Spirit Animals by Victoria Covell

Spirit Animals
Victoria Covell (illustrated by Noah Buchanan)
Dawn Publications, 2000
112 pages

At first glance, this is Just Another Totem Animal Dictionary. Most of the book is taken up by entries on various animals, all of which are North American birds and mammals. I wasn’t expecting all that much, to be honest, because of that. But then i began to actually read it.

First, it’s not so much about animal totems as it is about interpreting spiritual encounters with wildlife. The author thankfully acknowledges that these are subjective experiences, that the wonder is generally in the mind of the beholder, and that sometimes a crow is just a crow. So you can think of it somewhat as a book on divination based on noteworthy sightings of wild critters.

The other things that makes it stand out is the fact that the main portion of each animal’s entry is written by a different guest essayist talking about their own experience with that animal. It’s a nice infusion of nature writing into what could otherwise have been a rote dictionary text. And there are breakout boxes with actual biological and behavioral information on the animals, which I appreciated seeing.

It’s not an ideal book. It talks about “choosing a spirit animal guardian”, when most sources agree that it’s the other way around–the animals choose you. And it’s also a fairly optimistic, lightweight look at nature, ignoring the “red in tooth and claw” aspects of the animals beyond that which can be romanticized for our benefit. (This could also, of course, be reframed as highlighting the wondrous aspects of nature, but even that’s subjectively slanted away from the more violent portions, which can be wondrous in and of themselves.)

In short, this is a good book and a surprising find amid the herd of dictionary-style animal spirituality/magic books. It’d be a good choice for a non-pagan person who’s interested in the more spiritual aspects of nature, as it provides a gentle segue. However, pagans shouldn’t ignore it either, even with my qualms. Oh, and it’s also got some of the most spectacular illustrations–it’s quite the aesthetically pleasing book! Kudos to the artist as much as the author!

Four pawprints out of five.

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Soul Retrieval by Sandra Ingerman – August BBBR

Soul Retrievel: Mending the Fragmented Self
Sandra Ingerman
HarperCollins, 1991
224 pages

This month’s Bargain Bin Book Review was of interest to me both as a shamanic practitioner and as a future therapist. The author has a Master’s in counseling psychology, the same degree I’m working toward, and I was curious to see where her psychological background would come into play in this integral part of shamanic practice.

Ingerman does a very thorough job of describing the soul retrieval process, though she cautions the reader that the book should not be one’s only source, and that in-person training is suggested. I’m not sure how much I agree with that, particularly given that the author and her cohorts with the Foundation for Shamanic Studies do, or have in the past, offer such workshops. However, do be aware that this is not beginner-level materal, and shamanic practitioners should have a good bit of journeying under their belt, as well as good relationships with spiritual allies before embarking on this work. This is a great resource to have, though, if you are ready to try soul retrieval, either on yourself or others.

It also includes a really nice selection of anecdotes, more than many books. This serves to illustrate more fully the process of soul retrieval as well as the effects it has. The many testimonies from her clients say quite a bit not only about her experience but also her effectiveness. It’s well-balanced between how-to and anecdotal information.

She does come from a core shamanic background, but I was pleased to see that she acknowledged that journeying isn’t necessarily a safe thing, nor did she conflate journeying with guided meditations. Her main concerns with dangers in journeying, including during soul retrieval, were with the integrity of the shaman’s soul, as well as parasitic spirits “hanging on” on the way back out of the journey. And there was some discussion of what to do when the soul of the client doesn’t want to come back, or is stuck.

While there are occasional things I personally disagree with, overall I think this is a great text. Once I’m ready to do soul retrieval in practice, this will be an invaluable guide.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Afterlife by Guy Smith

Guy Smith
G3 Media, 2008
104 pages

I think I just found one of the best works of fiction I’ve been sent since I started this review blog–and I’ve reviewed everything from self-published works to mass-marketed offerings from major publishing houses. In just over 100 pages, Guy Smith managed to captivate me with a story that grabbed me more firmly than most of the novels I’ve read–and that takes talent.

