My Name is Cernunnos by Dusty Dionne and Jared Mackenzie

My Name is Cernunnos
Dusty Dionne (Author) and Jared Mackenzie (Illustrator)
Jupiter Gardens Press, 2013
62 pages

Reviewed by Uloboridae

As a reader, one of the many book-related phrases I have heard in life is “don’t judge a book by its cover”. In this case, my mistake was judging a book by its title.

I selected “My Name is Cernunnos” because I thought it would be a nice little story about Cerrunnos, or perhaps be a young child’s introduction to deities or mythology related to Cerrunnos. Instead, it is essentially “Baby’s first Animal Guide dictionary”, where Cerrunnos introduces the reader to some of his animal friends and describe what they symbolize. Not a bad, but it was completely unexpected.

The story centers on the reader being introduced to Cernunnos’s animal friends around the forest, both wild and domestic. The reader learns from Cernunnos about each animal’s particular powers, and learns how to apply their lessons to the reader’s life (i.e. appreciate what you have, listen to the adults in your life, etc.).

This could have been a good book, but the lack of consistency in both its writing style and its subject matter is why I give this book a low score. Most of the book is written in plain English and the symbolism is basic and easy for a young child to understand, so why have fancy words like “widdershins” to describe the energy of Cat when “clockwise” or “counterclockwise” works just as well? Why does the idea that Cat has opposing energy currents even matter in the first place? There is no explanation. At least the description of the Hummingbird having fairy garb and fairy associations makes sense because Hummingbirds DO look and act like common depictions of fairies. In contrast, the description of Cat just becomes too abstract for a young child, to the point where it’s meaningless (even as an adult, I fail to see what point Cat’s description has for the reader). To be fair, the book does give a glossary at the end of what those, and other new (to the child) terms mean. As a result, for others this may be turned into a teaching tool for their children.

The cow is another animal whose introduction felt wholly out of place. Most of the book had animals in rather familiar North American/European settings. When Cow came along though, suddenly a picture of a Hindu addressing an Indian Cow in religious regalia appears, with a vague description on how Cow is “a God to some people”. What People? Tell us more, this sort of thing is interesting! Don’t just randomly do this with Cow when you could add this sort of information to many of the other animals, like Cat and Crow. Children’s books do not need an overload of detail, but being very vague can make them lose interest too.

Finally, and this may be debatable, the book uses the term “medicine” frequently when referring to what each animal symbolizes. This could be considered cultural appropriation to some. Personally, I would not be comfortable reading this to a child, as I am not a member of any Native American tribe and did not grow up in a culture that gives context to the concept of “animal medicine”.

The illustrations in the book are charming and colorful, drawn in a comic-like style. There is a variety of people and animal activities present, along with different details to search for that tells a story (on their own and with the written text). The facial expressions (on humans and other animals), for example, are varied and can create a story within itself to the imaginative reader. My favorite is the page where Deer gives a monster an exasperated look, as if to sigh and say “You again? Are you kidding me? I just got rid of you on the last page”. I literally laughed out loud when I noticed that. I do not know if this book is meant to be as a print or as a .pdf file, but I feel that the illustrations would benefit greatly from being in a printed book format. The .pdf file format tends to degrade the images a bit, to the point where the labels on the animals are not quite legible.

Overall, I feel that this is an interesting topic and is arranged in a good format for a children’s book. However, I would recommend a tightening up of the language, and making the information more consistent, and clear.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Rabbit’s Song by S.J. Tucker, Trudy Herring and W. Lyon Martin

Rabbit’s Song
Written by S.J. Tucker and Trudy Herring, illustrated by W. Lyon Martin
Magical Child Books, 2009
32 illustrated pages

If you haven’t become acquainted with the rich fabric that is S.J. Tucker’s storytelling skill, here’s a chance to introduce both yourself and your child to her way with words. In this collaboration with author Trudy Herring, Tucker creates a delightful tale of how rabbit and other overlooked animals became favorites of the trickster, well before they gained their fame through such pranks as stealing the sun. Its message is clear–even the humblest beings have important places in the world, a crucial moral to give to any child. And the amazingly complex and appealing illustrations by artist W. Lyon Martin give this book a sense of life and movement while evoking the Otherworld of mythos.

