Book reviews

I have been reading a ton lately. I have a few recommendations and one to avoid.

The first is Queen of the Night: The Celtic Moon Goddess in Our Lives by Sharynne MacLeod Nicmhacha. I thought this was an interesting book, well researched and good for those knowledgeable in the field, as well as novices, and suitable for Pagans or Celtophiles alike. The book is extensively footnoted and felt like something in between a master’s thesis and a doctoral dissertation. Don’t let that put you off! That’s a good thing. Nicmhacha has a strong grasp of her audience as well, so she creates multiple points of entry to the topic. Having said that, (spoiler alert) there’s not much in the way of a Celtic moon goddess. I wish the title had been something different. Recommended for those who love the Celtic world or want to learn more about Celtic goddess stuff and adding it to one’s life.

The next book I recommend is The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate. This book was not at all what I was expecting! I was expecting something more like a grimoire or a how-to book. Instead, we are given an overview of English (as opposed to Scottish, Welsh, Irish, etc) magic. I have heard a saying that Wicca is the only religion that England has ever given the world, but England has given us a complex tradition of magic beyond the richness of Wicca . This book was fun. It’s a great overview for some one who has a strong background in the area or a great introduction for the person who doesn’t know where to begin. Covering Druids, Anglo-Saxons, cunning folk, alchemy, Crowley and Wicca, using biography, interviews, and a few how-to’s, the reader gets a sense of the sweeping scope of magic in the English story and sees just how diverse is the magical world view. For those addicted to books, there are even short book lists of novels about each era and style of magic. I have added several of the recommendations to my own personal reading list.

The last book I want to review is Raven Grimassi’s latest book, Old World Witchcraft: Ancient Ways for Modern Days. I had not ever read any of Grimassi’s books before, but I had filed them away under fluff in my head. A few years ago I heard him speak at Pantheacon and I remember thinking he might be more interesting than I had previously given him credit. I had read a good review or two about this, his most recent book, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Oh my. It’s just awful.

A basic problem is weak writing, but that’s not what bothers me the most. His scholarship is weak to the point of embarrassing and then he goes and makes up a traditional witchcraft tradition (not a big deal if you consider it all made up anyway, but I don’t). Grimassi uses some standard texts on the subject, but his bibliography is far, far from exhaustive and not at all long enough to support 100 pages on the topic. He uses his chosen texts to explore the myth of the witch, pulling from the texts things that witches seem to have in common that might be true and looking at what is patently fiction. However, Grimassi seems to think that modern academics actually think that witches are just like what is described in medieval texts. I have taken a class, at the undergraduate level, on witchcraft in the Middle Ages, and I’ve done some research on the subject at the graduate level.* Never has it come up in class, discussion or in my reading that modern scholars actually assume that witches are now or were then what their accusers made them out to be. No one now assumes that medieval texts are accurate depictions of witchcraft. Since Grimassi footnotes nothing I cannot figure out which sources he takes issue with. What’s embarrassing is that he writes as if no one has ever considered these ideas before, that no one has questioned academic ideas of witchcraft before. If he’d done more and/or better research he’d find that nothing he says is new here, or all that accurate! That witches didn’t actually worship the Devil, that accusations of such were merely theological propaganda is not a new idea!

At one point Grimassi tells us of a new mural recently uncovered in Italy, depicting a tree with hanging penises and women dancing around the tree. The mural is dated from the 13th century and is considered to be the earliest depiction of witches. There is no Devil figure present so Grimassi has the audacity to suggest that “[t]his demonstrates that such concepts were not part of the depiction of the witches’ gathering during this period.” (pg. 39) You cannot make that claim based on one mural.

If I was grading the first two chapters of this book at an undergraduate level I would have to hand them back and tell him to rework them. The scholar in me was insulted by the first half of the book. For this alone I will avoid Grimassi in the future and steer people away from his work.**

The second complaint is that he has gone ahead and created Ash, Birch and Willow, a traditional witchcraft system. This isn’t offensive, but seems like a ridiculous idea given that there are many (I can name five off the top of my head) actually existing traditional witchcraft systems that have been around for more than a generation, several claiming roots back at least several generations. He never mentions these groups. Why in the world go and create another one? And why not discuss the currently existing groups? Leaving them out entirely hardly seems like a thorough discussion of the subject.

