Gargoyles – Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker

Gargoyles: From the Archives of the Grey School of Wizardry
Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker
New Page Books, 2007
240 pages

Note: This review originally written for and published in newWitch magazine.

This started out to be a really interesting book. The author gives a lot of really detailed information on the history and construction of gargoyles, as well as the origins of certain designs and themes found in this unique stone critter. I enjoyed reading about the cultural and religious influences that contributed to the design of gargoyles (including modern pop culture), as well as the stories behind specific gargoyles, such as those at Notre Dame. The material is accented with some lovely black and white illustrations, which really add to the book.

Pesznecker has a great writing style, with an open, friendly tone, and a concise manner of conveying the information. While it was a relatively quick read, the book offered a lot of good information in a small space. Additionally, some of the information from outside sources was backed up with in-text citations (very much appreciated!) as well as a hefty bibliography.

However, when the book veered into modern magic, I started finding a lot more filler. I realize that the book was partly written as a training manual for Grey School students, but do we really need yet another 101-level explanation of ritual tools, the elements, and how to construct and cast a spell? Additionally, a lot of the practical magical information was only tangentially related to gargoyles. And her “Magickal Safety” section (136-137) asserts that “Most magickal practitioners” believe your magic comes back threefold, and that “The best way to study magick is with an experienced mentor or a respected magickal school”. Non-Neopagan magicians and happy solitaries might look askance at these.

Overall, it’s a great idea; this is a subject I really haven’t seen broached in Neopaganism. There were some really creative possibilities here, but it seems like the book just sort of sputtered out in the last 80 or so pages. Get it for the solid research on historical gargoyles, but supplement the practical material.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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Animal Reiki to Go – Mary Caelsto

Animal Reiki to Go
Mary Caelsto
The Lotus Circle, 2009
128 pages plus keychain charm and drawstring pouch

There are several books and other resource that cover reiki for animals, either as the entire book or as part of a broader work. However, this one’s nice “to go” as the title says, as a pocket-sized kit for the reiki practitioner. Just a note to start off with–I only got the book to review, not the keychain or pouch, so the review’s only for the book.

I think the best target audience for this book would be people who already have a basic knowledge of reiki, and want to expand that to nonhuman animals. While the author does give a very basic summary of reiki for contextual purposes, I wouldn’t want to use it as my only source (a bibliography/recommended reading section would have been a bonus in the back, but is sadly missing).

That being said, if you already are a reiki practitioner, then you’ll find some great analogues between human and nonhuman animal treatment. Caelsto does a good job of showing just how simple it is (sometimes!) to transfer knowledge of practice on humans and transferring it to other animals. For example, she shows where the seven primary chakras are on other animals, and explains how best to work on them. This includes some incredibly valuable practical and safety issues–some animals simply do not like being handled, while others are shy around certain parts of their bodies, such as the head. Information on distance healing with reiki comes in very handy.

Caelsto also adds in some uses besides straight healing. She explains how to use reiki to protect a certain population of animals, such as an endangered species, or a herd of deer living near a busy road. Having done a good bit of activist magic myself, I had to applaud this quite a bit. (Though after reading the sentence “Don’t set traps, send reiki” from page 16, there’s part of me that totally wants to set up a reiki-based pest control service with that as the ad line!)

No, this isn’t the longest book on the subject, and as mentioned I would suggest it for people who already have the basic knowledge of reiki down. However, it’s concise and packed full of a lot of good, practical, hands-on (no pun intended) information on the topic at hand. Caelsto does a great job of explaining what to do, why to do it, and adds in some anecdotes to show some of the possible effects. She’s an effective teacher through writing, and while I would have liked more references, it’s a good book for what it was intended to be. Good either as part of the kit, or as a standalone text.

Four and a quarter pawprints out of five.

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The Hawaiian Oracle – Rima A. Morrell

The Hawaiian Oracle: Animal Spirit Guides from the Land of Light
Rima A. Morrell (art by Steve Rawlings)
New World Library, 2006
144 pages plus 36 cards

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a totem deck/book set. I’ve had this one sitting in my personal collection for a while, and figured it was about time to take a break from my review stacks. I also wanted to give myself a fresh look at it, because someone I respect as a totemist gave it a pretty scathing review last year, and I didn’t want that biasing my approach.

