Your Spirit Animal Helpers (no author given)

Your Spirit Animal Helpers: The Divine Guardians of Your Happiness
No author given
International Rights, Ltd., 1997
190 pages

This rather obscure book was one I found at Powell’s City of Books in Portland. It’s oneof the earlier totem animal dictionaries, and not one I’ve seen much information on. It’s a shame, because it’s actually pretty good for being a 101-level dictionary.

The information in it pretty much covers the basics of neopagan totemism–how to find your totem, how to work with hir, how s/he can help you in everyday life, etc. The author(s) was very creative, and conveys the information in a friendly, approachable tone. The anecdotes and other information are mixed in with some good practical exercises. The dictionary contains 30 animals, most Big Impressive North American Birds and Mammals, though a few smaller critters thrown in as well. In short, it’s a decent introduction to totemism. Additionally, the illustrations by Marc Brinkerhoff are absolutely astounding! This is definitely one of the best-illustrated totem books I’ve ever seen.

I do have a few complaints. The information in the dictionary is rather sparse, and definitely could have used more fleshing out; additionally, the animals are pretty much exclusive to North America. There are also hints of cultural appropriation in there; the author(s) keeps referring to “Native American” this and that, without any real details, though s/he doesn’t go so far as to say “this is genuine Native American totemism!”. Finally, some of the supporting evidence (such as the idea that Beaver is a Masonic totem) could have used citations to back them up; this book lacks citations and a bibliography entirely.

Still, overall, it’s an introduction to totemism that I’ll be hanging onto for workshops. I would recommend supplementing with other books, but there are much worse introductions out there. I’m docking it a few points for the flaws, but other than that, a nice basic book.

Three and seven-eighths pawprints out of five.

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The Animal Wise Tarot – Ted Andrews

The Animal Wise Tarot
Ted Andrews
Dragonhawk Publishing, 1999
256 pages plus 78 cards

I realized that I’ve been working with this deck since they first came out in 1999, and never reviewed it.

In short, I LOVE it.

One of the things I love about Ted Andrews’ work in general is that he works with a variety of animals, not just North American large mammals. There’s a great variety of critters to work with in this deck–mammals, birds, insects, amphibians and reptiles. He did a great job of matching animals to the various tarot cards as well. And personally, I love the photographs; they’re very evocative of the individual animals.

The great thing about this deck, too, is that is can be used for totem or tarot readings. My deck and I figured out our own reading style for totemic divination. It’s a very versatile tool.

I’m also really pleased that Andrews doesn’t try to sell himself as a “genuine Native American” anything. These aren’t the Medicine Cards, created by plastic shamans. Instead, Andrews draws from many wells, adn concentrates primarily on observation of the animals themselves for his information, rather than playing Indian. I really respect him for that in all of his work.

The book is a decent helper for getting started, but I found that this particular deck is excellent for intuitive totemic readings; it allows the totems to communicate with you, acting as a focus, rather than saying “This animal always means THIS, while that one must mean THAT”. I’ve given two or three readings in a row where one animal kept popping up, and each tme s/he had something different to say. It’s a wonderfully flexible deck.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Primitive Mythology – Joseph Campbell

The Masks of God, Volume 1: Primitive Mythology
Joseph Campbell
Penguin, 1991
528 pages

I’ve used Campbells’ works and derivatives thereof as source material before; however, this is the first time I’ve sat down and read it cover to cover, instead of a chapter here, a section there.

Campbell explores the possible origins of human religion within the evidence left behind by ancestors long dead, both physical and mythological. He studies the value of imagination and metaphor in spiritual experience, and makes a noble effort to reconstruct what may have been the religious beliefs of paleolithic peoples.

The thing I love about his work is that he weaves in anthropology and psychology with mythology to create a multilayered piece of writing that is nothing short of adventurous. Not only does he give thorough explanations for why he makes his theories, but his style evokes the settings for these myths, both the gods themselves and the humans who worshipped them.

Primitive Mythology is an absolute must-read for anyone wanting to get past Neopaganism 101. His history of the various rites that came out of hunter/gatherer and agrarian societies will pretty much put to death any of the “Wicca is as old as the cave paintings!” arguments, but also offer ample material for creating one’s own primitve belief system.

In short, Campbell was a master at what he did, and this book is proof positive of that. Read it, enjoy it, learn from it.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Lost Books of the Bible – William Hone (compiler)

The Lost Books of the Bible
William Hone (compiler)
Testament, 1988
320 pages

I bought this back in college and just now got around to reading it. It’s basically a collection of apocryphal and otherwise “unaccepted” texts regarding Jesus of Nazareth and his apostles.