In summary, the first two books are recommended if they might hit your interests; the third book is to be avoided at all costs.

*I wrote an unpublished paper looking at accusations of witchcraft and homosexuality. Take-away knowledge: while most of those accused of being witches were also accused of homosexual acts, those who were brought up on charges of homosexual acts were not accused of witchcraft; the two were not conflated.

**I give Grimassi perhaps a fraction of a point for using one of my favorite obscure scholarly sources, Stephen Benko’s The Virgin Goddess: Studies in the Pagan and Christian Roots of Mariology. If some one wants to gift me with a copy of this work this holiday season, I would squeal with glee.

 

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About Niki Whiting
  • http://themagicalpomander.wordpress.com/ Ambrosius

    Greetings. I just found your blog via WP’s topic search thingy and found this so I figured I might comment. The first book I wasn’t aware of and the second has garnered great reviews by a lot of folks some of which I know are actually trustworthy (which means I may read it at some point). Regarding Grimassi, while I’ve always appreciated his enthusiasm his assumptions downright kill me at times and I’m not a scholar (although I am as critical as I can be and I do google). For instance (and I’m just citing something random of the several things that haven’t ‘clicked’ with me in his writings), in ‘Italian Witchcraft’ he basically says that folks like Aleister Crowley were drawing on Italian Witchcraft in their works. Also, in the same book he goes on about Diana, Aradia and whatnot then, in the pratice part of the book, he switches the tone completely and inserts Etruscan deities and such that weren’t highlighted much throughout the previous chapters. However, I’m not commenting just to bitch about Grimassi as I do think some gems can be found in his works the thing is these are usually neutralized when he follows up with spurious, oddly derived at conclusions. In any case, thanks for the book review. Blessings.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      Thank you for stopping by!

      I think I would appreciate Grimassi more if he wasn’t trying to be scholarly. Then, I might say his work isn’t for me, but at least he’s writing from a more honest place called his experience and what works for him.

  • http://western-hindu.org/ Tāṇḍava

    Namashkar,

    I just wanted to ask a couple of questions about something you said:

    His scholarship is weak to the point of embarrassing and then he goes and makes up a traditional witchcraft tradition (not a big deal if you consider it all made up anyway, but I don’t)

    Forgive me if my understanding is wrong, but isn’t a lot of all wiccan tradition of recent origin (recent meaning within the last century)? When I was asked why I was following Hinduism rather than the Celtic religion of Britain before Christianity my response was that we really have very little idea of the theology and that in following Hinduism I probably am following the pre-Christian theology of Britain as closely as those who follow Druidism. To me it seems that following these religions would be like trying to follow Hinduism from some archaeological finds, temple layouts and artefacts together with the lies that Christians publish about Hinduism. Pretty much all of the theology, philosophy, rituals, and meaning would either be distorted to the opposite of the original or lost.

    Also, what do you mean by “made up”. Someone might make up a religion for several reasons. There is the reason of personal advantage and manipulation – perhaps the origins of Scientology and Islam. These religions may be way off any real truth or insight, which is not to say that some later followers may find truth despite the teachings.

    There are people who make up religions as a story, part of a work of fiction. If the religion has any more than a superficial mention in the story it would have to follow one of the “real” reasons that someone would “make up” a religion, or it would have no depth.

    Then there are people who sincerely search within. Te see something holy in an old tradition, a place, or even a person. In this case I would say that everybody would have at least some true insight, through their ultimate connectedness to the divine. Most would also bring a lot of false assumptions, superstition and cultural baggage with them too. But if the tradition has a succession of holy people, then it will tend to bring out the true strands.

