The Real Witches’ Handbook: A Complete Introduction to the Craft
By Kate West.
Published 2008 by Llewellyn Publications.
The author, Kate West, is a prolific and well-known writer from the U.K. with over thirty years experience in practicing Witchcraft, both coven and solitary. Her credentials are solid, and her writing style is clear and approachable – her books are fun & easy to read; often described as “having a conversation over a cuppa.”
Originally published in 2001 by Thorson’s, this introductory guide to modern pagan Witchcraft comes equipped with all the issues of its generational peers. It uses the terms Witch/Witchcraft and Wiccan/Wicca interchangeably. It makes huge generalisations and factual claims without providing sources. It focuses a lot on the what and how, rather than the why, of Craft practice. These sorts of problems are pretty common to books of the period.
With that in mind, let’s dig into some of the issues in more depth.
West’s first chapter aims to discuss and dispel some of the ‘common’ misconceptions about what Witches are and do. Unfortunately, she subscribes to the rather revisionist idea that pre-Christian Europe was one big happy pagan family: “Different groups held different beliefs and worshipped different Gods and Goddesses without conflict as far as we know.”
She also encourages the Margaret Murray theory of witchcraft as a hidden cult passed down to modern times: “Those who did wish to… follow the old religion did so secretly. They handed down their knowledge and beliefs by word of mouth and held their celebrations away from prying eyes.” She does go on to acknowledge the little recorded history of (Wicca) Craft practices prior to the 1950’s and acknowledge that religion doesn’t require a long history in order to be effective to it’s practitioners, but it’s set off-balance by her much larger passage discussing the effect of Christianity on nature religions and witchcraft practices.
There’s even one cringe-worthy paragraph where she compares Church-led witch-hunts to “Arabs and Jews… still fighting over Israel to this day.”
Her myth-busting includes such claims that offer a very one-sided view of Witchcraft (even Wiccan type Craft; not that she uses the word Wicca specifically). She states that Witches don’t believe or worship a devil (cue the laughter of many Traditional and/or Satanic Witches worldwide), uses the ‘white magic = good / black magic = bad’ framing, claims that most Witches adhere to “the main rule of the Craft, the Wiccan Rede”, and that Witches “do not make blood sacrifices.” I mean, I understand what she’s trying to say here, the specific ideas she wants to refute, but I feel like some specificity is required to do so. Broad generalisations don’t help: they don’t reassure folks who actually believe these ideas, and they don’t clarify anything for people who want to learn.
West states that “Witchcraft is one of the ancient fertility religions” and while she provides an accurate and succinct explanation of what ‘fertility’ can mean, she leaves out the fact that there are Witchcraft religions that aren’t fertility-based, and some that are indeed sex-based (as part of the sensual and/or ecstatic traditions) instead.
There are a few more dated ideas regarding myths here; particularly that the “hooked nose and warts imagery” and “pointed hats” is propaganda designed to discredit Witches because ugliness equates to evil, but there’s no discussion about the assumption made therein or the ties to historically oppressed minorities such as Jews.
The Craft that West writes about is a form of eclectic neopagan Witchcraft heavily influenced by Wicca. This is something that the experienced reader or practitioner will pick up, but will not be clear to the target audience of newcomers. Given that this religion is one that values diversity, it’s unfortunate that West fails to explain the wide variety of Witchcraft paths.
This sort of generalisation is something that continues to plague the book. In chapter two, West moves beyond myth-busting to discuss the realities of modern Witches, but here she uses the phrase “Witches believe…” liberally and inaccurately.
Regarding deity, West espouses a duo-theistic paradigm that uses gods interchangeably according to correspondence, related to the ‘all Gods are one God and all Goddesses are one Goddess’ theory that was popular in the ’90’s. She continues this polarity with gender links, such as “light = Sun = good = male” and the converse, “dark = Moon = bad = female”. Modern pagan Witchcraft has, for the most part, moved past such a limiting view of polarity, thanks in part to a wider understanding of ideas about gender and the damage caused by stereotypes. As such, sentences such as “Seeking the balance of male and female within us does not mean that we are seeking to become bi-sexual” are uncomfortable and alarming to read.
West also has a popular interpretation of the Wiccan Rede, ‘An it harm none, do what ye will,’ as meaning “do what’s right for you, but in doing so, try not to hurt others.” However, a more accurate translation would be “if it causes no harm, follow your true will” – and this would be in conflict with West’s use of the Rede as a sort of moral rule.
In a section discussion the elements, West refers to the reversed (upside down) pentacle’s links to Satanism as having “roots in Hollywood and popular fiction.” I mean, she’s not wrong about it being used a lot in pop fictional Satanism, but the phrasing and it’s inclusion here simply showcases her lack of understanding about Satanism.
This chapter also made me notice a very particular quirk of West’s writing: she capitalises the word ‘magic’. Seeing “Magic” or “Magical” used prolifically throughout the text makes me wonder just what she defines as magic, and this is an issue that arises later.
In chapter three, West discusses the idea of moon worship in the Craft. Problems arrive when she states that the effects of the moon are noticed easily by women due to their monthly cycle – but what about women who don’t have regular cycles? Or periods at all? Or uteri? Defining a link between the moon, women, and bleeding is short-sighted in a way that feels familiar this far into the Handbook.
West links the moon & its phases to the idea of the Triple Goddess and states that “almost all civilisations and parts of the globe” have legends of the Triple Goddess. Actually, even the term itself is a neopagan construction: while there is certainly evidence of goddess triads and of goddesses who had three forms or aspects, the link to the moon via the Maiden/Mother/Crone description is very modern, heavily influenced by mid-20th Century poet and writer Robert Graves. This is evidenced by her description of Hecate as a Crone, when in fact the Hellenic Hekate was a maiden goddess sometimes depicted in triple formed appearance.
