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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Shamanic Wisdom by Dolfyn

Shamanic Wisdom: Nature Spirituality, Sacred Power and Earth Ecstasy
Dolfyn
Earthspirit, Inc., 1990
184 pages

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I want to not like it, because there’s a decent helping of cultural appropriation in it. Lots of “medicine” and various appropriations of watered-down indigenous concepts that have become so common in new age neoshamanisms. However, there are also some useful rituals for practicing a nature-based animistic path. I think it might have been a better book framed as animism rather than shamanism, and without the pseudo-Native trappings.

The good stuff includes practices for connecting with the directions, animals, plants, the sun and other celestial bodies, and various other denizens of the natural world. They’re designed to recreate awareness of these things we often take for granted, and the author does have a nice ecological flavor in her presentation of the material. The rituals are also not too difficult to enact, and this would be a great book in a lot of ways for a newbie pagan just learning to reach out to the world around hir.

However, as with so many other neoshamanic texts, there’s an element of entitlement, as though Nature will automatically always help us. While the chapter on eco-magic does emphasize giving back, the overall approach is fairly lightweight and says nothing about any of the potential dangers of connecting with these spirits. And there’s not really a discussion of the differences between what is presented here and indigenous practices. There’s the usual brief and somewhat stereotyped animal totem dictionary, just as a bonus.

Taken with some cautionary salt, this can be a useful text for beginners to nonindigenous animistic practices. Be skeptical, but also be open.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Mystical Dragon Magick by D.J. Conway

Mystical Dragon Magick: Teachings of the Five Rings
D.J. Conway
Llewellyn, 2007
264 pages

Note: This review was originally published in an issue of newWitch magazine.

I’d heard this book was better than Dancing With Dragons; I’m sorry to say the mediocrity continues.

While this volume is supposed to be advanced dragon magic, it follows the poor formula found in entirely too many pagan books of skimming over a number of topics that are only loosely related. There are countless pages of the same stone, herb, and element correspondences that are found in numerous other books, and there’s additional magic 101 material—all with a few words about dragons tossed in for relevance.

Through the training in this book, one supposedly is able to become an enchanter, a warrior, a shaman, and a mystic. Yet these roles are primarily supposed to be achieved through an increasingly dazzling array of shiny ritual tools and trappings, and overly scripted guided meditations that leave little room for personal experience and exploration. If this is supposed to be more than a 101 book, I’m not impressed.

Conway’s research is seriously lacking. She doesn’t employ critical thinking in her material on Atlantis, instead choosing to take as fact anything that supports her views, no matter how sketchy. Her explanations of dragons in various cultures are overly simplistic and show an incomplete picture of extant lore. And while she has a sizable bibliography, some of the books are of questionable quality, and there are no in-text citations for tracing individual pieces of information.

To top it off, Conway is quite dogmatic in her views. While I have no doubt that this is her reality in truth, she present her own subjective experiences of dragons and the otherworld as universal fact. She perpetuates the inaccurate classifications of white, black and gray magicians, and in my review copy she states “No member of the Five Inner Rings [Conway’s dragon magic tradition] is ever called a priest, priestess, guru, master, or any other nonsense name” (22). I wonder how pagan clergy feel having their titles summarily dismissed thusly?

Between the rehashing of material from Dancing With Dragons, and the additional shallow treatment of several magical paradigms—and dragons themselves—I can’t recommend this book to any reader.

One pawprint out of five.

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A Guide to Zuni Fetishes and Carvings by Kent McManis

A Guide to Zuni Fetishes and Carvings
Kent McManis
Treasure Chest Books, 1995
48 pages

Note: There are expanded editions of this text available; this is an older edition. Please see the link at the end of the review. Please follow the link at the end of the review if interested.

Often imitated, but hard to reproduce at authentic quality, the small stone animal fetishes created by the Zuni and other southwestern American Indian cultures are well-known artifacts. However, most people don’t know much beyond the fact that they’re made by indigenous peoples, and perhaps that they’re worth money to collectors. This little book serves as an introduction to their origins and the current state of the art form.

A very basic explanation of the spiritual cosmology that informs the creation of Zuni fetishes is offered at the beginning. This creates a nice context for what follows, brief but interesting explanations of some of the more common animals found in fetish art, and what their spiritual and cultural significance is. Unlike Zuni Fetishes by Bennett, this is not a how-to text, and sticks pretty closely to the source material as opposed to extrapolating rituals that may or may not be authentic.

The book is largely aimed at collectors, and the absolutely stunning full color photographs that grace much of the book make it worth the cost on their own. McManis showcases the works of some of the better-known fetish artist families, as well as giving some information on the current living artists, and a bit on how to tell a fake apart from the real deal. The depth of the talent and creativity displayed in the examples given is amazing, and the book made me appreciate this art form even more than before.

