Review: McCoy, If You Want to be a Witch

McCoy, Edain. If You Want to be a Witch: a practical introduction to the craft. Llewellyn, 2004. Paperback, 254 pages.

This book is aimed at a slightly older reader than Silver RavenWolf writes for in her teen books, but it’s basically the same approach: a light and breezy introduction to Witchcraft that will make the reader feel as if she’s getting into the mysteries without overburdening herself with too much of that heavy, icky philosophy and theology stuff. As you can probably tell, I don’t have much of a liking for that approach, but this book isn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.

I had the misfortune of reading Edain McCoy’s Witta: An Irish Pagan tradition, which is well described in the article “When Is a Celt Not a Celt?” Although readers may not be interested in the overall thrust of the article, the well-deserved skewering of Witta‘s numerous utterly ridiculous claims is thorough and worthwhile. McCoy’s own website claims that the book “encompasses, rather than rejects, the historical and spiritual impact of Ireland’s invaders and conquerors. This is the reason for the Anglo-Saxon rooted trad name, the heavy Norse influences, and the 20th century folklore.” This is at best a convenient reinterpretation and at worst an outright lie, as the book itself made no such statement; it claimed, in fact, to be a handing-down of an ancient Irish tradition that presented its howlers (such as the idea of an ancient, pre-Christian Irish potato goddess – potatoes didn’t arrive in Ireland until they were brought back from the Americas after 1492) with a more-or-less straight face. This has understandably soured me on McCoy’s work, but I thought I’d give this introduction a go to see how McCoy’s writing and philosophy have evolved in the intervening decade.

What I found is that McCoy has migrated onto much surer ground, in part by keeping this primer extremely simplistic, although her fluffy style is still reminiscent of <em>Witta</em>. She very nearly contradicts herself in a handful of places, and she covers such a wide variety of topics in so little space that I feel she barely does justice to any of them. On the other hand, she is deliberately building a primer, and does attempt to give the reader pointers to further places for research, and does emphasize the reader’s responsibility to pursue learning and growth, so I shouldn’t critique her too harshly for those points. She also has an odd way of approaching the reader, almost assuming some basic knowledge about the Craft, such as mentioning the Book of Shadows and encouraging the reader to start one without fully explaining what role a Book of Shadows plays for established Witches. I think my overall impression of her as an author with more product than point is confirmed, and I doubt I’ll be investigating many more of her books.

Perhaps the best material of this book is hidden in a chapter with the misleading name “The Physics of Magick.” She describes what she calls “the six prerequisites for successful spellcraft” as desire and need, emotional involvement, knowledge and realistic expectations, belief, the ability to keep silent, and the willingness to back up magick in the physical world. (115ff) This reinterpretation of the traditional Witch’s Pyramid doesn’t fully distinguish between the first two, but the idea of realistic expectations and emphasizing the importance of accompanying mundane effort are welcome additions as far as I’m concerned. She then goes on with “the six magickal skills” of visualization, centering and balancing, raising and sending energy, charging an object, altering consciousness, and grounding. (119ff) Again, her distinctions are a little fuzzy – some of these are closely interrelated – but her relatively practical discussion is some of the best work in the book.

I also have to give her credit for admitting making mistakes in previous writing about “The Burning Times,” but her brief recantation is immediately followed by a restatement of how Witches were actually maltreated and how horrible it truly was, with the end result that only if the reader is very careful does the point of her mistakes come across, and only then as possibly being about the misstatement of a number, rather than the true magnitude of the mistaken Burning Times mythology in contemporary Wicca. (13, 22-3) She continues to use the word “Witta” without admitting that she simply made it up, uses the metaphor of “vibrational rate” apparently literally (without clarifying what it is that’s vibrating) and creates serious confusion on the issues of “positive” and “negative” energy, saying in one place that there’s no pure positive or negative, in another that positives only attract positives, in another that the purpose of the Circle is to keep out negative energy (but if you’re only doing positive work, why would negative energy wander in?), and so on. (6, 45) Finally, she emphasizes that divination is absolutely required before a spell, and that the smallest alteration in a spell can totally change its results, or you may “get what you asked for” even if it’s not what you wanted, but also insists that spells only fail because the worker didn’t put in enough effort or was opposed by a stronger force. (145-6) This kind of double-talk simply convinces me that she’s not a very coherent thinker, which is far from being a character fault but does severely limit her effectiveness as an author.

The aspect of her philosophy – if it can be called that – which I find most problematic is her initial guiding statement that “Witchcraft is a religion, and its primary purpose is the worship of and the seeking of reunion with the being or beings who created all life.” (2) She attributes the same purpose to all religions; I have to disagree strongly, in that Wicca (and its associated practice of Witchcraft) is a religion that sees the divine as immanent in all existence, not as something separate that we must strive to be reunited with. McCoy barely touches on this point, though, as in spite of the fact that she says magic is one of the harder things to teach and comes after an initiate’s connection with deity, her book is almost entirely about magic and has nearly no discussion of deity. Her deep misunderstanding of this fundamental point is more troubling than all the problems of style put together.

She does include very basic ideas for solitary ritual, a basic set of correspondences for herbs and gems, and some suggestions for further resources – although her list of shops takes up more pages than her very elementary suggested readings – so this does qualify as a primer. It’s better than others that one could encounter, but it’s also worse than many others available. She even falls prey to Llewellyn’s poor editing, such as shifting sentences from plural to singular, which simply makes her (and her publisher) appear incompetent. (28 et al.) But most of all, her approach can be summed up in her admonition to the reader to  “…purge your mind of any and all images Hollywood has shown you, then hop on your inner broomstick and ride with me…” (13)  If that’s not your cup of tea, you’d better steer your broomstick towards another author.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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4 Responses to Review: McCoy, If You Want to be a Witch

  1. Grafton says:

    Wow. That’s a thorough, complete and well-balanced drubbing if ever I read one! To answer your (obviously rhetorical) question about why negative energy would wander into a “positive” circle, while negative energy would not be _attracted_ to such a circle, eeeeeeevil is always externally directed and surely eeeeeeevil will want to disrupt a positive circle whenever it can, just on principle. :D

    On a serious note, I’m sorry you’re having so much trouble finding Wiccan writings that are up to your expectations for either scholarship or composition. :(

  2. Sherrian says:

    You had me at “physics.”

    When I talk about bad scientific metaphor used with a total lack of understanding of the literal interpretation of the words and a total obliviousness to the idea that it’s metaphor? You know that?

    This sure sounds just like it.

    And furthermore eew. You reviewed this just to see if you could get me to read it, didn’t you?

    • Literata says:

      I’d like to tell you I’m reviewing things based on a carefully balanced formula of what I’m most interested in, what’s most popular, and what’s been most influential in Wicca. In reality, I’m trying to take those things into account but also starting with what’s on my bookshelf or easily available at the local library (or borrowable from my friends). And actually, I did review this one to see if I could say anything positive and because I couldn’t face reviewing _Witta_. Hey, at least you only read my thousand words and not her umpteen thousand.

      Also, undergraduate degrees in history certify as much as any other undergraduate degree does, namely, not necessarily much, and I think I’m going to have to invent an omelet named scrambled metaphors.

  3. Sherrian says:

    Additional comments after poking around at Amazon:

    (1) McCoy claims to have an undergraduate degree in history.

    (2) The recently-reviewed scrambled metaphor hot dish appears to be available used for 38 cents.

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