The Living Temple of Witchcraft by Christopher Penczak

The Living Temple of Witchcraft: The Descent of the Goddess (Volume One)
Christopher Penczak
Llewellyn Publications, 2008
390 pages

Note: This review was originally published in the second issue of Thorn Magazine.

For the better part of this decade, Christopher Penczak has been building the Temple of Witchcraft, a substantial series of books for the solitary practitioner to get a solid footing in neopagan-flavored magick. The Living Temple of Witchcraft is the fifth book in this series.

Penczak’s strength lies in his ability to cohesively present a collection of material from the pragmatic to the personal so that it flows together in a guided journey through each book. Readers aren’t just given some spells and correspondences and left to figure out how they go together and what they mean. By utilizing each text as a workbook, rather than a theory reader, they may learn more about themselves and what motivates them to practice witchcraft. There is a depth to these books that is far too often missing in practical neopagan literature. The Living Temple of Witchcraft is definitely an advanced text in eclectic paganism, preparing the reader for going beyond self-study and personal practice.

This newest text goes beyond the individual practitioner’s needs and goals, and introduces the reader to concepts and resources necessary for teaching the Temple material to students. The overwhelming bulk of the book, though, prepares the reader for this task by emphasizing personal growth and evolution through mysticism. Don’t let that last term fool you into thinking this is New Agey, unsubstantial fluff. Penczak’s conception of mysticism follows the descent of Inanna into the Underworld; while the ultimate goal of the material herein is positive, many of the steps along the way require the reader to traverse frightening territory within the self.

For example, at one point Penczak integrates the shamanic practice of experiencing death and rebirth. This is never an easy process when done properly, and the exact manifestation that is included in this book focuses on facing one’s fears—and letting them kill you. While numerous books attempt to recreate the shamanic death, often those doing the killing are either random entities that show up, or virtual stock characters. Penczak makes this ordeal very personal by having the reader evoke what terrifies them the most. There’s a solid psychological reason for undergoing this process, multiple times if necessary—“The death is just that part of the outmoded ego patterns and the successful creation of new patterns that better serve you” (144).

Serve you to what end, you may ask? In addition to exercises and other material aimed at strengthening the self and shedding old paradigms of belief and behavior that may hinder personal growth, Penczak offers up some valuable food for thought for would-be teachers. A good example may be found in the chapter on communication. Along with expected tips, such as making sure you have everything you need for a lesson before the lesson begins, and making sure students have time to ask questions, he also includes the consideration of whether the would-be teacher has experience with public speaking, or suffers from performance anxiety in some (or all) settings. He is also careful to remind the reader that students all progress at their own individual pace, and so trying to rush slower students along is a poor plan.

For those unfamiliar with the Temple of Witchcraft series, do be aware that this is a very eclectic set of traditions. In addition to the Descent of Inanna, Penczak also draws on the seven primary chakras as an organizational structure for the material. Each of the chapters is centered around the qualities and lessons of a chakra. For example, chapter one, the Root chapter, deals with the basic environment of the body, as well as a introductory guide to the more advanced inner mysteries of numerous world traditions. Chapter two, dealing with the stomach chakra, “deals with the ‘gut’ consciousness, the primal instinct. Usually connected with the element of water…[it] is the temple of feeling” (p. 91). The rest of the chapters follow suit. He does draw on material from multiple cultures when speaking of a particular subject, such as in the aforementioned multicultural discussion of mysticism, or when he discusses the concept of the soul from the perspective of several cultures as well as a selection of neopagan and New Age authors. He doesn’t present these as being interconnected in artificial ways, such as trying to claim that every culture he discusses knew about each other and traded notes, or that all mystical systems descend from Atlantis. Rather, he offers these overviews of other cultures’ practices and beliefs as useful information to be aware of when discussing material with students, but with an important caveat such as that given when speaking of models of the soul: “Though given cultural terms, each of these models is influenced by my own understanding, and by those whose sources I’ve drawn upon” (p. 277). He can only dedicate a few paragraphs to each example from each culture, since the book is not meant to be an overview of global mysticism. While some readers may see this as covering topics without enough depth, alternately Penczak may be seen as offering starting points for researching ideas that it would be useful for the would-be teacher to know in more depth. There’s only so much that can be fit into one book, even one as thorough as this.

