How can you tell if your neighbor is a witch? It's actually easier to tell if she's not. Just check her bookshelves. If she doesn't have anything more than a few Robert Parker mysteries, a Dr. Phil Life Strategies workbook, and a mint-condition hardback of The Bridges of Madison County she's not.
Because witches read.
"If you were to walk into my house, you would see nineteen bookcases," says Oakland journalist and witch Victoria Slind-Flor. "We are the people of not one book; we are the people of many, many, many books."
Slind-Flor practices the nature-based religion of Wicca, whose new year falls on the day most of us know as Halloween, but which witches call Samhain (pronounced SOW-un). Its most sacred ritual, she says, is the spiral dance, which celebrates the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. "Before we do that we invoke all the ancestors to join us," she says. "It's a sense that those who are no longer with us are with us, and those who are yet to come are here already." In that spirit, Slind-Flor recommends The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (HarperSanFrancisco, $18) by Starhawk, M. Macha NightMare, and the Reclaiming Collective. "This is a book in which a lot of pagans in the Bay Area have written about their own experiences in priestessing death," she says. "It has prayers for people to say or sing when someone is dying. It even has instructions for how to do your own cremation if necessary."
For spellcrafting, Jessica Rabbit, owner of the Sacred Well in Berkeley, turns to Paul Beyerl's Compendium of Herbal Magick (Phoenix, $24.50). "It's everything you want in a witchy book," she says. "It's got an A-to-Z guide of all different plants and herbs and their lore and magical properties, and the elements that they relate to and the planets that they're governed by, and the deities that go along with them."
JoHanna Coash, acquisitions coordinator for the Pagan Alliance in Berkeley, calls Robert Moss' Dreaming True (Pocket, $17.95) an "absolutely fabulous" guide to dream analysis. "You can actually realize that something is going to happen before it happens," she says.
Coash says she's been practicing witchcraft since age eleven, but not as a Wiccan. "I personally fall in several categories," she says. "I'm a pagan. I'm also an Erisian and I'm an animist and I'm a faerie."
"I worship Eris, the goddess of chaos and discord," she says. "Hail Eris."
Don Frew, interfaith representative for the national pagan organization Covenant of the Goddess, is enjoying Lairs of the Hidden Gods (Kurodahan, $20/book), a shivery multivolume collection of Lovecraftian short stories by Japanese authors. But the book that has him scribbling in the margins is Sam Harris's vigorous and in Frew's opinion blinkered indictment of religion, The End of Faith (Norton, $13.95). "It's infuriating me," he says. "He'll make statements like, 'All religions have either moderates or extremists.' I'm going, like, 'What's an extremist Taoist?'"
Robin Dolan, a director for Magical Acts Ritual Theater, is neck deep in fairy tales adapted versions of them comprise her latest play. But she also loves the mix of modern settings and magic in Charles de Lint's urban fantasy novels. Her favorite is Moonheart (Orb, $14.95): "Most of the people in his books are like people I would know: people that are artists or that are struggling but are still trying to find beauty and purpose in their lives."
Her Samhain plans? A small gathering with friends. "We'll probably have a quiet night thinking about our lives," she says. Then, come the first of November, it's back to the grind. After all, witches don't get their new year's day off. And even worshippers of the Goddess have to work for the Man.
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