Review: Grimassi, Crafting Wiccan Traditions

Grimassi, Raven. Crafting Wiccan Traditions: Creating a Foundation for Your Spiritual Beliefs & Practices. Llewellen, 2008. Paperback, 246 pages.

Reviewing this book is one of those situations where knowing a little bit of background about the author and his relationships to other authors in the field helps explain a lot about why the book was written the way it was. According to the biography on his website, Grimassi was initiated into Gardnerian witchcraft at least twice, although one of those initiations may not have had a valid lineage back to Gardner. At the very least, his early training was entirely in the tradition structure of the 1970s. In 1980, Grimassi himself started teaching, and initiated Scott Cunningham; according to the bio, Cunningham did not progress within the tradition Grimassi was establishing: “Because of growing differences it was mutually agreed that  Scott should be released, and he moved on from the Aridian Tradition in favor of a heavily self-styled view of modern Wicca.” Cunningham went on to become an extremely popular author and is commonly regarded as one of the founding figures of self-dedicated, solitary-practice Wicca.

With that in mind, then, it makes more sense when Grimassi says in his preface that “Innovative authors such as Scott Cunningham pioneered a new vision for Wicca, which ultimately transformed it into something new and different from many of its former and foundational concepts. Writers like Cunningham and others removed the traditional structure of Wicca and presented it as a self-styled and self-directed system.” To his credit, Grimassi carefully refrains from castigating Cunningham or current practitioners for practicing a system unmoored from the foundations that Grimassi values so deeply. But the dynamic tension between the foundations that Grimassi wants to pass on and the self-directed style of practice today sets up the paradox at the heart of this book. Grimassi is trying to tell readers to do what feels right to them – as long as they know that there’s a long tradition of doing it this particular way and that he, Grimassi, strongly advises that readers do it the way that he says is traditional.

Kudos to Grimassi for what he’s attempting here, but in the end, he conflates material from each approach so often that the work may be more confusing than helpful to the reader. In the best places, it reads like a fusion of Stewart Farrar and Scott Cunningham. In the worst places, it slips almost imperceptibly from presenting the reader with a menu of choices to giving Grimassi’s own tradition without explaining how those choices have been made with respect to other possible alternatives. Grimassi does clearly present the foundational “Wicca 101” material – elements, the Wheel of the Year, casting a circle, basic ritual structure – but does so in a somewhat scattered form, as these things come up in his layout, repeating himself or presenting variations multiple times. Personally, I get the impression that Grimassi is deeply inspired by his personal discoveries and practice, for which I have the deepest respect. Unfortunately, in a work like this where he intends to lead the reader through possible choices – and maybe even provide a basis for choosing between options, or at least reveal his personal reasons for his choices – the unclear presentation of what he feels so strongly about ends up looking like a dictation of the way it ought to be.

I wonder, as I read those places where Grimassi’s voice as an experienced practitioner comes through most clearly, whether he is trying to do something akin to a traditional mystery style of teaching, but in book format. His repeated touching on foundational elements, with slightly different emphases each time, reads as something that needs to be edited, but he explicitly appeals to the reader to bear with him when he repeats material from chapter to chapter. And he is certainly focused on mystery: he refers to “the mystery tradition” and “Wicca as a mystery tradition” multiple times. (p101, among others) He also emphasizes the idea of the “momentum of the past” many times, and argues for the power of a connection with ancestral predecessors in metaphysical terms. Honestly, I would rather have read his account of his tradition, with acknowledgments of where he could have made other choices, than this inverted structure where he tries to lay out the choices and then always ends up referring to his own selection anyway.

Grimassi’s presentation of the importance of myths, especially as the foundation for ritual, is quite good, as is his observance that the alternating solar/lunar focus of the Sabbats results in basically two sets of four celebrations superimposed. He is absolutely right that a tradition provides a cohesive basis for ritual, which makes ritual more meaningful and powerful, and for teaching. But the longer the book goes on, the more it becomes a recounting of his tradition, until the last third of the book is a set of correspondences (without instructions for altering the correspondences according to one’s own tradition) and a sequence of rituals for covens and for solitaries. The ritual scripts are quite powerful, but are clearly his own style, with an explicit focus on heterosexual polarity and traditional coven roles and structure.

There are also some elements in Grimassi’s presentation that strike me as simply weird. He says that the idea of “watchers” is unique to Wicca, and that the four watchers are associated with four stars. (p6-7) The rulers of elemental realms go back in the Western esoteric tradition much further than Wicca (see, in particular, the inheritance of the “Watchtowers” language from the Enochian magic of John Dee and Edward Kelly, dating to the sixteenth century). He refers to a system of coven structure where the leader makes decisions as “Socratic” (as opposed to “democratic”), which is quite strange. (p22) His approach to the three faces of the God is one I have never encountered before, while he presents the Oak/Holly dichotomy of the Farrars as subordinate figures, not quite gods themselves. In his reference material, he presents the “Rite of Union” and “Gesture of Power” without any explanation whatsoever in accompanying text. (p137-138) He uses the idea of magnetism on page 55 with explicit reference to actual, physical magnets, and appears not to be aware that he’s using a metaphor. Finally, his caution about mixing deities willy-nilly to form consort pairs is a good warning, but the comparison with “mixing drugs from different and unrelated family groups” seems totally unrelated. (p35)

Finally, Grimassi’s treatment of two hot-button topics is irresponsible at best. He covers the Great Rite, including the actual use of physical sex, without discussing any of the ethics involved. He begins the book by saying that he will say things that might, for a more experienced audience, go without saying. Sex is an area where a great deal more needs to be said: a warning against unethical teachers, a discussion of the dangers involved, and a serious caution to the inexperienced student would all be appropriate here. None of them are presented, and neither is a discussion of the special place that physical love holds in a religion that celebrates the body and fertility; the section on the Great Rite is much shorter than the instructions given for drawing down the moon. (p120-121) Grimassi’s traditional background also comes through in his heteronormativity and utter disregard for issues of gender and sexual orientation that have developed since the 1970s traditions were stabilized.

The single most strange aspect of this book, though, has to be Grimassi’s discussion of human sacrifice. He speaks as if he has firsthand knowledge of prehistoric practices and their spiritual meanings:

“The idea arose of sending the best member of the tribe directly to the gods…this was the birth of human sacrifice, and those who went willingly were believed to become gods themselves.
“Among human offerings, the sacrifice of a willing individual was the greatest gift the tribe could offer…
“…rituals were designed to resurrect the Slain God. Special maidens were prepared to bring about the birth, usually virgins who were artificially inseminated so that no human male could be pointed to as the father. Bloodlines were carefully traced from the impregnated female, and the returning soul was looked for among her children.” (p84-85)

This is incredibly irresponsible, given the blood libel often perpetuated upon Wicca. How many young people trying to set up their own coven will read this and repeat it for years as the truth of the mystery tradition revealed by a respected author? How much more pseudo-history and pseudo-archaeology will this create? Grimassi is clearly deeply attached to his ideas of the ancestors, though, and includes a skull (which he describes as a “symbol or figurine”) in his altar layouts and all of his ritual scripts. He says that it “symbolizes ancestral wisdom,” but especially in context of these passages, it ends up looking gothic and bizarre, if not downright evil to uneducated eyes. (p148)

In the context of contemporary Wicca, this book would be most useful for an intermediate student trying to enrich his awareness of the early development of Wicca as an esoteric mystery tradition, as it still was in the 1970s. Grimassi’s presentation may give the reader food for thought, but I would be tempted to direct the interested reader to the classics of the Farrars and Cunningham, rather than this awkward hybridization.

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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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