Review: Nock, The Wiccan Year

Nock, Judy Ann. The Provenance Press Guide to the Wiccan Year: Spells, Rituals, and Holiday Celebrations. (Provenance Press, 2007.) Paperback, 252 pages.

Possibly the two most common ideas that authors, editors, and publishers use to organize written material on Wicca are the four Elements and the Wheel of the Year. Sometimes this structure is inherent in the material presented, sometimes it’s an obvious attempt to slap some kind of superficial order onto a random conglomeration of the author’s ideas, and sometimes it’s a blatant attempt to mine basic ideas for more publishing material to make money. Thankfully, this book is almost entirely in the first category. The PP Guide to the Wiccan Year can be a little scattershot, but it stays true to its mission of guiding the reader through the Sabbats in sequence.

Nock explains right up front that she orients herself to the cycle of the year through astrology. That’s generally not my cup of tea, but I found the writing and resources in this book very worthwhile regardless of whether or not I concentrated on the astrology, and I did learn more about the astrological year in the process of reading it. Using the astrological cycle means that Nock has a framework that hangs together, which is good, but she feels free to decorate that framework with bits and pieces of myth, legend, and lore taken almost willy-nilly from all the favorite European (mostly northern and western European) cultures that go into what we might call “general American eclectic Wicca.” She makes no serious attempt to harmonize these or provide coherence among the myths. Very few of the rituals, meditations, or other activities chosen for each Sabbat make reference to or connect with the materials for any other Sabbat. The underlying structure of the astrological influence does mean that Nock includes plenty of references to classical Greek and Roman mythology; the proportion of that is higher than in most eclectic Wicca. Since most of the rituals and guided meditations stick closer to the generic God-and-Goddess stories or Celtic and Norse mythologies, this creates a bit of a disconnect.

On the other hand, I have to applaud Nock for describing her work accurately as being for intermediate practitioners. (xvii) Some of the rituals provided include a handfasting and a serious, well-written initiation for someone who worships Brigid. These are not recycled 101 rituals. Nock is also not using the Wheel of the Year layout as an excuse to present warmed-over slightly annotated tables of correspondences and call it education. She has put serious effort into the material: both coven and solitary options are presented for just about every activity, the “practical craft” (arts and crafts) ideas show the signs of having actually been tried in the process of editing the instructions, and the guided meditations have an excellent point-by-point layout that I find easier for a solitary to work through.

Although it’s not strictly about worship per se, this book is written more for purposes of celebration, and as such it includes relatively little in the way of spells for specific ends. Perhaps because of that, there is very little magical theory. When an herbal spell gets tossed into the mix, Nock writes it with an approach that suggests the herbs themselves do the work. In places, visualization or focus on the part of the practitioner is mentioned, and only in one instance is the idea of focusing on an affirmation described, and that one presentation is pretty simplistic. She’s approaching the Wheel of the Year as a sequence of independent opportunities to…well, actually, I’m not quite sure what she thinks the Sabbats are for, in and of themselves. Maybe she thinks they’re opportunities to do ritual (which might include magic) and guided meditation, although whether those are primarily for worshiping deity or for attuning ourselves to deity or for working on ourselves isn’t quite clear. When I get right down to it, the book is relatively bereft of a coherent working theaology as well.

What the book does have is a series of descriptions of the Sabbats, with “Celestial Events” and “Astrological Information” provided for each one, plus at least one, if not more, ritual and guided meditation which may or may not be linked. The leavening of recipes, art and craft projects, and “Legends and Lore” from a variety of cultures provide opportunities for most Wiccans to reflect on and possibly expand their understanding of and practices surrounding the Sabbats. I find this work to be above-average for its type and think it could be useful for a lot of practitioners. If you’re looking for something to help you understand the Wheel of the Year as an integrated whole, though, you’ll have to keep looking.

(Revised to add: Just after I finished writing this review, I went to copy out one of Nock’s recipes, for “Solar Cross Abundance Buns.” I found that she does specifically give instructions for including visualization in the recipe, which caused me to edit my comments on her use of magic. Sadly, I also found that the recipe is not written very well; standard cookbook techniques for presenting recipes aren’t employed, such as advising the reader to grease a bowl ahead of when it will be needed, or giving advance notice to preheat the oven a couple of steps before the heated oven is needed, or even like noting that the recipe must be started at least a day ahead of when the buns should be ready. Unlike the guided meditations, the recipes are not ready to be used as-is.)

