Shamanic Wisdom by Dolfyn

Shamanic Wisdom: Nature Spirituality, Sacred Power and Earth Ecstasy
Dolfyn
Earthspirit, Inc., 1990
184 pages

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I want to not like it, because there’s a decent helping of cultural appropriation in it. Lots of “medicine” and various appropriations of watered-down indigenous concepts that have become so common in new age neoshamanisms. However, there are also some useful rituals for practicing a nature-based animistic path. I think it might have been a better book framed as animism rather than shamanism, and without the pseudo-Native trappings.

The good stuff includes practices for connecting with the directions, animals, plants, the sun and other celestial bodies, and various other denizens of the natural world. They’re designed to recreate awareness of these things we often take for granted, and the author does have a nice ecological flavor in her presentation of the material. The rituals are also not too difficult to enact, and this would be a great book in a lot of ways for a newbie pagan just learning to reach out to the world around hir.

However, as with so many other neoshamanic texts, there’s an element of entitlement, as though Nature will automatically always help us. While the chapter on eco-magic does emphasize giving back, the overall approach is fairly lightweight and says nothing about any of the potential dangers of connecting with these spirits. And there’s not really a discussion of the differences between what is presented here and indigenous practices. There’s the usual brief and somewhat stereotyped animal totem dictionary, just as a bonus.

Taken with some cautionary salt, this can be a useful text for beginners to nonindigenous animistic practices. Be skeptical, but also be open.

Three pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown

Coming Back to Life: Practice to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World
Joanna Lacy and Molly Young Brown
New Society Publishers, 1998
224 pages

I first encountered Joanna Macy’s work when I began to learn about ecopsychology. While she is not expressly a psychologist, her work in systems theory and deep ecology in particular tie in very nicely with ecopsychology, and her writings are considered foundational to that field. Her work with exploring and working through grief, as well as broader ritual practices, give her a solid place in the study and practice of modern rites of passage.

Pagans ought to be very aware of her works, especially those who enact group rituals. This text, cowritten by Molly Young Brown, herself a practitioner of ecopsychology among other disciplines, is a great starting point for those unfamiliar. It is a book for leading and guiding group rituals, without specific spiritual or religious trappings, that are designed to facilitate connection with the self, with others, and with the world around us. The context for the rituals is explained in great detail, from the feelings of grief, loss, and other emotions that often go unspoken in polite society, to the importance of caring for the emotions of ritual participants and how to help them through difficult catharses. Much of this may already be known to seasoned priest/esses and other pagan clergy, but there are some useful guidelines nonetheless.

The rituals themselves are fantastic. There’s the classic Council of All Beings, in which participants speak as various nonhuman entities. There are also exercises like Tape Recording to the Future and Letters From the Future which help us to place ourselves in context of the enormity of Time As a Whole, but also bring us into immediate awareness of the effects our actions have on those who will come after us. Narrative, art, and other forms of expression feature prominently, and there is much to utilize in working with pagan groups.

I highly recommend this as a guide to ritual practices, not only for eco-centric or politically minded pagans, but those wishing for inspiration for more emotionally involved rituals. There’s plenty to think about and even more to do, and I am nothing less than amazed by the creativity and effectiveness of what is presented here.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

The Shaman’s Doorway by Stephen Larsen

The Shaman’s Doorway
Stephen Larsen
Station Hill Press, 1988
258 pages

When I first picked up this book, I had no idea that the author had done so many neat things! I was specifically impressed by his work with mythology and semiotics in practice, and it seems that a lot of what he does parallels a lot of neopagan ritual structures. This means I will have to find out more, because I already like what I’ve seen.

That includes picking up a newer edition of this particular book. Even this edition has a lot to offer. In it, Larsen doesn’t so much describe what shamanism is as he continues the work in mythos that Campbell (among others) created, and places the figure of the shaman within that context. While it is a bit of an academic, abstract approach, this meta-analysis of shamanism still has much value for the modern practitioner, especially as those of us practicing within largely non-animistic cultures try to carve out niches for ourselves.

Even if one is not a practicing (neo)shaman, there’s much that this book has to offer. One of the most valuable parts of the book for me was when Larsen broke down the various stages of development in approaching myth, from the very dogmatic to the very flexible, with a detour into pure scientific rationalism along the way. While it’s a bit biased and overly linear, and Larsen shows a decided preference for a psychological approach to myth, there’s still a lot to think about in how he describes the benefits and shortcomings of each approach.

Similarly, other parts of the book, to include Larsen’s assessment of Eastern vs. Western approaches to myth, should be taken with a grain of salt. However, with a healthy critical eye one should be able to look past that to get to the good brain food in these pages.

Four pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

Daughters of the Witching Hill
Mary Sharratt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
352 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who graciously agreed to help me clean up my backlog of review books as I continue to slog through grad school.

In 1612, seven women and two men were tried and hanged as witches in Lancashire, England. Sharratt, who lives in Lancashire, has written an extraordinary fictional account of the lives of these alleged witches, the trial, and the times.
Cunning woman Elizabeth Demdike grew up in Catholic England, but when the Protestant Reformation makes her faith illegal, she still manages to use the prayers of her childhood to bless and cure her sick neighbors and their livestock. She is aided in her efforts by Tibb, a familiar spirit who loves her as her husband never did.

But Elizabeth’s best friend Anne is visited by a familiar spirit of her own, and chooses a different path than Elizabeth – one of curses and fear instead of healing and hope.

In time, Elizabeth’s granddaughter Alizon develops powers similar to her grandmother’s. Instead of learning to use them and consequently embracing the Old Religion (Catholicism), Alizon rejects her family heritage. When she has an unfortunate angry encounter with a peddler that leaves the man completely paralyzed on one side, charges of witchcraft are brought – not only on Alizon but also on her entire family and their closest friends. Alizon can only pray and not lose faith as the story reaches its tragic, inevitable conclusion.

Sharratt uses transcripts of the actual trials as the basis for the book, as well as stories and legends from around Lancashire. The result is an extremely well-written, highly detailed story that will effortlessly transport the reader to a time when James I was king and his book Daemonologie, was number one on the 17th century England bestseller list. It’s one thing to know the characters are, or were, real people. Sharrat brings them to full life, flaws and all, but without turning them into stereotypes. They could be your dotty grandmother, your annoying little sister, your childhood friend.

Which is not to say that, as a Pagan reader, this was a particularly easy read. Quite the opposite, in fact. New Pagans may feel outrage about the over-inflated “nine million” victims of the “Burning Times” but reading a detailed narrative of the arrest, trial and hanging of one young person has a much deeper emotional impact. I cried at the end. This book should be on every modern witch’s bookshelf.

Five gold paws out of five

Want to buy this book?