Sexy Witch – LaSara Firefox

Sexy Witch
LaSara Firefox
Llewellyn, 2005
314 pages

This book has gotten some mixed press since it came out–people seem to either love it or hate it. The people who hate it seem to have completely missed the point of the book. They either get freaked out by the frank use of euphemisms for female anatomy, or they run screaming from the idea of *gasp* getting to know the most nether regions of the female body, and all the various things it does. Additionally, uber-witches get terrified that *gasp* somebody might think witches have sex, and that sex can be a part of witchcraft!This is completely symptomatic of the body-PHOBIC mindset that Sexy Witch sets out to reverse.

In this book I found a wealth of exercises determined to shatter the negative tunnel vision most people in America (and in many other places) have about our bodies. The author challenges us to venture into the most terrifying aspects of the female physical form, the parts that we’re told are “dirty” and “bad”, and become comfortable with them. We’re encouraged to touch, to look, and to otherwise become familiar with our bodies in every crevice. And this is a *good* thing. Firefox has the right idea–rather than skirting around the fear we have of our bodies with pretty flowers and mincing, femmy steps, she meets it head-on fearlessly, showing the reader that there’s nothing to be afraid of, and that we stand to gain much in the way of confidence and health by getting over ingrained hangups. She challenges gender stereotypes, even to the point of including a decent section on conscious crossdressing as a way to break out of one’s preconceived notions.

She gives plenty of material for both solitary and group work; the latter is particularly nice as it offers the reader the chance to spread body-positive thoughts. And while some may complain that the magical aspects of the book are too watered-down, keep in mind that the material is aimed not just at experienced pagans, but any woman with body issues who could use some help in getting over them.

I can only wish that there was such a thing for men out there; while body issues in women are well-documented, body issues in men are often ignored. If you’re a guy having trouble with your image, there won’t really be much here for you to work with, though it may be worthwhile to read just to get an idea of some of the issues that woman face, and how Firefox recommends dealing with them.

This is a brilliant work that deserves its controversy–it highlights body-fear, and for those brave enough to face it, Sexy Witch offers a multitude of methods for getting over it, already!

Five bold pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Castaneda’s Journey – Richard de Mille

Castaneda’s Journey: The Power and the Allegory
Richard de Mille
Capra Press, 1977, et. al.
205 pages

I wanted to get some background on Carlos Castaneda before diving into his books. This may seem a bit like putting the cart before the horse; however, I’ve been exposed to a lot of commentary on him, both positive and negative, so the chances of my having an unbiased look were already shot. I had heard good things about this book as a balanced approach to Castaneda and his works, so I gave it a try.

The author did a fantastic job of rooting out sources, even going to UCLA and talking to the professors who were involved in Castaneda’s doctoral program and defense of his thesis. De Mille also went to the trouble of hunting down one of the few available copies of the thesis itself, which normally isn’t open to the public. However, upon looking at the copy that UCLA had in its library, the author discovered that, other than a few minor changes, it was the entirety of Castaneda’s third book, Journey to Ixtlan. Additionally, he shows where sources that Castaneda almost certainly had access to had material that “mysteriously” showed up later as events in his books.

While de Mille pretty much tears a huge hole in the theory that Castaneda literally went out and met don Juan Matus and learned Yaqui ways (by the way, the amount of actual Yaqui material in his works is just above zilch), he did paint the would-be shaman as a clever trickster and rogue, and not entirely terrible. So while Castaneda’s veracity as an anthropologist is quite damaged, his skill as a literary writer of allegory is quite well-honed. The blame of people believing his works literally is partly placed on his ability to tell a good yarn.

My only complaint with this book is that it’s occasionally hard to follow the author’s train of thought. He bounces back and forth between light academic writing, straight forward, and an odd narrative that leaps around like a coyote on stimulants. I found myself skipping a few chunks of the work because I simply couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to say.

Still, I think this is essential reading for anyone with any interest in modern shamanic texts. An entire selection of books that model themselves after Castaneda’s “allegorical spirit teacher” have cropped up, and are often (unfortunately) presented as literally true. This text gives interesting insight into the granddaddy of them all, and a new perspective on how to read Castaneda’s works, as well as derivatives thereof.

