The Tradition of Household Spirits by Claude Lecouteux

The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices
Claude Lecouteux
Inner Traditions, 2013
228 pages

Reviewed by Lupa

Household spirits are one of those topics that gets referenced frequently in passing, but doesn’t really get a thorough treatment itself. I rather feel that the spirits of the home have been nowhere near enough attention despite their ubiquitous nature, and so I was pleased to receive this book as a treatise on the subject.

Mind you, this isn’t a modern “here’s how to placate the household spirits” book. Like other of Lecouteux’s works, it’s primarily a literature review, albeit a thorough one if your interest is primarily in European traditions. He collects information and tales of the spirits of abodes across the European continent, and organizes them nicely into a series of chapters that look at how houses were constructed, and then the sorts of spirits that may live there.

Do be aware that he doesn’t really gauge the veracity of sources; for example, the Malleus Maleficarum is given equal footing with the rest of the bibliography; additionally, some of the sources are quite dated. However, the bibliography is quite thorough (if mostly not in English) so if you’re a polylinguist and want to hunt down some of his source material, you have a wealth of options.

Even if you just want to emulate your ancestors (or someone else’s ancestors, for that matter), there are some practices described in passing, such as how to honor or not anger certain spirits, offerings, and the like. Again, it’s not a how-to book, but it is a nice survey of spirits that you may wish to research further.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Abydos by David O’Connor

Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris
David O’Connor
Thames & Hudson, 2011
216 pages

Reviewed by Devo

If you have any interest in Abydos or early Egyptian tombs/structures, this would be a good book for you. The information is well written and seems to be pretty bias free. The author is very good at stating what we know, what we don’t know, and his thoughts on what might have happened. He doesn’t present his theories as truths- which is something a lot of Egyptological books have a problem with. For this reason alone, I would recommend this book. However, there is a lot of useful information in general. I learned quite a bit about Abydos- its structures, its history. The only thing I would have liked to have learned more about is Osiris- his cult and how his cult interacted with Khentiamentiu. However, there is still a fair amount of information regarding Osiris’ cult and his temple.

He goes in depth about the history of Abydos- from dynasty 0 all the way to the Late Period. He discusses various building projects there, talks about the layout and designs of many of the temples, the anomalies of some of the structures and what we can learn from them. Considering that Abydos is usually only mentioned as being “Osiris’ city” or “the place where Seti built that big temple with the kings list”- it’s nice to see a more in depth approach. Of course, as O’Connor mentions in his book- you find some answers, only to come up with more questions. I, too, have more questions for having read this book, but I have more answers too.

A particular quote that I liked:

The vast cemetery field comprising the Middle and North cemeteries and Umm el Qa’ab was personified as Hapetnebes, “Shoe who hides her lord”, a term peculiar to Abydos. The endless, open desert plain of Abydos was imagined to be a goddess, generated by & embodied in the landscape itself. “She who hides her lord” was complex in meaning. At one level, this goddess as landscape literally hid and thus protected Osiris himself- buried at Umm el Qa’ab – as well as his countless followers, eash one also an Osiris entombed in the Abydene cemeteries. But Hapetnebes was also a more positive force in that Osiris, buried within her, experienced revitalization or rebirth every year. In this perspective, “She who hides her lord’ is virtually lanscape conceited of as a mother goddess, in whose womb lies the potential for and actualization of life. She thus relates to the subtle interplay of meaning btwn desert and floodplain in the prototypical Egyptian landscape. The desert, seemingly dead, generates life for Osiris and deceased Egyptians; and thus relates to those more obvious manifestations of vitatlity and reproduction, the inundation and consequent vegetation, both seen as manifestations of Osiris’ capacity to regenerate.

He also discussed a bit about what we modernly call the Mysteries of Osiris. It was common for the Mysteries to involve a procession that started at Osiris’ temple and worked towards Umm el Qa’ab- what was believed to be Osiris’ tomb. During the procession, agents of Set would try to stop these people by attacking them. Of course, Osiris’ “team” would win, and they’d make their way to the tomb where rituals were more than likely done. This was also an interesting tidbit to learn.

