It was hardly the first book on Witchcraft, and not even the first book to consider sympathetically the craft as a benign form of Pagan spirituality. But it was the first important book in which an author claiming to be a real live Witch told his own story, and in doing so made it possible for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people to make Witchcraft, in some form or fashion, their own spirituality of choice.
Gardner's depiction of Witchcraft emphasized secrecy and spirituality: the "cult" was all about worshipping the Great Mother Goddess and her Horned Consort. Yet for all its secrecy, Witchcraft (or Wicca, as it has come to be known in its religious form) has spawned a virtual torrent of books and websites. They offer first-person accounts of how people become Witches; teachings of the practices, beliefs, and worldviews of Wiccans; and instructions on how to perform rituals, initiate dedicants, and cast spells.
Indeed, if one quality of recent Wiccan literature is worth noticing, it's the instructions on casting spells. This seems reasonable enough: after all, aren't Witches known for their magic-making abilities? Gardner and many other writers on Witchcraft tended to discuss spellcraft only as a single aspect of a greater spiritual whole, but the trend in publishing in the last 10 years has been to emphasize spells while marginalizing the spiritual and religious elements of Witchcraft.
As a religion inspired by witchcraft, Wicca has two fundamental ethical tenets: the Wiccan Rede (Harm none, and do what you will) and the Law of Three (Any energy you send out will come back threefold). The Wiccan Rede demands responsible behavior that refrains from causing harm (even to the self), while the Law of Three promises (or threatens!) that any action, whether good or bad, will eventually have karmic consequences.
Yet a half-century after Gardner, bookstores are filled with titles like The Good Witch's Guide to Wicked Ways; How to Turn Your Ex-Boyfriend into a Toad and Other Spells for Love, Wealth, Beauty and Revenge; and The Book Of Spells: Secret Recipes to Get Your Own Way in Love, Work and Play. If buying a book isn't enough, you can buy a kit with all the ingredients for casting a spell: The Teen Witch Kit, A Witch's Box of Magickal Protection, and The Little Box of Spells.
Spell books can be found not only at New Age and metaphysical shops, but also at college bookstores, Barnes & Noble and Borders, and even local supermarkets and toy stores.
Most alarmingly, the Wiccan ethical focus seems to have gone by the wayside: the new spell books are all about "getting your own way," presenting magic not as an inner pursuit, but merely as a tool for wish fulfillment. As a result, veteran Witches are so outspoken in their criticism of spell books that such titles have been unofficially dubbed "witchcrap."
"One of my fears with the spell books is that they send the wrong message to those looking for answers on how to be Pagan," says writer Laura LaVoie. "A lot of teenagers are buying these books and if they don't get the depth they really need, they will likely use magic simply as a fun diversion and then go about their lives."
Others worry that books focused more on spells than spirituality could undersell the importance of ethics in the world of magic, or could mislead readers about what truly makes magic tick, emphasizing the paraphernalia of magic (candles, herbs, etc.) at the expense of the underlying spirituality.
Gardnerian priestess Judy Harrow, author of Spiritual Mentoring, notes, "I remember once a man solemnly informing me that if a spell calls for, say, blue candles, and the candles are white candles dipped in blue instead of being blue all the way through, the spell will fail or maybe even backfire... People who believe that (magic) power is in 'thestuff' will not be able to access the power if 'the stuff' is not handy."