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WICCA: A Comprehensive Guide to the Old Religion in the Modern World

By Vivianne Crowley, published by Element at £9.99. 260pp. ISBN: 0-7225-3271-7

Now sporting an uncomfortably long sub-title, this is a slightly revised edition of a long time stalwart of pagan bookshelves, at least in the UK. There are few books which can justifiably described as "seminal" in their fields but this one surely is, having rarely been out of print since first published in early 1989.

It is also one of the very few which can justifiably described as dealing with "advanced" wicca, which may account for it's longevity and survival through a decade or more in which the fashion has been to write and publish endless books about a watered-down form of wicca for those too young, not committed enough, or simply not good enough to join a closed, working coven.

In her introduction to this new edition, Crowley points to revisions having been made since the publication of the first edition 15 years ago. I will have to take her word for that as I do not have the earlier edition against which to compare this one (mine was borrowed and never returned). The organisations and contacts list has certainly been updated (including as it does on-line resources) but the bibliography seems not to have been, the most recent books cited dating from the early 1990s.

Probably uniquely for writers on wicca, Crowley takes a profoundly psychological approach to the subject, which is not surprising since she holds a PhD and lectures in psychology of religion at the University of London. What this brings to her discussions about matters such as ritual and its structure and initiation and its significance is an understanding not only of what needs to be done but why it is done and What It All Means.

To readers brought up on the saccharine and fairy-dust offerings of Llewellyn and similar new age publishers Crowley's Wicca will seem something of a dinosaur, yet compared to what else is out there on the shelves this makes it the breath of fresh air that a whole generation of wiccan wannabes desperately needs to read and take on board if they are ever to progress beyond spell-junkiedom and the excited puppy stage.

If there is a disappointment here, it is that Crowley has not been as bold as she could, and indeed probably should, have been in respect of writing about the origins of wicca. Wicca is not a continuation of prehistoric religions, nor of those of the classical Mediterranean, nor is it based upon them in any realistic manner. It is inspired by what Gardner and others of that generation thought prehistoric religion had been about, based on ideas which have since been thrown onto the academic scrap-heap even though they remain popular amongst many pagans. What is beyond doubt is that as a religion wicca works, so dressing it up in a pseudo history and prehistory is completely unnecessary.

It is unfortunate that Crowley remains out of date with historical thinking about various aspects of the European witch trials, citing a figure of 150,000 200,000 for the number of those executed (current historical thinking is c50,000); and stressing the contribution made to wicca by the ideas of Margaret Murray without also pointing out that no historian worthy of the name takes her theories remotely seriously today. This is, however, largely nit-picking; compared with the history sections of popular and mass-market wicca books, Crowley's history is generally sound and lacking in romance and wishful thinking.

In short this is a modern classic, and deservedly so. If you are interested in wicca but do not have this book on your shelf this is as good a time as any to fill the gap.