Eyes of Crow – Jeri Smith-Ready

Eyes of Crow
Jeri Smith-Ready
Luna Books, 2006
474 pages

I was first introduced to Jeri Smith-Ready’s Wicked Game, one of the most original vampire novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Unbeknownst to me at the time, her earlier publications included a series of novels based around a fantasy world where people bond with their totems in very dramatic and magical ways. Eyes of Crow is the first in the trilogy.

A community of people live by the abilities bestowed upon them by their totem creatures. Some are common, others less so. Rhia, our main character, fears that she may be the first Crow woman in a generation, Crow being the harbringer of death. Amid this set of growing pains, she must also navigate love, a potential war, and the loss of those around her.

While I was a little worried that this would end up being a long, dragging novel that I couldn’t wait to have over with, it was actually quite a fast and enjoyable read for its size. Smith-Ready is a talented writer who has a firm grasp of both worldbuilding and character development. Both the descriptive parts and the dialogue flow smoothly, and they’re well balanced.

I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone looking for a new fantasy series to read. I would also highly suggest that anyone interested in animal totems pick it up, since she does a good job of creating a fictional totemic system.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Spirit Animals and the Wheel of Life – Hal Zina Bennett

Spirit Animals and the Wheel of Life: Earth-Centered Practices for Daily Living
Hal Zina Bennett
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2000
176 pages

There are a lot of totemism/animal spirit 101 guides out there, and it can be tough to find one that isn’t the same old stuff. I am pleased to say that Spirit Animals and the Wheel of Life is one that stands out. Based on the author’s personal spiritual practices formulated over several decades, and deeply rooted in ecospiritual practices, it adds a definite positive flavor to the corpus of literature on practical neopagan totemism.

At first glance, the book seems like just another rip-off of various Native American tribes’ practices. Some may suspect the wheel format, with animals at the four cardinal directions, up and down, and the center. However, the directions, the Earth and the Sky, and the self are more universal than that, and Bennett does a great job of keeping these concepts from being mock-ups of “Native American spirituality”. While he does talk a bit about indigenous practices, more often he speaks from his own personal background as a spiritual person as well as a psychologist.

The system that Bennett has created provides a structure for pathworking that bridges spirituality and psychology. Each position on the wheel represents a different developmental stage, and the animal associated with each position can help with its respective stage. While Bennett provides his animals for each direction, he does emphasize the fact that these are personal, particularly the power animal of the center. He also includes some examples of meditations and rituals that may be used within the structure of his wheel, which makes this a more usable system than those that simply approach the wheel from a symbolic perspective. This is wonderfully interactive material.

I think my only complaint is that he could have gone a lot deeper with the pathworking aspects of the system. He only briefly describes the stages at each point in the wheel, and I think he could have easily gone into more depth without losing the reader. The developmental aspects of his system are one of its strongest points, and I’d like to see them taken further.

However, even as it is this is a great book. It’s incredibly sensitive to ecological issues and the connection between neopagan totemism and the environment, as well as our role in the whole mess we’re in. It offers tools to help us reverse the damage, and emphasizes the need to connect ourselves–to ourselves, to other living beings, to our spirituality, and to draw all these together into one cohesive view of life. The reader who expects a simple introduction to animal totems will find instead a greater wealth of knowledge and wisdom, and tools to wield them for constructive change.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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Magickal Mystical Creatures – D.J. Conway – April BBBR

Magickal Mystical Creatures
D.J. Conway
Llewellyn, 2001
260 pages

This book was a freebie from a friend. I had been less than excited about Conway’s Animal Magick and Dancing with Dragons (though I just got the newest edition of the latter from newWitch magazine, so we’ll see what kind of a review it gets).

I was actually surprised; I liked this one better than the other two. I still have my gripes, but I am admittedly pretty picky. This particular book is an encyclopedia of various mythological beings from around the world–primarily Eurasian, but with a smattering of beings from other places as well. They’re divided by type–canines, gryphons and their ilk, various types of unicorn, etc. (I do have to say I loved the illustrations, too!)

