Watercolour Essences of Moon by Christala Rosina

Watercolour Essences of Moon
Christala Rosina
PublishAmerica, 2006
114 pages

I seem to have tapped, unwittingly, into a vein of pagan and pagan-friendly poets as of late. While Watercolour Essences of Moon isn’t expressly pagan, the themes most certainly are relevant to those pagans for whom Nature is an important factor in spirituality.

Rosina’s work is inspired strongly by the Romantic poets such as Shelley, Coleridge, Blake and others; while I haven’t read them extensively since getting my BA in English years ago, I could definitely sense their influence in this collection of poems. Most of the poems at least allude to, if not center on, natural phenomena ranging from broad-branched trees to splashing, running water. However, it is human nature in specific that Rosina captures quite expertly with her carefully chosen words. While the common themes of love and loneliness are addressed, some of the poems are more playful–for example, “The Lily and the Rose” is a smirking jab at those who claim that “rhyming verse is dead”.

It took me a few times to really get into reading these poems. The author has a background in music, and the quality of the verses is such that they seem to immediately lend themselves to being spoken aloud. At first I wanted to say that this would be the most effective way of conveying the writing, but the poems grew on me over time as reading material as well. Sadly, I live across an ocean from Rosina, so I can’t hear her recite the poems herself, but I hope I did an adequate job myself in the privacy of my own home!

Some of the poems might make for good additions into ritual practices; “Sonnet to the Night”, for example, is a lovely tribute to that particular time, personified as female (the Star Goddess, perhaps?). However, even if you’re just appreciative of poetry, this would be a lovely addition to your collection.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Crafting Magick With Pen and Ink by Susan Pesznecker

Crafting Magick With Pen and Ink
Susan Pesznecker
Llewellyn, 2009
240 pages

Note: This review is also appearing in an upcoming issue of Thorn Magazine, along with longer reviews not posted here.

The neopagan community has a lot of writers in many genres, and there’s a demand for resources tailored to our own interests. While general books on “how to be a writer” offer many of the same practical advice found in this book, what makes it stand apart is the more esoteric material. Amid the how-to’s of writing, Pesznecker provides rituals and other magical aids in facilitating one’s creativity.

Pesznecker, who has a Master’s degree in nonfiction writing, explains just about everything the aspiring—or existing—writer could want, neopagan or otherwise. She covers such topics as different methods for provoking greater creativity, refining one’s unique voice, writing effective dialogue and description, revision techniques, and why good readers make better writers. Her information is well-organized, though not always in a strictly linear fashion.

From a magical and spiritual perspective, the author offers quite a bit of support. Along with magical practices to utilize throughout the writing practice to help stay focused, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to writing ritual material and spells. I also liked her concept of writing “sparks”, prompts based on neopagan religious material.

All this theoretical material is nicely punctuated by journaling exercises to further solidify the concepts through practice. Even though I’ve been a published author for a few years and have a pretty good system down with my writing, I picked up some good tips to incorporate, and I’d definitely recommend this to newer writers as well. Whether you’re writing nonfiction, fiction, or ritual material, there’s plenty to love about this resourceful text.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Seeking the Spirit of the Book of Change by Master Zhongxian Wu

Seeking the Spirit of the Book of Change: 8 Days to Mastering a Shamanic Yijing (I Ching) Prediction System
Master Zhongxian Wu
Singing Dragon, 2009
240 pages

Note: This review is also appearing in an upcoming issue of Thorn Magazine, along with longer reviews not posted here.

While the core focus of the book is on the Yijing as a divinatory system, Wu presents an elaborate spiritual context surrounding the ceremony of divination. He goes into great detail explaining his particular interpretation of Chinese tea ceremony, not only its physical actions but observations such as the differences in how the tea tastes and feels on different points of the tongue to allow a deeper savoring. There are also various meditative poses for each of the eight days involved in learning Wu’s method of Yijing; while the system could be used by someone with a day job, some of the suggestions (such as spending days hiking) may be difficult without planning.

