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Author Topic: Scott Cunningham  (Read 6399 times)

Nyktelios

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Scott Cunningham
« on: November 22, 2014, 12:37:59 pm »
He was, and remains to be, a perennially popular author on the subject of solitary Wicca and folk magic. I myself started with his book, Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. While I found it very inspiring and easy for a beginner to understand, I came to realize that it was very different from more traditional forms of Wicca.

While I wouldn't put him on the same level as fluffy authors like Gerina Dunwich, Patricia Telesco, and DJ Conway, he did write in a way that whitewashed Wicca and made it politically correct, rejecting the word "witch" and advancing Wicca as a religion of love and light. That said, he also captured the beauty of it, as well as integrating its shamanistic and magical characteristics into the more devotional religious aspects that not many authors and teachers are able to do.

The problem is that Wicca in his books, and those of similar authors influenced him such as Silver Ravenwolf, just seems rather generic. He also really emphasized the "harm none" rede, which is problematic for some people, and I have heard from BTW traditionalists that it was not originally part of Wicca, and is still not a significant aspect of traditional Wicca, as it is a pretty vague and unrealistic guideline.

What are your thoughts on Cunningham's books?

Redfaery

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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #1 on: November 22, 2014, 02:18:46 pm »
Quote from: Nyktelios;165883
What are your thoughts on Cunningham's books?

 
I think it's a little unfair to attack Cunningham for stuff written decades ago, because...well, he's dead. Other authors have been given the chance to evolve and write better stuff. He wasn't. Also - Silver Ravenwolf wasn't an influence on him. She was a ripoff of him. I can't describe Cunningham as a fluff bunny, because basically he was just writing about his own personal practices. From what I've heard, he really was that nice of a guy! It's just that other authors grabbed his stuff and took it in directions he probably never would have approved of and since he's well...DEAD...he's never been able to respond to the excesses inspired by his work.
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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #2 on: November 22, 2014, 03:45:32 pm »
Quote from: Redfaery;165884
I think it's a little unfair to attack Cunningham for stuff written decades ago



basically he was just writing about his own personal practices.


Both of these things are worth considering. I recently reread Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, and one thing that struck me was how down-to-earth it was about being a starting point or example of how to practice, and stating multiple times that it should not be taken as the One True Book.

The other thing is that it was very clearly written Before Internet. It's easy to underestimate the effect that the Internet as a research resource has had on nonfiction writing, and judge the content of older works as if they had been written with today's availability of information. (When this book was published, my local public library still used a card catalog. With actual paper cards.) Thus, I wouldn't be too hard on Cunningham for insufficient research or inconsistent facts.

True, the Pagan community has changed a lot since Cunningham's book was published -- in no small part because that book was published and was so popular. If his work seems simplistic, it's probably because many people have been discussing and expanding on his work for nearly 30 years.

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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #3 on: November 22, 2014, 03:52:14 pm »
Quote from: Nyktelios;165883

What are your thoughts on Cunningham's books?

 
Cunningham's books reflect a very specific time and place in the development of Wicca--1970s-80s USA. There was widespread frustration, especially in North America, with the British Traditional initiatory coven-based model; it didn't suit the North American situation, and especially once religious witchcraft became allied in the 1970s with the feminist spirituality and environmentalist movements. This form of Wicca eventually evolved into what can be called Eclectic Neo-Wicca, and Cunningham was one of its major writers. (Another was Starhawk, who was not technically Wiccan; she trained in Feri under the Andersons. But her work became super-influential in the development of religious witchcraft in the US. Darkhawk can talk more extensively about Feri in relation to the Neo-Pagan movement.)

The whole "Wicca/witch" thing: British Traditionalists have only themselves to blame, by attempting to restrict the usage of "witch" to their own specific groups/practices. People who wanted to practice religious witchcraft outside of the British Traditional model were getting yelled at for using "witch" to describe themselves, so "Wicca" became the alternative term. Sunflower has a lot of good info on this topic. (Also, "politically correct": not a good or useful term for anything, unless you WANT to convey "waaaaaaaaaaah someone said my words were problematic HOW DARE THEY.")

Cunningham's books were very, very much of his time: they have some seriously dodgy history. But that was not at all unusual among ANY Wiccan/Neo-Pagan writers of the period; the scholarly debunking of the Murray/Frazer "pagan survivals" thesis had not made any waves outside of academic circles--it's rather unfair to expect a non-academic writer like Cunningham to be completely up-to-date on complex scholarly discussions. ("The Frazer/Murray thesis is WRONG" wouldn't become common knowledge until I'd say the 1990s among scholars in fields outside of folklore/early modern history, and wouldn't really enter popular consciousness until the late 1990s/early 2000s.)