What happens when you die? In Afterlife, you either go to the Light, or you hang around here if you have a compelling enough reason. The story follows one soul who had that reason, and through his eyes I got to find out the intricacies of the afterlife imagined by Smith. The nature and experience of being a ghost, the limitations being dead gives you in this world, and even pondering what the true nature of the Light in this fictional Universe is, are all explored in the context of a fast-paced, gripping plotline. Make no mistake–it’s a highly streamlined book, and every word counts for a lot. I read it in less than an hour, but it was definitely time well spent.

I think where the author has his greatest strength is in the running commentary that his first-person protagonist offers. Dialogue in general can be really tough to make believable, but Smith hits it dead-on, if you’ll forgive the pun. Not only was I emotionally engaged in the travails and experiences of a snarky dead guy, but the ending just wrenched the hell out of my heart. This writer’s good at what he does, let me tell you. (Though I’ll admit I got a little green around the gills when he described the effects of a car wreck in detail!)

If you want a brief break in your day to day routine to have a good read, or if you want something to really make you appreciate being alive, or you simply appreciate a well-written piece of fiction, then I would strongly recommend Afterlife. It has a lot going for it on multiple levels of awesome.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Real Alchemy by Robert Allen Bartlett

Real Alchemy: A Primer of Practical Alchemy
Robert Allen Bartlett
Ibis Press, 2009
178 pages

Most of the books you’re going to find on alchemy these days talk history, metaphor, or other theoretical concepts. This is one of the very few that goes into the actual practice of alchemy, step by step. Originally self-published by Bartlett, it’s now available more widely through Ibis, part of Weiser. You’ll have to look twice to tell the difference, though, at least at first glance, since the cover (which I happen to like) is the same. I haven’t read the first edition, so I can’t speak to the differences between the two, just so you know.

I’m not particularly well-versed in alchemy; it’s one of those topics that I think is interesting, but I haven’t had a chance to real sink my teeth into. So as an almost complete novice, I set up the challenge that the book was going to have to give me at least a basic understanding of the practice of alchemy. Thankfully, it delivered! From the brief historical treatment, to the explanation of what all that talk about sulfur, salt and mercury is about, I was able to get the jist of the very basics. However, the book doesn’t stop there!

Beyond the basic theoretical concepts, Bartlett goes into detail discussing what you actually do with all the arcane terminology and the processes they describe. Want to create a tincture or elixir? The directions are here. The author does make it clear that this should not be your only text on alchemy, but the instructables in this one should make it invaluable.

There are some interesting crossovers between alchemy and other disciplines. Astrology and qabalah are the two most notable examples of this, and those who are interested in either of these disciplines may well want to pick up this text for the relevant material. Additionally, as the book does give a basis in alchemy, astrologers and qabalists who were previously unfamiliar with the main topic should have little trouble finding context.

Overall, I found this to be a good way to give myself enough of an understanding of classic alchemy, particularly European, to get what the fuss is all about. Thorough understanding does require actually utilizing the practices, so armchair magicians and the merely curious will no doubt miss out on a lot. But it’s clear even from my novice perspective that this is an essential text.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Balance of the Two Lands by H. Jeremiah Lewis

The Balance of the Two Lands: Writings on Greco-Egyptian Polytheism
H. Jeremiah Lewis
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2009
368 pages

Heh–the review I wrote about just before this one, incidentally, was about the blending of multiple religions! Go figure. However, whereas ChristoPaganism was about modern mixing of neopaganism and Christianity, The Balance of the Two Lands is a different critter indeed! It would seem that among some (not all!) reconstructionists and other highly scholarly pagans, there’s a deep bias against mixing traditions–if you’re a Celtic reconstructionist who happens to get a calling from one of the Lwa of Vodou and answer it, then you can’t really be a Celtic reconstructionist any more according to some folks. Worse yet, you might be considered–an eclectic! Horror of horrors!

