Book Review: The Witch’s Book of Shadows by Jason Mankey

Llewellyn’s Witch’s Tools series currently contains six small books, one for each of the major tools in witchcraft (wand, broom, mirror, athame, book of shadows, and cauldron) though I assume more are forthcoming (familiar, I hope, will be on the list). The author varies by the book with no author having more than two books in the series at the moment, similar to the Sabbat Essentials series. The Witch’s Book of Shadows: The Craft, Lore and Magick of the Witch’s Grimoire was written/compiled by Jason Mankey, who also wrote The Witch’s Athame. Unfortunately, I was not thrilled with Mankey’s book, and I think it was largely due to the author’s magickal proclivities more than anything else.

Since the book series is presented as a general guide to major tools in witchcraft, I feel that it’s important to not have one particular path emphasized. In this book, the author adds in a lot of Christian information that I feel does not belong, talking about Jesus and angels frequently. Mankey himself started on a Christo-pagan path, but that certainly doesn’t mean it belongs in the book. The book is based heavily around Mankey’s own experiences, perhapf more than research on the Book of Shadows and/or Grimoire tradition, and he uses more examples from his personal life than I feel is appropriate. In that same vein Mankey is Wiccan, and much of the book is influenced by Wicca due to that fact. There are many witches, myself included, who are not Wiccan at all. Since these are general guides, or at least are presented as such, it would be nice if it wasn’t so specific as to a certain path. Additionally, and this is a writing gripe, he breaks the third wall and talks about his editor’s suggestions, letting the reader know that he was forced to add things. It felt out of place, but clearly the editor had no issue with it, since the passages were published. Still, it felt odd.

On the topic of editing, in an odd layout choice there are contributors who aren’t identified until after their section has ended. There seems to be no logical way of knowing who added what sections because where Mankey’s writing stops and theirs starts is never indicated. The result is a mish mash of voices and a feeling of meandering inconsistency. My friend read a preview copy of the book and just assumed it was an error that would be fixed, so when I showed her the final version she was very confused by what she had assumed was an error being carried through to print.

Concerning the actual substance of the book, the “Alphabets, Fonts, Inks, and Symbols” chapter was somewhat helpful, as well as the “Cleansing, Consecrating, and Other Rituals” chapter. However, these don’t appear until the end. The templates provided are very Wiccan (a God and a Goddess) and there are no templates for other paths. In the “New Frontiers and the BoS” chapter, the author opens by complaining that a lot of people offered suggestions for this book. He says that when people do this he “get(s) the feeling that they don’t trust me as a writer” (259). The insecurity that leaks through in this statement permeates the whole book, which includes everything from Jesus and cave paintings to the glaring omission of distinguishing a Book of Shadows from a Grimoire. A little history would have been nice, but it’s at once too wide a net (things that aren’t Pagan) and too narrow (things the author finds interesting). Other chapters feel rambling, floating from one topic to the next with few transitions. The book would have benefited from a firm editing hand.

On the whole I’m disappointed with the book, which I had hoped would structured something like basic definition of terms and uses, history, BoS construction guide with examples, and further reading. Of all of the “tools” in the series, a BoS is arguably the most personal since you create the Books of Shadows yourself, which in turn makes it so anxiety producing. Side note: Mankey got a Book of Shadows handed down to him as well, but most witches are not initiated into master covens anymore for various reasons. I’m not looking forward to his Athame book because I have a feeling that will be very Wiccan, too. I’m pretty sure Deborah Blake will save the day with her Broom book though. I’ve already ordered it, of course. Hold on while I go and buy every Deborah Blake book ever published (and pre-order the rest) …

All of my complaints aside, I do think that there are still things that you can get out of this book; I certainly did. In my case, Mankey introduced the idea of multiple Books of Shadows over time; moreover, the idea that they don’t have to be permanent, which helped me work through a BoS writer’s block. I’ve been struggling with my own BoS and perfectionism, so I am reconfiguring mine into a new medium. In that way, at the very least, the book was helpful. Additionally, how to “let go” of an old BoS (including rituals for release) was helpful, as was the idea of taking the best from an old or baby witch BoS and transferring it into a new one. I felt that the last half of the book was much better than the first. Witches are used to sorting through things and picking out what they want to use, though.

The smirky cat illustrations are adorable and must be noted.

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