Most of it was letters to various congregations, with messages such as “Be more patient with eachother. Infighting doesn’t do us any good” and “Jesus still love you even though he’s gone to Heaven”. However, the parts I found interesting as a former Catholic were the books that filled in some of the blanks about Jesus’ life, particularly as a child.

Apparently Jesus was not the nicest kid to be around. He was incredibly intelligent and confounded his teachers to no end because he already knew everything. However, what really got me was how he treated people who made him angry. On more than one occasion he killed his playmates if they made him made, transformed them into goats for the fun of it, or otherwise wreaked havoc til the neighbors complained and Joseph and Mary had to bring him inside. No wonder the early church fathers cut these out of the Bible! Not a very flattering picture!

However, there were some interesting “rest of the stories” about his adulthood, too. Apparently the robbers who were crucified next to him came from an incident in his childhood, and that was an intrguing tie-in. In fact, a lot of the folks from his childhood came back to play key roles as her got older; many of the apostles were children he healed of illnesses. I also thought the description of Jesus descending into Hell after the crucifixion and pulling Adam out of there was an appropriate story.

I like this because it makes the Christian mythos more complete. Some of it, to be sure, came about long after his death, but then again great figures in history and mythology often grow greater with the passing years.

To be sure, I’m still comfortable in my own (non-Christian) beliefs. However, this is a nice addition to the traditions I was raised in as a child, the stuff they don;’t teach you in Catholic school.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Practical Solitary Magic – Nancy B. Watson

Practical Solitary Magic
Nancy B. Watson
Weiser Books, 1996
288 pages

A good friend of mine first recommended this to me a few years back, and I’m glad he did!

This is a wonderful guide to elemental magic–not just how to evoke sylphs, gnomes and the like, but working with the elements internally as well as externally. She opens up with a common-sense guide to general magical practice, including affirmations, deities and other entities, and ethics. She then goes on to explore both internal and external elements, going beyond Paracelsus and into psychology.

It’s an incredibly thorough work, more from a magical that a worshipful point of view. I highly recommend it as a basic multi-purpose guide to magic for those who like the natural feel of paganism but want more practicality than burning a candle.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Philosophy in the Dungeon – Jack Rinella

Philosophy in the Dungeon: The Magic of Sex and Spirit
Jack Rinella
Rinella Editorial Services, 2006
234 pages

The combination of BDSM and spirituality is nothing new; people in the kink community have acknowledged the altered states of consciousness that are part of the territory for years, and pagans and magicians of all types have worked their kink into their beliefs and practices numerous times. This book, however, fills a particular niche in the small but growing library of BDSM spirituality/magic. Rather than going into the How and What, Rinella gives us insight into the Why.

The author has a varied religious background, ranging from training to become a Catholic priest to joining a Pentecostal congregation to being neopagan. All of these spiritual influences have been worked into his approach to BDSM, and this is where he gets into the contemplation of that relationship. As the title suggests, it is quite a philosophical look at the practice of BDSM, the thought processes and the reasons for why we like what we do.

The first few chapters set the stage for the rest of the book. Rinella discusses everything from viewing the world holistically to the differences between ancient cultures and ours today. The rest of the book builds on these ideas, and we are led to think about the idea of initiation, challenging expectations, and the nature of faith. The last two chapters address both practical spirituality and magic in conjunction with BDSM, though these are brief introductions that give an example of incorproating the previous material rather than in-depth studies.

What I really liked about this book is that it sparked a lot of thought processes in my mind about the Why of kink. Being able to understand our desires is incredibly important when it comes to both accepting and growing in our sexuality. Rinella presents us with a spiritual and philosophical explanation of kink, and addresses many of the supposed conflicts between sex and spirit.

It may be just me, but I found his writing style a little hard to follow. It’s not bad writing, mind you, but not every reader perfectly meshes with every writing style. I found myself skimming quite a bit, not as engaged as I’d liek to have been. But I was still able to ingest what he was saying. Additionally, the layout could have used a little tweaking; the right margin was ragged instead of justified, and the indentations looked like they were the standard Word 4-5 space indents, rather than the three-space indents which turn out a lot better in book format. Both contributed to a bit less professional appearance.

Still, overall I’d definitely recommend this book to any kinky person out there who’s looking for a different angle to the topic. This one is definitely staying in our collection!

Four pawprints out of five.

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Animals and Psychedelics – Giorgio Samorini

Animals and Psychedelics: The Natural World and the Instinct to Alter Consciousness
Giorgio Samorini
Inner Traditions, 2002
97 pages

I had heard good things about this book, which apparently is pretty well unique in its field (not a surprise there). It’s really more of a long academic paper in paperback book format, but it’s worth the read.