The suggested readership is 5 years and up. It would be easy to say this is a book for pagan children, but that’s selling it short. Many children are raised with world mythology, and this lovely tale draws inspiration from the best of those. Animals and nature feature prominently in a lot of children’s books as well, and this one has a variety of wild creatures beckoning the reader in. However, even adults can enjoy the rolling lyrics and lovely artwork of this book, making this a finely crafted tale fit for a wide range of readers.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Spirit & Dream Animals by Richard Webster

Spirit & Dream Animals: Decipher Their Messages, Discover Your Totem
Richard Webster
Llewellyn, 2011
248 pages

While many books on totemism mention dreams as a way of discovering and working with totems, they generally don’t go into much detail about the process, other than “if you keep dreaming about this animal, it might be your totem”. Dream work is not my preferred way for totemic work, but I was impressed by this book, which is more in-depth on the subject than I’ve seen.

It does feel to me like the author is much more familiar with dream work than totemism. Even if you’ve no interest in animal totemism, this book has some excellent information on basic dreamwork, for which it is a valuable text. In just a couple dozen pages Webster imparts some wonderfull practical advice on how to work with your dreams, what they mean, and how to get the most out of that level of consciousness that almost everyone experiences every night.

However, the totemic information is good, if nothing particularly new–it’s pretty solid standard information like signs that may point to what your totem is, ways to work with your totem (like dancing!), and a bunch of historical and cultural information on animals around the world. Again, in not too many pages, he’s done a fine job of pulling together the basic relevant information for someone who may be new to the topic.

And that sort of rounds out the strengths of the book in my eyes. Webster has taken two topics and given great background on them, so someone who hasn’t done dreamwork can understand it, and someone who hasn’t done totemism can understand it, and then put the two together neatly. My complaint is that he didn’t go further with this–the practical material basically stops after “Here’s how to find out what your totem is”, and then the second half of the book is all totem animal dream dictionary. I recognize that the dictionary format is beloved both among dream writers and totem writers, but I lament that there wasn’t more “how to” material from this author. What else, for example, does he do or recommend to bond with your totem besides dancing? How can we work with our totems in dreams once we’ve identified them as more than just symbols? After all, totems are independent beings, not just quick lists of dream keywords and generic concepts. He’s got a good handle on things like lucid dreaming–how do we use it more in conjunction with totems, for example as a form of journeying?

If you’re looking for a basic book on animal dreams and/or totemism, this is good; as I said, the author clearly knows his stuff and conveys it admirably well. But I, greedy thing that I am, am left wanting more, because what was there already was so good.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Salmon Nation by Wolf and Zuckerman, eds.

Salmon Nation: People and Fish at the Edge
Edited by Edward C. Wolf and Seth Zuckerman
Ecotrust/Oregon University Press, 1999/2003
80 pages

This is another one of those “not specifically pagan, but of pagan interest” books that I like to add in here every so often. Much is made of totemism, and the Land, and our connection to these and other elements of nature-based spirituality. Salmon Nation is a book that keenly illustrates those connections, and the roots of why Salmon is such an important totem to the Pacific Northwest. More importantly, it is just one example of how humans have taken a system that developed over millions of years of natural selection, geological evolution, and other processes that we often only barely comprehend, and changed it suddenly, violently, and detrimentally.

The book opens up with an essay from a member of one of the several indigenous tribes that fished for salmon and traded goods at Celilo Falls. A tradition that lasted fifteen thousand years ended when the falls were flooded by a downstream dam, despite protest. This sets the stage for showing numerous other ways in which technological progress has run over patterns that took an incredibly long time to set into place, to include the intricate migration patterns of multiple distinct populations of salmon. The book continues through descriptions of both wild and farmed salmon fishing and cultivation, the safety and health of wild salmon populations, and the impact that our current fishing policies have on the very existence of salmon.

To pagans, this should be an object lesson of why we need to take totemism beyond “My totem is a fish! Yay!” and tie our spirituality to the very earth and waters themselves. Many of the cultures we draw from revere(d) animals, not just out of symbolism, but out of survival. In post-industrial cultures, we are too often divorced from the processes that bring us food, and so turn a blind eye to ongoing destruction of our life support system.

Read this book as inspiration. Read it as motivation. Read it for grief for what has been lost, but also for the realization that we can make more of our spiritual practices than simple lip service to Nature. Meditate on what you read, and go from there.

Five fins out of five.

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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
Barbara Kingsolver
Harper Perennial, 2007
370 pages

On occasion I find a book that isn’t particularly about pagan religious or related topics that I still feel adds value to concepts often explored in paganism. One of the biggest ones is food. While not all pagans are Wiccan, obviously, the harvest cycle of holidays that originated in Wicca has spread throughout many branches of paganism, and other traditions have created their own approaches to the cycles of life and death. Additionally, as animals, we all eat, and so pagan or not, this book has immediate relevance.

