Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Jared Diamond
Norton, 1999
496 pages

I’m sure there are going to be people scratching their heads in complete confusion when they see this book on Pagan Book Reviews. However, this blog isn’t just for books that are specifically about paganism, but are also useful to pagans. And this one is useful–for giving us perspective.

See, lot of (usually, though not always, white) neopagans romanticize their conceptions of what “tribal” societies are like, and glorify rather unrealistic portrayals of hunter-gatherer and basic agrarian societies. This is not to say that these societies aren’t of value; quite the contrary. But many pagans have insufficient understandings of what makes a society sustainable, which then turn into overly simplistic arguments about how technology is evil and indigenous people are noble savages.

The beautiful thing about Guns, Germs and Steel is that Diamond painstakingly traces the various factors that caused some societies to advance technologically quicker than others, ranging from access to large, domesticatible animals and cultivatible plants, to proximity to animals that can pass on diseases and build a population’s immune system, to specific geographical and geological features, and so forth. Obviously, the book is not flawless; Diamond, despite his attempts to be matter-of-fact, still shows a Eurocentric bias in some areas; additionally, this book should not be seen as the do-all and end-all of its subject matter. But there are a lot of salient arguments here, too.

For pagans, it’s a nice break from the sometimes technophobic attitudes that pop up. Additionally, as neopagans are mostly found in developed, English-speaking and/or European-culture-based nations, it’s a good look at societies outside of those contexts. And who can’t use a good history lesson now and then?

Four pawprints out of five.

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The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios by Marlene Dobkin de Rios

The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios: 45 Years with Shamans, Ayahuasqueros and Ethnobotanists
Marlene Dobkin de Rios
Park Street Press, 2009
190 pages

Note: This review is by Bronwen Forbes, who has been a huge help in cleaning up the last of the backlog of review books.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would not have been all that interested in reviewing this book. Even though I grew up in the 1970s, my drug of choice has always been alcohol, not marijuana, not hash, not (passé though it may have been by then) LSD. My chosen Pagan path cannot under any definition be considered shamanic. However, over this past winter I had a regular Saturday afternoon gig reading tarot cards at a local shop that sold and promoted ethnobotanicals. When the store was raided and preemptively temporarily shut down by a SWAT team (literally) in anticipation of a state bill making the pot-like K2 illegal (K2 brought about $7,000 profit into the shop a day) I suddenly became very interested in ethnobotanicals, their history, and why the Powers That Be shut down a shop over a substance that wasn’t even illegal yet.

The Psychedelic Journey didn’t answer my questions, but it did provide some very interesting insight into why naturally hallucinogenic plants are such a big deal for a culture – whether that culture is “for” them or “against” them. de Rios did most of her academic research in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, but was able to apply much of what she learned to the drug culture in America.

What de Rios learned, or at least what she was most interested in studying, is how the ritual and cultural influences surrounding the consumption of ethnobotanicals (native hallucinogenic plants) impact the user’s experience. Here in the 21st century we may say “Well duh!” at the notion that one’s background and cultural orientation influences one’s altered-state experience, but back in the 1960s and 1970s this was apparently a totally new idea.
Knowing that de Rios is an academic, and having ready my share of dry, scholarly research (I was first editor for my husband’s Ph.D dissertation in ancient history), I expected to be bored silly by this book. I wasn’t. de Rios writes in a very accessible, easy style that even a novice in the field – like myself – can understand.

For the mainstream Pagan community, The Psychedelic Journey probably isn’t going to be very interesting or very useful, although the references to bufotonin (prime ingredient in old witches’ flying ointment recipes) are interesting. For anyone following a more shamanic path, I’m sure that de Rios’ insights in the field of ethnobotany and how native healers around the world use those plants will be of great value to their personal spiritual practice.

Four and a half paws out of five

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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.

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The Sacred by Beck and Walters – September BBBR

The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life
Peggy V. Beck and Anna L. Walters
Navajo Community College (now Diné College), 1988
370 pages

The vast majority of books out there about “Native American spirituality” are utter hogwash. However, I picked this text up because I figured with it being published by a community college operated by Native Americans, that it would be a pretty accurate overview of the subject material. I wasn’t disappointed in the least.

First and foremost, The Sacred establishes the cultural contexts that Native Ameican tribal religions have developed in. While there are some generalizations made, the authors in no way try to equate these various belief systems or combine them into some universal path. Instead, they identify some common general trends, and then spend much of the book providing individual examples from a variety of tribes. The specific subjects run the gamut from shamanism to peyote rituals, ghost dancing and similar religious movements to rites of passage. I also appreciated the frank discussion of the very real effects that the colonizers had on the indigenous cultures, to include the variety of opinions and reactions that were offered.

