Written in Wine edited by Sannion, et. al.

Written in Wine: A Devotional Anthology for Dionysos
Sannion, et. al. (eds) plus individual contributors
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008
214 pages

Dionysos is one of those deities that I’m surprised I haven’t had more direct interaction with. I think, perhaps, it’s because I’m a modern-day teetotaler (with the rare exception of small amounts for ritual use), and like so many people I’ve primarily associated Dionysus with drinking and wine. However, this particular collection has given me a much deeper and broader perspective on who Dionysos was and is, and while I haven’t had any urge to devote myself to him, I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for him in places where he’s likely to be found.

While the god certainly likes his wine, he is also a deity of passion and sexuality; of wilderness; of ecstatic and terrifying rites of passage; and of liberty. The wonderful variety of prose, poetry, and plays in this anthology attest to this multitude of roles. While it was all enjoyable–there wasn’t a boring or poorly-written piece in the collection–here are a few of my favorites:

The Mystery of Meilikhios and Bakkhios by Sannion: This, of all the “This is what Dionysos is about”, is one of my favorite guides to the nature of the god. It shows, concisely but thoroughly, the dual nature of Dionysos, and why there are sometimes seemingly conflicting stories about him. (Sannion’s The Paths to Dionysos is an excellent companion to this.)

Black Leopard by Rebecca Buchanan: I love modern fiction that integrates ancient deities, and this story is a particular gem. Leopards–sacred to Dionysos–feature prominently in this heartwarming, creative tale.

Dionysus Sees Her by Allyson Szabo: There are several pieces in the collection that touch on Dionysos’ wife, Ariadne, but this poem really touched me. It focuses on the moment the god found Ariadne abandoned by the sea, and illustrates how deeply he loves. Absolutely beautiful.

Lesser-Known Dionysian Festivals by John H. Wells: This one caught my eye simply because the author collects together details about a few dozen ancient festivals sacred to the god. It could be incredibly useful to those wanting to do regular devotionals to him, and it also shows the great variety in the ways that he was (and still is) honored.

There are so many more pieces I could highlight; as I said, they’re all good. The greatest strength of this book is its diversity, not only because different authors approach different aspects of Dionysos, but also because there is that wide variety of voices in several different written forms. This is an excellent text for anyone wanting to understand this particular deity on a deeper level; it’s also a good model for those wanting to do devotional work to a particular deity, but who aren’t sure how that creative work may manifest. It’s a fitting tribute to a god who is most often relegated only to the wine bottle, but who deserves much more attention, and is more present in this world, than that.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Traveller by Sol Smith

The Traveller
Sol Smith
Jupiter Gardens, 2008
166 pages

Author Sol Smith has created a vibrant tale in the YA genre. The Traveller skillfully blends a unique coming-of-age tale with Wiccan spirituality and spellcraft, and just a hint of the supernatural.

Abigail is a witch. raised in a family of witches. Her best friend is one as well, coming from a family with a colorful spiritual tapestry. Of course, witchcraft doesn’t keep her from having the usual teenage concerns–self-consciousness about her body, sexual tensions between her and her best guy friend, scholastic achievement in an unsupportive environment. Add in that her widowed father is dating a new woman, and there’s already a lot going on for Abbie. However, that’s not all of it. What if your imaginary best friend from when you were a child came to life? What if, instead of merely wanting to stay in your imagination, she wanted to take your place?

Smith manages to avoid a number of potential pitfalls in his writing. Most notably, he’s done one of the most adept blending of Wicca 101 information in a fictional story. The characters utilize herbs, stones and various techniques, attend rituals as covens and as solitaires; however, these activities are described in matter-of-fact manners, rather than the all-too-common “Look! Wicca! We’re targeting your demographic!” manner. While this provides an intriguing glimpse into the Wiccan religion which may lead some readers to do more research, it’s not so much that it becomes a distraction if you just want a good story to read.

And it is a good story! Smith provides some of the most believable dialogue I’ve read, and his descriptions of actions and settings are a nice counterpoint. Most of the book centers on the interactions among the characters, and so the good dialogue makes it an excellent and enjoyable read. I felt as though Abigail herself was a real person and had written the words verbatim; and when chapters changed viewpoint later in the book (everything’s in first person) it was immediately obvious who was speaking.

Overall, this is a wonderful book; while I’d definitely recommend it for pagan preteens and younger teenagers, it has a broader appeal as well. If this is the caliber of book that Jupiter Gardens will consistently be producing, then they’re definitely an up-and-coming publisher to keep an eye on.

Note: This title is currently only available as an ebook; it’ll be out in print format on 19 February, 2009.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Walking An Ancient Path by Karen Tate

Walking An Ancient Path: Rebirthing Goddess on Planet Earth
Karen Tate
O Books, 2008
394 pages

Much has been written in recent decades about Goddess spirituality. Some of it has been horrific, full of historical claptrap and stereotypes about both/all sexes. Others have been creations of beauty, allowing for Goddess spirituality to be its own entity without trying to prove or disprove others. This is definitely one of the latter texts; while I personally do not agree with every single thing the book offers, overall I find it to be a valuable addition to texts on this subject.

