Witch ways: Christine Cunningham Ashworth's 'Scott Cunningham: The Path Taken'

  • by Jim Piechota
  • Tuesday October 24, 2023
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Author Christine Cunningham Ashworth
Author Christine Cunningham Ashworth

Written by his younger sister, Christine, this biography of Wiccan trailblazer Scott Cunningham (1956-1993) is a fitting and loving tribute to a queer man who helped usher witchcraft into the mainstream.

His 1988 guidebook, "Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner," is one of the most popular and bestselling books on the subject ever sold. That book joins an influential oeuvre of well-received volumes and collective series on metaphysical and organically magical art forms of witchcraft, the elements, astrology, Tarot practices, crystals, herbology, and nature, among others. His books were heralded for their smooth yet instructional prose, nonconfrontational openness, and kind approaches to often tabooed or harshly criticized practices, particularly within queer communities.

Cunningham's unparalleled knowledge of these subjects as a seasoned practitioner reflects a lifelong passion for nontraditional spirituality. As his sister notes about her beloved brother in her book, "Scott Cunningham — The Path Taken: Honoring the Life and Legacy of a Wiccan Trailblazer," he "gave not only permission, but the tools, to anyone who wished to follow a Wiccan path without having access to a coven."

Christine describes her brother as a deeply private person, but someone who openly and prolifically shared his experiences, practices, advice, and vast Wiccan knowledge on the page.

But she also reveals the fact that she began to see her brother's life more clearly only after his death by reading his many publications.

"In reading those books he wrote," she reflects, "I saw a side of him I never saw in person, heard a voice I had never heard from him before."

Scott Cunningham with Christine Cunningham Ashworth in San Diego, 1982 (photo: Chet Cunningham)  

Earth magic
The modern Pagan movement will forever applaud the efforts of Scott Cunningham for his trailblazing wisdom, early teachings, and intuitive Earth magic nature, and a collection of contributing Pagan and Wiccan writers, herbalists, numerologists, and occultists join in throughout the book to reflect back and offer illuminating perspectives on Cunningham's influence on their lives and teachings.

Tarot authority and illustrator Benebell Wen offers Cunningham's Natal Chart which nicely compliments his numerology chart in uniquely describing his life path, personality, expression, and Heart's Desire number, calculated by adding only the vowels in a person's birth name.

The biography chronicles Cunningham's childhood growing up in San Diego where the medium-sized family shared birthdays, holidays, and joyous events, while Scott began to develop his own penchants for gardening and unconventional spirituality.

Since the book is written by Scott's sister, the prose is beautifully intimate, moving, and descriptive as she moves across the years of her brother's life learning from him, and particularly developing a love of books, camping at the family's summer cabin in the Laguna mountains, cultivating plants, and also incense, which she still lights when in need of reassurance or comfort.

The book makes for exquisitely somber reading, however, when the author describes, from her intensive perspective, the emotional pain of losing her beloved brother and how, even now, she and a great many in the global Wiccan community at large miss his physical presence and sage mentorship, even from a distance.

A particularly sobering chapter describes Christine discovering Scott's wallet after his death in a box of his belongings and how, many years later, she still cannot bring herself to discard it, just as she refuses to delete her deceased father's number from her cell phone. "Grief is something no one can get a handle on, until it happens to them."

Sadly, Cunningham died young at age 36 from AIDS-related infections including lymphoma and cryptococcal meningitis, yet his spirit, teachings, and leadership live on in the Wiccan community and beyond. His instructional books bring a unique inclusivity to folks new to the craft as well as to more independent practitioners who prefer solitary worship.

But for his sister, she still wishes it hadn't been so difficult for Scott to live his life as a witch "hiding in plain sight." She openly laments in wishing "he hadn't been quite so discreet, so circumspect with his witchery. It still makes my heart ache. How I wish he could be here, now, and see how far we have come...and yet, I'm sure his heart would break at how far we have still to go."

For Pagan and Wiccan readers, queer Crafters, and those curious about the magical artistry and timeless history of witchcraft, both and modern, this is a bittersweetly fond, appreciative, and intimate portrait of a brother, innovative spiritual leader, mentor, and revolutionary Wiccan pioneer whose legacy continues to influence three decades after his passing.

"Scott Cunningham: The Path Taken" by Christine Cunningham Ashworth. Weiser Books, $21.95 www.redwheelweiser.com www.christine-ashworth.com

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