Iíd like to talk about how to critically evaluate the books that you read, and
why it is important to do this.
This is particularly complicated when we
talk about Pagan books, because people who write Pagan books and materials are writing
about things theyíve experienced, and about a religion or practice in which there
are traditionally accepted concepts and a strong oral tradition. Many authors donít
reference where they learned their ideas - or in many cases, they learned it from
a teacher, who learned it from another teacher, who learned it from someone else.
That doesnít mean that this kind of learning (or their experiences) are
any less true or valid (or that itís any less powerful when used in ritual) - but
it does make it very difficult to determine what to question or where to find more
information. As well, there are times when accuracy of information can be very important,
such as in toxic effects of herbs, or other possible dangers.
we want to evaluate the books? Isnít it enough to just read them?
are two main reasons: First weíre talking about religion or magickal practice, and
both of those deserve a thoughtful reading. Religion, because how we relate to Deities
is important - as is being respectful. For magic, this is important because there
can be concerns or issues if some things are done improperly (or even, in the case
of things like herbal use, possible health problems)
Second, itís a matter
of common sense. There are some good books out there. There are some lousy books.
The good books have some not-so-great parts, and the lousy books can have some interesting
things to say. Without critical reading, itís hard to tell which is which. Being
an informed and critical reader will help you make connections, question information,
and generally think about what you read and how to apply it more deeply.
right, so we need to think about what we read. What sorts of things should we think
The main things you should consider are: Who the author is, where
they got their information, how accurate their information is, what their purpose
in writing is, and what their tone tells you about how they feel.
is the author?
Here, we want to look at the authorís background.
Unknown authors can turn out great books (an example might be Jennifer Hunterís 21st
Century Wicca, which is a great introduction to modern Wicca practice in a general
sense). Well known authors can write lots of books on vastly different subjects -
which can indicate that they may not know some of their topics as well as others.
Regardless, knowing about an authorís background and training and experience can
help you put their writing in perspective.
If someone is writing about a
tradition, is it a tradition they have significant training or experience in? If
they are writing a general work, do they have the experience to do so? If they write
about leading a coven, have they done that? Not having these experiences isnít necessarily
a problem, but if they donít have the experience themselves, they should be referring
to people who do.
Why do we want to know where they got the information?
First, knowing where they learned the information can help you fit it into
a broader context, and compare it to other things you know. Second, it can help you
determine whether that information works well for you - if you know they are basing
information on a tradition you donít find as helpful for you or one in which only
some parts are helpful to you, or which makes assumptions that donít work for you,
you can make the appropriate changes.
Some examples might be a tradition
which focuses on the Goddess more than the balance of God and Goddess, or one which
focuses on the heterosexual aspects of the interaction of God and Goddess in ritual
- the Great Rite in its various forms. Knowing where the information is coming from
can also be particularly important when talking about correspondences and other magickal
practices which can vary (sometimes significantly) depending on the source. Mixing
these practices is often not advised without caution and careful research and consideration.
Finally, it can help you determine whether or not something fits in with your preferences
or moral code. If a book focuses on the heterosexual activity between the God and
the Goddess and tells you that homosexual people are missing something, and youíre
gay or lesbian (or some other sexual orientation than heterosexual), you may feel
more support and inclusion for your choices from a book that talks about multiple
ways to relate sexuality and religious practice. While reading things which challenge
your beliefs can often be a good thing to do, that doesnít mean that it always an
appropriate time to do so.
How do we know how accurate information
One of the easiest things to do is to take a look at whatever book
youíre reading, and see what the copyright date is. This information can almost always
be found on the back side of the title page except in some older books.
will give you an idea of when the book was written and published. If the book is
more than a year or two old, then thereís a fairly good chance some of the resources
and groups listed in it may be defunct or at a different address. If itís more than
five or ten years old, there have most likely been some significant changes in practice
and culture. And if a book is over about 20 years old, thereís an excellent chance
that a number of social attitudes or approaches to history have changed, and that
you should take these into account when reading.
Older books have a lot
of value, and may contain valuable information that doesnít change significantly
over time. However, you should check anything relating to current groups, acceptable
practices, or anything that changes over time.
In particular, you should
double check anything you inhale, drink or apply to your skin in a more up-to-date
source first, as medical knowledge can change or there may be specific concerns which
apply to you which arenít mentioned in a general source. (For example, ragweed and
chamomile are very similar, and some people who are allergic to ragweed or have allergy
induced asthma may react badly to chamomile as well. Thatís a good thing to know
before you plant or drink it, and is something thatís noted in a number of mainstream
You should also check out any factual material (history,
specifics of traditions outside the authorís immediate experience). Trusting your
instincts can be useful (if you have any strong background in history at all, or
even if you donít.) If something sounds unlikely, check it out in other sources as
well, or with people you know who know more about the issue or time period.
At the very least, never take one book as your sole source of information on a subject,
and never take two books, one of which is based on the other, as your only sources.
Read widely over time, so that you get the best perspective on the available information
and evaluation of material.
What they actually say in the book.
Whatís the purpose of the book? Is it a general introduction to Witchcraft (as a
magickal practice, not a religion?) Is it a general introduction to Neo-Pagan religions?
To Wicca? Is it focused on a specific aspect or practice (Tarot, herbs, candles,
meditation?) Is it about a specific tradition, someoneís personal practice? Is it
aimed at the absolute novice, or at someone who knows the basics? Is it a book of
spells and rituals, or is there substantial discussion in there as well?
