Pagan Visions For a Sustainable Future – various

Pagan Visions for a Sustainable Future
Ly de Angeles, Emma Restall Orr, and Thom van Dooren (editors)
Llewellyn, 2005
282 pages

I am thoroughly and completely impressed by this anthology. In it, the various essayists manage to cover a broad range of topics, from ethics in paganism to sustainable practices. While many of the essayists come from an academic background, the anthology is quite readable and accessible to just about anyone.

Be aware that this isn’t a how-to book of hands-on activities to save the world. Rather, it is a discussion of concepts designed to plant the seeds of change in your mind. It’s not enough to say “Here, plant a tree”. Rather, you have to explain why it’s important to plant that tree, both from a practical and a spiritual perspective–and this anthology does a brilliant job thereof.

Here’s a rundown of the essays:

Emma Restall Orr’s “The Ethics of Paganism”: good thoughts on ethics and interconnection, as well as the impact we have on each other (not just humans). A bit idealistic, especially towards the end.

Akkadia Ford’s “Magickal Ecology”: One of my absolute favorites in the book, works with ethics within the Egyptian Negative Confession and shows how these principles may be applied to modern paganism. Lots of good stuff here.

Dr. Susan Greenwood’s “Of Worms, Snakes and Dragons”: Another favorite, *really* down to Earth, lots of valuable points that make environmentalism and sustainability relevant to this reality.

Marina Sala’s “Toward a Sacred Dance of the Sexes”: I didn’t care for this one so much, particularly the revisionist history and idealism. However, I loved the archetypal material discussing the Warrior and the Hunter.

Ly de Angeles’ “What If Everyone Started Telling the Truth?”: A bit more stream-of-consciousness than I really like, and I found myself skipping over bits of it. Has some interested activities in it, though, and there are good points worth reading. Don’t skip it.

Dr. Douglas Ezzy’s “I Am the Mountain Walking”: Yet another excellent one, possibly my favorite of all. So much consideration for others is worked into this, but without pushing ideals onto others. Well-balanced.

Dr. Sylvie Shaw’s “Wild Spirit, Active Love”: A beautiful and thoughtful exploration of why people form such deep, positive relationships with the environment.

Gordeon MacLellan’s “Dancing in the Daylight”: Makes the crucial point that sustainability doesn’t just have to be about paganism, that we can bring ritual into work with everyone willing to work with us, pagan or otherwise. Much-needed essay, another favorite.

“Pagan Politics, Pagan Stories”: A great interview with Starhawk about ritual work in activism, including during demonstrations.

Starhawk’s “Toward an Activist Spirituality”: More good information and anecdotes from her experiences.

Dr. Val Plumwood’s “Place, Politics and Spirituality”: A bit more academic than some of the rest, though it’s still good. A great interview overall. Plus some neat cameos by some of the local wildlife!

Thom van Dooren’s “Dwelling in Sacred Community”: A great essay to wrap up the collection. Brings together a lot of the points in other essays, and makes the reader very aware of the connections. Good stuff.

Eventually I’m going to get around to making a list of books I think should be absolute recommended reading for pagans in general. This will be on that list. It doesn’t get nearly enough appreciation, and I think people get kind of scared away by the idea that it’s all highbrow academia with no practical application. Maybe it doesn’t have a bunch of spells and rituals in it–but it is meant to be brain food. Those who disdain it for being too theoretical are too dependent on spoonfeeding. There are important, valuable, crucial ideas in here, and it behooves us to take them into consideration.

Five impressed pawprints out of five.

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The Cave Painters – Gregory Curtis

The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists
Gregory Curtis
Anchor Books, 2006
278 pages

I’ve been fascinated by cave art for years, particularly that found in southern France (such as Lascaux, Les Trois Freres, etc.). However, I hadn’t really done any in-depth study on it, other than what I got incidentally through things like Joseph Campbell’s works. The Cave Painters wasn’t just a good read–it managed to blow away a lot of my preconceived notions about paleolithic art and its spiritual/cultural implications.

Curtis offers a detailed, though fast-paced, collection of highlights of the study of paleolithic art in the past century and a half. Special attention is given to the experiences and contributions of Henri “the abbe” Breuil, as well as lesser known (to the layman, anyway) folks as Max Raphael, Annette Laming-Emperaire, Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Jean Clotte. The primary theories that these experts postulated are explored in detail, and their succession (and occasional debunking) are described. It’s an absolutely fascinating true story, and it’s apparent that Curtis did some serious research into this book.

Additionally, the art itself is explored. One thing that I really appreciated was the presentation of the idea that paleolithic peoples weren’t “primitive”, but instead were the first classic civilization. There are good arguments against the application of pure ethnography to the interpretation of cave art, in which the cultures of modern hunter-gatherer cultures are used as potential models for paleolithic cultures. The latter are treated as independent entities, and more weight is given to the actual evidence found specific to them, as opposed to speculation based on modern cultures. In all this is the art, which is shown to have much more structure and skill than is often assumed, and which reveals quite a bit about the people who created it over 20,000 years.

