I’ve been practicing the Craft nearly my entire life. And one of the first questions I hear from interested beginners is “What should I read?”
Here are the books that have stuck with me for years or decades, the ones I come back to whenever I have particular questions or when I’m looking for some guidance. Most are not listed in any particular order, because they can be read in basically any order. Some can even be skipped if you are not hot on, say, hermeticism, or on creative writing.
Start with whatever appeals to you most. Or don’t. I’m not your mom.
In the Beginning
Marion Green, A Witch Alone: Thirteen Moons to Master Natural Magick
Possibly the best single-volume introduction to the practice of witchcraft ever written. It’s precise enough to provide guidance, but vague enough that you can fill in the gaps with your own interests, curiosities, and/or reasons for being interested in witchcraft. Actually finishing the thirteen months of work recommended in this book will give you a solid foundation in neo-Pagan ideas generally and in the practice of modern witchcraft, specifically.
T. Thorn Coyle, Evolutionary Witchcraft
If I have one problem with Marion Green’s A Witch Alone, it’s that the book is starting to feel a bit dated. Coyle’s Evolutionary Witchcraft solves that problem. While it’s focused more specifically on Feri practices, Evolutionary Witchcraft provides guidance that’s easily transferred to any number of other settings. It’s also a wonderfully honest look at how witchcraft lives within the fully human life of its author.
Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon
Drawing Down the Moon remains one of the best overviews of the history of modern witchcraft in print today. Not being a professional historian of modern witchcraft (or anything else), I can’t vouch for every detail, but neither do I recall finding anything in this book that was utterly wrong or ridiculous, either. Save yourself the embarrassment of the “nine million witches died in the Burning Times while the Christians stole all our good ideas” phase so many beginners go through, and read this book instead.
Bronwyn Forbes, Mint Juleps, Mud Pie and Macbeth
Many beginners get interested in witchcraft after seeing how it’s portrayed in fiction. Bronwyn Forbes’s Mint Juleps, Mud Pie and Macbeth is the best depiction of life as a modern witch that I’ve seen in print so far. The downside is that it’s increasingly difficult to find.
Aleister Crowley, Diary of a Drug Fiend and Moonchild
I recommend reading Crowley’s two novels before anything else the man wrote (and he wrote a lot), because they’re the most accessible ways to see what he’s on about in everything else he’s written. Diary of a Drug Fiend gives a fair account of what Crowley means by True Will in action, while Moonchild demonstrates what it is one might actually do with all those correspondences one memorized (and why there are some things you just don’t do with them, even if they are in theory possible to do).
If you’re disappointed when both these novels end, read Crowley’s Tannhauser and/or his Simon Iff short stories.
Lon Milo Duquette, Chicken Qabbalah and Son of Chicken Qabbalah
If you have even the slightest interest in doing magick, you’re going to need to understand at least a bit of Qabbalah. Don’t ask me, man, I didn’t do it. Chicken Qabbalah and its sequel, Son of Chicken Qabbalah, are the least painful introduction to the subject I’ve yet found.
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
While not about witchcraft specifically, this book blew a lot of minds when it came out (and still does) with its frank exploration of what it means to do any kind of work well. I especially recommend it as an antidote to the idea that witchcraft and/or magick are all about flashy abilities and wowing your neighbors. Sometimes they’re just about making the motorcycle run really well.
Related: Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
Art & Fear explores how art gets made, how it (more often) doesn’t get made, and the difficulties artists struggle with in the process.
What this has to do with witchcraft is that the process of making art and the process of practicing the Craft are very often the same practice, fraught with the same sorts of pitfalls. Art & Fear is a short book, but it’s one of the best works available on how to grapple with a practice that forces you to constantly confront yourself.
Related: Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Aleister Crowley, Magick Without Tears and The Book of Thoth
If you’re still interested in whatever Crowley’s on about after Diary of Drug Fiend and Moonchild, Magick Without Tears and The Book of Thoth are perhaps the next most accessible inroads to Crowley’s actual work. And by “most accessible,” I mean “least inaccessible” – they’re still both an absolute bear to read. If you’re not interested after the novels, feel free to skip these.
