The book of shadows is a book containing beliefs, rituals, Witchcraft laws and ethics, herbal and healing lore, incarnations, chants, dances, spells, divinatory methods, and miscellaneous topics that serve to guide Witches in their Craft and religion.
There is no one general or definitive book of shadows for Witchcraft; each tradition may have its own standard book of shadows, which can be added to or adapted by each coven. In addition to this, individual Witches may add their own personal material. Until recent times the book of shadows was kept in secrecy, however, some Witches have gone public with their books over the years.
Traditionally, it was held that only one book of shadows was to exist in a coven, and kept by the high priestess or high priest. However, this rule proved to be unfeasible, so now, generally, each Witch have their personal copies.
It was customary that the Witch’s copy had to be hand copied by the Witch from the copy of the high priestess or priest. But, as with all things changes do occur; now days it is not uncommon for a copy of the book of shadows to be copied from a computer floppy disk.
Frequently it is customarily for some Witches, especially solitaire Witches, to begin their book of shadows when they enter the Craft, and sometimes before their entrance into a coven. Such books are often thought of as personal notebooks, or diaries.
The material in them enables the Witch to grow in the Craft. The books are kept until the Witch’s death. Some Witches feel that they return to their book of shadows when they are reborn (see Reincarnation).
Much about the book of shadows prior to the reawakening of modern Witchcraft in the mid-twentieth century remains a mystery. In the early centuries folk magic and lore was not usually recorded but was orally described to the next generations.
However, it seems, as some hereditary Witches claim that some of their descents did record some of their secret spells and lore in little black books. One of the first prototypical book of shadows published in English was Ardia, or Gospel of the Witches (1899) by Charles Godfrey Leland. Leland claimed it contained Witch lore passed to him by an Etruscan Witch.
The book of shadows of Gerald B.Gardner might be taken as an example of the way that a book of shadows may be acquired and passed on. Gardner was initiated into a coven of hereditary Witches in 1939. The basic rituals he published in the pseudonymous novel High Magic’s Aid in 1949.
Within Gardner’s book of shadows were extracts from material written by Aleister Crowley. During the years from 1954-1957, with the help of Doreen Valiente whom Gardner had initiated in 1953, Gardner’s book of shadows was rewritten with most of Crowley’s material eliminated.
The book became the basis for the Gardnerian tradition of Witchcraft. It subsequently was used by Alexander Sanders and modified to form the Alexandrian tradition of Witchcraft. Gardner’s book has inspired the books of shadows for other traditions as well.
Normally, the book of shadows reflects the practices and beliefs of each coven within a tradition, and those that are independent of a tradition, as well as the interests and specialties of an individual Witch. It can serve as a dynamic collection of information, with additions being made when necessary.
Traditionally a Witch’s book of shadows is burned upon the person’s death. However, Gardner’s book was passed onto Valiente. Probably other books of shadows are kept as remembrances or documents of historical significance. A.G.H.
Source: 4, 35-36.