Review: Grimassi, Crafting Wiccan Traditions

Grimassi, Raven. Crafting Wiccan Traditions: Creating a Foundation for Your Spiritual Beliefs & Practices. Llewellen, 2008. Paperback, 246 pages.

Reviewing this book is one of those situations where knowing a little bit of background about the author and his relationships to other authors in the field helps explain a lot about why the book was written the way it was. According to the biography on his website, Grimassi was initiated into Gardnerian witchcraft at least twice, although one of those initiations may not have had a valid lineage back to Gardner. At the very least, his early training was entirely in the tradition structure of the 1970s. In 1980, Grimassi himself started teaching, and initiated Scott Cunningham; according to the bio, Cunningham did not progress within the tradition Grimassi was establishing: “Because of growing differences it was mutually agreed that  Scott should be released, and he moved on from the Aridian Tradition in favor of a heavily self-styled view of modern Wicca.” Cunningham went on to become an extremely popular author and is commonly regarded as one of the founding figures of self-dedicated, solitary-practice Wicca.

With that in mind, then, it makes more sense when Grimassi says in his preface that “Innovative authors such as Scott Cunningham pioneered a new vision for Wicca, which ultimately transformed it into something new and different from many of its former and foundational concepts. Writers like Cunningham and others removed the traditional structure of Wicca and presented it as a self-styled and self-directed system.” To his credit, Grimassi carefully refrains from castigating Cunningham or current practitioners for practicing a system unmoored from the foundations that Grimassi values so deeply. But the dynamic tension between the foundations that Grimassi wants to pass on and the self-directed style of practice today sets up the paradox at the heart of this book. Grimassi is trying to tell readers to do what feels right to them – as long as they know that there’s a long tradition of doing it this particular way and that he, Grimassi, strongly advises that readers do it the way that he says is traditional.

Kudos to Grimassi for what he’s attempting here, but in the end, he conflates material from each approach so often that the work may be more confusing than helpful to the reader. In the best places, it reads like a fusion of Stewart Farrar and Scott Cunningham. In the worst places, it slips almost imperceptibly from presenting the reader with a menu of choices to giving Grimassi’s own tradition without explaining how those choices have been made with respect to other possible alternatives. Grimassi does clearly present the foundational “Wicca 101” material – elements, the Wheel of the Year, casting a circle, basic ritual structure – but does so in a somewhat scattered form, as these things come up in his layout, repeating himself or presenting variations multiple times. Personally, I get the impression that Grimassi is deeply inspired by his personal discoveries and practice, for which I have the deepest respect. Unfortunately, in a work like this where he intends to lead the reader through possible choices – and maybe even provide a basis for choosing between options, or at least reveal his personal reasons for his choices – the unclear presentation of what he feels so strongly about ends up looking like a dictation of the way it ought to be.

I wonder, as I read those places where Grimassi’s voice as an experienced practitioner comes through most clearly, whether he is trying to do something akin to a traditional mystery style of teaching, but in book format. His repeated touching on foundational elements, with slightly different emphases each time, reads as something that needs to be edited, but he explicitly appeals to the reader to bear with him when he repeats material from chapter to chapter. And he is certainly focused on mystery: he refers to “the mystery tradition” and “Wicca as a mystery tradition” multiple times. (p101, among others) He also emphasizes the idea of the “momentum of the past” many times, and argues for the power of a connection with ancestral predecessors in metaphysical terms. Honestly, I would rather have read his account of his tradition, with acknowledgments of where he could have made other choices, than this inverted structure where he tries to lay out the choices and then always ends up referring to his own selection anyway.

Grimassi’s presentation of the importance of myths, especially as the foundation for ritual, is quite good, as is his observance that the alternating solar/lunar focus of the Sabbats results in basically two sets of four celebrations superimposed. He is absolutely right that a tradition provides a cohesive basis for ritual, which makes ritual more meaningful and powerful, and for teaching. But the longer the book goes on, the more it becomes a recounting of his tradition, until the last third of the book is a set of correspondences (without instructions for altering the correspondences according to one’s own tradition) and a sequence of rituals for covens and for solitaries. The ritual scripts are quite powerful, but are clearly his own style, with an explicit focus on heterosexual polarity and traditional coven roles and structure.

