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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Shamanism – Mircea Eliade

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
Mircea Eliade
Arkana (Penguin), 1989
610 pages

Nope, I didn’t fall off the face of the planet. Instead, I’ve been plowing my way through this massive text. This is considered the grandtome of shamanic resources, and rightly so. For its time, it was the most complete reference on the topic, and while research since the 1950s has illuminated areas of knowledge that Eliade had no exposure to, nearly half a century after its first English translation Shamanism is still required reading for anyone interested in shamans and shamanism.

The first few chapters cover general shamanic subjects, such as being “called”, the initiatory ritual and illness, and how shamans obtain their power and spirit helpers. These are followed by a number of chapters on shamanism in various regions of the world; not surprisingly, Siberia and surrounding areas get the most in-depth coverage. Finally, there’s an excellent chapter on the various common elements found in shamanisms around the world, certain themes and practices that are universal, or very nearly so.

I’ll admit that when I first bit into the foreword, I was a bit intimidated. It’s excessively dry, even for academic writing, and I was wondering if I was going to suffer through hundreds of pages of this. However, once I got into the first chapter, I was pleasantly surprised to find that his heavily formal tone shifted to a much more informative and readable style. That’s not to say that it’s an easy read; it took me about two weeks to finish this off, and I found myself occasionally having to re-read paragraphs as I began to skim rather than comprehend.

I think really the only areas where I have any complaint whatsoever are primarily content based. While Eliade makes an excellent observation on the common elements of many shamanisms, I’d like to know his perspective (if any) on if there’s anything significant about their differences. Unfortunately he died over two decades ago, so short of journeying to the underworld (or sky, depending on cosmology) to talk to him, I’ll just have to weep that I’ll never know for sure, at least not in this life. The other small gripe is his treatment of anything that deviates from a certain “standard” of shamanism as “degraded” or, in his words, “decadent”. Given that the “classic” Siberian shamanism may have been influenced by middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures, as well as more southerly Asian ones, some shifting and hybridization is to be expected anyway. A lot of his argument does center around the loss of the actual ecstatic “flight” through dance and other actions, replaced in some cultures by mediumship, feigned trance, and/or drug use. I’m going to have to read more to decide whether I really agree with his assessment of the latter as being lesser (especially the first and third) or not.

Still, overall, this is a must-read. Expect it to take some time (unless you really, really like academic writing). Take notes, or underline things. It’s full of information, and while it should be supplemented with newer source material, a lot of it still stands quite firmly as a resource.

Sort of off topic, I’ve always wondered how you pronounce “Mircea Eliade”. Not being Romanian, I had to ask Google. It appears that I was close in some respects, but not in others–here’s a lively discussion about it.

Four and a half pawprints 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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Shamanism – Graham Harvey (ed.)

Shamanism: A Reader
Graham Harvey (editor)
Routledge, 2003
~430 pages

Well, it took me the better part of two weeks, but I finished this academic anthology over the weekend–and found it to be worth the effort. It was good to see a collection of essays that both approached traditional shamanism with an open mind, and also embraced the existence of neoshamanism (while also bringing up issues with it). I do have to agree with Erynn Rowan Laurie on her observation that the quality of the essays varied quite a bit, and the themes and topics didn’t always seem to mesh well. Though I do also agree that there were some real winners there. So here are my personal opinions on some of them:

I Liked:

–Ioan M. Lewis’ “Possession and Public Morality”, which was an intriguing essay on how shamanic rituals can be used to uphold community moral standards through using public peer pressure to extract confessions of broken taboos. This process then allows the community to heal rifts caused by these violations and release the social tension.
–Alan T. Campbell’s “Submitting”, which got me thinking about attitudes towards shamanism and seemingly implausible realities.
–Edith Turner’s “The Reality of Spirits”, an *excellent* argument against the fear of “going native” by anthropologists and other academics. Based on the experiences of the author and her husband, and a really good commentary on the practical application of anthopological research.
–Chungmoo Choi’s “The Artistry and Ritual Aesthetics of Urban Korean Shamans” is a fascinating look at Korean shamanism, which isn’t nearly as well known outside of academic circles (and the Koreans themselves, of course).
–Mihaly Hoppal’s “Ethnographic Films on Shamanism” is another good one, specifically covering films of Asian (primarily Siberian) shamanism, how these films have progressed and what they contribute, as well as the political climates at the times they were made. This essay and the last were particularly unique contributions.
–Both Bernard Saladin d’Anglure’s “Rethinking Inuit Shamanism Through the Concept of ‘Third Gender'” and Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer’s “Sacred Genders in Siberia: Shamans, Bear Festivals and Androgyny” are excellent perspectives on gender issues within shamanism; the latter is also a nice look at the Carnival-esque feel of the bear festivals.
–Piers Vitebsky’s “From Cosmology to Environmentalism: Shamanism as Local Knowledge in a Global Setting” didn’t surprise me when I enjoyed it thoroughly; I’m generally a fan of Vitebsky’s works, including The Shaman. Here he explores the juxtaposition of shamanic knowledge that’s designed for a specific environment into global society, and how removing the inherent cosmology of a shamanic system necessarily changes it. One of the best in the collection.
–Ward Churchill’s “Spiritual Hucksterism: The Rise of the Plastic Medicine Men” is an essay that I actually really like; it’s a good commentary on cultural appropriation.

I Didn’t Care For:

–The reprinting of a chapter of Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman; I would have liked to have seen something different from him, though it was one of only two essays on the initiation process of shamanism. In fact, there were a few reprints in here, and it would have been nice to encounter more original material.
–There were a couple of essays I simply could not get into, primarily because I found them rather dry, or otherwise uninteresting. These included Thomas A Dowson’s “Like People in Prehistory”, Marina Roseman’s Remembering to Forget: The Aesthetics of Longing”, Gordan MacLellen’s “Dancing on the Edge: Shamanism in Modern Britain”, and Robert J. Wallis’ “Waking Ancestor Spirits: Neoshamanic Engagements With Archaeology”.
–Sandra Ingermann’s “Tracking Lost Souls” wasn’t horrible, per se, but it was rather jarringly discordant with the rest of the collection. It’s a very New Agey interpretation of core shamanism, and it didn’t fit in with the more scholarly approaches. An examination of neoshamanism, or a critique and comparison of various modern systems, would have worked better than Ingermann giving us a play-by-play of her method of soul retrieval.
–Beverley Butler’s “The Tree, The Tower and the Shaman” was just strangely written and arranged; I had trouble following it, and ended up skipping a good portion of it. I’m also not sure how relevant it is to shamanism, from what I could gather.

Despite my personal dislikes, I still think this is a good anthology to have in your collection if you have any interest in shamanism. The good essays are excellent, and they outnumber the not so great essays by quite a bit. I’m quite pleased with this collection, and I’ve already used it as source material in my writing, as well as gleaned some inspiration for the further development of therioshamanism.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Castaneda’s Journey – Richard de Mille

Castaneda’s Journey: The Power and the Allegory
Richard de Mille
Capra Press, 1977, et. al.
205 pages

I wanted to get some background on Carlos Castaneda before diving into his books. This may seem a bit like putting the cart before the horse; however, I’ve been exposed to a lot of commentary on him, both positive and negative, so the chances of my having an unbiased look were already shot. I had heard good things about this book as a balanced approach to Castaneda and his works, so I gave it a try.

The author did a fantastic job of rooting out sources, even going to UCLA and talking to the professors who were involved in Castaneda’s doctoral program and defense of his thesis. De Mille also went to the trouble of hunting down one of the few available copies of the thesis itself, which normally isn’t open to the public. However, upon looking at the copy that UCLA had in its library, the author discovered that, other than a few minor changes, it was the entirety of Castaneda’s third book, Journey to Ixtlan. Additionally, he shows where sources that Castaneda almost certainly had access to had material that “mysteriously” showed up later as events in his books.

While de Mille pretty much tears a huge hole in the theory that Castaneda literally went out and met don Juan Matus and learned Yaqui ways (by the way, the amount of actual Yaqui material in his works is just above zilch), he did paint the would-be shaman as a clever trickster and rogue, and not entirely terrible. So while Castaneda’s veracity as an anthropologist is quite damaged, his skill as a literary writer of allegory is quite well-honed. The blame of people believing his works literally is partly placed on his ability to tell a good yarn.

My only complaint with this book is that it’s occasionally hard to follow the author’s train of thought. He bounces back and forth between light academic writing, straight forward, and an odd narrative that leaps around like a coyote on stimulants. I found myself skipping a few chunks of the work because I simply couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to say.

Still, I think this is essential reading for anyone with any interest in modern shamanic texts. An entire selection of books that model themselves after Castaneda’s “allegorical spirit teacher” have cropped up, and are often (unfortunately) presented as literally true. This text gives interesting insight into the granddaddy of them all, and a new perspective on how to read Castaneda’s works, as well as derivatives thereof.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Borrowed Power – Ziff and Rao (editors)

Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation
Ziff, Bruce and P.V. Rao (editors)
Rutgers University Press, 1997
338 pages

Every so often I get into the mood to sink my teeth into a nice, meaty chunk of….

…academic writing.

(What did you think I was going to say?)

So when the craving hit this time, it just so happened to be on the same day as the arrival of my copy of Borrowed Power. It took me almost a week to work my way through it (amid editing manuscripts and other such things) but I finished it, and I can definitely say it was a great read.

Borrowed Power is an anthology addressing cultural appropriation, the use/borrowing/theft of elements by one (usually dominant) culture from another (usually not dominant) culture. A common example in the pagan community is white pagans raised in Suburbia drawing on Native American religious practices and taking them out of context while not actually participating in the culture they draw from. While cultural appropriation isn’t always considered a neopagan topic, it’s one that’s crucial to the evolution of our community. (I deemed it important enough that I’m compiling an anthology specifically on cultural appropriation in the pagan community inspired by Borrowed Powerclick here for details.)

The topics are varied; while one essay addresses “white Indians”, hippies and New Agers who try to be more Indian than the Indians, most either don’t mention the phenomenon or only do so in passing. Instead, the essays cover the legalities of property rights and copyright in the face of cultural theft; financial restitution for cultures that have been taken from; returning historical and cultural religious items to the cultures they were taken from; the impact of non-Native artists using traditional Native American patterns; ethnomusicology; and post-colonialism, among others. While some of the essays focus on Native America, other cultures are addressed. There is an excellent essay addressing the appropriation of African-American culture through music, from jazz to rap.

Most of the essays are readable even to those without an academic background. A few do get tough to chew through, particularly those dealing with legalities, and postcolonialism. But for the most part the writing is accessible, and the tougher writing styles aren’t entirely impossible. There’s an excellent variety of viewpoints and topics presented here, and much food for thought. And, as is expected, the research is impeccable, and is joined by a sensitivity to the cultures being explored that’s often missing from academic writing.

Overall, this is a wonderful read for those who want an introduction to the problem of cultural appropriation. While the specifically neopagan content is almost nil, the concepts herein are worth looking into. (I also recommend this as a source for those writing essays for the anthology I’m compiling, just FYI, along with the cultural appropriation chapter in Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves by Pike.)

Five pawprints out of five.

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Primitive Song – C.M. Bowra

Primitive Song
C.M. Bowra
World Publishing Company, 1963
284 pages

Since paleolithic cultures fascinate me, I was really excited about reading this book. The author uses anecdotes and information about modern hunter-gatherer cultures ranging from Eskimos to the Andamanese to Australian aborigines as a way of attempting to trace the roots and development of song. He weaves his theory with samples of song lyrics and his analysis thereof, and explains how day-to-day life in such a culture affects the role and subject material in songs. The material is well-balanced in this regard, and I felt that the author had really done his research thoroughly.

The book is a product of its time; while it’s not as heavily Euro-centric as some older (or even contemporary) anthropological texts, there’s still a subtle bias in the writing. Additionally, Bowra makes some assumptions about hunter-gatherer cultures across the board, though he does do a good job of trying to back his theories up with examples. And the writing style is rather dry; I found myself sometimes having to reread something because it simply didn’t register.

Still, overall it’s a good resource even despite its age. Anyone interested in paleolithic cultures, particularly paleopagan religions or music, may want to check this out. Those experimenting with shamanic techniques may also find material of interest here, particularly if song is a part of their practice.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Way of the Animal Powers (Part 1) – Joseph Campbell

Historical Atlas of World Mythology Volume 1: The Way of the Animal Powers, Part 1: Primitive Hunters and Gatherers
Joseph Campbell
Harper & Row, 1988
125 pages (large coffee table book)

I was thrilled when I found this book and its companion volume (which will be reviewed at a later date). I love Joseph Campbell’s work, and particularly enjoyed his Primitive Mythology. The Way of the Animal Powers ties nicely into that volume. This book is also one of a large set of books, the Historical Atlas of World Mythology. It’s a decent-sized coffee table-style book, so don’t let the page count fool you!

The content isn’t strictly animal-related. Along with evidence of cave paintings, ritual spaces and other sacred items in the theoretical religious practices of paleolithic cultures, