This slim volume (running one hundred and thirty four pages, including the index and extra materials) is a challenging read and not one I would recommend to beginners. The subtitle “Wise Words from a Crone on the Path,” implies it is an exploration of the deeper meaning of Wiccan practice and philosophy from one who is an Elder of the religion. Despite the author’s years of training and experience as a high priestess, the book has a number of major flaws which are difficult to overlook and could be confusing to a novice.
Ellen Cannon Reed has been a visible member of the Wiccan community for years. She has been a practicing Wiccan since 1975, and was the high priestess of the Sothistar coven in California. She is the author of “The Witches Qabala” (Weiser: 1997), “Invocation of the Gods” (Llewellyn: 1992), and “The Witches Tarot” (Llewellyn: 1989). Her tarot deck is probably the best known of her works; it has become a modern standard commonly found among Wiccan working tools. She passed away in 2003.
“The Heart of Wicca” includes chapters explaining in some detail Ellen Cannon Reed’s personal understanding of the following:
- What Is Wicca?
- Covens and Coven Leadership
- Training and Study
- The Sabbats
- The Rede, Karma, and the Law of Three
- Your Own Quest
There are a few bits of extra material at the end, including a message to those who choose to follow the author’s path, along with a list of unfortunately out-of-date internet links, a recommended reading list, index, and brief author bio.
The book starts off with a litany of gripes about how others interpret and practice Wicca, while claiming that her Wicca, which she describes as being “traditional Wicca,” is not at all like those she decries. For instance, she dismisses people who choose to perform their rituals using clearly modern mythical systems. She objects to the philosophical perspective that goddesses and gods are aspects or facets of a universal goddess or god, or elements of an all-encompassing divine force that is beyond human understanding in its totality. She questions whether one can be Wiccan if one doesn’t also practice magick. And she objects to the idea that you can honor the Lord and Lady if you don’t perform specific rituals such as casting a circle.
The author defines her tradition, which she calls “traditional Wicca,” as an initiatory Mystery religion. She says that this is very distinct from the social, political, or support types of groups which also claim to be Wiccan, implying that they do not deserve the right to call themselves Wiccan. She says in her introduction, on page ix:
“We are few, and have looked about us in dismay, realizing that other kinds of covens have proliferated… and that most newcomers to the Craft are not aware that our type of tradition exists.”
Immediately after the introduction the author explores the concept of “tradition,” defining it as “a specific way of doing things within our group” (page 17.) She makes it clear that her coven, and another coven she feels represents “traditional Wicca” best, are not consensus covens but follow a strict degree structure with High Priestess leading. She states that people she considers “traditional Wicca” are all “firm believers in the value of tradition.” Yet by her own definition, people who practice Wicca using modern mythology systems are traditions as valid as hers despite her claims otherwise – they are, after all, doing things a specific way within their own group. It might not be the same way that her group practices, but it is a system they have worked out and are following within their practice. The author can’t really claim that her specific coven’s way of doing things is the only “traditional” way, either, since she freely admits the other coven she holds up as an example of a “traditional” coven, the Coven Ashesh-Hecat, does not follow the same tradition as hers. Her definition of “tradition” is so broad that it easily includes anyone who wants to call themselves Wiccan, despite the author’s attempts to assert that there are many Wiccans who are not traditional, or are not following a tradition.
Ellen Cannon Reed states that neither of the covens she holds up as exemplars of “traditional Wicca” are either Gardnerian or Alexandrian (page 17). She also acknowledges that it is perfectly normal for Wiccans to create, add, and evolve bits and pieces of their practice over time. No Wiccan group can honestly claim to have a tradition which has been passed down to them in an unbroken line from pre-Christian times. Yet in her introduction to the book the author talks about “gritting her teeth” in frustration when she hears about other Wiccans who choose to create their own new traditions using modern myths which speak to them.
The topic of initiation is the other key element at the core of her frustration with Wiccans she tries to dismiss. The chapter on initiation describes the two forms that it takes: “small I initiation” which is a ritual of acceptance into a group, and “big I initiation” which is a personal experience involving a life-changing step in the spiritual maturation process. While other Wiccans perform the “small I initiation,” only a goddess or god can perform the “big I initiation.”
The author’s hang-up regarding initiation centers on the fact that she feels that to be Wiccan, you must have undergone a “big I initiation.” You must have achieved a minimal level of spiritual maturity, have undergone a life-changing spiritual experience, in order to call yourself a follower of Wicca. She feels that any Wiccan groups which are not made up of Initiates (the title she chooses to use to identify those who have experienced a “big I initiation”) are not really Wiccan. This narrow viewpoint is one which I’m afraid is one which the author must re-examine. There are a number of reasons for this.
