Surrounded by mystery and superstition, the Book of Shadows is a hand-written work owned by many, if not all, practitioners of witchcraft. Unlike fictional representations of these works (such as in the American TV series Charmed), it is not a magical object in itself, nor a phone directory of one's enemies! Nor is it a book of evil spells and potions. So what is it?
There is little historical evidence as to the origins of this type of book, though it is thought that use began in the time when persecution for witchcraft was rife, and the only way to record and pass on the wisdom of the old ways was to write it down in secret. It is believed such books were destroyed at the time of their owners' execution.
The name 'Book of Shadows' is thought to have been first used by Dr Gerald Gardner in the 1940s, and he is considered to have had a large influence on the format of the book we see today. In collaboration with Doreen Valiente and Aleister Crowley, Dr Gardner wrote his Gardenarian Book of Shadows, which is considered to be one of the bedrocks of modern Wicca.
The Book of Shadows Today
Most witches, either lone practitioners or covens, have their own traditions and ways of doing things (such as Sabbat and Esbat1 rituals). When a person is initiated into a coven, they may be given the coven's Book of Shadows to copy out by hand. This can be a real labour of love as books can spread into thousands of pages.
Inside the book, as well as the coven's personal rituals, the new witch can expect to find tried and tested spells, an insight into the coven's traditional heritage and belief system, their laws and more. This information is entrusted to the initiate as something to keep private, not because there is anything evil or wrong about it, but because it is so valuable to the particular coven.
In addition to the coven book, the witch may also keep her own book. It will contain his or her personal thoughts on rituals (perhaps including adaptations), spells attempted with notes on success, and so on. This kind of book may also be kept by lone practitioners who do not have access to a passed-down coven copy.
Books of Shadows are often beautifully illustrated and embellished, and may be written in magical or ancient scripts such as runes or even Egyptian hieroglyphs. In this modern age, however, the book may not be 'written' at all, but typed and kept on a password-protected computer file, with parts emailed to trainee witches and coven members as needed.
In essence, the Book of Shadows is a personal record of the owner's spiritual progress, as well as being a way of passing on to others traditions that may otherwise be lost or forgotten.