What is their purpose? Are they presenting purely personal experiences (ďHereís what
worked for me.Ē) or are they providing a general overview? Do they have some agenda
(making a particular path more prominent or accessible, aiming at a specific group
of readers?) Sometimes authors have a visible bias. Sometimes they have biases which
are not so visible. If an author is trying to present a relatively unbiased opinion,
you should see an appropriate tone (see the next section) and give references or
other peopleís statements.
How can authors reference information?
The most complete way to give information about sources is in footnotes or end notes.
(Footnotes are at the bottom of the page, end notes are at the end of each chapter
or sometimes at the end of the book.) Sometimes, sources are given more casually,
with a parenthetical reference to a well known work or one previously referenced
more fully. These give more specific information on where you can go to read more
on where that information came from. This is the method that is used in any academic
book or article.
Some authors give a suggested reading list at the end of
the chapter or the end of the book. These arenít nearly as useful for further research
because they donít let you go directly to the source of a quote or piece of information
thatís of immediate interest to you. Theyíre still better than nothing, but you should
be cautious of trusting unreferenced material, particularly in a historical text,
without checking out other sources.
In general, I am more tolerant of a
lack of footnotes or references in books which talk about someoneís personal experiences,
practice, or those which rely on a previously oral tradition. (Although I still like
to know where they got information and what they recommend for further reading.)
I am far less tolerant of books with few references which talk about history, religious
theory, general practices, or multiple traditions. I personally get suspicious when
an author talks about a wide range of subjects (multiple traditions, a broad period
of history) without giving further resources and references.
it important to cite information from other sources?
One of the dangers
of not citing information is that personal experience and personal opinions can appear
as fact. Likewise, no one person is ever going to have the same depth of knowledge
about a wide range of traditions. They may know two or even three well, but thereís
no way that one person can experience high level training and practice in many traditions
in any one lifetime.
Because of this, itís a good idea to be suspicious
of the accuracy of information if there are no sources cited and if the author is
talking about material from several different traditions or cultures. They might
well have done their homework- but researching it further in books by people specializing
in each of those cultures will get you more depth and greater assurance of accurate
If theyíve done their own research, itís a relatively simple
matter to give you what sources they used. Think about it this way: do you want to
automatically trust the information of someone who canít bother to tell you where
their information came from? What does that say about their work ethic and ability
to research? What does it say about their accuracy in other areas? (A good example
of decent citation is Margot Adlerís Drawing Down the Moon.)
sort of questions can be asked about factual information?
If other people
were consulted, who was consulted, and when? Are there sources from within those
traditions which are given? Do you recognize any of the names of people who were
consulted? Are they respected names, or have you heard things that concern you about
them from other sources?
If historical material (names and dates) are mentioned,
do they seem to be right to you? Are there major errors? Are hotly debated subjects
(whether Wicca itself existed before the 20th Century) mentioned as having alternate
opinions or are those differences of opinion ignored? If the author gives an overview,
is it really an overview, or just a Ďthe bits I like bestí version of history? Do
they talk about controversies and low points as well as the high points? If they
talk about herbs, do they talk about toxic ones? Do they specifically avoid toxic
herbs? (Two herbs that I usually look for to see how these issues are addressed are
belladonna/deadly nightshade and rue.) Do they talk about needing particular care
if you are pregnant or might be pregnant?In general, do you see safety precautions
you have seen elsewhere? Do they recognize the issues of different sexual orientation,
various ways of relating to deities (Deity as an archetype or Deity as an individual?),
or other issues (working with teens, dealing with mainstream society, etc)
What sort of tone do they use?
While itís all very well to speak
from personal experience, a responsible and experienced author should realize that
there are a lot of differences in Craft and Pagan practice and experience. Because
of this, I tend to be very suspicious (and I suggest that the critical reader should
be as well) of any author who uses words like ďAll WitchesĒ or ďNo PaganĒ or ďThis
is the one way that things are doneĒ.
As Iím sure readers of this article
are aware, there are a wide range of practices, sexualities, rituals, and coven practices.
While itís fine to talk about specifics when talking about a limited set of circumstances
(ďIn X tradition, we practice skyclad and do the following ritual at the Full Moon...
In our tradition, the balance between male and female energies is important, and
we honor both the God and Goddess equallyĒ) a responsible author shouldnít generalize
that to all practice. (ďAll Pagans practice skyclad, are heterosexual, and must be
willing to participate in the True Great RiteĒ)
Most of the time, the generalizations
are a bit more subtle than that - which is why books deserve close reading. Some
areas where people can generalize include pantheon (particularly gender issues relating
to deity), sexuality, the practice of sexual magic (including the Great Rite), the
desired membership of covens or size of covens. Again, itís perfectly all right to
insist on specifics in a given tradition. Whatís not all right is generalizing to
all Wiccans, all Witches, or all Pagans, except in some very few and very general
ways (for example, the differences between Witches and Satanists or the fact that
modern Wiccans do not practice animal or human sacrifice.)
I hope that this article has given you an outline of things to think about.
Again, Iím going to list the basics so that you can reference them quickly.
1) Who is the author? What is his or her background?
2) Where did the author
3) How accurate is that information?
4) What is the purpose
of the book?
5) What does their tone indicate?
6) Are there warning signs
for further caution: an older book dealing with herbs or
other medical issues;
regular use of absolute words (all, no, none) rather than
recognizing that there
are differences of opinion in the Neo-Pagan community; lack
of references regarding
historical information, or that are outside the authorís direct
If you have any questions about this, or would like to discuss something with
me further (this is by necessity simplified in some areas), Iíd be glad to do so.
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay is Copyright, 2001 by
the author, and is used here with her gracious permission.
or other reuse of this work without the expressed
permission of the author is
prohibited. The author may be contacted at email@example.com.
Other Voices / Main Index
Last updated June 1, 2001