There’s good and bad in the set, so I’ll give you some details in list form:

The Good:

–The author emphasizes interconnection and responsibility to nature in the book. There are some valuable lessons for postindustrial cultures who often take the environment and its denizens (includes humans!) for granted. It’s obvious that she’s passionate about being a caretaker, and while she doesn’t include it quite to the extent that, say, Susie Green does in the Animal Messages deck, it was a nice touch. (In addition, she walks the talk, having set up a charity and refuge for rescued animals of various sorts, for which I give her major kudos.)
–Morrell has a Ph.D. in Huna, a New Age mix of Hawaiian mythology and other elements. She’s pretty familiar with Hawaiian mythos, and includes mythological information on each of the animals along with her interpretations, to flesh out the meanings and give people more to ponder when working with each animal.
–The cards themselves feature some of the most beautiful artwork by Steve Rawlings (who sadly only gets mentioned on the copyright page and the acknowledgement in the back of the book, instead of on the cover of the book or box). A lovely blend of realistic depictions of animals and brightly colored environments, the pictures make working with this deck extra delightful!

The Bad

–One of the first things that stuck out was the author’s dogmatic adherence to vegetarianism even in the face of historical facts. I’ve no problem with vegetarianism in and of itself; however, Polynesian cultures are not and never have been vegetarian, and they did not simply begin eating meat because of contact with the Europeans. Yet she asserts this very idea on the first two pages (6-7) of the introduction.
–Lemuria and Atlantis: Arrrrrrgh. This is New Age stuff, pure and simple. Yet, like so many New Age authors, she tries to connect these fictional, completely unproven, conveniently lost continents to Hawaiian indigenous culture.
–Related to my last point, her book is based on the aforementioned Huna–which is not traditional Hawaiian religion. It’s a creation from the latter half of the 19th century when spiritism and other such things were all the rage, and while it (and this book) dabble in Hawaiian religious and cultural elements, they are not synonymous. The author (who as I mentioned has a Ph.D. in Huna gained from University College in London, U.K.) claims to have spoken to indigenous Hawaiian practitioners of this, but she doesn’t give any indication of what status they have in their indigenous culture(s) or where they learned their material. Given that even indigenous cultures can have their frauds (being indigenous in genetics does not automatically confer full understanding of indigenous culture if you are primarily white in culture), I have to question how verifiably indigenous her information really is. This looks more like cultural appropriation than indigenous Hawaiian religion and culture.
–“Land of Light”? This idealization of Hawaiian culture (and it’s definitely not limited to the subtitle) smacks of the Noble Savage stereotype.

Honestly, I’m leaning towards setting aside the book and keeping the cards. Unless you’re brand new to animal card divination and don’t yet feel you can interpret the cards based on your own observations (and the study of a species’ natural history, from whence its lore ultimately springs), it’s really not necessary. The information that is provided on cultural and other contexts is spotted with questionable content. Read through the book to get an idea of the author’s perspective and intent for creating the deck, but take it with a huge lick of salt.

Two pawprints out of five (though I give the art a five!)

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Bird Cards by Toerien and van Dobben

Bird Cards: The Healing Power of the Bird Kingdom
Jane Toerien and Joyce van Dobben
Altamira-Becht, 2003/Binkey Kok, 2007
158 pages plus 55 cards

This is one of the not-so-well-known animal totem decks out there, specializing in birds as opposed to a wide variety of animals. The specialization is a definite plus, because it allows for a number of birds that normally don’t get a lot of attention in commerical totemism books and decks. Along with some of the usual suspects like Crow, Raven, and Owl, there are some birds I haven’t really seen covered–Thrush, Roller, and Gannet, for example. There are a few surprises, too–Phoenix as a representative of mythological beings, and Dodo as an extinct totem.

The overall tone of this book/deck is intuitive. The author (and artist) relied primarily on a series of direct contacts with the totems/spirits of each bird in a personal ritual setting. This carries over into the individual messages associated with each bird. In fact, the entries are almost uniformly based on the author’s intuition and observation. I wish that she had balanced them out with some biology or lore from various cultures, though. Relying only on an author’s Unverified Personal Gnosis can lead to an imbalanced understanding of the possible teachings of each animal. Additionally, be aware that the writing tends towards New Age language (“deva”, “angel”, “light” and “special bird” are just a few terms to be found). The meanings are also primarily positive, with no warning of potential negative traits of each species–IMO/IME, it’s important to have a balanced approach when working with totems, or other spirits for that matter. I do have to say I’m glad the deck is remarkably free of cultural appropriation–one of the advantages from working with one’s own experiences. So that’s a definite point in its favor.

It is a very useful deck. Toerien offers a nice variety of layouts for the cards, and isn’t dogmatic in how it must or mustn’t be used. And it’s quite possibly one of the loveliest decks I’ve ever seen! van Dobben is an incredible artist, bringing vivacity and brilliant color to each of the birds.

Overall, I think this deck is a good one. I would strongly suggest researching beyond the book when working with an individual bird totem, and also be aware of the “white light” bias of the text. But it’s a nice alternative to some other decks out there. Good stuff!

Four feathers out of five.

