Dancing with the Goddess and Drawing Down the Moon: A Reading List for Modern Witches
Diana Helmuth Recommends Margot Adler, Lorraine Monteagut, Starhawk, and More
When I encounter the question “are you a Witch?” my first response is always, “who is asking, and why?” Perhaps there never has been a more loaded noun in the English language. Depending on who is asking, it can be a compliment. Or preamble to torture.
Despite its crowded dictionary entry, Witchcraft has been growing in popularity, often cited as the fastest growing religion in the world.
When I went on a very serious journey to try and turn myself into a Witch for a year, I knew I wasn’t going to be flying on any broomsticks. Instead, I was engaging with the core of what the Witch character represents: a person (usually a woman, or other marginalized person), seeking power to change her world based on will. The seeking of that power is often transgressive based on the dominant culture (or plot) that the Witch is in—hence why the Witch is so fun to play with, as an archetype.
She is the original rebel. She can also be a glowing immortal, granting you the gift of light when all other lights go out; she can be a jealous hag, cursing innocent maidens while lightning crackles above her castle tower; she can be an awkward young woman, eerily relatable, daring herself to defy gravity.
Unlike more historic notions of Witchcraft, Modern Witchcraft, I discovered, is not something you just stumble into. I could not simply light a black flame candle and then pal around with Bette Midler all night. In fact, you really have to work to get in here. Anyone can be a Witch, but it usually requires a fair amount of reading.
Here are the books that most inspired my journey, allowing room for all my doubt, skepticism, guilt, fear and even, dare I say it, moments of success:
Lorraine Monteagut, Brujas: The Power and Magic of Witches of Color
For years, the Witchcraft landscape in the United States was dominated by Wicca and European-sourced magic (at least, that’s what was being written about). Monteagut’s book is a fresh and welcome overview of the burgeoning Brujeria movement in the United States. She offers us interviews and stories from the scene’s movers and shakers: their dreams, their problems, their opinions, what got them to where they are now.
At the same the book acts as a potent, page-turning memoir, where Monteagut dives deep into her own complicated relationships with her ancestors, internal racial tensions, and what it means to be a Witch and an immigrant on colonized land. In a world of shadow work journals, this book is a flashlight for when you get stuck in the dark. It is deeply scholastic and painstakingly researched but remains unwaveringly compassionate and accessible to the average reader. I’m pretty sure I cried at least four times. Whether you are a Witch of color, or not, this book is a life-changing read.
Fire Lyte, The Dabbler’s Guide to Witchcraft
If Witchcraft was a class, this book would be its prerequisite. When it comes to Witchcraft in the free information digital age, there is a lot of information out there, but very little wisdom. Don Martin (aka Fire Lyte’s) book assists you in building the critical thinking skills you need to interpret it all—think Microsoft Word’s Clippy, but actually enjoyable.
The book doesn’t tell you how to practice; it tells you how to think critically about what you’ll encounter in the modern Witchcraft discourse, which is filled with a mix of revered sages, well-meaning-if-misguided rookies, and outright grifters. From cultural appropriation, fake psychics, and how all these groups even relate to each other, The Dabbler’s Guide has you covered. It’s funny, it’s practical, and respects your intelligence.
Madeline Miller, Circe
Although this book is fiction, Madeline Miller’s novel truly captures the sensation of being alone in your room, feeling ostracized from your community, stirring up a bunch of herbs in the hopes that it will finally help you figure out your life. Circe is often called as the first Witch in Greek history, but she is not born complete and confident. Her journey to her own power (written with intoxicating grace by Miller) is the journey any one of us might take, nervously thrown into a life stage that demands we come to terms with what we are capable of.
Anyone who begins a Witchcraft journey can probably relate to Circe feeling as though “I had been a stranger to myself, turned to stone for no reason I could name.” Circe’s story serves as inspiration that despite trial after trial, enduring disrespectful lovers and unkind family members, there can be a discovery of power—and, more importantly, a discovery of peace.
Starhawk, The Spiral Dance
You cannot understand the modern Witchcraft scene, at least in the United States, without reading this book. Starhawk was a formative member of the Goddess movement—an offshoot of the hippie revolution that used the Witch as a potent symbol for second wave feminism. Her foundational text has gone through three editions and contains everything you need to start practicing on your own, or with others.
