Lllewellyn’s 2008 Herbal Almanac – various

Llewellyn’s 2008 Herbal Almanac: Herbs for Cooking and Crafts, Health and Beauty, Growing and Gathering, History, Myth and Lore
Llewellyn Publications, 2007
312 pages

People often assume that because the Llewellyn almanacs are dated (and are called “almanacs”), that most of the information in them isn’t relevant beyond the year they’re published. The truth is to the contrary. While the 2008 Herbal Almanac does include a few pages of lunar information that can be used with herbal magic and growing, this is no Farmer’s Almanac. Instead, it’s an anthology of informational essays on a wide variety of topics related to herbs and plants, sure to be relevant for years to come.

The book is divided into sections: Growing and Gathering Herbs, Culinary Herbs, Herbs for Health, Herbs for Beauty, Herb Crafts, and Herb History, Myth and Lore. Each section contains anywhere from three to eight essays of a nice variety. While overall I enjoyed the quality of the writing and information in here (albeit as someone who does not work extensively with herbs beyond cooking), here are a few of my favorites:

Endangered Herbs by Patti Wigington: Because some of the most commonly used herbs in magic are often ubiquitous (and even weeds) it can be easy to forget that not everything that’s an herb is easy to procure, or has a healthy population overall. This essay details a few herbs that, while used frequently in magic, are endangered from habitat loss, overuse, and other reasons. The author offers some excellent alternatives, as well as tips on sustainable consumption (culinary and otherwise) of these plants.

Shadowplay: Herbs for the Shady Garden by Elizabeth Barrette: You don’t need full sunlight to be able to have a garden. This excellent essay details what may be planted in the shade, as well as some ideas for helping the herbs to grow.

Organic Gardening Practices by Lynne Smyth: Another one of the gardening essays, I liked this simply because it’s a good, basic introduction to ways to garden without chemicals, and in a sustainable manner. Those who claim to be close to the Earth would do well to adopt as many of these practices as possible.

Henna for Hair by AarTiana: I love henna, and have been using it for a few years to dye my hair red. This was a nice guide to using henna, and while I already knew a good bit of the information, I learned a few things (including the fact that Lucille Ball used henna!)

Paracelsus, Plants, and the Doctrine of Signatures by Mark Stavish: This was a little denser read than most of what was in this book, but still quite accessible. A good introduction to a hermetic/alchemical take on magical herbalism, and a more thorough explanation of why we use correspondences than most short writings offer.

Crafts for Kids Unfold Outdoors by Sally Cragin: I’m childfree, but I wholeheartedly support exposing children to nature as soon as possible. This lovely article not only promotes an Earth-friendly approach to using natural items in crafts, but includes a number of how-tos on some very simple creations that can be fun for kids and grown-ups alike!

Overall, this is a great collection. Some of the essays are more 101-level, so this would be an excellent choice for a newbie, but there are some interesting things for the more advanced as well.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Longing For Wisdom – Allyson Szabo

Longing For Wisdom: The Message of the Maxims
Allyson Szabo
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008
150 pages

“Know Thyself”. This is one of over a hundred maxims carved into a stele outside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. More than empty platitudes, these simple sayings not only guided Greek society, but were also instruments for teaching and learning Greek language and culture. While many people know of the importance of myths of the Olympians and others in Greek religion and culture, not as many are aware of the crucial role that the maxims play not only in a historical context, but the potential applications that they have to practicing Hellenic polytheism today.

Allyson Szabo couches her exploration of thirty-four of the maxims within the context of their origins and their historical uses, having done thorough research. However, rather than leaving them in the past, she shows ways in which they are relevant to our time today, whether we’re pagan or not. She’s very clear in explaining that interpretations–and even translations–lead to a great deal of subjectivity, and so the maxims, despite having been carved into stone, are far from being fixed in stone, metaphorically speaking. So she offers us an excellent context for the remainder of the book.