From a folklore perspective, his encyclopedias (herbs, stones, incense, etc.) are good compendiums of known legends and beliefs. I've cross-checked multiple entries of his with reputable scholarly sources on plant and stone lore, and his work is consistent and coherent. I always advise people to use up-to-date medical info, but as easy-to-use collections of folklore? They're perfectly decent. He sometimes filters his stuff through the Frazer/Murray lens, but that's easy to spot and ignore.

In short, Cunningham is, to my mind, at worst pretty innocuous. Bad history is the major thing, but that isn't really his fault. And his folklore research is solid.

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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #4 on: November 22, 2014, 04:31:58 pm »
Quote from: catja6;165892
The whole "Wicca/witch" thing: British Traditionalists have only themselves to blame, by attempting to restrict the usage of "witch" to their own specific groups/practices. People who wanted to practice religious witchcraft outside of the British Traditional model were getting yelled at for using "witch" to describe themselves, so "Wicca" became the alternative term. Sunflower has a lot of good info on this topic. (Also, "politically correct": not a good or useful term for anything, unless you WANT to convey "waaaaaaaaaaah someone said my words were problematic HOW DARE THEY.")

 
Yes indeed - the, 'because people react badly to "witch", and this sounds better,' thing was a later development. Most of those of us who first self-described as 'Eclectic Wiccan' weren't doing it to avoid shocking our parents or neighbors; we were doing it because we wanted to get on with being witches, by whatever name, instead of becoming embroiled in the Witch Wars.

That said, Cunningham did express a strong preference for 'Wicca', based on his own discomfort with 'witch' (not on social acceptability) - I strongly suspect his stance on this, expressed fairly clearly in Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, was a major influence on those who came along later and preferred 'Wiccan'; by that time, the Witch Wars were several years in the past and newcomers were only dimly aware of the internecine conflicts. Ironically, Cunningham's preference likely had little to do with fending off accusations of 'not a REAL witch'; he was an initiate in the Majestic Order of Central Valley Wicca, a BTW tradition. (While CVW's status was a point of conflict in the Witch Wars, that was about the tradition, not about individual initiates.)

I agree that 'politically correct' is not a very useful term here; it is semantically inaccurate, and has far too much baggage that's not at all relevant here. 'Socially acceptable' is, IMO, a much more relevant and accurate description. (If it weren't for that other baggage, I'd consider it a fairly accurate descriptive term in context of the internal politics of Pagandom during the Witch Wars, though.)

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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #5 on: November 22, 2014, 06:41:58 pm »
Quote from: Nyktelios;165883
He was, and remains to be, a perennially popular author on the subject of solitary Wicca and folk magic. I myself started with his book, Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. While I found it very inspiring and easy for a beginner to understand, I came to realize that it was very different from more traditional forms of Wicca.

While I wouldn't put him on the same level as fluffy authors like Gerina Dunwich, Patricia Telesco, and DJ Conway, he did write in a way that whitewashed Wicca and made it politically correct, rejecting the word "witch" and advancing Wicca as a religion of love and light. That said, he also captured the beauty of it, as well as integrating its shamanistic and magical characteristics into the more devotional religious aspects that not many authors and teachers are able to do.

The problem is that Wicca in his books, and those of similar authors influenced him such as Silver Ravenwolf, just seems rather generic. He also really emphasized the "harm none" rede, which is problematic for some people, and I have heard from BTW traditionalists that it was not originally part of Wicca, and is still not a significant aspect of traditional Wicca, as it is a pretty vague and unrealistic guideline.

What are your thoughts on Cunningham's books?

I think that his books were very much a product of the times, or perhaps were popular because of what the world was like at the time.

My first Wicca book was Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft - I picked up some of Cunnungham's work a bit later on, although for some reason I never bought Solitary Practitioner. (Probably financial reasons - I was a teenager.) But I am familiar with him, and also with the books of Conway, Ravenwolf, and other 'fluffier' authors.

Google informs me that Practitioner, arguably the most popular of his books, was published in 1988. I got into witchcraft in the 90s during the Neo-Wica boom, which is obviously also when there were a ton of books out, most of which emphasized 'harm none' and how every goddess is awesome and full of light and all the other things we now look back at and raise our eyebrows at. Considering the time period, I think one factor that might have played into the emphasis on the word 'Wiccan' and the we're-not-dangerous vibe was that we'd seriously just started getting past the Satanic Panic.

1988 was the year of the infamous Geraldo special on Satanism, many of the charges made in the McMartin preschool trials were dropped only two years later, and Judas Priest was being accused of Satanic backwards masking. The sixties may have been a time when embracing nature and other belief systems was de rigueur, but by the time the 80s rolled around the culture had shifted quite a bit. In that environment, I think a lot of pagans were eager to distance themselves from things that might actually get them into real life trouble.