I think for me, besides the two nuggets above, the biggest help this book served for me was to learn about early dynastic pharaohs. Most authors completely skip over early and pre-dynastic Egypt. More or less saying that they were there, stopping to look at Menes, Scorpion King, Narmer Pallet… and then moving on. If you’re lucky, you might see “Naqada” listed. However, O’Connor does go pretty deep into early dynastic goings on in Abydos (at least in regards to the structures there). So I feel like I’ve had a huge history gap somewhat filled. I know that this comes with the territory- Abydos housing tombs for early kings and all, but it was still nice.

Overall, I would recommend this book. I will add the caveat that it’s not likely meant for absolute beginners- if you don’t have a basis of Egyptian history or terminology, you might want to start elsewhere. That aside, it’s well written and has good information. And if you’re into Osiris or Abydos in general- it helps to give a more complete picture of both. The author is respectful of his subject matter, and I think he approaches the topics that he discusses really well. So go read it!

4.5 pawprints out of 5

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Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Jared Diamond
Norton, 1999
496 pages

I’m sure there are going to be people scratching their heads in complete confusion when they see this book on Pagan Book Reviews. However, this blog isn’t just for books that are specifically about paganism, but are also useful to pagans. And this one is useful–for giving us perspective.

See, lot of (usually, though not always, white) neopagans romanticize their conceptions of what “tribal” societies are like, and glorify rather unrealistic portrayals of hunter-gatherer and basic agrarian societies. This is not to say that these societies aren’t of value; quite the contrary. But many pagans have insufficient understandings of what makes a society sustainable, which then turn into overly simplistic arguments about how technology is evil and indigenous people are noble savages.

The beautiful thing about Guns, Germs and Steel is that Diamond painstakingly traces the various factors that caused some societies to advance technologically quicker than others, ranging from access to large, domesticatible animals and cultivatible plants, to proximity to animals that can pass on diseases and build a population’s immune system, to specific geographical and geological features, and so forth. Obviously, the book is not flawless; Diamond, despite his attempts to be matter-of-fact, still shows a Eurocentric bias in some areas; additionally, this book should not be seen as the do-all and end-all of its subject matter. But there are a lot of salient arguments here, too.

For pagans, it’s a nice break from the sometimes technophobic attitudes that pop up. Additionally, as neopagans are mostly found in developed, English-speaking and/or European-culture-based nations, it’s a good look at societies outside of those contexts. And who can’t use a good history lesson now and then?

Four pawprints out of five.

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The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios by Marlene Dobkin de Rios

The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios: 45 Years with Shamans, Ayahuasqueros and Ethnobotanists
Marlene Dobkin de Rios
Park Street Press, 2009
190 pages

Note: This review is by Bronwen Forbes, who has been a huge help in cleaning up the last of the backlog of review books.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would not have been all that interested in reviewing this book. Even though I grew up in the 1970s, my drug of choice has always been alcohol, not marijuana, not hash, not (passé though it may have been by then) LSD. My chosen Pagan path cannot under any definition be considered shamanic. However, over this past winter I had a regular Saturday afternoon gig reading tarot cards at a local shop that sold and promoted ethnobotanicals. When the store was raided and preemptively temporarily shut down by a SWAT team (literally) in anticipation of a state bill making the pot-like K2 illegal (K2 brought about $7,000 profit into the shop a day) I suddenly became very interested in ethnobotanicals, their history, and why the Powers That Be shut down a shop over a substance that wasn’t even illegal yet.

The Psychedelic Journey didn’t answer my questions, but it did provide some very interesting insight into why naturally hallucinogenic plants are such a big deal for a culture – whether that culture is “for” them or “against” them. de Rios did most of her academic research in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, but was able to apply much of what she learned to the drug culture in America.

