black witch: my book of shadows

January 21, 2011

Just about every Witch and Wiccan I know has a Book of Shadows (BOS) – or grimoire as they’re sometimes called. It’s a collection of spells, personal experiences and metaphysical learnings every practitioner is supposed to have and refer to. Since Paganism celebrates life and personal growth, the BOS is considered very important as it is meant for recording and reflecting experiences. There’s also an electronic version called the Disk of Shadows (DOS) where it is a folder on your computer or actual disk (or floppy if you’re that old school).


Residential Black Witch Columnist

How did the Book of Shadows get its name? Good question. Been a long time since I was a noob* in the craft so I dug through my old books and looked for whatever I could find. Always good to refresh the basics, it’s very easy to get stuck into the motion of things when you’ve been doing them for so long. The book that had the most information (available to me at 2 AM when I was writing this column) was Solitary Witch by Silver Ravenwolf (yes, she can drive shivers down a practiced Witch’s spine but she’s not the worst of Pagan writers and many began with her writing). The history of the BOS goes back pretty far, touching the Egyptians, Middle East and Europe. The existence books of magick can stretch back to as far as five thousand years ago and they were used and created for roughly the same purposes as now, to retain wisdom of rituals, hymns, information of magickal studies, notes. Often held in secrecy due to religious persecution, the Book of Shadows kind of earned its name as well as the reputation/tradition that a BOS should always be black. The term grimoire is French, meaning “a magician’s manual.” The BOS as modern Wiccans and Pagans see it as can be traced back to Gerald Gardner, the creator of the Wiccan religion: “Doreen Valiente, a member of his group…believed that the idea of the Book of Shadows first came into being in 1949, when Gardner thought of calling a Witch’s book of rituals and magickal information a Book of Shadows….” The term came from an article published in The Occult Observer in 1949 discussing an old Sanskrit manual called the Book of Shadows that could teach how to tell a person’s destiny from the length of their shadow. The history of the BOS is rather mixed but the purpose has remained fairly the same, to record knowledge.

A BOS doesn’t really look anything like the big, chunky and dusty book on Charmed which always self-updates itself (how lovely would that be?) but a…fairly normal book. I have two BOS, a travel BOS that I take with me just about everywhere I go and an ultimate BOS which stores all the entries I have ever made in my travel BOS and transferred over enable to add more pages. As you could possibly guess, both are binders, the travel BOS is about an inch wide and the ultimate BOS has one of the widest binder spines I could purchase when I was a teen. I have been writing in it solidly since 2004 (I had a first attempt in 2003 but lost the book) and in this book are dreams, scrying and dowsing information, card spreads, spells, musings, poetry, rants and journal entries.

My BOS is color coded where the non-spell entries are on white pages and spell entries are on blue pages in the back (honestly those blue pages are starting to get old and rickety, I should change them soon). I color coded my BOS as an idea taken from Gwinevere Rain, a popular Witch author, in her book Confessions of a Teenage Witch because I had the same problem she did – it would take me eons to find a simple spell I wrote down amongst all my entries! Oh, that was so frustrating! Most of the BOS is filled with white normal notebook paper and the blue entries are some funky paper I got years ago at Hot Topic but never used. The blue paper forever remains in my travel BOS because there’s always space to write down more spells or refine the ones that I scribbled down on the white pages. I don’t often type my spells because I don’t often get struck with ideas for them while at my computer. Even if so, it would be the result of an IM conversation or email where I had to think of a spell for a witchy friend right then and there, as few and far those experiences are.

My ultimate BOS is one big, black binder of a book but my travel BOS looks incredibly harmless. I run through travel binders yearly or bi-annually because of heavy wear and tear but my current binder is white with greenish-yellow flowers decorated all over it and a Fort Minor logo sticker on the front. Not very … ominous looking, don’t you think?

Oooh, teh spookeh

Plenty have seen my travel BOS and me using it but no one jumps at the sight of it because it doesn’t look like some scary book that’s written in only with the blood of some defenseless creature. It just looks like a regular girly binder with a sticker on the front (probably because that’s exactly what it is). Where did I get the binders? From Office Depot, an office supply store. The paper is normal notebook paper, college ruled. I write in it with normal pens, I put it in a normal asymmetrical bag and it acts like a normal book. Ghouls and freakish spirits do not jump out my BOS when I open it, there’s no sound of the devil’s laughter anywhere (or I wouldn’t have purchased it), the sky does not rain blood or anything like that. It’s a regular book with a special purpose. Think of it as a diary for Pagans and Witches because that’s pretty much what it is.