But to call it a mere how-to is not doing it justice. The Spiral Dance is a manifesto for earth-based religion, an invitation for social justice as spiritual practice and a roadmap to embrace what your mind is capable of—really capable of. The book argues for the importance of ritual and religion in our lives even if we do not like to join groups. It also breaks down how to move past the protective “Talking Self” to get in touch with your “Younger Self” and, that final gate, the “Divine Self.” It never ceases to acknowledge that this is intimidating work, taking bravery, focus, and dedication.
But the reward is to “stimulate an awareness of the hidden side of reality, and awaken long-forgotten powers of the human mind.” Even if you do not agree with Starhawk’s origin story of Witchcraft as the revival of an ancient Goddess religion, you will probably be a different person on the other side of reading this text. Strap in.
Scott Cunningham, Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner
I think of Scott Cunningham is the Bernie Sanders of Witchcraft, throwing open the doors of Wicca’s closed practices and distributing free healthcare philosophy to the yearning masses. Published in 1989, Wicca was considered the ur-text for beginning, solitary Witches in the United States for many years. This was also during a time when most witch-curious people didn’t know there was any other way to be a Witch than to be Wiccan.
Although Wicca is its own codified religion, and Witchcraft is a much broader spiritual practice, much of what you see and read in the West about Witchcraft is heavily influenced by Wicca and Wiccan thought leaders like Cunningham. Hence why this book is still relevant. It is not without its problems—I, like many, believe if Cunningham lived past age thirty-six he would have done what Starhawk had done, and updated the book through several editions.
Nevertheless, it remains a beautiful, uncomplicated invitation to those who feel attracted to the idea of the earth itself as a deity. It invites you to start from precisely where you are, without the need to buy the dozens of tools, crystals and cards encouraged by so many other beginning texts. It is not a book of spells, but an invitation to a different way of seeing the world—one in which you are not crazy for wanting to talk to the trees.
Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon
This book is for the intellectuals among us, the doubters, the academics—the people who need something unimpeachably scholastic to bait them into the stygian depths of the “woo-woo.” It’s effectively an anthropological study of the neopagan movement in 1970s America, and at times reads like a master’s thesis.
But it also functions as a memoir to the author’s own journey into her spirituality. Adler was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, an award-winning NPR journalist, and host of the Clarion Award–winning radio show Justice Talking. She is analytical, objective, scrupulous. And in Drawing Down the Moon, you can watch her justify, to herself, over six hundred pages of dissertation-level research, why she wants to dance naked in the moonlight.
If you, like me, are someone with control issues raised with science as your primary religion (but also find yourself craving spiritual stimulation), you will probably find Adler’s takes very relatable. At a minimum, the history of neopaganism in America is a fascinating one.
Lasara Firefox Allen, Jailbreaking the Goddess
In modern Witchcraft, many women find themselves attracted to the idea of a capital-G Goddess because she is created in our image (rather than relegating us to ribs). In many European-derived Witchcraft traditions, the Goddess is seen as having three forms: maid, mother and crone. Allen’s book explodes this idea, offering an alternative way to view the Goddess, and by extension, an alternative way for how individuals might relate to her.
Allen calls out the fact that, even in an ultra-feminist space like Witchcraft, “a woman does not become a woman under her own power, but under the power of her lover or the person who ‘initiates’ her.” In Allen’s new paradigm, the Goddess has five phases, and a woman is capable of experiencing each one at any age (for example, you can feel very young and immature at a brand-new job at age sixty, or be a wise teacher of a skill, even if you’re only thirty). In other words, a woman is never simply young, a mother, and then old, and to reduce ourselves to this story is inaccurate.
This book made me feel tremendously free from the age-defined cage I didn’t quite realize the maid/mother/crone structure had put me in. Allen also presents a case for disassociating certain character traits with genders, asking us questions like “what if strong was just strong, soft was just soft, and nurturing was just nurturing?”
The Witching Year: A Memoir of Earnest Fumbling Through Modern Witchcraft by Diana Helmuth is available via Simon Element.