These are just a couple of examples of the wealth of material in this text. As I was reading, I was struck by how thoroughly Penczak covers ground. While occasionally I expected a particular detail to come a little earlier in the book, sure enough whatever I felt was missing would be explained later on. For example, I latched onto his discussion of witches as clergy in the introduction. I was a bit disappointed at first as I went through the first four chapters dealing with more personal-development-related material. However, when I got to chapter five, I understood how the previous chapters’ material was a necessary basis for being able to teach others. In being trained how to be self-aware in personal ways, readers are better prepared for such questions as “What did you like about your own training?…What did you enjoy about it, and how would you pass it on?…How does your own personality fit with teaching styles?” (p.195). As someone who has been pagan for over a decade and taught my fair share of workshops, I found a great deal of material to give me ideas for my own efforts in passing knowledge and practices on to others.

While I would strongly recommend this text to the general neopagan readership, I do recommend it in tandem with the previous books in the series. Normally I favor stand-alone books and while some of the material here may be useful for those who have already done the basics in other traditions, because Penczak’s books work so well together, they truly do deserve to be considered as a set. And if you’ve already been working through the Temple of Witchcraft series, be assured that this newest text is a pleasing next step in your development.

Five stars out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Darkwood by M.E. Breen

M.E. Breen
Bloomsbury, 2009
288 pages

I’m not the only geek to observe that young adult fiction has had a really good selection of fantasy and sci-fi, often better than much of what’s presented for entirely-grown-ups. This novel is a good example of that; it’s one of the best fiction reads I’ve had in q good long while (and not just because it has wolves in it!).

Annie is an orphaned girl (no relation to the 20th century comic book character) raised by her aunt and uncle (the latter of whom is no Daddy Warbucks). They live in an area where moonless darkness falls faster than anywhere else, where day turns to night in just a few heartbeats. Out in that darkness are the kinderstalk, massive black wolves that have been known to steal children away, and are the stuff of nightmares. But when her uncle sells her into slavery at a mining operation, she takes the chance to run off into that darkness.

What happens next is a wonderfully fast-paced story. Rather than wasting a lot of time on exposition, Breen does a lovely job of explaining where we are, and why it’s important, as we go there. I really enjoyed her characterization, too; a few of them might have been a little more fleshed out, but given that this is meant for a 9-12 audience, and that it’s a relatively short book, the author did about as well as anyone could, and probably much better. I know that I felt satisfied by the end.

My readers will be interested to note the interesting development of magical powers throughout the book, including a quasi-shamanic human-wolf interrelationship with a curious twist. Plus Annie has a pair of cats as familiars/guardians–what’s not to love about that? And as this is YA, this is a suitable book for youngsters and adults alike, though the latter may find it to be a particularly fast, light read.

Best of all, the ending suggests a potential continuation of the story, so here’s to a sequel! It takes quite a bit for me to latch onto a new author, but this one may just join a small group of authors whose works I look for in the future.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Shamanic Mysteries of Egypt by Scully and Star Wolf

Shamanic Mysteries of Egypt: Awakening the Healing Power of the Heart
Nicki Scully and Linda Star Wolf
Bear & Co, 2007
230 pages

Okay. I’m going to give this book some leeway because the authors make it very clear that what they’re presenting is New Age material. While they may take some concepts and flavorings from Egyptian mythos, what they’ve created are only very loose semblances, and they’re up front about that. Therefore I won’t pan the book as I would if they’d tried to convince me that the material was ancient, but I will have a few caveats.

Not that I dislike the book; for what it is and was intended to be, it turned out great! It’s a rather Aquarian pathworking system using Egyptian and sort-of shamanic elements. The pathworkings are arranged in groups. Two of them are–again, very loosely–based on the major arcana of the tarot, though the connections to the original cards might not immediately be evident. Then there are a number dedicated to the elements, as embodied through Egyptian phenomena (such as the Nile for Water). The authors then bring everything that the pathworker has done up to this point into a cohesive path toward “love” and “healing” (however you wish to interpret those particular concepts).

