Last year, I read Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham. It’s a staple text that you will find in nearly every pagan book lover’s library. The edition I’m familiar with has an iconic green cover, boasting “over xxx,xxx copies sold!”, promising that it includes the author’s book of shadows. There is a small, woodcut illustration of a witchlet playing pipes in a circle of stones, surrounded by a bucolic English country garden. Simple, perennial appeal oozes from this small volume, first published in 1988.
Rereading this book was a task I was set as part of a seeker’s reading list I was given. I was prepared to not necessarily enjoy the read: my first go with this book was right at the start of my own seeker’s journey about 15 years ago. The book didn’t stay in my collection long, and at the time I didn’t get a lot out of it: the information felt rudimentary, Somehow even though my 22 year old self’s pagan reading history was short, I had already decided I knew everything, and this book didn’t offer me enough for it to stay on my shelves.
Every time I wrote a list for beginners, in my millenial-all-knowingness, this book didn’t make it. I didn’t like the term Wicca and I wriggled out of any definition that used the word – even though the coven I was in, was the very perfect distillation of solitary, eclectic Wicca in a coven format, borne out of books just like this one. This was probably my only real issue with the book – it just didn’t light a fire in me, it was a candle to be gently lit, and at the time, I wanted to shovel coal into my furnace and pour kerosene on it. Maybe I should have read it as a teen, when my high school friends were passing it around post The Craft viewing, but alas, I missed my Cunningham window.
Revisiting the Little Green Book
Fast forward to last year, and it was time to crack the little green book again. I got my own new copy as I felt a sense of loss for the one I sold on eBay in 2006 (ah, the heady days of buying and selling books on eBay!) and all the second-hand copies I found had suspicious stains on the hallowed pages.
I actually loved this book, the second time around. I felt a deep appreciation for what it was for it’s time, and I felt inspired to go outside, slip a moonstone under a basil bush, to stop and smell the roses and reconnect with the wonder and love for nature that this book encouraged. I felt a connection to the thousands of pagans who started their journey by reading this book, and gratitude for the legacy left by a prolific author who shared and inspired so many in his short life.
Yes, there are some caveats, and ones I didn’t spot before: the gender binary permeates the text, the amorphic ‘God’ and ‘Goddess’ loom large in the pages, each having dominion over certain herbs, colours, crystals and tools – gender essentialism at its finest, and one of the oft-stated problems people have with the Wiccan paradigm. The connections with shamanism are dubious, the historical references are loose and sketchy. But reading with this in mind – that it was written in the 1980s, smooths the experience. I am sure if Cunningham was alive today, his writing style would have evolved. Who wants to be held to something they wrote over 30 years ago? I cringe at things I wrote just 5 years ago. Cara (cutewitch772) published a great video on this very topic on Youtube recently, emphasising the importance of reading books in context. She gives some useful tips to readers, to allow them to make informed judgements when reading. Alas, Cunningham is no longer with us, to write appendices of updates, or to write newer books with evolved ideas on Wicca and Witchcraft for the new century.
That being said, while I now look at this book more fondly on the second go around, if I gave it to a beginner it would come with some disclaimers and discussion points. And a portion of salt for sprinkling. It sits, static and successful, and remains atop many recommendation lists. But would it gain a spot on mine? No.
It also made me consider the readings lists of elders, coven leaders, writers and others who have been on the path for decades, who have not updated their reading lists. Is all information eternal? There is so much being published today, it would be remiss to ignore everything published in the last ten years. Our own ideas and opinions change as well. My re-assessment of this book turned out to be a favourable one, but when was the last time you read everything on your recommended shelf? Does it stack up, still? Or is there some sneaky homophobia in there, some subtle racism, cultural appropriation, gender essentialism, or just advice about the Internet that is now sort of funny? Teachers should be responsible for the content they promote, and should consciously support authors who keep their praxis up to date with a belief system that is far from static. I’ve written lists of my own in the past, but I haven’t read some of those books in over ten years. It’s possible my opinion has changed, as my practice and reading experience has.
Witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism are spiritual movements and religions that are swiftly evolving. It is one of the things I love about it. Our shelves and lists should change accordingly. What’s on yours?
Paperback, 240 pages
Published September 8th 2002 by Llewellyn Publications (first published 1988).