The Great Shift edited by Martine Vallee

The Great Shift: Co-Creating a New World for 2012 and Beyond
Edited by Martine Vallee
Weiser, 2009
256 pages

As 2012 approaches, it’s becoming a hotter topic. Just what will occur? Are we all doomed, or will absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happen? I suppose I should preface this review by saying that I don’t believe in the 2012 mythos, that significant events happen every day that are completely unrelated, and that I don’t take channelled texts literally–I don’t believe they’re more than the writer “channelling” some part of their mind not normally used. If you compare the results of channelling with the culture of the channeller, you see a lot of cultural similarities. So my approach to this anthology of channelled writings about 2012 is already biased.

The book is divided into three parts, one apiece for Lee Carroll “channelling” Kryon, Tom Kenyon “channelling” the Hathors and Mary Magdalen, and Patricia Cori “channelling” the High Council of Sirius. (Why doesn’t anyone ever channel anyone more boring?) About the only way I could take this book seriously was to look at it as purely a mythos, rather than a literal “we channelled this from beings who actually exist Somewhere Out There”. And in that light, there were actually some pieces of good advice that can essentially be summarized as:

–Take good care of your physical health and be aware of your body, instead of ignoring it until something goes seriously wrong
–Be good to yourself emotionally and mentally, and tend to your health there
–Be kind to other people; there’s enough nastiness in the world that needs balancing out

These are quite applicable pieces of advice in these times, and the writers often provide some really useful insights on how to accomplish these things. Western cultures, especially the dominant culture in the U.S., tend to lack interconnection and awareness, and I found some nice reminders to reach out to others, and to reach within myself as well.

Unfortunately, it’s couched in a lot of New Age material, including (of course) crystal skulls and Egypt, and star beings and not-at-all-vicious-as-in-the-Bible-angels. Because of this, I found myself twitching a good bit of the time I was reading. Still, to each their own. If you have more tolerance for New Age material, you’ll have an easier time with the book; even if you don’t, feel free to glean whatever’s useful from it.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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In the Blood by Adrian Phoenix

In the Blood
Adrian Phoenix
Pocket Books, 2009
390 pages

I was excited when I heard that this sequel to Rush of Wings was out. I’m pretty jaded about vampire novels these days, what with the utter glut of them on the market, but Phoenix’s work stands out like few others. Once again, I found myself immersed in a captivating alternate reality blending urban fantasy, murder mystery, and just a hint of erotica.

Phoenix picks up where the last novel left off, returning Heather Wallace to her home in Seattle, where Dante Baptiste–vampire and Heather’s love interest–is to be touring with his band. This is a plausible setup for the novel, and leads nicely into a story where loose ends from the previous book are brought into play. Since there’s only a space of a few weeks from one book to the next, it makes for a quick transition.

Dante’s health is worsening, Heather’s life has been complicated by family drama, and Lucien–well, Lucien seems to be dealing with the things that all fictitious angels seem to deal with, specifically warring in heavenly realms. These seemingly disparate experiences have more connection than what is immediately apparent, and within just a few chapters I was drawn irretrievably into wanting to know What Happens Next.

You would think that a vampire named Dante from New Orleans would be just another Lestat wannabe. Not so. Phoenix’s characterization of Dante continues to be rich and well-developed, and the same holds for all her characters. They’re believable, they have flaws (and it’s obvious she’s done her research on details), and yet carry the action of the plot with ease and grace. The character development from one novel to the next is also seamless, and this helped me to thoroughly and completely enjoy the ride.

If you’re sick of Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephenie Meyer, and other huge names, Adrian Phoenix is an excellent up-and-coming alternative. My suggestion would be to treat yourself to this pair of novels; my bet is that you’ll be waiting with bated breath for the next one, just like me.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Wicca Unveiled by J. Philip Rhodes – February BBBR

Wicca Unveiled: The Complete Rituals of Modern Witchcraft
J. Philip Rhodes
Speaking Tree, 2000
192 pages

While I’m tired of Wicca 101 rehashes, at least this one is on traditional rather than eclectic Wicca. Rhodes has many years’ experience in British Traditional Wiccan (BTW) covens, and uses this book to pass on information about the rituals and beliefs involved. Granted, I’m not BTW myself, so to an extent this review isn’t quite as informed as, say, Mike Gleason’s, but here are my thoughts.

