Four prominent authors have passed in the past month: D. J. (Deanna) Conway, Raven Grimassi (aka Gary Charles Erbe), Edain McCoy and Ralph Metzner. We lost D. J. Conway in early February, and Raven Grimassi and Edain McCoy and Ralph Metzner in March. What links these four prolific authors is the fact that their books, focused on slightly different paths in modern paganism, were all well loved and popular during a time when the pagan community was passionately devoted to reading and supporting its authors.
There were some books about the nascent witchcraft movement in the 1960s and 1970s (like those by Hans Holzer, Colin Wilson, Marian Weinstein, Doreen Valiente, Leo Martello and Sybil Leek, among others), but American paganism didn’t really start to take off in a systemic way until the late 1970s. Prior to that, many seekers read books by British authors, or books on folklore or archeology. Two prominent books first drew many who were interested in the pagan worldview: 1979’s Drawing Down the Moon (journalist Margot Adler’s famous survey of pagan religious traditions and organizations), and 1979’s The Spiral Dance (Starhawk’s primer on goddess worship and basic pagan witchcraft rituals) catalyzed a rush of interest in goddess worship and feminist witchcraft. Then came books by Raymond Buckland and Scott Cunningham in the 1980s, and soon enough Llewellyn Publishing was putting out books in droves, feeding a hunger for information on witchcraft, Wicca, paganism and its many related paths, like druidry, heathenism, and faery.
If you discovered Wicca or neo-paganism in the 1990s, as many people did, then you came to the path at a time when books were still the valorous monarchs of our learning. There were technopagans, but the internet was in its infancy, and the first pagan website to really gain a following was The Witches’ Voice founded in 1997. Before that, people wanting to learn more about pagan pathways turned to books. Indeed, the pagan internet offered an opportunity for people who were still not public about their beliefs (“in the broom closet” we used to call it) to explore and network with greater privacy; and they could order books too!
One branch of paganism that drew enormous amounts of interest was anything under the auspices of “Celtic” (including Irish, Scottish, Breton, Manx or Welsh ways), and D. J. Conway’s first book in 1990, Celtic Magic, became a huge best seller that seemed to be on every pagan’s bookshelf. She wrote many more books, of course, on Celtic topics, on mythology, on dream magic, goddesses, Wicca and more. Like most Llewellyn authors, Conway’s writings were not particularly scholarly; but her books, like many of those written by her compatriots and sold by this publisher, answered the need for books on many topics from a burgeoning community that sought knowledge.
Edwin McCoy also wrote about Celtic topics: Her Celtic Myth and Magic, published in 1993, found its way to my shelf helped by the colorful cover of a knight riding a white horse. Ah, those colorful covers: Llewellyn had that aspect of marketing down pat, and their books of that era all had a signature look and vibe. McCoy also wrote about faery folk, moon rituals, and folk magic, among other topics. It did seem that Llewellyn got its authors at the time to write on diverse topics, but most of a single author’s oeuvre included titles that seemed related.
Just as Conway and McCoy wrote about mostly Celtic topics, Raven Grimassi’s books also centered on a particular branch of modern paganism: Italian witchcraft, or strega/stregheria. As the pagan community became more diverse and people wanted to explore their own ancestral roots and magical traditions contained in them, Llewelyn and other publishers responded with books on more divergent aspects of the Craft. Grimassi’s Ways of the Strega was published in 1994, with Llewellyn reissuing it the following year and changing the title to Italian Witchcraft: The Old Religion of Southern Europe, ensuring, perhaps, that readers unfamiliar with the word “strega” might still find resonance in this witchcraft tradition. Grimassi wrote a number of books about Wicca as well, and about rituals, spell craft, and divination. In 2011 he began publishing books with Samuel Weiser, another popular publisher who have put forth many titles of interest to pagan readers.
Ralph Metzner was an author of a somewhat different topic area from these other three, being a researcher mainly interested in consciousness, shamanism and psychedelics. But his books were written alongside these other authors and found their way into the seeming cauldron of knowledge and wisdom during the pagan publishing boom of the 1990s. Perhaps his most well-known book during this period The Well of Remembrance: Rediscovering the Earth Wisdom Myths of Northern Europe, published in 1994 by Shambhala Press. I owned this book and loved it, for its contemporary blend of theories about shamanic practices and their relevance to modern seekers in the realms of magic and witchcraft. Metzner also wrote books about alchemy, ecology and new models of transformative practice.
What passes from the world when we lose authors whose work defines an era is not just their ability to ever write books again; but their ability to comment upon the changes that the world has gone through since their words became indelible. A book is not a stone circle, or a building; it’s made of paper, and necessarily ephemeral. And of course, in our digital age, books are not necessarily made from paper anymore. But our memories of having read them caressed their covers, nodded over them late at night, glimpsed them on our bookshelves alongside others, these memories define our own lives in ways that are difficult to express. They tell us who we are at the time we choose to read them: what we believe, what we question, what we hope to find out about the world, and about ourselves. Our personal history of books is a history of our own minds, our own seeking, our own experiences. They are the building blocks of our own legacy.