Review: Wicca Magickal Beginnings
By Sorita D’Este and David Rankine
Avalonia Books 2208
Review by Kim Huggens
Professor Ronald Hutton’s “Triumph of the Moon” caused a stir when it was released, due to the conclusions drawn by the writer with regards to the origins of modern Pagan witchcraft. Hutton’s study explored the historical origins of the tradition of Wicca or the Craft itself, and gave birth to a new generation of historically aware Pagans who knew that 9 million witches were not burned during the “Burning Times”, and that there was no unbroken line of Goddess worship from Neolithic times to now. However, what Hutton’s work failed to explore was the origins of the practices used by Wiccans and Neo-Pagans today. This is exactly what Wicca Magickal Beginnings does.
Long awaited, and sorely needed in both the academic and Pagan community, Sorita D’Este and David Rankine have succeeded mightily in their attempt to explore the possible and probable origins for practices such as the casting of a magical circle, the taking of a Craft name, the use of a Book of Shadows, naked rituals, and the use of an athame. Whereas they do not state that this is definitely the direct influence upon – and unbroken link to – our modern practices, they show with thorough and convincing proof that the movers and shakers of the early Neo-Pagan movement may have been inspired by these sources.
From ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and Egypt, to medieval magical grimoires, Gerald Gardner’s fiction, Aleister Crowley and romantic poetry, Wicca Magickal Beginnings highlights a wide and varied range of influences upon modern Pagan practice. Now, some authors demonstrate their lack of in-depth understanding whenever they present such a wide range of sources, time periods, and cultures, but D’Este and Rankine have not done so. Instead, their knowledge is almost faultless, dilligently referenced, and expertly presented. Even a PhD student in the field they are discussing couldn’t fine fault with the research, which is up-to-date with the most modern theories and writings (something extremely refreshing in Pagan books!) One of the best features of this approach is that it puts this magical tradition into the historical, social, and anthropological context it deserves, just as writers have done with other traditions. After all, we wouldn’t dream about discussing the history of Vodou without recourse to the slave trade, Dahomey religion, or Catholicism; nor would we talk about the Golden Dawn’s influences without mentioning medieveal grimoires and Kabbalah. So why treat Wicca differently?
The book is set out in an easy to access manner, with each chapter looking at a different aspect of Pagan practice and examining possible sources for it. This means that anybody could pick this book up and dip into it wherever they want, regardless of whether they have read a previous chapter. This bitesize format also allows the reader to absorb the information easily, which could be a blessing for those unused to an academic writing style. Even better, however, is one of the very last sections entitled “Conclusions”, in which the writers set out in easy to understand sections what they think are the five most likely origins of the modern Pagan movement, giving the brief arguments for each. This is brilliant, allowing the reader to remember everything that has been said in the book, as well as form their own opinions. it was also useful for me when I started reading the book, as I prefer to know the conclusion that a writer wants to arrive at whilst I am reading so that I can put the writing into context.
The index and bibliography demonstrate further the thorough and intelligent nature of this book, and I highly recommend to anybody with a further interest in this subject to scour the bibliography for further reading.
Wicca Magickal Beginnings is, in one word, brilliant. In another word it is ‘orgasmic’ for the academic in me, ‘scintillating’ for the Pagan in me, and ‘un-put-downable’ (okay, so it’s technically not a word…) for the avid reader in me. The writing style is open, fresh, and easy to follow, the book is packed with information, references, quotes, and sources, enabling anybody to find the sources for themselves afterwards. I am particularly fond of the textual analysis of the Charge of the Goddess found in the chapter “Adore the Spirit of Me” and the “Cernunnos” chapter.
I take my hat off to both Sorita and David for this groundbreaking work, and highly recommend it to EVERYBODY.