    I see it like this, a people who have been in a land for a short while will know the obviously dangerous plants and those that are good to eat. There may be some mistakes, they might think that something is bad because they fell ill after eating it, but it was just coincidence. People who’s ancestors have been in a land for thousands of years will know what is good, what is bad, and the medicinal properties of many plants, often showing scientists which plant remedies which sickness. The same is true of beliefs – a new belief can quite rapidly find truth as it is followed by more people and the meanings are explored.

    Aum

    • http://western-hindu.org/ Tāṇḍava

      Since I included a link to what evangelical Christians say about Hinduism I thought you might be interested in what they think about Wicca. Here is the poor little Witch and here is the even more bizarre Bewitched. You probably won’t know whether to laugh or cry. You’ll probably do one first then the other.

      I once had a very interesting online discussion with a Native American about the Hindu tract and crazy wolf” aimed at native Americans. He asked two very pertinent and insightful questions: “What do you think the purpose of these tracts?”, and “who is the intended audience?”. I won’t tell you what our answers are yet because I would be interested in what you think!

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

        I have no illusions about what many kinds of Christians think about Paganism and/or Wicca. I used to run in evangelical circles (which I’ll be writing about in the next quarter). I’ll be addressing your first post tomorrow, when I’ve had a night’s sleep – today was a rough parenting day! For the record, I do not practice Wicca. Wicca is it’s own thing and is not the same as Traditional Witchcraft or Feri. An indispensable book to read on the subject of modern neo-paganism and its history is Ronald Hutton’s ‘The Triumph of the Moon.’

        • http://western-hindu.org/ Tāṇḍava

          Thanks,

          I will add the book to my reading list. I don’t really understand the categories and beliefs within paganism so I think it will be useful.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      You are fair to call me out for saying that a tradition is ‘made up.’ A very strong argument can be made that every single religious tradition is made up at some level. What does ‘made up’ even mean? As I sit here and think of a definition, Grimassi’s Ash, Birch and Willow trad both falls into and out of those definitions. Again, for many people this is not a problem. My biggest issue with Grimassi and ABW is that in a book about ‘old ways’ and drawing on the ideas and background out of which Traditional Witchcraft comes, he never mentions pre-existing groups or their histories. I think it’s insulting and arrogant to ignore existing traditions and then create your own – in a book that is for sale. If he was sitting at home decided that ABW was what worked best for himself and his community that would suit me fine. But he is a known writer who supposedly comes from an Italian witchcraft family tradition, so why create another tradition? For profit, is all I can think.

      In fact, he declares Hermes the ‘Invisible God’ of witchcraft. Fine, but Hermes has been worshiped for centuries. He presents his information as if it’s all new, and it isn’t.

      As for the claim ‘isn’t it all made up?’ well….. no, not really. Wicca as we know it comes primarily from the works of Gerald Gardner published in the 1950s. But magic and aspects of witchcraft have existed since time immemorial. Wicca draws on Western magical traditions that existed before it, as well as on folk traditions that existed in Britain. Now, Traditional Witchcraft is not the same as Wicca. The ‘authenticity’ of both or either is constantly in question and they are probably similarly authentic (from what I’ve read). However, as practicing neo-paganism and/or witchcraft is now no longer illegal (but can be dangerous in many parts of the world) in most places and as it is more public, more people are finding it and practicing it which is causing the traditions to alter and ‘evolve.’ All religious and spiritual traditions evolve or else they are no longer living traditions, but stale, brittle archaic re-enactments that die out.

      I remember reading your ideas about Druidism. I’ve read scholarly arguments that Celtic spirituality is actually the remnants of Indo-aryan beliefs that morphed as the Celts migrated from the plains and valleys of South and Central Asia westward into Europe. Modern Druidry makes no claims to be EXACTLY what was practiced by the ancient Druids, instead it is a living tradition that has used the pieces to tap into a current and go forward in the modern world. I believe all reconstructionists worth their salt take this point of view. Learning about this evolution has helped me come to grips with my own syncretism, which….. could be argued is something ‘made up.’