Review: Cunningham and Harrington, The Magical Household

Cunningham, Scott, and David Harrington. The Magical Household: spells & rituals for the home. Llewellyn, 1983. Paperback, 168 pages.

I changed my mind: instead of going right into Ann Moura’s other book for review, we’ll do a little palate-cleanser by reviewing this lighter piece by Cunningham and Harrington first.

This isn’t one of Cunningham’s classics, but it’s fun. Divided into chapters such as “Stove and Spoon,” “Bathing and Brushing,” and “By Broom and Rag,” Cunningham and Harrington have combined a romp through historical beliefs and customs about the household with updated suggestions for ways to bless the house and its occupants, and to make every day more magical. Although the historical sources of specific customs are not cited from particular sources, an extensive bibliography provides jumping-off points for further research. Really, though, the benefit of this work is in the authors’ ideas for bringing magic into everyday life: make that bulb of garlic not just an herb, but also a ward for the kitchen, and use your visualization and intent to make a bath an opportunity for magical healing as well as easing aches and pains. Some of the updated versions of older customs are good, as when Cunningham and Harrington provide directions for a Witch bottle to keep away negativity, or for tying old keys into a doorway-protection charm. If you enjoy odds and ends like this, this book is for you; it’s well-enough organized to make sense, although it does hop from topic to topic quickly. If you want full rituals, theaology, or high ceremony, or even detailed investigations of the origins of house-related folklore, you’ll be disappointed.

Perhaps my favorite part of this book is the quote below, about working everyday actions into one’s magical life, and vice-versa: “If this seems silly, remember that these are rituals. Rituals provide us with easily understood, vivid demonstrations of our goals and needs. They are more than powerful psychological boosts, for they set energies in motion, which is the essence of magic.” (60)

Review: Ann Moura, Green Witchcraft I and III

Moura, Ann (Aoumiel).Green Witchcraft: folk magic, fairy lore, & herb craft. Llewellyn, 1996. Paperback, 274 pages.
Moura, Ann (Aoumiel). Green Witchcraft III: the manual. Llewellyn, 2000. Paperback, 238 pages.

This is another double review, which is even more appropriate in this case because the two books are intended to be read together. I am able to review these because they were generously lent to me by a friend (thank you!), which is why I don’t have access to book II of the series. Some of what’s in II is mentioned in the others, and overall that doesn’t look to be an impossible barrier to me reviewing the series. If anyone has II and thinks it should totally change my assessment, please, chime in!

At the time the first book was written, Moura was a high school history teacher, with a master’s in history. This is relevant both because she mentions it about herself and because her views on Witchcraft are heavily influenced by her personal interpretation of history. The first book she wrote, Dancing Shadows: the roots of western religious beliefs, was her historical account of religious development; I have not been able to get it, but her book Origins of Modern Witchcraft: the evolution of a world religion was apparently developed in large part as a revision. I’ll be reviewing Origins of Modern Witchcraft next, so let me leave most of the discussion of her view of history to that post. What needs to be said here is that Moura has an historian’s drive to construct coherent narratives including all the information that she thinks is important. A perfect example of this tendency, I think, can be found in her description of herself as a third-generation witch in a family tradition.

This claim is not a “grandmother myth” as is commonly ridiculed among contemporary Wiccans who in the post-Hutton era have generally made peace with the recent formalization of their practice. Moura describes being taught about “The Power” by her mother and grandmother as she was growing up, and about their fascination with spiritism and their expertise in herbal matters and folk magics. Her mother and grandmother identified themselves as Catholics – as nearly everyone in the Brazil of her childhood did – but that Catholicism seemed to be primarily a veneer over the everyday beliefs and practices that formed the core of their spiritual experience. This is a fascinating description of the kind of folk magic that many Wiccans see as one of their primary linkages in their “spiritual heritage” from pre-Christian religions. But I would not go so far as to characterize it as a “family tradition.”