What de Rios learned, or at least what she was most interested in studying, is how the ritual and cultural influences surrounding the consumption of ethnobotanicals (native hallucinogenic plants) impact the user’s experience. Here in the 21st century we may say “Well duh!” at the notion that one’s background and cultural orientation influences one’s altered-state experience, but back in the 1960s and 1970s this was apparently a totally new idea.
Knowing that de Rios is an academic, and having ready my share of dry, scholarly research (I was first editor for my husband’s Ph.D dissertation in ancient history), I expected to be bored silly by this book. I wasn’t. de Rios writes in a very accessible, easy style that even a novice in the field – like myself – can understand.

For the mainstream Pagan community, The Psychedelic Journey probably isn’t going to be very interesting or very useful, although the references to bufotonin (prime ingredient in old witches’ flying ointment recipes) are interesting. For anyone following a more shamanic path, I’m sure that de Rios’ insights in the field of ethnobotany and how native healers around the world use those plants will be of great value to their personal spiritual practice.

Four and a half paws out of five

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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 Sacred by Beck and Walters – September BBBR

The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life
Peggy V. Beck and Anna L. Walters
Navajo Community College (now Diné College), 1988
370 pages

The vast majority of books out there about “Native American spirituality” are utter hogwash. However, I picked this text up because I figured with it being published by a community college operated by Native Americans, that it would be a pretty accurate overview of the subject material. I wasn’t disappointed in the least.

First and foremost, The Sacred establishes the cultural contexts that Native Ameican tribal religions have developed in. While there are some generalizations made, the authors in no way try to equate these various belief systems or combine them into some universal path. Instead, they identify some common general trends, and then spend much of the book providing individual examples from a variety of tribes. The specific subjects run the gamut from shamanism to peyote rituals, ghost dancing and similar religious movements to rites of passage. I also appreciated the frank discussion of the very real effects that the colonizers had on the indigenous cultures, to include the variety of opinions and reactions that were offered.

While it is a textbook, it’s nowhere near dry or overly academic. One gets the distinct sense of these being living traditions, unlike many texts which try to place indigenous people in some mystical past. There’s a good balance, too, between stating the basic facts and displaying pride in heritage. The many photos add to both the scholarly value and humanistic elements of the text.

If you’re tired of generic “Native American spirituality” and dry anthropological studies, this is a great alternative. It shouldn’t be seen as the be-all and end-all of the subject, but it’s a good reality check and a nice resource if you want a quick reference to accurate information.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Drawing Down the Spirits by Filan and Kaldera

Drawing Down the Spirits: The Traditions and Techniques of Spirit Possession
Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera
Destiny Books, 2009
338 pages

It’s seldom that I get a book for review that’s truly something new under the Sun. While I get lots of good stuff (and some real stinkers, too), most of the books are variations on preexisting topics that have already been written about to a significant extent. Not so this one. While there have been books in the neopagan genre that have touched on spiritual possession, as well as less intense practices such as aspecting and “drawing down”, full-on possession has largely been left to academic perusals of African diaspora and shamanic practices and belief systems. So getting to read an entire text dedicated to the actual practice of spirit possession was a definite treat, particularly as “spirit work” has become more prevalent in recent years.

The text starts with a good theoretical overview of possession work–what it is, where it came from, and what people have been saying about it. Then we get into some of the details that are useful in setting up the actual practice, such as a thorough discussion of cosmologies (after all, understanding “what” spirits and gods are and “where” they are as well goes a long way in having context for working with them). After that, there’s a wealth of information on things to keep in mind when doing your own possession work, to include the good, the bad, and the terrifying.

Do be aware that this book is heavily influenced by the authors’ biases, to the point that some parts could be interpreted as offensive to some readers. For example, they are very much hard polytheists, meaning that they believe that individual deities are just that–individuals, not parts of a single archetype. Those who see deities in a more archetypal form are referred to as “atheists” in this text, which could be potentially inflammatory in its interpretation of what that may mean to the individual archetypal pagan. The dedication to hard polytheism over all other theistic views is a constant theme in the book, and because it comes across as heavy-handed at times could be off-putting to some readers.

