I don't want to come across as a snarky ass, but it's a rare day when I actually "learn" something from a Pagan book. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy the occasional insights I get from reading Contemporary Pagans, or that I discount the majority of what I read. Some of it's very fine personal observation, or I get information about doing something I've always done differently, but generally I don't get those "A ha!" moments I got twenty years ago.
I don't think I've gotten a good "Whoa!" moment since reading the last Philip Heselton book; "Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration" back in 2003. I'm happy to report today that I just finished up a book full of "A ha!" moments, and I enjoyed it so much that I'm going to put it on my "Essential Pagan Reading List." The book, "Wicca: Magickal Beginnings-A Study of the Possible Origins of the Rituals and Practices Found in this Modern Tradition of Pagan Witchcraft and Magick." by Sorita d'Este and David Rankine is a tour de force exploration that entirely lives up to its very long title.
Nearly every aspect of British Witchcraft (the kind of rituals you read about in the Farar's "A Witches Bible," not the more American "eclectic Wicca" found at most public gatherings) is dissected and traced to its possible origins. The approach is scholarly, but with room for conjecture and theory. d'Este and Rankine don't ever come out and say something is hundreds of years old, they simply trace the evolution of symbols, language, tools, and ritual, concluding that many of the elements in the Modern Craft are quite old, though perhaps not given to us in a direct line from practitioner to practitioner up until the modern age.
The book is full of information I'd never come across before. Most people have always assumed that the use of the athame (ceremonial knife or dagger) evolved out of Gardner's fascination with knives, but there's apparently a long history of black handled knives in magick and the occult. While the "black handled knife" was never called an athame in such instances, it's use is certainly similar.
Many of my favorite moments concerned the evolution of "Wiccan Liturgy," especially a very long and thorough breakdown of "The Charge of the Goddess." While I've long recognized the parts from Leyland's "Aradia" and the excerpts from Crowley, the authors go further, revealing more Crowleyana than I knew of, and various other sources for the language in the Charge. Similar attention is paid to the wordings in Drawing Down the Moon and The Great Rite.
While I always aware of the influence Dion Fortune had on the Modern Craft, I was surprised at how often her words and ideas pop up in ritual. The amount of "Enochian John Dee" material was similarly surprising. I can only imagine the hours (months?) that went into their research, and the book meticulously footnoted to give you even more to do when you are done.
If I have any quibbles they are mostly due to a slight Alexandrian Slant (they are Alexandrians after all) in a few places, and the overall dryness of some of the materials they quote (can't quite blame them for that, but I needed some Red Bull to get through a few parts). All in all this is essential reading for anyone intrigued by the history of magickal practice and the evolution of Modern Wicca.