Chapter four is a discussion of the eight Wiccan sabbats, specific to the Northern Hemisphere. This is fine, except there’s an odd phrase in the section on Samhain: “Wait until the first very cold or even frosty day which marks this season (if you are in the Southern Hemisphere then you will need some other seasonal marker).” I was left unsure as to whether she was suggesting that Southern Hemisphere Witches celebrate Samhain on the 31st October even though technically and seasonally it should be Beltane eve.
When discussing Yule, West says: “Light and dark are not used as euphemisms for good and bad here,” meaning in the Craft, even though she has done so herself previously in the book.
In the next chapter, West advises newcomers on how to become a Witch. She begins by finally discussing different types of Witchcraft, albeit with few examples and very Wiccan ones at that. She claims to have been initiated into both Gardnerian and Alexandrian covens, so I was interested to see what she had to say here, but I was underwhelmed and a little confused. She says “Alexandrian Craft is less formalised than Gardnerian”, which is at odds with my personal experience and understanding, and continues to say that “access to the Alexandrian Craft and ritual can be obtained from the works of Janet and Stewart Farrar”, which is… wrong. The Farrar’s wrote some interesting and effective books, but to say that an oath-bound initiatory tradition can be accessed via published works is incorrect and offensive.
Likewise, her understanding of other Witch traditions seems rather simple and uninformed. West writes that “there are hereditary families that predate Gardner” without expanding on who these Witches are or the history and controversy of such claims. She goes on to state that “another term for Traditional Witch is Instinctual” – thereby ignoring actual non-Wiccan Craft traditions who use that term. Actual instinctual (sometimes also called ‘natural’) Witches can be practitioners of any number of traditions. Perhaps this is a British phrasing that hasn’t made it’s way to the Antipodes, or is now outdated. I’ve been communicating with Witches online since 1999 and to my recollection have never heard this usage. West describes the term Hedgewitch as meaning those who follow a green- or nature-based path, and this is a common idea in British neopaganism and Witchcraft; but such usage is actually fairly modern as the older term referred to Hedge Riders, or witches who practice astral travel, shape shifting, divining, and other soul-flights through the veil to the Otherworld.
Chapter six introduces the reader to real magic, which West defines as “the ability to make change by force of will.” This is a pretty standard definition; and by it, the Craft practices that West describes, such as circle casting or cleansing and blessing, are magical in and of themselves. However, she goes on to differentiate ritual and “Magical workings” which seems to clash with her definitions. She sees ritual as an act of worship and magic as something separate, as an act that may be part of a ritual or stand alone.
This idea seems like a carry-over from the sort of religious past that draws lines between devotional worship (“in God’s hands”) and mundane life (where making changes to improve life is a personal responsibility). I rather think that the point of Witchcraft is that there’s no difference, no separation. Life is sacred because it is divine and so using the Craft to make the most of life is a holy act.
Strangely, given that she seems to equate magic with spell-casting, West follows up the “Magic” chapter with one titled “Spellcraft and Herb Lore.”
In it, she describes common Witches’ tools and their alternatives. There are is a brief paragraph on the athame, where she describes the traditional black-handled knife before saying that they aren’t necessary because “anything you cannot accomplish with your finger, you will not be able to achieve with an Athame” as well as mentioning some traditions’ reluctance to take metal into a Circle, and that some places have strict laws against carrying knives. She offers as an alternative items made of wood, bone or stone, before going into descriptions about wands. At no point does she actually discuss the point of an athame; the rich meaning, symbolism and use of one of the most famous of Witch tools.
After tools, West details the creating of sacred space. The first step she recommends is centering; to do so, she advises the reader to “relax your mind to clear it of every day distractions whilst also focusing it on what you are about to do.” This is a slightly unorthodox description of centering, the usual goal of which is to be present through the mindful practice of controlling one’s personal energy, typically using a physical component and a visualisation of energetic boundaries. West’s description more accurately fits the goal of meditation.
The final comment I have to make regards a possible typo in the ritual script provided for circle casting and closing. In the paragraph regarding the gods, West writes: “…I bid them Hale and Farewell.” Given that the usual acknowledgement is ‘hail and farewell’, I’m going to give West the benefit of the doubt here.
In summary, the points of concern in this book outweigh the benefits, which is a real shame because West’s writing style is perfect for people who have never read anything about Witchcraft before. Her rituals are simple but meaningful and effective, and her actual magical practices are solid. She successfully conveys the atmosphere that draws a lot of people to neopaganism and witchcraft in general. I also get the feeling that she walks her talk, thanks to the scattered personal tidbits and the integrity that shines through her words. However, all the personality in the world can’t make up for the volume of problems with this book.
Mike Gleason, while reviewing another of Kate West’s books on “The Cauldron: A Pagan Forum”, said, “Lest you be put off by the title, let me assure you that ‘Real Witches’ refers not to ‘the one, correct’ way to be a Witch. Rather, it refers to being a Witch in the real world – the one with mundane jobs, children, family, etc., all demanding part of your time and attention.” I’m not sure whether this conclusion is supported by Kate’s actual writing, but in the case of the “Handbook”, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt, as it’s target audience is people brand-new to the idea of Witchcraft.
I capitalise Witchcraft when I’m referring to the religion(s) and don’t when I’m referring to the more general magical practice.
I know it’s rough to criticise West for not providing sources, and then rebut her claims without providing them myself, but this review went on for way longer than I expected and I didn’t have the energy to link everything. I figure I’ll save all that for MY book. 😉