Return of the Bird Tribes – Ken Carey – March BBBR

Return of the Bird Tribes
Ken Carey
HarperSanFrancisco, 1988
252 pages

I bet you thought I forgot about this month’s Bargain Bin Book Review! Nope. I’ve just been pretty busy, but technically it *is* still March, and I do reserve the right to post the BBBR any time in the month. That being said, I will try to be a little earlier about it. But without further ado, here’s this month’s BBBR.

I was thrilled when I found this book on the bargain rack, since it was one that I’d been wanting to read for quite some time. I’d heard it was partly totemic, partly Otherkin-related, and so my curiosity was piqued.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by the result. This is one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of the New Age. The author claims to have channelled the entire work through communication with a “higher being” that watches over humanity, and is in fact one of a number of these higher beings. As is common among New Age channelling, the message is uber-positive, “love” and “peace” are thrown around like confetti, and the general message is “This generation is ever so special–time for you to realize your potential!”

Nowe, I have nothing against love, peace, and achieving one’s full potential as an individual and as part of a society. Gods know we need more of that. The problem is that this particular conveyance of that message is wrapped up in a bunch of cultural appropriation and seriously revisionist history. We have a Caucasian, New Age author supposedly channelling information about Native American cultures, everything from White Buffalo Calf Woman to Hiawatha and the Iroquois League (the entity he’s channelling supposedly was one of the main players at the forming of that treaty). It’s pretty much a cliche, and it’s a classic example of cultural appropriation. And, also in the style of the New Age, the channelling includes the idea that, prior to a point 2,500 years ago (conveniently at a time and place where we have no written history) the Native Americans were all peaceful and living in a virtual utopia–I’m surprised he didn’t try to claim they were all vegan. And all of human history has apparently been manipulated by these higher powers–apparently humans themselves can’t understand reality beyond a certain point; we have to have a higher spirit to help us.

Now, I have no issue with Unverified Personal Gnosis. However, it’s important to view any UPG, no matter how inspired, with constructive criticism. The fact that most of the material matches with New Age revisionist history rather than commonly accepted history should be cause, at the very least, for skeptical comparison. The entire work, though, is presented as genuine, without any critique or questioning whatsoever. No, it’s not romantic to analyze one’s meditations and question them. But it’s also not healthy to romanticize Native Americans as the “Noble Savages” while thousands are barely scraping by on reservations across the country.

This book would have been better off if the author had taken the results of his channelling efforts and distilled them into a direct critique of modern society, adding a grain of salt for good measure. He could have discussed the virtues of literal vs. metaphorical understanding of what he received. There are some good points in here, including the idea that a person can evolve beyond the basics of everyday life, and that the way we’re doing things now is a Bad Idea. However, they’re so wrapped up in apocalyptic fantasy, cultural appropriation and the basic assertion that we’re essentially being directed by higher powers (instead of by our own wills) that the lessons in here are all but lost in a sea of drek.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Sexual Ecstasy and the Divine – Yasmine Galenorn

Sexual Ecstasy and the Divine: The Passions and Pain of Our Bodies
Yasmine Galenorn
Crossing Press, 2003
274 pages

I first picked this book up because I’d heard the author talked about BDSM and sacred sexuality; plus I liked what she’d done with Totem Magic. Once again I found myself really enjoying this unique work.

The main theme is learning to be comfortable with your sexuality. Galenorn writes frankly and openly about sex; if you find yourself blushing, you’re probably not very sexually comfortable. On the other hand, her anecdotes and examples don’t plunge into erotica. She’s got a good balanced way of explaining things, and I found this to be a definite plus.

Her magical theory is mixed in with some really well-crafted rituals. I normally don’t really care for books that have a lot of pre-crafted magic in them, but in this case we’re offered a number of pathworking exercises that get us in touch with our bodies and our sexuality, as wlel as our partners. They’re well-written, and have good variety to them.

She doesn’t shy away from controversy, either. There’s a chapter on rape (and what to do if you’ve survived one), and as mentioned earlier she’s not afriad to talk about kink, either. She’s also poly and non-hetero friendly for the most part, though I strongly disagree with her assertion on p. 99 that “the strongest connection is made through the pairing of male and female”. Masculine and feminine energies can be very strong in people of any sex, and this also doesn’t take into account transgendered people, genderqueer folk, intersexed, spiritual androgyne, etc.

