The Celtic Shaman – John Matthews

The Celtic Shaman: A Handbook
John Matthews
Element Books, 1991
224 pages

I’m in the middle of reading (or re-reading) all the books on shamanism and related topics currently in my home. I wanted a light read, so I pulled this one off the shelf. It’s one that I “inherited” through marriage, and while my husband normally has impeccable taste, I wasn’t so crazy about this particular book.

I suppose the main theme of this book could be “Where’s the Shamanism?” The author is apparently attempting to reconstruct the Celtic shamanic tradition; thankfully, he doesn’t try to say that the druids were all shamans. However, what this book ends up being is Celtic neopaganism with some shamanic techniques and concepts thrown in for flavor.

The book *is* well-written, though there are some typos in there. And as a book on shamanic-flavored Celtic neopaganism, it would actually be pretty good. Maybe not entirely historically accurate, but it would be functional for those who are quite happy in a modern paradigm. The author covers a lot of ground for the basic to lower-intermediate practitioner, particularly in introducing hir to this magical/spiritual system. While a lot of the material is Celtic neopaganism 101, there are some exercises which would have the potential to help the reader start on a more intermediate path.

One of the biggest problems is that the mixture of components isn’t well-blended. There’s information on Celtic mythology, including various dictionary-style lists of gods, “totem” animals (animals found in Celtic myth, but with no proof as to whether they served as clan/family totems or not), and correspondences for the directions that don’t seem to have any actual foundation in Celtic culture. (I’ll touch more on this in a minute). The shamanism portion is mainly a sprinkling of techniques, and the idea that the shaman is primarily an eco-pagan, with not too much focus on the community service. The two areas of study do not sit well together.

The issue is that there’s too much *neo*paganism and *neo*shamanism mixed into this. I can see elements of Harner’s core shamanism in there, particularly the focus on healing (as opposed to other shamanic functions), and it seems that the author has a rather incomplete understanding of what *traditional*, indigenous shamanism(s) is. Additionally, the bulk of the exercises are very heavily scripted guided meditations; shamanic journeys tend to be *much* more free-flowing and individual.

My other complaint is that while he seems to have a lovely bibliography in the back, the fact that there are no internal citations, either in-text, footnote or endnote, means that I had no idea how he used them (other than asterisks denoting which sources were particularly useful–but not why). This meant that there were a LOT of times when I sat there, scratching my head and wondering “Oooookay, where did he get THIS piece of information? Where is this COMING from?”

I don’t really feel the author accomplished his stated intention with this book. If he wanted to reconstruct the shamanic practices of the ancient Celts, then he needed to be looking at older forms of shamanism, not neoshamanism.

Two pawprints out of five.

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The Way of the Shaman – Michael Harner

The Way of the Shaman
Michael Harner
HarperSanFrancisco, 1990
172 pages

This is the fourth time in the past decade I’ve read this book cover to cover (as opposed to looking up specific factoid and techniques) and I’m finding that this time through, I’m not so fond of it. It’s not that it’s horrible; it’s just not as impressive to me these days, now that I know more than I used to.

Harner’s book is pretty much a classic on NEOshamanism; it forms the foundation of core shamanism, a shamanic practice that is (mostly) devoid of specific cultural trappings. His background in anthropology, as well as experience training as a shaman in the Jivaro and Conibo tribes, make this a well-researched and well-informed book. There are plenty of endnotes, and a good bibliography, so it’s easy to trace where he got his information from.

The problem is the presentation of the practical material. First off, my main complaint is that his selection of techniques seems incredibly arbitrary. He draws on the tobacco ties of certain Native American traditions, Jivaro-flavered sucking shamanism, and the spiritual canoe from a particular Northwest Native tribe. And he seems to ignore a number of shamanic practices that may not be necessarily appealing to the New Age crowd, such as spiritual dismemberment and reassembly.

Also, he fails to mention that even within a specific culture there are several types of shamanism. He should have, IMO, either billed this as a form of healing shamanism, or stuck to one of the cultures he trained in, rather than adding in elements of numerous cultures. He doesn’t quite draw shamanism far enough away from its cultural roots to make it fit together well; rather than doing as Peter J. Carroll did with Chaos magic, and making a system that is not at all culturally specific (and so can be plugged into any culture), Harner attempts to make (certain) cultural artifacts relevant for people outside that culture, while also trying to make it relevant to modern mainstream American (and other postindustrial) culture. Unfortunately, the end result still retains enough of the original cultural material (such as biases against certain animals like snakes and insects) without explaining the contextual relevance of such elements.

Finally, he waters down certain pieces of information. “The SSC [Shamanic State of Consciousness], it can be said, is safer than dreaming,” he says (xxii). Yet shamanism, even in modern practice, is NOT safe. He doesn’t talk about spiritual defense, other than talking about how one’s power animal and other guardians are supposed to protect you. He barely brings up any dangers, other than seeing animals with bared fangs. Nor does he talk about how close to the edge shamanism can bring a practitioner (or the skills needed to maintain a proper balance).