Moura says, touchingly, that her mother admired her ability to step away from the constraints and expectations of society and to dissociate herself from a Christian veneer (I, p31), but what Moura is presenting here is not a family tradition now opened to outsiders, but her individual fusion of family folk magic, her own historical interpretations of religious practices, and a heavy dose of theory and practices common to contemporary eclectic Wicca. In places, Moura does a sort of compare/contrast between her family’s traditions and generalized eclectic Wicca – such as her rules of “The Power” (I, p11, and at the start of each chapter of III) as compared to the Rede and Law of Return. Unfortunately, in other places, she presents her fusion as a fait accompli, and only an educated reader could tell which pieces came from what sources. At times, this verges on misattribution, as when Moura presents Valiente’s “Witches’ Rune” as simply “traditional.” (III, p196) She clearly feels slighted by the Gardnerian focus on lineage and initiation, especially as denigrating “fam trad” kinds of practice as illegitimate. (I, p75) Moura says up front that she feels free to adopt what works for her and discard what doesn’t, but also claims to be presenting the sources of her information for readers to make an informed judgment. (I, p2, p4) The first claim is true, but the second doesn’t hold up under examination; on the contrary, Moura clearly has an agenda that motivates some of the hidden choices she makes.

In fact, the reader gets the sense that part of Moura’s driving purpose in writing is her anger over her interpretation of history. She is angry that the earth-based religions of indigenous peoples were swept away by power-hungry invaders. She talks about “Aryans,” and this perhaps drives her desire to identify her family as having specifically “Celtic-Iberian” descent. (I, “About the Author,” facing title page, and elsewhere. Everyone loves a Celt, right, and we know they’re not the mean Aryans?) She is angry about how the Church and those in power treated women, especially women who were a little herb-wise or were midwives and presented a challenge to the power structure. This anger has a way of coming out oddly, as in the start of the chapter about herbs. I actually flipped back to the chapter heading after getting one page into it, wondering if I had misread the chapter title – the first page was entirely an angry description verging on a rant about women being disenfranchised. (I, p46) She slides seamlessly into an angry description of fundamentalist Christians trying to suppress Wicca and Paganism today – a topic about which I think and write fervently, as readers know! – and then makes a bewildering transition into the uses of herbs. For someone who wants to share in Moura’s righteous indignation, this probably makes perfect sense, but to me the tone comes off as too harsh, as well as simply sloppy thinking.

In fact, all of this anger might help make sense of Moura’s most baffling quasi-historical allusion – the very title of her style of practice. She emphasizes repeatedly that she is doing “Green” Witchcraft, not just because she wants to associate herself with ideas about fairies and nature but because she says that there are three “levels” of …. something. I can’t find exactly what these levels are levels of, but she’s very clear that “green” is the “base.” She goes on to identify the ” ‘higher’ ” (her quotes) levels as “Red,” associated with “the Warrior,” and “Blue and White,” associated with “Lawgiver” and “Ruler,” respectively. (I, p5ff) She specifically indicates that the upper layers were added onto to existing practices when “Aryan” societies created their power structures. This may make more sense after I finish her history book, but I’m wondering if she created this idea as her adaptation of Georges Dumezil‘s trifunctional hypothesis. (This hypothesis has received greater attention in the Pagan community thanks in part to Bonewits’ adoption of it as a way for ADF to echo the organizational princples of Indo-European society…but that’s another discussion.) It seems that Moura has adapted the trifunctional hypothesis, and then for various reasons including her sense of identification with the oppressed throughout history, has consciously tried to make her approach a celebration of the “green,” that is, the peasant farmer type of imagined religion.

I am especially flummoxed by this approach when Moura first seems to invert the traditional hierarchy – that is, to value women’s and the indigenous/poor/peasant class’s approaches to religion over the high muckety-muck power-holding rulers and priests’ approach – and then feels free to incorporate anything she pleases from sources including Gardnerian Wicca (itself extremely high-muckety-muck), as above, or as in her strange runes-and-pentagram sigil on p136 of book I. She says that “Green customs” do “not involve set litany, stylized prayers or rituals,” and then goes on to spend over half her book providing extremely detailed ritual scripts. (I, p7) Someone who wants to sympathize with Moura’s down-with-the-powerful ire would probably find these works a freeing affirmation of individual power and confirming one’s right to be a kitchen Witch (or whatever else one pleases), but as an attempt at a coherent system, the inconsistencies bother me greatly.