There are also some elements in Grimassi’s presentation that strike me as simply weird. He says that the idea of “watchers” is unique to Wicca, and that the four watchers are associated with four stars. (p6-7) The rulers of elemental realms go back in the Western esoteric tradition much further than Wicca (see, in particular, the inheritance of the “Watchtowers” language from the Enochian magic of John Dee and Edward Kelly, dating to the sixteenth century). He refers to a system of coven structure where the leader makes decisions as “Socratic” (as opposed to “democratic”), which is quite strange. (p22) His approach to the three faces of the God is one I have never encountered before, while he presents the Oak/Holly dichotomy of the Farrars as subordinate figures, not quite gods themselves. In his reference material, he presents the “Rite of Union” and “Gesture of Power” without any explanation whatsoever in accompanying text. (p137-138) He uses the idea of magnetism on page 55 with explicit reference to actual, physical magnets, and appears not to be aware that he’s using a metaphor. Finally, his caution about mixing deities willy-nilly to form consort pairs is a good warning, but the comparison with “mixing drugs from different and unrelated family groups” seems totally unrelated. (p35)

Finally, Grimassi’s treatment of two hot-button topics is irresponsible at best. He covers the Great Rite, including the actual use of physical sex, without discussing any of the ethics involved. He begins the book by saying that he will say things that might, for a more experienced audience, go without saying. Sex is an area where a great deal more needs to be said: a warning against unethical teachers, a discussion of the dangers involved, and a serious caution to the inexperienced student would all be appropriate here. None of them are presented, and neither is a discussion of the special place that physical love holds in a religion that celebrates the body and fertility; the section on the Great Rite is much shorter than the instructions given for drawing down the moon. (p120-121) Grimassi’s traditional background also comes through in his heteronormativity and utter disregard for issues of gender and sexual orientation that have developed since the 1970s traditions were stabilized.

The single most strange aspect of this book, though, has to be Grimassi’s discussion of human sacrifice. He speaks as if he has firsthand knowledge of prehistoric practices and their spiritual meanings:

“The idea arose of sending the best member of the tribe directly to the gods…this was the birth of human sacrifice, and those who went willingly were believed to become gods themselves.
“Among human offerings, the sacrifice of a willing individual was the greatest gift the tribe could offer…
“…rituals were designed to resurrect the Slain God. Special maidens were prepared to bring about the birth, usually virgins who were artificially inseminated so that no human male could be pointed to as the father. Bloodlines were carefully traced from the impregnated female, and the returning soul was looked for among her children.” (p84-85)

This is incredibly irresponsible, given the blood libel often perpetuated upon Wicca. How many young people trying to set up their own coven will read this and repeat it for years as the truth of the mystery tradition revealed by a respected author? How much more pseudo-history and pseudo-archaeology will this create? Grimassi is clearly deeply attached to his ideas of the ancestors, though, and includes a skull (which he describes as a “symbol or figurine”) in his altar layouts and all of his ritual scripts. He says that it “symbolizes ancestral wisdom,” but especially in context of these passages, it ends up looking gothic and bizarre, if not downright evil to uneducated eyes. (p148)

In the context of contemporary Wicca, this book would be most useful for an intermediate student trying to enrich his awareness of the early development of Wicca as an esoteric mystery tradition, as it still was in the 1970s. Grimassi’s presentation may give the reader food for thought, but I would be tempted to direct the interested reader to the classics of the Farrars and Cunningham, rather than this awkward hybridization.

Review: LaSara Firefox, Sexy Witch

Firefox, LaSara. Sexy Witch. Llewellyn, 2005. Paperback, 314 pages.

Sexy Witch is first and foremost a workbook. LaSara Firefox is a talented author who wants to entice the reader into finding and creating her own path of self-discovery. Firefox encourages readers, individually or in groups, to work through the seven chapters, taking at least a week for each, with activities during the week and a ritual symbolizing the steps along the path at the end of each week. A final, culminating ritual is a strong statement of self-empowerment, building on the process of reconceptualization of oneself as woman and as witch.