I’m not entirely sure I agree with the author’s interpretation of the wu as shamans. He presents a highly romanticized picture of the wu as composed primarily of royal “enlightened beings.” While I would assume there were some such practitioners who engaged in divination, Wu fails to mention that “wu” is also attributed to peasant women by some sources, and he doesn’t mention whether the “shaman kings” of the Wu dynasty were uniformly enlightened, or whether some had feet of clay.

Practically speaking, the book is a little hard to follow because of its disorganization, which sometimes comes across as a stream of consciousness of ideas. This doesn’t make the book unreadable, just more difficult to parse.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Ancestral Airs by Verda Smedley

Ancestral Airs
Verda Smedley
Dim Light Books, 2008
700 pages

As I was reading this book, I was trying to figure out where to fit it into the categories on this blog. On the one hand, it’s purportedly a reconstruction of a culture 6,000 years old; this includes extensive research into botany, mythology, history and other scholarly studies. But, when you get right down to it, it’s also a fascinating set of stories with well-developed characters, settings, and plots.

Beyond a certain point, we can really know only so much about cultures prior to written history in a region. The stories supposedly tell about the people who lived in the British Isles 6,000 years ago, well before there were any written records; while the author draws from texts about the Celts and other older cultures, these are still newer peoples than what Smedley describes. Whether the people of 4000 BC lived in ways the book described is unknown; nonetheless, the author does a lovely job of weaving together a solid description of her thoughts on the matter, and we get a good picture of what it is they did and believed.

So I chose to primarily read this for its storytelling value. Similarly to my experience of reading MZB’s The Mists of Avalon, it didn’t matter whether the story was literally true or not. I found myself sinking into a world where animism was the central belief, where the plants, animals and other denizens of nature were so important to the people that they took their names from them. I read about the rituals these people performed, as well as the participants’ feelings about them. I witnessed the interactions between individual groups of people, and how they wove into the greater overarching culture of the time. It didn’t really matter whether this was the way things “really happened”; it was a great journey anyway. Even if seen only as a novel, it’s a worthwhile read.

I can’t entirely vouch for the validity of the herbal information; the author knows more about that than I do. A lot of the information about plants peppering the stories dealt with magical uses; however, there were some medicinal uses mentioned as well. For those intrepid enough to backtrack the author’s research, there’s an appendix with the common and Latin names of all the plants (numbering in the hundreds) mentioned. Additionally, she included a thorough bibliography for further research and fact-checking.

This is a book I had to read in bits and chunks over time; at 700 pages, it’s a lot to read! The formatting left a bit to be desired, most notably the complete lack of page numbers which, in a book this length, is frustrating when trying to find where I left off, or where I found a piece of information or a snippet of story I wanted to go back to. Also, I can’t for the life of me find information about the publisher, the owner of the publishing company, or the author.

Ancestral Airs is a thoroughly enjoyable read, regardless of how much salt you choose to take the research with. Whether you choose to read it as I did, in little pieces, or simply spend several hours going from cover to cover in one fell swoop, I hope you like this unique combination of research and narrative.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Ceremonial Circle by Sedonia Cahill and Joshua Halpern – June BBBR

The Ceremonial Circle: Practice, Ritual and Renewal for Personal and Community Healing
Sedonia Cahill and Joshua Halpern
Harper Collins, 1992
200 pages

This month’s Bargain Bin Book Review ended up being a useful resource for both my paganism and my (future) therapeutic practice. Written by two psychologists of a spiritual bent, it can basically be summed up as “ritual practices for people who don’t want to use the word ‘pagan'”. This gives it certain amounts of versatility that more blatantly neopagan books might not have in reaching a broader audience.

The book is essentially a 101 guide to ritual construction. Written in such a way as to not evoke any specific religion (though it draws on “Native American” spirituality–more on that in a moment), it breaks ritual practices down into basic components, but without going too heavily into theory. It’s a practical guide, a toolkit for creating rituals for everything from rites of passage to celebration to grieving, as well as connection to the Earth and other living beings. Not surprisingly, there’s a great focus on healing, including healing of the psyche, and the use of ritual for that purpose.

