Beltane by Erin O’Riordan

Beltane
Erin O’Riordan
Eternal Press
186 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who was nice enough to take on some of my backlog when I went on semi-hiatus.

The general rule, used by book reviewers, literary agents and editors (and I’ve done all but be a literary agent) is that if the first chapter is good, the rest of the book will be, too. Conversely, if the first chapter stinks, it’s a fair bet there’s no point in reading further.

O’Riordan’s novel Beltane is an exception to this rule. The first chapter or so is rife with poor grammar, awkward sentences and more passive-voice. However, I was stuck in a personal situation with a lot of time and not a lot of reading material available, so I plowed through.

I’m glad I did. The story (and the writing) improves over the course of the book, and I found myself actually caring about the characters and what happened to them. The novel centers around twin sisters Allie and Zen, who have been raised Pagan. The book opens with Allie’s wedding, and hints that all may not be well between the bride and groom. Zen falls for Orlando, a married man. How this all plays out is revealed the next year at Beltane, when everyone lives happily ever after.

A book titled after the major Pagan sex holiday should have a lot of sex scenes in it. If this is what the reader is looking for, he or she will not be disappointed. As someone who has written erotica professionally and has reviewed a plethora of erotic fiction in the last two years, I say the sex scenes are well-written, realistic, and move the plot forward – basically all I can ask for in an erotic book.

I wish I could say the Pagan aspects of the story were as realistic and well-done. O’Riordan presents a Pagan path that requires High Priestesses to have multiple (and huge) tattoos, be vegetarian, and abstain from alcohol at all times. To paraphrase the familiar saying, some of my best friends are High Priestesses of varying traditions, and this describes exactly none of them. The story was good, the sex was great, but the Pagan aspects of the book – with the sole exception of the Beltane ritual, which was awesome – made me, a 25-year veteran of the Pagan community mutter “Where the hell did THAT come from?” on more than one occasion.

Three and a half paws out of five.

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The Tree of Enchantment by Orion Foxwood

Note: This is a guest review by Philip A. Bernhardt-House, who graciously agreed to help me cut down on some of my existing review books once I decided to go on semi-hiatus.

The Tree of Enchantment: Ancient Wisdom and Magic Practices of the Faery Tradition
Orion Foxwood
Red Wheel/Weiser, 2008
264 pages

Orion Foxwood’s The Tree of Enchantment presents a novel cosmology of modern fairy seership work, which is deeply rooted throughout in a series of practices and exercises to facilitate contact with otherworld beings and to continually allow a practitioner to align with their three states of being—referred to as the “threefold life”—that is inspired by certain aspects of premodern and folk traditions. It is a work that is poetic and beautiful in its imagery and its vision of divine symmetry and parallelism, and presents a coherent and internally consistent narrative of how these various aspects of the otherworld interact with and are related to one another, and to the seeker, at every stage of the process.

If that brief summary appeals to you, and describes exactly what you’re interested in reading about or studying or seeking, then this really is the book for you, and you should most certainly have a look at it.

Unfortunately, the above is not what Foxwood himself describes is the basis for this work. There are repeated claims that the practices and doctrines detailed in this book are from traditional beliefs, particularly of the Insular Celtic peoples, but this is rarely (if ever) substantiated with references to actual lore (folkloric or literary). There are a few occasions on which Foxwood states that academic study is part of this endeavor (e.g. pp. xiii, 8), but the only academic sources in his footnotes or bibliography are survey essays, several of which are outdated by a century or more. Several are referenced as easily available online, but they do not represent the best or most thorough views of these subjects possible, either in their theoretical subtlety or in their expansive knowledge of actual source materials.

Further, the views presented in this book are not given as one among many possible options for cosmological speculation—they are presented as the “true nature of existence” (p. 22). At another point in the text, Foxwood discusses the various images he uses (e.g. threefold flame, Spindle of Destiny, Tree of Enchantment, etc.), and then says the following: “Note that I did not refer to these images as ‘symbols,’ because they do not symbolize or represent anything. Simply put, they are the actual patterns that exist in the natural and spiritual world” (p. 57). While making the important distinction between imagery being symbolic and descriptive in this work is useful, this statement, as well as others, seem to present almost exclusivist truth-claims to this view of the universe and how it functions, which is not only at variance with a great variety of other spiritual and religious traditions, but it is not even accurate to the cosmological beliefs (as they can be apprehended and understood) of the Celtic and other cultures which are supposed to be their source. This makes the validity of the many guided visualizations given in the book highly questionable, in the view of the present reviewer: if these universal structures and “Vision Keys” simply are inherent to existence, then why would they have to be described in such detail? Why would the content of one’s visualization and visionary experiences need to be delineated so succinctly and at such length, if they could simply be encountered objectively? It is widely known and understood that a great deal of meditative and visionary work is prone to suggestibility, yet can still be quite valid and useful, and such experiences can be considered authentic and even divinely inspired. The system for fairy seership as laid out in this book is not one where there is much room at all for one to simply go to the otherworld and encounter it however it may choose to present itself to the seeker; instead, exact imagery of color, number, gender, size, shape, and other adjectival qualities are given in every exercise, which would suggest to the present reviewer that this is a personal system (a valid one, at that) which has been applied and set up in its presentation here to be a universal one. For those for whom this would work, that’s great; but both tradition and the general variety of human spiritual experience, I think, undermines these claims greatly. One need not make such claims of universal validity and objective spiritual actuality to have a useful or coherent system of spiritual practice and belief.