Four pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

The Magic of Shapeshifting – Rosalyn Greene

The Magic of Shapeshifting
Rosalyn Greene
Weiser Books, 2000
258 pages

This is going to be a looong review. Where do I start with this book? I have a complicated relationship with it; I first bought it in 2002, back when I was in a “belief” stage of my belief-doubt-belief cycle about being a therianthrope. I didn’t have much exposure to the therian-specific community, though I’d had off and on contact with the Otherkin community through which I met a number of therians. Since then, I’ve read it several more times, and I’ve finally, five years later, gotten around to reviewing it. I’ll admit that each time I’ve read it my opinion of it has gone down, largely because each time I have a better understanding of therianthropy, both from my own perspective and from the therian community at large. Same thing goes for magic, which plays an integral role in The Magic of Shapeshifting.

One of my biggest complaints is that the author (or three authors, writing under one name, according to one rumor) accepts historical accounts of lycanthropy as completely, literally true. This is what she bases a lot of her proof that “shifters: (including physical shifters) have existed for millenia, well known to the populace but only recently suppressed. She relies particularly on questionable sources such as Montague Summers, and she takes no critical eye to any of her material, which irritates me to no end.

She also bases most of her magic on a mixture of spiritism/Theosophy and a smattering of Asian concepts of energy work, and assumes that the subjective biases of these systems are universal. Her approach is rather dogmatic, as if there’s only one way to skin a werewolf. And she doesn’t cite any sources for the practical aspects of her work, which is a shame as it could have been strengthened by showing that other people have gotten similar results, though not necessarily using the techniques she utilizes for the same end. While she uses footnote citations for historical information, I was left wondering where she got her inspirations for the more hands-on material, and what sources she learned to acquire the building blocks for her magical work.

I think what I dislike the most, though, about this work are all the huge assumptions and broad stereotypes she applies to therianthropes in general, many of which are inaccurate, and none of which are backed up with anything other than anecdotal information from other, often unidentified, people that we’re supposed to expect are telling the truth. Given the gullibility of the author in accepting whatever Mr. Summers wrote without question, I have to wonder how much critical consideration went into whatever her informants told her, or if she ever questioned her own experiences to any degree. While belief in yourself is healthy, never questioning yourself isn’t–if she did ever look at the possibility that not everything in this book was literally true, she doesn’t show any evidence of having done so.

Some of the inaccuracies are blindingly obvious when viewed by anyone with more than a passing involvement in the therian community. This includes her assertion that most therians go through a “phase” as a fox shifter before “maturing” into another species; that all therians have totem animals that are the same species as their therioside; the claim that a number of terms she throws around are “commonly” used in the therian community (what she calls the “shifter community”, but it’s the same thing), when in actuality I’ve never heard most of them anywhere except from her book; that therians have an aversion to turquoise; and her overemphasis on the existence of organized therian “packs”. In fact, there’s a lot of information just on the community itself that could seriously mislead readers who aren’t familiar with the actual community.

Additionally, she seems to have some weird ideas about physical animals. Some of it is strange esoteric biases, such as the idea that black animals attract evil spirits, or that the color of an animal’s fur or eyes determines its magical prowess and even personality. Last I checked, this didn’t hold true for humans, and I haven’t found in my decade-plus experience with animal magic that it does for nonhuman animals, either. She also has some blatant biological mistakes in there, such as the “fact” that foxes have retractable claws (they don’t).

Her information on shifting isn’t universally bad; I found her descriptions of some of the features of mental shifting to be accurate to my own experience. And there are some exercises in there that could actually be useful for gaining control of one’s ability to shift, or to improve one’s relationship with the part of the self that is the therioside. Her methods for raising levels of “shifting energy” are simple psychological triggers that can be used by anyone in a ritual setting to help achieve the proper altered state of consciousness for invocation (of another entity or a part of the self)–not that this is bad, just that it’s nothing new (but again it can be quite useful).

What this book really comes across as is someone in the furry community who has a serious grudge against the therian community. My reason for believing this is that she holds up the furry community as the best place for a “shifter” to go find other “shifters”, while her very scant opinions on the (online) therian community is that it’s full of cultists and other unsavory people. (There’s nothing wrong with furries, of course, but even many members of that community will quickly tell you that “furry” and “therian” are not the same thing, though there are some furs who are also therians–but they’re a minority.) Additionally, some of her biases, such as the proliferation of fox therians who turn into other types of therian later on actually more closely mirrors furries, in which there are a LOT of fox fursonas (though it’s common for people to create new fursonas as they get more involved in the community). She also emphasizes costuming (fursuits) in the book quite a bit as an aid for getting in touch with the animal, and even gives a diagram for the leg extensions used in quadsuits, or quadrepedal fursuits.

