Pagan Paths

Into the Coven is a sneak peek into the development and workings of a Wiccan coven. Each monthly installment will explore the history and lore surrounding the idea of the coven. In addition to looking at the coven in history, Jason Mankey will share the growing pains, triumphs, and tragedies of his own working group.

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Into the Coven: Writing a Book of Shadows

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b2ap3_thumbnail_10647028_10152639569303232_2654539940423990677_n-e1409779680543-300x300.jpgI'm not sure that every coven unrelated to a specific tradition needs a "Book of Shadows." I probably wanted one for my coven because I have strange control issues. After finding a ritual structure that worked for our circle I wanted to get it all down on paper, and share it with everyone in our little group. For our group a BoS made perfect sense because we work the same way ritual to ritual.  

A BoS is not necessarily a rigid, never-changing book of instructions, but it often contains ideas that consistently work. If the quarter calls I'm using "work" why would I want to change them every month or so? I also think there's real power in repeating a ritual structure over and over again. It takes the guess work out of ritual and creates an atmosphere that lets the mind and spirit quickly ease into ritual mode. When my coven's opening chant starts I'm in "work mode" and instantly push outside concerns away.  

Our first Book of Shadows was a pamphlet I printed up at what was formerly Kinko's. All it included was our (then) basic ritual structure and a story I wrote years ago about the creation of the universe. Due to my long-windedness it wasn't that short, but twenty pamphlet size pages isn't all that much to go on. In typical Jason fashion there's a dash of history in there too when introducing things like The Charge of the Goddess.  

The inspiration for putting together our first mini-BoS was desperation. We were nearing Yule and wanted to give everyone in the coven something meaningful as a gift. A little guide book to how we were doing ritual seemed like a natural fit, and I got it all together in a quick 48 hours.  The quick turn around meant that it had typos in it (of course!), and that those typos would be repeated in ritual until it was replaced.  

While much of our ritual structure remains unchanged from what we now call BoS .5, it didn't really represent a finished product. Over the next few months we began adding bits and pieces to ritual. We extended the "quarter calls" to provide more oomph to our circle, and began opening every ritual with a poem-prayer. Some of these things I added without explanation, others were added simply because it made sense. After purchasing four candle sconces we created a "lighting the temple" rite before calling the Watchtowers.  It's cool to start ritual in near dark and then have the grey of night pushed away by our candles.  

As these new pieces were added it became more and more obvious that BoS .5 would have to be completely rewritten, something I both looked forward to doing and dreaded all at the same time. After several long conversations with my wife we came to a consensus on what should be in our revised book. Our opening ritual was obvious, but we took that a step farther and added detailed explanations of everything we did in the circle. We explained the meaning behind every prayer, invocation, and incantation. 

There was also history, a lot of history. Most of the time my knowledge of Pagan history is useless, here it was priceless. I threw in everything I could remember about Wiccan Ritual and its printed history. Some of it was so complete that when I have a question these days I sometimes consult the BoS I wrote!

Writing a new BoS gave me a chance to fix typos, but it also allowed me to go back and more thoroughly think about ritual. I used it as an opportunity to add new elements and to codify some ideas. I'm sure that there will be more organic changes over the years, but for now "the book" feels more complete than it did during my first go-around.  

A good Book of Shadows should be more than just ritual and explanation though, it should contain everything and anything that might come in handy during ritual. It should also list a coven's triumphs (and perhaps their failures, but I left those out) and provide fodder for future rites. To that end I included all of my favorite Pagan Poetry over the last 200 years (and even earlier). There were generous borrowings from Doreen Valiente, but also poems by Crowley, Swinburne, and even some Shakespeare. 

I also included a long section on our influences. The coven I write about in this column is (Eclectic) British Traditional Witchcraft. It doesn't stem from a lineaged source; it mostly just represents some of how my wife, my coven mates, and I practice Witchcraft. The primary source is Trad Outer Court style ritual, but we've all been influenced by a lot of things over the years. When I was younger the Church of All Worlds had a major effect on me. The simplicity of the idea "water shared is life shared" is something I still like to slip into ritual (though I like to use "wine shared is life shared.")  

I also put a lot of our sabbat rituals into the book. Unlike some covens we try to do new and unique things every year for the sabbats (everyone of our Samhain rituals has been completely different). Adding them to our book was more to document them historically than to imply that these are "always" the things we do on the eight high holy days. They also document a changing tradition. Things originally inserted into the middle of some of those rituals were later moved to the beginning of our rites. It's nice to have those rituals in there and to be able to preserve them for the future. (Especially since not all of them are mine, they represent almost everyone in our group.)  

Since we actively use our BoS in ritual my wife had the brilliant idea of including a version of our opening and closing ritual in very large print. (Every quarter call takes up approximately a page.)  Above all a BoS should be useful, this was an easy way to make it useful. Even if all my covenmates choose not to read all the history and stuff I put in there, they still get something out of it, even if it's "just" the words to our circle casting. 

After two years of BoS writing I'm taking this Yuletide off from such endeavors. We haven't changed anything around this past year, and besides I probably deserve a break. That hasn't stopped me from thinking about what's going to go into BoS 2.5.  I'm already envisioning our initiation ritual in there along with more sabbat rites and improved explanations of everything.  Just because our BoS is printed all fancy like doesn't mean I plan to stop adding and changing. Like most Books of Shadows, our BoS represents a living practice, and living means constant constant change.  There are also aways a damned typo or two to fix . . . . our BoS currently ends with the words "Merry Meet, Merry Party, and Merry Meet Again."  

For more about the Book of Shadows read my article The Witches Toolbox: Book of Shadows 

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Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason's main gig is writing "Raise the Horns" at Patheos Pagan, but he's also a columnist for "Witches and Pagans" (print) magazine, is currently working on his first book for a major publisher, hosts a twice monthly radio show, and lectures frequently on the Pagan Festival circuit.   When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.


  • Gwion Raven
    Gwion Raven Monday, 24 November 2014

    "Merry meet. Merry Party and merry meet again" - I don't know if that actually qualifies as a typo!

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