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The Best Books for Starting an Occult Library

Need an intro to witchcraft, Wicca, astrology, or the Church of Satan? Here's what to put on your spookiest bookshelf.
MF
New York, US
March 15, 2021, 9:30pm
occult-library
Photo: Getty Images

Perhaps you’ve also spent quarantine watching a lot of occult movies, listening to Kate Bush, and generally looking for a sign from the forest gods on when, and how, this pandemmy will end. All the more reason to build up an esoteric library capable of humoring that aspiring, hermetic haus witch bender (or at least helping you decode all the Satanic references in the Richard Ramirez documentary).

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It’s not that we don’t own some spooky literature. But, heretofore, our occult libraries consisted of a Borders (RIP) check-out line guidebook to the zodiac, c. 2007, and a VHS copy of The Last Unicorn (bangin’ soundtrack, just saying). While we fully support such household vibe staples, we’re looking to up the ante with more adult selections. More range. We’re finally ready, at the ripe age of 496 vampire years, to invest in books that both challenge, and enrich what we already love about esoteric and spiritual traditions. 

But SHEESH my banshees, where to begin? Saying you want to build out a solid esoteric library is like saying you want to start baking. Baking what? Well, that depends on what you want to eat. Personally, we are fuelled by a charbroiled blend of Flaming Hot Cheetos, choice tarot decks, bucatini, intersectional witchcraft, and OId Hollywood/Church of Satan gossip. While the following short-list is hardly a definitive guide to the world(s) of the occult, it’s a tasty place to start.  

We’re looking for a blend of classic books with staying power on our shelves; reads that challenge us on interpersonal, psychological levels, and others that simply tickle our fancy for a tea-leaf-reading gimmick. We want the new, hot releases and the horny 1970s staples. We want everything necessary to keep our level-9 quarantine spirit, and our cauldron bubbling.


One that doubles as a gorgeous coffee-table book

Taschen Astrology

Photo: TASCHEN

Leave it to TASCHEN, masters of tome-y art books, to create such a beautiful and comprehensive guide to Western astrology. VICE recently spoke with the author, Andrea Richards, about both the power of astrology to make us better 21st-century human beans, as well as the importance of understanding astrology through its rich visual history. (Hot tip: pair this up this volume with TASCHEN’s definitive guide to the tarot.)

Astrology. The Library of Esoterica, $40 at TASCHEN

Stay-at-home sorcery

House Witch

Photo: Amazon

We’re all spending more time indoors, so why not make your home the focus—nay, star—of your witchcraft? Author Arin Murphy-Hiscock will hold your hand through a bunch of cozy magickal practices in this book, which runs through the best witchy cookbooks, cauldron, crafting practices, and more.  

The House Witch: Your Complete Guide to Creating a Magical Space with Rituals and Spells for Hearth and Home, $12.40 at Amazon

You’ve done all the puzzles; now read the tea leaves 

The Cup of Destiny Tea Leaf Reading

Photo: Urban Outfitters

Learning to read tea leaves is the perfect quar party trick for you and your roommate (or just you and yourself). The tradition of reading tea leaves and coffee grounds (eherm, Tasseomancy) goes back at least a few hundred years, and this cup and saucer set is actually a facsimile of a Victorian divination version —not to mention that will look great in your kitchen, whether you’re using it for telling the future or just caffeinating your veins. 

The Cup Of Destiny Book and Teacup Set $19.00 ($24.95) at Urban Outfitters

You love retro-spooky California history

Anton LaVey Jayne Mansfield

Photo: Amazon

...And you’re also just here for the drama. Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey and Jayne Mansfield’s relationship has gone down in seedy, occult-pop-culture lore (did he kill her? didn’t he?) and while many have speculated about what went on in the ritual chamber, German paparazzo Walter Fischer was actually there, snapping all the action in photographs that have been assembled in this volume, for your voyeuristic pleasure. 

California Infernal: Anton LaVey & Jayne Mansfield: As Portrayed by Walter Fischer, $23.88 at Amazon

Trace it back to the Druids

MargotAdlerMoon.jpeg

Photo: Amazon

A classique. There’s nary a book that does as good a job at retracing Paganism—and the 20th-century spiritual Neo-Pagan practices it inspired—as Margot Adler’s 1979 guide (which even dips its toes into a little sci-fi context. Fun!). This is a great explainer if you’re confused about the differences between Wicca, Neo-Paganism, and everything in-between. Scope some of the rare copies on Etsy with alternative, stunning 70s covers.

Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America, $18.29 at Amazon

A crash course in Chinese Astrology

Chinese Astrology

Photo: Amazon

A reminder that the Western zodiac is just one tip of a parallel iceberg, and that the study of Chinese astrology can also enrich our understanding of Chinese divination, homeopathic healing, and more. “I bought this book together with author [Althea S.T. 's] Feng Shui book,” writs one reviewer, “because to really learn Feng Shui, one needs to know at least the basics of Chinese Astrology.” 

A Course in Chinese Astrology: Reveal Your Destiny, Harness Your Luck with Four Pillars, $30 at Amazon

A lesson in African diaspora goddesses

Jambalaya

Part memoir and pan-African love letter, Luisah Teish’s 1985 book is a classic. Alice Walker said it best: “[Jambalaya is] a book of startling remembrances, revelations, directives, and imperatives, filled with the mysticism, wisdom, and common sense of the African religion of the Mother. It should be read with the same open-minded love with which it was written.” 