Barbara Kingsolver writes here about the first year she and her family decided to become locavores, eating food that only originated within an hour’s drive of their home. Having the distinct advantage of enough land and money to be able to have their own small farm made a huge difference, and the degree of her locavorism is beyond most people’s ability at this point (which she even admits). But it’s inspiring, and her story is illustrative of the differences between corporate farming, and traditional small farming, on numerous levels. Over the period of a year she not only describes what it was like to only be able to have certain produce fresh at specific times of the year, raising poultry, and how to keep a family of four fed this way. She also wove in a lot of information about just how destructive large-scale agribusiness is, from the human body to the animals and plants raised in it, and the environment as a whole. Also, the fact that the family saved several thousand dollars by being locavores is a huge revelation in this economy, and busts the myth that locavorism must be expensive because a whole chicken costs more than four dollars. Just for this practical information alone the book is worth the cover price and then some.

However, what I feel should be of particular notice is the way that the change in practices affected the family structure. Life began to revolve around the kitchen, and not in a bad way. All four members of the family were often involved in activities ranging from cooking to canning to slaughtering poultry; Kingsolver’s older daughter contributed a number of essays detailing her experiences growing up in this household (a good place to be, apparently) and the younger took the initiative to buy her own chickens and start her own egg-selling business. The family spent more time together because of the efforts put into making food happen, and this created stronger bonds as a cohesive group, with more communication and collaboration.

Additionally, and not at all surprisingly, Kingsolver and her family became much, much more aware of the cycles of the seasons, and just how important it is to pay attention to Nature, not just as an abstract entity, but as the environment we are all immersed in and reliant upon every day. Animals and plants taken out of their cycles suffer both as individuals and as species, and the safety of our food supply is threatened because of it. If we pagans are to walk the talk about harvest festivals and being close to Nature, then our food is a damned good starting point.

This is not the how-to book of locavorism, but it’s a good inspiration. Consider it locavorism in theory, with recommended reading for practice (though this book contains a wealth of recipes to try out!)

Five pawprints out of five.

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Everyday Witch A to Z Spellbook by Deborah Blake

Everyday Witch A to Z Spellbook
Deborah Blake
Llewellyn, 2010
246 pages

I’ll start this review with the caveat that I’m really not a fan of spell books. They’re one of those remnants of the 90’s ZOMGWICCA publishing boom that I wish would just fade away. It feels as though the formula is “Write the main how-to book on a given tradition/topic/etc. Then write the related spell book. And after that? Somehow tarot.

That being said, I do not constitute the whole of the esoteric and related readership. And if someone were to insist that they needed a spell book, either to work with directly or as inspiration, I’d recommend this one as a potential addition to the witchy library. I’ve generally been a fan of Deborah Blake’s writing, and I’m not surprised she managed to write a spell book that I can give a positive review.

I think a lot of it is that she came up with a really wide variety of spell ideas. There’s more than just the usual lineup of healing, protection, money and LUV ME PLEASE! There’s a spell to boost advertising in business endeavors, and another to increase the likelihood of a damaged friendship being mended in a mutually favorable fashion. There are also things that can be used to boost–but not replace–mental health treatment, such as one to decrease emotional sensitivity, and another to focus on working through mental illness in general. And, as the title suggests, these are all arranged in alphabetical order–and some of the titles, like “Jerk Avoidance” and “Shit Happens” added a bit of levity. And the spells themselves are well-written and don’t involve hard-to-obtain materials like eye of honey badger.

There are a few pages of additional information helpful to spellcasting. Along with some guides on writing and casting spells, and when to cast or not, there’s also a bit of a blurb on familiars penned (by proxy) by Blake’s feline familiar, Magic, that’s actually pretty good even in its brevity. This is a nice guide for anyone new to the concept of spellcasting, but those who seek new ideas beyond the usual stuff may find this to be a good source of inspiration.

It’s still another spell book, and I’ll admit the cover got the hairy eyeball from me. But if ya gotta have a spell book, you could do much, much worse than this creative approach.

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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Animal Spirits Knowledge Cards by Susan Seddon Boulet

Animal Spirits Knowledge Cards
Susan Seddon Boulet
Pomegranate, 2007
48 cards, no booklet

I have loved Susan Seddon Boulet’s artwork for a good long while; her detail and original, ethereal style make fitting imagery for animal totem work (though I recommend her other creations, such as depictions of various deities, too). I am fond of the lush colors as well and the depth of the figures. Her creations are alive, if any art can be said to live and breathe.

However, this deck is not only about the art, but also about the meaning. There’s no book, but on the back of each card is Boulet’s brief interpretation and keywords for the totem on the front. Each is necessarily brief because there’s only so much room on each card, and text can only be shrunk so far. However, Boulet did her best to pack in as much information as she could. Generally, each card contains both historical and mythological information about the totem, and some commentary on the image she herself created.