The authors present a nice balance of how-tos and anecdotes. One entire chapter is dedicated to interviews with various experienced ritual leaders, including Starhawk, to get their perspectives on creating rituals through the medium of a circle. These interviews add a nice touch of “been there, done that, here’s what worked” to the hands-on material.

I did take off some points because of a bit of cultural appropriation. The authors, as mentioned earlier, borrow from what they perceive as “Native American” spirituality. This is presented pretty generically, and without a lot of discussion of the original cultural contexts of the practices. Additionally, there’s not a lot of information presented for each–the sweat lodge, for example, gets a few paragraphs at best, never mind that improperly done it can be deadly. And they toss the word “shamanic” around more than I’m comfortable with; surviving an abusive childhood, for example, does not automatically make one a shaman. While I understand the authors’ desire to present a wide variety of potential ritual practices, “trying to be like the Indians” generally ends up with some deficiencies, and while they did address needing to respect the cultures drawn from, I found this aspect of the book to be pretty lacking.

Overall, though, this is a really valuable resource, especially if you need to design a ritual for people who aren’t necessarily pagan, but are open to animistic spiritual/psychological practices. I’m keeping it for my own uses, and would recommend it to others.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Dancing God by Diotima

Dancing God: Poetry of Myths and Magicks
Diotima
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008
200 pages

Poetry usually isn’t my preferred reading material, but every so often I find a book of it that I truly enjoy. Dancing God is the second volume of poetry that’s caught my attention in such a way, the first being The Phillupic Hymns by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus. In this particular text, I was treated to a lovely variety of verses, some of which are strongly flavored by mythology–but all of which speak to the human condition.

Diotima’s verses are generally not long, but instead are bite-sized descriptions of her interaction with the world, Divine and mortal alike. There are four themes, each with its own section: Gods, Myths and Sagas; Love; Life; and Death. Diotima has done a lovely job of sorting her works into these categories, but the variety she displays demonstrates an understanding of multiple perspectives on each theme.

The poems in the Gods, Myths and Sagas section may be of particular interest to pagan readers. Her works encompass several mythologies, from Greek to Celtic to Japanese; primarily, though not exclusively, they are snippets of story or honor (or both!) offered to a particular deity. Some are rooted in the deities’ contemporary cultures, such as a rather macabre description of Dionysus’ darker aspects, a retelling of Fenris’ chaining, and a poem to Hekate as “lady of the hounds”. Others, such as Icarus’ musing on human’s common flight in airplanes, a poem comparing the original manifestation of angels to their modern “cute” depictions, and wondering “Do the old gods walk the streets of London?”, are more modern commentary. They all weave together well, and demonstrate that the gods are not, in fact, dead at all. These would all make lovely incorporations into private rituals and meditations.

All of the poems, however, are exquisitely crafted. Both the kind and the painful sides of love are evoked (I was particularly fond of “Communication”, with its recurring line “Damn you, pick up the phone!”). “Life” is a short section full of little slices thereof, commentary on the day to day (and yet how unusual it can be from this angle!). The theme of death is dealt with using everything from grief to black humor, a good catharsis for working through loss.

Having been assaulted with bad verse and worse attempts, Dancing God is a reminder that we still have muse-touched poets today, those who create beauty through carefully structured words. There’s magic in these pages, and Diotima is an accomplished magician when it comes to evoking the feelings she wishes to convey.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Weiser Concise Guide to Aleister Crowley by Richard Kaczynski

The Weiser Concise Guide to Aleister Crowley
Richard Kaczynski, Ph.D.
Weiser Books, 2009
126 pages

A few years ago, when I was working on exploring different magical paradigms as part of my time as a Chaos magician, I did some basic reading up on Aleister Crowley. I read the Book of the Law, Magick Without Tears, Duquette’s The Magick of Thelema, and made an unsuccessful attempt to get through the Big Blue Brick. I was never a Thelemite, but it was enough to get a basic taste of what the fuss was all about.