On the plus side, the book is a fairly complete overview. It includes different initiatory and celebratory rituals, such as those for handfasting, and initiations in the Wiccan degree system. There’s also the prerequisite Sabbat and Esbat rites, and even planetary rituals which hail more towards modern Wicca’s ceremonial magical roots. Basic correspondences and incense recipes are to be found in the appendices, though they’re rather sparse.

However, there’s nothing that really makes this book stand out. It’s basically BTW for people who want a basic idea of its rites, but don’t want to slog through the Farrars’ massive black book. There are also some assumptions made that have essentially been discounted–the concept of an unbroken line of witchcraft going back hundreds or thousands of years, the “black/white” dichotomy of witchcraft, and other outdated things. The first chapter, which includes the history and theory of witchcraft, could be much more fleshed out as well; the book is mostly rituals.

It’s not terrible, but it’s not great, either. If you want an easy introduction to BTW rites and don’t want to spend too much time researching it, this will work. If you want something more substantial, read the Farrars.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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Everyday Witch A to Z by Deborah Blake

Everyday Witch A to Z: An Amusing, Inspiring and Informative Guide to the Wonderful World of Witchcraft
Deborah Blake
Llewellyn, 2008
264 pages

Blake, in her second book, has created a collection of short encyclopedic entries on a variety of topics related to witchcraft. Aimed at being both entertaining and useful, it’s a brightly laid-out text with a wide variety of presentations for the information therein.

I found it to be a mixed bag, personally. Here are some of the things that stood out to me:

Likes:

–There’s a good bit of humor mixed in with the information, which makes it an entertaining read. The “input” from one of Blake’s cats, Magic, is absolutely adorable (though useful as well), and there are some cute puns tossed in, including in section headers.
–There are footnote citations in addition to a bibliography. This pleases me, since it gives at least some idea of where Blake got her information. Unfortunately, the footnotes mainly refer to direct quotes, so there are still a lot of books in the bibliography whose contribution to this book are unclear. However, the footnotes that are there are a definite step in the right direction!
–I like the odd bits of information that I haven’t run into before. I was really curious as to what would be included in the “X” section, and found out about Xorguineria, a Basque form of witchcraft. And there are other gems here and there that, even after over a decade of practice, were brand-new to me.
–This isn’t just an encyclopedia of information. There are spells, advice column entries, and other tidbits scattered throughout, which makes it a practical guide in a lot of ways. It’s sort of a mix between book and magazine–but with a longer shelf life than the latter!

Dislikes:

–I know the tone is supposed to be light-hearted and fun, but it often goes beyond humor and comes across as an attempt to snag the teen demographic (many of whom don’t care for the “teen-friendly” writing aimed at them), whether that was the intent or not. Sometimes a conversational tone can be too casual, and there are several places where this happens.
–Some of the source material is suspect. For example, on p. 10 Blake cites Yasmine Galenorn’s assertion that “son of a bitch” was originally a compliment because “bitch” was supposedly a euphemism for a/the goddess. I would have preferred to see a more solid historical source for this information (I’d lay odds that it ultimately comes from Barbara Walker or another similarly sketchy “scholar”).
–A lot of the material is witchcraft 101 rehashed and barely skimmed over to any depth. In trying to get a wide variety of topics in there, from herbs and stones to ritual etiquette to various deities, the reader is left with a cursory bit of information on most of them.

Some people are going to love this book, and the light-hearted tone. Others are going to look at the things I didn’t care for, and possibly others, and not consider it to be serious or well-researched enough. I think it is a book that has a definite audience, primarily among newer folks who may head to the big box stores to get some introductory information. They may very well find this to be an appealing choice, and it’s definitely a lot more fun than some beginner’s texts. However, I would add the caveat that, like a lot of the typical Llewellyn “skim over a whole bunch of topics in one book” stuff, that it should serve as a gateway to deeper research on what the reader finds most interesting, particularly because of my misgivings with some of the source material.

Personally, I liked Blake’s Circle, Coven and Grove better, but I’m probably also not the ideal audience for this newest book. Therefore I’m giving it…

Three pawprints out of five.

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Bird Cards by Toerien and van Dobben

Bird Cards: The Healing Power of the Bird Kingdom
Jane Toerien and Joyce van Dobben
Altamira-Becht, 2003/Binkey Kok, 2007
158 pages plus 55 cards

This is one of the not-so-well-known animal totem decks out there, specializing in birds as opposed to a wide variety of animals. The specialization is a definite plus, because it allows for a number of birds that normally don’t get a lot of attention in commerical totemism books and decks. Along with some of the usual suspects like Crow, Raven, and Owl, there are some birds I haven’t really seen covered–Thrush, Roller, and Gannet, for example. There are a few surprises, too–Phoenix as a representative of mythological beings, and Dodo as an extinct totem.