The bulk of the text involves her discussion of the maxims she’s chosen to highlight. Anywhere from one to three pages may be dedicated to her really thinking about what each maxim means and what lessons may be drawn from it. Very quickly it’s apparent just how relevant these are to our society. For example, when discussing “Control anger”, Szabo offers some solid, basic psychological advice on how to control–not repress–anger, and why it’s important. “Obey the Law” isn’t just a blind following of whatever’s on the books, but also a call to examine and criticize unjust laws (which also can be tied to “Shun Unjust Acts”). And, perhaps one of the most relevant to our busy society, “Consider the Time/Use Time Sparingly” is a much-needed prompt to examine how we do use the limited resources of time we’re allotted. At the end of each maxim’s section, Szabo includes an exercise or things to contemplate to further incorporate the message of the maxim in one’s life.

I also have to commend her for her excellent footnotes. She goes into great detail with supporting information, historical and otherwise, which just adds to the thorough contextualization of the material as a whole. As with all the Bibliotheca Alexandrina titles I’ve read thus far, the research is among the best available, particularly for pagan publishing standards, and I was not at all disappointed in this regard despite my own pickiness.

This book has a few notable potential audiences. Students (and teachers!) of philosophy should take a look, particularly for seeing a modern application of the maxims rather than only as relics of a culture long past. Hellenic pagans, of course, will want to thoroughly study this text to get a better understanding of the roots of the culture from whence their beliefs came. Neopagans in general, even if Hellenismos isn’t their path, may find this to be of great interest as a solid example of taking ancient “artifacts” and making them relevant to the 21st century. And anyone who likes well-researched nonfiction dealing with a particular topic in great detail will find this to be a highly engaging and informative read.

All in all, another wonderful text from Bibliotheca Alexandrina that will appeal to the scholar and practitioner alike!

Five pawprints out of five.

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Women Who Run With the Poodles – Barbara Graham – March BBBR

Women Who Run With the Poodles: Myths and Tips For Honoring Your Mood Swings
Barbara Graham
Avon Books, 1994
150 pages

I totally admit I bought this book for the title. I’ve read Estes’ Women Who Run With the Wolves, and I can see where a lot of it has become cliched in the realm of self-help. This book was an attempt to parody that, and numerous other self-help books–and those of their readers who have gone way beyond self-help and into self-over-criticizing and other counterproductive behavior.

On the one hand, there are some amusing moments in the book–I’m waiting to see if some enterprising public speaker comes up with workshops like “Insurance Warrior”, “The Way of the Gastroenterologist”, and “Creating Your Sacred Tax Shelter”. The illustrations are cute, and match the general feel of the book. And there’s some value in pointing out that it’s okay to not be perfect, to have some blemishes. Plus I liked the section on how you don’t really need all sorts of accessories.

However, there are also some down sides. Practically speaking, it reinforces some unhealthy stereotypes such as therapy being useless, as well as some ridiculous elements of the supposed “War Between the Sexes”. It’s a great guide on how to ignore anything useful out of alternative spirituality whatsoever. And the humor does get old after a while; this might have been better as an essay, not an entire book.

If you’re need to be a bit jaded about the self-help industry in general, this might be an okay read. I think the author might have had something more to say than “You don’t need all those useless attempts at self-improvement!”, but tried too hard and didn’t quite get the snappy wit she was attempting.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Trance-Portation by Diana L. Paxson

Trance-Portation: Learning to Navigate the Inner World
Diana L. Paxson
Weiser Books, 2008
276 pages

Given her extensive work in trance work, particularly (though not exclusively) being a founder of modern seidr practice, Diana L. Paxson is an excellent person to be writing an in-depth guide to deliberately achieving altered states of consciousness. While numerous books on (neo)shamanism and other practices give sections or chapters on techniques including drumming, conscious breathing, dancing, and other methodology, this text specialized in explaining trance work in all its detail, and does a great job of fulfilling its goal.

