Arbatel translated by Joseph Peterson

Arbatel: Concerning the Magic of Ancients
Joseph Peterson (translator)
Ibis, 2009
128 pages

This is a guest review by Sannion, who graciously offered to help me clear out my review shelf as I’m on hiatus.

A while back, Lupa put out a request for guest reviewers to handle some of the overflow she’d gotten through her Pagan Book Reviews blog. Being the shameless book hound that I am, I answered the call and snatched up a couple choice titles to read in between my usual Greco-Egyptian fare. The choicest of the choice was undoubtedly Joseph Peterson’s new translation of Arbatel de magia veterum. Just holding the book in my hands was a pleasure. This is a handsomely designed volume by people who take pride in craftsmanship. The illustrations were lovely; the notes added much without being overwhelming; and the original Latin text was provided for comparison, something I always appreciate in a translation.

Although I had never read the Arbatel before, I’d read plenty about it. It’s one of the classic texts of Renaissance magic, influential in the development of the system of planetary or Olympic spirits so important in modern CM. Most of the passages I’d seen quoted from it were fairly dense and dry and a little difficult to follow. They also employed hopelessly archaic language. If ever a book was in need of a clear, concise, and modern translation – it was this one! (After all, the previous translation, from which most of the quotes I’d read had come, was done in the 17th century.)

And Peterson’s translation does not disappoint. He makes this important esoteric text come alive through his simple yet elegant prose. It almost gives one the impression that they’re sitting in at a lecture of learned scholars discussing magic, philosophy, religion and history. In fact, that was probably the most surprising thing about the Arbatel. Most of what I had read about it had led me to believe that the Arbatel was something along the lines of a philosophical grimoire. And there are parts of it like that, but mostly it seems concerned with Neoplatonic theology, providing an overview of the history of magic, and driving home sound ethical advice. In fact, a sizable portion of the aphorisms which make up the Arbatel are devoted to that last topic, which gives a very different impression of magic than many people often have. As Peterson points out in his introduction, throughout the text there are admonitions “to help our neighbors, be positive and grateful, and use time wisely. Above all, it teaches us to pay attention, looking for the wondrous and miraculous. In fact, to the author this virtually defines the magus.”

Peterson’s introduction was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book, and would almost be worth the price alone. He traces the history of Renaissance magic back to Late Antiquity and the Neoplatonists and Hermeticists, with a lengthy discussion on the preservation, use, and adaptation of these important texts. Although none of the information was new to me, considering my interests, I think he handled it well and I’d definitely recommend it to someone who was curious about authentic pagan survivals during this time period.

Of course, the Arbatel being a product of the Renaissance as it is, the “paganism” that it presents is of a very curious sort. There are nymphs, and daimones, and magical creatures and even gods and demigods as part of its cosmology – but these are all subordinate to the one true god of the Christians. The author may quote Homer and Hesiod as authorities on certain matters, but he defers to the Holy Scriptures above all else. Still, if you can manage to skim past the pious interjections, I think you’ll find a lot of genuine worth and historical curiosity in this text. I’m sure I’ll be reading it a couple more times.

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The Pagan Clergy’s Guide by Reverend Kevin Gardner

The Pagan Clergy’s Guide For Counseling, Crisis Intervention, and Otherworld Transitions
Reverend Kevin Gardner
Waning Moon Publications, 2009
212 pages

As both a pagan and as a student working on a Master’s in counseling psychology, this book interested me greatly. The number of books on counseling for minority groups is on the rise, and to my knowledge this is the first one to specifically address counseling neopagans. However, rather than being strictly psychological counseling, it is instead a text on spiritual counseling–a distinction that is incredibly important to note, as I’ll explain shortly.

Pagan spiritual counselors don’t have nearly the resources available that spiritual counselors in some other faiths, such as Christianity, do. Gardner does an admirable job of delineating some of the common issues that clients may bring to the table, from relationship woes to the need for facilitation of rites of passage. A large portion of the book is dedicated to grief counseling of various sorts. There’s also a good selection of basic ritual scripts for funerals and other rites of passage, including a few specific to individual neopagan traditions. This makes the book invaluable to pagan spiritual counselors.

Psychologically speaking, however, the book is on shaky ground for a couple of reasons. First of all, there’s no indication that the author has a license for psychological counseling, something that’s a grey area when it comes to spiritual counseling. He does make it clear that there are times when referrals to licensed psychological practitioners are necessary, and that this book should in no way be seen as a sole reference for the psychological elements of spiritual counseling. However, he also has had much more experience–counted in decades–of experience, something most readers will not have, and so I hesitate to recommend this to a newer spiritual counselor who may not have learned through trial and error how to counsel for deeper psychological issues. Additionally, in perusing the bibliography, many of his resources on psychological counseling are outdated; while, for example, the works of Carl Rogers are classics, there are newer approaches to client-centered counseling available.

