City Magick – Christopher Penczak

City Magick: Urban Rituals, Spells and Shamanism
Christopher Penczak
Weiser Books, 2001
302 pages

One of the advantages to being a bibliophile who marries or moves in with a bibliophile is the combination of libraries. Selling off the duplicate copies makes room for more books, and you get to read books you might never have had a chance to see otherwise. City Magick is one of the books that Taylor brought into our mutual library, and it’s my latest commuting conquest.

Having been raised in a rural area, it’s taken some effort to adjust to living in the city. Granted, Portland is pretty green, with a lot of parks in the city proper. However, I’ve also lived in places where it wasn’t so easy to get to greenspace. While I was somewhat aware of the magic of manmade objects and creations, I wish I’d had this book around to give me some extra ideas–I definitely would have coped a lot more quickly!

Penczak does a great job of taking basic (and some intermediate) magical practices and making them relevant to the land of concrete and steel. From an absolutely wonderful section on the sometimes neglected urban totem animals, to a recreation of the tree of life as a skyscraper (complete with mental picture of Spider-man as a shaman), he demonstrates that the concepts often found in green nature-based practices can also be adapted to more “artificial” environments. And that’s one of the really beautiful things about this book; it reminds us that even though the components may have been altered somewhat, everything came from nature and is subject to it. Of course, Penczak doesn’t ignore the fact that manmade creations have done harm to nature, both green and otherwise. However, he offers a realistic resource for those who do choose to (or must) live in an urban area.

There’s a nice dash of Chaos magic in here, too. I thought his variations on sigils were wonderful, especially those appropriating graffiti. It’s proof that subversion is pretty well universal, and the graffiti that’s used to mark territory or deface public property can also be taken and reworked for personal magical purposes. And he has a nicely flexible perspective on deities and other denizens, particularly those of pop culture, the modern mythology of the city. I add bonus points for open-mindedness!

Overall, this is a great book, especially for someone who’s still getting their feet wet in magical practice but thinks s/he has to be out in the middle of a field. As I said before, the basics are covered, but there are plenty of suggestions for expansion into intermediate territory. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I have some ideas for the next time I’m out wandering in downtown Portland.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Animal Messages – Susie Green

Animal Messages
Susie Green
Cico Books, 2005
64 pages + 52 cards

If I didn’t already have a good relationship with my Animal Wise deck, I think Animal Messages would be my top choice for a totem deck. This lesser-known deck is pretty much the best one I’ve seen besides Animal Wise. It’s an almost flawless tool, as far as I’m concerned.

One of the things I love about Green’s work with totems is that she’s incredibly environmentally aware. Some writers, particularly in the New Age, get so wrapped up in “higher planes of existence” and “travelling to the Underworld to meet your power animal” that they forget to connect with this reality. Not Susie Green, though–she takes the spiritual and applies it directly to the worldl around and within us. She has an acute understanding of how the animals themselves see the world, and how we can interact with them on their level of understanding, more instinctual but no less important or powerful.

For being such a small thing, the accompanying booklet has a lot of info in it. Rather than pontificating on what Native people supposedly do (with no research from actual tribes), Green packs a lot of thought about the human-animal connection, different spreads that she finds work well and why, and streamlined suggestions for figuring out what each card represents. Granted, there’s always room for more information on that last, but Green gives good starting points for people to work with–she’s excellent at making every word count, and again she focuses on an animal-centric point of view.

The artwork on these cards is absolutely astounding. Csaba Pasztors’s paintings of the animals are vividly colored and realistic. They’re an absolute joy to look at, and I can safely say this is the most visually attractive deck I’ve ever seen.

Overall, an excellent totem animal deck, limited only by the usual parameters of such things–there are never enough cards for all the animals, and there’s never really enough room for all the information on each one. An excellent tool alone, or as a companion to Green’s first book, Animal Wisdom.

Five pawprints out of five.

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My Familiar – Jenine Wilson

My Familiar
Jenine Wilson
Jensonbooks, 2007
201 pages

I first encountered this book after the author contacted me about using a quote from my own Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal magic at the start of the book. She was kind enough to supply me with a copy, which arrived yesterday–and conveniently I was in need of something to read.

My Familiar is a lovely work of young adult fiction. Nikki, the main character, is a high school student who, upon turning 16, finds that she can no longer touch any member of the opposite sex without getting violently ill–except for her best friend, Robert. In the early chapters of the book we get to see a slice out of Nikki’s life as she goes through the last few days of the school year, deals with the gossip that flies after she has a fight with Robert, and later heads to a party hosted by one of the most popular girls in school.

