2016-06-30
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft Today. This folksy and rambling book might well have ended up consigned to the moldy used bookstores of the world, were it not for its audacious claim: that the author was an initiate in a genuine coven of Witches, active in Great Britain in the middle years of the 20th century.

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.

How many youth are interested in Wicca, Paganism, and magic? And how many are actually buying books on spells? Accurate numbers may be impossible to determine. But according to an essay by B.A. Robinson of the Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance, "there are some indications that the total number of [teens interested in magic] is large and is growing quickly." Robinson notes that major neo-pagan websites like The Witches' Voice indicate a significant percentage of hits coming from teen readers, while Llewellyn Publishing, a company that specializes in Wiccan books, reports that its bestselling title is Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation.

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 'the stuff' will not be able to access the power if 'the stuff' is not handy."

If spell books don't always present the full story or even the true depths of Wicca and other forms of Witchcraft, why then are they so popular? One reader of spell books, Kate Hofer, says she was drawn to such books with an attitude of "let's see what this stuff can do." Later on she began to pass over spell books in favor of more religiously oriented Wiccan books, "because I've been terribly disappointed in most of them (the spell books)." Another reader named June (who asked to be identified by her first name only) notes that she was drawn to magical books because of an interest in herbalism (she has a garden), but also admits to picking up books simply because they "looked good" at her local bookshop.

But to publishers, there's only one reason why these books matter: because they sell. "I've been to Pagan conventions and have sat down with people to find out what they want published," says Laurie Kelly, publicist for New Page Books. "I always hear that the community needs more books on spirituality and less on spellcraft. But when a spellcraft workshop starts, I see the same people sitting there, waiting to learn techniques for spells."

Australian sociologist Douglas Ezzy sees in the upswing of spell books an evolution in popular ideas about Witchcraft, away from the hidden "mystery religion" as promoted by Gardner and his contemporaries and more toward a "new age" model of spirituality-as-personal-fulfillment. In his paper "New Age Witchcraft? Popular spell books and the re-enchantment of everyday life," Ezzy notes that spell books "encourage individuals to take control of their lives through self-exploration and self-affirmation." Furthermore, "performing magical spells functions as a way of re-discovering the enchanted and mysterious aspects of life."

In other words, spells are more than just magical recipes for getting your own way; they are miniature rituals designed to foster a sense of mystery and wonder (what Ezzy calls "enchantment") in everyday life, and to evoke a positive sense of power and hope in the spell-caster's life. Even if casting a spell doesn't make you rich or win you love, it could give you hope that such blessings really are possible in your life.

Ezzy sees spell books as aimed at casual or "part-time" followers of Witchcraft. Pagan author Patricia Telesco (who has written a number of spell books, including Mastering Candle Magick and Goddess in My Pocket), notes that "a large group of novices come into the Craft every year, and it's the novice consumer who is often looking for spell books." For this reason, she takes the job of writing spell books seriously. "I try to encourage a different mode of thought-one that sees potentials and then figures out how to activate those potentials on a very real level... this encourages a mental connection between a person's life and sacred energies."

In other words, a spell book may not tell the whole story about Witchcraft and magic, but if it helps someone to find even a cursory sense of the sacred in their everyday life, and-more critically-invites the novice or "weekend Witch" to delve deeper into the world of the craft; well, then it has done its job. As Hofer notes, "The spell books convinced me that I didn't know nearly enough to cast those types of spells and sent me back to learning about the religion and refining and redefining my beliefs."


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