The Living Temple of Witchcraft: The Descent of the Goddess (Volume One)
Llewellyn Publications, 2008
Note: This review was originally published in the second issue of Thorn Magazine.
For the better part of this decade, Christopher Penczak has been building the Temple of Witchcraft, a substantial series of books for the solitary practitioner to get a solid footing in neopagan-flavored magick. The Living Temple of Witchcraft is the fifth book in this series.
Penczak’s strength lies in his ability to cohesively present a collection of material from the pragmatic to the personal so that it flows together in a guided journey through each book. Readers aren’t just given some spells and correspondences and left to figure out how they go together and what they mean. By utilizing each text as a workbook, rather than a theory reader, they may learn more about themselves and what motivates them to practice witchcraft. There is a depth to these books that is far too often missing in practical neopagan literature. The Living Temple of Witchcraft is definitely an advanced text in eclectic paganism, preparing the reader for going beyond self-study and personal practice.
This newest text goes beyond the individual practitioner’s needs and goals, and introduces the reader to concepts and resources necessary for teaching the Temple material to students. The overwhelming bulk of the book, though, prepares the reader for this task by emphasizing personal growth and evolution through mysticism. Don’t let that last term fool you into thinking this is New Agey, unsubstantial fluff. Penczak’s conception of mysticism follows the descent of Inanna into the Underworld; while the ultimate goal of the material herein is positive, many of the steps along the way require the reader to traverse frightening territory within the self.
For example, at one point Penczak integrates the shamanic practice of experiencing death and rebirth. This is never an easy process when done properly, and the exact manifestation that is included in this book focuses on facing one’s fears—and letting them kill you. While numerous books attempt to recreate the shamanic death, often those doing the killing are either random entities that show up, or virtual stock characters. Penczak makes this ordeal very personal by having the reader evoke what terrifies them the most. There’s a solid psychological reason for undergoing this process, multiple times if necessary—“The death is just that part of the outmoded ego patterns and the successful creation of new patterns that better serve you” (144).
Serve you to what end, you may ask? In addition to exercises and other material aimed at strengthening the self and shedding old paradigms of belief and behavior that may hinder personal growth, Penczak offers up some valuable food for thought for would-be teachers. A good example may be found in the chapter on communication. Along with expected tips, such as making sure you have everything you need for a lesson before the lesson begins, and making sure students have time to ask questions, he also includes the consideration of whether the would-be teacher has experience with public speaking, or suffers from performance anxiety in some (or all) settings. He is also careful to remind the reader that students all progress at their own individual pace, and so trying to rush slower students along is a poor plan.
For those unfamiliar with the Temple of Witchcraft series, do be aware that this is a very eclectic set of traditions. In addition to the Descent of Inanna, Penczak also draws on the seven primary chakras as an organizational structure for the material. Each of the chapters is centered around the qualities and lessons of a chakra. For example, chapter one, the Root chapter, deals with the basic environment of the body, as well as a introductory guide to the more advanced inner mysteries of numerous world traditions. Chapter two, dealing with the stomach chakra, “deals with the ‘gut’ consciousness, the primal instinct. Usually connected with the element of water…[it] is the temple of feeling” (p. 91). The rest of the chapters follow suit. He does draw on material from multiple cultures when speaking of a particular subject, such as in the aforementioned multicultural discussion of mysticism, or when he discusses the concept of the soul from the perspective of several cultures as well as a selection of neopagan and New Age authors. He doesn’t present these as being interconnected in artificial ways, such as trying to claim that every culture he discusses knew about each other and traded notes, or that all mystical systems descend from Atlantis. Rather, he offers these overviews of other cultures’ practices and beliefs as useful information to be aware of when discussing material with students, but with an important caveat such as that given when speaking of models of the soul: “Though given cultural terms, each of these models is influenced by my own understanding, and by those whose sources I’ve drawn upon” (p. 277). He can only dedicate a few paragraphs to each example from each culture, since the book is not meant to be an overview of global mysticism. While some readers may see this as covering topics without enough depth, alternately Penczak may be seen as offering starting points for researching ideas that it would be useful for the would-be teacher to know in more depth. There’s only so much that can be fit into one book, even one as thorough as this.
These are just a couple of examples of the wealth of material in this text. As I was reading, I was struck by how thoroughly Penczak covers ground. While occasionally I expected a particular detail to come a little earlier in the book, sure enough whatever I felt was missing would be explained later on. For example, I latched onto his discussion of witches as clergy in the introduction. I was a bit disappointed at first as I went through the first four chapters dealing with more personal-development-related material. However, when I got to chapter five, I understood how the previous chapters’ material was a necessary basis for being able to teach others. In being trained how to be self-aware in personal ways, readers are better prepared for such questions as “What did you like about your own training?…What did you enjoy about it, and how would you pass it on?…How does your own personality fit with teaching styles?” (p.195). As someone who has been pagan for over a decade and taught my fair share of workshops, I found a great deal of material to give me ideas for my own efforts in passing knowledge and practices on to others.
While I would strongly recommend this text to the general neopagan readership, I do recommend it in tandem with the previous books in the series. Normally I favor stand-alone books and while some of the material here may be useful for those who have already done the basics in other traditions, because Penczak’s books work so well together, they truly do deserve to be considered as a set. And if you’ve already been working through the Temple of Witchcraft series, be assured that this newest text is a pleasing next step in your development.
Five stars out of five.