The overall tone of this book/deck is intuitive. The author (and artist) relied primarily on a series of direct contacts with the totems/spirits of each bird in a personal ritual setting. This carries over into the individual messages associated with each bird. In fact, the entries are almost uniformly based on the author’s intuition and observation. I wish that she had balanced them out with some biology or lore from various cultures, though. Relying only on an author’s Unverified Personal Gnosis can lead to an imbalanced understanding of the possible teachings of each animal. Additionally, be aware that the writing tends towards New Age language (“deva”, “angel”, “light” and “special bird” are just a few terms to be found). The meanings are also primarily positive, with no warning of potential negative traits of each species–IMO/IME, it’s important to have a balanced approach when working with totems, or other spirits for that matter. I do have to say I’m glad the deck is remarkably free of cultural appropriation–one of the advantages from working with one’s own experiences. So that’s a definite point in its favor.

It is a very useful deck. Toerien offers a nice variety of layouts for the cards, and isn’t dogmatic in how it must or mustn’t be used. And it’s quite possibly one of the loveliest decks I’ve ever seen! van Dobben is an incredible artist, bringing vivacity and brilliant color to each of the birds.

Overall, I think this deck is a good one. I would strongly suggest researching beyond the book when working with an individual bird totem, and also be aware of the “white light” bias of the text. But it’s a nice alternative to some other decks out there. Good stuff!

Four feathers out of five.

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More Facing North Reviews

The Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer

The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth
John Michael Greer
Weiser Books, 2006
272 pages

Druidry is one of those pagan religions that I don’t know as much about as some others. However, getting to read the basics of one particular tradition of druidry has helped flesh out my perspectives somewhat, and so as a near-neophyte to the entire concept, I have to say this was a great introduction. I’ve read and reviewed The Druid Magic Handbook, also by Greer, but this offers more background to that text. (In other words, I suggest reading them both, but in the reverse order!)

The Druidry Handbook, while being the material for the First Degree in the Ancient Order of Druids in America (of which Greer is the Grand Archdruid), is also quite suitable for the individual interested in self-instruction. It’s impeccably organized (in sets of three, of course!) and Greer has a definite talent for explaining things thoroughly but without overcomplication. The book starts with an honest assessment of the history of druidry, including some of the more controversial (and occasionally fictitious) roots, though even the fiction is valued for its mythological if not historical qualities. Greer then presents the basic philosophy and practices of AODA druidry, along with some 101 material such as sacred days, correspondences, and a beginner’s introduction to ogam. This is followed by three paths of specialization that the reader may explore; the Earth Path deals largely with ecology as applied spirituality, the Sun Path with ritual practice, and the Moon Path with meditation. The wrap-up includes information for those wishing to utilize the book in a formalized practice, whether through the AODA or not.

Even those who aren’t specifically interested in druidry may want to take a good look at this book. The meditation section, for example, has a series of practices that are useful and effective regardless of one’s personal spiritual paradigm. The seasonal rituals, too, may be adapted for use outside of druidry, being well-structured and lyrical in their own right. In fact, many of the regular practices could be incorporated into a variety of paths.

There are so many good things to say beyond this. I do, however, want to especially point out the eco-friendly focus of the material. Many books on supposed “Earth-based religions” barely give lip service to actual hands-on ecological practice, preferring instead to write rehashes of moon rituals and so forth. Greer promotes everything from tree planting to spending extended periods of time getting to know the land you live in, and makes compelling arguments linking spirituality with physical practices and activities. This adds a nice context to the reasons behind the more abstract portions of ritual practice and so forth, and provides an additional layer of meaning.

My only quibbles are personal disagreements, and they’re pretty minor. For example, in talking about the druidic conception of reincarnation through different species, Greer writes “Someone who displays the vanity of a cat or the empty-headedness of a sheep clearly didn’t learn the lessons those forms teach, and must go back to relearn them” (p. 56). This is an anthropocentric view which judges nature of nonhuman species as biased by human opinions on what is considered to be valuable. (Perhaps life as a cat or sheep can show why it is that cats and sheep and others are the way they are, and why that’s valuable in and of itself without human judgement!) ETA: I’ve since learned that this is something specific to AODA material, not Greer’s personal perspective, just FTR.