Book I is definitely a book of basics. The materials presented on fairies, herbs, and correspondences are simple resources as are found in any other introductory work. The ritual scripts are more than half of the pages, and the choices made in presenting these are quite baffling, especially because the scripts are extremely repetitive. The same opening, the same Cakes and Wine, the same closing, word-for-word, are reprinted multiple times, more than nine times for some of the material! If someone wants a book to be able to work out of as a word-for-word script, without flipping from “general opening” to “Yule ritual” and back to “general closing,” I guess this would be a good choice, but the way the scripts are written with so much descriptive material in between words, it doesn’t seem like the books would be useful for that. Frankly, this is part of a pattern of bad editing, with wild swings in topics and plenty of repetitive material that makes these books much lower quality than they could be. In part, I think that reflects on Llewellyn as a publisher as much as Moura as an author.

Book III is subtitled “The Manual,” but that led me to think it might be a more formalized Book of Shadows kind of presentation. Not at all! It is set up as a series of eight “classes,” for which the reader needs book I, “the textbook,” to refer to. Again, I have to question both Moura and Llewellyn on this practice – I’m not sure Moura had enough material for a new book, and if she did, this organization isn’t the best way to present it. It comes across, quite frankly, as a low-effort way of getting another book onto shelves which will also encourage purchases of the first one. The text frequently reads as if it was transcribed from lectures, and since Moura says explicitly that this is a “handbook…based upon the classes I teach periodically at a local shop,” I am tempted to think that’s exactly what happened. (III, p xi) She also says that the eight classes are structured to correspond with the eight Sabbats, but the haphazard organization of material doesn’t seem to reflect a coherent vision like that, and no explanation of the correspondences is made. (III, p xii) This material would have been better off presented as ten or twelve classes with specific topics for each, rather than splitting divination across two classes (one specifically on Ogham), and compressing the entire range of topics about relating to aspects of the God and Goddess and about structuring one’s own ritual calendar into a single class. The sloppy editing shows up here, too, as nothing about “Elixir preparations” is ever mentioned in Class 6. Book III also opens with a discussion of wands on the flyleaf, with no further reference anywhere else in the book. Was this stuck in just as it was going to press? What happened here?

One final topical matter: Moura includes material on both the Elder Futhark (although she calls them simply runes, and doesn’t describe why she’s willing to use these quintessentially “Aryan” symbols) and the Irish Ogham alphabets. Runes come up in both I and III, although in I, p102, her table of explanations is of the most rudimentary kind, without the names of runes or any pointers for the reader to expand her knowledge further through other resources. When she covers the topic again in book III, on p77, she gives the names of the runes, but also includes the “blank rune,” expanding the set to 25, without explaining the inconsistency between this and her previous system. Paxson’s discussion of why the “blank rune” is inconsistent with the set is excellent; I’ll get to that when I review Paxson, but suggest that any interested readers start there instead. Her discussion of Ogham is elaborate and totally unlike anything else I’ve ever seen; I have not explored Ogham in the way I’ve explored runes, so I’m not qualified to discuss whether this is an invention on her part, but it seems odd, to say the least.

The best thing about these books is that they do present the perspective of a solitary Witch with over 30 years’ experience in finding and creating her own path. Moura does explicitly encourage readers to explore and find what works for them; she does not make the mistake of presenting her way as the only way. In particular, book III presents an excellent discussion of three “styles” of practice: Witchcraft as folk magics added to the practitioner’s existing, traditional religions beliefs; Witchcraft as a connection with natural powers without any specific deity beliefs; and Witchcraft as the use of magic within a worldview including the Goddess and God of nature. (III, p6) The rest of the book also provides plenty of options for a non-deity-based approach, which would be more comforting for those new to WItchcraft and not sure about the specific theaologies of different types.

(Sorry that this turned out longer than I intended! I’m trying to provide enough detail for readers to make their own evaluations, not just rely on my personal reaction.)

Review: Patricia Telesco, 365 Goddess

Telesco, Patricia. 365 Goddess: a daily guide to the magic and inspiration of the goddess. Harper Collins, 1998. Paperback. No page numbers; approx. 350.

This book is designed to be used as a daily devotional. Each date has a celebration, festival, or other observance listed, a specific goddess, themes, symbols, and a paragraph or two about the goddess. Then there’s a discussion of things the reader can do to celebrate the day, honor the goddess, or otherwise improve her life. It’s a neat idea that is only moderately well executed; some women may like this book and find great value in it and its suggestions, but personally, it strikes me as ill-assorted and rather haphazard.