Rather than only focusing on one particular type of trance work (such as only journeying), Paxson offers a more general framework that can be applied in several different contexts. Don’t let this fool you into thinking it’s watered-down however. It’s generalized in the same way William G. Gray’s Magical Ritual Methods explains a generalized approach to ritual magic. In both cases, the authors go into painstaking detail in the mechanics of their subject matter, but without adhering to a specific path.

This truly is a step-by-step guide to trance. Paxson starts with a variety of exercises to train the reader in necessary skills for trance, and to prepare them for what’s next. Trance itself is covered in detail–not only the actual mechanisms for doing so, and ways to shift one’s mind into an altered state, but also information on both physical and incorporeal aid and tools. Additionally, she discusses something many authors overlook–the inherent dangers associated with trance work. Not just medical dangers, which everyone talks about, but the fact that not everything you meet may be nice, and yes, you may have to fight. There are also substantial sections for those who will be guiding others through trance to help them apply the rest of the book to their work.

Trance-portation is a cover-to-cover guide that will be useful to just about any neopagan, neoshaman, or other person wanting help in journeying, astral travel, lucid dreaming, and similar practices. It’s one I’ll be recommended to my own students, and one that I think will be indispensible to most of the people who pick it up.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Drums of Legenderry by John Orlando

The Drums of Legenderry
John Orlando
Legenderry.com, 2007
154 pages

This is a peculiar little collection of stories for adolescent readers (and I mean peculiar as a very good thing!). They center around the adventures of the Rhythm Maiden, a river spirit, and her family, some of whom travel quite a ways away in their journeying. It’s a mythos created by the author, but in the grand tradition of complex mythologies that include a good deal of symbolism, as well as the ability to carry cultural values and teachings. The stories are set in a faerie-tinged fantasy world where magic is as common as the air you breathe–but has consequences as well!

The rhythm of the stories, if you will, reminds me very much of mythologies from cultures where the oral tradition is the primary form of communication. This sometimes makes them a little odd to read, particularly when it comes to the dialogue between characters. However, when read aloud, the cadence makes a lot more sense (which also makes subsequent reading better as well). While the book is meant for middle-grade readers, most of them could be told to younger children as well (there are a few with a bit of material, such as allusions to domestic abuse, that may be a bit much for the really young ones). I could see this being a neat book for a story time at pagan events–or in the pagan home with children. And, as an adult, I found the stories to be an excellent break from the more serious nonfiction reading I do for school and so forth!

I think my only real criticism of the book is that it could have used an extra pair of eyes to edit it. There are a few inconsistencies here and there–a mammoth being referred to as both he/him and it in the same paragraph, and a character’s name being spelled both Pika and Pica (a typo, perhaps?) Also, a few places the writing seemed a bit rough around the edges, even in the oral retelling, though this may be stylistic preferences on my part.

Still, I can see this being a wonderful addition to just about any pagan library, whether there are children or not. Storytellers in general may want to take a look at this text, as should those who like to receive a good story as well.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Goddess is in the Details by Deborah Blake

The Goddess is in the Details: Wisdom for the Everyday Witch
Deborah Blake
Llewellyn Publications, May 2009
240 pages

Everybody knows by now that there are entirely too many paganism 101 books out there, especially in the arena of Wicca and witchcraft. There’s a growing number of advanced texts on specialized topics as well, though nowhere near to the point of exhaustion and rehashing. And there’s a niche in between–bridge books that, like 101 books, cover a variety of topics in one text to give the reader a taste of what’s next, but don’t just go over the basics one more time (but with a new hat!). Deborah Blake’s newest title, The Goddess is in the Details, is a part of this latter niche.

What do you do once you have the basics down? Well, for one thing, you start thinking about where all this new information and the practices you’ve been developing fit into your everyday life. Blake isn’t the first person to write a book that addresses practical matters, but she does it in a wonderfully open manner that will go far in assuaging the fears of folks feeling a bit intimidated to take the next step. She covers a lot of important ground with regards to ethics–not just the reality of “harm none”, but things like healthy relationships in regards to common pagan ethical guidelines. She also explores other sorts of relationships, to include what to do if you live with people who aren’t pagan, and what to do about the whole broom closet conundrum. There are some interesting writings as well on stretching one’s wings in magical practice, and again thinking about the whys and hows, as well as what to do besides light another candle. And self-care is a strong theme; one of the first things Blake talks about is how harmful it can be to say mean things to yourself, and that they aren’t “just words”.

