Exploring Shamanism – Hillary S. Webb

Exploring Shamanism: Using Ancient Rites to Discover the Unlimited Healing Powers of Cosmos and Consciousness
Hillary S. Webb
New Page Books, 2003
223 pages

Okay, first I need to get this out of my system–due to whatever little miswiring there is between my eyes and my brain, there were a number of times I looked at the title of this book and read it as “Exploding Shamanism”. Which would have been an interesting book indeed 😛

That being said, I just want to say that this is an excellent book!

Now, there are a ton of books on basic shamanism out there. Some of them are really good, and some are just kind of “eh”. This is one of the former. It’s a basic guide to shamanism, but it’s one of the best books on neoshamanism I’ve seen.

First of all, the author doesn’t try to pretend she’s more-indigenous-than-thou. She’s quite straightforward about where she’s coming from and admits that she comes from primarily a postindustrial white background, though she has worked with shamans and teachers from numerous cultures. She also doesn’t use the “Okay, I’m going to tell you a story, and you try to figure out where the important parts are” format that drives me NUTS in other books.

Instead, she takes the various techniques and experiences common to most shamanic practices and makes them relevant to our day and age. Not only does she draw on the indigenous and nonindigenous cultures she has learned from, but she also incorporates other areas of study such as psychology. In fact, she has the balance between microcosm and macrocosm down perfectly, IMO.

There are a number of exercises throughout the book, too, that are aimed to let the reader put what s/he reads into practice for hirself, which is an excellent addition. The material lends itself well to personal use in general, and can be used alone or in tandem with other magical/spiritual paths. This is not a book of dogma, but rather a useful guide.

It is primarily a 101 book, but the techniques in it may be used beyond basic practices. I’d highly recommend this to anyone interested in shamanism but not sure where to start, or those who have been trying to learn but are tired of culturally-specific practices that are taken out of their original context.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Meditations With Animals – Gerald Hausman

Meditations With Animals: A Native American Bestiary
Gerald Hausman
Bear & Company, 1986
144 pages

This is a unique little book; part of it is traditional Native American chants and stories from various tribes, taken from interviews for The Bureau of Ethnology Reports. However, the author also provides his own meditations on these tales. The meditations are mindful of the ecological disasters that are destroying the world, piece by piece, as well as humanity’s increasing detachment from Nature, and the importance of renewing that relationship before it’s too late.

The book is divided up by region–tribes of the plains, of the Pacific coastline, the woodlands, etc. Interspersed among the meditations and stories are piece of information about the tribes themselves. It is a sensitive conveyance of tribal lore without being New-Age-crystally (with the exception of one tiny mention of the Natchez being a possible remnant of the Atlanteans, though the mention of it is rather ambiguous, more of a “By the way” kind of thing).

This is a good book for opening up your mind a bit more to the idea of all things being interconnected, particularly in regards to other animals. While occasionally it romanticizes the lives of various tribes, it lacks the “Hey! Look! We’re really Indians!” feel of writers like Brooke Medicine Eagle. I would also recommend the idea of using some of the chants and meditations in here for personal totemic work and animal magic in general.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Magical Ritual Methods – William G. Gray

Magical Ritual Methods
William G. Gray
Samuel Weiser, Inc. 1980
301 pages

I’d been hearing hype about this author for quite some time, particularly from my husband (who has historically had excellent taste in occult works). So I finally sat down and read Magical Ritual Methods, which was suggested to me as an excellent introduction to Gray. It took me several weeks, but I got through it–and what a great read it was!

I’ve been practicing magic (primarily from a neopagan/neoshamanic viewpoint, with a healthy dose of Chaos magic) for a little over a decade at this point. It’s hard to classify this book, because although it goes through the basics of magic, it does so in an incredibly thorough manner. This is by far the best explanation of the mechanics of magic I’ve read–why and how it works, from the connections to the Inner World, to the psychological implications, and so forth. Rather than passing magic off as solely the result of symbols (as is so popular in postmodern magical styles), Gray allows for the independent existence of entities, focusing on the creation of links to them through the internal self.

I can definitely see the groundwork of Chaos magic in this text. Rather than dogmatically adhering to a particular paradigm, Gray explains that what’s important about the symbols used is that they are relevant to the individual magician. He boils magical ritual practices and tools down to the very bare bones, and shows us their inner workings–which really are nowhere near as complex as one might think (or fear). He teaches with both authority and humor, and this makes it an excellent instructional text.