This is not at all exhaustive, and should not be taken as the end of your research on each totem. And, as with any dictionary, it’s the author’s interpretation of what each totem means. Additionally, there is somewhat of a New Age approach, with smatterings of Eastern religions, “feminine energy”, and rather light associations with each totem; this has been aimed at a broader audience than the neopagan community. Some may find these meanings lacking; others may wish to primarily see them as commentary on the art, and attribute more detailed, personalized meaning to the cards.

The thin cardstock is disappointing, and if you’re wanting to preserve the art, you should have two decks–one for art, one for divination. However, the selection of animals is nice, if being almost exclusively vertebrates. Additionally, some of the cards are really general, like “Birds” or “Animal Deities”, which isn’t particularly helpful if you’re looking for something more specific.

Overall, though, this is a lovely addition to any collection of totem cards, whether for art or divination.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Shamanic Way of the Bee by Simon Buxton

The Shamanic Way of the Bee: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters
Simon Buxton
Destiny Books, 2004
208 pages

If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while, you’ll know there are three things that set me off. (Okay, more than three. But these are big ones.)

–Nonfiction, particularly speculative, really niche, or otherwise shaky, with poor research backup.
–Highly questionable anecdotes presented as literal, undeniable truth, without even an acknowledgement that there may be questioning of the sources.
–The idea that the above two are okay because spiritual writing doesn’t need academic/historical/other factual justification.

Sadly, there’s a lot of neoshamanic material that pings these pet peeves of mine. And this book especially hits them hard. The basic premise is that this guy meets this bee shaman when he’s a child, and spends a couple of years learning about beekeeping as well as spiritual elements thereof. Then later on in his twenties he manages to find another bee shaman of a secret, unbroken tradition called the Path of Pollen. Of course, there’s no written record or other evidence of this tradition. While there are some possible bee-related spiritual traditions associated with ancient Greek civilizations, the idea of a complete system derived from that, or contemporary to it, that survived into modern-day Austria and England is highly questionable. So we’re already starting on incredibly shaky ground.

Then come the amazing spiritual experiences–a bee flying through the author, who is accepted by his teacher without question right after his other apprentice graduates (which just seems conveniently perfect). Oh, and the sex scene. There are apparently sexy bee priestesses in this tradition. And we’re treated to a highly metaphor-laden (how many times can you fetishize a bee entering a flower? Never mind that worker bees are female…).

Finally, I want to know how in the hell he managed to kill a full-grown red deer stag (that just happened to knock itself out on a nearby tree) by suffocating it with his hand full of pollen without only a single gash from an antler. Don’t you know there’s a reason wolves and other smaller-than-stag predators, humans included, hunt them in packs? Not to mention, for fuck’s sake, that’s one of the cruelest ways you can kill an animal–if that even actually literally happened.

The whole book is like this. If it’s a Castaneda-style allegory presented as a real, completely true story, then the author is irresponsible for not prefacing it as such. If this all actually happened, then he really needs to question spiritual gurus and their authority.

One pawprint out of five.

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Chinese Power Animals by Pamela Leigh Powers

Chinese Power Animals: Archetypes of Transformation
Pamela Leigh Powers
Weiser, 2000
322 pages

Some things just don’t translate well across cultures–or, at least, the execution could be better. This is one of those things. This book is one of a number out there on Chinese astrology–you know, Year of the Fire Horse, Year of the Metal Dragon, etc.–that tries to make the system available to Westerners. The author takes elements of this system, and then adds them into a rather awkward synthesis along with Western astrology and New Age-flavored animal totemism.

Don’t get me wrong–I like new and interesting ideas. The problem is that the context of Chinese astrology, and various Chinese and other Asian healing systems, isn’t nearly as solid in this book as it needs to be to help people understand the why of the material. We’re left instead with an incomplete and sometimes confusing collection of quick-fix correspondences, and not enough answers.

For example, in talking about different relationships, the author says things like “The Horse has a Cat for a father”, regardless of the actual birth year or personality of the Horse person’s father himself. This makes no sense. And in fact, the whole system falls prey to the common pitfall associated with trying to make Chinese astrology “work” in the U.S.–it becomes a “You’re a [insert animal here], so therefore that means you are [insert stereotyped traits here]”. Because we don’t have the cultural contextual background to really get where these concepts came from, they end up oversimplified.

This could have been a much better book, but it feels slapped together out of convenience and connections between concepts that may or may not actually be relevant to each other. I was unimpressed.

One pawprint out of five.

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