Real Magic – Isaac Bonewits

Real Magic
Isaac Bonewits
Weiserbooks, 1989
282 pages

This is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read for years. I kept having people tell me what a good book it was (or, occasionally, not so good) and it remained on my very long to-read list until recently. What’s funny to me is the synchronicity involved; I believe that if I’d read it earlier in my magical career, it might not all have sunk in so well. Yes, it’s an introduction to magic, but it’s an interdisciplinary one, and having a practical background in magic actually made some of the concepts even more understandable to me, believe it or not.

What Bonewits did was create a guide to magic for the non-magician as well as the magician, the pagan, and the candlestick-burner. It’s almost entirely theory, but he explains it in terms of science, psychology, religion, as well as magical practice itself, among others. Much of it comes from his gaining a bachelor’s degree in magic (which I think is pretty cool, myself), and the ability to research shows. It’s a solid work, and well worth the read.

Once again I must comment on his tone. In the preface to this edition he apologized for “rampant egotism”. I’m not sure if he toned it down in this edition or not, but I have to say that this is part of what makes reading his work so much fun! Sure, it annoys some people, but I love every minute of it just because it is full of so much nerve and guts and gall and all that. Additionally, the peppering of puns left me laughing (and occasionally groaning).

The book is a bit dated; the emphasis on parapsychology and psy research is nowhere near as prevalent in the magical community as it was in the warly 70’s when the book was first written. And there are a few political and other current event mentions that also place the book in another decade for just a moment–for instance, if you were to toss someone into Lake Erie now, at least they would sink (though they might develop a lovely skin rash, and don’t drink the water!) But these are very small details and they don’t detract from the quality of the book as a whole.

Overall, this is a highly enjoyable read. I’d recommend it as a gift to non-magical folk who are interested, or who need an example of a book on magic that A) isn’t all dark and scary and cultish, and B) isn’t all sparkles and pixie dust and unicorn giggles. I’d also recommend it to any magical practitioner who hasn’t read it yet, simply because if you’re like me, you’ll find something that either really speaks to you, or you’ll learn something you didn’t know. And it is a seminal work in the field of modern magic, worth reading simply for the historical value (well, recent history anyway).

Five pawprints out of five.

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Enchanted Cat – Ellen Dugan

Enchanted Cat: Feline Fascinations, Spells and Magick
Ellen Dugan
Llewellyn, 2006
165 pages

This is one of several books on the market that specifically deal with cat magic. Unfortunately, so far from what I’ve seen they all seem to follow the same basic template and include the same basic information. This newest one is no exception.

Granted, there’s only so much material on the topic, and Dugan does make a valiant effort to make this book stand out. It’s more practical than some of the other books on the topic, involving more spells and simple rituals. Of course, some of the connection these spells have to cats is a little stretched–a number of the spells simply have a few cat hairs involved.

Additionally, she has one of the better chapters on feline familiars from a practical standpoint. She explains some of the ways you can actually work magic with the cat, and gives us more than just a naming ceremony and a blessing. The feline power animals chapter has some decent working material in it as well, though it shouldn’t be taken as a substitute for an entire introductory book to totemism.

But for the most part, she falls back on the usual–cat mythology and lore, cat correspondences, and even cat astrology and feng shui. It seems like she was really fighting for content here. And she falls back on the idea that certain colors of cats are better at specific types of magic–if that were true, then shouldn’t red-headed people be better at some types of magic than blondes and brunettes?

This would be a cute book to give to your friend who likes cats quite a bit and is just getting started in witchcraft. It’s a 101 book and it’s limited by its subject matter. It stands out in some ways from similar books on the market, but it’s nothing earth-shaking.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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Your Magickal Cat – Gerina Dunwich

Your Magickal Cat: Feline Magick, Lore and Worship
Gerina Dunwich
Citadel, 2000
169 pages

In recent years there have been several books out detailing the magical and religious lore surrounding cats throughout history. This is one of the older ones, though not the first. However, it follows pretty much the standard formula–after all, there’s really only so much you can dig up on one particular animal. Cats seem to get all the books, though, simply because they’re the animals most associated with witches, the target audience.