Obviously I have no idea if these were conscious concerns for Cunningham, and I think that others have covered the BTW background issues, but I honestly do think that the way he presented some of his material was influenced by what was going on in the world at that time.
« Last Edit: November 22, 2014, 06:42:21 pm by Emma Eldritch »

Nyktelios

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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #6 on: November 22, 2014, 10:39:50 pm »
Quote from: Redfaery;165884
I think it's a little unfair to attack Cunningham for stuff written decades ago, because...well, he's dead.


Well, yeah, but just because an author is dead doesn't mean their work is above criticism, especially if their books are still widely consumed. I like his books, I'm a fan, but it's still interesting to discuss what is good about his work and what is not so helpful.

Quote from: Redfaery;165884
Other authors have been given the chance to evolve and write better stuff. He wasn't. Also - Silver Ravenwolf wasn't an influence on him. She was a ripoff of him.


Oops, I meant she was influenced BY him, not that she influenced him. My bad.

Quote from: catja6;165892
Cunningham's books reflect a very specific time and place in the development of Wicca--1970s-80s USA. There was widespread frustration, especially in North America, with the British Traditional initiatory coven-based model; it didn't suit the North American situation, and especially once religious witchcraft became allied in the 1970s with the feminist spirituality and environmentalist movements. This form of Wicca eventually evolved into what can be called Eclectic Neo-Wicca, and Cunningham was one of its major writers. (Another was Starhawk, who was not technically Wiccan; she trained in Feri under the Andersons. But her work became super-influential in the development of religious witchcraft in the US. Darkhawk can talk more extensively about Feri in relation to the Neo-Pagan movement.)

...

In short, Cunningham is, to my mind, at worst pretty innocuous. Bad history is the major thing, but that isn't really his fault. And his folklore research is solid.

 
That's really interesting about the pagan situation in North America back then. In that context I can better understand certain things about his books, although for isolated teenagers now (and a decade ago when I was in that situation), the coven-model can be still be a problem, and it's nice to have a user-friendly system available to them.

As far as history goes, one of the things I like about his books is that he doesn't really mention witch trials and persecution by the evil patriarchal Christians very much. I remember in one of his books it says something about how Wicca is spiritually descended from shamanistic practices which pre-date organized religion, and that the antiquity of Wicca is a subject of debate, but that's about it. I don't think there is anything that controversial about either point.

I just find his books to be rather different than the Wicca described by more traditionalist authors like Doreen Valiente, the Farrars, and Gardner himself, though not necessarily in a bad way. Like I said, he's not on the same level as DJ Conway or Ravenwolf in terms of fluff, he just describes a Wicca that is less specific in terms of tradition, and more generic and "do whatever you feel like" when it comes to practice.

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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #7 on: November 22, 2014, 11:08:13 pm »
Quote from: Nyktelios;165949
I just find his books to be rather different than the Wicca described by more traditionalist authors like Doreen Valiente, the Farrars, and Gardner himself, though not necessarily in a bad way.


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Redfaery

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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #8 on: November 23, 2014, 11:08:57 am »
Quote from: Nyktelios;165949
Well, yeah, but just because an author is dead doesn't mean their work is above criticism, especially if their books are still widely consumed. I like his books, I'm a fan, but it's still interesting to discuss what is good about his work and what is not so helpful.

 
It's not that because he's dead, he's above criticism. It's about the much more practical fact that he died more than twenty years ago. He died in 1993. Silver RavenWolf's career took off five years after he was dead. "Teen Witch" was published in 1998. "To Light a Sacred Flame" and "To Ride a Silver Broomstick were both published in 2002. That's NINE YEARS after Cunningham died.

The Internet wasn't really around when Cunningham wrote his books. It still wasn't really around by the time he died. He was writing in the 1980s and 1990s, when there genuinely was a problem finding information on Wicca. He was writing for people who couldn't go on WitchVox and look up covens. You couldn't go on Amazon and buy Big Blue or The Witches' Bible. There was a dearth of resources when he wrote his book. There was still a dearth of resources at the time he died. His entire world, and thus all of his writings, reflect the fact that he's writing for a situation that no longer exists.

And he died before that situation changed. Thus, unlike other authors such as Raymond Buckland, he hasn't been able to issue new works to suit the Internet Age. He can't update his old works. And most of all, he can't defend the way his ideas have been appropriated by people like SRW.
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Melamphoros

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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #9 on: November 23, 2014, 04:40:21 pm »
Quote from: Redfaery;165971

His entire world, and thus all of his writings, reflect the fact that he's writing for a situation that no longer exists.

