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As Roald Dahl says in The Witches, witches do not wear silly black cloaks or ride broomsticks. In fact, real witches are amongst us every day, just like anyone from any religion – I’m one, in fact. There are two schools of thought on Wicca – one that it is a silly, made up amalgamation of many different practices, and the other that accepts it as such (after all, most religions *are* a combination of stories and rituals) and get on with it. Thankfully, Rae Beth is of the latter mindset. And she done gone writted a book about it! Yowza!
Before any of the major religions took hold, people were known to have worshipped both a Goddess and a God. Early cultures embraced and respected the need for duality in their lives – man needs woman and woman needs man. This same principle is applied to nature – the sun is the God, the moon is the Goddess and so forth. This belief has survived longer than any other, and has done so through pagans (another name for a witch) passing their knowledge from one to another. You may well be familiar with the concept of villages in olden times having a “wise woman” – these old ladies may well have been witches, and would pass their knowledge to an apprentice through word of mouth, or by bequeathing their “Book of Shadows” (a pagan’s diary and spell book) to them on their death bed.
It is this same tradition that Rae Beth keeps alive in this book. Initially a series of letters to a pair of apprentices, Beth realised the same year she wound down her regular correspondence (1988) that these letters would provide a useful set of resources to any other would-be witches.
The book kicks off with Beth’s introductory letter to Tessa and Glyn, where she answers the question “what is witchcraft?” for the pair. This may well dispel a further few myths for the casual reader, pointing out as I have that this is the most ancient of all practices. Yes, there *is* a guy with horns involved, but he is not the devil (a Christian invention to denounce paganism), but rather the Horned God, partner to the Triple Goddess. Now, there was nothing in this introduction that I found useful, mainly because I’ve read up on this subject time and again, but as a brief summary of pagan principles, it’s pretty good.
It’s around this point that you may be put off by the book. I often read back the opening two letters and wonder why I still enjoy them. There is a good deal of information to be harvested from these pages, but the style of writing may well be a stumbling block. This being a series of letters, it is presented as exactly that. Therefore a lack of editing, which I freely admit may have taken some of the warmth from these letters, means that some paragraphs refer directly to the recipients, and not the reader. This could well distance some people, as this is not a reference book of the usual order – finding information takes time. There is no index, no contents are provided, and there are no chapter headings.
After pondering for a while, I realised that whilst being an unusual conceit, this actually works surprisingly well. Tessa and Glyn become characters – my Tessa is 5’8” with brown curly hair and an odd smile, and Glyn is younger, 6’1” with short black hair and dimply cheeks. I imagine these two performing the suggested rituals in the book (until later – read on!), which is a great tool. Any pagan will tell you how important visualisation is during spells, and imagination is an extension of this.
After the initial introduction, Beth gets straight down to introducing the pair to the pagan festivals or Sabbats. There are eight of these through the year, as well as celebrations every full moon. The Sabbats are Imbolc or Imbolg (Feb 2), Ostara (around Mar 21), Beltane (Apr 30), Summer Solstice (around Jun 21), Lughnasadh (Aug 1), Mabon (around Sep 21) and the pagan new year - Samhain, or Hallowe’en (Oct 30). Last of all is Yule – the day around Dec 21 that has been usurped in popular culture by the Christian holiday of Christmas. In fact, you’ll notice that most of the Sabbats are linked to Christianity, due to early interference around 273 C.E.
Beth’s descriptions of the major festivals are basic as regards mythology, but have a good selection of information – rituals for the occasion are mentioned, along with some of Beth’s poetry and invocations. She goes into more detail about the structure of the festivals, and the story behind each one in relation to the God and Goddess in a letter separate to the main texts on them. This can be a little frustrating if you are not prepared to invest some time in the book – finding information can be a little tricky, but is not impossible. She also points out that her writings are suggestions as well as teachings – the best thing about solo paganism is finding things out for yourself, and working spells around your needs, adapting them as you see fit.
Beyond the mention of the Sabbats, there are some mentions of herbs for magical applications. I found this section rather to brief, and it also lacks a warning about using herbs and plants in magic – as some are harmful to pregnant women, and others are poisonous in certain doses. Whilst it’s nice to know what uses some of these plants have, I wouldn’t recommend dabbling with them unless you know what you’re doing, and Beth should really point this out too, despite her acknowledgement of this being merely an introduction.
Not mentioned fully in my earlier version of this review was the second section, which follows on from the Sabbat lessons and concentrate on just Tessa, who has self-initiated herself. What has happened to Glyn, I thought, as I read on? Well, he seems to be out of the picture! He is given no further mention in the second half, which means he’s presumably taken his dimply cheeks elsewhere and found the path to be wrong for him. Ah well.
The second section deals predominantly with trance work and astral projection. This is a simple yet time consuming practice, with great rewards. Trance is basically a therapy session with yourself, in which you give visual form to your inner voice, and in this instance, to your familiar and the God and Goddess. Beth details methods by which one may commune with nature spirits, and to ask them to aid your magical workings, or even yourself. The trances are very effective, any description of strong imagery is very useful in this respect, as it fires the imagination. I’ve given a couple of these ideas a try, and was pleased with the results – Beth writes in a clearer and more accessible fashion in this section. She seems far happier writing to someone dedicated to walking the path than a mere observer like dimply Glyn. This heightened interest in her role as mentor is beneficial to the reader, as trance is something that either works or doesn’t, so a good grounding in the principles behind it is most welcome.
To sum up, then, this is a very good book for entry to mid level pagans, and for anyone wanting to find out about the whole pagan world. There are a fair few morsels of unusual information that I have not come across elsewhere, which highlight Beth’s superb knowledge of her subject matter. The personal writing drew me in to her descriptions, despite some repetition of her previous letters, which I did find a bit grating on occasion. There are also line illustrations by Bill Wright, (mainly depictions of various wild plants) which break up the text nicely and also match the spirit of this volume. Not essential as a “how-to” book, but definitely worth the surprisingly low price.