Also fascinating were the ideas that Curtis presents about the importance of animals to paleolithic peoples. Along with Breuil’s hunting magic, he presents such concepts as the painted animals representing different clans symbolized by their respective totems (particularly stemming from Raphael’s material), illustrations of myths being circulated at the time, and the shamanic theories put forth by David Lewis-Williams and Clottes. It definitely gives good food for thought, particularly from an animal totemists’ perspective.

Rather than being a dry, stereotypically boring academic text, The Cave Painters is written well enough that just about anyone could pick it up and give it a good read. His descriptions are compelling, and he’s remarkably talented at organizing the information in a sensible manner that conveys the importance of the people, theories and discoveries in relation to each other. However, it’s not dumbed-down in content, for all its accessible language. There’s an impressive bibliography, and Curtis did quite a bit of interviewing in the process of writing this book as well.

Where this book ties into neopaganism is that it does show that there have been solid theories for the meaning of paleolithic art since Breuil’s hunting magic ideas. The latter are still commonly found in neopagan thought, and I’ll admit a certain fondness for them. However, given that there is newer evidence that counters Breuil’s ideas, I appreciated the chance to get the basics of alternate theories laid out in a good, understandable format. I certainly want to do deeper research, but this book is a great introduction. Whether your interest is incidental, or whether the cave art is a primary topic of interest for you, I highly recommend it. It’s a relatively quick read, but packed full of information, without a wasted word in the entire thing.

Five ochre pawprints out of five.

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Happy One-Year Anniversary!

Well, here it is, the one year anniversary of Pagan Book Reviews! A year ago I started this blog partly as a way to have the fun of Bargain Bin Book Reviews, and partly as an archive for reviews of other books I’ve read. Since then, this blog:

–Has 143 posts, 138 of which are reviews, and 57 categories, only one of which is not review-related
–Has been viewed 20,360 times
–Had 279 views on its best-ever day, November 19, 2007, on which The Sacred Paw was the most-viewed entry at 50 views (not including people hitting the main site)
–Had 104 legitimate comments (some of which are my replies) and apparently been protected from 3,498 spam comments
–Is the fourth entry on the first page of Google search results for “pagan book reviews”

The very first review posted was Animal Magick by D.J. Conway. The most recent review posted was this month’s BBBR, Mystical Dogs by Jean Houston (which I didn’t crosspost to my usual places til today–so go look at it, it’s new!).

I honestly didn’t expect the blog to take off the way that it did, but I’m happy it did. I am a book geek (or bibliophile, if you want the fancy word), and with three hours of commuting a day, I get a lot of reading in. I’ve also been able to utilize a lot of the information I’d read. Here are just a few of the most personally influential books I’ve read (for the first time) in the past year:

Magical Ritual Methods by William G. Gray – taught me a LOT about the mechanics of magic, and confirmed some things I’d already been doing
The Spirit of Shamanism by Roger Walsh – this gave me some excellent food for thought (and practice) with regards to the psychological end of shamanic practice
Borrowed Power edited by Ziff and Rao – clarified some ideas on cultural appropriation, and introduced me to some new concepts, as well as inspired me to compile an anthology
The Sacred Paw by Shepard and Sanders – reminded me a lot of the sacredness of ritual and mindfulness of nature
The Way of the Animal Powers, Part 1 by Joseph Campbell – gave me some more material on Campbell’s mythological interpretation of paleolithic artifacts, which colors my personal spirituality quite a bit
Animals and Psychdelics by Giorgio Samorini – sparked some experimentation with legal mind-altering substances (including caffeine and alcohol, neither of which I partake in on a regular basis) and totem animals
The Earth Path by Starhawk – an excellent, mindblowing text on being conscious of our connection to nature, as well as our impact, from a spiritual-magical as well as practical perspective
The Oracle of the Bones – I’ve started using this system of bonecasting divination

Others that I also found quite interesting, though I didn’t integrate as much of their material into my practice as some others:

Dark Moon Rising by Raven Kaldera – BDSM sex magic, the ordeal path, and a nice variety of perspectives
Rites of Pleasure by Jennifer Hunter – a broader look at sex magic, and a lot of fun!
Gift of the Dreamtime by S. Kelley Harrell – one of the few first-hand shamanic testimonies I really liked, and a good illustration of shamanizing at work
Animal Messages by Susie Green – if I were to ever replace my Animal-Wise deck, this would be the one I’d use
The Haitian Vodou Handbook by Kenaz Filan – While I’m not an adherent of Voodoo/Vodou, it is a religion I’m interested in, and I really liked this text on it
The Witches’ Sabbats by Mike Nichols – this one contributed to my desire to celebrate regularly again
The Power of Animals by Brian Morris – a good in-depth study of one culture’s relationship to animals
The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn by John Williamson – A fascinating exploration of the medieval Unicorn Tapestries and their symbolism

However, I highly recommend all my reviews 😉

So here’s to another year of reviews! Thank you for those who have sent me books to review, thank you to people to alerted me to great reads they’d read, and thank you to all the folks who have found these reviews helpful. It’s been my pleasure, and I intend to keep it up for a good long while!