But I’m being pedantic, really. Overall, I enjoyed this book, and I’ll be keeping it on my reference shelf. Even if I never practice druidry myself, there’s plenty of valuable information here.

Five paws full of oak leaves out of five

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The Shamanic Witch by Gail Wood

The Shamanic Witch: Spiritual Practices Rooted in the Earth and Other Realms
Gail Wood
Weiser Books, 2008
244 pages

I’m always leery of books that claim to mix shamanism and witchcraft, or that the two systems are one and the same (or nearly so). While I understand the tendency towards saying “Hey, these two flavors go great together!”, I also think it’s valuable to emphasize the differences as well. This book, like most others of its niche, integrates witchcraft specifically with core shamanism, which is not traditional shamanism, but rather a somewhat diluted creation of Michael Harner’s. I will, however, attempt to set aside my personal bias against core shamanism for this review, since others may find it more useful than I do.

Wood does present a thoroughly blended combination of core shamanism and witchcraft. A large portion of the book is dedicated to the foundations of core shamanism, everything from basic journeying to working with power objects. A lot of it follows the usual core shamanism patterns–power animals in the underworld, spiritual humanoid teachers in the upper world, and the idea that you only have one power animal which can apparently serve many purposes (as opposed to traditional shamanisms in which the shaman may have numerous helper spirits of all sorts).

The latter half of the book presents a number of more witchcraft-style rituals, complete with circle casting and other hallmarks of Wiccan ritual structure, with some shamanism sandwiched in the middle. Sometimes the combinations are a little clumsy; I’m not sure, for example, whether it’s really necessary to journey and then raise a cone of power, especially when journeying can be exhausting in and of itself. Additionally, there’s a lot of repetitive material–the full opening and closing rites (which take up a few pages in and of themselves) are reprinted in full with each ritual. The same could have been accomplished simply by presenting the basic ritual structure (which Wood did do), and then discuss more briefly the specific differences among each of the rituals presented. I am glad, however, that unlike many “shamanic” authors, she doesn’t try to script journeys as though they were guided meditations (and there is a difference between the two), nor does she limit the reader only to the usual journeys (finding power animal(s), basic soul retrieval, etc.). This is a definite bonus as far as I’m concerned.

My other gripes tend to be specifically with core shamanism, not with the book. If you like core shamanism and would like to integrate it with Wiccan-style witchcraft (or vice versa), this is a decent book for doing so. Wood does leave a lot of room for personal experimentation and growth, too. It’s well-written and well-organized, and while I would definitely not recommend it as one’s only source on shamanism (or witchcraft for that matter), it’s good for what it is.

Four pawprints out of five.

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The Art of Shapeshifting by Ted Andrews

The Art of Shapeshifting
Ted Andrews
Dragonhawk Publishing, 2005
320 pages

This book hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of Andrews’ other works, such as Animal-Speak or Animal-Wise. Which is a shame, because it’s a great book on a particular niche in animal magic that all too often ends up with a cursory explanation and a few basic exercises if you’re lucky. What Andrews presents in this book is the art of shapeshifting, and he goes into more detail and depth with it than I’ve seen anywhere else in print.

The book starts the reader out with a decent amount of preparatory material. Andrews explains his theories on how and why shapeshifting dance works, such as how energy flows in this sort of work, and what the body is capable of. He then segues into basic exercises to condition and prepare both the body and spirit for shapeshifting itself; there’s a good deal of breathwork and use of particular postures which will come in quite handy later on when invoking an animal spirit or energy. He also draws on the importance of mythology, particularly archetypes, to add an extra layer to the experience of shapeshifting.

When it comes time to try shapeshifting dance, the reader should be well-prepared in anticipation of the event. Any of a number of props and other items may be utilized, and the reader who has read thoroughly should have a good understanding of what they’re for and which will be useful to hir personally. Once basic shapeshifting dance has been achieved, Andrews also includes both magic and mysticism which can incorporate shapeshifting, as a way to show that it’s not necessarily done only for its own sake. As I mentioned, this is a very thorough approach to the topic.

I think my only complaint is with the layout of the book. There are a few places where the font sizes chosen don’t seem to really mesh well together, which can be a bit distracting. However, this is a minor issue overall. I could do without some of the correspondences, too, with things such as herbs, deities, and stones. However, some people prefer more trapping and tools, and so these may be useful to other readers.

Overall, I think this book fills its niche quite nicely, and deserves more attention than it’s gotten.

Five pawprints out of five.

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