Simple high school drama, right? Not quite. Remember that whole unable-to-touch-guys thing? Keep an eye on the guys in this story, as they’ve got quite a tale to tell about just why that is. I won’t give away the details (you’ll just have to read for yourself) but Wilson has woven an engaging story that leads up to a great ending. Her characters are interesting people to observe, and the story has some neat little twists in it.

I think my only complaint about the book is that the dialogue is sometimes a bit rough around the edges, and doesn’t sound quite the way someone might talk. However, overall Wilson is a great writer, and she does an excellent job of creating a setting, placing interesting characters in it, and telling the story of what they go through in a way that’s neither too brief nor too wordy. A touch of extra editing would probably help clean the dialogue up, and all told it’s a good effort. It makes me want to at some point pick up Wilson’s first book, The Shadow Within, just for the fun of it.

This would be an excellent book for kids about 4th grade and up into the early teens, especially if the younger ones are precocious readers (though be aware that there is a bit of not too incredibly graphic violence in it). Pagan parents should especially be interested, especially if their kidlets are curious about magic–while as with any fantasy-tinged work the magic isn’t exactly realistic, the mention of familiars can spark more serious conversations. However, the story will appeal to kids from any background–the magic is less pagan and more urban fantasy.

And, for the record, it’s got one of the cutest covers I’ve ever seen 🙂

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor – Ruth E. St. Leger-Gordon

Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor
Ruth E. St. Leger-Gordon
Bell Publishing Company, 1972
196 pages

I first picked up this book because it dedicates a couple of chapters to black dogs/whisht hounds, one of my favorite ghosts/cryptozoological entities. The author collected a variety of stories and tales of everything from hauntings to dancing stone circles to wart healing white witches and created this nice compendium of folklore specific to Dartmoor in the UK. Apparently Dartmoor has more than its fair share of etheral and paranormal activity, as evidenced by the rich abundance of examples the author was able to give.

The folklore chapters are much stronger than the witchcraft ones. St. Leger-Gordon collects a nice variety of local examples involving ancient stones and ruins, as well as tales of souls condemned to transformation and impossible feats before they can rest, as atonement for their wickedness. She manages to fit a lot of these stories in without shortening them too much–in fact, she does an excellent job of managing her space, tying the stories together without adding too much filler. And rather than only relying on older stories, she brings up a number of relatively recent (to her time, anyway) examples, showing that haunts and hunts and other such things do persist into modern day (though she worries for their continuation amid “progress”).

The witchcraft chapters, on the other hand, are heavily littered with a lot of Margaret Murray’s bunk. The author also takes Gerald Gardner’s claims of Wicca’s antiquity as truth, which damages the integrity of the book as a whole. However, the examples of both healing and cursing done by local witches (who use Bible verses in their wart charming, rather than dancing to Diana) show once again the local folklore in practice. St. Leger-Gorden would have been better off sticking to the traditional folklore rather than attempting to bring in modern, unverified sources that draw less on the traditions and more on 19th-century romanticized reconstructions.

Still, overall I really liked reading this book. Beyond the poor modern research it’s an excellent look at the tales and traditions of a particular part of the world shown in detail, written by a skilled author. Definitely a keeper!

Four pawprints out of five

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Sex and Magic – David Farren

Sex and Magic
David Farren
Simon and Schuster, 1975
192 pages

I picked this up used on a lark not too long ago. I’d never actually heard anyone refer to this particular text, and at first glance it didn’t seem like one of those sensational “OMG SEX AND SATAN!” books that you occasionally find. So I decided to give it a try.

I liked it overall. The author isn’t a magician himself, but he did a good job of researching magic in the mid-1970s. Along with discussions of Wicca and gypsy witchcraft, he also brings in ceremonial magic and LaVeyan Satanism, as well as Eastern philosophies and the Western traditions they inspired. As for the sex part, it’s rather subdued, though he does talk a lot about the need to change attitudes in society overall–something that Taylor and I talk about in Kink
Magic
over three decades later.

In fact, this book is primarily theory, written by a philosopher. There’s a lot of material on symbolism, as well as expose’s that the supposedly lurid and kinky evil rites of various magical groups down through the centuries were a lot more hype than reality, with a lot of glorified circle jerks and bits of *gasp* homosexuality. Having read “Brave New World” recently, the accounts of the feelies in the latter book seemed a lot more interesting than what Farren describes.