In short, this reads like a furry who has a personal vendetta against the therian community. Granted, not everybody gets along with everybody else in the community–but welcome to life. There’s nothing that says a therian can’t be a part of the furry fandom, but when a book on therianthropy (which it pretty obviously is despite the use of the word “shifter”) quite conspicuously eliminates almost any reference to the therian community except for a couple of sharp-toothed remarks, this strongly suggests personal rather than professional issues.

That being said, my wrapup of the book is this: If you read it, keep a shaker of salt very handy (you may need to refill it a couple of times). There are some magical/psychological techniques that some therianthropes may find useful for becoming more comfortable with shifting and gaining better internal balance. However, the bulk of the book is essentially drek. My suggestion would be to hit up some online therian sites and do your research there; the Werelibrary, the Marsh, and Absurdism are good starting places.

One pawprint out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Wicca For Lovers – Jennifer Hunter

Wicca for Lovers – Spells and Rituals for Romance & Seduction
Jennifer Hunter
Viking Studio, 2001
96 pages plus feather, candle, oil, crystal

Generally speaking, I hate love spells.

Generally speaking, I also hate boxed sets.

I guess the two hatreds must have cancelled each other out rather than making the hate grow exponentially.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the author is quite talented. I loved both her Rites of Pleasure and Twenty-First Century Wicca. So it actually didn’t surprise me when I discovered that this set bucks the system when it comes to luuuuuv spells and Wicca-inna-box.

Hunter’s writing is, once again, quite grounded. Rather than simply throwing a bunch of spells at the reader, she explains where sacred sexuality in general weaves in with Wiccan spirituality. And the material isn’t just about what you want in a partner–it also covers the very important point that to love yourself is even more important. There’s also a chapter on sex magic, to include the traditional (as opposed to symbolic) Great Rite. For a 96-page book, there’s a lot of good information in here.

Lest you complain that “Wicca isn’t about love spells!”, I assure you that Wicca For Lovers doesn’t purport to be the do-all and end-all of (eclectic) Wicca. And, as mentioned, Hunter ties love magic in with the sacred sexuality inherent in Wicca, and in pagan religions in general. Finally, look at Christian publishing–there are all sorts of niche books in that genre. Maybe not all Wiccans are interested in using magic to augment their search for that special someone (or someones–the book is poly-friendly). But just as with Christian dating manuals, so this work helps to tie in the methods we have at our disposal for finding partners to spirituality.

No, this isn’t a complete treatise on love magic, sex magic, or related topics. However, given that there are people out there who have no knowledge of magic in general who may pick up something on love spells on a lark, it’s good to know that this set exists (though currently is unavailable brand new–unopened packages may still be found through used book dealers). If I were going to offer anything to the curious, it’d be this set–the book contains a good basic grounding of magical theory, covered well before the spells even begin. However, even those who are more seasoned in magic may find this to be a fun things to play with, a light-hearted gift to give to a friend, or even to give to a couple for a bit of magical “bonding”.

While this isn’t Hunter’s best work (Rites of Pleasure is a much more thorough and “serious” book), all things considered it’s well above other love magic/love spell compendiums I’ve seen. It’s playful, fun, but with an undercurrent of magic and spirituality that give it depth that all too often missing from this sort of thing.

Four pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book/set?

The Spirit of Shamanism – Roger N. Walsh – October BBBR

The Spirit of Shamanism (reprinted as World of Shamanism, 2007)
Roger N. Walsh, M.D., Ph.D.
Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990
286 pages

I can’t say enough good stuff about this book. It’s this month’s Bargain Bin Book Review, and it’s quite possibly the best one I’ve picked up.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled against shamanism for years has been that shamans are schizophrenic or otherwise mentally ill and generally dysfunctional. This goes against more recent observations that the shaman is actually one of the most psychologically healthy people in hir society. This excellent book is an in-depth look at the psychology of shamanism, from a very positive, constructive and yet objective viewpoint. Euro-centric bias is tossed out the window, and shamanism (or, rather, the various forms thereof) is explored from within the contexts of the cultures it stems from.

Walsh draws upon a number of ideas and inspirations. Campbell’s explanation of the Hero’s journey is applied to the shaman’s development, from ordinary citizen to community leader. Of particular interest is the motif of the initiatory crisis, the time in which the shaman undergoes extreme changes internally and may exhibit incredibly odd behavior to the consternation of other members of hir society. This, and the seeming “delusion” of the shamanic journey are studied in great detail throughout the book, and the importance of these two experiences in particular cannot be ignored.

To me, the most valuable gift this book offers is the detailed explanation throughout of how shamanism, rather than paralleling the unhealthy and disorganized experience of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, in fact has much in common with modern psychological practices ranging from psychoanalysis to Jung’s work, and in particular to the modern practice of transpersonal psychology. The placebo effect is explored, and its effectiveness in both shamanism AND in Western medicine is discussed; in fact, there are a couple of chapters that focus specifically on shamanic healing and how/why it works. Finally, the altered states of consciousness inherent to shamanic practice are shown to be, not a matter of escapism and trickery, but of a path towards enlightenment-like states of being, though different from the states achieved through yoga and other forms of meditation.

It’s an incredibly well-researched book as well. Unlike too many of the texts on shamanism today, this one takes an academic approach rather than a New Age one, yet as mentioned doesn’t fall prey to the usual academic pitfalls. There are numerous in-text citations and a nice, meaty bibliography.

In all, we’re left with a picture of shamanism that has less to do with dysfunctionality, quackery and superstition, and more to do with modern healthy practices that, in some cases, Western psychologicy has only recently “discovered”. While the author does not go so far as to tell people to dump their therapists and become shamans (which anyone with good sense knows is irresponsible), he undoes decades of Western bias as well as the later romanticism that has all too often been applies to shamanism. In this text we’re allowed to see that shamanism is both terrifying and ecstatic, and is an evolution rather than de-evolution of human consciousness.

Five enthusiastic pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

The Witches of Dixie – Laura Stamps

The Witches of Dixie – Book One of the Witchery Series
Laura Stamps
Trytium Publishing, 2007
245 pages

I’m not 100% sure what to think of this book. I like it overall, but it’s not quite what I’m used to. Of course, sometimes it’s good to get shaken up!

While it’s described as a novel, it’s more a quartet of short stories. This adds a nice variety to the book overall, and makes for interesting reading. Each story centers on a female witch of one sort of another, set in various locations in the Southern U.S. Rather than all being young teenyboppers a la “The Craft”, the witches are a variety of ages and backgrounds. And they specialize in different forms of witchcraft, which makes for a nice introduction. And everyone has cats, described as appealing little furry creatures that made me smile and think of my own two kitties.

Stamps’ writing style is lovely. She has a wonderful voice, and a definite talent for description. Her third story, “Mirabella”, is particularly artfully crafted, and I enjoyed the imagery and sensory descriptions of people, places and things. Her dialogue is believable, and her stories are rich and have good progression from beginning, to middle, to satisfying (in that there’s definite solid closure) end.

There were a few downsides. While the characters were diverse in some ways, they may leave some readers without a method of associating themselves with the characters. For example, they’re all Wiccan, which may additionally give readers unfamiliar with Wicca the idea that all Wiccans are female (and that Wiccans only worship the Goddess, due to the lack of any form of male Divinity). Additionally, since all are successfully self-employed, most readers who are traditionally employed may have trouble relating. In fact, the stories are pretty idealistic; the author extols vegetarianism, organics and feral cat rescue to the point where it felt rather preachy at times.

Still, there are lessons here. There are spells and bits of lore wrapped in the tales, as well as other interesting bits of health-related information. The positive view of Wicca is good P.R., and while the delivery can be a bit much at times, it’s well-meant and makes things clear. I would recommend this especially for newer Wiccans, or people curious about Wicca, with the caveat that this is the author’s personal interpretation of Wicca, and that not every Wiccan may be vegetarian, focus solely on the Goddess, or see faeries as helpful sprites.

It’s a good teaching tool, an enjoyable read, and well-written overall, and I’d love to see later books in the series.

Four pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?