The Life and Work of Scott Cunningham, Philosopher-Magician, Modern-Day Pagan

Review by Sam Webster © 2000

Whispers of the Moon: The Life and Work of Scott Cunningham, Philosopher-Magician, Modern-Day Pagan. David Harrington, deTracy Regula. Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A. 55164-0383, 1996. 256 pages, $15.00.

AIDS has taken a terrible harvest from us, and here we have lost a bounden servant of the quill. Whatever any one may think of the work of Scott Cunningham, he was a prodigious writer. Besides his numerous pulp novels and commercial articles by which he supported his life, his fifteen magickal books will have an impact on the Pagan community for years to come. If only measured by the thousands copies of his books spread world wide or the 11 languages his books have been translated into Cunningham’s presence and personality will be long felt. But the debt his readers owe him is best expressed by the many contributors to his biography, Whispers of the Moon.

Scott Cunningham, 1956-1993, lived and worked in San Diego. At the age of 15 he met a young witch by the name of Dorothy Jones and began learning and practicing Wicca, as he preferred to call it, with her. This grew into what he called American Traditionalist wicca and later formed the basis for one of his major works, Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Early on he became fascinated with the magickal power of herbs which was to become his life work. In 1980 he began teaching, even though he never much liked it. Yet, he would spend the next thirteen years giving classes around the nation, creating videos and writing books to teach the Craft. By 1981 he had received all three degrees of the Reorganized Traditional Gwythonic Order of the Wicca and the Ancient Pictish Gaelic Way a family tradition and served as coven high priest. He also worked with the Myjestic line of Wicca. But, by 1882 he became disenchanted with what he called “living room wicca” and struck out as a solitary practitioner, seeking to “put the pagan back in the countryside and the heathen back in the heath.” This drive to re-root Wicca back into the nature that it intends to honor gives his books the vividness that made them so moving and so popular.

Since we are going to be living with Cunningham for a long time we are very fortunate to have a biography of him so soon after his death. Magickal people tend to quickly generate a fantastic hagiography about themselves when they die. David Harrington and deTracy Regula, due to their close association with Cunningham, provide a foundational source whereby we can know some qualified facts about the life and work of this influential writer.

Some argue that Cunningham’s works had little creative content, that they were mostly compilations of researched sources. For instance, his work with herbs had many print incarnations. What began as a small self-published volume A Formula Book of Magical Incenses and Oils, became Magical Herbalism in 1982 and Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs in 1985. He expanded the scope of these works with specialized books on incenses, oils, brews, stones, metals and foods. In the development of a discipline compilations are a necessary stage towards maturity. This is the encyclopedic approach which serves to gather into one location qualified source material and thus becomes a reference work against which other sources will measure themselves. If nothing else, the ability to organize this information into a form we can access is profoundly creative, and we are doubly blessed that Cunningham was a careful researcher so that we can have some faith in the information he gathered. Time alone will give us the real measure of Cunningham’s writings, but the foundation he built is solid.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this biography are the values that it claims for us Pagans. This book lauds the life of a man and his works. He was a hard worker and creative. In the last years of his life he had attained to some measure of economic success. This is no mean feat in the world of occult publishing and a model to economically challenged Pagans in general.

Mostly Cunningham was remembered for the quality with which he served others, encouraging them to their own power. He supported writers in their craft and had little tolerance for those who waited for perfect working conditions. In his writing he exhorted magick users to find magick in their immediate surroundings. “Magick is our birth-right,” he claimed and then showed how to find it and how to use it. He maintained a high ethical stance, worthy of emulation, explaining with care and detail why baneful magicks serve no good to anyone. Whether or not the presentation of Scott Cunningham in Whispers of the Moon is an idealization does not matter because we need this ideal to be upheld. Scott Cunningham is a fine example of how a life of service in the Pagan community could be lived. It is a life who’s value with benefit all of us for years to come, a life cut sadly short.

All written material presented on this guest site is by Sam Webster.
Copyright 1999-2006.
All Rights Reserved.