Kemetic pagans and others may disagree with the fairly light interpretation of the deities and other Egyptian beings; they’re shown as being a bit more nice and cooperative with the developing human spiritual being than ancient mythos describes (but again, this isn’t supposed to be grounded in the older mythos). I’m not sure I entirely agree with this being described as a “shamanic” text; guided meditations aren’t journeys, and while there is a death-rebirth theme to more than one of the pathworkings, that doesn’t make something automatically shamanic.

However, it’s still a quite useful text. The pathworkings, despite my qualms with the trappings, do build on each other, and do challenge the pathworker to delve deep within and wrestle with things that may not be easy to face. Certainly this books offers a good bit to think about and meditate on.

I didn’t like it quite so much as Scully’s Power Animal Meditations, but this is another decent collection of pathworkings along a specific theme. If that’s your style of working, this may be just what you’re after.

Four pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Ancestral Magic by Moondancer Drake

Ancestral Magic
Moondancer Drake
P.D. Publishing, 2009
176 pages

I was contacted about reviewing this book because of the theme of magic and mysticism in it (as the title suggests!). And as it’s from a small press that specializes in LGBT themes, that gave me extra incentive to want to check it out. That was a good choice on my part, because not only have I been introduced to a new publisher, but I just got done with an enjoyable read!

The three main characters throughout the book are single mother Sky, her son Drake (who happens to be blind, though this is treated realistically and respectfully throughout the book), and their friend and Sky’s former sister-in-law, Meg. The story starts out pretty quickly, with Sky receiving notice (amid financial woes) that she has inherited an estate from an aunt she never met–which is a bit of a trope, but I was willing to keep going with it. Meg is asked to go along for the move, which of course leaves things open for the crush that Meg’s had on Sky for, well–a while, anyway.

This isn’t just some instant happily-ever-after story, though. Once these three end up in Green Grove, their new home, Sky finds a potential new male suitor, Meg has to deal with her jealousy–oh, and everyone in town is magically talented. Not stage magic, but the sort with wards and healing and invisibility. It’s a rather Wiccan-flavored magic, even using common Craft phrases like “She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes” and “So mote it be”, which should appeal to a certain demographic. (There’s also not the sometimes-preachy “Here is what Wicca is and isn’t” dialogue that too many Wiccan-flavored novels go into–bonus!) I won’t spoil the rest of the plot for you; needless to say, it’s a good setup. (Do be aware that there is one mild, nicely-written, sex scene.)

Unfortunately, if I could find any fault in this novel, it’s the pacing. Of the three main characters, only Drake seems at all surprised the first time he’s told about magic. Meg seems to have known all along, but that’s not made very clear until later in the book, and it seems rather abrupt. I think the author could have done more background and buildup of this particular twist in the plotline and made the transition from “Magic? What’s that?” to “Wow, magic IS real!” a bit smoother. I also found the ending to be a bit deflated compared to the buildup, though it did make me happy (I got very invested in the characters–what can I say?)

That being said, it was still a great read; the author has a particularly good skill for characterization and description, and her dialogue is realistic. If the plot was a bit wanting, it was still a good story. I would definitely recommend this to my readers as a good plane ride book, a nice afternoon curl-up-and-read, or a commuting companion.

Four pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Egyptian Revenge Spells by Claudia R. Dillaire

Egyptian Revenge Spells: Ancient Rituals for Modern Payback
Claudia R. Dillaire
Crossing Press, 2009
192 pages

It’s no secret that the original pagans were no stranger to curses. From tribal shamans to priests to everyday people utilizing folk magic, part of most magic-workers’ arsenal was curses and other maleficio. The Egyptians weren’t an exception to this, and contemporary examples of magic that would make white lighters’ toes curl can still be found today. Of course, “black magic” being antithetical to the Wiccan rede and many other neopagan ethical guidelines (or, at least many neopagans’ interpretations of said ethical guidelines), curses can sometimes be a subject that gets skirted around–or subjected to flame wars.

Kudos, then, to Claudia Dillaire, for writing a book on something new for a change! In this case, it’s revenge that’s the topic of the day, whether dealing with a jilted lover (including those with stalker-like tendencies), ruining someone financially, or simply messing with someone who has already messed with you. There are dozens of incantations, spells and rituals for multiple uses–and while some of them are most definitely for revenge, there are also some for more benign forms of protection, reflection spells, etc.