In short, this is shamanism for the living room. The techniques itself are solid, despite the contextual issues, and can be easily used by most people who pick up this book. If presented as a book on shamanic techniques, I give it a four. However, as a book on *shamanism*, I give it a two. This balances out to….

Three pawprints out of five.

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Choice Centered Tarot – Gail Fairfield – September BBBR

Choice Centered Tarot
Gail Fairfield
Ramp Creek Publishing, 1984
154 pages

This is an older edition of the book now known as “Everyday Tarot”, but since this is what I pulled out of the bargain bin, this is the review you get 😉

I read tarot on the side, but not that often. Still, I have enough experience to have more than the basics down, and I really liked the angle this particular author took. The book is very much a psychological approach to Tarot, with a strong emphasis on what the individual symbols mean to each reader and querent. Rather than being dogmatic about what each card means or doesn’t mean, Fairfield encourages the reader to really think about the symbolism, even to the point of thinking very carefully about the colors in a deck before purchasing it. She advocates an approach to tarot that has a lot of preparation rooted in personalization rather than superstition.

I also like her comparison of divination to sitting in a hot air balloon. You can see a lot more than just the immediate surroundings, and get a much better perspective on what’s going on. It’s a very open-ended approach, one that allows a lot more freedom of personal interpretation and perception.

The meanings she gives for the individual cards are her own, admittedly, but she gives a lot of detail–and the preceding information provides the context within which she reads. Her section on designing and using spreads is also valuable.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It’s an incredibly useful tool for Tarot readers of any experience level, and would be a definite help in creating a more thoughtful, conscious approach to reading, rather than just going by whatever the book says.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Shaman – Piers Vitebsky

The Shaman
Piers Vitebsky
Little, Brown and Company, 1995
184 pages

This is one of my favorite books on basic shamanism from an anthropological perspective. I’ve read it before, but this is the first time I’ve read it since I started this review blog. I think it’s well worth talking about, though, so here’s my official review 🙂

The author, an anthropologist, has spent several decades studying shamanism within the context of a number of cultures. He presents a nice collection of facts and anecdotes about the shamanic experiences of people in these cultures. From the altered states of consciousness to the spirits encountered along the way, from healing to showmanship, from the political status of shamans to neoshamanism today, Vitebsky offers one of the best introductions to the concept of shamanism and what it is the shaman does. This concise book is quite thorough, and while the material is densely packed it’s written in a manner that even a rank beginner can understand. You won’t find a bunch of how-to instructions, but what you will get is solid research to get a good understanding of the context of shamanism.

Unlike earlier anthropologists, Vitebsky’s viewpoint is quite enlightened. He points out the shortcomings of his predecessors, who characterized shamans as everything from archaic leftovers to mentally disturbed outcasts. He also cautions against trying to boil shamanism down to a particular facet, such as trance, while tossing out other important aspects, like community and culture. He is not overly critical of neoshamanism, though he only devotes a very small portion of the book to it and explains how it differs from traditional shamanism. He clearly shows his research, and is not afraid to critique other scholars; for example, he challenges Mircea Eliade’s assertion that shamanism has “an apparently timeless quality…[and] appears to stand outside political history” (p. 116). To back up this criticism Vitebsky goes into great detail how shamanism has interacted, both positively and negatively, with both political and religious bodies in various cultures, and how it has sometimes come into great conflict with various powers thereof. (I should also add that I have no opinion myself on Eliade yet, though his work is on my reading pile.)

This contributes to a very down to Earth look at shamanism worldwide, though it does NOT purport to be the do-all and end-all resource; nor does it try to claim that all shamanisms are one shamanism. Rather, as I said, it’s an excellent introductory book, mixing text and illustrations to create a good resource for anyone interested in traditional shamanism from a theoretical point of view (as opposed to a hands-on workbook).

Five pawprints out of five.

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Totems – Brad Steiger

Totems: The Transformative Power of Your Personal Animal Totem
Brad Steiger
HarperSanFrancisco, 1997
218 pages

I’ve actually had this book for years and never got around to reviewing, though I’ve read it a few times and I use it in my totem animal workshop that I present as an example of a book resource.

I like it for the most part. Steiger has done a good job of covering the basics of animal totems, from how to find one to how they can influence us on a daily basis. While the book does have a totem animal dictionary (something that, if you’ve read my reviews, you’ll know I’m not crazy about), it’s a decent one, with a nice selection of animals and good information contained in it. And there’s enough solid material besides the dictionary to make this a good 101 book on totemism.

My main complaint is that due to the large amount of “Indian-centric” terminology in the book, people might think it’s 100% genuine “Native American totemism”. It’s actually a New Age interpretation thereof, and so while it may be inspired by various indigenous cultures, it’s not the same thing as what those cultures are doing. Just take it with the usual grain of salt and you should be fine. Additionally, the author does include a really thorough bibliography, and while there are no internal citations to tell where specific bits of information came from, it’s good to at least get an idea of his sources.

Overall, this is a good starter’s guide to totemism. While it’s not without its flaws, you could definitely do much worse.

Four pawprints out of five.

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