A Book of Shadows is both a collection of a coven’s traditions passed from teacher to student and the individual owner’s religious diary. For those operating outside of a coven, a Book of Shadows is entirely personal and might include beliefs, questions, private thoughts, meditations, rituals, experiences, or anything else that contributes to their spiritual progress.
Some places try to sell special inks, saying it will make your works more effective or even that regular inks render your book useless! This is like telling a Christian only crosses made of gold are effective. There is nothing magical about a Book of Shadows. It is, like other books, a source of information. Some Wiccans compile their information is attractive, bound volumes, but others use spiral notebooks or even computer files. They all work the same.
Despite the fact that there are books for sale called Book of Shadows, there is no standardized book all Wiccans work from. Moreover, buying a book with such a title is no substitute for creating your own; Books of Shadow are personal. Setting down information allows you to more exactly review it later or compare it to information acquired at a later date. I personally have also found it helpful to write because ideas that look fine in the book of a Big Name Pagan sometimes read a lot sillier when I try to write it in my own hand. Writing helps me reconsider what I really believe, and what I’m blindly quoting.
The Myth of the Ancient Book of Shadows
Every so often I hear someone claim to have a centuries-old Book of Shadows or who is asking about acquiring the same. The concept is ludicrous. Founder Gerald Gardner first came across the term Book of Shadows in a magazine in 1949, (1) where the term actually referred to a Sanskrit document regarding divination through the studying of shadows. Gardner seems to have simply taken a liking to the name, even though the two documents have nothing to do with each other. (2) Therefore, in reference to Wicca or witchcraft, the term was effectively invented by Gardner.
Therefore, there are no centuries-old European Books of Shadow.
And, since BoSs are personal, it wouldn’t actually matter if you did have access to one. Such claims usually presume these books bear some sort of magical power or else lend legitimacy because of their age.
Historically, ceremonial magicians created books known as grimoires. Some famous ones have been published, such as the Key of Solomon. Their natures are different from a Book of Shadows, however, often focusing upon the ability to call and bind spirits and being strongly rooted in Judeo-Christian religion. The confusion between the two may come from the TV show Charmed, in which a tome called the Book of Shadows was depicted as being more like a magical grimoire.
1 Oakseer, Gerald Gardner, Old Words and the Old Laws. http://www.newwiccanchurch.net/gerald_laws.htm , January 2003.
2 Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. (Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 232-233.
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