A Magical Life, Volume 1 by Taylor Ellwood

A Magical Life: The Magical Journal of Taylor Ellwood Volume 1
Taylor Ellwood
Megalithica Books, 2013
344 pages

Reviewed by Nicky

A Magical Life: The Magical Journal of Taylor Ellwood, as the title suggests, is a compilation of the first three years of Taylor Ellwood’s magical blog. The blog covers events from his personal life, discusses books he is working on and includes musings of a spiritual and philosophical nature. This particular volume includes posts from 2008 until 2010. The book is divided into three parts, one per year with each entry or post divided by date and subject.

I began reading Taylor’s blog a small while ago and so was interested to read earlier entries. I am pleased to say that, overall, I was not disappointed with this book.

On a personal level, the reader could clearly see Taylor changing as he wrote. His demeanour differed noticeably when working with different elements, as he himself pointed out. When working on the element of Love, he was more emotional. When working with the element of Emptiness, his energy seemed slower and more depressed. When working through Time, it became more frenetic. It was fascinating to see how apparent these changes were. Even so, Taylor never hits you over the head with his emotional or spiritual development, it’s simply something that seeps into his words. The fact he was able to convey so much so subtly is the sign of a skilled writer.

On a philosophical level, Taylor’s musings often made me stop and think. Throughout the blog, Taylor often discussed relationships and honesty, analysing his own relationships and offering opinions based on what has worked best for him. I found his post on love magic toward the end of the volume especially worth reading, as well as his discussion of sex magic versus sex for sensation or distraction. I also agree strongly with Taylor’s assertion that to receive something, you must give something in return. My absolute favourite post came toward the end, entitled The Proof of Your Success. I highly recommend it.

Looking outwardly, Taylor included some great social commentary on the Pagan community and its general beliefs and practices. I found his thoughts on Aleister Crowley and the power – or, perhaps, lack thereof – of the Gods to be particularly pertinent. The post on President Bush as a negative manifestation was especially intriguing and his assertion that politics, that activism, can be something that is worked on internally rather than externally resonated deeply with me.

With all that excellent content, this book still had some areas that could have been improved.

One thing that slowed my reading down is that subjects jump a lot. Although the book maintains a consistent overall feel throughout, often I’d read something about a personal event, then go to something deeply philosophical, to something very spiritual, to something very practical. I felt I might enjoy it more if reading it as originally posted on his blog, where I could use tags and archives to follow my interests. The arrangement of the book sometimes gave me the feeling of “mood whiplash.” Sometimes it would take me a while to “recover” before I could read the next post.

Some posts were difficult to understand out of context. A paragraph or editor’s note here and there may have helped explain the context in these instances. I’m sure long term fans would get it but “newbies” such as myself may be confused.

Finally, this book is also a very meaty, dense book. I welcome any and all in depth content for Pagans but it did take me a long time to get through it. I think this was partly a formatting issue. The volume might have been better as a “best-of,” with a selection of the strongest posts or presented as a volume per year or two years; an entire three years in one is a lot to take in.

Overall, this is a very good book. It’s full of lots of great insights and it was lovely to watch emotional growth that has been deliberately sought after. Though this is not at all a light or quick read and there are some mood whiplash issues, it’s definitely worth a read.

Four and a half paw prints out of five.

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Real Alchemy by Robert Allen Bartlett

Real Alchemy: A Primer of Practical Alchemy
Robert Allen Bartlett
Ibis Press, 2009
178 pages

Most of the books you’re going to find on alchemy these days talk history, metaphor, or other theoretical concepts. This is one of the very few that goes into the actual practice of alchemy, step by step. Originally self-published by Bartlett, it’s now available more widely through Ibis, part of Weiser. You’ll have to look twice to tell the difference, though, at least at first glance, since the cover (which I happen to like) is the same. I haven’t read the first edition, so I can’t speak to the differences between the two, just so you know.

I’m not particularly well-versed in alchemy; it’s one of those topics that I think is interesting, but I haven’t had a chance to real sink my teeth into. So as an almost complete novice, I set up the challenge that the book was going to have to give me at least a basic understanding of the practice of alchemy. Thankfully, it delivered! From the brief historical treatment, to the explanation of what all that talk about sulfur, salt and mercury is about, I was able to get the jist of the very basics. However, the book doesn’t stop there!