Many people come to the Wiccan religion as the result of personal searching and examination of personal philosophy. Wicca is not a proselytizing faith – followers are not encouraged to actively recruit others. Choosing to self-identify as Wiccan is rarely a whim – and for those whom it might be a fashion or political statement, Wiccan involvement is usually brief as they realize it is a faith that requires individual work. Wicca is a personal faith, not an institutional one. Answers are not prepackaged for acceptance by the faithful, but something that each of us work out for ourselves. It could be said that each person who chooses to call themselves “Wiccan” has in fact received a “big I initiation” in order to have the courage to come out of the broom closet to themselves as Wiccan.
An analogy can be drawn from the gay/lesbian/bisexual community. When someone comes to the realization that their sexual orientation is not strictly heterosexual, they can honestly say that they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual regardless whether they are celibate or not, whether they are “out” to others or not. That “coming out of the closet” to one’s self is the equivalent of a “big I initiation,” as it is a significant step in one’s path through life. People who realize that they feel most aligned with Wicca, and who choose to follow this path, have indeed been touched by the divine. They have searched their hearts, and have uncovered a part of themselves that they might not have paid attention to before.
Wicca as a religion is also more than just a small sect of dedicated mystics, in the same way that in the Roman Catholic faith, all followers are not expected to be nuns or monks. Within Wicca many groups already recognize this – many follow a degree system, with first degree being “rank and file” Witches, second degree for those worthy of the title “High Priestess” or “High Priest,” and a third degree for “Elder.” Other traditions within Wicca don’t bother with degree systems, choosing instead to recognize each practitioner as more or less an equal, with plenty of room for different roles which may change over time, and a different focus for worship or practice for each individual as they see fit. Those who clearly have more advanced understanding might be honored with the title “Elder,” but this is again sometimes done on an individual basis. Those who start out on the path do not need to be expected to be full-fledged Initiates dedicated to a mystical path, but there is certainly that element at the core of the religion. The mystical core should be nurtured and encouraged, but it is a mistake to assume that it is the only part of Wicca which is valid as a focus of practice.
If the author’s concern is that the Mystery element of Wicca is being lost, she should perhaps examine her understanding of Mystery. A good explanation of the Mystery element of Wicca is explained as follows:
“A mystery religion is not like Catholicism where a Priest is the contact point between the worshiper and the Deity, nor like Protestantism where a sacred Book provides the contact and guidelines for being with the divine. Rather a Mystery Religion is a religion of personal experience and responsibility, in which each worshiper is encouraged, taught and expected to develop an ongoing and positive direct relationship with the Gods.” (from the essay “An Introduction To Traditional Wicca” by Keepers of the Ancient Mysteries, found online at http://www.paganlibrary.com/introductory/introduction_wicca.php)
The vast majority of Wiccan practitioners and groups encourage the understanding that religion is all about a direct relationship between the individual and the divine. Wicca, in all its many varieties and traditions, “traditional” or not, tends to emphasize this fact over any separation of individual from the divine through the need of an intercessor such as a priest, priestess, or divine scripture. By this definition of Mystery, Wiccans off all types definitely meet the test as few if any try to establish a requirement of formal intercessors between the individual and divine. Mystery is not just a specific set of rituals. Ellen Cannon Reed’s concern that Wicca is losing the Mystery element would have to be based on a completely different understanding of what Mystery is, something which she fails to define in “The Heart of Wicca.”
As a largely ecologically-centered religion, Wicca quite naturally also includes political, social, and ethical concerns which might not be the focus of one following an exclusively mystical path. Starhawk and her very visible coven Reclaiming are a clear example of a Wiccan group with more than just a mystical focus. Alex Sanders and Gerald Gardner are also perfect examples of Wiccans who did not have an exclusively mystical focus – they were both heavily involved in documenting and publicizing the existence of Wicca to ensure it did not die out. Ellen Cannon Reed herself, despite her claim that her own focus in Wicca is as an Initiate, obviously also puts a lot of her energy into attempting to teach others about the Craft through her writing. The author’s insistence that only the mystical focus is valid rings hollow. Wicca is a living, organic, growing entity which will naturally encompass numerous elements and goals as it evolves. To try and force it to not grow would be to force it to fossilize into mere dogma.
With her very restrictive views of what “real” Wicca is all about, I wonder if the author would have considered Gerald Gardner, Alex Sanders, or Doreen Valiente to have been Wiccan. There is no question in my mind that they were. Yet each of them were largely responsible for highly eclectic assembling, changing, and reworking of materials into what a lot of us today take for granted as being basic to Wicca. Gerald Gardner in particular had a very obvious goal of popularizing Wicca in addition to any mystical aspirations he had. These three very influential founders of Wicca probably wouldn’t fit Ellen Cannon Reed’s narrow definition on what a “traditional Wiccan” is.
