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Why I Don't Like Scott Cunningham

Michael Kaufman writes:

Hmm.. I have two Llewellyn books, the aforementioned Celtic Magic and Scott Cunningham's Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. While I would agree with you on Conway, I found Cunningham to be somewhat decent. Throughout the book, he kept repeating that what he laid out should be taken as the authority, or ‘the' way of doing something. And encouraged imagination and creativity in the rites. The book, on a whole, seemed very open minded which gives it at least one plus.

So, I guess what I'm saying, er, asking is: considering you allow for some ‘striking exceptions' [to the general rule that books published by Llewellyn are usually awful], would this count as one of them, in your opinion?

No. I agree with what Ian said -- by pushing the do-your-own-thing definition of Wicca, Cunningham contributed substantially to the dilution and degradation of Craft tradition. Right now, it seems like three quarters of the so-called Wiccans in America think that "Wicca" is simply a euphemism for "make up your own religion as you go along." That's not wholly due to Cunningham's work, but he was certainly a major contributor. I don't mind his books on magic and spellcraft, but whenever he attempted to deal with Wicca as a religion, he consistently seemed to miss the point.

His books present an extremely toned-down, Disneyfied version of the Craft which is completely lacking in any recognition of the dark side of nature, life, or the human psyche. He went so far overboard in trying to make the Craft respectable that he made it insipid, boring, and, in my opinion, dangerously unbalanced. Polarity is one of the key theological concepts in the Craft, if not the key. And the most crucial polarity is that between the life force and the death force, Eros and Thanatos if you will (one writer put it bluntly as "Witches worship sex and death"). In his incessant attempts to portray Wicca as a "life-affirming religion" he avoided or whitewashed any recognition of the other side of this very central polarity, and thereby ensured that the version of the Craft he presented had very little to offer anyone whose life hasn't been a bed of roses.

The world we live in can be scary, dangerous, and depressing. A religion that offers no vision of the world except a bland, uniform niceness doesn't speak to the experience of those realities. Serious Craft training isn't easy, comfortable or painless. It involves facing down your own inner demons, your shadow side if you want to get Jungian about it, confronting dangerous realities, and learning how to live as a fully conscious, fully alive, fully aware individual -- which means being fully open to the pain and terror of the world, as well as to its beauty and joy.

This is what I don't see in Cunningham's work -- his version of Craft might be appropriate in some idealized world, but not in this one. Just my opinion, of course, but hey -- you did ask.

Now, as for what I do consider exceptions, the following come to mind:

  • Freya Aswynn's Leaves of Yggdrasil. You've probably read a lot about this one here already.

  • Chas Clifton's Witchcraft Today series. Like all anthologies, these are a mixed bag, but there's more than enough good stuff to make them quite worthwhile.

  • Aidan Kelly's Crafting the Art of Magic. The first book to make a detailed argument for Wicca being of 20th century origin. Kelly's arguments are certainly not flawless -- he frequently lets his passion for his topic overrule logic and common sense -- but it's well worth reading, albeit critically. (Note: I would also strongly recommend Don Frew's critique of Kelly, soon to be available on this site.)

  • Ellen Cannon Reed's The Witches' Qabala (two volumes).

  • Alan Richardson's 20th Century Magic and the Old Religion, an edited collection of the magical diaries of Christine Hartley and Charles Seymour, plus the text of a previously unpublished magical lecture by Seymour. Hartley and Seymour were probably the most pagan-oriented of the early 20th century ceremonialists, and Aidan Kelly claims they may have been two of the founding members of Gerald Gardner's coven -- although after that initial claim, he proceeds to totally ignore the contributions they may have made due to his obsession with crucifying Gardner.

  • Valerie Worth's The Crone's Book of Words and The Crone's Book of Wisdom. Not about Wicca per se; it's more made-up folk magic, but she has a real knack for crafting rhymes and spells that really sound like they ought to have been passed on to you by some little old lady in a cottage in the deep dark woods...

There's probably others, but these are the main ones that I can think of offhand. None of them are flawless, but all are, in my opinion, worth buying despite the Llewellyn name.

Déithe duit,

Liath Cadhóit
(a.k.a Lynna Landstreet)


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