This isn’t a book of old Egyptian spells, but is instead a collection of modern Wicca-flavored spellcraft with some Egyptian influence. There’s a decidedly Wiccan feel to them, with the common inclusion of candles, crystals, common “witchy” herbs, and incense, and the fairly standard spoken portions. While they do incorporate calling on Egyptian deities, in some ways this could be any of a number of spell books.

I’m not entirely sure how the author interprets Egyptian neopaganism in the first few chapters, where she’s establishing some context for the spells. Sometimes it seems like she’s comparing “Egyptian magic” to Wicca (that in particular, as opposed to general neopaganism); other times, it’s as though she’s trying to differentiate between them. Given that the spells themselves are pretty heavily Wicca (or at least witchcraft) flavored, I would have hoped she’d be a little clearer about how much Wicca and witchcraft influenced the unique brand of Egyptian magic she compiled from research and practice. In fact, if there’s anything seriously missing here, it’s a better explanation of where, exactly, she’s coming from. I was left a little unsure as to where the connection is between ancient Egyptian religious practices that spanned several millenia, and her personal practices today.

I’m also not a Kemetic pagan, and Egyptian religion and culture aren’t things I know a whole lot about, so I can’t speak too much to the quality of research. There was nothing glaringly wrong, and the bibliography had a mix of scholarly and practical source material. I could have hoped for in-text or other citations, especially for the historical information, but it’s a bit late for that now!

If you’re looking for some inspiration to unleash some wicked magic–or at least vent some frustration creatively–this is a good book. Don’t pick it up as an example of historically-based Kemetic paganism, however; it’s rather too eclectic for that. It’s a unique creation of the author’s, and gripes aside, I think it’s a nice change from the usual strict adherence to “Harm none”.

Four pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Seeing in the Dark by Deatsman and Bowersox

Seeing in the Dark: Claim Your Own Shamanic Power Now and in the Coming Age
Colleen Deatsman and Paul Bowersox
Weiser Books, 2009
240 pages

I think I’m reaching the point with (core) shamanism 101 books that I hit with totemism 101 books a few years ago–I’m getting tired of them, and want to see something besides rehashes of the same stuff. I had really hoped, when I read the first few pages of Seeing in the Dark, that it would be something different: the authors spoke of the many ecological and social injustices that we face today, and hinted that shamanism could be a tool for counteracting these destructive forces. Instead, what I got was the usual core shamanism 101 material: journeying without risk, lots of nice helper spirits, medicine wheels, and healing techniques. While these things certainly can be used in making the world a better place, the emphasis was mainly on self-help and other core shamanism standards.

Mind you, it’s good core shamanism 101 material. The book is a pretty complete guide to the basics. Granted, it’s the same thing you’ll find in any of a number of other core shamanism books, albeit with the authors’ own unique way of describing it and the reasons behind it, but this would make a good beginner’s book with a lot of material. And the authors have a keen sense of the human psyche and how to use shamanic techniques to heal it–again, standard core shamanism fare, but they present it in a nicely written fashion, backed up with a decent assortment of practices.

The material sometimes contradicts itself. For example, when talking about helping spirits, on p. 101 the authors quote another writer who essentially says that if you meet a hostile spirit, it always means there’s something wrong with you and your approach that you’re projecting. But then on 113-116, the authors’ own material describes spirits that are hostile in and of themselves, particularly those that are reluctant to or incapable of passing over to the next life. On page 10 they say that modern shamanism isn’t about taking things from other cultures, and then on 132 openly encourage people to borrow freely from other cultures with no caveats. The authors decry the “I” culture of the modern United States, and then describe a form of shamanism that is mainly about the individual shaman getting things from the spirits–teachings and gifts–with almost nothing about giving back to the spirits, making offerings to them, or seeing what it is they need.

