An Essential Occult Reading List

If you’ve seen The Witch, there’s a good chance the Satanic imagery and occult mood of it is still tapping at your spine — and not without reason: people have been obsessed with the occult for centuries, and it never seems to lose any of its charm. After all, the word comes from the Latin word for secret, and I’ve never met anyone who isn’t interested in secrets. So whether you want to learn more about the philosophy behind the occult, or you want to cast yourself some spells, or if you’re just in search of some more material to keep your witchy mood alive, you might start building your occult library with some of the grimoires — er, or just paperbacks — listed below.

Now, the term “occult” is often used as a catch-all to mean anything mystical, supernatural or paranormal, and extends from alchemy to astrology to Wicca to Hermeticism. Let’s just say it’s a wide field. This list intends to be a sort of starting place, with a balance of classic occult and occult-related texts as well as literature with occult elements to enchant readers of every interest level. Proceed.

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Magick, Aleister Crowley

Might as well start at the top of the pentagram: Crowley is the patron saint of 20th-century Occultism, its strangest and most famous practitioner, a self-proclaimed prophet and the founder of Thelema, his own philosophy/religion. He has written many, many volumes with varying degrees of penetrability; this tome collects many of the most important.

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Macbeth, William Shakespeare

Despite occupying only a few lines of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s three weird sisters are perhaps the most iconic classic literary practitioners of the occult, and the play has had far-ranging influence on the representation of witches in popular culture. Plus, at least to my knowledge, literature still hasn’t produced a more viscerally evocative spell than theirs:

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

… Just saying.

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The Golden Dawn, Israel Regardie

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a magical order that began in the late 19th century, and was invested in both the philosophy and the practice of magic, drawing from many esoteric schools. Their teachings have informed, and perhaps even made possible, much of contemporary occultism, including Wicca, and this book is their essential text.

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Witches of America, Alex Mar

In this recently released memoir, Alex Mar illuminates the practices of a few of the some million modern-day pagans, Wiccans, priestesses, and witches in America. Mar spent five years researching (and, in many case, practicing with) her subjects, and also searching for transcendence, for real magic, among them. If you’re curious about how all this occult stuff translates into the everyday lives of real people, this book is a fascinating, journalistic, and warmhearted view — not to mention an up-to-the-minute one.

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Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Henry Cornelius Agrippa

One of the most important primary texts of occult philosophy, originally published in 1531, and now reconstituted and annotated by occult scholar and writer Donald Tyson.

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The Secret History, Donna Tartt

If you don’t care about all the philosophical stuff but just love the flavor of the occult, the feel of it, you might just want to lose yourself in this novel, in which everything hinges on esoteric Ancient Greek rituals and a bloody Bacchic frenzy. This is occultism lite: even your mom loves this book.

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Winged Pharaoh, Joan Grant

Joan Grant doesn’t write novels. She writes “Far Memory” books — that is, memoirs about her past lives, which she realized as a child she could recall in precise detail. If that isn’t enough to make you want to read this book, which details Grant’s past life as an ancient Egyptian princess who rises to power, it’s also widely hailed as a beautiful and compelling novel in its own right.

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The Magus: A Complete System of Occult Philosophy, Francis Barrett

First published in 1801, this volume was meant to be a complete handbook to both the philosophy behind and the practical applications of occultism. The material was compiled from a number of other sources (especially Agrippa’s previously mentioned work) which lead to controversy and claims of plagiarism, but it is still a mega resource that is widely consulted (and argued over).

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Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America, Margot Adler

The classic history of American neo-paganism by everyone’s favorite Wiccan Priestess/NPR correspondent.

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Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco

Like most of Eco’s work, this book is whirring along on about a thousand different levels, but one of them is that it’s a deconstruction of occult conspiracy theories and stories about same while also being a story about occult conspiracy theories, Kabbalah, secret societies, and, since it’s Eco, language itself. For the meta-considerer.

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Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, Scott Cunningham

Never forget the uses and magical properties of thistle or valerian (or anything else) again.