Aleister Crowley, The Book of the Law and The Law is For All
Okay, so it’s actually not possible to understand anything Crowley is on about – or more importantly, why – without at least a passing familiarity with The Book of the Law and its contents. The Law is For All was Crowley’s attempt to provide commentary on The Book of the Law; it’s one of those books I recommend reading more than once, at various stages of your witchlife, because what you’re able to get out of it changes as you do.
Gerald Gardner, Witchcraft Today
A caveat: While I consider Gardner’s works essential for understanding the foundations of modern witchcraft, I (a) do not recommend them as accurate depictions of the history of witchcraft and (b) by no means believe that Gardner’s descriptions of How to Witch are the only ones that work. Gardner, rather, is laying the foundations for a particular type of practice. If you’re interested in it, you’re looking for Wicca.
Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Witches’ Bible
I’ll level with you: If you’re looking for a complete guide to the practice of Wicca in print, you will never find it. Wicca is an initiatory mystery tradition, which means there are elements of its practice that are only available to initiates (and even then, some of it is only available at certain stages of their practice). But if you’re interested in British Traditional witchcraft specifically and its connection to Wicca, the closest thing you’ll find to a complete guide is The Witches’ Bible. It’s also just a good basic introduction to the relationship between religion and spellwork.
Starhawk, The Spiral Dance
I confess: I first read The Spiral Dance when I was ten, again when I was fifteen, and again when I was twenty, and each time I thought the book would not hold up. Each time, I was convinced it was a product of the political milieu in which it was written (the late 20th century West Coast), and that it would eventually fade.
I was wrong. The Spiral Dance does, to some extent, read like a product of its time; but to be honest, it should, because it expresses a view of witchcraft that is irrevocably bound to the pressing needs of human life now. If you were attracted to witchcraft for its ethic of service and social justice, The Spiral Dance is a must-read.
Robert Graves, The White Goddess and Sir James George Frazier, The Golden Bough
Both of these books can help readers understand why modern witchcraft is shaped the way it is. The Golden Bough in particular is helpful for understanding Crowley’s works, as Crowley’s thought was heavily influenced by Frazier. Neither book, however, is a good depiction of What Actually Happened in the Past: Both are interpretations of historical and archeological information that take certain liberties in order to conjure up an image of a past where magic lived around every corner. Read with a grain of salt.
Help With Specifics
Richard Smollett, Inner Christianity
Inner Christianity is not a book about witchcraft, nor is it a book written for a witchcraft audience. If you’re coming from a Christian background, however, Inner Christianity is an excellent introduction to the esoteric tradition in Christianity, which has a great deal in common with the practice of witchcraft. For anyone seeking to blend Christian faith with Craft practice, this book is a must.
Ram Dass, Paths to God
In Paths to God, Ram Dass spends a great deal of time exploring the Ramayana, one of the cornerstone texts of Hinduism, along with sharing anecdotes about his own lifelong spiritual work. The ideas, lessons and surprises he relates are relevant on any spiritual path, however. I recommend this book in particular for the way Ram Dass demonstrates that spiritual growth is a lifelong process, and a lifelong source of peace and humor.
Bronwyn Forbes, The Small-Town Pagan’s Survival Guide
What it says on the tin. Pagans and witches trying to practice in small towns often find themselves at a disadvantage, especially if they’re used to having more resources nearer at hand. Brownyn Forbes offers a clear-eyed guide to making your Work work for you, no matter where you land.
Wait, What About…..?
This list omits several books that appear on other witchcraft 101 reading lists. For instance, there’s a complete absence of the works of Scott Cunningham and Raymond Buckland.
I don’t have anything against either Cunningham or Buckland, per se. Cunningham’s work strikes me as more basic than the works on the list above (especially Marion Green), however. As for Buckland, his famous “big blue book” of witchcraft has some glaring errors in it, and it makes more sense to me to steer beginners toward books that don’t force them to unlearn information they absorbed before they had a context to judge its veracity.
I’m not big on telling people not to read a certain book, as a rule. I will say this: Do not assume any one book contains The Entire Truth(TM). No book contains everything you’ll ever need to know about anything. No book can. Pagans are the “people of the Library” because they understand the value of gathering perspectives from a wide range of sources.
For the first year (yes, year) of practice, I recommend doing nothing but reading – not only what’s on this list, but anything else you run across that looks appealing. Get yourself some form of note-taking tool to use as you read: a notebook and pen, a laptop, a voice recorder, whatever works for you. The more you read, the faster you’ll progress in practice.
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