a lot of people and can make recommendations.

Realize that you may need to go to several events before some people will be convinced you’re going to stick around. They’re less likely to invest in a friendship with someone who is only going to come once or twice, so they may not reach out to you until you’ve been around for a while.

Thank You, Carl

Many years ago, I saw an ad in the Minneapolis paper placed by Llewellyn Worldwide for an editor with a very particular set of skills. No, not Liam Neeson’s “particular set of skills,” although that would have made for a good story. Instead it was the rather weird combination (for that time) of editing, book layout in Quark Xpress (the absolute bomb back then), and a working knowledge of astrology, Wicca, and organic gardening. I’m rather weird myself, so I could do all those things, and my husband and I were living on peanut butter and ramen, so I applied.

I went into my interview with birth chart in hand, because they were particularly interested in the astrology. After a round of questions with various people and an astrology test, everyone left the room, and the owner of the company, Carl Weschcke, came in with a big smile on his face. I liked him right away. He asked me about my astrology background, and we prattled on for a long time, during which I told him about my grandmother, a professional astrologer whom I’d adored and who had taught me a lot about astrology, and that I’d literally teethed on astrology books—including a rather tattered copy of Heaven Knows What, a Llewellyn classic.

As I described my grandmother to Carl, he grew thoughtful, and when I’d finished, he trotted off to his office and came back carrying a book. He told me that fifteen or twenty years earlier, an older woman had come to him and insisted he publish a book she’d found by a Japanese man about the power of positive thought and its impact on recovering from illness. She brought Carl the book, in which she’d made copious notes, and pressed it on him with nearly evangelical fervor. Carl had decided not to publish the book, but he remembered the woman because she was smart and insistent, but also because she firmly believed the book had saved her life. He’d kept the book, and he handed it to me in that interview.

I opened it, and it was indeed full of notes—in my grandmother’s handwriting. It made me tear up, because she’d died since and I missed her terribly, and I couldn’t believe Carl not only remembered her from years before, but also that he’d hung on to the book. Carl gave me the book—which I still have—and the job.

I worked at Llewellyn for five years, and it was a wonderful, difficult, exhilarating ride. I learned a ton about editing, making books, and interacting with authors. I crunched hundreds of lines of ephemeris data. I worked with creative, funny people who cared deeply about what they did, and hundreds of writers—some wacky, some wonderful, some both. I got to work on a revision of Heaven Knows What. I helped dye a package of lutefisk blue for a particularly weird secret Santa gift. (Llewellyn is very into holiday celebrations, especially Halloween. Check out their Facebook page for photos.) I traveled and met some extraordinary people, a few of whom changed my life in powerful, lasting ways. And eventually I wrote two books for Llewellyn myself. All of this because Carl had fond memories of a little old lady who tried to badger him into publishing a book.

So I was very sad today to hear about Carl’s passing. I haven’t spoken to him for a long time, but I was very fond of him. He gave me my first job in an industry I love. He was kind to me even when I disagreed with him. He stood up for me against a particularly obnoxious potential author who thought I couldn’t possibly be competent because I was female. He encouraged me to think about things in new ways. And when I left Llewellyn, he gave me a hug, and we both got teary.

There are people out there who gripe about some of Llewellyn’s books. Truth be told, I’m not a fan of some of the books either. No publisher is perfect. But I respect the fact that Carl dedicated his life to publishing books that opened people’s minds and helped them explore possibilities and expand their consciousness. That he would publish ten beginner books so he could afford to publish one more obscure one—such as Three Books of Occult Philosophy—that would benefit the community but would never be a big seller. That he believed firmly in and worked to defend civil rights and freedom of speech. He’s left one hell of a legacy, and I think the world is a little less shiny tonight with his passing.

Thank you for everything, Carl. I will miss you.

 

Pentacles and Pentagrams: What’s the Difference?

A pentagram is a five-pointed star, usually depicted as interwoven, or with the lines used to draw it overlapping. A pentacle is a pentagram with a circle around it. Pentagrams and pentacles have long been symbols of protection and warding off evil, and they are used for that purpose by many Wiccans today.

A Little History

Pentagrams have been used for thousands of years and appear in ancient Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian art. They have been used by Christians, too—perhaps most famously by Hildegard of Bingen, who, along with other twelfth-century Christian scholars, associated the number five with the five senses and the human body (one head, two arms, and two legs; it reminds me a bit of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man), and saw it as the symbol of the microcosm, or the divine reflected on earth. The symbolism of the pentacle plays an important role in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and of course it is also associated with the Christmas star and sits atop the Christmas tree in many Christian homes.

The pentagram has been used extensively by practitioners of alchemy and high magic (both past and present), including Cornelius Agrippa and Eliphas Levi, who developed the Tetragrammaton Pentagram. The pentagram was adopted by fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons and the Order of the Eastern Star, which associates each point with a woman from the bible.

So, Is It Satanic?

The pentagram is usually depicted with one point up and two points down (again, a bit like Vitruvian Man), but Eliphas Levi postulated that if the upright pentagram symbolized the divine, the inverted pentagram (two points up, one point down) could symbolize the opposite of God, which to many is the devil or Satan. People still associate the inverted pentagram with the devil, and logo of the Church of Satan includes an inverted pentagram containing the face of Baphomet. But the inverted pentagram symbolizes non-Satanic things as well; in the Order of the Eastern Star, for example, the bottom point of the pentacle points down to Jesus’ manger, which is about as anti-Satan as you can get.

What Does It Mean to Wiccans?