There’s a decent amount of information on each being gleaned from mythological and historical sources. Additionally, Conway adds in psychological interpretations of the kind of people who could either be helped or hindered by each entity, depending on its nature. She does also recommend that dangerous beings be avoided by all but the most experienced magicians (and sometimes not even then).

I think my biggest complaint is that it’s simply not enough. Many of the beings that she recommends as being safe aren’t necessarily so. For example, she presents unicorns as being mostly positive beings who can lead the reader into Faery. However, there’s not much warning about the fact that unicorns were originally seen as fierce, dangerous creatures, and that Faery generally isn’t someplace you want to just waltz on into. Even the “nice” faeries aren’t particularly safe, especially if you study the original lore. As with a lot of basic pagan titles of the mid 1990s, things that really aren’t safe and easy are presented as welcoming and available to all, with little warning of potential hazards.

And this is why I strongly recommend that you not stick with just a dictionary. While this has its uses, it’s a starting point primarily, and the actual practical information comprises less than a score of pages, and it’s mostly spellwork 101. Use this guide to get you introduced to what’s out there, but then do your research with other sources, both on magical practice and on lore surrounding the beings you want to work with.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Gaia Calling – Kim Bold

Gaia Calling: Spirit Animal Stories and Gaia Calling: Spirit Animal Music set
Kim Bold
Fifth Mesa Creations, 2006
113 pages

Note: This review was originally written for newWitch magazine in 2006 and appeared in a 2007 issue.

Kim Bold offers a lovely combination of creative writing and music in this set of one book and two CDs. Influenced by the Gaia Theory, the idea that the Earth is a conscious living being, Bold offers up stories and music inspired by spiritual conversations between Gaia and a number of animals from around the world.

The book contains six tales about such animals as Beaver, Giraffe and Panda. In the tradition of world folklore each tale contains a lesson about human behavior through animal fables. They’re simply written and convey their messages in an easy to understand format. The dialogue can be a little silly; in fact, the stories read more like something written for children than adults.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The CD that is sold separately from the book, Spirit Animal Music, accompanies the stories quite nicely. Each track is written to match each story, and makes a nice background to a read-aloud. I could definitely see children, pagan and otherwise, really enjoying getting to hear these stories with Bold’s beautiful musical compositions creating additional depth to the words and actions of the animals.

Speaking of the music, Bold is quite an accomplished artist in that respect as well. The Spirit Animal Music CD weaves her flutes along with assorted percussion and keyboard accents. Even purchased alone it would make an excellent relaxing soundtrack to a meditation or to calm the ambience of a workspace.

Similar music also creates the background to the CD which comes with the book, Meeting Your Spirit Animal. This is a pretty standard totem animal meditation which first relaxes the listener, then guides hir through a cave and into an alternate reality where s/he can meet hir animal. It’s longer, running nearly a half an hour, a third of which is preparation. Some people may find this to be too long, but the meditation itself is quite effective, so you might skip ahead to a couple minutes before it begins if you don’t need as much prep time.

The book only dedicates a couple of pages at the back of the book to practical animal totem work, then makes a recommendation of five books for further reading, including Andrews’ acclaimed Animal Speak, and the popular but culturally appropriative Medicine Cards by Sams and Carson. The basic message is that you need to determine for yourself what your animal is telling you. This is fine if you have some familiarity with totemism, but a brand new beginner may be a little lost without additional 101 information. It might have been better to package the Spirit Animal Music CD with the book, and save the Meeting Your Spirit Animal CD for a new book. I’d love to see Bold come out with a more practical guide to animal magic based on her unique view of animal spirits, provided she could avoid falling into the “just another totem animal dictionary” trap.

Four pawprints out of five.

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When Elephants Weep – Masson and McCarthy

When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy
Dell Publishing, 1995
292 pages

While this isn’t strictly a “pagan book”, it’s one I’ve been wanting to read for some time. As a totemist and animal magician, I believe it’s exceptionally important to study the natural history of animals as well as the more abstract mythology, lore, and UPG.