  • http://www.ravengrimassi.net/ Raven Grimassi

    Thanks for sharing your impressions of my book. It is always interesting to discover how readers interpret what I write about. I am unhappy to learn that you felt insulted “as a scholar” by what I wrote. That certainly was not my intention. But I can appreciate that in general scholars are not going to be pleased with my views.

    Having read you review, there are a couple of things that I feel need correction. One of your complaints is along the line that I believe I am the first person to point out this or that in terms of the history of witchcraft (and associated comments about scholarship in this field). I am afraid you have assumed much here as I never state that any of my comments are new personal revelations or entirely new insights. Instead, I am simply addressing the topic of history and scholarly views. Some people will, of course, be previously aware of the things I address and others will not. Perhaps you read something written by the Publisher’s marketing folks; I don’t know.

    Another needed correction is your depiction of me thinking that scholars believed that the type of witches described in medieval texts actually existed. I don’t believe that, but instead was simply pointing out that scholars rely up such writings when they write on the “history of witchcraft” (and of course this leads many laypeople to believe that witches were like this in days of old). The main reason I addressed the issue was to point out that the official history of witchcraft is not an authentic ethnographic study of a people known to be witches. My conclusion, based upon that view, is that a true and documented history does not exist. We have, instead, a history of the views of non-witches being presented as the history of the beliefs and practices of witches and their ways. I find it odd that scholars don’t believe the old accounts to be factual and yet define it all as being the “history” of witchcraft.

    You seem to be very uncomfortable with my ABW system, and ever go so far as to suggest that it’s a money-making scheme. The truth is that it is a system that holds great meaning and significance to me as a spiritual and magical path. You seem to be unaware that authors of the witchcraft genre make very little money off their books, particularly in this current economy. Truth is that I would make more money flipping burgers at a Fast Food place than I do writing about my passion. ABW is the system that I now practice and teach, and it’s not an Italian branch.

    I note that you also complain about what I didn’t write about in the book. You may or may not be aware that when a book is contracted that the work calls for a word count (given before the book is actually written). Publishers take word count seriously because it results in page counts, from which the Publisher creates a budget for producing the book and seeks out a printing house. Therefore, authors are typically constrained by the estimated word count they provided. When an author gets into the actual writing, there are many things that simply won’t fit into the space called for in the contractual commitment. Granted, some wiggle room exists, but not all that much.

    In the case of not discussing other traditions, as I note in the Preface and Introduction, my book is about the ways and beliefs of people who practice the specific system I present. So, I tried to keep that focus. It was a practical approach versus an exclusionary one.

    My last comment is that you seem to be trying to hold my book up to academic standards when it’s not a book published by an academic press. Such a position can only lead to misunderstanding the work, both in detail and as whole.

    In closing, I found your review of my book both odd and entertaining, which was fun – so thanks!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      Hello there, Mr. Grimassi. Thank you for taking the time to respond.

      I am sure you didn’t mean to be insulting to scholars. I didn’t get any of that tone in your writing, but the first half of the book is intended to engage with the scholarship on witchcraft and its history, is it not? In which case, that part of your book is deeply problematic for the simple reason that you do not cite your sources. You make claims about authors and texts and do not back up your own argument with examples. Even with a general audience in mind, if you are discussing scholarship and attempting to dialog with those ideas you, by that very act, are engaging in scholarship. It really doesn’t matter that you weren’t published by an academic press, and I approached the book with an appropriate expectation noting that it wasn’t.

      Scholars look to the old accounts of witchcraft and include them in the history of the Craft, not because they believe those ‘confessions’ are accurate but because they are some of the only documents mentioning it. How something is perceived by its enemies is part of its history, particularly when that perception led to stakes and flames.

      The above is my major criticism of your writing. Something positive I didn’t write in my review above is that you write with a lot of ease. There is a confidence and comfort in your writing that only comes from much practice. I know you have published many books, and it is clear that you write often and thoughtfully. I hope to someday be as comfortable in the written word as you are.

      As for your ABW system, I have no problem with your creation of it or its existence. Magic is what works (well, that’s one thing magic is). If this system that you created is what connects you to the Divine and the gods, I truly think that is fab. In fact, double plus bonus points for not taking something that might not fit, but in seeking out your own path. This entire blog of mine is an attempt to do something similar!