I shouldn’t have to say this, but I’m going to anyway: the pentagram and the pentacle as used in Wicca have nothing to do with Satan, no matter what Hollywood or your misinformed neighbor would have you believe. To a Wiccan, a pentagram or pentacle is a powerful, positive symbol that can mean:

  • The four elements (air, fire, water, and earth) bound with spirit (usually pentacle)
  • The human figure
  • The union of male and female
  • Wholeness or manifestation (usually pentacle)
  • Five fingers/the human hand; what humans are able to do or manifest
  • Protection

In Wicca, the pentacle can also be a flat disc made of wood, metal, or clay that is inscribed with a pentagram inside a circle. It sits on the altar and is used in ritual and magic for manifestation and protection. And sometimes Wiccans draw pentagrams during ritual in the air to represent or manifest the four elements. They usually (but not always) invoke air in the east, fire in the south, water in the west, and earth in the north. The pentacles for each element are drawn starting at a different point on the star. Some Wiccans also add a pentagram for spirit.

So, Should I Wear One?

Wiccans often wear pentacle jewelry as a symbol of their faith—like a Christian might wear a cross—or as a protection symbol. I’ve seen more than a few Wiccans with pentacle or pentagram tattoos. Some Wiccans only wear them in ritual. Others wear them all the time, and still others don’t wear them at all. The choice is a deeply personal one.

Being “loud and proud” and wearing a prominent pentacle is more and more accepted in the U.S. than it used to be, but bear in mind that non-Wiccans may assume it’s a satanic symbol and feel compelled to approach you about it. This can be a chance to break down the negative associations with the pentagram by telling someone about the positive meaning of the symbol. Unfortunately it can also inspire someone to “witness,” lecture, insult, shun, or—in rare and extreme cases—harass or assault you.

If you want to wear a pentacle but are a private person, or you just don’t want to be asked about your religion, you can there are options that are less noticeable. There are designs that incorporate a pentagram but aren’t pentagram-shaped, and also subtler rings and earrings. If you wear a necklace, you can keep it in or out of your shirt, depending on your mood. I’ve also seen people draw a pentacle or pentagram on the back of a pendant so the symbol sits against their skin. You can wear the symbol on a t-shirt under another shirt (I have yet to see pentagram Underoos, which seems like a missed marketing opportunity for somebody). You can also draw a pentacle or pentagram on yourself with salt water, or visualize a pentagram on yourself before you go out for the day.

However you choose to wear your pentagram or pentacle, be aware that Wiccans have a longstanding joke about jewelry; it’s generally considered tacky or a sign of a newbie to wear a pentagram the size of a hood ornament.

A Huge Loss

Twenty years ago, when I first met Mary Kay, she told me proudly, “I’m a religious fanatic.” This unsettled me a bit since I don’t have positive associations with that phrase, but before long I realized that Mary Kay loved the Craft more than almost anyone I know. She was an insatiable learner, and her heart’s desire was to capture those fleeting, transcendent moments where we touch the divine. She was “fanatical” in the sense that gaining this understanding was the foundation and driving force behind nearly everything she did.

Mary Kay was raised Christian on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, and she threw herself first into that faith, even traveling to Haiti to do missionary work. But once she was introduced to Wicca by a friend, she felt as though she’d come home. She was initiated into the Gardnerian tradition, and together with Patrick–the other love of her life–she eventually started her own coven. I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat for most of it, and I became their first initiate.

As a teacher, Mary Kay thought of her students as peers, and believed that everyone, regardless of experience, could bring good ideas and insights to the table, and that each person she taught had things to teach her in return. When she asked us what we thought about something, she actually wanted to know. She understood that the process of teaching is really the process of learning.

She and Patrick both absolutely hated the idea of coven as cult of personality or as a group of seekers blindly following a guru. Mary Kay could be fierce and stubborn when she felt injustice had been done, and fought hard, almost until her death, for people she felt had been wronged by their coven leaders or the greater Gardnerian community. This made her some enemies, and it would be wrong to say she didn’t care about that, but she strongly believed standing up for someone without a voice was more important than her personal political capital.

Mary Kay was endlessly curious about the origins of her tradition, and she loved a spirited debate about any aspect of the Craft. She did a tremendous amount of research on it, chasing down obscure writings and seeking out and corresponding with Gardnerians from around the world. This required crossing some political lines and breaking some cultural taboos, which was a little intimidating to her at first. But she had a very strong sense of fairness, and by breaking the unwritten “rules” about who talks to whom, she helped punch holes in ridiculous and artificial boundaries between Gardnerian groups and empower others to do the same. This work by Mary and others and the blossoming of the Internet have allowed us to share things in ways we never dreamed of before.

She was extremely generous in sharing what she learned with her students as well. After I left Minneapolis, she would call me, excited, and tell me about her discoveries, and email me the new treasures she’d found. And when I had my own students, we had “Stump Mary Kay” nights, where we’d get her on the speakerphone and my students would try to come up with questions about the tradition she couldn’t answer. They almost never succeeded.

Perhaps most important, Mary Kay loved with her whole heart, without reservation, and in a way that was utterly authentic. She adored Patrick, and anyone else who was fortunate enough to be her friend gained a steadfast ally. When she was hurt or betrayed by those she loved, she didn’t let that stop her from putting herself out there to love again. She had no guile–what you saw is what you got–and she had no qualms about making fun of herself. We often teased her about her love of butt rock, ability to reduce us to hysterics by invoking the quarters in her creepily accurate impression of South Park’s Eric Cartman, and her oft-stated desire to be the filling in a Supernatural Winchester brothers sandwich cookie. But even in her goofiest moments, her love of Craft was ever-present.

As Mary Kay died, Patrick held her hand, I held his, and my husband held us both, so she was surrounded by people who loved her. I feel I’ve lost one of the best friends I’ve ever had and one of my life’s anchors. I know that if the Summerlands exist, she is already enfolded in the arms of her beloved gods. But I’d give just about anything to hear her tell me one more time to get my hands off of her Cheesy Poofs.