Jambalaya: The Natural Woman's Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals, $16.99 $15.63 at Bookshop

The naughtiest psychoanalytic book in the West

Red Book Carl Jung

“The most influential unpublished work in the history of psychology” is essentially the illustrated, high-as-a-kite diary of the late psychoanalytic icon/zaddy, Carl Jung (1875-1961). Once Sigmund Freud’s BFF, Jung had a high-drama rupture with his pal once he started investigating dream psychoanalysis with a more spiritual, esoteric bent (also, lol @ Freud). Consequently, Jung hid this book in a Swiss vault for decades for fear of the buttoned-up, academic community’s vitriol. Only in roughly the past decade has a gorgeous edition been released (with seriously psychedelic drawings that could’ve rolled out of the Haight Ashbury in 1967). The New York Times has called it “the Holy Grail of the unconscious,” and NPR, a “window into Jung’s dreams.” We suggest supplementing it with Man and His Symbols by Jung, which is basically like an un-offish version of “Jung for Dummies” that makes everything easier to understand. 

The Red Book, $210.66 at Amazon

An intersectional feminist breakdown

MissingWitches.jpg

Photo: Bookshop

Missing Witches started out as a podcast by Risa Dickens and Amy Torok, who have siphoned down some of their wisdom into a book of the same name. Slated for release this month, the book aims to reclaim the word "witch" from our often misconstrued, contemporary understanding (a.k.a. Spirit Halloween store displays) of witchcraft by exploring practices “from Harlem to Haiti, Oaxaca to Mesopotamia” and beyond.

Missing Witches: Recovering True Histories of Feminist Magic, $16.51 ($17.95), at Bookshop

The OG restored Tarot

Tarot Jodorowsky

Photo: Amazon

There are so many epic tarot card decks out there, but if you don’t know where to begin it’s perhaps best to start at the most OG deck of all: the Tarot de Marseille. Cult (and occult-forward) filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky worked with an artist to create a deck as close to the oldest set of tarot cards we humans have, and co-authored this handbook with Marianne Costa to guide you through the many (many) layers of the tarot. You will dive not only into inter-card relations, but pick apart the meaning behind every last line and color choice in the cards' design. 

The Way of Tarot: The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards, $25.58 at Amazon

The one that will impress yer film buds 

AnalogueMountain.jpg

Photo: Amazon

Speaking of Jodorowsky, this is the venerated, tripped-out fictional novella by Rene Daumal that actually inspired everything from Holy Mountain to the ultimate hippie-meets-billionaire biosphere experiment in the 1980s. In sum, the book chronicles the journey of a group of people up an inaccessible mountain—a mountain that can only be perceived when one has acquired certain knowledge… a mountain that is (gasp) a metaphor. 

Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing, $15.95 at Amazon

Magic in Mesoamerica

Magic and Mexico

Photo: Amazon

Equal parts archeological, spiritual, and anthropological adventure, this book should be a household staple for anyone who has ever had the inkling of wanting to learn more about the shamanic traditions of Mesoamerica (a.k.a. ayahuasca voyages) and draws helpful comparisons between other Greco-Roman cultures so you get that big, BIG picture history lesson. 

The Magic and Mysteries of Mexico: Or, the Arcane Secrets and Occult Lore of the Ancient Mexicans and Maya, $14.95 at Amazon

Anything by Doreen Valiente 

Doreen Valiente Book

Photo: Bookshop

While it’s important to mention Wiccan and occult powerhouses like Aleister Crowley and Gerald Gardner when we talk about new age of witchcraft, there were soooo many BAMF she-witches out there who wrote extensively about their experiences. Doreen Valiente was one of them, and was kind of like the Julia Child of Wicca. Everything she published was inviting and a great launching pad for beginners. 

Where Witchcraft Lives, $14.99 at Bookshop

On the link between Capitalism and the Salem Witch Trials

Caliban.jpg

Photo: Bookshop

If you’re into witchcraft aaaaand communism, Sylvia Federici is the author for you. The feminist powerhouse breaks down the Salem Witch Trials and other instances in which the bodies of women and people with vaginas have been vilified and used for capital. Basically, Caliban and the Witch presents a big ol' breakdown of how the patriarchy effed up and weaponized what witchcraft truly is (healing!), and provides new historical context that you never learned in school or from watching The Crucible.   

Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, $18.35 ($19.95) at Bookshop

You spend your days on conspiracy theory subreddits 

The Mushroom in Christian Art

Lest we should forget one of the most successful cults of all time, Christianity. This book looks at ancient religious psychedelic motifs and history to untangle the complexities behind Jesus’ death, and the many, trippier offshoots of Christianity that didn’t last (but made their mark) back in ancient days. Henceforth, you will call Jesus “Mr. Holy Mushroom.” 

The Mushroom in Christian Art: The Identity of Jesus in the Development of Christianity, $29.95 at Amazon

We hope you’ve enjoyed this McSpooky-sized breakdown. See you over in the art book section of your next book-binge bender. 


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