A large portion of the material throughout the book is dedicates to Tate’s anecdotes of her experiences. She is able to make pilgrimages that most of us wouldn’t be able to afford, going to all sorts of places around the world where the Divine Feminine has been revered throughout history. Lest you think that this makes the text inaccessible, think again: not only does she make these far-away places seem real and relevant to those who remain at home, but she also brings forth some home-grown examples of living Goddess spirituality. The anecdotes show her absolute wonder and reverence for the Divine Feminine, and it’s quite clear what is most sacred to her.

I also really enjoyed how Tate divides the book up by the five modern elements—Spirit, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Each section includes information and practices that resemble these elements, as well as discussing goddesses who are related to them. Sometimes the order of the individual subsections seems a little random, and chapters don’t always segue well from one to the next. Still, the book taken as a whole is a delightful journey through many possible modern manifestations of Goddess spirituality.

I would definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in, or currently practicing, Goddess spirituality. There are numerous ideas for honoring the Divine Feminine, all wrapped up in the passion and joy of a talented author.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Saga of Beowulf by R. Scot Johns

The Saga of Beowulf
R. Scot Johns
Fantasy Castle Publications, 2008
632 pages

I enjoy creative retellings of older tales–and Beowulf is one of my favorites. Having enjoyed Wealtheow by Ashley Crownover, I was curious as to what angle R. Scot Johns would take with his Saga of Beowulf. It’s a very different retelling, yet one that I still enjoyed a great deal. The original tale of Beowulf serves as a basic outline for this richly developed story; all the elements are there, woven into a thick tapestry of prose. I’ve read some retellings of myths and legends that took entirely too many liberties with the material–this isn’t one of those.

Johns has done a remarkable job of essentially writing a good piece of historical fiction. He’s done research on the cultures contemporary to the original Beowulf–Danes, Geats, and others, exploring the interrelationships among these peoples to a great degree. This gives the story a lot more context, and fleshes it out nicely. Similarly, his characterization remains true to the original legend, but gives the characters a lot more dimension. I enjoyed how realistically they interacted with each other while dealing not only with Grendel, but with intercultural politics and disputes, and all-too-human interpersonal relationships and concerns. The troubles with Grendel, his mother, and the dragon are just one of several threads of story throughout this read.

Johns is a very detail-oriented writer; he takes four paragraphs what other writers might describe in a quarter of that space. This sometimes works to his advantage in giving a solid foundation to his story. Unfortunately, there are also places where the descriptions are too wordy, and the story drags to the point where I started skimming just to get to the next conversation or event. This is pretty much my only complaint with the book overall–for the most part I found myself immersed in the book enough that I managed to finish it a lot faster than I expected (which gave me a nice break from schoolwork!).

This is an awesome book if you want a good, solid read that will last longer than a single plane flight, but will keep your attention even through 600+ pages. Whether you take it as a retelling of Beowulf and are interested in how true it remains to that tale, or whether you approach it as its own unique work, there’s a lot to like here.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Fun Signs – Hans Wilhelm – January BBBR

Fun Signs: The Most Accurate Zodiac Guide Ever Drawn
Hans Wilhelm
Wallaby Books/Simon and Schuster, 1981
96 pages

“Hey, baby, what’s your sign?” Who at this point hasn’t heard this dated cliche? From about the same time period came this odd little paperback cartoon guide to sun signs. when I saw it at the local Goodwill, I couldn’t resist a bit of brain candy–I totally admit to being a sucker for things whimsically illustrated.

If you’re looking for an in-depth guide to astrology–this isn’t it. It’s a very basic overview of sun sign information. What is in there aligns with much of the common info on the zodiac, so the author did do his research. However, it’s about on par with any of a number of “date by your sun sign!” booklets. The saving grace of this one, of course, is the illustrations. Simple but expressive, the drawings made me wish there was more of a market for humorous paganism/spirituality/etc. 101 texts in comic/cartoon format. (Of course, everyone knows paganism is serious business!)

If you happen across this long out of print book in a secondhand shop, pick it up as a novelty or amusement. There’s nothing new here that you can’t find in any book on astrology, but it has its own charms for the drawings.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Thorn Magazine, Volume One, Issue One

Thorn Magazine, Volume One, Issue One
Various authors, editors, artists and other contributors
December 2008
72 pages

Before I start this review, a disclaimer: I have been taken on as a reviewer by this publication, and have a book review in this issue. Please note the potential for bias, though I will do my best to maintain my neutrality.

The quality of neopagan dead tree magazines vary greatly. On the one hand, you have a small grouping of professional magazine publishers who have consistently managed to put forth decent material on a schedule. On the other, you have the magazines that never made it past the first issue, DIY zines of varying stripes and qualities, and some miscellaneous forgettable examples throughout the years. Running a magazine is tough, because it means multiple times a year you’re collecting, editing, laying out, printing and distributing material from all sorts of writers and other creatives. Burnout is common in the (relatively) small press magazine world.