This book explores the emotions of species of animals ranging from ants to whales. Numerous anecdotes are given, particularly involving primates, cetaceans, and African gray parrots. These are used to put forth discussions and considerations of the debate as to whether or not nonhuman animals have emotions, and to what extent they share emotional states and expressions with us. We are not told what we must believe; the authors make their arguments, but they are not entirely dogmatic. Instead, they present their case, give their examples, and beseech the reader to consider what they have offered up. Responsibility is placed in the hands of the reader; we are not spoonfed the answers.

Let me make something clear: this book was not written by scientists. If you’re looking for hard scientific evidence for animal neurology and related fields, this isn’t it. One author has a PhD in Sanskrit; the other has degrees in journalism and biology. (Of course, I have a B.A. in English, so perhaps according to some I’m unfit to judge the scientific integrity of a work in my mere layman’s understanding.) However, I don’t believe science has all the answers, and the authors point out numerous places where science has perhaps been quite blind. We are called not just to think, but to feel–a more complete way of observing and considering emotions themselves. After all, it is strict adherence to left-brained thinking that justifies everything from vivisection of unanesthetized animals to extermination of entire species.

What I consider important about this book is that it can get the average person to think about how we approach animals and their emotions, and reconsider the practice of anthropomorphization. It may make you angry, it may make you cry, or it may make you nod and say “Yes, I agree with this”. But as long as you’re thinking about your position on animals as emotional beings instead of just reacting with your usual routines, I think the authors have done their job.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Cave Painters – Gregory Curtis

The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists
Gregory Curtis
Anchor Books, 2006
278 pages

I’ve been fascinated by cave art for years, particularly that found in southern France (such as Lascaux, Les Trois Freres, etc.). However, I hadn’t really done any in-depth study on it, other than what I got incidentally through things like Joseph Campbell’s works. The Cave Painters wasn’t just a good read–it managed to blow away a lot of my preconceived notions about paleolithic art and its spiritual/cultural implications.

Curtis offers a detailed, though fast-paced, collection of highlights of the study of paleolithic art in the past century and a half. Special attention is given to the experiences and contributions of Henri “the abbe” Breuil, as well as lesser known (to the layman, anyway) folks as Max Raphael, Annette Laming-Emperaire, Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Jean Clotte. The primary theories that these experts postulated are explored in detail, and their succession (and occasional debunking) are described. It’s an absolutely fascinating true story, and it’s apparent that Curtis did some serious research into this book.

Additionally, the art itself is explored. One thing that I really appreciated was the presentation of the idea that paleolithic peoples weren’t “primitive”, but instead were the first classic civilization. There are good arguments against the application of pure ethnography to the interpretation of cave art, in which the cultures of modern hunter-gatherer cultures are used as potential models for paleolithic cultures. The latter are treated as independent entities, and more weight is given to the actual evidence found specific to them, as opposed to speculation based on modern cultures. In all this is the art, which is shown to have much more structure and skill than is often assumed, and which reveals quite a bit about the people who created it over 20,000 years.

Also fascinating were the ideas that Curtis presents about the importance of animals to paleolithic peoples. Along with Breuil’s hunting magic, he presents such concepts as the painted animals representing different clans symbolized by their respective totems (particularly stemming from Raphael’s material), illustrations of myths being circulated at the time, and the shamanic theories put forth by David Lewis-Williams and Clottes. It definitely gives good food for thought, particularly from an animal totemists’ perspective.

Rather than being a dry, stereotypically boring academic text, The Cave Painters is written well enough that just about anyone could pick it up and give it a good read. His descriptions are compelling, and he’s remarkably talented at organizing the information in a sensible manner that conveys the importance of the people, theories and discoveries in relation to each other. However, it’s not dumbed-down in content, for all its accessible language. There’s an impressive bibliography, and Curtis did quite a bit of interviewing in the process of writing this book as well.

