The Oracle of the Bones – Claire O’Neill

The Oracle of the Bones
Claire O’Neill
St. Martin’s Press, 1994
128 pages

I really, really liked this book. It’s the handbook for a Western reinterpretation of a method of divination with bones used by several tribes in Africa. It’s nice to see something derived from a culture that’s not from Europe, Asia, or North America. The author is quite clear about her sources and the derivation of the system she presents, rather than trying to say “This is exactly how the Africans do it!” While there aren’t in-text citations, there is a bibliography, which earns points.

The basic system consists of tossing four bones–a long bone, a small bone, a broken bone, and a fat bone–onto a tri-parte circle, each section standing for a different set of qualities. The meaning of the bone depends on where it falls in the circle, and where it is in relation to other bones. The bulk of the book is dedicated to summaries of what each bone/circle combination means and suggestions on how to interpret it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the casting cloth that originally came with it, but it’d be a simple thing to make. Additionally, since I bought the book alone, I had to get my own bones (though this was relatively easy, considering the kind of artwork I create). The concept is wonderfully simple, though, and those who are artistically inclined can easily reproduce their own set, especially since this is out of production.

Overall, a unique divination system that I intend to make good use of.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Gift of the Dreamtime – S. Kelley Harrell

Gift of the Dreamtime: Awakening to the Divinity of Trauma
S. Kelley Harrell
Spilled Candy, 2004
156 pages

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, and finally had the chance to sit down and do so. I’m very glad that I did; it’s a wonderful resource that I think more people need to know about.

Harrell, a modern shamanic practitioner, offers up her story of how she used shamanic techniques to heal herself from the effects of childhood sexual abuse. She works within a first person narrative, using her words to illustrate her journeys to the Upper and Lower worlds to visit with guides and retrieve pieces of her soul. Rather than abstract descriptions of what “should” happen, she tells the story of her own experiences, both the good and the bad. A warning: while her descriptions of abuse are not incredibly graphic, they may be triggering for some people, so be prepared. There are techniques for healing in her story, but not without the price of facing the past.

I generally am not a fan of narrative shamanic texts, a common format in core shamanism/neoshamanism books. However, this one is an exception. I felt that, rather than trying to impress me with credentials and pidgin-English-speaking guides, Harrell simply wanted to offer up the solutions that helped her in the hopes of sharing healing with others. Hers is a humble story, and instead of 200 pages of ego-stroking and no meat, I got a lot of ideas for working with my own traumas; while I was never abused as a child, I’ve had my own traumas both as a child and an adult, and this book has planted a few seeds in my mind.

The book is not without its potential controversy. At one point Harrell writes about how one of her guides reveals that the reason she was raped was that she owed a debt from a previous life to her rapist. I know this made me look a bit askance, as I’ve seen New Agers take this idea to the extreme of saying that anything bad that happens to a person is caused by bad karma. However, due to the nature and quality of the book, I trust the author to be honest, and she never comes across as the least bit fanatical or off-balance.

Additionally, I would have liked to have seen more content. It seems that she mainly hit the highlights of her journey, and it’s a little unclear how long it takes her to get from one section of the story to the next. Granted, she is revealing a very personal part of herself here, so it may be that she only tells what she’s comfortable with. Still, I’d be curious as to some of the backstory, what happens inbetween the meetings with the various guides, and a timeline of when these journeys happened. The book as it is, though, progresses nicely, so even if she chooses to forever keep the rest under wraps, this is a worthy project.

Overall, I recommend this to those who have experienced trauma in their lives, as well as those who work with such people in a spiritual role, and want some good ideas for healing through shamanic techniques. It’s not a huge how-to book, though there are some basic pieces of information at the end. Rather, it’s one person’s story of how she utilized these techniques to do some pretty serious healing on herself. It gives hope for those of us who sometimes feel that maybe we’re not doing things right, or that perhaps there is no healing to be had.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Carnal Alchemy – Dawn and Flowers

Carnal Alchemy: A Sado-Magical Exploration of Pleasure, Pain and Self-Transformation
Crystal Dawn and Stephen Flowers
Runa-Raven Press, 2001 (originally 1995)
86 pages

I finally got around to reading this book cover to cover after reading it piecemeal for a couple of years. It’s arguably the first book to focus solely on BDSM sex magic (which the authors alternately term Carnal Alchemy, Sado-magic, and Sado-shamanism, p. ix). While it’s not a huge book, it does cover the basics.

Dawn and Flowers do an excellent job of tracing the history of sex magic in general, including BDSM magic. Not only do they cover the usual suspects like De Sade and Von Sacher-Masoch, but they also get into Robert North and the New Flesh Palladium, and Aleister Crowley’s own Sado-magical journeys. There’s also basic information on BDSM and the various toys involved, and common sense safety.

Unfortunately, the book is pretty sparse as far as content goes. There’s very little description of any rituals (the authors’ magical group, the order of the Triskelion, keeps its rituals secret). There are only a couple very brief fictional examples; the reader is left largely up to hir own devices. And the actual material dealing with practical BDSM magic is pretty brief, compared to the background material given. I think they could have given some more information without compromising privacy, though they also confess trepidation with misinterpretation of the material by individuals who stop thinking after the word SEX!

