The Witches’ Book of the Dead – by Christian Day
My first remembered experience with “the dead,” to put it very simply, was when I was seven years old and had just moved with my family into a new apartment. It was the first move I had ever made – the first of seven moves I would make before moving out on my own at seventeen – and it had not been particularly easy for me. Having lost my mother roughly a month before my sixth birthday, it was hard to leave the one home where I had known her to be, in fact, the apartment in which she had passed away. I woke at some point during the night in this new home, to see her standing by my bed. It may sound cliché, but she did look like she was glowing from within. There was no doubt it was her, but still, I was unsettled, and pulled the covers up. At that moment, I understood a message from her, that she loved me and would always be with me. The next morning my father hesitantly asked me if I had come to his room and stood in the doorway during the night. I told him no, I hadn’t, but shared what I had seen. He then said he too had seen her looking in on him. Since then I have had many other experiences of spirit, none of them as personally significant as that one, some of them welcome, others unsettling, and in some cases, strongly unsettling. On one occasion, in a beloved but admittedly somewhat spooky family house in the hills of central Vermont, the experience was shared by my husband (then boyfriend) as well.
I lost quite a few people within the first fifteen years of my life. After my mother passed away, a grandfather did when I was nine, then a great-aunt, then an uncle to suicide, followed by one of my mother’s sisters to an overdose, and others. Having begun losing people at such an early age, death was a subject I often thought about, as was what happens after death. My father did not shelter me, instead he involved me openly in wakes and funerals, and encouraged discussion and remembrance. I grew up visiting cemeteries (even staying overnight at my mother’s grave on occasion), dreaming of the dead, loving haunted house movies, reading horror novels, and generally being very comfortable with death symbolism and imagery, to the point that I create graveyard art and jewelry myself.
So, when I was visiting Salem, MA for the fifth or sixth time this past May and stopped into Christian Day’s Salem shop, HEX – Old World Witchery, I was excited to buy his book The Witches’ Book of the Dead. The book stood out with its cover artwork… a jawless skull on a black background, illuminated by candles; it immediately appealed to me. Flipping through the pages, it seemed to have a vibe I could easily relate to and get into. I’m not sure I had ever specifically considered whether those experiences of mine with the dead had a direct influence on my engagement with Witchcraft, later as a young teen. Those experiences, the very distinct awareness of the dead and otherworld, the actual appeal of death imagery and symbolism, and the seeking to know what happens after we die… and my recognition, embrace, and practice of Witchcraft, all came quite naturally to me – indeed, they were and are a daily reality, as much a part of me as anything else; and they do go hand in hand.
The Witches’ Book of the Dead examines the association between Witches and death, and the dead, and Witches’ role in the history of communing with the dead.
The book is rather quick reading, because Day writes in a nicely conversational tone. He relays a good amount of not just his personal experiences, but his personal feelings, and this is (to me) enjoyable. The writing strikes me as honest and heartfelt. I like that although he includes various warnings throughout the book, treats his topic with genuine respect, and offers a good deal of scholarly research, the book is not overly formal and does not feel forced. There is a sense of real comfort with his topic, that gives the book an overall feeling of confidence, without sounding pedantic or pretentious. All of those points made the book a very engaging and enjoyable read for me.
There are a lot of practical sections, which provide a comprehensive overview of some basics: setting up an altar of the dead, making offerings, ritual tools, exercises (for example, trancework), banishing, exorcism, taking precautions, and methods of contact (spirit boards, scrying).
The book’s many rituals for working with the dead often include original recipes. These are creative, unique, and compelling rituals that are also very accessible, for the most part. In some cases he credits others who have contributed to rituals or have provided inspiration. He also makes it clear that you can (even should) alter rituals and come up with your own personal adjustments. I found much of this approach to ritual akin to my own in many ways. That being said, there are a couple suggestions I might not fully pursue, but all in all, the suggestions in the book are valuable and welcome.
Day very adroitly shares his research. Some of the historical sections in the book are the most fascinating, delving into Greek, Roman, African, and other influences. He clearly outlines areas where there may be disagreement among historians (such as with the precise history of Samhain, or Halloween), and he often refers to practices from other religions as well, among them Catholicism and Voodoo.
Day is one to reclaim words – something I find admirable, honestly – and he does so with the word necromancy. He unabashedly delves into the specific practice and history of necromancy, beginning with the practice among the Greeks and Romans, and ultimately, with how the Witch has historically been seen as necromancer. There is no reason to be squeamish; Day, in my opinion, treats this subject with respect, and puts it in a context that helps the reader to understand not only the history of such practices, but their place in our lives today, in a way that will honor those who have gone before, and enrich our own spirituality.
Speaking so vividly of the dead, and delving into practices such as necromancy, one might think this would be a rather somber book, but it is actually a very positive read. It is very engaging, and in parts even lighthearted. This is especially true when it comes to the section on ghost hunting, which includes a story of the author’s own involvement with the TV show, Ghost Adventures, and when he describes some of the festivities on offer during the month-long Festival of the Dead celebration in Salem, MA. For myself, though not necessarily as fascinating as some of the earlier sections of the book, these were fun to read. I’m a sucker for ghost hunting shows (and just watched the premiere of the reboot of my old favorite, Ghost Hunters). I hadn’t previously watched any Ghost Adventures, but after reading this book, streamed the episode in which Day had appeared. As for Salem, I made a brief visit to the lovely old city in October a few years ago while spending a weekend in nearby Gloucester, and can attest that it is a great place to be for a lively, fully celebrated Halloween. I enjoyed reading about how some of the town’s Halloween festivities came to be. Day also frequently references another of his favorite cities – New Orleans.
In addition to the numerous interesting and detailed rituals, the book includes several useful appendices, that feature Recipes, Deities of the Dead, and Resources; and a good sized Bibliography.
The Witches’ Book of the Dead gives us a compassionate perspective on ancient and modern practices of communicating with the dead, honoring the dead, and even accepting the reality that we too shall one day die. It illuminates the role of Witches in this history, and teaches how the modern Witch (and others) can participate in these practices. It seamlessly travels from the historical to the contemporary, from a retelling of myth to a guide to practicing today. I would obviously highly recommend it, whether your interest is in becoming deeply involved in this work, or simply by starting with incorporating some ancestor reverence into your practice.
To learn more, read user reviews, or purchase online: The Witches’ Book of the Dead at Amazon
Please note: the book I purchased was published by Weiser Books, but it is my understanding the second edition will soon be published by Day’s own publishing house. Keep an eye out for availability.
And although this review isn’t about Salem, I can’t resist adding a shout out to the city and linking to Haunted Happenings, Salem’s October-long Halloween celebration – while also mentioning that there is more reason to visit Salem than it being the “witch city,” or for its great range of Witch shops and activities. In addition to the historical museums you might expect, there is a great fine arts museum, as well as maritime attractions, great food (including a sci-fi themed pizza place that offers fantastic vegan pies), beautiful architecture, and even an amusement park.