The book is about 2/3 mythology, folklore and superstitions from various cultures. There’s the prerequisite discussion on Egypt, Bast and Sekhmet, as well as the Inquisition-era feline familiar. It’s pretty standard material that you’d find in just about any book on animal mythology; the one advantage is that it’s all collected in one place.

Dunwich does add some of her own original work throughout the book, mostly consisting of–you guessed it–spells. Her chapter on familiars isn’t particularly practical, though she does mention that not all pets a witch owns are familiars. Still, most of the information is vague, and a large portion of the chapter deals with how to name your familiar.

The chapter on feline totems is similarly basic, and this is one of the downfalls of the glut of 101 material–it skims over a bunch of topics without really going into any real depth. There’s really not enough in any of the “practical” material to really do much of anything beyond a couple of spells.

Then there’s the cat astrology section. Dunwich basically takes sun sign astrology and turns it into a kitty horoscope. You don’t need astrology to tell you what sort of personality your cat has–that’s what observation is for.

Overall, I’m not particularly impressed. The research on the historical end was good, but the practical material left a lot to be desired. Get it if you need a quick reference to feline lore, but otherwise feel free to spend your money on toys for your cat instead.

Three pawprints out of five.

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The Science of the Craft – William Keith

The Science of the Craft: Modern Realities in the Ancient Art of Witchcraft
William Keith
Citadel, 2005
256 pages

In recent years there have been a number of books using quantum physics to explain the way magic works. Of all of the ones I’ve read, this one lays it out most plainly and simply–but it’s got some serious material!

The writing is conversational, and communicates the ideas effectively. Keith shows us how quantum physics works, with highlights on key experiments from the Renaissance onward that build up to our present understanding. These are then woven into magical practice, explaining just what it is that makes magic work on a quantum level.

My only question is why he didn’t refer to Chaos magic more, particularly Peter J. Carroll’s “Liber Kaos”. While he does discuss Chaos magic, it doesn’t seem like he quite gets what it is. “Liber Kaos” probably would have made that a different section, but this is a small complaint overall.

I highly recommend this book to any pagan, magician or other magic worker, especially if you’re more of a right brained person who finds hard science a little puzzling.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Can Animals and Machines Be Persons? – Justin Leiber

Can Animals and Machines Be Persons?: A Dialogue
Justin Leiber
Hackett Pub. Co. Inc., 1985
70 pages

Here’s yet another member of my Top Ten Most Underappreciated Books on Animal Magic.

This is a book I think should be required reading for being human. Set up as a very plausible fictional United Nations debate, it presents a philosophical dialogue concerning whether or not animals and technology (especially artificial intelligences) are people, and therefore possess intrinsic rights (such as the right to live). The debate centers on a chimpanzee and an AI who are on an otherwise abandoned space station that scheduled for destruction–with them still on it.

It’s a very quick read–I finished it in less than an hour. However, that’s because the writing is exceptionally well-done; the points are solidly made, but the format–conversation–allows them to flow smoothly. Every one of the seventy pages conveys the importance of the ideas at hand.

The author doesn’t favor one side or the other; he argues both viewpoints well, showing both the merits and flaws in each. In addition, some interesting parallels are brought up–for example, how in many cultures women weren’t even considered “people” until recently. And there are some excellent ruminations on the nature of consciousness.

This is probably one of my favorite quotes:

“The multicellular organism is just an extreme example of [a collective individual]. Each cell carries on a miniature life, but the collective is so obviously the subject of biological generalizations that we see it as an organism much more than we see the individual cells as organisms.” (p. 48)

Overall, this is a necessary addition not only to the animal magician’s library, but anyone else who has the capacity to read English.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Medicine Cards – Sams and Carson

Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals
Jamie Sams and David Carson
St. Martin’s Press, 1999
240 pages plus cards

Note: This review primarily covers the book itself, since the book is necessary for deciphering the meaning of the cards as the authors created them.