However, I say this as a caveat, because I want people to be prepared enough to be able to look beyond it if necessary so that this book can be appreciated for what I really want to say about it: If you have any interest in the practice of spirit possession, you want this book. I don’t do possession work myself, at least not to the extent discussed here, but I know people who do, and this meshes pretty well with what they’ve described of their own experiences. The authors most certainly know their audience–they’re familiar with neopagans who may be themselves unfamiliar with full possession work, and therefore much of the material is geared toward not only helping the individual practitioner do their work with a relative amount of safety, but also doing so in an environment where what they’re doing may be seriously misinterpreted. Also, while the book (thankfully!) isn’t full of prescribed, pre-crafted rituals, the appendix with the detailed ritual outline is a definitely valuable resource.

There’s not much more I can say at this moment without utilizing the material myself, and I do have to wonder how a better environment for full possession might affect the experiences not only for myself, but for other neopagans who have only done such things as aspecting. Will this book help create more opportunities for this sort of work? Only time will tell. Needless to say, this is one of the best resources I’ve read this year, and it’s definitely keeping a good spot on the bookshelf (or off it, as it’s needed).

Five pawprints out of five.

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Spiritual Tattoo – John A. Rush

Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding and Implants
John A. Rush
Frog, Ltd., 2005
244 pages

I think I was expecting something a little more image-heavy when I picked up this book, perhaps a pictorial exploration of body modifications throughout history. While it ended up being something different, it certainly didn’t disappoint. Spiritual Tattoo is a fascinating, light-academic exploration of body modifications for spiritual and cultural purposes, both modern and historical, in cultures around the world.

While Rush admits that discussion of some of the earliest deliberate modification, including among Neanderthals, is based on a good bit of conjecture, he raises some interesting points on body modification as it relates to universal human experiences. However, further in the future he’s able to stand on more solid ground, with plenty of evidence and illustrations that draw a firm line from spiritual and other life-shaping experiences to body modification. He also intelligently discusses the modern use of body mods, particularly in postindustrial societies. Rather than painting every modern person who gets a tattoo, non-ear piercing, or other modification as an immature rebel or otherwise maladjusted individual, he instead gets to the heart of the reasons why people have these things done, even in a culture where it’s still often frowned upon.

Rush balances an academic level of research with an accessible writing style. He organizes the material creatively, and not always in a strictly linear fashion. Instead, the chapters are arranged by themes in spiritual body mods, exploring each one in depth and with care.

Overall, this is an excellent read. Some of it may be preaching to the choir when it comes to the already inked and pierced and so forth, but it’s also a valuable text when demonstrating that there’s more to body mods than rebellion–that in fact these fill in the gaps for the meaningful rites of passage that are lacking in American cultures, among others. Rather than being a recent counterculture phenomenon, Rush shows us that body modifications and spirituality have gone hand in hand in very consistent ways for millenia.

Five inked pawprints out of five.

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Drumming at the Edge of Magic – Mickey Hart

Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion
Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens
Marper Collins, 1990
263 pages

I have a bit of a history with this book. I first bought a copy and read it over half a decade ago, then for some inexplicable reason decided to sell it. Now that I’ve been doing more drumming, I got the urge to read it again, so I managed to track down a copy. What absolutely amazes me is how much of the book I remember, even having read it so long ago. It must have struck me deeply back then, and it’s understandable why.

This isn’t just a story about the history of the drum. Nor is it only a story about Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead. It’s a combination of those, and more. We learn about where drums came from, and we surmise about what the effects of those early percussionists must have been. We see where this instrument captivated Hart from an early age, and wonder at the amazing creations that resulted. We explore the altered states of consciousness the drum evokes, with Joseph Campbell, Alla Rakha, and the Siberian shamans as our guides. From blues and jazz to African talking drums and the bullroarers found worldwide, we are introduced to percussionists of all stripes, spots and plaids.

Between Hart and Stevens, the writing is phenomenal. Rather than following a strictly linear progression, it snakes like Hart’s Anaconda of index cards through pages upon pages of storytelling and factoids. However, it all meshes well together, rather than coming across as stilted or confused. It’s nonlinear, and it works beautifully. There’s just the right mix of personal testimonial, anecdotes, and hard facts.

