The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook by Kenaz Filan

The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook
by Kenaz Filan
Destiny Books, 2011
320 pages

Reviewed by innowen

The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook is a introductory text on practicing the New Orleans blend of voodoo. Filan acquaints the reader to what exactly this is, how it differs from Haitian voodoo, and gives you a history of the practice, its influences, and loa. Finally, there is a small chapter that includes some things the reader can try out.

Good

Many pagan books delve right into the practical hands-on of their topic without giving any background information. While I do enjoy books of that nature, The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook, spends most of its time laying the groundwork to tell the reader how the region was formed and how this tints the flavor of magic/conjure that comes out of the city. You can practically smell the foods, or hear the blues while reading the book. I also loved how the structure of the book builds off from the previous chapters. Doing so made a great transition from the historical, to the knowledge on the loa, and to the conjure and practical stuff in the later chapters.

Bad

This book is billed as a guide to the practices and tools and formulas of New Orleans voodoo, and there are some but the bulk of the book is culture and history. I was hoping that the book would help me delve a bit more into the practices that make voodoo mysterious. Instead I learned a lot more about the history of the region, the people who are prominent, and the loa worshipped. I really didn’t get the hands on aspect that I was hoping for.

Bottom Line: I recommend The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook for those who want to learn more about the culture and beginnings of the spiritual tradition. This book is light on how-tos but is filled with the background information needed to really tie the spiritual practice into it’s rightful place in magical traditions. For those who want to know more about the practical aspects, you can probably find websites (like Lucky Mojo) more resourceful on the hands on.

3.5 pawprints out of 5

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El Brujo by Thomas Gerard

El Brujo
Thomas Gerard
Self-published (Printmaker), 2007/2012
218 pages

Reviewed by Lady Anastasia

***Spoilers ahead***

“When you are following your life’s purpose, when you are doing things you were born to do, then everything becomes easy. Money flows your way. All of the things that make you happy seek you out with little effort on your part, life is abundant.” -El Brujo

Born to a Spanish father and a half breed Irish/Apache mother, Pete Mondragon was known as a coyote. The tale of El Brujo follows Pete from the age of 12 when he lost his father, leaving his ranch on the outskirts of El Rito, New Mexico, and travels to the Apache Reservation to be raised by his Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack is a charismatic man who has a special way with the ladies, and even during the tough times, has abundant cash flow. Some who live on the reservation attribute this to him being a medicine man, others to his being a witch or warlock, when asked by Pete, Jack simply tells him that he is “El Brujo”.

Pete spends the next few years learning about coyote medicine and tending to the horses on his Uncle’s ranch and going to school. Things are fairly uneventful until Jack dies shortly before Pete is 18. Pete spends his last summer between childhood and adult hood sleeping under the stars, finding himself and connecting on a deeper level with his coyote medicine. Summer over, Pete joins the army and ends up overseas.

The next interesting milestone in the book is when Pete spends a year in New Orleans with an army buddy who introduces him to Papa Legba, and American Hoodoo practitioners. There seems to be an interesting balance between Pete’s coyote medicine and the Hoodoo rites and the instances where Pete becomes possessed by Papa Legba.

The next few years of Pete’s life have him reconnecting with his Maternal Grandfather, becoming a photographer during set production and meeting his wife, Pete’s life is good. But I’ll leave the rest of his life in the book, there are other key characters.

Enter Maria Mondragon. Maria inherits some of Pete’s knowledge, and ability to use Coyote medicine, as well as some of his skill with the camera. She becomes a famous fashion photographer in NM. Without getting into too much detail at this point, I’ll admit, this is where the author starts to lose me and my interest.

When painting the picture of Maria’s photography empire, the author spends a little too much time over detailing the cost of things, and the emphasis on making money, spending money, paying employees wages and spending on extravagant things that the dollar signs actually detract from the actual story line. More than once, I felt my eyes glaze over when reading chapters that dealt heavily with financial aspects.

I will also point out that during the second half of the book and during the focus on Maria Mondragon, you are also introduced to a handful of New Age practices, including Yoga, meditation, Kundalini and a women’s group that seems to be of the Wiccan flavor. Not to be overly critical but I felt like the author was now cramming as many different spiritual paths, practices and ideologies into the book as possible.

