Wicca: Magickal Beginnings

by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine

Published by Avalonia, 2008

Available from: http://www.avaloniabooks.co.uk

If we look at the arguments people have over Wicca, the biggest one is generally whether “Gardner made it up” or not. He introduced ‘The Craft’ to the public in 1951, claiming that he’d been initiated into a system which was already in existence, not one that he invented himself. Since then we’ve found evidence that Gardner certainly changed parts of it later (as did Doreen Valiente and others), but the question over whether he really found an existing tradition remains.

The authors of this book decided not to focus on the big names like Gerald Gardner, but instead trace the origins of Wiccan practices. These are, after all, the things that make Wicca what it is – the ceremonies, tools and systems.

And this is where the trouble is going to start, because many people now see Wicca as primarily a pagan Earth-religion. Early ‘Gardnerian’ Wicca (before it was called that) was very different in some ways: more like an initiatory system of ceremonial magic with some witchy themes. People are quite angry on both sides about whether real Wicca today is the initiatory type, or one that should be open to all.

So what does the book say about this? Well, the first conclusion is that – even if Gerald did make it up – the systems Wicca draws together go back a long way. The early chapters are interesting, but the sections on the Athame, Magic Circle and Calling the Quarters are brilliant. There is a lot of information here for Wiccans who want to know more about where their practices come from: specific parts are traced to the Lesser Key of Solomon or John Dee and Enochian Magic, but beliefs such as only walking sunwise around a circle go back strongly to Egyptian times.

The chants and verses are also examined. ‘The Charge of the Goddess’ is analysed in detail, as are some of the more common chants such as the Witches Rune. This is where the arguments will begin again, because the authors point to some sources that many people won’t like. They show just how much of the Charge of the Goddess comes straight from Aleister Crowley, who isn’t always a popular figure with modern wiccans. Doreen Valiente re-wrote much of the Charge from the original version, claiming she wanted to reduce the amount of Crowley material in it, but then replaced it with more! In fact, Valiente doesn’t come out of this very well at all, although the authors politely use phrases such as “she may have been mistaken…”.

I already knew some of these origins before reading this book, but the level of detail here really adds something. It makes a difference that the authors are practicing Wiccans with experience in ceremonial traditions, because finding the sources sometimes depends on understanding exactly what each ritual represents. Unfortunately, the answers aren’t always going to be what wiccans want to hear. At one point the list reads “Crowley, Lesser Key of Solomon, Crowley, Christianity”. For wiccans whose path may be primarily a pagan religion, this isn’t going to go down well.

It doesn’t have to offend, though. By emphasising the link to ceremonial magick, the authors actually reinforce Wicca’s connection to original European witchcraft. Cunning Men are well known to have worked from books on astrology and texts such as these, but included here are also illustrations of witches working in a similar way. One illustration from 1715 shows a woman in a double-circle commanding spirits with a wand, following instructions from a book on the ground.

So, the big question: Do the authors claim that Wicca has a beginning that goes back before Gardner? Well, I’m not going to tell you. Finding out is half the fun of this book! They set out a number of possibilities, and discuss the evidence for each before picking one based on their own opinions. Regardless of whether you agree with their conclusions, people are already so divided on this topic that it is likely to be a very controversial book.

Because of that, I expected ‘Wicca: Magickal Beginnings’ to sell very quickly. (I didn’t expect it to sell every copy of its first print run in approximately three hours, however!) What was a nice surprise was how useful it will be to wiccans in their daily practice – knowing the roots of the tools and ceremonies really added a lot to my appreciation of many areas, and I loved reading about them. Some of the references are put in just for fun (and clearly labelled as such), but quite often the conclusions are a little different to those the wiccan community usually assumes are the case.

The first printing isn’t free from mistakes: an errata sheet is included (humourously claiming that the minor spelling errors are all the fault of Hermes, the mischievous God of communication). The rest of the presentation is good though, and it becomes a real page-turner when you find a part of wiccan practice you feel strongly about.

The Charge of the Goddess has been analysed before, and so have some of the other topics. What we rarely see is all of these collected together in one place, by people who know the tradition from the inside. One of the authors’ previous books (“The Guises of the Morrigan”, on the Irish Goddess) did a great job of this. It collected together all the relevant facts from original texts, and listed all the sources in one place. If you wanted to know every time the Morrigan is mentioned bestowing Sovereignty, it wasn’t easily available on one page until then.

Magickal Beginnings follows the same pattern, pulling together all the subjects that will interest wiccans, but which are usually too diverse to be found in one place. Readers who want to go further now have a valuable set of links to excellent texts. (The bibliography at the back runs to 16 pages…) By covering the ceremonial topics as well as looking at themes on the pagan side such as Cernunnos, I think Wicca: Magickal Beginnings is going to become a vital part of many wiccans’ bookshelves.