Now I know why people warned me about this book.

This is one of the worst cases of cultural appropriation I’ve seen yet. From the overuse of “Medicine” and “Great Spirit” to the assertion that this is genuine Native American spirituality, the whole book is one big hyperromanticization of the “Noble Savage”. This is the idea that all Native Americans were and are still completely entwined with nature in everything they do, and everything is mystical and amazing and there’s of course NO problem whatsoever and everything is hunky-dorey (just ignore the problems on the reservations and in the U.S. legislature, folks!)

One of my biggest problems is that the authors keep referring to “Native American” this and that. However, they’re not specific about what tribe they’re talking about. On page 221, where the bios are, the authors have between them (or so they say) Cheyenne, Crow, Sioux, Seneca, Mayan, Aztec and Choctaw learning and/or influence. Well, that’s a pretty wide variety of individual cultures there, not to mention the subdivisions within each of those tribes! I don’t believe I saw one single instance in the entire book where they referred to a specific tribe. There is no such thing as “Native American” anything–each tribe is a separate culture, not one big homogenized mass.

Of course, not only is the book lacking in-text citations, there’s not even a bibliography. How are we supposed to know where they’re getting their information? Just saying that “I learned it from so-and-so” isn’t good enough.

Additionally, there’s no indication that any of the tribes whose beliefs the authors are supposedly writing about are actually benefitting from the book and deck. Plastic shamanism as its best.

Feel free to read on for some specific examples….

“Every person has nine power or totem animals” (18)

Of course, they don’t say where they got this piece of rather generalized information.

Page 23 has a bunch of questionable mythology about how Native women are all incredibly intuitive and only men have egos.

p. 27 has a *Druidic* card layout (or so they say). What is this doing in a book that’s supposedly on “Native American totemism”?

“Thoth, the Atlantian who later returned as Hermes” (61)

I think that speaks for itself.

“Long ago, in tribal law…” (69)

Which tribe?

“This operation [of always paying for magical servies] is known as the law of the Lynx people, and is practiced by Native American. Gypsy, Sufi, and Egyptian cultures, among others. (109-110)

I’d say where they’re getting their information, but it wouldn’t be polite.

“All of our petroglyphs speak of the Motherland, Mu, and the disaster that brought the red race to North America…” (201)

Again, going to let this speak for itself.

I think you get the picture.

I do have to say that within the individual entries on different animals there are some motes of really good information. However, they’re buried in so much questionable material that I had to stop myself from throwing this book across the room a number of times. If you can swallow pseudo-Native garbage, go for it. Otherwise, avoid.

One plastic-coated pawprint out of five.

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A Circle of Stones – Erynn Rowan Laurie

A Circle of Stones: Journeys and Meditations for Modern Celts
Erynn Rowan Laurie
Eschaton, 1995
112 pages

I read this book in a day–but it was anything but a shallow read!

This is excellent Celtic spirituality from a Celtic reconstructionist. If you’re tried of fluffy texts on “Celtic Wicca”, this is the book you need.

Erynn explains how to create and use a devotional circle of beads tied closely to Celtic cosmology, derived from her research on original myth and lore. She devotes a couple of pages to each step of the journey, explaining their origins and how to connect with them in everyday life.

The rest of the book discusses her thoughts and suggestions on honoring the Celtic deities and spirits. It’s quite thorough, and rather than spoonfeeding you, she instead gives you the tools to create your own sacred space.

Erynn’s scholarship is solid, and she is careful to explain that this is the best approximation of Celtic religion that she, in this day and age and with the resources available, could create, instead of taking a bunch of filler and presenting it as the real thing. In addition, she also mentions when certain facets come from a specific group of Celts, such as those on the European continent rather than Ireland. And she does her own translations from Gaelic to English, which I find pretty impressive.