Where this book ties into neopaganism is that it does show that there have been solid theories for the meaning of paleolithic art since Breuil’s hunting magic ideas. The latter are still commonly found in neopagan thought, and I’ll admit a certain fondness for them. However, given that there is newer evidence that counters Breuil’s ideas, I appreciated the chance to get the basics of alternate theories laid out in a good, understandable format. I certainly want to do deeper research, but this book is a great introduction. Whether your interest is incidental, or whether the cave art is a primary topic of interest for you, I highly recommend it. It’s a relatively quick read, but packed full of information, without a wasted word in the entire thing.

Five ochre pawprints out of five.

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Mystical Dogs – Jean Houston – December BBBR

Mystical Dogs: Animals as Guides to Our Inner Life
Jean Houston
Inner Ocean: 2002
208 pages

Well, it’s December again, and just about a year since the very first Bargain Bin Book Review. This month I decided to go a little easier on myself since I just plowed through Eliade’s Shamanism. This was a good choice, a pleasant book of mysticism and spirituality coupled with a variety of stories about dogs the author has shared her life with.

Houston has the usual Western/New Age view of enlightenment–not as a result of years of rigorous meditation, but as a series of realizations during everyday life. I’m not sure I really agree that what the New Age terms “enlightenment” is the same as the Eastern concept, but I do agree with her that dogs can indeed be excellent teachers through example. And in fact her stories are the highlight of this book. I read with joy each tale and anecdote surrounding an array of Airedales, a couple of mastiffs, an Akita and a German shepherd dog, among others. There were occasional moments of sadness in the stories, but for the most part this was an uplifting book.

After each story, the author elaborates on the mystical significance and lessons learned with each dog. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t find these sections to be quite so interesting as the stories. She tends to ramble some, and I found myself losing interest a number of times. However, it’s also entirely possible that I simply don’t mesh well with her ideas or her writing style; she’s a lot more concise when she’s telling a story.

Still, I do recommend this book as a heartwarming bit of light writing that may very well bring you to your own sense of peace. Whether you own a dog or simply the company of your friends’ furry companions, this book is a nice way of looking at the more positive aspects of dog ownership (as opposed to filling in holes in the yard, hiding claw marks on the door, and rescuing small creatures from overexuberant attempts to play).

Four pawprints (how appropriate) out of five.

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The Sacred Paw – Shepard and Sanders

The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth, and Literature
Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders
Arkana, 1985
244 pages

I love this book. It’s currently out of print, but not too hard to find. As the title suggests, it covers the relationship between humans and bears, and it covers everything from natural history to fairy tales. And, in the same vein as Lopez’ Of Wolves and Men and Ryden’s God’s Dog, it traces our mythological relationship with bears from paleolithic times on.

The text opens with a thorough explanation of the evolution, distribution and habits of the eight species of bear on Earth today. From the enormous brown bear, to the small tropical sun bear, the diversity of bears is given center stage, and it’s remarkable just what amazing creatures they are. The authors do a great job of honoring the bear as s/he really is, in and of hirself. The text is thorough, but approachable.

However, my favorite part of the text is where the authors trace the Bear Mother and Bear Sons mythological motif from its possible advent in paleolithic caves, through hunter-gatherer societies and later agriculture, all the way up to modern day folk and fairy tales. They give a really good argument for the shifting of the emphasis of the myths from the Bear Mother to the adventures of her sons, who eventually become purely human heroes. The Underworld and Rebirth themes of the Bear Mother are slowly stripped form her until she is nothing but a memory. There’s also some really good material on rituals for the hunting of the bear from numerous cultures around the world. We’re shown both the similarities and individualities of the different rituals performed around the world.

Pretty much my only complaint is that the authors occasionally repeat themselves, stating a particular fact twice in the book, each time worded as if it were the first time. However, this is a minuscule complaint in light of the excellent quality otherwise.