While it is a textbook, it’s nowhere near dry or overly academic. One gets the distinct sense of these being living traditions, unlike many texts which try to place indigenous people in some mystical past. There’s a good balance, too, between stating the basic facts and displaying pride in heritage. The many photos add to both the scholarly value and humanistic elements of the text.

If you’re tired of generic “Native American spirituality” and dry anthropological studies, this is a great alternative. It shouldn’t be seen as the be-all and end-all of the subject, but it’s a good reality check and a nice resource if you want a quick reference to accurate information.

Five pawprints out of five.

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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.

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Naturalistic Occultism by IAO131

Naturalistic Occultism
IAO131
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.

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Ecotherapy – Edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist

Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind
Edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist
Sierra Club Books, 2009
312 pages

I’ve been anxiously awaiting this book since I heard about it in my ecotherapy class last semester. As soon as a copy was available at Powell’s Books, I picked it up and dug in. While a large portion of my interest in the text is as a future therapist, I’m reviewing it here because there’s a lot of relevant information for ecologically minded pagans regardless of career path; this is the same reason I also reviewed the original Ecopsychology anthology that this is a follow-up of sorts to.

I think I was expecting more hands-on, how-to techniques for “greening” one’s therapy practices. While there were some essays that dealt with this, many of them were more general ecopsychology theory, with some anecdotes from the authors’ experiences with clients. At first I was disappointed, but I thought about the nonlinear nature of ecopsychology, and decided that this was an appropriate approach anyway. So take this not only as a collection of ideas to weave into a therapeutic practice, but also as a more general overview of ecopsychology in the 21st century. I enjoyed all of the essays, but here are a few that stood out, particularly of interest to eco-pagans:

–“Ecopsychology as Radical Praxis” by Andy Fisher: An excellent argument on why it’s impossible to truly separate ecopsychology (theory) from ecotherapy (practice); it’s also the first of multiple essays in the collection that connect psychological practice to social issues and activism.

–Embodying Sentience” by Amanda Leigh Morrison: Eating disorders, body image issues, and our culture’s dis-connection from the physical body are examined from an ecopsychological perspective. The focus on reconnecting to the body as the vehicle in which we move in this world, and the important connection between physical and psychological health, may be old news to some pagans, but it’s an excellent interpretation of these concepts.

–“Transformation Through Service: Trans-species Psychology and Its Implications for Ecotherapy” by G.A. Bradshaw: No doubt probably one of the most controversial essays in this collection, this one examines the current ecological and psychological crises we face through the psychology of nonhuman animals, particularly the manifestations of stress and psychological disorders in these other beings. It’s a strong argument for treating animals not only humanely, but as other peoples.

–“Creative Restorative Ecotherapeutic Practices” by Mary Watkins: This long essay is valuable particularly for its ability to touch on just about all of the basic themes of the anthology overall: the harm caused by our hyperindividualistic society, the importance of rewriting psychological and social narratives, the controversies surrounding the act of “rocking the boat” that ecopsychologists and other critical psychologists engage in, the relationship between person and place, and building reconnection.

–“The Greening of the Self” by Joanna Macy: While all of the essays in the ecospirituality section of this anthology are well worth the read, this one was my favorite. Macy, ever the inspiring writer, gives a bright beacon of hope, showing three important ways in which people in Western cultures are losing the highly insular, small-ego focus, and developing broader, more interconnected ways of seeing the Self.

–“Altars of Extinction” by Mary Gomes: I cried while reading this account of ritual practices and altars set up to lost species; it’s a project I would like to take on myself when I have a little more time, and it’s one of the most concrete examples of an ecotherapeutic practice. Interestingly enough, this essay was originally published, in a different form, in a 2005 issue of Reclaiming Quarterly; the original essay, along with contact information for the author (in case you want information on the project) may be found here. The new version is definitely a good addition to the anthology.

The one thing that frustrated me was that there were so many essays that often the authors could only offer brief introductions to their topics. While some of them have books and other publications of their own, it’s still going to necessitate more research on my part. This isn’t a horrible tragedy, but there were a number of essays where I got to the end and wondered “Wait, where’s the rest? This is good stuff!”

The first portion of the book may not be quite so interesting to those not in the field of psychology, but the essays are worth a read nonetheless, if for no other reason than to shoot holes in the stereotype of the uncaring, distant, pagan-unfriendly therapist armed with a bunch of pills and strict diagnoses. Additionally, the eco-focus, along with a couple of really good essays on practical dreamwork, should offer more than enough fodder for pagan practices. Overall, I would most definitely recommend this to any neopagan reader; there are a lot of good ideas in here that could be as well adapted to ritual practice as to therapy (and often the twain do meet in this collection).

Five inspired pawprints out of five.