–Lupa

Mystical Dogs – Jean Houston – December BBBR

Mystical Dogs: Animals as Guides to Our Inner Life
Jean Houston
Inner Ocean: 2002
208 pages

Well, it’s December again, and just about a year since the very first Bargain Bin Book Review. This month I decided to go a little easier on myself since I just plowed through Eliade’s Shamanism. This was a good choice, a pleasant book of mysticism and spirituality coupled with a variety of stories about dogs the author has shared her life with.

Houston has the usual Western/New Age view of enlightenment–not as a result of years of rigorous meditation, but as a series of realizations during everyday life. I’m not sure I really agree that what the New Age terms “enlightenment” is the same as the Eastern concept, but I do agree with her that dogs can indeed be excellent teachers through example. And in fact her stories are the highlight of this book. I read with joy each tale and anecdote surrounding an array of Airedales, a couple of mastiffs, an Akita and a German shepherd dog, among others. There were occasional moments of sadness in the stories, but for the most part this was an uplifting book.

After each story, the author elaborates on the mystical significance and lessons learned with each dog. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t find these sections to be quite so interesting as the stories. She tends to ramble some, and I found myself losing interest a number of times. However, it’s also entirely possible that I simply don’t mesh well with her ideas or her writing style; she’s a lot more concise when she’s telling a story.

Still, I do recommend this book as a heartwarming bit of light writing that may very well bring you to your own sense of peace. Whether you own a dog or simply the company of your friends’ furry companions, this book is a nice way of looking at the more positive aspects of dog ownership (as opposed to filling in holes in the yard, hiding claw marks on the door, and rescuing small creatures from overexuberant attempts to play).

Four pawprints (how appropriate) out of five.

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Shamanism – Mircea Eliade

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
Mircea Eliade
Arkana (Penguin), 1989
610 pages

Nope, I didn’t fall off the face of the planet. Instead, I’ve been plowing my way through this massive text. This is considered the grandtome of shamanic resources, and rightly so. For its time, it was the most complete reference on the topic, and while research since the 1950s has illuminated areas of knowledge that Eliade had no exposure to, nearly half a century after its first English translation Shamanism is still required reading for anyone interested in shamans and shamanism.

The first few chapters cover general shamanic subjects, such as being “called”, the initiatory ritual and illness, and how shamans obtain their power and spirit helpers. These are followed by a number of chapters on shamanism in various regions of the world; not surprisingly, Siberia and surrounding areas get the most in-depth coverage. Finally, there’s an excellent chapter on the various common elements found in shamanisms around the world, certain themes and practices that are universal, or very nearly so.

I’ll admit that when I first bit into the foreword, I was a bit intimidated. It’s excessively dry, even for academic writing, and I was wondering if I was going to suffer through hundreds of pages of this. However, once I got into the first chapter, I was pleasantly surprised to find that his heavily formal tone shifted to a much more informative and readable style. That’s not to say that it’s an easy read; it took me about two weeks to finish this off, and I found myself occasionally having to re-read paragraphs as I began to skim rather than comprehend.

I think really the only areas where I have any complaint whatsoever are primarily content based. While Eliade makes an excellent observation on the common elements of many shamanisms, I’d like to know his perspective (if any) on if there’s anything significant about their differences. Unfortunately he died over two decades ago, so short of journeying to the underworld (or sky, depending on cosmology) to talk to him, I’ll just have to weep that I’ll never know for sure, at least not in this life. The other small gripe is his treatment of anything that deviates from a certain “standard” of shamanism as “degraded” or, in his words, “decadent”. Given that the “classic” Siberian shamanism may have been influenced by middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures, as well as more southerly Asian ones, some shifting and hybridization is to be expected anyway. A lot of his argument does center around the loss of the actual ecstatic “flight” through dance and other actions, replaced in some cultures by mediumship, feigned trance, and/or drug use. I’m going to have to read more to decide whether I really agree with his assessment of the latter as being lesser (especially the first and third) or not.

Still, overall, this is a must-read. Expect it to take some time (unless you really, really like academic writing). Take notes, or underline things. It’s full of information, and while it should be supplemented with newer source material, a lot of it still stands quite firmly as a resource.

Sort of off topic, I’ve always wondered how you pronounce “Mircea Eliade”. Not being Romanian, I had to ask Google. It appears that I was close in some respects, but not in others–here’s a lively discussion about it.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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