The first part of the book is dedicated to defining what a drug is and what its inherent functions are. He also introduces us to the basic idea of animals deliberately seeking out specific plants (even carnivorous animals) to meet certain ends beyond nutrition–to aid in healing, or to alter the state of consciousness the animals are in.

The bulk of the book is composed of specific examples of animals drugging themselves. More well-known examples, such as cats getting high on catnip, or elephants seeking both natural and manmade alcohol, are cited. However, Samorini also discusses California robins gorging themselves on holly berries, caribou and reindeer devouring Amanita muscaria, and drunken slugs. It would seem that drug-induced altered states are found from insects to mammals, from the Arctic to the savannah, and are definitely not limited to the human animal.

The final chapter is where the author really shows off his ideas. These can be summarized thus: that animals do, indeed, intentionally drug themselves, and that the resultant altered states of consciousness are a part of evolution. While I agree with the first half of this, there’s much evidence lacking in the second. We have yet to show a definite connection between animal intoxication, and the changes in a species’ behavior, which he postulates. However, in Samorini’s defense, this is such a niche area of research that only has a handful of people studying it that this particular book is pretty much the first one to focus exclusively on it, or so he says. I’m inclined to agree, as it’s the only book I know of either on the topic or–for that matter–by this author.

Overall, I really enjoyed this brief but good read. While the final evidence isn’t complete, this is understandable in light of the limited research available. However, it is a groundbreaking text, IMO, in the area of chemognosis, as it supports the idea that seeking altered states through drugs is natural, rather than an unhealthy human compulsion that inevitably leads to ruin. The inclusion of cases of animals being addicted to alcohol, caffeine and tobacco, right along with marijuana, datura and psilocybin mushrooms, is also useful for showing that intoxication doesn’t discriminate on the basis of human choices.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Wicca Handbook – Eileen Holland – BBBR January 2007

The Wicca Handbook
Eileen Holland
Weiser, 2000
309 pages

This, folks, is THE stereotypical fluffy Wiccan book.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with Wicca as a religion (or any other religion, for that matter). However, the way that the author writes about her religion was enough to make me want to throw this one out the window a number of times–just in the first 50 pages!

Here’s a run-down of the various complaints I have:

–Shoddy historical research and other questionable content

She accepts, without question, the stories about Gardner learning from Dorothy Clutterbuck and how Gwen Thompson received the Wiccan Rede from her (conveniently deceased) grandmother, and that there are plenty of family traditions with centuries-old teachings passed down (p 6, 8,11) . Finally, she supports none of these with outside evidence; the only footnotes she uses are for direct quotes, mostly from the Farrars’ works.

Holland is also an advocate of the whole “natural witch” idea that supports the concept that some people are “naturally” better than others at magic (which I find rather elitist)(p. 13). Anyone can work magic; it’s a matter of achieving the proper mindset, not your past lives. And she assumes that all inverted pentacles are Satanic, forgetting that certain British traditions use it as a symbol for the second degree (p. 37).

–Blatant bias against anything outside the pale of her own personal preferences; this isn’t a book presenting Wicca objectively–it’s the Gospel of Wicca according to Holland. She also basically says that all Wiccans focus primarily on the Goddess and that the divine is female (numerous references to the Goddess as primary deity). She also talks about how dangerous it is for anyone to work with elementals (p. 50-51). While she may have issues with them, she should be presenting them as her own experience rather than the ultimate truth (a common theme for a lot of this book).

She has a serious issue with many religions and practices outside of Wicca, including Satanism (which she goes after numerous times), Chaos magicians, and anyone who practices animal sacrifice (which, by the way, includes Afro-Caribbean religions such as Voodoo adn Santeria)(p. 14). Her descriptions show quite blatantly that she doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about in regards to any of them and that she’s filtered them all through her white-light filter without really taking the time to walk in the others’ shoes. In fact, she advises the readers not to evfen *read* about anything outside of her personal biases (p. 26). It’s pretty obvious who Holland’s boogey-men are. She’s also pretty phobic about non-vanilla sexuality, which is revealed in her nervous approach to the cords and scourge (p. 41). And, no surprise at all, she speaks out vehemently about “black magic” (p. 15-16), which brings us to…

–Severe lack of consistency

This is a major inconsistency. After pontificating for pages about the evils of black magic, what does she include? Not one, but two love spells designed to attract a specific person, which any experienced pagan will tell you is a major ethical no-no! (You can find them on p. 107-109)

She also says that the title of witch shouldn’t be used “lightly” (p. 12), and then on the next page she says that if you feel like calling yourself a witch, that means you must be one!

–Other points of interest

She stereotypes gay couples by saying all of them have a “male” partner and a “female” partner (p. 18)–guess she’s never met any lesbian couples that were made of two butches or two femmes.