I believe that a BOS (or DOS, whichever you prefer) is a very important book for any Pagan, it is priceless in use. As you learn about life, it’s always good to record experiences, especially when walking down the metaphysical and esoteric path, who knows what you may come across. To have a physical copy of the past, so to speak, is always useful. It enables you to see what you were like in the past, why you might have been like that and where are you currently going. A Book of Shadows provides direction, especially if you’re new to the path, are young or both. If you don’t learn from history, you’re bound to repeat it – best have it written down for future reference.

Besides writing down reflections, experiences and spells, there’s no particular right or wrong way to create a BOS – wait, there’s a wrong way: when your book is written completely in blood and has started to take on a personality of its own. That’s when it’s going very wrong and while I don’t usually recommend violence, perhaps asphyxiating it with a sage/dragon’s blood mix and shooting it or at least lighting it on fire in a middle of a salt circle casted counter clockwise (widdershins) may at least alleviate your circumstances long enough to promptly call up wherever you got this devilish book and demand your money back or threaten to ship the snippy book to them. If this does happen, welllllll…chalk it up to bad business practices and really bad luck because I was joking about the living book bit. (Still, writing in blood means you’re doing it wrong.)

Okies, despite the gloomy past, a modern BOS is should reflect the writer. It’s not a book that’s going to be published (or if you plan to publish your BOS, please clean it up some so it won’t look ghastly in the eyes of others instead of a responsible tome of information) so the writer should feel free how to do up their book. Jot down impressions, write poetry expressing your utmost feelings, store pictures and information about plants or stones, collect weblinks to useful websites, it’s your book as well as your choice whether or not to pass the book down the family line. My BOS I keep simple because I like simple. Simple is practical and I like practical – except in fashion choice where I find it perfectly acceptable to wear three petticoats, a corset, wooden platform shoes with the heel significantly cut out (rocking horse shoes) and possibly hairfalls that make me look like I’ve been attacked by a craft bin and enough charms on my cell phone to look like I robbed Toys R Us – but others may want to dress their BOS up a bit. I’ve seen a lot of binder BOS’s but I’ve also heard of multi-book BOS’s that consisted entirely of compass or spiral notebooks. Some BOS’s are made out of sketchbooks since some Pagans are artists and feel paint pens and a blank book is the best way to express and explain their experiences. It can also be a private blog. I wouldn’t be surprised with the help of technology that some Witch out there has made a multi-media BOS/DOS (if an e-book or tablet is used, does that make it a EBOS or a TOS? Hm, names), it’s completely up to whoever is going to have the input how the BOS shall result.

Now, this whole time I was talking about the uses of a Book of Shadows for one person, not a group. A group BOS is a little different from a solitary practitioner’s BOS in that it’s going to serve group purpose and that means there might be some rules in regards to what does and does not get written in it. In covens (group of Witches), the BOS is shared and updated with group rituals, membership, rules and information useful towards the whole group.

The care of a BOS can be as simple or extensive as the practitioner would like it to be. I’ve never blessed my BOS, simply loaded new notebook paper in it and start writing. Some Pagans want to integrate and fully dedicate their new book into their Pagan world via blessing the empty book with a prayer or sage stick. It all depends on the practitioner and what they feel is comfortable enough to feel the journal is part of their practices. Some Pagans may want to categorize their BOS with dividers and folders, some may just turn it into a collage of ideas and some may just want something incredibly simple as something to just record stuff in.

A Book of Shadows is not nearly as creepy as people would like to make it seem. It’s just a book of experience, much akin to a diary or journal. They can be made out of anything, consist of anything, look like anything. All they are to be used for is to jot down whatever can help and inform the Pagan that’s writing in it. No two BOS’s are the same I’m sure and the BOS for a Pagan that works with stones and nature would look different from the Pagan that specializes in divination and elements. What happens to it after the Pagan passes is up to that particular Pagan. It might get passed down, it may be destroyed via fire, who knows but it most certainly isn’t some creepy book of evil. It’s just a book to record Pagan experiences

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