Beyond the basic theoretical concepts, Bartlett goes into detail discussing what you actually do with all the arcane terminology and the processes they describe. Want to create a tincture or elixir? The directions are here. The author does make it clear that this should not be your only text on alchemy, but the instructables in this one should make it invaluable.

There are some interesting crossovers between alchemy and other disciplines. Astrology and qabalah are the two most notable examples of this, and those who are interested in either of these disciplines may well want to pick up this text for the relevant material. Additionally, as the book does give a basis in alchemy, astrologers and qabalists who were previously unfamiliar with the main topic should have little trouble finding context.

Overall, I found this to be a good way to give myself enough of an understanding of classic alchemy, particularly European, to get what the fuss is all about. Thorough understanding does require actually utilizing the practices, so armchair magicians and the merely curious will no doubt miss out on a lot. But it’s clear even from my novice perspective that this is an essential text.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Weiser Concise Guide to Herbal Magick – Judith Hawkins-Tillirson

The Weiser Concise Guide to Herbal Magick
Judith Hawkins-Tillirson
Weiser Books, 2007
126 pages

I am really excited about this book–and it takes a lot to make that happen these days! Usually what it takes is somebody writing something that fills a particular niche, or explores something different, or otherwise manages to stand above the crowd. Judith Hawkins-Tillirson has managed to provide a book on herbal magick that will appeal to practitioners both of “low magic”–witchcraft and related practices–and “high magic”–ceremonialism and ritual magic.

Now, for myself, most of my magical experience and knowledge of herbs comes from the likes of Cunningham, books that do a lot of research on other books that do a lot of research, and eventually come down to the original texts from whence most herbal correspondences in formal magic come today (as well as various bits of folklore of dubious origin). What Hawkins-Tillirson has done is gone directly to the original sources, starting with Crowley’s 777 as well as other Qabalistic and related sources, and ferreted out the bare bones of herbal correspondences. She then provides us with concise (as the title suggests) yet meaty entries for herbs associated with the various planets, the Sephiroth and paths of the Tree of Life, and the classic elements. What this leaves us with is a handbook for those who don’t really want to go through all the trouble of reading through countless texts on ceremonialism, but who do want a more solid background to their herbalism than “Someone way back when once said….”. This makes the text appealing both to detail-oriented folk who are sticklers for proper research, and to more free-form practitioners who want information they can apply to their own works.

Anyone who knows me should be impressed by now that I’m speaking well of a book of correspondences–this is one of those “blue moon” occurrences! However, that’s not all this book offers. The last few chapters are dedicated to practical applications of the knowledge that’s been provided, including equipment, techniques, and considerations to keep in mind when making everything from tinctures to poppets. They’re not lengthy chapters, nor should they be considered the only source you will ever need for creating these things. However, for those who already have a decent background in the hands-on aspects of, say, making a pouch and stuffing herbs in it, these chapters draw clear connections between the theoretical material described in the first part of the book, and how they may actually be used.

Finally, I have to give the author huge kudos for the last chapter, “Franz Bardon and Herbal Magick”. Bardon is one of those magicians who has received a lot less attention than he deserves, and I was delighted to see her discussing his techniques of fluid condensing. While I haven’t worked a lot with Bardon’s material, my husband has, and no doubt as soon as I finish this review he’ll be spiriting the book away for his own purposes!

As I said, this is not the do-all and end-all of herbal magic. However, the bibliography is substantial, and there are wonderful endnotes, a huge amount for a book of this length. Hawkins-Tillirson has certainly done her homework, theoretical and practical, and I am highly impressed by this text. If you have any interest in herbal magic whatsoever, even if it’s just as components in spell pouches, you’ll want to pick up a copy of this text.

Five enthusiastic pawprints out of five.

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Green Hermeticism – Wilson, Bamford and Townley

Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology
Peter Lamborn Wilson, Christopher Bamford, and Kevin Townley
Lindisfarne Books, 2007
206 pages

I cannot rave enough about this book. I forget exactly where I heard about it, but given the dearth of material on ecological spirituality/magic, especially outside of a shamanic or neopagan perspective, I fairly jumped at a chance to pick this text up.