Don’t get me wrong–there is a lot to like about this book, too. It’s chock full of excellent correspondences of all sorts. She explains the uses of the various altar tools, as well as the correspondences of the four traditional elements, among others. She includes a lot of rudimentary information on the basics of spellwork, though each topic is covered briefly enough that anyone wishing to work with spells as a beginner would do well to supplement this book with others. However, once you have a basic understanding of spells, there are a lot of good basic suggestions in this book.

It does follow the usual format of 101 texts in that it skims over the surface of a bunch of different topics; for example, you wouldn’t want to base an entire practice of totemism solely on her brief chapter on animal correspondences and spells. But it is a useful collection of information for the beginner.

If she’d cut out the first 40 or so pages of the book, it would have been a wonderful collection of introductory information. The problem is she prefaces it with a bunch of blatant biases and inaccuracies and presents it as universally Wiccan. It’s a good book wrapped up in awful dogma. If you can ignore the latter, the former is a good addition to the paganism 101 book shelf. Unfortunately, a lot of newbies may not know the difference and may swallow her biases as holy writ.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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21st Century Wicca – Jennifer Hunter

21st Century Wicca: A Young Witch’s Guide to Living the Magical Life
Jennifer Hunter
Citadel, 2000
219 pages

Amid the recommendations of Cunningham, Ravenwolf, the Farrars, and other classics, some of the best books get overlooked. However, I was fortunate enough that a friend in college first introduced me to 21st Century Wicca. I recently reread it just to remind myself if why I liked it so much, and I’m glad I did!

This is, quite simply, in my opinion, the best Wicca 101 book alongside Cunningham’s “Wicca for the Solitary”. While the latter book goes into more ritual detail, “21st Century Wicca” discusses everyday life as a Wiccan.

While the usual basics are in here, Hunter really shines with the personal testimony and the attention she gives to what it’s like to be a Wiccan in the “real world”. She addresses issues that a lot of high school and college-aged Wiccans (who make up the bulk of the 101 crowd) are concerned with, such as whether or not to find a group, the virtues of self-initiation, and coming out of the broom closet.

It’s an exceptionally realistic look, without going into persecution complexes. The added quotes from people who have been practicing pagan ways for varying amounts of time just makes the book that much more valuable, showing the reader that it really is a very individual path and there’s no single “right” way to do things.

No matter what age you are, if you’re new to Wicca this is an excellent introduction.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Chinese Power Animal Stamps – Wu Xing

Chinese Power Animal Stamps
Wu Xing
Red Wheel/Weiser, 2002
48 pages, 12 stamps, stamp holder, ink pad

Okay, now this is a kit I can get into!

This is a perfect example of why less is more. In the last kit I reviewed, my biggest complaint was that the overall quality was bad because there was just too much “stuff” in there. This kit, on the other hand, solves the problem by offering fewer “extras”, but making them a much better quality.

The kit includes a 48 page booklet and supplies for creating and using stamps of the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac. I’ll start with the stamps themselves, since they were my favorite part. When you open the box, you’ll find a sheet with all twelve rubber stamps on it. Each one has a sticky backing to it so you can mount it on a small rectangle of faux-wood resin. One you’ve done that you can slide the entire thing into a stamp holder/handle shaped like the Emperor in the story of the twelve animals, sitting on a pedestal. This is also made of a nice quality resin, about the best you can do with mass marketing.

I tried out one of the stamps; the design came up really nicely, especially with the red ink pad that was included. And the nice thing is since the stamps can be easily taken out of the holder, and because they’re backed on resin instead of wood, they’re incredibly easy to clean. So the stamps get five pawprints.

The booklet, on the other hand, left plenty to be desired. It’s very, very basic information on the Chinese Zodiac; relatively accurate, at least as it pertains to my Horse and my husband’s Dragon years of birth, but it’s still pretty shallow. I think they could have made a longer, more in-depth book to go along with this and still been able to sell it.

I also think using the term “Power Animal” is a misleading marketing ploy. Your power animal is not your zodiac sign in any astrological system. It is an individual animal spirit and/or aspect of a totem animal that is very personal and isn’t limited to twelve animals. I docked this a few points because of the title.

But I absolutely love the stamps, and the great thing about this is that it makes an awesome gift for just about anyone–artists, scrapbookers, children (over the ages of 3–you don’t want them swallowing the stamps or eating the ink pad), pagans, etc. It’s a bit pricier than most kits, but it’s well worth it. And because the author didn’t try to add in all sorts of little extras, most of the initial cost was put towards nice stamps and a book that, although short, is printed on nice paper.

So I’m going to give it a 3 3/4 pawprints out of five.

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