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Longing For Wisdom – Allyson Szabo

Longing For Wisdom: The Message of the Maxims
Allyson Szabo
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008
150 pages

“Know Thyself”. This is one of over a hundred maxims carved into a stele outside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. More than empty platitudes, these simple sayings not only guided Greek society, but were also instruments for teaching and learning Greek language and culture. While many people know of the importance of myths of the Olympians and others in Greek religion and culture, not as many are aware of the crucial role that the maxims play not only in a historical context, but the potential applications that they have to practicing Hellenic polytheism today.

Allyson Szabo couches her exploration of thirty-four of the maxims within the context of their origins and their historical uses, having done thorough research. However, rather than leaving them in the past, she shows ways in which they are relevant to our time today, whether we’re pagan or not. She’s very clear in explaining that interpretations–and even translations–lead to a great deal of subjectivity, and so the maxims, despite having been carved into stone, are far from being fixed in stone, metaphorically speaking. So she offers us an excellent context for the remainder of the book.

The bulk of the text involves her discussion of the maxims she’s chosen to highlight. Anywhere from one to three pages may be dedicated to her really thinking about what each maxim means and what lessons may be drawn from it. Very quickly it’s apparent just how relevant these are to our society. For example, when discussing “Control anger”, Szabo offers some solid, basic psychological advice on how to control–not repress–anger, and why it’s important. “Obey the Law” isn’t just a blind following of whatever’s on the books, but also a call to examine and criticize unjust laws (which also can be tied to “Shun Unjust Acts”). And, perhaps one of the most relevant to our busy society, “Consider the Time/Use Time Sparingly” is a much-needed prompt to examine how we do use the limited resources of time we’re allotted. At the end of each maxim’s section, Szabo includes an exercise or things to contemplate to further incorporate the message of the maxim in one’s life.

I also have to commend her for her excellent footnotes. She goes into great detail with supporting information, historical and otherwise, which just adds to the thorough contextualization of the material as a whole. As with all the Bibliotheca Alexandrina titles I’ve read thus far, the research is among the best available, particularly for pagan publishing standards, and I was not at all disappointed in this regard despite my own pickiness.

This book has a few notable potential audiences. Students (and teachers!) of philosophy should take a look, particularly for seeing a modern application of the maxims rather than only as relics of a culture long past. Hellenic pagans, of course, will want to thoroughly study this text to get a better understanding of the roots of the culture from whence their beliefs came. Neopagans in general, even if Hellenismos isn’t their path, may find this to be of great interest as a solid example of taking ancient “artifacts” and making them relevant to the 21st century. And anyone who likes well-researched nonfiction dealing with a particular topic in great detail will find this to be a highly engaging and informative read.

All in all, another wonderful text from Bibliotheca Alexandrina that will appeal to the scholar and practitioner alike!

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Phillupic Hymns by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

The Phillupic Hymns
P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008
292 pages

The world is full of would-be poets. These range from people who are thrilled that they discovered “cat”, “flat”, “rat” and “bat” all rhyme (and therefore should throw them all in one poorly written verse), to those who manage to rise above the usual stuff and present something original. P. (Phillupus) Sufenas Virius Lupus is, thankfully, well on the latter end of the spectrum. Given that I am not a huge fan of poetry, the fact that I have found a book of it that impresses me quite a bit is saying a lot.

While many collections of poems are published for the benefit of the poet’s ego, a paycheck, or other self-focused reasons, this is a devotional collection, an offering to a plethora of deities from Egypt, Greece, Rome, Celtic Gaul, and Britain. The earliest poems stem from Phillupus’ 2002 inauguration of the renewed worship of Antinous, the deified lover of the Emperor Hadrian. A large majority, however, came from two short but incredibly fruitful bursts of inspiration and dedication on the poet’s part earlier this year, brought about by an oracle from Dionysos. I was fortunate enough to witness the initial postings online of many of these devotional poems, and was excited to hear that they and others would be brought into a printed collection. I have trouble reading things online, and find the format of a dead-tree book to be much easier on my eyes.

Phillupus is an incredibly gifted poet who stands well above the crowd. Rather than endless attempts at “free verse” (which are usually excuses for overly flowery prose peppered with hard returns at inopportune moments), he has worked largely within ancient styles made popular by Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, and their contemporaries. As I read, I was reminded strongly not only of the delivery but of the highly descriptive language of the Iliad, the Aeneid, and other well known (and more obscure) poems. While this is not a major literary pursuit of mine, I’m familiar enough with the form from my educational background to recognize its modern counterpart. Phillupus has a knack for choosing just the right words in pleasing combinations, and there is not a strained or stretched phrase in the entire collection.

Where many collections of poems seem to be linked together solely by the fact that they all came from the same poet, this book flows well exceptionally well precisely because it was created with such strongly focused intent. This is not a mish-mash of some devotionals, then some free-verse about the poet’s love life, and perhaps some sketchily-written rhymes about cats. Rather, the very fact that it has a definite theme, and that it sticks strictly to that theme, gives it strength.