Still, one hetero-biased comment in a sea of excellent material doesn’t ruin the book; it’s merely her perspective. Overall, it’s a really good offering for anyone who wants sex-positive magic that isn’t afraid of the fringes.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Cunningham’s Encyclopedias – Scott Cunningham

Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs
Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem and Metal Magic
Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews
Scott Cunningham
Llewellyn, various

I’ve been using these books for a decade and realized I’ve never actually reviewed them–so here you go.

There’s a good reason these three books are classics in neopaganism (and why my copies are quite well-worn). They’re wonderfully complete books of correspondences for plants, minerals and various things that smell good, respectively. The author did a good bit of research on the history of each element he talks about, as well as gives modern uses for them in magical terms.

As with the rest of his work, his writing style in these encyclopedias is easy to read and gets the point across. Unlike some more recent works, he doesn’t pack the books fullk of useless filler–every page is full of useful information. He doesn’t rely on a thousand pre-crafted spells and rituals. These books provide information on the tools to be used, and what they can be used for, but it’s up to the individual practitioner to decided how it’s done.

I have very few of the books I started out with back in the mid-to-late-90s, and these three have withstood the test of time–and a shifting practice. I only lament that Cunningham is no longer with us; I’d love to be able to tell him how formative his works were to my own practice.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Magickal Connections – Lisa McSherry

Magickal Connections: Creating a Lasting and Healthy Spiritual Group
Lisa McSherry
New Page, 2007
253 pages

This is the newest of a number of books that have come out in recent years on effective creation and management of pagan and occult groups. The author has been the high priestess of an online Wiccan coven for the better part of a decade, and speaks with good authority on the topic.

There’s a LOT of good material in here. McSherry blends straightforward advice, anecdotes, and exercises and rituals to aid the reader in hir endeavours. She’s adamant about the fact that starting a coven (or any other group) is not an easy task, and any HP/S is in for a LOT of work, even if s/he does manage to find people to distribute the work among. However, for those willing to take on the work of leading and administrating a group, there are some definite gems in this book.

Where she really shines is communication. A lot of the reason for the success or failure of any group, pagan or otherwise, is the communication involved. McSherry covers many angles of the emotions involved, as well as techniques for more effective communication, both in person and online. And, true to her first book, The Virtual Pagan, she does offer particular advice for cyber covens, though I’d also recommend her earlier book for a more in-depth view.

Do be forewarned–although the cover says that the book covers “groves, covens, temples, and magickal families”, a lot of the material is more “coveny”. This is understandable given McSherry’s extensive experience in a coven setting. However, those who are interested in starting magical orders or other types of non-coven group may want to supplement their research with materials that are more specific to their type of organization. (Don’t skip over this book, though–the more general information is very worth it!)

My only other complaints have nothing to do with the author and everything to do with the publisher. I found a number of typos throughout the book; another copy edit may have cleaned those up. However, the real downer is the actual physical quality of the book–the paper for both the pages and the cover is incredibly thin, enough that you can see the next page faintly through it. And the ink on some of the pages is smudged. The layout and cover design, on the other hand, are excellent, and easy on the eyes.

But don’t let the paper quality deter you–this is a wonderful book, and a must-have if you’re thinking of starting a coven. Reading this and using the advice given should help nip a lot of problems in the bud.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Shamanism Volume III: Animal Medicine Powers – Dolfyn

Shamanism Volume III: Animal Medicine Powers
Earthspirit, 1992
30 pages

This little booklet of 30 pages was published way back in 1992, before the current glut of totem animal dictionaries settled itself into the market. It’s a precursor to Shamanic WIsdom II, which was a full sized book that Dolfyn wrote a couple of years later with Swimming Wolf.

The Good: The author’s interpretations of various totemic qualities are largely based on actual animal behaviors. They’re quite innovative, and it’s rare for me to say that about Yet Another Totem Animal Dictionary. There’s also a wide variety of animals, not just the Big Impressive North American Mammals and Birds. And the author is very ecologically-minded, talking about why it’s important to give back to the Nature we take from and supporting a balance.

The Bad: Lots of typos and spelling errors, which drove me nuts as I was reading. Also, it’s pretty white-light. I was reading the entry on Dolphin: “People who swim with Dolphins in the wild often report great emotional healing from Dolphin’s unconditional love” (p. 13). Funny how no one ever mentions how dolphins are also known to commit rape, both on other dolphins and, according to unsubstantiated rumors, human beings. Not that it necessarily has much bearing on totemism, but dolphins have been particularly romanticized by the New Age.

The Ugly: Very, very wannabe Native. Any animal-magic related book with “Medicine” in the title should raise warning flags. The author constantly refers to how “the tribes” or “Native American Indians” did X or believed Y. And, of course, there’s absolutely no bibliography, let alone in-text citations, showing where the author got the information.

Still, if you can overlook the bad and the ugly, the good is, well, pretty good. I’m hanging onto this to take to my totemism classes (along with a slew of other totem dictionaries) for people to use post-meditation to get some initial research on the animals they talked to.

Three and three quarters pawprints out of five.

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Animal Totem Astrology – Debbie Burns

Animal Totem Astrology
Debbie Burns
Lansdowne, 2001
~78 pages

The concept for this book was really neat; the execution, on the other hand, fell far short of full potential. This was an attempt at a totemic zodiac, a combination of neopagan totemic qualities and traditional Western astrology, mixed in (supposedly) with some indigenous beliefs about the animals associated with certian birth months (though the source material pretty much confirms a basis in plastic shamanism.

The author explains the animals associated with each month (conveniently, they correspond to the twelve Western zodiac signs). She also brings in seasonal and time-of-day correspondences to try to show the qualities of people according to when they were born, all based on totemic qualities mixed with common astrological information.

Unfortunately, what could have been a really neat idea fell flat. I would love to see someone work with totem animals in association with Western astrology to create a new system–but I’d like to see it done in more depth. I highly doubt that what was described here is traditional to any tribe,a dn i think the author would have been much better off starting from scratch, studying both astrology and modern totemism, and then creating her own system based on these two areas of spirituality. Instead, she draws from some of the worst offenders of plastic shamanism, including Sun Bear and Jamie Sams, and perpetuates a whole bunch of drek. Her bibliography is barely over a dozen books, and almost all of them are New Age treatments of indigenous topics. She presents the whole thing as genuine “Native American” spirituality, in the grand tradition of her predecessors, and the whole thing ends up a train wreck.

I’m giving it an extra half of a pawprint, just because I like the concept (as long as it’s presented as a new system). But other than that, meh.

One and a half pawprints.
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King, Warrior, Magician, Lover – Robert Moore & Douglas Gilette

King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine
Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette
HarperSanFrancisco, 1991
192 pages

This is an absolutely spectacular answer to a lot of societal gender issues–not the only answer, mind you, but an excellent tool to have in your self-development arsenal. This includes women, too (I’ll get to that in a minute).

The four archetypes in the title are covered both in adult and juvenile versions, in brief in the first chapter, and then the mature archetypes get an entire chapter dedicated to each. Both the positive, healthy aspects, and the Shadow aspects, are covered. The language is wonderfully easy on the eyes, conversational without losing content.

As I read, I found myself recognizing a lot of the traits of these archetypes in people I knew–and myself. I strongly urge everyone, not just men, to snag a copy of this. It’s not just so that women can finally “understand men”. It’s because this is also a map to the Animus, that within women which is male, and which is often lost track of. I found myself nodding in recognition at both Boy and Man traits of various archetypes that I found to be familiar within myself, and this has definitely given me more to chew on.

And, in the very back of the book there are several meditations that basically amount to what magicians know as pathworking and invocation for readers to use to work with their own archetypal selves. This is very much a valuable tool, and I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten more mention in the pagan community since I’ve heard grumbling now and then that paganism is too female-centric. This book has been out since 1990, and I think it would go a long way in helping not only pagan men, but (as I said before) people in general understand *human* psychology better.