This would be a superb companion to David Rockwell’s excellent study of bears in ritual and myth, Giving Voice to Bear. If Bear is your totem, or you otherwise have an interest in ursine mythology, this would be an excellent read for you. The same goes for anyone interested in tracing the roots of mythology to paleolithic times; co-author Paul Shepard has written a number of volumes on human-animal interaction in behavior and myth, and his expertise and solid research, paired with Barry Sanders’ skills, make this a solid reference.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Totem and Taboo – Freud

Totem and Taboo (A. A. Brill trans.)
Sigmund Freud
Dover Thrift Editions, 1998
138 pages

This classic has been on my to-read list for ages; I finally managed to get ahold of a copy not too long ago. I wanted to read it primarily for its historical value; although I’m interested in psychology, I’m more fond of Jung’s theories. Still, Freud is worth reading just to have read his pioneering works, and since this one delves into areas of my interest, it fell prey to my bibliophilia.

It’s about what I expected. On the good side, it was an interesting look at the possible psychology behind the concepts of totemism and taboo in what Freud refers to as “primitive” or “savage” societies. Some more modern examples are cited as well, showing that the mindset behind the concepts may be found in other types of society. It’s a good look into Freud’s head, too, as he systematically explains what source material he’s using, how he came to his conclusions, and some further food for thought for the reader. It’s a pretty complete understanding of totemism and taboos for the time Freud wrote it.

Unfortunately, its validity as a source for modern work is marred by the fact that Freud was still a product of his time. His observations may be painfully Euro-centric, and his occasional notes towards admitting his bias don’t counteract the damage that may be done. The behaviors associated with totemism and taboo are compared largely to the beliefs of neurotics and children in “modern” society. Additionally, his interpretation of the reasons behind these practices is quite narrow; totemism is essentially boiled down to an origin involving a group of brothers overthrowing their father as a way of gaining control of his harem. Additionally, totemism is assumed to *replace* religion in indigenous cultures, not compose part of it.

Read it for historical and background information, but take it with a grain of salt, and use sparingly as source material if you’re researching totemism or paleopagan religious practices. Granted, the value that I have for it may be different from that of a psychotherapist, but while I can appreciate it for its initial contribution, I have little functional use for it other than as a somewhat outdated look at indigenous (and not so indigenous) beliefs.

Three pawprints out of five.

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The Magic of Shapeshifting – Rosalyn Greene

The Magic of Shapeshifting
Rosalyn Greene
Weiser Books, 2000
258 pages

This is going to be a looong review. Where do I start with this book? I have a complicated relationship with it; I first bought it in 2002, back when I was in a “belief” stage of my belief-doubt-belief cycle about being a therianthrope. I didn’t have much exposure to the therian-specific community, though I’d had off and on contact with the Otherkin community through which I met a number of therians. Since then, I’ve read it several more times, and I’ve finally, five years later, gotten around to reviewing it. I’ll admit that each time I’ve read it my opinion of it has gone down, largely because each time I have a better understanding of therianthropy, both from my own perspective and from the therian community at large. Same thing goes for magic, which plays an integral role in The Magic of Shapeshifting.

One of my biggest complaints is that the author (or three authors, writing under one name, according to one rumor) accepts historical accounts of lycanthropy as completely, literally true. This is what she bases a lot of her proof that “shifters: (including physical shifters) have existed for millenia, well known to the populace but only recently suppressed. She relies particularly on questionable sources such as Montague Summers, and she takes no critical eye to any of her material, which irritates me to no end.

She also bases most of her magic on a mixture of spiritism/Theosophy and a smattering of Asian concepts of energy work, and assumes that the subjective biases of these systems are universal. Her approach is rather dogmatic, as if there’s only one way to skin a werewolf. And she doesn’t cite any sources for the practical aspects of her work, which is a shame as it could have been strengthened by showing that other people have gotten similar results, though not necessarily using the techniques she utilizes for the same end. While she uses footnote citations for historical information, I was left wondering where she got her inspirations for the more hands-on material, and what sources she learned to acquire the building blocks for her magical work.