Reading The Weiser Concise Guide is sort of like having the Cliff’s Notes version of all that. There’s a very brief, quick biography; a brief, quick introduction to his magical accomplishments; a brief, quick overview of the various magical orders he founded or was a part of; a brief, quick selection of basic rituals; and so forth. Granted, this is a concise guide, one of several this publisher has put out, but there’s so much of Crowley out there that it’s almost impossible to leave an impression in this text of anything more than a car speeding down a highway seeing billboards for various sights, but never pulling off the road.

This made it a sometimes frustrating read, especially as sometimes the transition from topic to topic seemed choppy. I also think that if I hadn’t already read some of his material and otherwise familiarized myself with it that some of what was described might have gone over my head. A basic understanding of occultism and magic will definitely help with parsing this text, though there’s a fair amount, particularly in the biographical portion, that may be accessible to anyone.

Still, the author did an admirable job of trying to distill the essential Crowley into a little over 100 pages. He even managed to add in a good sample of practical material for the “Crowley experience”, as it were. I wouldn’t recommend this as one’s only book on Crowley and related material, but it’s as good a starting point as any, and for someone already familiar with magic and occultism who wants just enough Crowley to know the bare-bones basics to get started with, this is a good choice. Also, do be aware that there are numerous feuds and arguments (to say the very least) among Thelemites and other Crowley fans, and while the author tried to maintain a certain amount of neutrality, there will no doubt be those who can pull political arguments out of the writing of this text. That being said, there is a minimum of actual interpretation of Crowley’s works (though a largely positive view of Crowley himself), and it’s a mostly “just the fact’s ma’am” approach.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Serpent of Light by Drunvalo Malchizedek

Serpent of Light: Beyond 2012
Drunvalo Melchizedek
Weiser Books, 2007
270 pages

There’s a saying that I’m fond of using when talking about spiritual practices:

It’s okay to have your head in the clouds, just so long as your have your feet firmly planted on the ground.

While trying to empirically prove any spiritual belief is most likely a lost cause, and belief is a heavily personal and subjective phenomenon, when beliefs intersect with more concrete concepts such as history and culture, quality of research becomes highly important. Unfortunately, much of the New Age has a tendency to eschew basic research techniques as “too academic”, and the proponents of a lot of New Age material prefer to not have anyone harsh their mellow, as it were. Hence why New Agers get a bad rap, including among neopagans, who do have a greater tendency to research history, mythology and other -ologies in an attempt to test their beliefs and experiences.

The whole 2012 morass is full of an unwillingness to do such litmus testing. In the spirit of the new Age “anything goes” attitude, the fact that the Mayan calendar ends in December 2012 has spawned an entire genre of “nonfiction” based on trying to prove that this means the world will come to an end exactly where the carvers ran out of stone on that particular timepiece. It seems as though the (primarily white) people who have latched onto the 2012 thing have done little to no research on the actual Mayan and other central American indigenous cultures, and instead pick and choose whatever bits of information will, however tenuously, “support” their claims. It’s one of the worst cases of cultural appropriation.

Serpent of Light is an excellent example of this: the entire book is the author’s ramblings about channeled information and other unverified personal gnosis that has absolutely no historical backing whatsoever. There’s the predictable hodgepodge of “Mayan” beliefs, Eastern philosophies (such as chakras), and New Agery (particularly the infamous crystal skulls, which have absolutely no historical relevance to the Maya or any other indigenous culture).

Here’s an example of what this all causes the author to do:

“I was preparing to go to the Yucatan in Mexico to place specially programmed crystals in jungle temples, and I had never been there before in my life” (p. 52).

So you’ve never been to a place, never interacted with the people, other living beings, spiritual denizens, or the place itself–and you’re going to presume to improve upon what another culture entirely created?

…and this is pretty much what the entire book is: White guy who makes up his own convenient version of history mucks around in other people’s cultural artifacts attempting to improve on them because of what his channeled messages say. I could go on and on, but it would just be more of the same. Unlike The Great Shift, the only other book on 2012 I’ve reviewed here so far, there’s not even practical advice to balance out the drek.

Not recommended.

One pawprint out of five.

