Stepping into an esoteric bookshop can feel like clambering through a dark forest. With this list, we hope you will find one of the many crisscrossing paths through those wild woods. The recommendations here are mainly from Western esotericism, but much of what we think of as Western has at some point come from the East. Many of the books below are available to purchase from our friends at Treadwell’s Books in London.
The Book of English Magic by Richard Heygate and Philip Carr-Gomm
England has a long, albeit quiet history of magic. This book takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of our enchanted past through to our magical present. Along the way, the author explores how magic has both fascinated and scared us. We are introduced to scholars who practised alchemy, authors of fantasy and their magical inspirations, some of the places that were sacred to our ancestors or had a significant role in myths and legends, and the Neopagan beliefs alive today.
That Sense of Wonder: How to Capture the Miracles of Everyday Life by Francesco Dimitri
As children, wonder comes naturally to us. I remember lying on my childhood bedroom floor, at 8, surrounded by beautiful books, open atlases and encyclopaedias. The world was vast and exciting then, and I wanted to explore it. Francesco Dimitri argues this simple impulse, wonder, is the driving force behind many works of scientific enquiry and creative endeavours, from the monuments that grace our skylines to the stories and art that move us. Wonder encourages us to light candles in the dark and set forth into unchartered territory in search of something new. This book explores how life sometimes gets in the way of that. Caught up in a society that values certainty over mysteries, distracted by the burden of mortgage repayments and endless bureaucracy, we can lose that sense of wonder; Dimitri reveals how to reclaim it.
Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa
Arguably one of the best starting points for understanding western occultism, practitioners of ritual magic and literary authors still draw inspiration from Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy today. The books were published in 1531 in Paris, Cologne and Antwerp, and are noted for being more scholarly and intellectual in content than many of the other grimoires around at the time. The three books concern themselves with Elemental, Celestial and Intellectual Magic, and include extracts from obscure work by the thinkers such as Pythagoras and Plato. The topics covered include the classical four elements, Kaballah, astrology, the virtues, scrying, alchemy, ritual magic and geomancy. A tome at 1,024 pages, this doesn’t make for light reading.
The Lesser Key of Solomon - anon
An anonymous grimoire from the mid-17th century, The Lesser Key of Solomon is another occult classic—and a good illustrated introduction to demology. It provides detailed descriptions of its 72 daemons, and instructions for successfully evoking and manipulating them. Amazon reviews warn: “not for beginners.” Most readers will read this out of curiosity, rather than a desire to summon spirits. This text is often referenced in films and novels that involve demons.
The Golden Dawn by Israel Regardie
For those who have read Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, the content here will be familiar. Borrowing ideas from Kabbalah, Tarot, Theosophy, Freemasonry, Paganism, Astrology and many more, The Golden Dawn puts forward a viable system of magic. When Israeel Regardie published the teaching of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn after the order’s dissolution, Crowley said the publication of this material was “pure theft,” despite having incorporated ritual magic gained from the order in his own magical system. Regardie wanted to ensure the Golden Dawn ritual system wasn’t lost—and wanted to make these ideas accessible to more people.
The Book of the Law by Aleister Crowley
This short but dense book feels like it was written during a drug-induced high, though Crowley sustained he was merely transcribing the words of a mysterious messenger, Aiwass, who he encountered in the Egyptian desert. The book has however, like the infamous author himself, been hugely influential in the occult. It remains the central text for Thelemites. The central premise, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” is often misunderstood as “descend into anarchy and do whatever the hell you want.” The true meaning is closer to “find your true path.”
The Golden Bough by James Frazer
Published in 1890, The Golden Bough is a wide-ranging study of comparative religion and myth. Authored by the Scottish anthropologist and folklorist James George Frazer, this books documents the similarities and universal motifs among magical and religious beliefs around the world. The mythologist Joseph Campbell drew heavily from it when writing The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describing The Golden Bough as “monumental.”
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Joseph Campbell gained international recognition when George Lucas credited this work as influencing the Star Wars Saga. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949, chronicles the hero’s journey in its many iterations. It’s a classic still used by screenwriters and authors today. Based on an introduction to myth class he taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Campbell dissects myths, exposing the universal themes disguised beneath the clothing of a specific cultural context. He also considers the relevance of myths to our lives today.
The Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton
Perhaps the definitive academic history of Neopaganism, and in particular of Wicca, one of the fastest growing homegrown new religions. Hutton examines the history of ritual magic, deity worship, cunning folk, 18th century revivalist movements and secret societies through to strands of modern day witchcraft. Many practitioners of magic today claim an unbroken connection with a Pagan past, which Hutton contests. Hutton maintains an unbiased and rigorously academic objectivity, though is never dismissive. Instead, he argues persuasively that the origins of Wicca go beyond Gardner, and sees Neopaganism as an arena for creativity.
Animism: Respecting the Living World by Graham Harvey
Animism is the belief that all objects, places and creatures possess a soul or spirit. But what relevance does animism have in our modern world? Through a series of case studies, Professor Graham Harvey explores current and past animistic beliefs and practices of Native Americans, Maori, Aboriginal Australians, and eco-pagans. Emphasised is the maltreatment of animism, often patronised by social scientists of the past. As we face global warming, one big takeaway is the ecological implications of animism. Maoris, we’re told, see themselves as “an integral part of nature.” They feel the have “the responsibility to take care of the whenua (land) and, tangata (people).”
The Earth, The Gods, and the Soul by Brendan Myers
Europe's first philosophers were Pagan and The Gods, the Earth, and the Soul restores the spiritual coherence of that intellectual legacy for the modern reader. Arguing the work of ancient sages across Europe sets out Humanism, Pantheism, and Platonism are core tenets, Myers' provides an accessible introduction to each in turn. An inspiring and rigorous review of the moral and conceptual lessons that Pagan ways have to teach.
Witches, Sluts and Feminists by Kristen J. Sollee
“Witch,” like “slut” and “feminist,” has often been used pejoratively. Sollee has noted these terms also pertain to a lineage of resistance. The book presents a compelling argument for reclaiming these terms—and archetypes. The witch, says Solleee, is “someone who can shift perceptions and create change.” We are shown, among other things, how Hillary Clinton was often cast as a witch during her campaign, the reconsideration of the term ‘witch’ during the suffrage movement, and the fear among men of women’s bodily autonomy. The author also reminds us of the continuing persecution of witches in some parts of the world.
What is a Witch? by Pam Grossman
What does the word ‘witch’ evoke for you? Written by Pam Grossman and illustrated by Tin Can Forest, this graphic novel-come-poetry collection-come-grimoire-come-illustrated manuscript is a deep and beautiful reflection on the witch archetype—that ultimate icon of feminine power. “Daughters, mothers, queens, virgins, wives, et al. derive meaning from their relation to another person,” said Grossman in 2013. “Witches, on the other hand, have power on their own terms.”
A Treasury of British Folklore by Dee Dee Chainey
A concise yet entertaining collection of folk stories, legends, and superstitions from Britain. Many of us know about Maypoles, fairies and kelpies, but do we know the beliefs behind them? It becomes apparent while reading that many of our regional stories and rituals derive from a universal need to converse with nature.