This is not a how-to book, with the exception of one chapter. It is primarily rather dense and inspiring theoretical discussion of the links between hermeticism and alchemy, and the need for a more eco-friendly approach to life, the Universe, and everything. Rather than try to summarize the book as a whole I’ll go through each chapter independently.

Chapter 1 (Wilson) – The Disciples at Sais: A Sacred Theory of Earth – This was originally a paper presented by the author at a 2003 “Sacred Theory of Earth” conference. Wilson traces the influences of green hermeticism, focusing particularly on the works of Romantic scientist and hermeticist Novalis, whose novel provided the title for the chapter. However, Wilson also draws on everyone from Paracelsus to Goethe. However, the bulk of the chapter is dedicated to Novalis, and is liberally adorned with quotes from his works that aptly illustrate foundations of green hermeticism.

Chapter 2 (Bamford) – One the All: Alchemy as Sacred Ecology – Chapter 2 examines the basic philosophy and worldview of alchemy, while highlighting those portions that are particularly applicable to modern ecological concerns. It is also part history lesson, following the progress of alchemy from Egypt to the East and back to the West. And, perhaps most importantly, the idea of One the All is discussed–a deep, pragmatic awareness of the interconnection of all things. We are not merely presented with wishy-washy pleas to “all just get along”, but convincing arguments towards revamping how we approach the Universe, and ourselves and everything else as the All.

Chapter 3 (Wilson) – Green Hermeticissm – Here’s where the book starts getting really good. Wilson dives deeper into hermeticism-as-ecological spirituality, and shows more examples of where the green roots in hermeticism come from throughout its history and development. However, modern implications are also discussed; I was particularly delighted by the section on mycoremeditation–cleaning up toxins through mushrooms which break down the chemical compounds–as a modern form of alchemy. There’s also a marvelous interpretation of lycanthropy as eco-magical awareness and activism, but in a way that takes animals on their own terms instead of through our usual anthropocentric perceptions. While the chapter flows from one topic to another, all together it paints a picture of a very different, much healthier way of viewing reality from what we’re raised with.

Chapter 4 (Bamford) – Quilting Green Hermeticism: A Tissue of Texts and Tracings – This chapter adds texture to the previous material. It’s a delightful collection both of Bamford’s own thoughts, and extensive quotes from various classic alchemical/hermetic texts. By far my favorite part was the section entitled “Ouroborous (‘Tail-eater’) or the Coincidence of Opposites”, an excellent tool for shattering dualistic preconceptions and tendencies towards dividing the world up just so. “Perception and Imagination” is also incredibly important in its promotion of change starting in the very way we view things; unless you are able to shift your perception, none of this will be nearly as useful. By the end of the chapter, my head was reeling from all the information and paradigm shifts, and yet I was left with a sense of a greater, all-encompassing reality–not just “out there” somewhere in the heads of strange old men tinkering with antique glassware, but “in here”, “right here”, “right now”, relevant to All.

Chaoter 5 (Townley) – The Manufacture and Use of Planetary Tinctures – I’m afraid to say that while this essay was exceptionally well-written, it seemed rather tacked on to the end of this book. It’s a practical guide to creating and using planetary tinctures, with a brief explanation of various substances created through alchemy. Do not, however, skip it just because it shifts gears. Give your mind a rest for a few days from the rest of the book, and then read this chapter as its own entity. Despite the difference in styles and focus, you can see elements of the theory of green hermeticism within the processes. In fact, try reading it once before reading the rest, and once after. What I really think, though, is that Townley should author or co-author a practical, hands-on book of green hermeticism techniques. He’s got the right idea, and if there had been more practical material in this book, this chapter would have fit in much better.

I honestly don’t believe I have done this book justice. Truth be told, I’m still digesting what I’ve read, and will go back to it numerous times to re-inoculate myself. However, I wanted to get the word out there as soon as I could, because this is by far one of the most impressive and thought-provoking texts I have ever read. I can’t speak too much as far as the alchemical/hermetic purity goes, since I’m not particularly well-read in those topics at this time. However, as a guidebook for ecological spirituality and magic, and a healthier way of being, it’s beyond essential. In fact, this is another one of those “anyone magical at all should read this” texts (I need to make a list someday….). It’s not an easy read, but it is one of the best.

Five exuberant pawprints out of five.

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