Whether you’re a potential collector, a spiritual or artistic researcher, or simply interested in knowing a bit more about a neat niche topic, this is a good starting point. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s an easy to digest intro.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Bear Daughter by Judith Berman

Bear Daughter
Judith Berman
Ace Books, 2005
422 pages

I don’t do much shopping for fiction any more, unless someone recommends a title. However, I was visiting my hometown not too long ago and stopped in at the sci-fi/comic book shop that I used to buy fantasy titles from on a weekly basis. I happened to see this novel and was drawn by the cover art, as well as the title. Because of it, I may just have to start browsing fantasy fic again.

Cloud is a twelve-year-old girl. Or, at least, she is now. Up until the beginning of the story, she was a brown bear living in the woods near a human settlement. Unsure of her place now, and with the leader of the community literally after her life, Cloud must figure out where to find safety, and why it is that she no longer wears a bearskin. The answers to her dilemmas are far from ordinary, as she is about to find out.

Normally I wince when an author tries to weave Native American cultural and spiritual elements into a work of fiction, particularly fantasy. Berman has the advantage of being an anthropologist, and additionally rather than trying to say that Cloud and her people are of a specific tribe, she instead draws on general cultural themes in the tribes of the Pacific Northwest (and is honest about doing so). Rather than being some lofty, Clan of the Cave Bear wannabe, Bear Daughter portrays a realistic, unromanticized and yet fascinating world created of threads of both truth and creative fiction.

I think my favorite parts had to be the descriptions of Cloud’s experiences with the spirit world. Berman does a spectacular job of capturing the otherworldly qualities of reported experiences in shamanic journeying and similar practices, yet Cloud’s own travels are anything but rote repeating of anthropological reports. Instead, the spirit world here is a unique thing, fraught with the same level of danger but not with the exact same beings. Again, it’s a great balance between what is in this reality, and what comes of the cosmology of a created world.

In short, I absolutely loved this book. I only wish the author had written more! I would recommend it especially who like a good bit of animism in their stories, but it’s a great read in general, too.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Animal in You by Roy Feinson

The Animal in You: Discover Your Animal Type and Unlock the Secrets of Your Personality
Roy Feinson
St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998
184 pages

I didn’t go into this book expecting it to be some serious text on animal totemism or symbolism. However, I was surprised at what I did find. The author has studied zoology and it shows, given his insight into animal behavior, which puts it head and shoulders above some of the more traditional totem animal dictionaries out there. Where other books are spiritually-oriented, this one is more of a light-hearted personality test, just for the fun of it.

The author devised a fairly complex but easy to use system for determining your animal personality: Answer a questionnaire with numbered answers, and use the patterns of the numbers to look up in an extensive chart in the back which animals are most likely to resemble your personality. It takes less than ten minutes to answer the questions, look things up, and read about the animals (which makes it fun for groups).

The interpretations of the various animals’ behavior is pretty biased toward anthropomorphization; the weasel personality, for example, is seen as shifty and not very trustworthy, which is human interpretation of the way weasels hunt out of necessity (and evolution). However, this is nicely balanced out by the author’s thorough research into each animal’s behavior and habitat, so it isn’t merely a bestiary of human moral attached to nonhuman animals.

I’d recommend it as a light-hearted take on animal symbolism, but nothing to take to heart any more than any casual personality test. (Oh, and my recommended animal personalities? Otter, Bat, and Snake.)

Four pawprints out of five.

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Spirit Animals by Victoria Covell

Spirit Animals
Victoria Covell (illustrated by Noah Buchanan)
Dawn Publications, 2000
112 pages

At first glance, this is Just Another Totem Animal Dictionary. Most of the book is taken up by entries on various animals, all of which are North American birds and mammals. I wasn’t expecting all that much, to be honest, because of that. But then i began to actually read it.

First, it’s not so much about animal totems as it is about interpreting spiritual encounters with wildlife. The author thankfully acknowledges that these are subjective experiences, that the wonder is generally in the mind of the beholder, and that sometimes a crow is just a crow. So you can think of it somewhat as a book on divination based on noteworthy sightings of wild critters.

The other things that makes it stand out is the fact that the main portion of each animal’s entry is written by a different guest essayist talking about their own experience with that animal. It’s a nice infusion of nature writing into what could otherwise have been a rote dictionary text. And there are breakout boxes with actual biological and behavioral information on the animals, which I appreciated seeing.

It’s not an ideal book. It talks about “choosing a spirit animal guardian”, when most sources agree that it’s the other way around–the animals choose you. And it’s also a fairly optimistic, lightweight look at nature, ignoring the “red in tooth and claw” aspects of the animals beyond that which can be romanticized for our benefit. (This could also, of course, be reframed as highlighting the wondrous aspects of nature, but even that’s subjectively slanted away from the more violent portions, which can be wondrous in and of themselves.)

In short, this is a good book and a surprising find amid the herd of dictionary-style animal spirituality/magic books. It’d be a good choice for a non-pagan person who’s interested in the more spiritual aspects of nature, as it provides a gentle segue. However, pagans shouldn’t ignore it either, even with my qualms. Oh, and it’s also got some of the most spectacular illustrations–it’s quite the aesthetically pleasing book! Kudos to the artist as much as the author!

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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