This book is a fine example of a solid scholarly foundation put to practical and spiritual use, even more than a decade after its initial publication. I can hardly wait for Erynn’s book on ogam, due out in 2007!

Five pawprints out of five.

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Ancient Rites and Ceremonies – Grace A. Murray

Ancient Rites and Ceremonies
Grace A. Murray
Senate, 1996
256 pages

I dearly hope that no one ever actually uses this book as a serious source of anything but examples of Anglo-centric anthropology. I originally picked it up in the hopes that it would be a treatise on religious rites of various cultures. Instead, what I got was a book full of horribly condescending discussion of a number of cultures’ practices, few of them religious in nature. There’s a definite tabloid feel to the whole thing, given that the author focused largely on such scandalous topics as cannibalism and foreign sexual practices.

This book was written in 1929, and it’s a perfect example of WASPish prejudice presented as scholarship. Everyone from South Africans to Scandinavians are thoroughly stereotyped and judged against the standards of the writer (who I assume was British). I did get occasional glimpses at her attempts to make the place of women a little more proud, explaining that in certain socieities where women did most of the work, they were exceptionally important.

After the first few pages I read this primarily for the entertainment value. Thankfully, while we’re far from ridding academia of prejudice, things aren’t nearly so blatant as this, and much better sources are available. There is some good information here and there, but it’s so wrapped up in crap and Western bias that as a whole it’s not worth buying it unless you find it at a seriously reduced price.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Art and Society in Roman Britain – Jennifer Laing

Art and Society in Roman Britain
Jennifer Laing
Alan Sutton Publishing, 1998
188 pages

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. The author took what could have been really dry material and made it absolutely captivating!

She describes how the Roman occupation of Britain affected the artwork of the region, from the height of the Roman Empire to its decline. Not much is discussed of pre-Roman art except how its influences survived the Romans, but the blending is still there.

Laing shows how the Roman and Celtic styles were uniquely combined according to area and type of artwork. Some, such as mosaics and murals, are almost purely Roman, while items like brooches and other metalwork retain a strong Celtic undertone. Once the Roman grip loosened somewhat, we get to read about how the recession of the Romans and the combination of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon tribal styles affect the local artwork. It also shows how some of what is often stereotyped as purely Celtic is, in actuality, hybridized.

The text is wonderfully easy to read, yet very evocative of the items that are being described. The text is beautifully illustrated with photos and drawings.

This would be an excellent choice for anyone interested in how art reflects societal changes, or Roman or Celtic art and culture.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Once Unknown Familiar – Timothy Roderick

The Once Unknown Familiar: Shamanic Paths to Unleash Your Animal Powers
Timothy Roderick
Llewellyn Publications, 1994
218 pages

This is a wonderful break from the usual totem animal dictionary. It’s a heavily psychological viewpoint of physical and spiritual animal familiars, with a lot of emphasis on the inner animal. The guided meditations and the questions are worth the price of the book alone. It’s a wonderful pathworking tool, and I really enjoyed the trip.

And, miracle of miracles, not only was I blessed by a bibliography, but in-text citations!

I do have a few gripes. Roderick uses Margaret Murray’s now-debunked research, and he also tries to compare witchcraft and shamanism a little more closely than is really necessary.

There’s also a lot of filler in this book–it seems like he was really trying hard to break the 200 pages mark. Each question has a sizable chunk of blank space with it so you can write in those spaces instead of, say, a piece of paper. The chapters are divided by three to four blank, picture, or title pages. And the animal totem dictionaries and other listings of information are rather brief and seem more like an afterthought.

These don’t detract from the book too much. But the pathworking material, the exercises and meditations, are so good, and the rest of it just seems kind of thrown in there for the page count. I’d love to see a rewrite of the book based on the actual magical ideas, and less cliched, formulaic material–let’s see what can reaplce 50 pages or so of filler.

Four pawprints out of five.

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