I did enjoy the portion of the story that dealt with Changing Woman, but I think that bouncing from trad to trad also ends up detracting from the story. All in all, I will say that the first half of the book was great, I enjoyed reading about Pete and watching him grow and learn. The second half of the book, I like the character of Maria, I just wish I didn’t know down to the penny what she was spending her money on. I would recommend the book to anyone who wanted to do a little bit of light reading.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Drawing Down the Spirits by Filan and Kaldera

Drawing Down the Spirits: The Traditions and Techniques of Spirit Possession
Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera
Destiny Books, 2009
338 pages

It’s seldom that I get a book for review that’s truly something new under the Sun. While I get lots of good stuff (and some real stinkers, too), most of the books are variations on preexisting topics that have already been written about to a significant extent. Not so this one. While there have been books in the neopagan genre that have touched on spiritual possession, as well as less intense practices such as aspecting and “drawing down”, full-on possession has largely been left to academic perusals of African diaspora and shamanic practices and belief systems. So getting to read an entire text dedicated to the actual practice of spirit possession was a definite treat, particularly as “spirit work” has become more prevalent in recent years.

The text starts with a good theoretical overview of possession work–what it is, where it came from, and what people have been saying about it. Then we get into some of the details that are useful in setting up the actual practice, such as a thorough discussion of cosmologies (after all, understanding “what” spirits and gods are and “where” they are as well goes a long way in having context for working with them). After that, there’s a wealth of information on things to keep in mind when doing your own possession work, to include the good, the bad, and the terrifying.

Do be aware that this book is heavily influenced by the authors’ biases, to the point that some parts could be interpreted as offensive to some readers. For example, they are very much hard polytheists, meaning that they believe that individual deities are just that–individuals, not parts of a single archetype. Those who see deities in a more archetypal form are referred to as “atheists” in this text, which could be potentially inflammatory in its interpretation of what that may mean to the individual archetypal pagan. The dedication to hard polytheism over all other theistic views is a constant theme in the book, and because it comes across as heavy-handed at times could be off-putting to some readers.

However, I say this as a caveat, because I want people to be prepared enough to be able to look beyond it if necessary so that this book can be appreciated for what I really want to say about it: If you have any interest in the practice of spirit possession, you want this book. I don’t do possession work myself, at least not to the extent discussed here, but I know people who do, and this meshes pretty well with what they’ve described of their own experiences. The authors most certainly know their audience–they’re familiar with neopagans who may be themselves unfamiliar with full possession work, and therefore much of the material is geared toward not only helping the individual practitioner do their work with a relative amount of safety, but also doing so in an environment where what they’re doing may be seriously misinterpreted. Also, while the book (thankfully!) isn’t full of prescribed, pre-crafted rituals, the appendix with the detailed ritual outline is a definitely valuable resource.

There’s not much more I can say at this moment without utilizing the material myself, and I do have to wonder how a better environment for full possession might affect the experiences not only for myself, but for other neopagans who have only done such things as aspecting. Will this book help create more opportunities for this sort of work? Only time will tell. Needless to say, this is one of the best resources I’ve read this year, and it’s definitely keeping a good spot on the bookshelf (or off it, as it’s needed).

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Book of Curses – Stuart Gordon – November BBBR

The Book of Curses: True Tales of Voodoo, Hoodoo and Hex
Stuart Gordon
Brockhampton Press, 1997
242 pages

You know when you go into one of those big box chain bookstores that are all alike, and are immediately met by rows upon rows of discounted hardbacks of various sorts? And the New Age titles are usually something put out by the chain’s own publishing house, or other major houses? I think this started out life as one of those books. I got it from the local Goodwill bargain bin, but this may have been a career bargain book.

This is not a book on how to curse people. It is, however, a collection of stories and anecdotes (all third person, nothing from the author’s own experiences) about curses in various magical and other systems. Some of the book delves into Afro-Caribbean religions; however, the MacBeth curse is also visited, as is the supposed curse on King Tut’s tomb. Gordon also touches briefly on modern witch hunts in the form of the Satanic Panic and child abuse allegations in the 1980s, and on the theory of tulpas, or thought-forms, as potential causes of curses through the power of belief.