There is a bit of practical material in here, though it’s almost entirely limited to folklore and a bit of I Ching divination. The long subtitle of the book, “How to use the spells, potions and ancient knowledge of magic to improve and enhance your sexual life” made me think that this would be a lot more hands-on (so to speak). It’s not a bad book, mind you–just don’t expect a lot of step by step how-tos. I believe it was more written for the nonmagician, and makes for a good source in that respect. Farren makes a good argument for the place of both sex and magic in a healthy society, while promoting positive attitudes towards the body and recommending the abolishment of sexism.

Overall, an interesting find.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Spells for Cats – Daisy Pepper

Spells for Cats
Daisy Pepper
Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 2002
96 pages

This is one of those cute little hardcover gift books you find at the chain stores. When I first got it from Amazon, I wasn’t sure what the premise would be–would it be yet another “Here are some cat deities, and how about reading your cat’s astrological chart?” book in the vein of Enchanted Cat and Your Magickal Cat. Or would it be something entirely different?

Well, it’s definitely a book of spells, and cats are involved. They range from spells to keep cats safe to sabbat celebrations that are centered on the feline who owns you. Creative ideas include a spell to be sure the cat only kills vermin, and one that blesses an herb garden planted especially for an older cat. There’s even a touching ritual for marking the passing of a kitty friend. The spells are simple and sweet, nothing too incredibly complicated; this book is meant for a broader audience than just the pagan community.

That also means it’s not a particularly theory-heavy book; it’s mainly just the spells. This is a light-hearted gift book, not a serious treatise on feline familiars. Still, the material is quite practical to the average witch or pagan who might like to involve hir cat a bit more in hir magical work. There are occasional historical inaccuracies or oddities, and the information is pretty simplified, but no huge glaring errors. My only real problem is that for all the spells that are meant to protect the cat, the author advocates letting cats roam unattended outdoors, where they’re more at risk for getting injured or killed by dogs, cars, or pedestrians. Cats can’t be contained in the safety of a yard like a dog, and so IMO need to be kept indoors.

Still, it’s a cute little book and would make a nice gift for a pagan–or for a pagan-friendly acquaintance (and hir cat(s)) who might get a kick out of it. The whimsical drawings of cats accentuate the text, and it’s a very aesthetically pleasing work. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is, and for that I like it.

Four kittyprints out of five.

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Good Witch, Bad Witch – Gillian Kemp – July BBBR

Good Witch, Bad Witch: Sweet Spells and Dark Charms
Gilliam Kemp
Bulfinch, 2002
64 pages + 52 cards

The first thing that drew me into this set is the artwork. Bright colors, beautifully painted, with whimsical images of witches, both “good” and “bad”. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any notation of who are artist was. Still, the artwork is a lovely illustration of the text.

This set is…well…it’s best summed up as “cute”. There’s a very playful air to the way Kemp writes about her good and bad witches, 26 of each. The Good Witches include the Stardust Witch, who “makes dreams come true” (22), the Fire Witch who “makes temperatures rise” (32) and the South Witch, who “predicts a happy phase when the sun will shine for you” (36). The Bad Witches, on the other hand, features such characters as the Warty Witch, who “speaks to you in a vein of honesty, ‘warts and all'” (46), the Wickedest Witch who “reveals that jealousy may create havoc” (49) and the Venomous Witch who is “as poisonous as an adder’s fang” (55). The various roles of each of the witches in this divinatory pack deal primarily with everyday concerns such as love and good living. Along with descriptions of the “personality” of each witch, the general attributes and forecasts that each card suggests are explained. Each entry is completed with a brief spell that fits the theme of the card that comes up.

Some may look askance at some of the spells; for example, there are several that are dedicated to ruining someone else’s relationship or getting revenge on others. These hearken back to historical witchcraft, in which the spells for love and healing were joined by the equally common spells for revenge and sickness–in modern practices of witchcraft (particularly Wicca) the latter aren’t spoken of as much in an attempt to improve P.R. for paganism as a whole. While most witches choose not to implement such spells, the fact that they exist shouldn’t be denied. It all comes down to personal ethics.

I think my only complaint is that it is pretty lightweight. The descriptions are quite brief, and I would have enjoyed reading about how Kemp actually created the deck–a story is always a nice addition. Still, for being a little gift-box divination set, it’s pretty darned good.

