Review: Wicca Magickal Beginnings
By Sorita D’Este and David Rankine
Avalonia Books 2208
ISBN 978-1-905297-15-3

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.

Advertisements

The Magickal Beginnings of the Practices – an introduction to the book Wicca, Magickal Beginnings

By Sorita d’Este and David Rankine

More information available from www.avaloniabooks.co.uk

Over the last few months, many people – some of whom have not yet read our book Wicca Magickal Beginnings have written to us, or asked us in passing why we wrote it. This is a complex question and one which can probably in part at least, be answered by this extract from the introduction we wrote for the book.

All books have a moment of conception, and this book was born out of a discussion on the origins of the Wiccan Tradition as known today, with some of our students in late 2001. Whilst debating the possible starting point of this magickal tradition, we realised that all the evidence being presented was focused on the people who were the early public face of the tradition and their contemporaries. Yet this is a tradition which is also called a ‘Craft’ and which is an experiential tradition where personal experience is paramount for the understanding of the practices and beliefs. So why were we debating the origins of the tradition in terms of who said or did what?

Has Wiccan history tied itself into knots of personalities in an effort to conceal its true origins? Was there something we were missing? Why was it that whilst some people claimed that the tradition was the continuation of a very ancient Pagan religion, others stated that it was created (or compiled) in the 1950’s or 1940’s in England? Why was it that Gerald Gardner was greatly respected as the ‘Father’ of the modern movement and simultaneously viewed as a charlatan? Could it be that in an effort to cover up the ludicrous and unsubstantiated claims that the tradition originated in the Stone Age (or thereabouts) the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction and got stuck? We agree that an academically sound historical foundation will provide more credibility to a tradition and its practitioners, but did that come at a price? What was being sacrificed in order to lend credibility to the tradition? What really made Wicca, Wicca?

Having asked ourselves all these questions again and again over the years, sometimes obtaining different answers to the same questions based on changes in our perspective, we found that ultimately Wicca remained a mystery tradition at its heart. The practices and beliefs could only be fully understood through direct experience thereof and it was through this that the tradition could be best defined, not through the endless debates about lineages, initiations and personalities!

We set about systematically researching the origins of the practices and beliefs which were passed to us through our initiators and colleagues. Our preconceptions were constantly challenged as we explored the origins of the practices and beliefs from different angles in an effort to find possible solutions to the question of when and where the tradition may have originated. We separated the rituals into their component parts, then looked at each individually and even divided them up into smaller parts, before finally putting it all back together creating a colourful mosaic with our findings.

Faced with several possible interpretations based on the evidence we correlated, it became clear that although it remained possible that Gerald Gardner may have created the tradition, it was certainly not that plausible in comparison to some of the other conclusions that we reached. In fact, at this stage of our research we feel that it is most likely that Gardner was not that much of a charlatan after all, but that his accounts of initiation into an existing tradition, upon which he later expanded, were truthful. When stripped right back, without the many additions and evolutions it has undergone since the 1950’s, Gerald Gardner’s ‘Witch Cult’ appears to predate him by at least some years.

We did of course realise from the outset that this would be a controversial conclusion for some readers and as such we present the practice-based evidence in this volume in a way which allows for individual interpretation. We also focused on the component parts which were common to all the traditions, both esoteric and exoteric, that we have personal knowledge of. This means that whilst we touch on the subject of deity, it is important for the reader to understand that theological debate is not within the scope of the work presented here. The individual beliefs in the Goddess and God vary, in some instances significantly so, between traditions in existence today. Additionally, we have not included evidence or debate on the inclusion of many of the folk practices which are found in some Wiccan groups today, such as May pole dancing at Beltane or making Brighid crosses for Imbolc. These practices were well known throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the countless books and magazine articles published in those eras attest to. As such their inclusion might be incidental. Moreover, they are not considered relevant by all of the traditions and as such, though of extreme importance to some, are not even considered by others.

The bulk of the material presented in the book is aimed at practitioners, be that of the esoteric (ie. initiatory) or exoteric traditions of Wicca. The book does not aim to cover in detail all aspects of Wiccan history, in fact we have for the most ignored the modern developments. The material presented can be used in a variety of ways, but will benefit those who are seeking to deepen their understanding of the practices the most as knowing more about their original context can of course help deepen the symbolic understanding of their place in our ceremonies today. It is possible that practitioners of other related pagan traditions who draw their inspiration for rituals by incorporating circle casting, the invocation of the elemental guardians at the four cardinal point and drawing down the moon, might also find this book of interest.
For more information, as well as for examples of some of the reviews this book has already received, visit www.avaloniabooks.co.uk