Amongst Wiccans and Witches, a book of shadows—often referred to as a BOS—is usually a collection of texts used in rituals, such as ritual scripts and stage directions, poetry and songs, spells, invocations, techniques and teachings, recipes, and sometimes ritual notes or journal entries. These items can be bound in an actual book, written into a blank book, stored in three-ring binders, or kept as Word or PDF files. We use the somewhat old-school “Great Green Three-Ringed Binder of the Arte” because it’s easy to rearrange pages and I don’t want to spill candle wax on a tablet. Some people even choose to write their books in calligraphy to infuse the book with their personal energy.
Types of BOS
There’s no one right way to keep a BOS, but they tend to fall into one of three categories.
Several Wiccan traditions have books of shadows that are handed down from teacher to student or from one coven to another. For example, a coven leader might give a copy of the group’s book to a person leaving to start his or her own coven. Hand-me-down books of shadows often contain some core material that’s more or less the same across covens in the same tradition. Books with this type of content are often used to transmit the teachings of the tradition to different generations of practitioners.
However hand-me-down books usually also contain whatever new items the coven or student has chosen to add. Some traditions have rules about what can and can’t be added and annotate additions so future users of the BOS know who added what and when. Some traditions don’t allow people from outside the tradition to see or use their BOS. Others are more open.
I use this term to refer to books of shadows created by a group of Wiccans practicing together rather than handed down to the group. The material could be rituals they wrote, things they borrowed from someone else, or both. If there are any rules about who can use the BOS or what can be added, those are decided by the group rather than by the rules of any tradition they might be practicing.
A personal BOS is created by just one person who might be a Wiccan practicing alone (solitary), or someone who has a coven but also keeps his or her own separate book.
Make Your Own BOS
Wicca is, among other things, a process for self-discovery, so my advice to any Wiccan is to start your own BOS, whether you’re practicing solo or part of a group. My students are required to start their own books because ultimately your personal spiritual journey is yours alone, and taking notes and reflecting on your personal journey is essential whether you’re a beginner or an old pro.
Begin by thinking about what form you’d like to keep your BOS in (digital, in print, a combination of both, etc.). If you’re printing your BOS from a Word doc or writing all or part of it yourself, you might want to find some high-quality parchment paper and pens to use just for this purpose. This helps make the book specially yours.
When you’re getting ready to work on your BOS, try grounding and centering first and burning some incense or a candle. This helps you get in a meditative frame of mind in preparation for doing sacred work. If you use the same candle or incense each time, the scent can become a trigger that helps you slip into the right mood.
When you’re just starting your book, I recommend choosing a format that allows you to rearrange pages. In my experience, the BOS changes over time, and the organizational scheme you choose now might not work when your BOS expands.
Write and track the results of your rituals, meditations, or magical workings. You can treat the book like a scrapbook, too, and include photos, articles, or drawings that inspire you. It’s your personal record, so include anything that helps you progress on your spiritual path.
Buying and/or Downloading
Creating a BOS takes time, so you may be tempted to buy a completed BOS. I encourage you not to do that, or at least not to make it your only BOS or use it without questioning. Going the easy road may feel right in the short term, but doing the work yourself helps techniques and practices become second nature.
There is some good material out on the web, and if you find a compilation or original BOS that you want to pick and choose some pieces from, it can inspire you in writing your own rituals and give you helpful tips on things like ritual structure or the components of a spell.
But it’s not always easy to determine the quality of what you find online. There are some really dodgy fake books out there, and you won’t necessarily know who wrote the BOS or if it contains “real” material or material you need. Be particularly careful with incense or potion recipes, for example, because there are a lot of idiots out there making incense out of herbs they don’t know anything about that in some cases are toxic or abortifacients.
If you’re thinking of using something you find online, it’s a good idea to snoop around a little bit to see if you can find out about the person who created it. This might be helpful in determining whether the material is legitimate. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say that, but I get emails all the time from people who never thought to try to vet the sources of information they found online. The Google gods can’t tell you everything, but it never hurts to try to verify online sources.
Be respectful, too. If you find the BOS of a tradition that has rules against non-members using its BOS, don’t buy or download it. Chances are it was posted by someone trying to make a quick buck off of someone else’s work.