Back in the pre-internet days computer geek Pagans like me would use our dial-up modems to connect with bulletin board systems where we could download text files, send and receive email, and participate in online discussion on a wide variety of topics. There were dozens of different networks that individual BBSs would hook into covering all sorts of interests – including PODSNet, which specialized in Pagan topics.
We didn’t have a lot of material widely available back then. There were only a handful of relatively good books available on Pagan topics, and they were often hard to find in local bookstores unless you knew the title or author and could special-order them. If you were lucky enough to have bumped into some Pagan people who lived nearby you might have someone to share with and learn from. A lot of information was fragmented.
Computer networks such as PODSNet, and then later the Internet, changed everything. Information became easier to find. Online stores like Amazon.com made it simple for anyone to find even the most obscure books to purchase. People shared bits and pieces of things they’d created themselves, or things they were taught or borrowed from others, through email and discussion boards irrespective of geographical boundaries and distances. Since electronic bits of information are so easy to pass along things that were being taught in one community could easily start cropping up all over the place courtesy of computer networks!
Mike Nichols first established himself in the Pagan community in Missouri where he taught Witchcraft classes starting in the 1970s. He also ran a bookshop and published his own Pagan newsletter. His famous sabbat essays started as material for his classes and articles in his newsletters. In those days there wasn’t a lot of information of this sort that was freely available. Pagans are ever hungry to learn more about our history and ideas about how our ancestors might have practiced so Mike’s essays were eagerly received. And they weren’t just read and then filed away either – they were shared, and shared widely, until they could be found all over PODSNet and then later all over the internet.
The next stage in the lives of these essays saw them brought together in a single website with Mike’s stamp of approval. The copied and recopied and rerecopied versions that were floating around sometimes had mistakes in them, omissions, or outright changes. Mike’s website at http://www.witchessabbats.com/ (originally hosted at Geocities — remember them?) corrected that by making the essays available in their complete form. The essays remained popular and to this day when you search for “witches sabbats” on Google.com you will get Mike’s website as the first returned result. Mike’s essays are considered the classic historical explanation of the Wiccan wheel of the year.
In 2005 this important collection of essays was finally put into paper-published form thanks to Acorn Guild Press. Mike’s essays can reach an even wider audience and will be ensured their rightful place in Wiccan history.
The printed collection of Mike’s sabbat essays goes further than his website, though. Sure, the essays are there in their intact glory, but Mike’s skilled pen has produced an insightful introduction and further essays to accompany them. Additional historical context is also provided in a foreword by Wren Walker, one of the founders of the popular Witchvox.com website. The additional materials alone are worth the price of the book.
Some of the extra essays take the sabbats further by providing insights into larger thematic cycles to tie the holidays together. We also get a glimpse into Mike’s observations of changes in the Wiccan and Pagan communities, particularly the growth of the festival circuit, from the vantage point of one who has participated for decades. He also shows us with a gentle sense of humor how we might get bogged down in our own individual opinions of the Divine and need to learn to see the larger picture. He demonstrates how our spiritual paths can be enriched through examination of specific mythological narratives, and how psychological groundwork such as correspondence tables need to be understood rather than merely accepted as dogma in order to be most effective.
The only weakness with the book, which Mike openly acknowledges, is the lack of sources cited within the original sabbat essays. The essays were written so long ago, and for a very informal audience at the time, that it’s impossible now to identify all the sources used for the essays. Instead a bibliography of relevant books is listed so that readers who want to learn more, or who would like to try and track down some of the likeliest sources, can do so.
There are quite a few other books available today that examine the Wiccan sabbats. Most of them owe a debt of gratitude to Mike Nichols and his original sabbat essays, which started the journey for so many. “The Witches’ Sabbats” by Mike Nichols is a must-read for anyone involved in Wicca, and should be on the required-reading list for training covens.