On several occasions, words in certain Insular Celtic languages are given, and are either ill-defined, or given a meaning which they do not necessarily have in the attested linguistic tradition. To give an example of the ways in which this material is not always accurately presented, think of the English word “path.” In religious and spiritual discussions, “path” takes on a whole different meaning, in contrast to when one is talking about a “foot path” through a garden, or “making a path” through objects strewn on the floor in a cluttered room. The word can have many different meanings, depending on context, but it isn’t as if the word “path” itself has a holy and divine valence every time it is used in English. Likewise, this is the case with many of the terms from Insular Celtic languages used by Foxwood. He uses the term sith, which he defines as “soul” (p. 6) or as “walker” (p. 15), quite frequently, as the “threefold life” is dependent upon an understanding of the “three walkers” and how they interact with this world and the otherworld. However, in Scots Gaelic, sith is several different words: a feminine noun (coming originally from Old Irish síd) meaning “fairy,” “hill” or “peace,” which is a very common and important otherworld and fairy-related term, which nonetheless does not have any “soul” valence; and the Scots Gaelic masculine noun sith which means a stride, a rush (as in “rushing forth”), or a manner of standing. As Foxwood usually employs the term in what would seem to be the latter sense, his usage in relation to better-known otherworld vocabulary really requires clarification so as not to mislead those not familiar with these languages. Likewise with what he says about the “toradh, a Gaelic word meaning pith or essence” (p. 21). His pronunciation guide is not quite correct, and he should have clarified that it is a Scots Gaelic word (“Gaelic” can mean any of at least three Goidelic languages—Irish [or Irish Gaelic, but the Irish themselves prefer the former], Scots Gaelic, and Manx). However, the basic meaning of this (despite its usage as such in some sections of the Celtic Reconstructionist movement) is neither “pith” nor “essence,” but instead “fruit” or “produce,” or even “profit.” This applies not only to Scots Gaelic, but to the Old Irish torad and to Modern Irish toradh. When Foxwood says that the “living light that is poured into all” from universal origins is the toradh, thinking of it as the “fruits” or “profits” or “increase” of everything is not necessarily off track, but considering it the “essence” of it would be incorrect, in literal terms that are in line with the linguistic cultures concerned. Bilé is given as the “Tree of Enchantment” (p. 33), but later as the “pillar of white flame” that is the “center post of all life” (p. 233). In addition to the orthography Foxwood gives being incorrect, the Irish term bile is the word for a sacred or important tree (particularly five important such trees in ancient Ireland), but the sense of it as a “world tree” and axis mundi is not present in the original culture. He gives the Welsh terms hiraeth and bro as “ancestral memory or ‘longing for the homeland’” and “’homeland’ or ‘our place upon the sacred land’” respectively (p. 182), but each is simply a term for “homesickness, longing, yearning, desire” and “area, district.”

While Foxwood does admit that this path is a syncretistic one that draws on Southern and Appalachian folk practices, certain Native American strains, and also Christianity, some of his claims do need to be considered in their individual cultural lights, rather than in the manner in which they are presented here. At one point, Foxwood states openly that “I have taken this folk teaching, which was adapted into Christian symbology, and restored what I believe is the more original, mystical, pre-Christian meanings” (p. 27). Whether or not there is validity in this in particular places where it occurs or not (and I leave it up to individual readers to decide that for themselves), it would be useful if Foxwood had mentioned every case in which he exercised his interpretive prerogative in this manner; unfortunately, this is the only place where he mentioned that. He talks at various later points about the fairy races being “fallen angels,” and that “Irish Gaelic Faery teachings…refer to the Dreamer as the ‘Proud Angel’ or ‘Lucifer’…” (p. 181); and in the same place, he talks of an “Oral Faery legend” (one of many he mentions) that involves the creation of the world from a spark of the Star Father. The appeal to oral authority in the latter is questionable; and the existence of a figure corresponding to the Dreamer in Irish (or any Insular Celtic) lore is also quite dubious. (King Arthur is supposed to be sleeping in a cave, ready to awaken when next he is needed, but this is much different from the cosmic implications Foxwood gives.) There is a strain of Irish literate lore that says the aes side are unfallen humanity, or possibly some type of angel, but these are syncretistic and speculative statements within the tradition, and are by no means the only such opinion expressed in the tradition (others say the otherworld peoples are demons, others that they are gods, while others simply say they’re mortals of a particular race descended from Noah). His discussion of the sleeping and opening of the eyes of the Dreamer at various stages in history (p. 182) also doesn’t seem to have much to do with attested tradition in Insular Celtic countries, but instead appears to be similar to Hindu concepts of Vishnu. He speaks of the use of BDSM practices to induce altered states of consciousness, but that such practices are not attested in the lore (p. 30), whereas they are in fact amply attested—St. Colum Cille/Columba, an important early Irish saint who evangelized in Scotland, was reportedly whipped by an angel in a vision; and the important Irish otherworld tale Serglige Con Culainn features the hero Cú Chulainn being flogged with horse-rods (i.e. riding crops!) by two otherworld women who visit him. He says the Fir Bolg are giants (and equivalent to titans, etc.) that attend to the Dreamer (p. 205), but there is little evidence for this view of that race in attested Irish literature. Instead, the more usual race corresponding to such a titanic role, and indeed the usual word translated as “giant” in Irish and Scots Gaelic literature, is the Fomoiri. These examples of inaccuracies could be multiplied greatly.