I think what I dislike the most, though, about this work are all the huge assumptions and broad stereotypes she applies to therianthropes in general, many of which are inaccurate, and none of which are backed up with anything other than anecdotal information from other, often unidentified, people that we’re supposed to expect are telling the truth. Given the gullibility of the author in accepting whatever Mr. Summers wrote without question, I have to wonder how much critical consideration went into whatever her informants told her, or if she ever questioned her own experiences to any degree. While belief in yourself is healthy, never questioning yourself isn’t–if she did ever look at the possibility that not everything in this book was literally true, she doesn’t show any evidence of having done so.

Some of the inaccuracies are blindingly obvious when viewed by anyone with more than a passing involvement in the therian community. This includes her assertion that most therians go through a “phase” as a fox shifter before “maturing” into another species; that all therians have totem animals that are the same species as their therioside; the claim that a number of terms she throws around are “commonly” used in the therian community (what she calls the “shifter community”, but it’s the same thing), when in actuality I’ve never heard most of them anywhere except from her book; that therians have an aversion to turquoise; and her overemphasis on the existence of organized therian “packs”. In fact, there’s a lot of information just on the community itself that could seriously mislead readers who aren’t familiar with the actual community.

Additionally, she seems to have some weird ideas about physical animals. Some of it is strange esoteric biases, such as the idea that black animals attract evil spirits, or that the color of an animal’s fur or eyes determines its magical prowess and even personality. Last I checked, this didn’t hold true for humans, and I haven’t found in my decade-plus experience with animal magic that it does for nonhuman animals, either. She also has some blatant biological mistakes in there, such as the “fact” that foxes have retractable claws (they don’t).

Her information on shifting isn’t universally bad; I found her descriptions of some of the features of mental shifting to be accurate to my own experience. And there are some exercises in there that could actually be useful for gaining control of one’s ability to shift, or to improve one’s relationship with the part of the self that is the therioside. Her methods for raising levels of “shifting energy” are simple psychological triggers that can be used by anyone in a ritual setting to help achieve the proper altered state of consciousness for invocation (of another entity or a part of the self)–not that this is bad, just that it’s nothing new (but again it can be quite useful).

What this book really comes across as is someone in the furry community who has a serious grudge against the therian community. My reason for believing this is that she holds up the furry community as the best place for a “shifter” to go find other “shifters”, while her very scant opinions on the (online) therian community is that it’s full of cultists and other unsavory people. (There’s nothing wrong with furries, of course, but even many members of that community will quickly tell you that “furry” and “therian” are not the same thing, though there are some furs who are also therians–but they’re a minority.) Additionally, some of her biases, such as the proliferation of fox therians who turn into other types of therian later on actually more closely mirrors furries, in which there are a LOT of fox fursonas (though it’s common for people to create new fursonas as they get more involved in the community). She also emphasizes costuming (fursuits) in the book quite a bit as an aid for getting in touch with the animal, and even gives a diagram for the leg extensions used in quadsuits, or quadrepedal fursuits.

In short, this reads like a furry who has a personal vendetta against the therian community. Granted, not everybody gets along with everybody else in the community–but welcome to life. There’s nothing that says a therian can’t be a part of the furry fandom, but when a book on therianthropy (which it pretty obviously is despite the use of the word “shifter”) quite conspicuously eliminates almost any reference to the therian community except for a couple of sharp-toothed remarks, this strongly suggests personal rather than professional issues.

That being said, my wrapup of the book is this: If you read it, keep a shaker of salt very handy (you may need to refill it a couple of times). There are some magical/psychological techniques that some therianthropes may find useful for becoming more comfortable with shifting and gaining better internal balance. However, the bulk of the book is essentially drek. My suggestion would be to hit up some online therian sites and do your research there; the Werelibrary, the Marsh, and Absurdism are good starting places.

One pawprint out of five.

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