I won’t get into my standard disagreements with core shamanism. What I will say is that, contradictions aside, this is a good intro to core shamanism. It didn’t knock my socks off, as it were, but I’m also hard to impress. If you want the basics, and this title’s convenient to you, pick it up. Just be aware that there’s not much to differentiate it from any of a number of other similar titles.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

The Sacred Earth edited by Jason Gardner – July BBBR

The Sacred Earth: Writers on Nature and Spirit
Edited by Jason Gardner
New World Library, 1998
172 pages

This month’s Bargain Bin Book Review is a collection of quotes from various nature writers’ previously published works, ranging from Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold to Thomas Berry and Paul Shepard. The general theme is spirituality, and what makes Nature sacred; however, the many ways in which “sacred” manifests for the writers are lovely to read. The book is divided into four sections: experience, texture, practice, and belief, and this creates a nice progression of thoughts from one subtheme to the next.

The editor, Gardner, made some very nice selections. Some, like Leopold’s “green fire” in a dying wolf’s eyes, are fairly well-known. However, he also did some digging into more obscure works from some of the writers, and while hardcore environmentalists may be familiar with most of the writing, there were some surprises for me, and no doubt for other readers as well. The topics that the writers covered included all of Nature, from animals and plants, to the weather, to the stars and other heavenly bodies. Yet while many of the quotes spoke of connection and immersion in Nature, and even identification with it, a few spoke of personal disconnection, and distraction, and wishing for better connection. And, of course, the general cultural disconnect from Nature found in the United States was critiqued a number of times. But it was the ones that showed that even these dedicated writers had their off days made me feel better for not being connected to Nature 24/7.

This would be a lovely collection for those pagans for whom Nature is the central part of their paganism. There’s a wealth of quotes for inspiration, and perhaps even for ritual recitation. However, it’s the imagery conveyed in the words that really touched me, and this didn’t require formal meditation, or ritual practice, to appreciate. This is one of those books that you can pick up and open at random, and find something lovely inside.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Beyond 2012 by James Endredy

Beyond 2012: A Shaman’s Call to Personal Change and the Transformation of Global Consciousness
James Endredy
Llewellyn, 2008
220 pages

Leave it to James Endredy to write a book on 2012 that actually makes sense. I’ve liked what I’ve read of his work, particularly Ecoshamanism (which is one of my absolute favorite books on shamanism). It took me over a year after I first learned about the book to get it and read it, but I’m glad I did–it came at a good time.

Most of the books on 2012 are gloom-and-doom–the world is coming to an end in 2012 because the Mayan calendar says so, and all the bad things in the world are just more reasons to sit and mope and/or pontificate about this. And yet….and yet….this always struck me as really nowhere near constructive–especially since the end of the world had been predicted numerous time and had never happened. Beyond 2012 completely reframes the 2012 situation. Not only is the world not ending (except, maybe, as we know it) but 2012 is a good marker for a shift in consciousness and the way we make our decisions regarding the very real world we face right this moment, rather than some apocalyptic fantasy near-future. Endredy takes the root information on the 2012 phenomenon and manages to make a great deal of sense about it.

While Endredy’s shamanism does play a significant role in the material in this book, it is not strictly a book on shamanism. The techniques that he includes are more open than that, and are practices for those who wish to put forth conscious effort in making a better world in the face of environmental, social, and other destruction. Building altars, for example, is a fairly common technique in modern spiritual practices, and many of the techniques he provides for self-reflection aren’t so different from many of the concepts I’ve been learning about in my graduate-level psychological training.

What Endredy does provide is a keen awareness of the interconnectivity that humanity has with all of the rest of Nature, and a thoroughly developed, deeply-felt series of relationships with natural phenomena. A large portion of the book is written to reflect dialogues he’s had with the various phenomena of Nature, some of his most important teachers. What has always struck me about his work, both through his writing and in the occasion I was able to participate in a rite of passage he facilitated, is how sincere it is–he’s about the least pretentious person I’ve ever run into, and this includes within his shamanic practice. The material in Beyond 2012 reflects a primary focus on rebuilding that connectivity and awareness on a greater scale, and offering people a variety of tools to choose from. I know I’ll be keeping this text in part for work with my therapeutic clients, because there’s a lot of versatility here.

And in fact, this book has a lot of potential readers. In addition to shamanic practitioners and pagan folk in general utilizing this in spiritual and other manners, environmental activists and mental health professionals both can take the ideas into the wider social sphere. Additionally, I would love to give a copy of this to every person who’s convinced that the world’s going to hell in a handbasket come 2012, to show them that there are much more constructive ways to look at this potentially transitional period. I never thought I’d give this rating to a book on this subject, but here goes:

Five optimistic pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Women and Religion in the West edited by Aune, Sharma and Vincett

Women and Religion in the West: Challenging Secularization
Edited by Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma and Giselle Vincett
Vermont/England: Ashgate Publishing Company
230 pages

Note: This review was originally published in the first issue of Thorn Magazine, which I reviewed here.