      Unfortunately, the book blurb on the back (not your fault, I realize) and things you wrote in the preface and introduction suggested to me that you were going to talk about traditional witchcraft in a more general way, weaving in your own practice for context, not only present your own system. I’m sorry I don’t have the book on hand to cite. I recently moved continents and got rid of half of my books in order to do so, Old World Witchcraft being one of those.

      I never ever suggested that your practice or system was merely a money-making venture. I think you are projecting other people’s issues with ‘public Paganism’ on me, because while I may be skeptical, I fully support people making money following their passion and I think there is a place for public books and teaching. I am very aware of the monetary limitations of your chosen career, having several friends among the profession (Craft teachers and authors) and in the book business.

      I’m relieved that you found my review odd and fun. Thank you writing in, that we could discuss this further.

      • http://www.ravengrimassi.net/ Raven Grimassi

        Thanks for the kind reply. I am a bit puzzled that you say I don’t cite my sources. There are four full pages that are the end notes containing references, source material and citations. I’m guessing that perhaps you felt other things required citing that I felt were common knowledge and therefore did not cite, but again, that’s a guess on my part.

        I am also puzzled about your complaint that my book fails to place ABW in the context of Traditional Witchcraft. In my book I do not claim that ABW is traditional witchcraft, and in fact in the Introduction I write:

        “The primary goal of this book is to share the beliefs and practices of Old World witchcraft. I intentionally avoid calling this form “traditional witchcraft,” even though much may be shared in common”

        I’m curious, did you read the Preface and the Introduction? Not doing so leaves the book ripe for misunderstanding.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

          I absolutely read the preface and introduction! And I read the references too. That is how I noticed you’d read Benko’s work. I maintain my issues with citing. Perhaps I should be annoyed at your editor and not at you. If you don’t know how to cite things in a scholarly discussion, well…. how are you to know if no one tells you? I realize that comment could be construed as very condescending, but I am aware of the beneficial and also detrimental work an editor can do to publications.

          As for ABW, I guess I am not clear on the difference between Old World craft and Traditional craft. I wish I had your book now, so that I could double check if I missed that part. Would you mind explaining the difference to me?

          • http://www.ravengrimassi.net/ Raven Grimassi

            I think that part of the problem is that you’re trying to force an academic performance out of a book not written for an academic audience nor produced by an academic press. That doesn’t strike me as a productive approach.

            Since you don’t have a copy of the book available, I am happy to go back over the difference between Traditional Witchcraft and Old World Witchcraft (the latter being the theme of my book).

            As I point out in the book, Old World Witchcraft is not about a region, it’s about the mindset of practitioners who embrace the “enchanted world view” of the ancestors. The book is not about a tradition, but is instead about a modern system rooted in pre-Christian (and non-Christian) beliefs and practices. One reviewer stated that my book “paganizes” witchcraft, which I thought was an interesting conclusion.

            Here’s something from my Introduction in the book:

            “The primary goal of this book is to share the beliefs and practices of Old World witchcraft. I intentionally avoid calling this form “traditional witchcraft,” even though much may be shared in common. Many people view traditional witchcraft as something pertaining to the British Isles, or so it seems from viewing Internet websites and forums. Others define it as having roots in the lore of Lilith, Cain, and Lucifer. With the exception of Lucifer (as a Roman god) these roots are not native to Europe. The Lucifer who appears in traditional witchcraft systems is a very different entity from the one originating in southern Europe. Later in the book we will look at the blending of witchcraft with Lucifer as viewed in certain systems”

            “The Old World witchcraft that I present in this book embraces pre-Christian European themes and does not knowingly incorporate imported beliefs from the general Middle East region. I am not, however, claiming that the system in this book is a surviving tradition from ancient times. I am also not stating that in the past this system was whole and complete in the manner depicted in this book. I simply wish to share a system I know to exist today whose practitioners believe is rooted in very old forms of European witchcraft practices and beliefs”

            Because there are some strongly defined elements of Traditional Witchcraft (whether valid or not) I didn’t want to confuse the reader by inserting Old World Witchcraft systems (such ABW) into it all and try to take a place there. I felt I went to great pains to make it clear that what I discuss in the book is similar in various ways to Traditional Witchcraft but is not called by that label.

