Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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What Was Your First Witch Book?

It's almost like asking: Who was your first sexual partner?

What was your first witch book?

I love to ask people this question. It's a good way to open the gates of memory, and the ensuing conversation is always both interesting and informative. Our firsts also neatly divide us into generations.

First Generation: Margaret Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and God of the Witches.

Second Generation: Gerald Gardner, Witchcraft Today.

Third Generation: Sybil Leek, Diary of a Witch.

Fourth Generation: Starhawk, Spiral Dance.

Fifth Generation: MZB, The Mists of Avalon.

Etc. (There are, of course, other options.)

By this metric, I'm solidly Third Generation. My first witch book was Sybil Leek's Diary of a Witch. One read—the first of many—and I was hooked. I knew that that's what I wanted. I still have my (very battered) paperback 1968 Signet Mystic copy, with its startling red cover and a wild-haired Sybil on the cover, looking very witchy—in the Brothers Grimm sense of “hideous and scary”—indeed.

Good old Sybil. She doesn't give away a thing, but she sure does tell a good story. Probably that's what caught me in the first place. Early witch books tend to be short on story; at that point, as a people, we hadn't been around long enough to have accumulated very many. Witch books still tend to be long on practice, middling on theory, and short on story. Writers of future witch books, take heed: the story is what really gets 'em, every time.

The one thing that has always puzzled me about Diary is its talk of a Supreme Being. I'm not sure quite what Sybil was aiming at with this. In her first book, the 1964 A Fool and a Tree, she writes about the Goddess of Witches by Name (= Aradia), so what's with this “Supreme Being” shite four years later? (In her 1971 The Complete Art of Witchcraft, she's writing--quite creatively, actually--about the Goddess again.)  Is this just a polite euphemism for Herself? Is she afraid that talk of goddesses and horned gods will make the “Old Religion” too foreign in the eyes of the average non-witch reader? Is it some monotheizing phase that she was going through at the time? Your guess is as good as mine.

In these times, when classics are coming off the shelves for want of anything else to read, let me recommend that, whatever your first witch book was, you revisit it as you would an old friend whom, in the course of years, you may have outgrown, but to whom, nonetheless, you owe a debt of fond gratitude.

Every now and then, I meet someone whose first was What's-Her-Name's To Ride a Silver Broomstick, or something equally cringe-worthy. When I do, I always confess my own: a book, quite frankly, of much show, but little substance.

See? I always say. And we turned out OK, anyway.

And then we both laugh.


Hwæt, we seax-Hwiccum   in síð-dagum...
"Lo, we knife-Witches   in these latter days..."


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Tagged in: Sybil Leek
Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Chris Sherbak
    Chris Sherbak Tuesday, 25 August 2020

    Paul Huson's "Mastering Witchcraft." The "Our Father" backwards always did put the scares into me.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Tuesday, 25 August 2020

    Nema, nema, nema.

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Tuesday, 25 August 2020

    I think it was a Grosset & Dunlap book. I know it was mostly about witches but I do remember a page on werewolves as well. It had that "Echo Echo Azarak, Echo Echo Zamalack" chant in it. I remember copying that out in a notebook which is probably still around somewhere. Syble Leek, Alex Sanders, and Paul Huson all came later. The Library also had Gardner's Witchcraft Today. This was back in the 70's.

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