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Looking at Cunningham's Book "Wicca" 25 years later
Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner
A new fiction story about young Wiccans I'm working on had me dig out my old copy of Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham. The reason I chose to use this book as a springboard in the story is because it was the first books I myself ever read about Wicca. My copy is really old-- still with that original pink cover! It had been gathering dust on the bookshelf for some time now as I progressed down my path. My fiction writing endeavor prompted me to brush it off and re-read Wicca for the first time in ages. I wanted to re-evaluate it in terms of its usefulness and it’s contributions to the religion Wicca.
Brief History of the Usage of the Term 'Wicca'
Early Medieval period
'Wicca' means 'male sorcerer' (Wicce means female); word falls out of usage
Gerald Gardner attempts to reconstruct ancient witch religion; Gardner calls religion ‘Witchcraft’ and practitioners ‘of the Wica’.
Other Witches/covens pop up. Derivatives of Gardner's lineage are deemed British Traditional Witchcraft.
Some begin to use the term "Wicca" for "British Traditional Witchcraft" but it's still uncommon.
Cunningham's book comes out, coining the term 'solitary Wicca'; "Wicca" becomes the preferred word for this religion.
Cunningham's work lit a fuse. The popularity of Wicca exploded and opened the way for other authors. Wicca entered pop culture in the 1990s. Shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and movies like The Craft glamourized it (and grossly misrepresented it). Now, most people—even if they don’t have a clue as to what it actually entails—have at least heard of the religion. Solitary Wiccans now outnumber coven-initiated Wiccans.
Cunningham's influence with his single book is undeniable, though now opinions on whether it was a good or a bad thing vary greatly. Some people still take Wicca as a sort of gospel; others dismiss it as a pile of fluffy drivel that only served to water down British Traditional Witchcraft.
What About You?
Have you read Cunningham's Wicca?
The Book In Question:
Criticisms I Agree With
Wicca implies Wicca is an ancient religion
Cunningham admits Wicca has been "refined and changed" for our world (pg 4), but attempts to connect Wicca to the world's first religious beliefs. He ties Wicca to Shamanism in the first sentence (pg 3), claiming it's our spiritual roots. He claims rites and rituals of Wicca are of shamanic origin (pg 4). He refers to Wiccans as "heirs to the pre-Christian folk religions of Europe (pg 63)."
Such claims were widespread in the 70's and 80s, but the ancient witch cult theories had long been debunked by reputable historians. There is no excuse for trying to re-write history.
Promotes eclecticism to an extreme
Many argue that Cunningham's attitudes undermine things like training, experience, structure and accountability. He writes:
There is not, and can never be, one "pure" or "true" or "genuine" form of Wicca. There are no central governing agencies, no physical leaders, no universally-recognized prophets or messengers. Although specific, structured forms of Wicca certainly exist, they aren't in agreement regarding ritual, symbolism and theology (pg xi of the Preface).
For a religion to be an actual religion, there has to be some consistency and cohesiveness in beliefs and practices. Arguably there is much flexibility in non-dogmatic religions; to say there is nothing that unifies Wicca is misleading. Wicca is not just a synonym for eclectic Paganism.
I have no objections to eclecticism. Wicca in itself is a syncretic religion that draws from many sources. But Cunningham brings the impression that anything goes. He emphasizes creativity and personalization but fails to balance that view. He gets across the message that Wicca is not an exact science; he fails to explain that it's not a willy-nilly free-for-all that you make up as you go along.
Is "Wicca" for Bunnies?
Criticism I Disagree With
Cunningham is accused of watering down Wicca to the point where it addresses life about as seriously as a Disney Channel series. Did he go a bit overboard in trying to make Wicca less threatening? Maybe so-- but that doesn't make his work any less relevant.
He was clearly trying to present Wicca in the most positive, friendly, non-threatening light possible. When he started penning Wicca, America was gripped by the "Satanic Ritual Abuse" mass hysteria. Wicca was one of the works that began to change that perception of Witches and Pagans.
To say he does not address the complexities of the worlds is unfair. He writes:
We acknowledge the dark aspects of the Goddess and the God as well as the bright. All nature is composed of opposites, and this polarity is also resident within ourselves. The darkest human traits as well as the brightest are locked within our unconsciousnesses [sic]. It is only our ability to rise above destructive urges, to channel such energies into positive thoughts and actions, that separates us from the mass murderers and the sociopaths (pg 17-18).
In passages like these, he does acknowledge the duality of dark and light. The overly-positive tone of Cunningham's book has been less relevant since the decline of the SRA scares, but he was able to gain Wicca's general acceptance in the mainstream.
Cunniham's Wicca is by no means a comprehensive guide. It's like Wicca's version of kindergarten. I wouldn't say it lacks depth, though. It's a very general introduction that tries to touch on the basics without overwhelming the reader.
His target audience was beginners at a time when resources were extremely scarce. The local book stores didn't have many books on the subject at all, and there were no books focused on solitaries. Covens were few and far between, and didn't advertise. There was no internet. Some people didn't know where to begin to look. Wicca made Wicca approachable for isolated newbies.
His guide fulfilled his goal: it painted Wicca in a positive light and was a user-friendly guide.
My Current Recommendation
Not to take away from Cunningham or his book, this is the book I normally recommend for beginners these days. Sabin's work is a little more detailed, she's free of the "Old Religion" delusions and is more accurate than Cunningham.
My Rating for "Wicca"
What's Your Rating?
Why I Still Recommend "Wicca"
I once considered Cunningham's book the best introduction to Wicca, but I now think there are better books with updated information. Some reasons I continue to admire Wicca, despite its obvious flaws, include:
- Cunningham's love for his religion shines through; there are some truly inspirational passages in there.
- The Standing Stones Book of Shadows section gives some beautiful invocations and simple rituals for solitaries
- Wicca does not focus on spells. It's focused on spirituality, and exploring your ethics, behavior, relationship with the world and deities through your spiritual world view
- It emphasizes duality, whereas a lot of books (especially at the time) have focused on the divine feminine
- Though it saccharine at times, I actually find the happy, positive tone refreshing.
Scott Cunningham passed on to the Summerlands in 1993, but his passion for his religion lives on in his work. His contribution has been invaluable in putting Wicca on the map. He introduced countless people to a path that they might have otherwise passed up. Whether one stayed on that path or not is irrelevant- we're all richer for the journey.
Learn More from Scott Cunningham
© 2014 Mackenzie Sage Wright