Tools of the Craft: The Book of Shadows
Oh, the beautiful working altar! It is a place of magic, with lots of shiny and smelly things on it which make me feel at home. But to the new witch, it can sometimes seem daunting, and even downright scary to look at - almost as if it came right out of some dark fantasy story.
But there’s nothing to be afraid of. Each object on the altar is merely a tool to help visually direct energy. In witchcraft, every tool has its significance and its own symbolism, and it often helps to understand what makes these tools so important. In this series of articles, I will endeavor to lift the shroud of mystery from these tools and assist in helping you understand what each tool is used for, where it comes from, and why we use it.
The Book of Shadows
We’ve all seen various shows that portray witches with various spell books, from the massive tome in Sabrina, The Teenage Witch to the living spell book in Hocus Pocus. It sometimes seems as if the book is as inseparable from witchcraft as the broom, pointed hat, and black cat! However, unlike how they’re portrayed in media, spell books, or Books of Shadows, are unique to each individual, and may have spells, correspondences, references, or may simply be a journal.
Ultimately, the Book of Shadows (hereafter, “BoS”) is a repository of knowledge pertinent to your practice. It’s your reference guide and a measure of your growth as you progress and learn more.
As many experienced witches who teach can attest to, one of the most frequent questions we get is “How to I make a BoS?” or “What do I need to do to get a spell book?” And this question is tricky not because of complexity, but because of its simplicity. So let’s take a look at the different types of BoS, and what could go into them!
Hard Copies, Media Files, and Oral Tradition
Every witch has his or her own aesthetic, preferred method of going about things, and pocketbook. As such, the types of BoS out there vary depending upon the witch! The most stereotypical BoS is the hard copy book. Durable, long lasting, and with a rather gorgeous look, it’s no surprise that from the get go, many of us will reach out to take hold of one of those faux-leather-bound blank journals lining the back wall of Barnes & Noble.
However, when first starting out, jumping straight to these often expensive books is not necessarily practical. The reason for this is that like our practice, our book will likely change and evolve over time to reflect our growth. As such, it isn’t uncommon early on to tear pages out, reorganize, and add pages to incorporate what suits you.
That said, it’s often recommended for the new witch to start simple. And for that there are a couple of options! First is for those who prefer hard copies. In the .gif above, the keen eye might notice that the BoS shown is a simple graph paper notebook. This is not uncommon, and while some may initially fear having a BoS that looks “tacky,” remember that the book will change over time, and as you practice more and find aspects that you know will not be going away anytime soon, you can incorporate them into another more aesthetically pleasing BoS (there’s no rule that says you can’t have more than one! I have several, and for different aspects of my practice).
Far less expensive is the digital BoS. Earlier on, I addressed Technopaganism and how it relates to paganism and witchcraft. In it, I acknowledged that one rather practical aspect to technopaganism is that witches who adopt this philosophy will often set aside files on their devices specifically for witchcraft. For instance, on my computer, I have a folder dedicated to witchcraft, with subfolders that have word files for notes, rites and spells, my blog articles (yes, my articles go in my BoS!) pictures, and correspondences. Though many witches prefer to cast spells and blessings on their BoS and may scoff at the thought of having a digital BoS, remember that in technopaganism, it is not uncommon to bless and cast spells on the device or drive that has the files in question, just as one would bless and cast a spell on a physical book.
Some witches who like the digital aspect even create public BoS’s here on Tumblr! Blogs are often a great repository for spells and notes regarding witchcraft, so it’s good to keep your eyes peeled for a good BoS page!
Lastly, there is another type of BoS that often goes unrecognized and treated less carefully because it’s not a physical object, and that’s oral tradition. Many of our ancient ancestors who did not have a written language passed their traditions, spells, and rites down to one another through strictly oral means. And some who had a written system maintained a mostly oral tradition as well (take, for instance, the Celts and Norse - both had written systems but maintained their traditions orally). The message here is that if you don’t feel that having a BoS is necessary or desired, you are not a lesser witch for it. Even today, some families maintain an oral system, passing their faith and traditions down from one generation to the next with the spoken word.