I found that the book worked well for me as a solitary, and I imagine it would also be very powerful for the right group of women working together. It requires a great deal of openness, though, so this is not a book to start with for a newly-formed group! Each chapter has a mix of reading material and activities, including journaling, visualization, mind-mapping and freewriting, art projects, and self-explorations such as potentially cross-dressing and exploring one’s nude body and genitals. The writing is unabashedly feminist and pro-sex, with the tone of a friendly chat over coffee. Firefox avoids the trap of pedantic harangues about feminist thought and values, and also eschews the sickeningly-sweet tone adopted by some authors trying to over-romanticize women’s bodies, experiences, and worth. Instead of loading the reader down with feminist theory, she continually challenges the reader to investigate her own definitions, experiences, and all-too-often unspoken assumptions and evaluations. Aware that such investigation is not always comfortable, Firefox reminds readers that “No one’s watching you, so it’s okay to let yourself get a little uncomfortable.” (57)

The first four chapters are about turning inward and self-examination, which is the most potentially uncomfortable part of this work. Starting with a chapter on our relationships to our bodies, Firefox proceeds through self-worth, then women’s relationship with and awareness of their genitals, so that the pivotal fourth chapter is about the entire complex of masturbation, menstruation, and birthing. From there, the fifth chapter starts explicitly rebuilding a new worldview, with the senses, the next chapter invites women to make their own myths and world-stories to support their new claim on power, and the final chapter focuses on the experience of self-initiation as a claiming of the reconstructed worldview. As Firefox writes, “For many of us, the transformational aspect of these celebrations [transitions in our lives] has been downplayed, if recognized at all.” (122) The work of this book is making a space to create and then honor the transformation of claiming oneself as a sexy witch.

The chapters themselves take up only about half the book; the second half is two complete sets of rituals, one for solitaries, and one for circles. The outlines and discussion of ritual are thorough, well-presented, and easily adapted. Firefox includes a comprehensive discussion of the steps in ritual, plus her own “Witch’s Banishing Ritual,” an adaptation of the Golden Dawn Ceremonial Magick Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram.

I can’t emphasize enough that this is a workbook – from beginning to end, it is made to be worked with. Just picking it up and reading it may be useful, even transformative, but it won’t get the full value of the carefully-designed steps Firefox has laid out. The workings of this book, as a whole, constitute a kind of drawn-out initiatory process, taking place over seven weeks – or more, should the reader wish to go more slowly. The entire arc of the book follows a traditional kind of thought about initiation as a descent into the deep, dark, unknown, and a claiming of the power found there while the initiate works her way back out from that womb/symbolic death into a new life. This is not like one of Starhawk’s works where the exercises may be done individually, pulled out and reassembled in a new order of the reader’s choice, picked up and put down at will. I don’t mean that the book is regimented, but each cluster of related topics and activities is tightly-knit, and they are in a specific order in relationship to the other chapters for good reason. If there’s a time that you’re going to put aside your embarrassment (finger painting? really?) and just try it (oh, I know what I’ll write about that journal prompt…), this is it. You may surprise yourself. You may be deeper than you know – and having a guide like this into those deep, dark places is invaluable.

The body-centric work in this book could be an invaluable tool for women who are coming to Witchcraft or Paganism from an experience of religion that denigrates, or at least deemphasizes, the body. I believe that Paganism and all earth-based religions need to put the body and the physical experience of the world in the center of their beliefs and practices; simply adding the Goddess to a preexisting pantheon isn’t the same thing as truly valuing the here and now, the natural world. Firefox calls our bodies “the point of interface where the individual meets up with the rest of creation.” (12) If you’re going to do that meeting-up, you have to know yourself first.

This book is an excellent example of the kind of magic that seems, on a superficial glance, to be nothing more than dressed-up psychology. The power of these rituals is not the power to take away your PMS, or make your breasts bigger, or cause sexual harassers to find themselves restrained by an invisible force from patting you on the butt. This magic is what Phyllis Curotte describes as witch-crafting, where the witch is crafting herself. Firefox says that we “build ourselves into more accurate representations of our core values.” (109) It’s the magic that comes from exploring the dark, finding your own ideas and assumptions, making them real and obvious so that you can choose to keep them, or change them, or throw them away entirely for a new set of rules that you write yourself. This is the magic of working with one’s mind, one’s body, and it’s a lot more than “just” psychology – it’s the power to recreate the self, and that is enough to change the world. Try it – you may be surprised.