            Old World Witchcraft is about viewing the witch as a mystic involved with plants and their attendant spirits. The book works with ideas of a spiritual relationship with specific traditional plants of witchcraft as well the witch possessing knowledge of plant properties. What I present in the book is a primal view of a witchcraft practice, one rooted in archaic ideas. It’s not about contemporary views of Traditional Witchcraft, and throughout the book I strive to separate my material from it. I see Old World Witchcraft as “ever ancient and ever new” – not in terms of lineage or longevity – but in terms of the enchanted world view.

            I hope this was helpful in clarifying my position.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

            Thank you for the clarification. I may well have not read closely enough about ABW to appreciate what you were/are doing with it. However, I don’t think that saying Old World Witchcraft isn’t a scholarly book exempts it from the problems that myself and others have with it. Whether or not you are engaging with academic ideas or texts, if you are using other ideas and books as points of reference in your arguments you *need* to cite them. That doesn’t have to be with footnotes or end-notes, but the reader needs to be able to tell where that information is coming from and which ideas you are specifically engaging in. Again, perhaps this is a huge editorial oversight.

          • http://www.ravengrimassi.net/ Raven Grimassi

            Thanks for the reply, and again, I did cite my source material and references both in end notes and throughout the chapters themselves, where I inserted them in the text. While there may not have been enough to satisfy you, the citations are not absent. You seem to want to leave the impression they are, which is not factual. In the end-notes alone there are 48 book titles referenced as source material. That’s not including the literary references appearing by themselves in the chapter material. I’m curious, did you just skim read the book? I ask because you don’t really seem all that familiar with its content.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

            I read your book. I read the preface, the intro, everything. I’m the type of person who reads foot/end notes. There is a difference between a bibliography and adequately citing your sources and using them in a polished argument. You and your editors may have thought it was well done through out the first half of the book, but I disagree. Perhaps the average reader won’t notice and doesn’t care, but I have actually read many of the sources you list. I maintain what I said in my review: that if this was given to me to grade as an undergraduate paper I would have to send it back for revision.

            I admit I didn’t spend as much time pondering the second half of the book, because it wasn’t my cup of tea and I realized you were discussing your own personal system.

          • http://www.ravengrimassi.net/ Raven Grimassi

            Thanks for the reply. Glad to hear you’re not one of those who skim reads and then writes a review. Skim reading, by its very nature, misses more than it gets.

            I am pleased with the 48 academic sources I cite in the end notes and the numerous other sources that I cite and reference throughout the book. My editor caught several that I originally neglected, and I feel she did a fine job.

            I believe that you are correct that the average reader isn’t going to notice what you address, nor see it as a flaw, The book is being well received and the majority of reviews have been quite positive. I’ve had the unique opportunity to have some free time to chat with some of the reviewers, which is not the norm, unfortunately.

            It’s been a pleasure having this discussion with you.

            With all good wishes – Raven Grimassi

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      Ah, just reading through the comment list here and I see my comment suggesting for profit. Hm. I wonder what bee was in my bonnet that day, because as I look back now, that’s not the impression that I got over all.

      However, my criticism that your book doesn’t place your ABW in the context of Traditional Witchcraft at all still holds. I think that the book purported to discuss the greater whole more than it did and since it is a book for profit, I might have thought that you were putting your system out there as more definitive than it means to be.

      • http://www.ravengrimassi.net/ Raven Grimassi

        Well, I think you were just feeling annoyed with my book and took a shot at me. We all get snarky from time to time. No worries. :-)

        I’m not sure why you chose the word “purported” as it suggests an intentional false action on my part. My intent was to talk about Old Word Witchcraft and the beliefs and practices of this particular system. I feel I held true to that goal.


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