Review: Dugan, Elements of Witchcraft

Dugan, Ellen. Elements of Witchcraft: Natural Magick for Teens. Llewellyn, 2003. Paperback, 255 pages.

This is the best book about Witchcraft for teenagers that I’ve seen. Since that’s a bit of damning with faint praise, let me also say that this is also an introductory book on Wicca and Witchcraft that I would recommend to just about anyone. It’s comprehensive, coherent, and well-written. There is plenty of clear advice on the practice of Wicca and a thorough grounding in the religious foundation. Most of all, this writer knows what she’s talking about, both about Witchcraft and about teenagers, and she conveys her information clearly and with good humor as well as a heavy dose of common sense. In her introduction, she says point-blank, “I worked hard and practiced my butt off…just as you’re going to do.” (6)

Dugan opens with a practical example: a story about a teen Witch doing a spell that helped find a lost pet. This practical focus continues throughout the book, but not in the sense that it’s full of spells and light on theory. The introduction has plenty of theory, including the basics of raising power and focusing it on an intention, but everything there is a frame for what comes later. Dugan quickly covers what magic is, what it isn’t, and what her book is about. She even provides a simple healing ritual, and uses it to debunk overblown ideas of magic that a lot of teens (and adults, to be honest) come in with. “What? You were expecting thunder and lighting as the wind whipped around your celestial robes? I sure hope you aren’t standing under any big trees. … Do you want the truth about magick, or fiction? The truth, then.” (10)

There’s a perennial debate about whether “Wiccan” and “Witch” mean the same thing. One argument goes that Wicca is a religion but Witchcraft is a practice (of magic). Theoretically, someone could be a Witch without believing in the religion of Wicca, and one can be a Wiccan who does no Witchcraft. Personally, I accept the intellectual validity of this argument, but have a hard time imagining such separations in reality. (For example, although I accept it is possible for someone to be a Christian Witch, and won’t argue with someone else’s self-identification as such, I privately suspect that most people who want to be in that category haven’t done the heavy intellectual lifting of investigating how their belief and practice do and don’t go together.) This long aside is a way of saying that Dugan’s book is appropriately titled: it is much more about Witchcraft than about Wicca, but she does identify as Wiccan and explicitly connects the two. She also discusses the basics of Wicca as a religion, but most of the work is devoted to Witchcraft, with the religious component being an implicit backdrop.

Her second chapter is about ethics, and she starts it out with a very frank discussion of dabbling, the usual reasons teens do it, and why it’s a very, very bad idea. This discussion of intent lets her provide a mix of theoretical and experience-based examples and guidelines. Especially for a book so heavy on the details of practice, this is an excellent, excellent way to start out. She can’t stop people from skimming through for the spells, but she’s done her darndest to set up the book to make that not easy and obviously a bad idea. Kudos!

The next four chapters are the four elements, with information on how to do magic based on each of the elements: stones for Earth, music and feathers for Air, candles for Fire, scrying for Water. Dugan starts each chapter with a guided meditation on the element, and also gives correspondences and discusses elementals. Specific spells and her personal examples also round out the chapters. One of my favorite things about these chapters is her practical suggestions for teens to adapt to their situation: what to do if you are not allowed to burn incense or candles and statements like, “A Witch is not judged by how much he or she spends on occult supplies.” (89)

These are followed by a chapter on working with flowers and trees and a chapter on the God, the Goddess, and the magickal year, which summarizes the essentials of Wicca as a religion. Dugan gives a chapter on tools, and then does one of the best concluding sections I’ve ever seen: her final three chapters return to the issues of living as a Wiccan and practicing magic. While she provides more essential information and pulls the entire book together, she clearly places the burden back on the reader, both to pursue the hard work of learning and to face the challenge – if and only if you want to and you think you’re ready – of walking the talk.

In her discussion of circle-casting, Dugan also gives some of the best guidelines I’ve ever seen for when casting a circle is and is not necessary. These are only her practices, and they’re presented after she challenges the reader to think about it for herself, but they’re a good expression of what I’d been working on for a while. She also gives more ethical examples (and counter-examples) and practical advice, including “Acting responsibly is a vital part of wielding power.” (206) Finally, Dugan gives a self-test for the reader to evaluate his understanding and readiness, and only after that, and thorough discussion, provides a self-dedication ritual, followed immediately by resources for more learning.

I seldom recommend a book so whole-heartedly. I don’t know if this will become a classic, and I’m not about to christen it as one yet, but it’s a work I’d share almost without reservation to a seeker trying to get to know more about Witchcraft and Wicca.

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.

Wicca and weak ties

If you use the Internet much, you’ve probably run across some discussion about how social networking is changing the world, etc. Proponents want us to believe that social networking is revolutionizing the ways we relate to other people. Doubters take positions like Aaron Sorkin: “Social networking is to socializing as reality TV is to reality.”

Malcolm Gladwell, who has written several interesting books by being an astute observer of contemporary culture, has another excellent article in the New Yorker called Small Change. Gladwell delves into the history of the civil rights movement, including such seemingly spontaneous efforts as the student sit-ins of 1960, to show that such efforts at social change were actually the result of strong ties between participants, not the kind of thing that could be Tweeted to your closest thousand buddies.

In current social theory, strong ties are the kinds of connections you have with people who actually know you – your family, friends you talk to frequently about deep issues and probably see in person, relationships that you put a lot of effort into nurturing. Weak ties are the kind of connections that Twitter and Facebook are excellent at maintaining. These used to be “Christmas card” relationships, the people you saw every few years at the high school reunion, that kind of thing. Yes, it’s very nifty that we can now maintain hundreds or even thousands of weak ties and share information among them ever more efficiently. But lots of weak ties are not the same thing as a few strong ties. (In fact, I would argue that there are probably fundamental human limits on how many strong ties we can have – something like under a hundred – but that’s another story.)

Gladwell’s point is that getting real social change to happen is a dangerous and scary endeavor, and that weak ties are not sufficient motivation for people to take on that dangerous, scary work. Strong ties, particularly having a close friend already in the movement, are often a deciding factor for who stands up to challenge the social norms and who doesn’t. Gladwell also argues that hierarchy was a necessary feature of the civil rights movement: the kind of organization, and decision-making on hard matters, and training, and clearly defined responsibilities that were necessary for as amazing an operation as the bus boycott, for example, were only possible when some structures with authority were in place.

These historical trends are why I am afraid that solitary, eclectic Wicca does not have much potential as a vehicle for social change. If we don’t form strong ties among ourselves, if we don’t at least have the potential to organize and effectively address real-world challenges like running a carpool or supporting each other’s needs when we face discrimination, we will not be able to challenge the social norms that hurt us, let alone the social norms that we think are hurting the world.

I agree with Starhawk that we need both individual effort and collective effort; every Pagan’s individual efforts do matter. But we also need to work on creating and supporting institutions that can help us further our goals (and sometimes even decide what those goals are). Starhawk writes about the work she does with environmental activist organizations – and it’s clear that they’ve accomplished more than those individuals could separately. Personally, I have deep respect and appreciation for the work of Circle Sanctuary, and the way they played a leading role in the Pentacle Quest, and Patrick McCollum, and his current efforts on behalf of Pagan prisoners in California and elsewhere. I am trying to learn more about Circle Sanctuary and how I can work with them in efforts like this.

What do you care about? What change do you want to see in the world? Who is working on that? Work with them! If no one is, or if you think you can do a better job setting up an organization to do it, go for it. And not just with spells, either. I believe in magic, but I also believe that nothing makes magic work better than putting out effort in the physical world to get the results you want.