A Witch’s Book of Answers, by Eileen Holland and Cerelia
Red Wheel/Weiser, 1578632803, 355 pp. (+ afterword, notes & bibliography, 2003
If you are an experienced member of the Witch/Wiccan community, the title of this book might punch a hot button or two. A Book of Answers? Most of us don’t even know the questions. At least it says “A Witch’s.” rather than “The Witch’s.”
If you are a newbie, you are likely thinking “Oh, good, here’s the one book I need to have.”
Both of you are in for a surprise. A more descriptive title for this book might have been “A Witch’s Book of Questions and Answers,” since that is what it is. It is composed of hundreds (over 700) of questions received on the “Open Sesame” e-list. As such there is no “plan” to the book, except of organization of generally related information. Some of the questions are a little “out there,” and I didn’t like the tone of some of the answers BUT these are all questions (or variations of questions) that I have heard over the years. Some of the answers seem a little condescending to me, but as I have been accused of being “too flippant” in some of my answers, I certainly can’t find a valid reason to complain.
This is a book of personal opinions, and this fact is reinforced frequently throughout the book. Even though the co-authors are in agreement on many things, there are areas where they differ, and they present both sides of their views. This helps to reinforce the diversity of opinion that forms our religious world.
Their answers are often just a variation of “If it feels good (or right), do it.” While I understand that a lot of people operate that way, I usually find that a bit more structure is beneficial for those who are just starting out. Most beginners are unsure about trusting their instincts, and these authors continually strive to encourage newbies to trust those instincts. Unfortunately, newbies will continue to look for guidance from outsiders rather than from within. And, it is all too easy to convince oneself that we know what is right, even if everyone else looking at the situation disagrees.
After just having said that magic is not supernatural, Ms. Holland says, two pages later, “Sorcery deals with the supernatural.” Since the vast majority of people (including, I would suspect, most newbies) would equate magic and sorcery, that doesn’t sound very logical to me.
The authors tend to warn readers to avoid any negative individuals, anyone who practices chaos magic (which they equate with black magic), Satanists, etc., since these people, in their opinion will draw three-fold retribution and you don’t want to be near them when that occurs. I’m not sure that I agree with that position, but they are entitled to their own beliefs.
They also recommend that their readers not spend time worrying about negative attacks, and I agree wholeheartedly with that position. Far too many Witches (and not just newbies) spend much of their life in a defencive mode. It is more important to live your life and deal with what happens without concerning yourself about the source.
Even though the blurb on the back cover says it has a “complete index”, I found the 3+ pages (with 152 entries) to be sketchy at best. Similarly, I was not too impressed with the Selected Bibliography. Although there are a number of “classics” on the list, it would have benefited from being expanded a bit more, in my opinion.
The Wicca Handbook, by Eileen Holland
Red Wheel/Weiser, 1578631351, 282 pp. (+ bibliography, index of spells & index), 2000
Some things are hot button item for me, and the title of this book punches one of them for me. Had the title been A Wicca Handbook, I would have approached this book with a more open mind. Fortunately, I am one of those individuals who take the time to read Introductions. In this case the Introduction begins to show the slant this book is going to take.
Unfortunately, I feel, Eileen tries way too hard to be inclusive. As an individual who is a Solitary and has learned from books and personal experiences, she favours that path and tends to downplay, I believe, the benefits of coven training. She sees no need for an initiation ceremony, even one of self-initiation. Call me old-fashioned, but I feel that if you are making a commitment as serious as becoming a Witch, it should involve more than just looking in a mirror and saying “I am a Witch.” She suggests reading 10 serious books about Wicca, which is fine as far as it goes. However, some practical experience should be included. On top of that, how is a novice to know which books of the hundreds available in any bookstore are “serious”?
Most chapters include lists of correspondences, patterned after those in Spiral Dance by Starhawk, as Eileen says early on. One thing which she fails to make clear, however, is that these lists are what work for her, and for those form whom she drew inspiration. They may not work for the reader. Everyone’s correspondence lists need to be tailored to, and by, their own experiences.
Her approach borders on the dogmatic in some places, which is in contrast to her eclectic approach overall. As regards the Book of Shadows, for instance, she says it “must be handwritten,” although she later refers to keeping such information on your computer. I know large numbers of individuals who keep their BoS on their computer hard-drives, on CDs, or simply typed up in notebooks. She also says you should “never allow anyone else to handle it.” I certainly wouldn’t let mine out of my possession, but see no reason not to allow others to have access to it under my supervision.
Although the Craft is highly individualized there are some things which are absolute minimums, in my opinion. Even if you are, in Ms. Holland’s words, “an urban witch who can’t see moon from her apartment windows” you should be aware of the lunar phases. There are plenty of computer programs to track it and many calendars list the quarters. And, Goddess knows, there are almanacs aplenty out there, from “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” to “Llewellyn’s Magical Almanac.” There just is no justification for paying “no attention to the moon whatsoever.” It just isn’t that much trouble to keep track of it.
I do not agree with her statement that pronunciation of deity names in unimportant; that you can pronounce words of ancient origin anyway that sounds right to you (that may be a result of the way I was trained, however).
She doesn’t know the origins of certain phrases, so rather than trying to find out, she simply discards them. It would take too much time and effort, evidently, to do some research.
In many ways, her approach seems to be quite cavalier, and that tends to put me off a bit. Admittedly, we approach the Craft in different ways, even though we both work as Solitaries. I was trained in the Alexandrian Tradition (amongst others) and was expected to do my homework, not just whatever “felt right.” That has stood me in good stead through the years. When training in magick, which is actually what a large portion of this book is dedicated to, one of my instructors warned me that those things which worked for others might not work for me.
I guess the thing about Ms. Holland’s book that nags at me the most is the list of deities to be invoked for the various situations. The groupings, in my opinion, seem to be too much of a “grab bag” approach. There is no explanation for most of the names included. How many people know anything about Ninegal, for example? All the entry (on page 80) says, is “Strong-armed Lord, Smithcraft,” Where is he from? (I know, Mesopotamia). What offerings are appropriate? What colours are associated with him? What day of the week is sacred to him? What scents does he prefer? Are there any items which are forbidden in his invocation? I couldn’t answer any of those questions without doing some serious research. I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable invoking his aid without knowing more about him. My suggestion to you, before using any of the deity names in these lists, is to do your research.
Ninety seven pages are dedicated to tables of correspondences. The first 25 pages of these give no details on the gods/goddesses mentioned. The last 72 pages of this section are better. since they are composed of data on animals, colours, metals, rocks and gemstones, letters, and numbers.
The final six pages comprise a basic glossary. My only objection here (and I freely admit that it is a personal bias) is that she only mentions a few of the dozens (or more) of traditions by name. She could easily have included some of varying orientation (Dianic, Faery, Seax-Wica, etc.)
While her bibliography appears to be fairly extensive, some of the sources are going to be very difficult to obtain. The majority, however, are fairly mainstream and should be easily available for those who wish to check her original source material.
If you buy this book, I have a couple of recommendations for you: First, make sure you have some mythological resource books (or websites) available to you so you can learn more about the various deities in her lists. Second, remember that this book was written by a self-trained individual. If you are a part of a traditional line, or expect to become part of one, you may find conflicts between what Ms. Holland has written and what your teachers may tell you. That DOES NOT mean that one is right and the other is wrong. It simply means that different opinions are a part of life. This book certainly offers a different point of view, and one which deserves to be considered, especially by those with a fairly solid background and some experience.