Pagan Bookshelf: Traditional Witchcraft

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A few books on traditional witchcraft.

Like with many categories of modern occultism, particularly among spiritual or religious groups, there is a lot of debate about what makes someone a part of the group and what excludes someone from that group. The category of traditional witchcraft sees its fair share of this type of debate – if you ask a group of thirteen witches to define traditional witchcraft you’re very likely to get fifteen or more different and often conflicting answers. 

In spite of the difficulty in identifying what exactly counts as traditional witchcraft, there are a growing number of books that attempt to explore the topic. Some focus on witchcraft practices within a specific area or group while others are more general in their approach. Some approach witchcraft as a folk magick practice that is independent of any specific religious outlook while others see witchcraft as inherently part of a particular spiritual system. Some of these books read a lot like many Wicca 101 books with just a few tweaks and variations. Others are very different and challenge a lot of the assumptions about witchcraft that have evolved since the popularization of Wicca by Gardner back in the 1950s. 

And of course all of these books have interesting things to teach for those who are open to learn. It doesn’t matter what your specific religious path is – we can always learn by observing how others think and practice.

In British traditional witchcraft today we find many groups and individuals who were directly or indirectly inspired by the work of Robert Cochrane who unfortunately passed away in 1966. Doreen Valiente, one of Gerald Gardner’s most influential Wiccan high priestesses, worked with Cochrane for a time during the 1960s before his death. Valiente assisted another of Cochrane’s close friends, Evan John Jones, in producing “Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed” to document Cochrane’s way of working. 

Other books that provide more in-depth information about Cochrane’s system include:

“The Robert Cochrane Letters” by Robert Cochrane and Evan John Jones, edited by Michael Howard.

“The Pillars of Tubal-Cain” by Nigel Jackson and Michael Howard.

“The Roebuck in the Thicket” by Evan John Jones & Robert Cochrane, edited by Michael Howard.

Nigel Aldcroft Jackson’s books “Call of the Horned Piper” and “Masks of Misrule” explore Cochrane’s system even more.

Shani Oates is the current Maid of the Clan of Tubal-Cain and is quite prolific in producing books on this Cochrane-descended tradition. Two that are good to start with are “Crafting the Arte of Tradition,” and “Tubal’s Mill”. The latter book is described as “the autobiography of the Clan of Tubal Cain.”

An American group based on Cochrane’s system is documented in Ann Finnin’s book “The Forge of Tubal Cain”. And the prolific Mike Howard wrote a handbook for practicing Cochrane-style traditional witchcraft, published under the pen-name Gwyn, with the title of “Light from the Shadows: A Mythos of Modern Traditional Witchcraft”. Both are helpful to see how Cochrane’s teachings can be put into practice.

Other Cochrane-inspired systems are documented in Tony Steele’s “The Rites and Rituals of Traditional Witchcraft” and Nigel G. Pearson’s “Treading the Mill”.

Another highly influential British witch who, like Cochrane, died at a rather young age is Andrew Chumbley. His system, generally called Sabbatic Craft, has only grown in recent years. Books about and by Chumbley and this system of witchcraft are published pretty much exclusively through two connected publishers: Xoanon Publishing, and Three Hands Press. Key texts to look for are Chumbley’s “Azoetia” and “The Dragon Book of Essex”, and books by Daniel A. Schulke including his masterpieces “Viridarium Umbris”, “Ars Philtron”, and the soon-to-be-published “The Green Mysteries.” The books tend to have limited publishing runs and quickly become expensive collectors’ items so if you find any being sold at reasonable prices be sure to snatch them up if you are interested in this tradition.

Chumbley and Cochrane, while influential, are not the only game in town though. For traditional non-Wiccan styles of witchcraft that are not overtly derived from Cochrane, look for:

“Old Tradition Crafte” by Robin Artisan; it’s a limited edition produced by Ars Obscura Press but is well worth hunting down if you are determined to explore witchcraft mixed with stonecarving.

“The Horn of Evenwood”, “The Witching Way of the Hollow Hill”, and “An Carow Gwyn” for the controversial Robin Artisson’s system of witchcraft.

Veronica Cummer’s “Sorgitzak: Old Forest Craft” and its sequels, including “Sorgitzak II: Dancing the Blood” for a modern witchcraft system built on generous portions of “channeled” material with its own unique witch-language. 

“Besom, Stang & Sword” by Christopher Orapello & Tara-Love Maguire provides another organized system of non-Wiccan traditional witchcraft, similar to that published by other British traditional witches.

Gemma Gary is another traditional witch who has produced some real gems of traditional witchcraft texts. Look for “The Devil’s Dozen: Thirteen Craft Rites of the Old One” in particular.

For a more herbal-based traditional witchcraft system look to Corinne Boyer’s books, including “Under the Witching Tree” and “Under the Bramble Arch.” She has more in the works, too!

And for one of the few intact pre-Gardnerian records of historical witchcraft practice, at least among rural Norwegians, check out “The Black Books of Elverum” edited and translated by Mary S. Rustad. More recently published you’ll find “Svartkonst-Bocker: A Compendium of the Swedish Black Art Book Tradition” by Dr. Thomas K. Johnson.

Another collection of historical witchcraft practice, at least as uncovered through trials of accused witches, is found in “Secrets of Solomon: A Witch’s Handbook from the Trial Records of the Venetian Inquisition” edited and translated by Joseph H. Peterson. It’s clear that practicing witches in pre-modern times were quite happy using whatever magickal material they could get their hands on, whether Pagan originating folk magick, grimoire magick, or ceremonial Christian and Jewish magick.

Other useful books to look for to fill out a survey of non-Wiccan traditional styles of witchcraft include Nigel Pennick’s “Secrets of East Anglian Magic”, Jan Fries’ “Seidways”, and the popular “Mastering Witchcraft” by Paul Huson. And one other controversial pair of authors who have had an impact on Wicca as well as non-Wiccan forms of witchcraft are Gavin and Yvonne Frost – their somewhat confusingly titled book “The Solitary Wiccan’s Bible” is actually pretty decent.

[A shorter version of this article was originally published in the MysticWicks newsletter years ago.]