I have a lot of hope for Thorn magazine, however. Started by “Chip O’Brien, the hideous result of a mad experiment by the Rutgers English department”, this is a pagan mag that goes well beyond spells and shiny objects. For this first issue, Chip and Co. managed to compile a delightful variety of articles, commentaries, artwork and other items. There’s too much to discuss every single item in detail, but here are a few of my favorites:

–The Wild Hunt (magazine column version) by Jason Pitzl-Waters: Despite the prevalence of paganism on the internet, not all pagans love spending time online as much as I do. So I thought that the addition of a summary of some of the highlights from the Wild Hunt was a great way to help the less cyber-focused still get access to a wide variety of pagan-relevant news bits. I thought it translated well, especially as I am a regular reader of the blog itself.

–Without a Watchmaker: An Atheist’s Search for the Gods by Robert Koskulics: Having recently taken up with someone who identifies both with the terms “pagan” and “atheist”, and having seen a recent spate of discussion of atheism in paganism via various popular pagan blogs, I leaped on this article almost immediately. It’s a sensitive treatment of one atheist’s experiences joining a coven for their Samhain celebration; while the author was frank about the points where he maybe wasn’t so moved by the ritual as the pagans were, I did enjoy his conclusion: “Gratitude for my life and my place in the world is almost as good as knowing why I should be grateful in the first place” (p.11). It’s a beautiful piece, and one of my favorites from the entire issue.

–The Extraordinary Healing And/Or Totally Fraudulent Powers of Orgone by Jeff Mach: I’m a bit familair with Reich from an occult perspective, but also from the perspective of a psych grad student. I haven’t yet read Reich’s works directly, though I have them in my possession, but I did have a class where a Reichian therapist sat in as a substitute for the usual professor and talked a bit about his practice. Mach’s article, on the other hand, tends to favor the more occultish interpretations of orgone energy, Reich’s theoretical energetic matrix that permeates, well, everything. While he does touch on Reich’s work in psychotherapy, much of the article deals with the more esoteric applications of orgone–and the conspiracy theories surrounding Reich’s persecution and mysterious death in prison. Reich and his work are not a simple topic to tackle, and Mach does quite the admirable job of presenting his case.

The Cauldron of Poesy (translation) by Erynn Rowan Laurie: This is a circa 7th century poem written by an Irish fili, or poet-mystic; Laurie has done a lovely job of translating it. Translation is always a bit of a challenge, especially with poetry, because often the original words are specifically chosen for their rhythm and sound, and trying to make a translation that sounds just as nice isn’t easy. Laurie preserves the meaning while creating something that is pleasurable to read and recite.

–Thralldom in Theodish Belief by Joseph Bloch: I’ll admit that I’m no expert on heathenry, and I know less about Theodism than other sorts, such as Asatru. However, I was utterly fascinated by this approach to a neotribal membership process that draws on the concept of a newcomer to a culture being a thrall, a “nobody”, who then must earn their place in society, through working within some very specific parameters. It’s a wonderfully thorough way to weed out potentially problematic applicants and to show who’s really dedicated to being a part of the tribe. I admit that I couldn’t help but be reminded, to an extent, of the spirit of the Master/slave relationship in BDSM–while the Theodish thralldom is in no way sexual, the general concept of a willing sacrifice of one’s power for a particular goal/purpose seems to be a commonality.

There were plenty of other things that I loved, to include a beautiful critique of Gimbutas’ faulty research, some absolutely amazing artwork, and spotlights on pagan-related pop culture. Admittedly, there were also a few pieces I thought weren’t as strong. Tchipakkan’s “Hanging with the Gods”, a discussion of her and her family’s experiences with “real live encounters” with the spirits and deities made me want to reach for my Occam’s Razor. Starwolf’s “Wyrd Science: A Lab Report” was supposed to include “20% craft skill, 60% research and 20%….insane inspiration!”, all I really saw was a couple of instructables on how to make a copper wand and a “Psychic Shield Generator”, with no real scientific method, research, or other content. And Jack Lux’s “An Evening With Uncle Chuckie” discussed the author’s inspiration to thumb his nose at “white lighters” and their pesky ethics after a presentation by the infamous Charles Cosimano; it came across more as a rebellious OMGDARKMAGICIAN, and my end reaction was “Gee, so you cast a curse and it might have worked. That’s nice”.

Still, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this magazine, and even the parts I wasn’t so impressed by may absolutely tickle someone else. Also, I’d like to mention (and here I’ll definitely admit my bias as a writer!), Thorn is one of very, very few paying venues for pagan magazine contributors. Granted, as a startup, they’re limited in what they can afford to pay. However, considering most of the time writers have to settle for a contributor’s copy of the magazine they get published in, or maybe a free subscription, this is a welcome change. I strongly suggest that if you like what you see from this magazine, that you treat yourself to a subscription–and help keep this excellent publication afloat.

Thorn is by far the most professional startup I’ve seen, and if the first issue is an indication, this will definitely be a strong voice in pagan publishing for years to come.

Five pawprints out of five

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