I'm not sure we can accurately see the immensity of influence Scott Cunningham has had on alternative spirituality. His books were probably some of the earliest works consumed by many of us who found witchcraft back in the 1980s and many of his books are still in print. Cunningham's sheer joy continues to influence newcomers, inviting us to practice our Craft with passion, knowledge, and accessibility. After his death in 1993, several of his friends, David B. Harrington and deTraci Regula, took an unfinished autobiography combined with portions of his diaries and gave us Whispers of the Moon. Many of us found it . . . unsatisfying. Not least because it absolutely ignored the fact of his sexuality. (Apparently, Cunningham's father stipulated that there be no mention of this crucial information in the book.) But now, thirty years after his death, his sister, Christine Cunningham Ashworth, has given us an intimate look at a man whose life influenced so many yet remained largely unknown.
In her preface, Ashworth tells us it was almost inevitable she would write this biography although she had no idea at the time of his death that he would be so very influential. "If I had known my older brother Scott would be so beloved, so polarizing, so prolific, and would die so young, I, in my youth, would have taken notes. Kept all our correspondence. Taken more photos. Or perhaps had a cassette deck tape recorder going whenever we talked." Her deep love of her brother -- in all of his exasperating PITAness as well as protectiveness -- everything siblings share, and don't. Told in an interconnected narrative, Ashworth's deep love comes through and I often found myself moved to tears by her own emotions.
Cunningham's witchy pursuits started in his teens with making his own candles and incense. It's also when he started his lifelong relationship with plants, another way he benefited the Craft community. "The incense he lit at night would waft out his window at the front of the house and come into my window at the side of the house, filling my dreams. At the time, I had no idea he was creating his own incense blends and writing down his recipes, but I firmly believe this is where my love of incense began. (p. 36)" If for no other reason, this is a book worth reading because Ashworth shows us just where her brother started his own path. That said, however, she also discusses his legacy, and I found tose portions just as enlightening and thought-provoking.
As a bonus are the many contributions from many people most readers will recognize. Benebell Wen goes through his Natal Chart and Nancy Hendrickson his numerology. Amy Blackthorn gives us a sense of how he changed herbalism, forever and Nicholas Pearson does the same for stones. Storm FaeryWolf honors him as an ancestor for us all. Ethony Dawn gives us a tarot spread. Amie Emberharte, James Divine, Lynne Redd, Dorothy Morrison, Stephanie Rose Bird, Michelle Welch, Beverly Frable, and Jaymi Elford share how he influenced them in many diverse ways. An Appendix lists all of his writings.
Cunningham's life was complicated by being gay as well as a witch at a time when it was actively dangerous to be either one. He was a (relatively) public figure at a time when doing anything metaphysical often resulted in the loss of one's job, home, or family. As someone who found her spiritual path several years before he published his groundbreaking “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner” (which he started writing while in basic training for the Navy in 1977), it's hard to explain how much time and energy we spent hiding our practices. Here is a bit of a perspective: you can buy tarot decks at almost any bookstore, anywhere in the world.
In witchcraft, we have a saying, "That which is remembered, lives." In Scott Cunningham: The Path Taken Ashworth has given us a fresh perspective on a complicated, passionate icon and a new way to remember him.
~review by Lisa McSherry
Author: Christine Cunningham Ashworth
Weiser Books, 2023
pp. 240, $21.95