As a text for spiritual counseling and being clergy in the sense of ritual facilitation, I think this is an excellent guide, and I recommend it highly. My misgivings about the psychological aspects of counseling should be noted, but not to the point of not buying the book. Supplement with other works or, better yet, get formal training in psychological counseling (particularly since there’s very little formal training available for pagan spiritual counselors).

Three and three quarters pawprints out of five.

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A Guide to Zuni Fetishes and Carvings by Kent McManis

A Guide to Zuni Fetishes and Carvings
Kent McManis
Treasure Chest Books, 1995
48 pages

Note: There are expanded editions of this text available; this is an older edition. Please see the link at the end of the review. Please follow the link at the end of the review if interested.

Often imitated, but hard to reproduce at authentic quality, the small stone animal fetishes created by the Zuni and other southwestern American Indian cultures are well-known artifacts. However, most people don’t know much beyond the fact that they’re made by indigenous peoples, and perhaps that they’re worth money to collectors. This little book serves as an introduction to their origins and the current state of the art form.

A very basic explanation of the spiritual cosmology that informs the creation of Zuni fetishes is offered at the beginning. This creates a nice context for what follows, brief but interesting explanations of some of the more common animals found in fetish art, and what their spiritual and cultural significance is. Unlike Zuni Fetishes by Bennett, this is not a how-to text, and sticks pretty closely to the source material as opposed to extrapolating rituals that may or may not be authentic.

The book is largely aimed at collectors, and the absolutely stunning full color photographs that grace much of the book make it worth the cost on their own. McManis showcases the works of some of the better-known fetish artist families, as well as giving some information on the current living artists, and a bit on how to tell a fake apart from the real deal. The depth of the talent and creativity displayed in the examples given is amazing, and the book made me appreciate this art form even more than before.

Whether you’re a potential collector, a spiritual or artistic researcher, or simply interested in knowing a bit more about a neat niche topic, this is a good starting point. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s an easy to digest intro.

Five pawprints out of five.

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White as Bone, Red as Blood by Cerridwen Fallingstar

White as Bone, Red as Blood (The Fox Sorceress)
Cerridwen Fallingstar
Cauldron Publications, 2009
356 pages

Seiko is a child of Inari–or, rather, daughter of one of the god’s priestesses. Orphaned at a young age, through a series of events she finds herself ensconced in the royal palace itself, aide to the empress of twelfth century Japan. As herbalist and midwife, it is her duty to help the empress conceive and give birth to the son that will secure the current royal family’s possession of the throne. Time is ticking, and rival factions gather at the gates!

It took me a few tries to get into this novel. While it is a work of fiction, it is by no means simple brain candy, and so did not come across as the sort of pablum that’s commonly found on the big box shelves. While it was a quick read, it didn’t follow many of the typical tropes and events found in much of today’s fiction. For example, there’s not the usual buildup toward one specific climax of the story. While near the end there is quite the significant event, it is merely one of several important twists and turns to the tale.

More interestingly, where many novels might focus on the military aspect of this time period, instead this one follows Seiko as she spends year after year within the palace walls, building relationships with other women who are there to find suitable husbands, and participating in exchanges of poetry among the court, an art form on many levels (not the least of which being subtle communication hidden in symbols). The author boldly tells of Seiko’s sexual exploits, with women and men alike, as well as the details of childbirths and illnesses. These things may seem somewhat sedate compared to military maneuverings, sword duels, and ambushes, but the novel holds it own even better for the lack of these.

I will admit that I was a bit disappointed with the ending, hopefully without giving away too many details. While I understand that this is the first of a series, and the author wished to leave an opening for the next book, the final chapter delving into a sudden rush of political activity after so much relative domesticity was jarring. While the political context of events throughout the book was clear, it took a backseat to seemingly everyday events, and that last bit seemed tacked on to try to move on to the next book.

The other thing that I expected was more involvement of Seiko’s role as a priestess of Inari, especially given the title of the series. This element of her life, though, seemed to be almost a background, something to be mentioned from time to time, but not really a major part of her life or the story itself. I would have liked to have seen more overt discussion about Inari’s presence in her life and how that was connected to the things we got to see a lot of, such as her sex life, and her healing abilities.

Overall, though, I really liked this book, and I’m looking forward to more from this author. If you’d like a good read that isn’t the usual mass-marketed pulp, particularly if you like interesting, well-rounded and engaging female main characters, pick this one up.

Four pawprints out of five.

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