Ellen Cannon Reed argues in “The Heart of Wicca” for more scholarly research into the history and mythologies of the cultures on which we are basing our traditions. On this there is no quibble – our greatest problem in the past and even today is that too often we are sloppy or sometimes outright deceitful in factual claims. For instance, it is said far too often that Wicca is an old religion, that it is pre-Christian, that it is “old fashioned” (see page 127 of “The Heart of Wicca” for Ellen Cannon Reed’s contribution to this misinformation.) Historical scholarly works, in particular Ronald Hutton’s excellent book “The Triumph of the Moon” (Oxford University Press: 1999) have made it difficult to maintain the myth that Wicca is a continuation of a pre-existing religion. If anything, the evidence strongly suggests that what we know of as Wicca did not exist prior to Gerald Gardner’s involvement. He was definitely introduced to some non-Christian ideas and practices, but the religion of Wicca which he presented as whole cloth was largely his own created “tradition.” He obviously felt a need to flesh out the very rudimentary ideas he had been given by his initiator Dorothy Clutterbuck, which were very likely based on Margaret Murray’s thesis on witchcraft popular at the time. Gardner enriched it with Aleister Crowley’s ideas (most likely the primary source of “An it harm none, do what you will,”) classical occultism from available printed sources such as the Key of Solomon grimoire, Freemasonry, and other sources available to him at the time. Wicca is more honestly regarded as a modern religion drawing its sources from ancient as well as modern material. Ellen Cannon Reed can be forgiven some of her historical mistakes in “The Heart of Wicca” because Hutton’s book came out after hers, but she could have refrained from making historical claims she could not back up.
The author’s view of deity is another example of how she holds a very specific personal definition, which is fine, but feels that her definition is somehow the “correct” one, which means everyone else is wrong. Wiccans who do not hold her specific philosophy of the divine are therefore classified as not “real” Wiccans. This is highly questionable.
Ellen Cannon Reed’s insistence that each goddess and god is independent, unique, and definitely not an aspect or face of a greater divine force, is not supported by the earliest established Wiccan practices. “The Charge of the Goddess,” one of the core ritual pieces from early Gardnerian Wicca, clearly supports the Theosophical idea that all goddesses are one goddess, all gods are one god. It starts with the statement: “Listen to the words of the Great Mother, who was of old called amongst men Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Diana, Arianrhod, Bride, and by many other names…” If traditional Wicca consists solely of Ellen Cannon Reed’s view of deity, then “The Charge of the Goddess” can not be considered “traditional Wicca.” And that would mean that the oldest Wiccan traditions, Gardnerian and Alexandrian, are not “traditional Wicca” since “The Charge of the Goddess” is a central component. Evidently, “traditional Wicca” must not be defined by a specific philosophy of deity.
It goes along with encouraging honest scholarship that Wiccans should be more rigorous in their research of mythology. It sets us up as laughingstocks in scholarly circles when we confuse deities, ignorantly giving the attributes of one to another. On the other hand, we should also be aware that the stories of the gods and goddesses have always evolved. It is likely only since the advent of the printing press that the whole idea of an “official story” fixed on paper has come about. Oral transmission is notorious for changing the wording and often the meaning of things from one telling to the next. Many societies prior to the printing press were eager for new stories and gossip from outside their immediate community; it is easy to see how this would encourage the development of new tales, fabrications and embellishments of historical events, and the development of new myth. To assume that myth is fixed and unchanging is naïve and perhaps insulting. The deities, while perhaps eternal, are not necessarily unchanging.
The author does make some other excellent suggestions encouraging Wiccans to take their religion seriously, deepening the meaning to make it more than just a hobby or pass-time. It really should be a way of life. Wicca can be a strengthening bond between a practitioner and the place and circumstances of their life. It is a philosophy of relating to those around us, to our environment, to our lives, and to the unknowable in a way that encourages us to take responsibility for our personal growth. It can be very hard work but the benefits that come from greater maturity and responsibility for our own lives makes it worth the effort.
Ellen Cannon Reed does a good job of expressing what the core of Wicca is for her personally in “The Heart of Wicca.” Because she frequently asserts that her way is “traditional Wicca” and attempts to put down other Wiccans who do not practice the way she does, I would not recommend this book to those new to the path. It could leave the false impression that she is correct – that there is such a thing as a “One True Way” in Wicca. The myth of the “One True Way” is something I would prefer we leave to the monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. As Wiccans, with the lessons of the Burning Times of the Inquisition firmly planted in our philosophical past, we should know better than to fall for the “One True Way” fallacy.
For those who approach the book with a skeptical but open mind, who are willing to question statements presented as fact, “The Heart of Wicca” is an invigorating read to make you think. For those who are just starting out on the Wiccan journey, I would recommend you leave this one for later, once you have a solid grasp of the basics, have developed a healthy skepticism, and preferably after you’ve read some historical works such as Ronald Hutton’s “The Triumph of the Moon.”