Women and Religion in the West, far from being a feel-good “we are all sisters” text, is an ambitious project that focuses on the female interpretation of religion and religiosity in the West. It is set within the context of a world that is becoming increasingly secularized, and whose discussion of secularization is also often male-dominated. Additionally, it avoids the common practice of approaching Christianity alone; while that religion is explored, Islam and new religious movements are given ample coverage as well. Each religious category receives its own section of the book, with four essays per section.

All twelve essays in this book are solid. While each essayist has a unique interpretation of the theme, there are a few that particularly stand out.

–“Religious Change in the West: Watch the Women” by Penny Long Marler: Are women the longtime “secret weapon” of organized religion? Marler makes a convincing argument that while men may have been the primary figureheads of Christianity, it is the women who have been the cohesive congregation that made the religion possible. She details demographic and social changes since industrialization, as well as the effects of the defection of women from organized religions to more free-form spiritualities. While the roles of women have often been relegated to the background, the “pink-collar” occupations and volunteer stations within Christianity have created the backbone of the religion. Particularly noteworthy is the adept approach to the nuclear family—and the current disintegration thereof—in conjunction with trends in the Christian religion. As the social structures that rely primarily on the nuclear family are replaced by more flexible ones, the roles of women shift as well. Marler points out research showing that in the Western world, while women may take the role of only homemaker, or only career woman, the majority have a foot in each world, able to adapt as necessary. The pink-collar roles within traditional Christianity have relied on the stay-at-home mother who is a staple of the nuclear family; as that particular structure has become less common, so has adherence to traditional religious structures. Beyond the church, though, there are implications in these changes even for industrial-capitalist economies, and male-dominated society, which Marler discusses to some extent.

–“The Soul of Soulless Conditions: Paganism, Goddess Religion and Witchcraft in Canada” by Sian Reid: While there is a modern trend to perceive secularization as the most advanced stage of cultural religious development, Reid counters with the fact that numerous women continue to find meaning through belief—albeit through spirituality rather than organized religion. She particularly focuses on pagan religions in Canada, as well as on the importance of the feminine Divine to many female pagans. I was particularly struck by research that noted that female and male neopagans may approach the Goddess in different manners: “…while women are inclined to speak of Goddess spirituality in terms of larger gender inequalities and as a means of obtaining ‘self-validation by having a female image of the divine with which to identify’…men are less likely to make reference to patriarchal social structures, and tend to discuss the Goddess ‘more as an expressive or nurturing force that aided one’s immediate self’” (127). This and other general statements may lead to some hearty debate among practicing pagans, and make the essay well worth reading. Reid’s ultimate conclusion, though, is that while traditional religions may be losing adherents, Canadian women are still finding outlets for belief—to include a mirror of themselves in Deity, and the structure of modern pagan religious systems that allow for more flexibility and personal expression.

–“Being Seen By Many Eyes: Muslim Immigrant Women in the United States” by Garbi Schmidt: Schmidt opens this essay by emphasizing some of the basic stereotypes and misunderstandings associated with Islam and Muslim women in particular, but this is just the beginning. The meaning and politics behind such things as the hijab, the veil that is so strongly associated with Muslim women; the specific roles and niches occupied by women within Islam; Muslim women as sexual beings; and other controversial topics are discussed in depth. Schmidt offers an excellent balance between exposing the stereotypes that exist, and denying those stereotypes power through counter-arguments and contrary examples from real life. She shows how faith is a source of strength for Muslim women, even with the negative aspects and assumptions, and it’s a truly eye-opening essay. What’s particularly remarkable is the discussion of Muslim women using differences to their benefit, rather than as a source of stress. While this is not a universal practice, Karima, one of Schmidt’s interviewees, turns the role of being Other into an advantage. Schmidt remarks, “Rather than choosing a strategy of retreat, she stresses the very elements that make her different. Difference becomes a powerful way of marking identity in public spaces. The identity and political position she chooses to take within the United States equally compels her to position herself towards and even against other localities, for example the region her parents came from. Within these diverse contexts, Islam becomes a means for protest and reform” (209). This theme of activism continues through the experiences of women in Schmidt’s essay, and counters the stereotype of the Muslim woman as a hidden, trapped figure.