However, for being a pioneering book, it’s to be given good marks. While there’s not a ton of information, what is there is excellent, and it set the stage for a number of books by other authors that followed it.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Animal Energies – Buffalo Horn Man and Firedancer

Animal Energies
Gary Buffalo Horn Man and Sherry Firedancer
Dancing Otter Publishing, 1997
40 pages

This was a tough book to find outside the internet, despite the authors’ claims of selling over 100,000 copies since 1992. It’s a slim little self-published volume that is primarily a totem animal dictionary. So how did it fare?

It’s actually pretty decent as far as dictionaries go, especially for its size. The entry for each animal starts with a bit of natural history, followed by the authors’ interpretations of the totemic qualities. Occasionally they throw in a bit of Native American lore (without citing their sources). While they do focus on Big, Impressive North American Animals, they do sometimes have a few oddities–for instance, the jellyfish is characterized particularly by the fact that it must rely on the waves to move from place to place (which isn’t entirely true–they can move with a belling motion). There are a few other details that they throw in that are questionable; for example, I could find nothing to substantiate the claim that a fox with fleas will hold a stick in its mouth and slowly immerse itself in water until the fleas are on the stick–then let the stick go. Still, for a dictionary this isn’t a bad starting place.

There are no rituals or tips on how to work with the animals–this is only a dictionary. It’s the kind of thing that would appeal to people who may not necessarily be heavily into totemism and related practices. I do cringe a bit when the authors toss around words like “Great Mystery” and “medicine” when they don’t give any tribal information about themselves other than saying they learned from a Native American teacher a couple of decades ago.

Still, cultural appropriation aside, this is a neat little booklet. It’s well-written, and a good resource if you like to have a variety of totem animal dictionaries.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Borrowed Power – Ziff and Rao (editors)

Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation
Ziff, Bruce and P.V. Rao (editors)
Rutgers University Press, 1997
338 pages

Every so often I get into the mood to sink my teeth into a nice, meaty chunk of….

…academic writing.

(What did you think I was going to say?)

So when the craving hit this time, it just so happened to be on the same day as the arrival of my copy of Borrowed Power. It took me almost a week to work my way through it (amid editing manuscripts and other such things) but I finished it, and I can definitely say it was a great read.

Borrowed Power is an anthology addressing cultural appropriation, the use/borrowing/theft of elements by one (usually dominant) culture from another (usually not dominant) culture. A common example in the pagan community is white pagans raised in Suburbia drawing on Native American religious practices and taking them out of context while not actually participating in the culture they draw from. While cultural appropriation isn’t always considered a neopagan topic, it’s one that’s crucial to the evolution of our community. (I deemed it important enough that I’m compiling an anthology specifically on cultural appropriation in the pagan community inspired by Borrowed Powerclick here for details.)

The topics are varied; while one essay addresses “white Indians”, hippies and New Agers who try to be more Indian than the Indians, most either don’t mention the phenomenon or only do so in passing. Instead, the essays cover the legalities of property rights and copyright in the face of cultural theft; financial restitution for cultures that have been taken from; returning historical and cultural religious items to the cultures they were taken from; the impact of non-Native artists using traditional Native American patterns; ethnomusicology; and post-colonialism, among others. While some of the essays focus on Native America, other cultures are addressed. There is an excellent essay addressing the appropriation of African-American culture through music, from jazz to rap.

Most of the essays are readable even to those without an academic background. A few do get tough to chew through, particularly those dealing with legalities, and postcolonialism. But for the most part the writing is accessible, and the tougher writing styles aren’t entirely impossible. There’s an excellent variety of viewpoints and topics presented here, and much food for thought. And, as is expected, the research is impeccable, and is joined by a sensitivity to the cultures being explored that’s often missing from academic writing.

Overall, this is a wonderful read for those who want an introduction to the problem of cultural appropriation. While the specifically neopagan content is almost nil, the concepts herein are worth looking into. (I also recommend this as a source for those writing essays for the anthology I’m compiling, just FYI, along with the cultural appropriation chapter in Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves by Pike.)

Five pawprints out of five.

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Born on a Rotten Day – Hazel Dixon-Cooper – August BBBR

Born on a Rotten Day: Illuminating and Coping With the Dark Side of the Zodiac
Hazel Dixon-Cooper
Fireside, 2003
192 pages

I knew I was going to enjoy this book from the moment I got it. Born on a Rotten Day is everything the title–and the wonderful cover art–suggests. It’s a humorous look at the less-than-lovely traits of the various Sun signs in astrology at their very worst. And it contains all the things those other books may be afraid to tell you about yourself.

Each chapter is divided into sections on men and women lovers, family members, bosses, and yourself, all under the sign in that chapter. The common patterns are translated into what it means in dealing with each of these people, and solutions to the best way to defuse bad situations are offered. The book is incredibly well-written, and takes the worst aspects of each sign for an entertaining trip.

Keep your sense of humor intact, though. This isn’t meant to be taken 100% literally. What Dixon-Cooper provides is an exaggeration of the negative traits as a way of pointing them out. As a Scorpio, for instance, I may not be so bitchy that my “moods range from irritable to pissed off…on one of your good days”. However, it’s a good reminder for me to watch my temper and intensity, both when dealing with others and with myself. I got a good laugh out of that entire chapter, but I also learned a few things, too, that put me more into perspective for myself.

Of course, astrology (particularly when limited to the Sun sign) only goes so far. However, this is a great book to add to any astrological library. It’s an amusing reminder of our quirks and flaws, and the fact that they’re usually not as horrible as they could be (nor are they without counterbalances). I absolutely loved reading this, and I highly recommend it.

Five deadly venom-laden Scorpio stingers out of five.

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