I also like that it places responsibility at the foot of certain threads of feminism for some of the more recent anti-male sentiments in society, particularly that which blames all men for all the problems women have while vehemently denying that men actually have problems, thanks to their male “privilege”. My own approach to feminism had always been similar to Action Girl – Girl-positive and female-friendly — never anti-boy. While I think the work is far from being over, I’m less of a feminist these days and more of an “everyone-ist”. If we’re going to really bring equality into reality in any capacity, we have to extend that equality to everyone, not just women. I’ve talked to enough men who aren’t exactly happy with the bad conditioning and pigeonholes they get stuck into, and I believe that rather than trying to place the blame for the way things are in the hands of one sex or another, it needs to be directed at the culture in general that breeds insecurity. As the authors pointed out, patriarchy isn’t caused by masculine energy in general–it’s caused by immature masculine energy that is not only anti-female, but anti-mature male as well. This book is an excellent tool for deprogramming the destructive, immature masculine and helping to promote the healthy, creative masculine.

Okay, off my soapbox now….

For the bad parts–the authors refer to sadomasochism as “perversion” and male humiliation of women. Um, no. Ignore this part. It’s one of the few parts that does date the book. Also, I really wish they’d gone into more detail on how to work with the archetypes, instead of a couple of paragraphs at the end of each chapter. There are books for at least three of the four archetypes on their own, but they’re out of print and very expensive to get ahold of.

But, in short, really, really, really good book, recommended to anyone.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Animal Spirit Guides – Steven D. Farmer

Animal Spirit Guides: An Easy-to-Use Handbook for Identifying and Understanding Your Power Animals and Animal Spirit Helpers
Steven D. Farmer
Hay House, 2006

Just another totem animal dictionary.

I’d read Farmer’s Power Animals a few months back, and given it high ratings because despite it being a totem animal dictionary for the most part, it really was a creative format. This is the followup, written by Farmer because people asked him about animals he hadn’t mentioned in the first book. It’s good, not great.

Okay, I know other readers justify that this isn’t a rip-off of Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak because it has animals that the older book doesn’t. Okay, fair enough–I was happy to see, among others, Dragon and Lobster. I’ve seen mythical animals elsewhere, but not that commonly, and just seeing Lobster made my evening! But if I were to have someone choose between buying this book plus Power Animals, or buying Andrews’ Animal-Speak and Animal-Wise, I’d say “Well, do you want your animal definitions in great detail, or not so much detail?” Where Andrews spends paragraphs on each animal, Farmer gives a little bit of info on what to do if an animal comes into your life, and what to do if it’s your power animal.

But it’s still just another totem animal dictionary. This book doesn’t really have much in it beyond Farmer’s interpretations of what the animals mean–he tries to justify its uniqueness by saying that he went to the animals themselves, but the thing is, totem animals give us each personalized messages. This is why the dictionaries are limited in their usefulness–no matter how well written, you’re still getting the author’s interpretation of the animal’s traits. And the material in Power Animals is pretty much the standard how-to-work-with-totems/etc. fare that you find in Andrews and other authors’ works.

That being said, this isn’t a bad book. It’s just a different approach to the usual material. I do commend it for having Lobster in there, and for having another unique format, but in the end there’s really nothing here that makes it stand out from the dozen-plus animal totem dictionaries out on the market.

Three and three quarters pawprints out of five.

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Earth Angels – Doreen Virtue

Earth Angels: A Pocket Guide for Incarnated Angels, Elementals, Starpeople, Walk-Ins, and Wizards
Doreen Virtue
Hay House, 2002
176 pages

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I picked this book up. I’d heard it was something kind of like Otherkin, but not using that term. I was a little leery when I saw that the author was a very popular, angels-are-all-sweetness-and-light New Age icon, but decided to give it a try anyway.

Talk about Otherkin Lite.

“Earth Angels” are basically people who are reincarnated “elementals” (read: therianthropes, elves and fae Otherkin), angels (read: angelkin), starpeople (read: aliens), Wise Ones (read: people who worked magic in a past life) and walk-ins. Okay, that’s not so very different from what a lot of Otherkin believe.

However, it’s how she explains the phenomenon of people who were not human in other lives that ruins the book for me. First off, the way you determine what type of “Earth Angel” you are is basically a 30-question “Are you like this? How about this?” quiz that would fit in perfectly on Quizilla–samples of questions are whether you’re overweight, if you dye your hair, if you’re of Celtic ancestry, whether you’re good at handling money or not, if you practice Reiki, or believe in magic. Supposedly these things tell you what type of Earth Angel you are (never mind that pretty much everything she asks about are things that are common among garden-variety humans, too).