There are some sections of 101 material; for example, the Sabbats are covered yet again–though this is within the context of a chapter that takes celebrations beyond just those eight days. Also, there are a number of topics where I wish she could have dedicated more space to explanations; for example, I really liked her intro to animal familiars, but she didn’t really do much beyond give the reader a method for attracting a familiar. I would have liked to have seen a little more how-to info on what to do once you have a familiar in your life–it’s obvious from her anecdotes that her feline helpers have been strong influences on her. Granted, this is one of the limitations of the “cover a little bit of a lot” format, but there were places where I was left hoping for more, just because what she did present was intriguing.

The best audience for this book are the newbies who have gotten the basics down and feel ready to at least begin exploring the next step. Traditionalists may find the eclectic nature of the material a bit off-putting, but many readers won’t mind so much. Use this book as a resource for branching out–she cites a lot of source material, though do be aware that the majority of her sources are specifically in the pagan/metaphysical/etc. genre as opposed to root sources such as history, psychology, etc. This isn’t necessarily bad, but eventually readers will want to get into things that aren’t necessarily of this genre.

Overall, a great book for branching out beyond the basics!

Five pawprints out of five.

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Bell, Book and Murder by Rosemary Edghill

Bell, Book and Murder: The Bast Novels
Rosemary Edghill
Forge Books, 1994
448 pages

Okay, so a lot of folks who read these reviews most likely have already read these novels at least once. I read the first one years ago, and just now got around to hunting down the omnibus edition including the entire trilogy. I enjoyed it thoroughly, so here’s my review, just in case there are pagan folk who need a good tip-off on a thoroughly wonderful piece of pagan-flavored fiction.

Bast is a thirty-something Gardnerian Wiccan in New York city. She works doing book layout as a freelancer, and has a “coffin-sized and shaped” apartment. Active in her local pagan community, she also ends up being a key figure in solving three separate murders, one per novel. Her fellow pagans and magicians are realistic, running the gamut from flakes to uber-serious ceremonialists, and all points in between. Bast herself is well-grounded and mature, but not without her flaws.

The mysteries themselves are well-paced and inventive, and while they incorporate the pagan aspects of the novels to one extent or another, it’s in a believable style. I never felt like any of the stories were strained–I think the latter two books, particularly their endings, were better than the first, but even the first was a great read.

You know all those recent novels where authors try to add information about paganism in the duration of the storyline? This is the book that they aspire to be (and only a few achieve similar quality). Instead of clumsy attempts to have a lesson on neopaganism at one point in the book, Bast does what any good writer does when introducing niche material into a storyline–she weaves it in seamlessly with the narrator’s commentary. Details on paganism are integrated fluidly along with the basics of (pre-computer) book layout, and what it’s like to live in the Big Apple. I learned a good deal about the latter two, and thought the former was quite well handled as well.

What I loved the most about her portrayal of neopaganism, though, is that never once is there anything unbelievable. There’s no Harry Potter-esque magic. There’s not even speculation in the vein of the famous British Wiccan ritual during WWII that may or may not have been actually effective (and may not even occurred for that matter). There aren’t any incarnated angels or cross-planar spirits physically materializing or voices of deities in the middle of New York. Bast does spells and rituals in the course of the novels, but none of them are shown to definitely cause anything out of the ordinary. In other words–the world of Bast could just as easily be this one.

These novels have a lot going for them–well written, excellent integration of specialized material, and believable characters and settings. If you haven’t had a chance to read them yet, they’re probably one of my most highly recommended fiction pieces on this review site to date.

Five pleased pawprints out of five.

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