Holy Smoke by Amy “Moonlady” Martin – new edition

Holy Smoke: Loose Herbs & Hot Embers for Intense Group Smudges & Smoke Prayers
Amy “Moonlady” Martin
Moonlady Media, 2010
110 pages

On rare occasion I will review a book a second time, especially if it’s undergone a lot of reworking. In its initial incarnation, this title was known as Spirit Herbs: Simple Recipes for Hibachi Herbal Magic & Sacred Space, and I gave it a glowing review because it was just so awesome. So a while back (longer than i care to admit, thanks to grad school eating my life), the author was kind enough to send me the new, updated, and even better version of the book! She removed a few things that she felt no longer fit, and added a LOT more practical material.

If you’re not familiar with the original review, this is a book all about alternatives to the usual sage smudging wand that everybody and their coven mother uses at the beginning of group neopagan rituals. Smudging is one of those practices that often gets taken for granted. “Okay, we’re going to waft smoke over you–and then get into the REAL ritual!” Yet this text takes what could be a brief step and goes into much more depth.

Some of the material is meant for the aforementioned group rituals. Beyond the initial “clean-up”, there are also smudges meant for much more intensive work over a duration of time, even a couple of hours. And whether you work with a group or alone, the “smoke prayers” are incredibly useful, both for offerings, and for focuses for meditation. At the center of all of these is the concept that scent is one of the most powerful senses we have; in fact, studies show that aromas are even more evocative than visual memories for bringing us back to a place and time, and Martin uses that to connect specific smudges to particular states of consciousness, ritual settings, etc. This is powerful stuff!

Better yet, she offers a variety of recipes for loose herb smudges. If you want a more organic alternative to chemical-laden incense sticks and cones, and especially if you’re big into DIY creations, this is a superb resource. The recipes can get you started, but she also takes care to familiarize you with a variety of ingredients and what they do, which will help you start making your own blends.

I thought I couldn’t say enough good about this book, but this new edition proved me so wrong–for which I’m quite happy! Whether you’re an herbalist looking for an addition to your library, a member of a group wanting more interesting material for rituals, or simply someone who appreciates the full use of the senses in spirituality and magic, this is a most excellent text to pick up!

Five pawprints out of five

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The Little Book of Odes and Invocations by Auntie Matter

The Little Book of Odes & Invocations
Auntie Matter (Sondra Slade)
Self-published, 2010
10 pages

One of the things I love about reviewing self-published works is that while a good number of them are in sore need of editing, there are those wonderfully independent gems that are both well-written, and defy conventional publishing rules. A ten-page book of nothing but sacred poetry may not sound all that exciting or original, but this particular little chapbook packs a lot of quality into a small space.

The booklet begins with a Winter solstice invocation, with meditative lines on “The Slumbering Seed”, “Endless Night” and “Formless Energy”. The air of anticipation and turning toward the sunnier part of the year again is apparent. The last invocation is, appropriately, the Summer Solstice, a joyous celebration of life and light. In between these, Slade writes of the Moon, a Wiccan-flavored raising of energy, and one of the few things written about 2012 that I didn’t hate, among other themes.

Her writing style is incredibly descriptive even in a few words, and I can definitely see where these invocations would have a very powerful effect in a ritual. Her words have a good flow and rhythm to them, which should help bring on altered states of consciousness rather nicely. They’re interesting to look at, too. She patterns some of her free verse poetry with indentations to punctuate specific words or ideas following a general idea earlier in the stanza. This adds a wave-like quality to the works.

Pretty much my only complaint is that this is a very slim volume for the $10 price. I recognize that because it is printed on a home printer, to include some wonderfully detailed full-color illustrations, that printing up these booklets probably requires a lot of ink cartridges. However, seven poems and two pieces of artwork on ten pages is going to be a tough sell for a lot of people, even with the excellent quality of both writing and art. I might suggest that the layout be redone, and maybe some content added, to accommodate the minimum page count for a book at Lulu.com.