And he died before that situation changed. Thus, unlike other authors such as Raymond Buckland, he hasn't been able to issue new works to suit the Internet Age. He can't update his old works. And most of all, he can't defend the way his ideas have been appropriated by people like SRW.

 
This sort of begs the question:  Is A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner still relevant when there are much better beginner's resources available?


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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #10 on: November 23, 2014, 04:42:05 pm »
Quote from: Melamphoros;165981
This sort of begs the question:  Is A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner still relevant when there are much better beginner's resources available?

 
ISTR that Jenett has a potted rant of "It's useful as historical information once you already know things but for an actual practical beginning foundation you want to read X, Y, Z instead."
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Redfaery

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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #11 on: November 23, 2014, 04:45:21 pm »
Quote from: Melamphoros;165981
This sort of begs the question:  Is A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner still relevant when there are much better beginner's resources available?
It's certainly not nearly as *useful* anymore. But relevant? Of course it is. All the stuff written by Valiente, Buckland, the Farrars, and of course...Gardner himself is all *relevant.* Cunningham is of major importance to understand the evolution of Wicca. He's part of its history.
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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #12 on: November 23, 2014, 04:51:14 pm »
Quote from: Darkhawk;165982
ISTR that Jenett has a potted rant of "It's useful as historical information once you already know things but for an actual practical beginning foundation you want to read X, Y, Z instead."

 
The longer potted rant is at http://gleewood.org/seeking/suggested-reading/classic-pagan-books/

The shorter version is: "I think that it's useful for anyone who is interested in knowing the history of the community to read or people where knowing the history/common public entry points is necessary [see note], but I don't recommend it as a starting point (because yes, we have better options now for a variety of reasons the above essay goes into) and I think it makes the most sense to read it with some context, so that you have some idea what's changed and what hasn't."

Note: I believe there are some people who have a responsibility to be reasonably well-versed in common entry points in their respective community: these include people teaching intro-level material in public or semi-public settings, people doing substantial planning (larger than the content of a single workshop) for public or semi-public events, and anyone who is working on material that talks about the relevant historical context.

Basically, a 'if you're going to run into people who have one of the common entry points, it's handy to have some familiarity with them and to have some idea which complicated conversations you are opening yourself up to if you make certain planning decisions.'

But for most people, it's way down on my list of "You must read this soon!"
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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #13 on: November 23, 2014, 06:10:52 pm »
Quote from: Redfaery;165971
Silver RavenWolf's career took off five years after he was dead. "Teen Witch" was published in 1998. "To Light a Sacred Flame" and "To Ride a Silver Broomstick were both published in 2002. That's NINE YEARS after Cunningham died.


Nitpick (but worth picking because these dates are significant to that portion of the case you're making): the original publication date of Broomstick was 1993. AFAIK this was RavenWolf's first, and a roaring instant success. The 2002 date will be for a republication - as, I think, is the case with Sacred Flame as well (I don't own a copy of that, so I can't check directly). The 1998 date for Teen Witch is probably accurate. (I'm guessing you got these dates from Wikipedia, which is ordinarily quite good at citing actual date of copyright/original publication, rather than later editions, and had no reason to realize that, in this instance, that wasn't the case.)

Quote
The Internet wasn't really around when Cunningham wrote his books. It still wasn't really around by the time he died. He was writing in the 1980s and 1990s, when there genuinely was a problem finding information on Wicca. He was writing for people who couldn't go on WitchVox and look up covens. You couldn't go on Amazon and buy Big Blue or The Witches' Bible. There was a dearth of resources when he wrote his book. There was still a dearth of resources at the time he died. His entire world, and thus all of his writings, reflect the fact that he's writing for a situation that no longer exists.


Your final conclusion is accurate, but your details are way off. The Internet most certainly was around, and was a major promulgation point for pagan info (the Web didn't come along until the '90s, but the WWW is not the Internet), as were dial-up BBSes. There were also many hardcopy 'zines and newsletters, and quite a lot of books. One couldn't go from casual curiosity to declaring oneself a witch in an hour, true; one had to actually be interested enough to seek out information - but there was not a dearth of resources.

And by the time Cunningham died, the Pop Pagan Book Boom, in which the available resources increased exponentially (in quantity; not so much in quality), had already been under way for a few years.

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Re: Scott Cunningham
« Reply #14 on: November 23, 2014, 06:41:22 pm »
Quote from: SunflowerP;165991
Your final conclusion is accurate, but your details are way off.

Thanks a bunch for the corrections. I'm trying my best to learn about the history of Wicca and the various NeoPagan movements in general just because...well, I think that's important stuff for me to know. Slightly offtopic: Do you have any resources you'd recommend?
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