Telesco’s introduction is solidly syncretic: “The world’s nations depict the Goddess with many different names, faces, and characteristics – but these are really all part of the same potent lady.” She goes on to suggest that the wide variety of cultural perspectives borrowed in this book allow one to adopt a different position and get different views of the one great Goddess – essentially, to draw on the attributes that one needs in order to get what one wants. This approach strikes me as a bit too mercenary and simplistic. Taken literally, this “dial a goddess” approach leads to an extreme form of what Bonewits dubbed “the worship bargain” – “you scratch my aura and I’ll scratch yours.” This inappropriate use of the commerce metaphor oversimplifies and frankly obscures the complex, detailed, challenging process of building a relationship with deity. Now, Telesco avoids the commerce metaphor, (possibly because it is too masculine or patriarchal?) but her casual handling of how to relate to aspects of deity leads to the same potential conclusion.

Perhaps even more than syncretism, the book is founded on an approach of personal change. I appreciate the good this can do, and it’s certainly better for one’s mental health than an approach emphasizing original sin and total surrender of self and agency. But again, taken too far, this risks caricaturing the more complex experience of religion down to a kind of ritualized self-help. Many of the activities Telesco suggests are designed to lift the reader’s self-esteem, and she strongly encourages personalizing them; I can see how they would do a lot of good for some women. On the other hand, I find many of them ill-chosen, only loosely associated with the festival and/or goddess being named, and frankly, assuming a level of ability that means the reader is already not hurting for resources. For the goddess Pomona, Telesco suggests visiting a garden or arboretum, and possibly creating a Pomona oil from flower petals. (16 April) For the Saffron Rose festival of Spain, Telesco notes, “Saffron is the world’s most expensive herb,” and then goes on to encourage the reader to eat some. (28 October) Frankly, Telesco’s directions assume that the reader is a woman with a fair amount of privilege and resources, who has the luxury to worry about things like eating saffron rice on a particular day or sharing a bottle of wine with friends.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on her; Telesco is probably writing from the heart for an audience that she imagines to be like herself. But when she is specifically trying to invoke the mantle of multiculturalism and interest in the world’s peoples, especially indigenous peoples who are likely to be underprivileged, these kind of simple feel-good magics strike me as frankly self-absorbed and tone deaf. Her “Last Words” at the end of the book specify that “Every attempt has been made to put the holidays and celebrations throughout these pages into their proper cultural context and to honor them in that setting. Each civilization has special customs and traditions that we cannot fully understand, because we were not, or are not, there. Nonetheless, if we approach each tradition with the same respect that we have for our own, our understanding of the world and of its diversity and similarities will be enriched.” Unfortunately, that respect is exactly what I find lacking, or perhaps impossible, in the casual and superficial approach possible in just a paragraph of background on a goddess or culture.

The way Telesco went about writing this book seems to be something like this: assemble all the calendars and information about festivals, observances, etc, and assign one to each day of the calendar. Then pick a goddess whose attributes are loosely related to the festival, in Telesco’s mind if no one else’s. Then write about what to do during that day using either the elements of the festival, or the features of the goddess, but rarely both. For example, on August 20th, Telesco encourages us to celebrate the launch of the Voyager 2 and to worship Inanna. Her summary of Inanna’s characteristics focuses entirely on the “sweet” side, talking about Inanna’s “gentle tears” that “wash from heaven, putting out the emotional fires that keep people apart.” Now, I’ve read the translated stories and hymns of Inanna, and I don’t remember anything about her gentle tears putting out emotional fires. I remember a lot about her as a powerful figure, a queen, a priestess, and a woman who demands revenge when she has been wronged. Telesco’s free association here seems to distort Inanna’s essence; her suggestion to make an Inanna wand is, frankly, inane (by all means, make a wand, but there’s no reason to associate that with Inanna), and the waxing poetic about Voyager’s mission of love and peace is hopeful but pretty empty and irrelevant.

Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it might act as an impetus for someone to learn more about a specific goddess (although her bibliography is scarcely a page and over-populated with books about festivals, not goddesses, and certainly not historically accurate sources). Telesco’s creativity in coming up with a wide variety of simple activities is appreciable, although it starts to sound a bit repetitive after about three months, and it is not applicable to many women’s situations, as noted above. If you need the feel-good encouragement, this isn’t a bad way to get it, and it’s certainly focused on Goddess spirituality, but on the whole, this book falls flat.