The writing style is a little older than most of what’s available today; I had to read the book in increments and give it time to digest. It’s not impossible, though–I got plenty out of it so long as I took it slow and gave it time to sink in, and after I got used to the style I was fine. However, for those raised on modern writing styles and content depth, the text may be a bit difficult. My basic understanding of magic is part of what helped me to grasp the concepts described here, and I know I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much out of it had I read it a decade ago when I was just getting started. So I’m not sure whether I’d recommend this as a beginner’s book or not. It depends on the individual; some may have no problem diving right in, while others may want to wait until they’ve read a few simpler texts to give them the very basic context of magical practice.

I only have a couple of small complaints, primarily dealing with a bit of dogma. Gray seems to be under the impression that ritual magic is a superior form of the art, and occasionally makes disparaging remarks about more “primitive” forms of magic. While I can see his point, for instance, that certain styles of magic are less efficient, and that dedicated ritual practice has refined the techniques, I don’t think that less formal styles are to be discarded entirely. In fact, I intend to take the lessons in this book and use them to refine my own practices, combining ideas from this with my own neoshamanic/etc. work. I also disagree with his dualistic approach, particularly in the very last chapter where he expounds on the differences between Cosmos and Chaos and brings up the old White vs. Black magician/lodge thing. Granted, he handles it in a MUCH less sensationalistic manner, and he makes some very, very good points about the current destructive nature that humanity as a whole has adopted. However, the White/Black connotations may interfere in some minds with the actual message–that magic can be used to evolve humanity to a higher point, help us get past the wars and pettiness and cruelty that are so commonly demonstrated.

This has definitely joined an elite shelf of my favorite books, and I believe it’s going to be one that will be in my most-recommended list when people ask for suggestions.

Five enthusiastic pawprints out of five.

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The Banshee by Patricia Lysaght

The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger
Patricia Lysaght
Roberts Rinheardt, 1997
433 pages

It’s been a few months since I read this, but the information stands out in my mind more than most books do. I’d been talking about it recently, so i decided to go ahead and do my official review of it.

This is by far the most comprehensive, scholarly exploration of Irish banshee lore out there. Tired of fantasy fiction featuring male banshees, and confusion between banshees and other denizens of the Otherworld? This book sets the record straight.

The author draws a lot of her information from two sets of surveys about banshee lore; one is from the turn of the 20th century, and the other is from the 1970s. The surveys targeted regular, everyday people across Ireland in numerous counties, and Lysaght is careful to show the distribution of the respondents. Lysaght herself is concerned less with what mythology books have to say, and more what the common person in the country fo the banshee’s origin believed via oral tradition.

There’s also a lot of discussion as to what the banshee actually is (dead relative, faery woman, etc.) as well as her appearance. Her behavior is also scrutinized, as is the comb that is sometimes featured in anecdotes about her, and whether she is seen, heard or both. And there’s a good talk about the origins of the word bean-sidhe, “faery woman”, and the connotations thereof.

Lysaght has been absolutely meticulous in her research. Primary sources are a definite plus, and her bibliography is quite solid. Her writing style is excellent, too–rather than being bored by dry academic writing, I found myself drawn into her quest to find more information about this enigmatic member of mythology.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Shamanic Wisdom II : The Way of the Animal Spirits – Dolfyn and Swimming Wolf

Shamanic Wisdom II : The Way of the Animal Spirits
Dolfyn and Swimming Wolf
Earthspirit Inc., 1996
131 pages

This is one of a number of basic totemism 101 dictionaries out there. While there’s nothing that really makes it stand out, it’s nowhere near the worst I’ve seen. The authors offer the basics of totemism, including what totems are, how to find them, and how to work with them. It also includes a basic dictionary, which while it includes the usual suspects (Wolf, Bear, Buffalo) it also has a few lesser-known totems (Camel, for example). It’s well-written, brings up some really good points about how animal behavior affects totemic qualities, and adequately covers the introductory information one needs for working with animal totems.

I suppose my biggest complaint (other than it being a rather unremarkable book compared to similar ones of its genre) is that the authors do indulge in some suspected plastic shamanism. They don’t really give any evidence for being part of any authentic indigenous tradition, yet they throw around “medicine” and “shamanic peoples” left and right. Given some of the other titles that Dolfyn has published (more neoshamanic work, crystals, etc.) I’d wager that they’re coming from primarily a New Age background.

This is a good book if you want the basics of neopagan/New Age totemism; take the plastic parts with a grain of salt, and make sure you read more than just this book, but you could definitely have worse introductions to the topic.

Three and three quarters pawprints.

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