While it’s an interesting read, take it with a decent-sized grain of salt. Much of the book is based on hearsay and older sources, and seems mostly to be a collection of whatever fairly common information on curses is available. It’s mostly on par with various Time-Life and other mainstream texts on occultism; don’t use it as a primary text, but there are some interesting bits of information that can lead to further research if you so choose. Also, don’t expect the information on specific religions, such as Voodoo, to be particularly solid; it tends more towards the sensational end of things, with a few facts thrown in for legitimacy’s sake.

In short, this book is good for entertainment, but it most definitely needs supplementation.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Drumming at the Edge of Magic – Mickey Hart

Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion
Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens
Marper Collins, 1990
263 pages

I have a bit of a history with this book. I first bought a copy and read it over half a decade ago, then for some inexplicable reason decided to sell it. Now that I’ve been doing more drumming, I got the urge to read it again, so I managed to track down a copy. What absolutely amazes me is how much of the book I remember, even having read it so long ago. It must have struck me deeply back then, and it’s understandable why.

This isn’t just a story about the history of the drum. Nor is it only a story about Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead. It’s a combination of those, and more. We learn about where drums came from, and we surmise about what the effects of those early percussionists must have been. We see where this instrument captivated Hart from an early age, and wonder at the amazing creations that resulted. We explore the altered states of consciousness the drum evokes, with Joseph Campbell, Alla Rakha, and the Siberian shamans as our guides. From blues and jazz to African talking drums and the bullroarers found worldwide, we are introduced to percussionists of all stripes, spots and plaids.

Between Hart and Stevens, the writing is phenomenal. Rather than following a strictly linear progression, it snakes like Hart’s Anaconda of index cards through pages upon pages of storytelling and factoids. However, it all meshes well together, rather than coming across as stilted or confused. It’s nonlinear, and it works beautifully. There’s just the right mix of personal testimonial, anecdotes, and hard facts.

Anyone who drums, dances, or otherwise is involved with music; anyone who works with altered states of consciousness, whether in shamanic practice or otherwise; anyone who wants to see what makes a rock and roll drummer tick; and anyone who wants a damned good story that’s all true, needs to read this book.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Not in Kansas Anymore – Christine Wicker

Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic Is Transforming America
Christine Wicker
HarperSanFrancisco, 2005
276 pages

I first encountered this book when doing research for A Field Guide to Otherkin. I’d heard that the author had a chapter on Otherkin, and that was the first part I read. I wasn’t particularly impressed by what I found; it seemed a bit touristy and sensationalistic, though well-written.

Now that I have time to just read for the fun of it, I decided to give the entire book a chance. Unfortunately, my initial impressions aren’t that much different from how I feel now that I’ve seen the whole thing.

Wicker is a journalist, and it shows from the very beginning. She talks about her peers’ worries that she’ll “go native”, and her attempts not to do so are quite obvious. At least she’s honest, rather than pretending to be a member of a group to try to find out more about it. She states clearly where she’s coming from–not magical, pretty much an atheist, and seriously squicked about certain things (she seems terrified of BDSM in particular and takes any opportunity to describe it in lurid, evil manners).

The book seems largely dedicated to three subjects: Hoodoo, witchcraft and its variants, and Otherkin and vampires. She visits Zora Neale Hurston’s grave to get grave dirt, hangs out a bit with the Silver Elves, and gets witchy in Salem. In fact, she gets to have all sorts of experiences that numerous pagans and magical folk would love to have.

Granted, it does seem that she learns something from the experience. The book is a journey for her, from superstition to magic. Unfortunately, this is bogged down by numerous descriptions of various events and people that seme to be purposely slanted towards the extreme. She freaks out about every single instance of BDSM she encounters, describes in great detail just how bizarre everyone looks, and spends pages upon pages relaying the absolute worst of the paths she encounters. And while some of the people she interviews seem pretty down to earth and informational, others appear to be whoring for attention. Whether that’s the actual case, or just how Wicker chose to portray them, isn’t made clear here.

And everything is taken out of context, with the exception of some of the Hoodoo and witchcraft. Background information on the various topics she covers would have helped to ground her writing and make it seem less sensationalistic. For instance, all she really says about Wicca is that it’s white-light and not every pagan likes it. And she leaps from topic to topic fast enough to make my head spin.