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Ecotherapy – Edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist

Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind
Edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist
Sierra Club Books, 2009
312 pages

I’ve been anxiously awaiting this book since I heard about it in my ecotherapy class last semester. As soon as a copy was available at Powell’s Books, I picked it up and dug in. While a large portion of my interest in the text is as a future therapist, I’m reviewing it here because there’s a lot of relevant information for ecologically minded pagans regardless of career path; this is the same reason I also reviewed the original Ecopsychology anthology that this is a follow-up of sorts to.

I think I was expecting more hands-on, how-to techniques for “greening” one’s therapy practices. While there were some essays that dealt with this, many of them were more general ecopsychology theory, with some anecdotes from the authors’ experiences with clients. At first I was disappointed, but I thought about the nonlinear nature of ecopsychology, and decided that this was an appropriate approach anyway. So take this not only as a collection of ideas to weave into a therapeutic practice, but also as a more general overview of ecopsychology in the 21st century. I enjoyed all of the essays, but here are a few that stood out, particularly of interest to eco-pagans:

–“Ecopsychology as Radical Praxis” by Andy Fisher: An excellent argument on why it’s impossible to truly separate ecopsychology (theory) from ecotherapy (practice); it’s also the first of multiple essays in the collection that connect psychological practice to social issues and activism.

–Embodying Sentience” by Amanda Leigh Morrison: Eating disorders, body image issues, and our culture’s dis-connection from the physical body are examined from an ecopsychological perspective. The focus on reconnecting to the body as the vehicle in which we move in this world, and the important connection between physical and psychological health, may be old news to some pagans, but it’s an excellent interpretation of these concepts.

–“Transformation Through Service: Trans-species Psychology and Its Implications for Ecotherapy” by G.A. Bradshaw: No doubt probably one of the most controversial essays in this collection, this one examines the current ecological and psychological crises we face through the psychology of nonhuman animals, particularly the manifestations of stress and psychological disorders in these other beings. It’s a strong argument for treating animals not only humanely, but as other peoples.

–“Creative Restorative Ecotherapeutic Practices” by Mary Watkins: This long essay is valuable particularly for its ability to touch on just about all of the basic themes of the anthology overall: the harm caused by our hyperindividualistic society, the importance of rewriting psychological and social narratives, the controversies surrounding the act of “rocking the boat” that ecopsychologists and other critical psychologists engage in, the relationship between person and place, and building reconnection.

–“The Greening of the Self” by Joanna Macy: While all of the essays in the ecospirituality section of this anthology are well worth the read, this one was my favorite. Macy, ever the inspiring writer, gives a bright beacon of hope, showing three important ways in which people in Western cultures are losing the highly insular, small-ego focus, and developing broader, more interconnected ways of seeing the Self.

–“Altars of Extinction” by Mary Gomes: I cried while reading this account of ritual practices and altars set up to lost species; it’s a project I would like to take on myself when I have a little more time, and it’s one of the most concrete examples of an ecotherapeutic practice. Interestingly enough, this essay was originally published, in a different form, in a 2005 issue of Reclaiming Quarterly; the original essay, along with contact information for the author (in case you want information on the project) may be found here. The new version is definitely a good addition to the anthology.

The one thing that frustrated me was that there were so many essays that often the authors could only offer brief introductions to their topics. While some of them have books and other publications of their own, it’s still going to necessitate more research on my part. This isn’t a horrible tragedy, but there were a number of essays where I got to the end and wondered “Wait, where’s the rest? This is good stuff!”

The first portion of the book may not be quite so interesting to those not in the field of psychology, but the essays are worth a read nonetheless, if for no other reason than to shoot holes in the stereotype of the uncaring, distant, pagan-unfriendly therapist armed with a bunch of pills and strict diagnoses. Additionally, the eco-focus, along with a couple of really good essays on practical dreamwork, should offer more than enough fodder for pagan practices. Overall, I would most definitely recommend this to any neopagan reader; there are a lot of good ideas in here that could be as well adapted to ritual practice as to therapy (and often the twain do meet in this collection).

Five inspired pawprints out of five.

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