For all its cute factor, this is a very usable deck. Kemp did a great job of designing some sample layouts to be used with this deck, and they serve a very functional purpose. If you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary that keeps even the “bad” witches light-hearted, this is a fun deck to work–or play–with.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Sea, Land, Sky: A Dragon Magick Grimoire – Parker J. Torrence

Sea, Land, Sky: A Dragon Magick Grimoire
Parker J. Torrence
Three Moons Media, 2002
160 pages

I think one of the biggest questions on the mind of those who pick up this book is, “Is it better than Dancing With Dragons by D.J. Conway?” I’ll admit it was one of the reasons I picked it up in a recent Amazon order. So, having read it on the train this morning (it was a quick read, and I have a long commute), what did I think of it?

Well, it’s definitely an improvement in some ways. Torrence has created a magical system based on multi-layered symbolism. His concept of dragons seems to be rather elemental in nature, though not in the same quasi-D&D manner of Conway’s work. He introduces the concepts of the three realms of sea, land and sky, and adds in some of the areas of correspondence. For example, he equates them, respectively, with the past, present and future, as well as various magical acts. He also creates an interesting meditation with the seven primary chakras, visualizing them as small dragons that hatch from eggs as each one is worked with, then returning to their eggs when the meditation is done. I also liked some of his rituals, particularly the simple guided meditation entitled “To Touch a Dragon”.

The main issue I have with this book is that it reads more like a draft rather than a finished manuscript. It’s obvious this is a self-published work (Three Moons Media is a printing company similar to Booklocker or Lulu). There are a number of incomplete sentences, typos, and weird punctuation throughout the book. It doesn’t make it unreadable, but I did notice it as I read. Additionally, the content has a lot of room for development. Torrence offers a lot of “whats” and “hows”, but not as many “whys”. Why, for example, should a beginner to tarot use only the Major Arcana (p. 26)? Why does he toss in a handful of Enochian for no apparent reason (p. 59-63)? What’s with the random inclusions of Celtic deities? Instead of offering more detailed explanations of things like this, he instead stuffs the book with a bunch of Wicca 101 information (some of it just a little dragon-tinged), and almost 60 blank-lined pages (I don’t think a 160 page book needs quite that much room for notes).

This book does have a lot of potential. If I were editing the book, I would suggest the author answer the following questions throughout:

–How did you get into dragon magick specifically? What are some anecdotes of your own experience with working with dragons?
–Given that the mythology around dragons (particularly those in the West) shows them as fierce beasts, how does a magician safely work with dragon spirits? (This is particularly in light of the fact that a couple of the rituals call on Tiamat).
–How does the Celtic pantheon work into this, particularly the sea, land and sky trilogy?
–Can you go into more detail as far as the relationship between sea, land, sky; past, present, future; and subconscious, conscious and superconscious mind?
–In regards to the various rituals in the second part of the book, how did you develop them? What sorts of results have you gotten from them?
–What are some of the basic principles of working with dragons in ritual, so that readers can then take those principles and apply them to rituals they create themselves?

Those are just some of the points that came to my mind as I read through the book; there’s plenty more room for expansion. I give it extra points because it does have some good potential. And even as it is now, it’s a better alternative to dragon-flavored Wicca than Dancing with Dragons. I think if the author were to get it contracted with an actual publisher, or at least hire an editor to help him expand on his ideas and clean up the text, this could easily be a five-pawprint book. As it is, I’m giving it three pawprints and hoping for a second edition.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Primitive Song – C.M. Bowra

Primitive Song
C.M. Bowra
World Publishing Company, 1963
284 pages

Since paleolithic cultures fascinate me, I was really excited about reading this book. The author uses anecdotes and information about modern hunter-gatherer cultures ranging from Eskimos to the Andamanese to Australian aborigines as a way of attempting to trace the roots and development of song. He weaves his theory with samples of song lyrics and his analysis thereof, and explains how day-to-day life in such a culture affects the role and subject material in songs. The material is well-balanced in this regard, and I felt that the author had really done his research thoroughly.

The book is a product of its time; while it’s not as heavily Euro-centric as some older (or even contemporary) anthropological texts, there’s still a subtle bias in the writing. Additionally, Bowra makes some assumptions about hunter-gatherer cultures across the board, though he does do a good job of trying to back his theories up with examples. And the writing style is rather dry; I found myself sometimes having to reread something because it simply didn’t register.

Still, overall it’s a good resource even despite its age. Anyone interested in paleolithic cultures, particularly paleopagan religions or music, may want to check this out. Those experimenting with shamanic techniques may also find material of interest here, particularly if song is a part of their practice.

Five pawprints out of five.

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