I appreciate what Wicker was trying to do: present the magical fringes of society in a manner that the mainstream can palate. Unfortunately it feels more like a patchwork of whatever she happened to find; from reading this book one might assume that all vampires are into BDSM, all witches are tacky, kitschy, weird people who wear too much eye makeup, and that Hoodoo seems to be the only thing discussed that has any redeeming value. While it’s not as horribly sensationalistic as some of the “occult expose” books out there, there are better “outsider” views of magic and paganism out there and go in more depth; I recommend Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves by Sarah M. Pike, an academic look at the neopagan festival culture by someone who is not pagan but who manages to cover the material in a respectful, even-handed manner while writing at a level that non-academics can easily digest.

As for “Not in Kansas Anymore”…

Two pawprints out of five.

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The Haitian Vodou Handbook – Kenaz Filan

The Haitian Vodou Handbook: Protocols for Riding with the Lwa
Kenaz Filan
Destiny Books, 2007
283 pages

Vodou is a religion that I’ve been interested in for several years, but never quite sure how to approach. I always wanted to give it more respect than the paradigmal piracy of Hyatt and Black’s Urban Voodoo, which is well-written, but as is the downside of paradigmal piracy, not always as respectful of the paradigm being borrowed from. While that works for some people, it’s something that personally I’m not comfortable with. On the other hand, not being in contact with any practitioners of Vodou, I wasn’t really sure where to begin as far as solitary practice went.

This book has some answers for my dilemma. It’s basically an introduction (and a very thorough one at that!) to Vodou that will make sense to neopagans (such as your dear and beloved reviewer). However, it is NOT “Vodou Wicca” or some crap like that. The traditions themselves are not mixed with neopaganism (e.g., drawing down Ezili Freda under the full moon), though Filan does make mention of recent neopagan integration of the service of certain lwa into personal practices. Rather, it’s the religion of Vodou explained in a way that it answers some of the misconceptions that are common in neopaganism.

Of course, the audience isn’t restricted to neopagans. This is an excellent introductory text for folks of any background. Filan covers a lot of ground in not quite 300 pages–the history of the culture that gave birth to Vodou, as well as origins of various elements of it; detailed chapters on individual lwa; and an explanation of some of the more common rituals and magics practiced. The back of the book has pages of useful resources, whether you’re content being solitary or would like to get in touch with a reputable house.

I definitely have to commend the citational endnotes. Too many authors don’t give credit where it’s due, but Filan shows his work nicely. His writing style is easy to read with a light dash of humor (especially when describing the antic of the Ghede!). However, he’s not afraid to tackle controversial subjects, such as racism, and problems that non-Haitians may face when exploring Vodou (and how those problems got to be there).

This isn’t a candy-coated (or, for that matter, ooga-booga scary) look at Vodou. It’s honest and respectful, and has a good balance of information and respecting oathbound material. If you’ve any interest in this religion whatsoever, even just curiosity, this is a great place to start.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Urban Voodoo – S. Jason Black and Christopher S. Hyatt

Urban Voodoo: A Beginners Guide to Afro-Caribbean Magic
Christopher S. Hyatt and S. Jason Black
New Falcon Publications, 1993
188 pages

Don’t go into this expecting it to traditional Afro-Caribbean religious practices or a pink pagan primer of fluff.

Hyatt and Black can be caustic and opinionated, which is better than rehashing the same material into oblivion. Within the pages are a wealth of information on practical magick. In fact, this is a superb tool for any Chaos magician or other syncretic practitioner looking to pirate this paradigm.

Some of the book is composed of personal anecdotes of the authors. They’re well-written and entertaining, but they also illustrate magical practice quite nicely. The latter part of the book is dedicated to practical material. There is a veve and other information for each of the loa discussed, as well as some ideas for experimentation. I also really liked the obi divination system–simple, yet complete.

If you’ve never encountered Voodoo before, a good book to pick up before this one might be The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Voodoo by Turlington. Yes, it’s an Idiot’s Guide, but it’s a good one. Then read Urban Voodoo, and get into the more experimental side of things.

5 pawprints out of 5

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