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The Secret Doctrine, Helena Blavatsky

This is the magnum opus of Blavatsky, the famed Victorian-era occultist, leader of the Theosophy movement, and co-founder of the Theosophical Society. Blavatsky’s teachings and writings have been credited with being a major force in the modern occult revival as well as, specifically, the New Age movement.

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Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman

Gillian and Sally Owens have heard the rumors that circulate around their small town. Their aunts, the women who are raising them, are witches, like all the Owens women have been for the last several hundred years. Turns out there’s some truth to it.

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Psychic Self-Defense: The Classic Instruction Manual for Protecting Yourself Against Paranormal Attack, Dion Fortune

Don’t tell me you don’t need this.

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The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Italo Calvino

I just had to include this one: a weird little novel in which two groups of travelers lose their powers of speech and must communicate via tarot. There is, luckily for us readers, a translator who can read the cards, but tarot, after all, is highly subjective. The result is a series of short, surreal stories accompanied by their tarot card counterparts, all of them deeply charming, in every sense of the word.

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Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko

There’s a somewhat different kind of occultism at play in this novel than the tarot/pentagram/sage-burning kind we often think of (although, actually, there is a lot of sage in here). It’s the story of a half-white, half-Native American WWII veteran, still suffering from his experiences, looking for peace and healing in ritual, in ceremony, in the words of a strange medicine man.

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The Devil Rides Out, Dennis Wheatley

And now for something a littler lower-brow: an occult adventure/romance from the so-heralded “Prince of Thriller Writers,” who later launched his own set of occult-themed novels under the heading “The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult.” Apparently he also once lunched with Aleister Crowley.

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The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall

A readable, in-depth encyclopedia of myth, magic, and symbolism, covering everything from talismanic jewels to secret alphabets to religious myths from civilizations around the world.

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Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual, Éliphas Lévi

The highly influential French occultist’s most famous work (deemed exceedingly dangerous by some) is introduced with these lines, which are much repeated as a description of occultism itself:

Behind the veil of all the hieratic and mystical allegories of ancient doctrines, behind the darkness and strange ordeals of all initiations, under the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the crumbling stones of old temples and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx, in the monstrous or marvelous paintings which interpret to the faithful of India the inspired pages of the Vedas, in the cryptic emblems of our old books on alchemy, in the ceremonies practised at reception by all secret societies, there are found indications of a doctrine which is everywhere the same and everywhere carefully concealed.

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Dracula, Bram Stoker

Did you know there is an entire genre of “Occult Detective Fiction” and it is exactly what you think it is? Van Helsing, of course, is merely an early and very popular example of an occult detective.

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Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin

One of the first bestselling horror novels, and now a classic by any measure, Rosemary’s Baby takes our nagging fears of our neighbors, our partners, and our own bodies to the next level: your neighbors are the head witches in an evil coven, your partner sold your soul to Satan, your child is a demon.

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Initiation into Hermetics, Franz Bardon

A practical introduction into Hermetic practice. Useful if you’re planning to meet Jonathan Richman on the astral plane.

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The Witches of Eastwick, John Updike

Another novel of small-town witchery, but this time, as Margaret Atwood put in in her Times review, “these are not 1980’s Womanpower witches. They aren’t at all interested in healing the earth, communing with the Great Goddess, or gaining Power- within (as opposed to Power-over). These are bad Witches, and Power-within, as far as they are concerned, is no good at all unless you can zap somebody with it.” Their evil amped up by a demonic male force, these women wreak havoc. Plus, it’s Updike, and he’s a total freak with the ability to write a great sentence — so that’s always worth a read.

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The White Goddess, Robert Graves

An essential book for occult poets, described by Graves as “a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth,” in which he outlines his concept of the “White Goddess of Birth, Love, and Death,” and argues that all true poetry is connected to her and the rituals around her worship.

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Modern Magick: 12 Lessons in the High Magickal Arts, Donald Michael Kraig

For when you just want to start casting some dang spells, already.