We modern Pagans are a rather literate lot. In addition to the many handbooks, theoretical works, folklore collections, poems, songs, rituals, and workbooks in print, there are also quite a few illuminating biographies and autobiographies. Reading about the lives of others following magickal and Pagan spiritual paths can help us understand better what came before and where our community might be headed. We might also discover that famous occultists often faced the same dilemmas that we do today!
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which operated in the UK and Europe at the end of the 1800s and into the start of the 1900s, was one of the most influential occult groups spawning a huge amount of material which is still widely used in the modern Pagan community today. “Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses” by Mary K. Greer explores the lives of the often unsung women who helped make the Golden Dawn what it was. Many of the history books talk about the men who were involved, and not enough is written about the equally important women. This book is a good start.
The name Aleister Crowley is widely known in the modern Pagan community but few know more than some vague details about the man. “Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley” by Richard Kaczynski is a comprehensive biography of the mysterious and often controversial Crowley. Kaczynski’s book provides an honest look at what made the man tick.
“20th Century Magic and the Old Religion: Dion Fortune, Christine Hartley, Charles Seymore” by Alan Richardson takes readers into the actual magickal diaries of two of the leading figures in Dion Fortune’s Society of the Inner Light. He also provides some insightful details about Dion Fortune and the Society in general. It’s no wonder that the Society is still active today!
Around the time that Gerald Gardner in the UK was putting his finishing touches on his groundbreaking book “Witchcraft Today,” another openly public witch was making waves in Australia. Look for “Pan’s Daughter: The Magical World of Rosaleen Norton” by Nevill Drury to find out about this intriguing bohemian artist’s life, spirituality, and work.
Of course there are books that examine the life of Gerald Gardner, the key person to present Wicca to the world. “Gerald Gardner: Witch” by J. L. Bracelin (ghost written by the Sufi scholar Idries Shah) started the trend, which was picked up and expanded greatly by Philip Heselton in his books “Wiccan Roots,” “Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration,” and “Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner” in two volumes. For a more rigorous scholarly examination of Gardner’s life and influences be sure to look for “The Triumph of the Moon” by Ronald Hutton.
There are also autobiographies and biographies written by people who have worked with Gardner going back to the early 1950s. Doreen Valiente’s “Rebirth of Witchcraft” is a must-read, as is “Fifty Years of Wicca” by Frederic Lamond. For more about Doreen Valiente, look for Philip Heselton’s “Doreen Valiente: Witch” and “Ameth: The Life & Times of Doreen Valiente” by Jonathan Tapsell and Rowan Wulfe. Books written by Gardner’s later initiates include “High Priestess: The Life & Times of Patricia Crowther” by Patricia Crowther and “Conversations With a Witch” by Lois Bourne. All are great reading!
One of Gardner’s leading competitors was a man named Alex Sanders. For a rather sensational (and not always truthful) biography, try to find a copy of June Johns’ “King of the Witches: the World of Alex Sanders.” Books about the lives of some of Alex’s leading initiates, which also include revealing details about Alex and his groups, include his wife Maxine’s book “Fire Child: The Life & Magic of Maxine Sanders ‘Witch Queen’” and “Stewart Farrar: Writer on a Broomstick” by Elizabeth Guerra with Janet Farrar.
Another witchcraft tradition unrelated to Gardner’s Wicca is the Feri tradition taught by Victor and Cora Anderson. Victor passed away in 2001, and Cora passed away on Beltane eve in 2008; they left behind their book “Fifty Years in the Feri Tradition” along with others as a record of their lives and teachings. Victor and Cora will be missed dearly by all who were touched by their wisdom and love.
Another non-Wiccan witchcraft tradition has its American origins documented in the book “The Forge of Tubal Cain” by Ann Finnin. The Clan of Tubal Cain is based on the teachings of Robert Cochrane (aka Roy Bowers) who worked in the UK in the 1960s before his tragic death in 1966. The book relates the lives of Ann and her husband Dave, and how they came to lead the Clan in the United States. (Update: be sure to also look for Ann Finnin’s more recent book, “Journey to the Castle”, which gives more detail about how she and her husband Dave got involved in Robert Cochrane’s tradition and the trans-Atlantic shenanigans that resulted.)
The Clan of Tubal Cain is quite active in the UK as well. The Clan’s UK Maid, Shani Oates, has written an “autobiography of the Clan of Tubal Cain” with the title “Tubal’s Mill: The Round of Life.”
There are books written by others who were Wiccan initiates but not necessarily who worked directly with Gerald Gardner. One of particular note is Scott Cunningham whose book “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner” triggered a huge influx of solitary practitioners into the Wiccan community. “Whispers of the Moon: The Life and Work of Scott Cunningham” by David Harrington and deTraci Regula explores the life of this influential writer.
“The Last Bastion” by Ralph Harvey is a memoir of an influential Wiccan initiate who was active in the UK until his death in 2013. He peppers the text with anecdotes from his past along with a lot of general Wiccan teachings.
The prolific Gardnerian High Priestess and author Deborah Lipp talks about her life and the lessons she’s learned on her spiritual path in “Merry Meet Again.”
An intriguing account of a rather unique Wiccan tradition is presented in “Courting the Lady: A Wiccan Journey” by Patrick M. McCollum. What makes this of particular note is that McCollum talks about being initiated into a Wiccan coven in the early 1960s in California, around the same time or even before Ray Buckland was bringing Gardnerian Wicca to the United States for the first time. McCollum’s tradition is clearly based on Wicca (and is therefore at least inspired by Gardner’s system), but it is also quite distinct from other varieties.
Moving out of Wicca and witchcraft we find “My Life With the Spirits: The Adventures of a Modern Magician” by Lon Milo Duquette. Duquette is one of the leading ceremonial magickians today, an acknowledged expert on the topics of Thelema (Crowley’s system) as well as Enochian and Goetic grimoire magick. “My Life with the Spirits” relates how his interest in magick developed from the time he was a young boy.
Some books examine the lives of a number of modern Pagans. “Wiccan Wisdomkeepers” by Sally Griffyn, “Modern Pagans: An Investigation of Contemporary Pagan Practice” by V. Vale and John Sulak, and “Ancestors of the Craft: The Lives and Lessons of Our Magickal Elders” edited by Christopher Penczak provide interesting articles, along with photos, of various Pagan personalities. My favourite article is the one on Doreen Valiente in “Wiccan Wisdomkeepers.”
And finally, to put it all in a bit of historical context, look for books such as “The History of Magic in the Modern Age: A Quest for Personal Transformation” by Nevill Drury. If you only want to read one book this would be the one I’d recommend, as it gives a summary of the lives of many influential occultists and Pagans with the larger picture filled in to give it all meaning.
Happy reading! And keep writing your own journals, diaries, blogs, and memoirs – perhaps one day yours will be listed alongside these books too!