In my early days of exploring Paganism (this was in high school) I inevitably came across references to Freemasonry, The Golden Dawn, Crowley, Thelema, and other aspects of the Western Magical Tradition (of which traditional Wicca is a part) but, to be completely honest, it never really caught on with me. I found the rituals so saturated with Judeo-Christian symbolism that I wondered why they were included in ostensibly Pagan and polytheist-oriented books, often without comment as to why you were supposed to do it or what it all meant. Furthermore, as a woman, I felt excluded from these traditions, which focused extensively on men and what men were doing with women being cast in the role of “Scarlet Woman” or “muse” to the male magician., supporting the magician but never being the magician.
As it turns out, Brandy Williams was thinking similar thoughts.
The aim of The Woman Magician is to celebrate and empower women magicians not merely as support for male magicians but as a magician in her own right. Through a series of meditations with personifications of abstract concepts: Lady Tradition, Lady Lady History, Lady Philosophy, Lady Science, Lady Culture, Lady Theology and Lady Magic, she critiques these magical traditions and explores and unpacks the ideas that informed those traditions. The second part of the book takes the ideas from the first and creates an all-woman order of magicians–the Sisters of Seshat–situated within a universe that is formed entirely of goddesses, and provides a set of five initiations that can be used by a group looking for a woman-centric practice in the Western Ceremonial traditions.
This is a very ambitious book, and there’s clearly a lot of material to cover (in fact, whole books have been written on the subjects Williams discusses) but what is there is a decent introduction to the subject matter. I particularly appreciated the chapter on Tradition, which clearly spelled out the why behind the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, the Star Ruby, and the Gnostic Mass, as well as the author’s personal experience with each of these rituals and why she finds them both empowering and inadequate.
i also found the ritual scripts very moving. Often I find myself glancing over ritual scripts because there tends to be a lot of recycled text. The rituals in The Woman Magician have similar setups with distinctive differences, and this is quite possibly the only time I’ve ever been so profoundly moved by simply reading about a ritual in the text. I can only imagine how moving a performance must be. I also liked how she chose to focus more on women sharing space as sisters than a reliance on biological events which some women may never experience (as often happens in Goddess spirituality).
In terms of flaws, I’ve already mentioned that each chapter could be its own book, so you get a basic outline on, say, Western Classical philosophy and the single sex vs. dual sex model, for instance. What is there is a good overview of the subject of each chapter, and the bibliography is impressive for a book of this type, but it just ends up being very limited.
In fact, speaking of limitations, its important to note that this book is written from the perspective of a white, heterosexual cis woman, and while I will give credit to Williams for actually acknowledging her privilege, oftentimes it doesn’t seem like she really follows through with her analysis, especially in the chapters on science and culture. She does touch on intersex and trans people briefly, and as I mentioned, she does focus more on sisterhood and working magic together than on Maiden, Mother, and Crone models or “blood mysteries” but on the whole, this is definitely a white, heterosexual, cis woman’s book, and as a queer woman myself, I couldn’t really shake the feeling that there was something missing from her analysis.
The one other sticking point I have with this book is the issue of appropriation. Again, while she does acknowledge the debt to and appropriation of Jewish mysticism by Ceremonial magicians, her rituals still use the Tree of Life and Hebrew names for each of the spheres. Now, I suppose you could argue that Kabbalistic symbolism is so entrenched in the tradition that it would be hard to divorce it from the tradition, but it just strikes me as a tad hypocritical to acknowledge that debt and then continue using it like you didn’t say anything.
Overall though, I would say that this is an intelligent, thoughtful look at a subject that doesn’t get a lot of attention. It is very limited in some ways, and I wouldn’t say that I want to run out and join a magical order now, but I do think books like this are needed, and I’d love to see more books like this, but perhaps with a greater variety of perspectives.
I would say if you have any interest in women in Western Magical Traditions, you should probably give this book a look, just beware that it really falls flat on its face in some places.