Yet eclecticism is a very different concept from syncreticism, which is what this particular book deals with. Syncreticism is a much more deliberate and researched effort than the buffet-style picking and choosing of eclecticism (which can still work quite well for some people in its own right, just FTR). Lewis (aka Sannion), over a period of years, found himself courted both by the Greek and Egyptian pantheons and their respective traditions, and spent time in each religious community independently–with each telling him that he couldn’t go to the other and still be genuine. But he found a definite precedent for Greco-Egyptian syncreticism, most famously in the Ptolemies of Egypt–and this book is the result of years of research and practice to that effect.

There’s not a whole lot about modern Greco-Egyptian polytheistic syncreticism out there, and much of what does exist has been written by Lewis himself, as well as other folks, particularly through Neos Alexandrina. If you want a good dead-tree textbook to have on hand both for theory and ideas to formulate practice, this is a great option. Lewis’ essays run the gamut from hard research about the original syncretic practices, to what it is that modern Greco-Egyptian syncretists can do in daily practice.

As with the other Bibliotheca Alexandrina texts I’ve reviewed (and you’ll find all of the current titles on this blog except for Unbound and Echoes of Alexandria), I found this to be a breath of fresh air when it comes to the research. So many pagan texts today are based on half-assed “scholarship”; Lewis has most thoroughly done his homework, both in finding information and in interpreting it in a practical manner. You don’t need to worry about squishy-soft polytheism or claims of ancient Greco-Egyptian UFOs here. Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as a publisher, has represented itself well with its high standards of research, and this book is no exception.

In short, if you want to study and/or practice Greco-Egyptian syncretic polytheism in the 21st century, this will be an invaluable text to you. Highly recommended.

Five pawprints out of five.

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ChristoPaganism by Joyce and River Higginbotham

ChristoPaganism: An Inclusive Path
Joyce and River Higginbotham
Llewellyn, 2009
310 pages

Hoo, boy. This book is bound to stir up controversy. There are plenty of pagans who seem to have no qualms with drawing inspiration and practices from other religions–pretty much all of them, except for Christianity. You have Jewish witches, and those who draw on indigenous religions (despite the protests of some indigenous practitioners!) Yet try mixing Christianity and paganism, and you get all sorts of complaints from those who say it can’t be done (no doubt many of whom are speaking from a history of bad experiences with Christianity–or at least Christians).

However, for those whose experiences in such blending do undeniably work, or for those who wish to give it a try, this is an invaluable text. The authors have a strong understanding of the theological concepts that go into blending such a seemingly difficult interfaith blending, and make a good case for it. They start out by giving good foundational explanations of neopaganism and Christianity. Some may balk at the “unconventional” approach to Christianity they present, which challenges a lot of assumptions that casual Christians may have, and goes back to a variety of historical research that shows a very different origin and growth of the religion than is popularly understood. (No, I’m not talking about the various grail mythos thingies that talk about Jesus and Mary Magdelene in Europe–it’s much better scholarship than that.)

In making the case for interfaith blending, they draw on a variety of contemporary sources, not the least of which are the writings of Ken Wilber as well as spiral dynamics. I will admit that I thought that occasionally the general message of a broader perspective being more evolved read like it translated into interfaith = more evolved, but a closer reading without this kneejerk reaction gave me a better sense of what the authors were trying to say–that a more evolved perspective allows for the existence of, but doesn’t necessarily include personally, such things. This sounds controversial, but this is a controversial book to begin with, so in for a penny, in for a pound!

There’s also a nicely substantial section of personal testimonies from folks who have done various combinations of Christianity and neopaganism. This may be really helpful to those who feel alone in their path, as well as give ideas on how-tos without dealing with dogma.

Ultimately, many people are going to come to this book with their biases intact whether I advise them to or not; needless to say, I still recommend approaching it with as open a mind as possible. Of all the ways this combination of faiths could have been presented, this is probably one of the sanest and most well-thought-out. While it’s not my personal path, for anyone who has been wanting resources on the topic of mixing Christian and neopagan religious beliefs and practices, this is a great text to have on hand.

Five pawprints out of five.

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