Compilations, Dreams, and Magic
So we’ve seen the different formats used for a BoS. But… what goes into it? Well, the simple answer is anything you want! And much to the frustration of many new witches, that’s exactly the answer they get. So let’s take a look at what commonly goes into a BoS, and how it can be varied.
Spells: This one’s the most common subject. After all, many witches prefer a repository of their successful spells for future reference. So many include a section in their books dedicated specifically to spells. (If the book were dedicated solely to spells and rites, it is often referred to as a grimoire instead of a BoS, though this is mostly a matter of preference).
Rites: This varies from tradition to tradition, as some partake in full rites whereas others don’t. But a section devoted to rites will likely include rituals for the Wheel of the Year, other holidays and sabbats, esbat (lunar) rites, and even initiation and dedication rites for covens.
Correspondences: If you rely heavily on correspondences, be they for astrology, color, runes, plants, or otherwise, it is often recommended to have a reference or resource where you can look up the proper correspondences for your tradition. As such, many witches who work with such correspondences will have a section dedicated appropriately.
Recipes: Giggle as you may, but kitchen witches often joke about their BoS being a cookbook. And some legitimately have a cookbook as a BoS. Regardless, those who work magic into their cooking may prefer to have some good go-to recipes on hand! Need an example? One of my books is dedicated solely to Foodie Friday recipes, and I do consider it to be a BoS!
Journals: Whether it be a dream journal, or a diary, there are many witches out there who incorporate their journals into their BoS. This has a couple of benefits: the first is that it is an excellent way of tracking growth; the second is that it provides a cross reference, so if you forget something in another section of your BoS, you could have it in your journal. It is also an excellent way of providing a personal narrative regarding your development and relationship to the gods, if that is part of your path.
Notes: Let’s face it, as a new witch (or even an experienced witch), you probably do a lot of note-taking, jotting down new information or spells or philosophies for your craft. The BoS is an excellent repository for these scribbles!
There is plenty more that can be added to a BoS, but these are the most common subjects. Is there a proper order to have in a BoS? Only if you feel you need one. However, for me, I have found that if I were to establish a table of contents in my BoS, it would be rendered null rather quickly as I add and remove subjects. Instead, sticky notes, tabs, bookmarks, or ribbons can be used to separate sections so that you can easily page through your book!
Many new witches might see a lot of those rather gorgeous home-made books out there. Though your book need not be pretty to be functional, it is encouraged to make your book your own. If you’re artistically inclined, bend that toward your book and create a BoS that doubles as a masterpiece! Some will create wood bindings, while others may simply draw and decorate the edges of their pages. It can be as complicated as that, or as simple as adding a ribbon with a crystal on it. The book is yours, so do what you’d like with it!
So Josh, what kinds of BoS do you have?
Well, I have several. The first is my aforementioned digital BoS. Though I don’t use it for spellcasting, it is a backup repository of my notes and articles, as well as a place where I can write out new spells and rites as needed before printing them for coven work (because my handwriting isn’t exactly the easiest for others to read). The second is the aforementioned Foodie Friday Notebook. The notes and recipes that I write down are later shared with all of you, and I keep it all for future reference and for my own work! Third is my coven BoS. This is a hard cover blank journal in which I write down all of the rites and spells that we do together, as well as where I write down any notes that may be pertinent to our practice. Fourth is my personal BoS, which is a faux-leather-bound journal in which I write my finalized aspects to my practice.
It’s likely that I could end up with new books in the future, and my BoS’s will continue to change over time!
How can I make my own BoS?
Use everything we’ve covered above as a guideline in crafting your personal BoS. Remember that if affordability is an issue, you can always start small and later on build up to something you’d prefer. Whether it be a digital file, a spiral bound notebook, or a blank journal, remember that your BoS is your reflection and repository! Treat it with care and as much respect as you would any other tool for the craft!
And as always, Blessed Be! )O(