There are a number of mistakes that are fairly systematic in the work, including “lightening” for “lightning,” “luminal” for “liminal,” and “eminent” for “immanent.” While the places where some of these occur can be read with the incorrect word and some degree of understanding can ensue from such, it is clear in certain instances (e.g. the pairing of “eminent and transcendent”) that the other word is what is intended.

My overall impression of this system suggested to me that it has much more in common with Kabbalistic notions and the theurgy presented in the late antique Chaldean Oracles than with anything from Insular Celtic traditions. The terminology Foxwood uses for the ultimate image of divinity and divine origins, the Holy and Formless Fire, is a particularly Chaldean usage. There is certainly evidence in a variety of Celtic cultures for the idea of the cosmos as being Land, Sea, and Sky (corresponding to Foxwood’s schema, with the Stone/Earth, Ocean/Sea, and Sky/Star worlds). Likewise, the figure of the Greek goddess Hekate, as presented in Hesiod’s Theogony, is said to have had dominion over earth, sea, and the heavens; this is relevant because Hekate is presented in the Chaldean Oracles as the goddess who is, in essence, the Formless Fire. Thus, I wonder if this aspect of Foxwood’s structure in fact comes from a neoplatonic and theurgic understanding of Hekate as basic to the system, rather than anything being taken directly from any attested Celtic culture. The mapping of the Vision Keys presented on page 1 looks very much like the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (Foxwood’s “Tree of Enchantment”?), altered slightly, but with rivers acting as barriers at the expected intervals on the tree. The traditional supernal triangle seems to be echoed quite explicitly by Foxwood’s “triangle of light” composed of the Star Father, the Utterer, and the Holy and Formless Fire. On page 236, Foxwood admits to the similarity between the kabbalistic system and his system, but I would opine that the similarity isn’t one of parallel development, but of conscious and deliberate patterning. Had he admitted this at that stage (and at various other places in the book), I would have been much more forgiving of the way he presented his material. He discusses the “Old Ones before Time” on page 249, and says that certain other traditions refer to these as Stellar Aeons, but then opines “Because this term lacks the feeling and texture of folk concepts, I suspect it is modern and originates in a temple-based tradition.” I suspect that much the same can be said about this entire system as Foxwood presents it.

One very useful section, on pages 238-239 (at a late enough stage of the book that such a reminder is extremely useful) emphasizes the importance of meeting one’s basic physical needs of good water, nutritious food, adequate sleep and regular exercise in doing the entirety of this work successfully. While this is not a teaching unique to Foxwood’s system, and perhaps is something that should go without saying, having it appear at that stage of his system’s presentation (when one would be very prone to getting away from physical concerns altogether) was an excellent reminder of the importance of doing this basic bodily maintenance and appreciation. Within his own system, it fits with the teaching that the various walkers are reflections of one another, just as the cosmic template Foxwood elucidates is one in which there is a fractal-like self-similarity to the cosmos and the processes and beings within it. This type of cosmic schema is a useful thing in and of itself, and would make this system appealing to anyone who enjoys such a spiritual aesthetic.

As I stated initially, this system is not useless nor invalid, and its coherence is attractive; but, the entire presentation is marred by the constant appeal to “ancient authority” and “oral tradition” and “ways of the ancestors” that simply cannot be proven, and a great deal of which does not match attested lore. As a modern system inspired by some aspects of fairy belief in Insular Celtic cultures, synthesized with large helpings of more widely known esoteric traditions (including kabbalah, the Chaldean Oracles, and so forth), this is an excellent book and an enjoyable exploration, that begins in the experience of “divine discontent” (which some might know through the Christian mystical tradition’s terminology, the “dark night of the soul”) and works towards a healing, holistic connection to the universe and to all of life. However, if one is looking for something that accurately reflects the beliefs and practices of the “fairy faith” (which is post-Christian in the forms now known), much less pre-Christian Celtic practices, then this is not the place to find them.

Two Formless Fires out of Five.

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