Anyone who drums, dances, or otherwise is involved with music; anyone who works with altered states of consciousness, whether in shamanic practice or otherwise; anyone who wants to see what makes a rock and roll drummer tick; and anyone who wants a damned good story that’s all true, needs to read this book.

Five pawprints out of five.

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A Field Guide to Modern Pagans In Hamilton, Ontario – Neil Jamieson-Williams

A Field Guide to Modern Pagans In Hamilton, Ontario
Neil Jamieson-Williams
Australopithecine Press
146 pages

This is a really cool book. It’s an in-depth study of the pagan community in Hamilton, Ontario by a member of said community. Neil Jamieson-Williams is an academic as well, holding degrees in both anthropology and sociology, and he approaches this work with that as well as his personal background in a healthy balance. His experience as an academic lends itself to a professional treatment of the topic at hand, but his experience within the community he studies tempers it without showing too much bias.

The author starts with a basic overview of modern paganism, and then proceeds into some good advice on how to observe pagans (for we are wily critters!) He’s quite open about the fact that academics may do some pretty covert observations of people who don’t realize they’re being observed, including online in forums and elsewhere. And he stresses the importance of being open with the people you’re observing (no doubt to help would-be observers to avoid “Luhrmann syndrome”*) However, he’s also honest about the methods by which academics may “ethically” obtain material, some of which may raise the hackles of more private pagans. It’s a refreshing sort of honesty.

The rest of the book is dedicated to profiles of different covens and other groups in the Hamilton area at the time of the book’s publication. Jamieson-Williams is quite open about the fact that pagan groups are often short-lived, especially those he terms “Eclectic”, and that his book may be dated in a short time. However, this does not detract from the systematic explanation of the different groups and lineages represented in his chosen demographic, nor the frank appraisal of their varying levels of participation in the community at large (and how that may affect the budding ethnographer’s attempts to study them).

My quibbles are minor. There are a few typos scattered throughout the book, even taking into account my American eyes and the author’s Canadian English. Additionally, there are a few points I would question, such as his assertion on p. 14 that “the vast majority of Modern Pagans absolutely despise the term Neopagan”. I’d say that some do, but not the vast majority. Even if this were a regional difference, it goes against his later cautioning against generalizing based on too small a selection of study participants.

But these are small things, and should not deter even the casual reader. Overall, I applaud the existence of this book. It’s valuable to pagans because it shows us a potential way of communicating about ourselves in a way that nonpagans may be more amenable to than, say, a practical book on spells. It also points the way towards a more advanced way of exploring the community; we do have our academics in the community, though even nonacademics may use this as inspiration for their own explorations and ways of communicating about paganism to others. For academics, pagan or otherwise, it’s an example of a sensitive, yet effective, study of a particular group of pagans that allows the freedom to explore and learn, but also shows areas where we may feel particularly vulnerable and may ask for more respect. And for members of the mainstream community who are not pagan or academic, it’s an accessible guide that shows pagans in a realistic, relatively neutral light. The writing style, while fitting academic standards, is still understandable to the layperson rather than couching itself in too much complexity and jargon. In all, it’s a very balanced book.

Personally, I would like to see more books like this, studies of specific demographics. Granted, not every community has its very own long-term resident pagan-academic. And I don’t think every book should be a carbon copy of this one. However, just as some people study specific tribes, or even specific indigenous communities, so may there be value in looking at individual pagan communities in detail. This has tended to be more slanted towards specific traditions spread across wide geographic locations. But in-depth studies of specific locales and their corresponding communities may help give some insight on unique concepts, such as where pagans are more populous and/or active, and what factors may contribute to that. I also encourage people to take the same well-balanced approach that Jamieson-Williams has in this book, offering a little of something for everyone.

Five pawprints out of five.

* This refers to Tanya Luhrmann, an academic who studied pagans in the ’80’s, who took advantage of the trust of pagans who treated her less like an academic and more like their own after a time. They gave her oathbound material that she then released into a more public domain. (In Wallis 2004 as referenced by Ellwood 2008, p. 62)

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