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The Art of Shapeshifting by Ted Andrews

The Art of Shapeshifting
Ted Andrews
Dragonhawk Publishing, 2005
320 pages

This book hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of Andrews’ other works, such as Animal-Speak or Animal-Wise. Which is a shame, because it’s a great book on a particular niche in animal magic that all too often ends up with a cursory explanation and a few basic exercises if you’re lucky. What Andrews presents in this book is the art of shapeshifting, and he goes into more detail and depth with it than I’ve seen anywhere else in print.

The book starts the reader out with a decent amount of preparatory material. Andrews explains his theories on how and why shapeshifting dance works, such as how energy flows in this sort of work, and what the body is capable of. He then segues into basic exercises to condition and prepare both the body and spirit for shapeshifting itself; there’s a good deal of breathwork and use of particular postures which will come in quite handy later on when invoking an animal spirit or energy. He also draws on the importance of mythology, particularly archetypes, to add an extra layer to the experience of shapeshifting.

When it comes time to try shapeshifting dance, the reader should be well-prepared in anticipation of the event. Any of a number of props and other items may be utilized, and the reader who has read thoroughly should have a good understanding of what they’re for and which will be useful to hir personally. Once basic shapeshifting dance has been achieved, Andrews also includes both magic and mysticism which can incorporate shapeshifting, as a way to show that it’s not necessarily done only for its own sake. As I mentioned, this is a very thorough approach to the topic.

I think my only complaint is with the layout of the book. There are a few places where the font sizes chosen don’t seem to really mesh well together, which can be a bit distracting. However, this is a minor issue overall. I could do without some of the correspondences, too, with things such as herbs, deities, and stones. However, some people prefer more trapping and tools, and so these may be useful to other readers.

Overall, I think this book fills its niche quite nicely, and deserves more attention than it’s gotten.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Celtic Totem Animals by John Matthews

Celtic Totem Animals
John Matthews
Red Wheel/Weiser Books, 2002
192 pages plus CD and 20 cards

There are only so many ways you can rehash basic totem animal material. Usually it comes down to “What is a totem animal? How do I meet my totem? What does each totem mean? What do I do once I know my totem?” and so forth. John Matthews has attempted to try to put a Celtic spin on things, as he did with Celtic Shamanism.

Much of the material in the book that came with this set is based on the usual neopagan totemism material, mixed with core shamanism. Guided meditations are presented as “journeys” (when they are not the same thing). Totems are painted as generally benign, and there’s not much offered in the way of warning in case one encounters an unhappy totem animal. He also invokes a number of human-animal interactions, and shapeshifting, as “totemic” or “shamanic” experiences. Some of these are real stretches of speculation; while I can see where the spirit of totemism flows through Celtic mythology, I have to question some of his historical assumptions.

Still, practically speaking, Matthews offers a pretty decent totemic system. While he limits his focus to twenty birds, mammals and the occasional cold-blooded critter that feature in Celtic myth and culture, he does briefly mention that other animals may show up as well. And his yearly cycle for working with the totems does offer a good structure for integrating theory into practice. I wish he’d spent less time talking about lore (which is what a large portion of the book is dedicated to) and more to development of the practical material, as well as discussion of his own experiences.

The totem cards are a complete disappointment. They’re tiny, and the card stock is about on par with a cheap postcard. They won’t last long, and the small size doesn’t really allow the artwork to have as much detail as it could. The drumming CD is a nice addition, though it’s specifically tailored for the totemic “journeying” described in the book–20 minutes of a single drum, 20 minutes of two drums, 30 minutes of one drum. As with any drumming CD, you’re limited by the time constraints of the recording.

It’s a nice effort, but it has a number of flaws. It almost comes across as something that was created primarily to tap the market of totem and other magical “kits” that was just hitting its stride when the set first came out. It’s not the worst totem kit I’ve seen, but neither is it the best. The originality of some of the material gives it some bonus points, but it could have been better.

Three pawprints out of five.

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New Batch of Facing North Reviews

Facing North, an ambitious repository of reviews of pagan books, recently posted some new reviews. While I crosspost some of my reviews from over here there, I do some exclusives for them. I linked to some here, and here are the newest ones as well:

The Good Cat Spell Book by Gillian Kemp
Rock Your World With the Divine Mother by Sondra Ray
Angel Animals by Allen and Linda Anderson
Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin (this, incidentally, is the book that started my path to graduate school)

Beef by Andrew Rimas

Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World
Andrew Rimas
William Morrow and Co., 2008
256 pages

You may very well be wondering why it is that I have a book on the history of the relationship between domestic cattle and humanity on a pagan book review blog. I already have reviews of other books that are about specific animals, such as Of Wolves and Men by Lopez and The Sacred Paw by Shepard and Sanders. However, while those are about wild creatures, Beef studies the relationship we have to a domestic creature–the cow. Underappreciated by many modern pagans as not being “impressive” enough, the cow and bull were nonetheless absolutely crucial to many paleopagan cultures, and I believe in promoting more than just the woo-woo aspect of sacred animals.