Pagans should not make the mistake of shying away simply because some of the essays involve monotheistic religions. There is much to learn from all of the essayists regardless of their stance. Additionally, those who were curious, incensed, or puzzled about Kristin Aune’s claim that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is convincing thousands of women to leave church every year may want to get a more solid feel for Aune’s research on women and Christianity. It’s not about pop culture, so much as it is about the state of being a single woman within religious communities, and how this is a state of non-normativity (compared to the state of being married, which according to Aune “continues to hold sway as the normative status in contemporary Britain” (67).

The tone of this book may come across as being fundamentally against traditional religious structures, as the majority of the material concerns women who are defecting from those structures to more free-form spiritualities. One particular exception is Maria Trzebiatowska’s “Vocational Habit(u)s: Catholic Nuns in Contemporary Poland”, a discussion of women entering into a deeper relationship with traditional religious structures despite secularization and criticism by peers. Christianity, however, seems to get the brunt of the theme of anti-religiosity.

Additionally, the relatively limited scope of religions discussed may beg the question of how these themes apply to women in other religions. Judaism is a glaring omission, for example; how might modern Jewish women approach secularization, as well as traditional (particularly orthodox) structures within their religious communities? There is plenty of ground left unexplored, and it almost would have been better to release a series of books, each focusing on a particular religion, to bring more depth to the topic.
Overall, though, this is a much-needed discussion about the state of religion in the world today, with the added benefit of breaking the male-dominated mold too often found in religious studies. Even those not of a particularly sociological bent will find the material to be informative and applicable to everyday religious and spiritual interactions and experiences.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Naturalistic Occultism by IAO131

Naturalistic Occultism
The Society of Scientific Illuminism, 2009
96 pages

Scientific Illuminism was described by Crowley as “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion”. A number of attempts to explain magic through science have been made, including (but not limited to) The Science of the Craft by Bill Keith and Real Energy by Isaac and Phaedra Bonewits, both of which (similarly to Peter J. Carroll’s brand of Chaos magic) utilize quantum physics as the “how” of magic. Naturalistic Occultism is much more psychology-heavy, explaining everything from astral projection to divination using almost exclusively various psychological models and schools of thought.

Certain accusations (by others, such as some scientists) that psychology is a “soft” discipline aside, the author does a pretty good job of basic, bare-bones explanations. He certainly achieved his overall goal of explaining occult concepts and techniques without resorting to mysticism and superstition. For example, he shows how the astral body is actually the brain’s own perception and understanding of the shape and appearance of the physical body itself–the image that the brain carries of the body, as it were. This doesn’t stop him from including a brief appendix with instructions on how to astrally project using this concept.

And I suppose that’s one of my complaints with this book–it’s brief. One of my partners, who is similarly enamored of a more scientific way of explaining esoterica, remarked on what he read as seeming like an abstract rather than a full text, and I would agree with him. There are some very good ideas started in this book, and yet the author could have gone so much further. I would have liked to have seen more thorough explanations of how psychology explains the various occult concepts he covers, as well as a greater variety in the concepts explored. I also would have enjoyed more practical applications of the psychological model of magic that is espoused in this book, because I did like the couple of appendices with that sort of thing in them. I wasn’t quite so thrilled by the occasional tendency toward “debunking” that came across in the writing; one can explain the science of mystical practices and still have a constructive view towards those practices, an example being The Spirit of Shamanism by Roger Walsh. (Just as a note, there were some more constructive aspects to the material as well; it didn’t all come across as debunking.)

In short, there needs to be more, because this is a good start. Overall, I liked the book, and I’m only docking it points for its brevity. If you want a very concise look at the psychological model of magic, this is a good text to have on hand. And there most certainly need to be more rational approaches to a series of topics that often fall prey to ridiculousness and need some serious paring with Occam’s Razor. More writing from IAO131 along this vein would be one such welcome thing, to be sure.

Four pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?