Then, her information about each group is not only based on stereotyped behavior and belief patterns that are common among everyday humans as well as ‘kin, but it’s really, really, really white-light and saccharine. For example, she says that all incarnated elementals are major environmentalists, always happy (but prone to mood swings), and “physically robust”. And as far as the whole Wise Ones thing goes, a lot of it plays right into the Atlantean thing–the whole “Oh, magic isn’t for regular people–anyone who works magic must be at a higher vibrational level than everyone else!” thing as well as the Burning Times persecution complex. All walk-ins, on the other hand, supposedly walked in because they have some mission to fulfill.

And speaking of missions, according to this book, all Earth Angels are here for the purpose of Saving the World!

I don’t doubt that the author ran into a lot of people who, were they in the Otherkin community, would be considered Otherkin. However, this book shows a distinct lack of skepticism and self-questioning, things that are common in the Otherkin community. Instead, it tells readers exactly what they want to hear–“You love nature, so you must be an Incarnated Elemental!” or “You love helping people and often find yourself in codependent relationships–you must be an Incarnated Angel!” While the end of each chapter on specific types of Earth Angels does have some tips on how to counteract the negative aspects of being whatever you are, it’s assumed that by answering the spiffy little quiz at the beginning that you are an Earth Angel–there’s nothing on questioning yourself further, only how to fulfill your God-given mission!

If you think being other than human is a great way to feel special, feel free to pick this up. Otherwise, save your money.

One pawprint out of five.

The Power of Animals – Brian Morris

The Power of Animals: An Ethnography
Brian Morris
Berg Publishers, 2000
288 pages

Brian Morris spent a number of years living among the indigenous people of Malawi in southeast Africa. His focus in this, and a companion volume that I’ll be reading soon, “Animals and Ancestors: An Ethnography”, is the relationship between the various cultures in Malawi, and the native fauna. “The Power of Animals” specifically focuses on relatively more mundane aspects, such as the hunt and other everyday interactions with animals, as well as touching on moeity in relation to animal-symbolized clans.

The book is divided up into four primary chapters. The first goes into great detail about the basic social structure common in Malawi cultures, and describes its matrilineal nature. Central to this structure is the sedentary village-based lifestyle that primarily involves women, children, and elders, and the mature men who are considered outsiders, and who may have several families in several villages among whom they divide their time. This segues into the next chapter which goes into greater detail on hunting traditions. Not only are older traditions covered, but the changes wrought by European invasion and the rise of capitolism, as well as the overhunting of wildlife by European hunters and the ivory trade in general, are examined as well. Folk classifications make up the third chapter. The taxonomy of animals in Malawi is quite different from Eurocentric taxonomy, and the differences in relationship between humans and animals is made quite clear per culture in this respect. Finally, there’s a chapter dealing specifically with the attitudes the Malawi tribes have towards animals, based upon the research done in the previous three chapters.

This is an incredible look at one particular set of cultures’ views towards animals, and nature in general. The difference in worldview between these people, and people in post-industrial countries, is at times astounding. Reading this also reminded me of the detachment that American culture has from nature in general. For instance, Morris pinpointed the erroneous argument that meat-eating, and the pleasure derived thereof, is primarily a Caucasian corruption, by exploring the eagerness to procure meat that the people around him studied. Additionally, Morris is careful to point out that his research was done in the field, while digging mice up or otherwise participating in day to day activities with his “subhects of study”, and his close relationship shows in his work, which lacks the detachment, Eurocentricism and condescension often found on anthropological work.

The writing is quite academic, and those who aren’t used to this style of writing may take a bit to get used to it. However, it is far from being a dry read, and once I got into the rhythm of Morris’ writing style I really enjoyed myself. I will say there are a number of typos and grammatical errors, but content-wise this book is excellent.

This truly is a wonderful look at a very complex series of human-animal attitudes. I’m looking forward to reading “Animals and Ancestors” to see what the rest of his research on this says.

Five pawprints out of five.

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