Still, it’s a wonderful compilation, and if you are looking for some really effective creative invocations for use in either solo or group rituals, this is a great resource to have on hand. It’s obvious that the author is tapped into the energies she writes about, and this comes through in every piece in this book.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Earthwalks for Body and Spirit by James Endredy

Earthwalks for Body and Spirit
James Endredy
Bear and Company, 2002
200 pages

One of the things I have always appreciated the most about James Endredy’s writings is that he takes spirituality and roots it very firmly in the physical world, perhaps more than just about any other author on shamanism and related topics. It’s a much-needed reconnection in a time and place where too often “spirituality” is focused on ethereal, untouchable things of the mind and imagination, with little hooking them to the “everyday” world. So having exercises and concepts that remove the gap between this word and the other one (if there is even a distinction) is a really welcome change. This, his first book from nearly a decade ago, is no exception.

The premise is simple: walking meditation. For a lot of people, sitting and being quiet simply isn’t a good option. Walking meditation is a way to focus the mind while also allowing the body a chance to settle down and move more intently. However, this book is not simply about focusing on the body, but focusing on the body as being an integral part of the environment it is within. The ability to be aware of both within and without simultaneously allows one to break down the barriers until there is no within or without, only what is.

This isn’t just the same steps made over and over, however. The book contains dozens of unique and incredibly useful ways to walk, starting with the most basic Walk of Attention, which trains the person to be aware of how the body moves and what it’s moving in, to more elaborate group walks, and walks that are aimed at focusing on specific elements or other parts of the environment. In fact, one could work with this book for months, if not years, and not get bored.

Very little of it could be misconstrued as woo-woo; this is spirituality grounded constructively and healthily. Any beings of spirit are encountered in their physical forms, for the most part, and the animals, plants and other phenomena behind the spirits are what are brought into focus. Yet the wonder and awe is not at all lost; on the contrary, Endredy’s walks encourage and facilitate the most fine and complex amazement at the world around us, as well as the bodies we wear. Even the final Walk for Vision only calls for a vision after an entire day immersed in the beauty of physical things.

This is an extraordinary book that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Anyone practicing shamanic practices–in fact, anyone who professes a nature-based spirituality–would do well to pick this book up. And even those who are not particularly spiritual but who would like to reconnect with nature and the world at large may very well benefit from this text.

Five walking 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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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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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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Trance-Portation by Diana L. Paxson

Trance-Portation: Learning to Navigate the Inner World
Diana L. Paxson
Weiser Books, 2008
276 pages

Given her extensive work in trance work, particularly (though not exclusively) being a founder of modern seidr practice, Diana L. Paxson is an excellent person to be writing an in-depth guide to deliberately achieving altered states of consciousness. While numerous books on (neo)shamanism and other practices give sections or chapters on techniques including drumming, conscious breathing, dancing, and other methodology, this text specialized in explaining trance work in all its detail, and does a great job of fulfilling its goal.

Rather than only focusing on one particular type of trance work (such as only journeying), Paxson offers a more general framework that can be applied in several different contexts. Don’t let this fool you into thinking it’s watered-down however. It’s generalized in the same way William G. Gray’s Magical Ritual Methods explains a generalized approach to ritual magic. In both cases, the authors go into painstaking detail in the mechanics of their subject matter, but without adhering to a specific path.

This truly is a step-by-step guide to trance. Paxson starts with a variety of exercises to train the reader in necessary skills for trance, and to prepare them for what’s next. Trance itself is covered in detail–not only the actual mechanisms for doing so, and ways to shift one’s mind into an altered state, but also information on both physical and incorporeal aid and tools. Additionally, she discusses something many authors overlook–the inherent dangers associated with trance work. Not just medical dangers, which everyone talks about, but the fact that not everything you meet may be nice, and yes, you may have to fight. There are also substantial sections for those who will be guiding others through trance to help them apply the rest of the book to their work.

Trance-portation is a cover-to-cover guide that will be useful to just about any neopagan, neoshaman, or other person wanting help in journeying, astral travel, lucid dreaming, and similar practices. It’s one I’ll be recommended to my own students, and one that I think will be indispensible to most of the people who pick it up.

Five pawprints out of five.

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