The book starts off with a modern discussion of beef as a foodstuff, the different cuts, etc. However, this is followed by an incredibly important section about cattle as sacred animals in various cultures. There’s also a good bit of research done on the actual history of the domestication of cattle, and why this was so important to humanity’s development.

However, even today we are still highly dependent on cattle in this world. Our health as a species through better nutrition, as well as certain areas of economy, have been largely due to cattle over the centuries, and continue to do so today. It’s rather sobering to read through some of the material the author presents.

The wrap-up includes a hard look at the beef and milk industries today. Animal abuse is brought up, along with the horrific conditions in stockyards. And, of course, the pollution caused by the demand for more cheap beef, as well as tropical deforestation, can’t be denied. While Rimas offers some potential alternatives, the main message seems to be “eat less beef”.

Any pagan who works within the context of a culture that reveres cattle, or who works with domestic totems and animal spirits, should pick up a copy of this book. Even if neither of these applies, it’s still a fascinating and educational read. The writing style is engaging, so it’s a quick read, and quite the eye-opener.

Five hoofprints out of five.

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The Good Cat Spell Book – Gillian Kemp

The Good Cat Spell Book
Gillian Kemp
Crossing Press, 2008
122 pages hardback plus oracle poster

This is the latest release from spellcrafter Gillian Kemp. It’s also the newest book to focus on cat magic, and one of the more interactive ones as far as your cat is concerned.

The book focuses on the cat as a familiar. While I agree with Kemp that a familiar is an animal who actively aids in magic, I disagree that the main factor involved in whether a cat (or any animal) is a familiar is love. You can love a pet dearly, but that doesn’t make hir any more likely to be a familiar than a family member would be a magician hirself. She also includes astrological profiles for cats; the information didn’t particularly match my two cats, but then again astrological generalizations presented in brief often tend to be hit or miss.

Kemp provides dozens of spells for a variety of purposes, from love to prosperity to reversing your luck. Your cat simply acts as a cat normally would, and that energy is placed into the spell or divination. A good example is “To Speed Cash to You Quickly” (p. 43), which basically involves enticing your cat to play with money as a toy, with a little extra “oomph”.

While the cats are well-treated, some of the spells may offend some peoples’ ethics. The very first spell in the book, “To Bewitch the One You Love” (p. 14), involves compelling a specific person to think of you; “To Keep the One You Love” (p. 17) and “For a Lover To Return To You” speak more of insecurity than love. “To Encourage Your Parents to Reconcile and Reunite” (p. 31) is similarly aimed at those who may be tempted to try to interfere with a situation that they may not completely understand.

The Cat Oracle is a reworking of the old divination trick of watching the movements of an animal to get an answer. There’s a poster in the back of the book that has a set of symbols arranged in a particular way, and however your cat moves will determine which symbol is relevant to your question. If you do have a feline familiar, this may be a neat thing to try out.

I’m torn on how to rate this book. On the one hand, there are some useful things in here for those who like cat magic. However, on the other, the borderline manipulative spells, as well as my disagreement about what actually constitutes a familiar, and a complete lack of a bibliography or references, take away points. So I’m going to give it…

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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I Am of This Land – Dan Landeen and Jeremy Crow

I Am of This Land (Wetes pe m’e wes): Wildlife of the Hanford Site (A Nez Perce Nature Guide)
Dan Landeen and Jeremy Crow (compilers)
Nez Perce Tribe Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Department

This is a neat book I found secondhand. It’s a combination of natural history of various animals at the Hanford site in Washington state, and stories about the animals from Nez Perce mythology. The two areas are well blended for a wonderful look at the wild creatures that the Hanford nuclear site features.

The first section of the book is a summary of Nez Perce culture, to give context for the rest of the material. There’s also a good reminder of the history of the tribe in relation to the United States government, including land grabs and other abuses by the latter. Considering the book is produced by the tribe itself, one can most likely trust to its accuracy.

The rest of the book includes brief explanations of the various animals–mammals, birds, and more–found at the Hanford site, as well as a special section on harmful animals such as poisonous spiders. The information for each animal is not particularly long–usually a sentence or two, if that. So don’t take this as your only field guide. However, there’s good (if a bit dated) information on the status of each species (endangered, threatened, etc.) as well as how commonly it’s found on site. Myths are interspersed throughout the text.

Overall, it’s a neat little compilation. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in Nez Perce culture and myth, as well as anyone who like critters of any sort.

Five pawprints out of five.

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