However, don’t let this fool you into thinking you’ll be reading the same poem over and over again with a different deity each time. The offerings here range from humorous to morose, traditional to playful, with setting in both ancient and modern times. I laughed out loud at the dating plights of Sobek, pondering a past of “typhonic” love while hanging out in a coffee shop waiting for a blind date set up by Anubis. I sat in quiet contemplation of the Matres as they went about their tasks. I witnessed sorrow more than once for the loss of Antinous, and was surprised and a little sad for Ganymede, taken to be a cupbearer instead of a prince. I delighted to see the feral Abnoba, often overlooked, running through the wilderness.

This is a collection that, while it may be enjoyed simply for itself, would lend itself very well to ritual purposes. If you’re tired of the stereotypical neopagan ritual “verse”, and want to be able to incorporate words of devotion that will set the mood for your rite, these works will open the way for the Divine with beauty, grace, and power. There are a couple of prose pieces, as well, that would make excellent readings for group storytelling rites (though any of these would be wonderful for reading aloud). (Do keep in mind, of course, that if you’re using them for any sort of group ritual, even if nothing is written down, it’s more than polite to give credit to the poet–and Phillupus certainly deserves it!) Be aware that there are a number of works in here that are not his originals, but rather are his translations of Latin writings; however, the majority of the material is his own, and it meshes well with the older writings.

I also appreciate that the poems are aimed towards renewing interest not only in modern-day polytheism, but in a syncretic approach as well. Due to his background as both an academic and a practicing polytheist, Phillupus approaches syncreticism with great authority, and without the sloppy eclecticism often seen in neopaganism today. Acknowledging that the gods most certainly did get around the ancient world beyond their initial borders, he allows for historical crossover, with good research and better results.

This is, in all, a marvelous collection, whether you simply want to read it, or incorporate the verses in your own ritual work. I can’t say enough good about it!

Five pawprints out of five

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The Goat Foot God by Diotima

The Goat Foot God
Diotima
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008
104 pages

This is my first review of a Bibliotheca Alexandrina title; I’ve been anxiously awaiting my chance to dig into the promising line of books that this small press has been producing in the past year. I’ve been familiar with Diotima’s work through essays, but this is the first book of hers I’ve been able to give a good read. BA is one of a tiny handful (I think a total of two, if I’m not mistaken) of small presses that have specialized in producing nonfiction works specifically devoted to individual deities. The Goat Foot God, of course, is entirely about the Greek God Pan. Unlike the more common devotional texts, which often feature a variety of writings by multiple authors, this is entirely penned by Diotima herself.

I wasn’t quite sure what approach she would take with her subject; would this be a book of personal experiences, or of ritual observances? Neither, in fact; this slim volume is a wonderfully well-researched exploration of the primary sources (and derivatives) that give us the basis of our understanding of Pan. Starting with Homer, and including works all the way up to Tom Robbins’ delightful Jitterbug Perfume, Diotima has scoured the corpus of knowledge to offer up a concise but thorough text. Along the way she answers some critical questions about Pan himself: Why do some sources speak of Pan’s sexual desires, and others omit it? How may a feminist approach Pan? How accurate are pop culture depictions of Pan? And just what is up with the infamous statue with the goat? (On second thought, her answers raise their own set of questions and things to ponder…which is not entirely a bad thing.)

I also very much appreciated the context she provides at the beginning of the book. Additionally, her tone is never overly authoritarian, allowing room for interpretation and discussion, as well as those murky areas punctuated by “We don’t really know for sure”. She is also careful not to privilege ancient texts over unverified personal gnosis, which creates a lovely balance to her solid research.

No one should be able to criticize the scholarship of this text. Diotima’s done her homework, and has the citations to prove it. While her writing style does have an academic flavor to it, it’s quite readable for a variety of audiences. About the only complaint I have about the book in its entirety is her excessive use of parenthetical statements–not including the in-text citations. There are parts of the book where there’s literally one in each sentence.

Still, that’s a tiny quibble in the face of what should be considered an exceptionally important text. Greek-inspired pagans, whether Hellenic recons, or more eclectic practitioners, should look to this as a superior source for information on Pan, as well as for a thought-provoking perspective on what “Greek religion really was/is”. The publishing industry should see this book as an example of the sorts of texts that need to be brought into print–well-researched, in-depth explorations of specific deities (which can also be applied to other topics) that can quell the cries for advanced works. This also would offer readers something besides (insert flavor of the week here) Wicca rehashes and poor scholarship.

The Goat Foot God has more than accomplished its goal. Pan is presented in all his goaty glory, yet unfettered by conventions and strict definitions. Diotima has done him honor with this book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I am definitely looking forward to reading more both from this author and publisher.

Five hoofprints out of five.

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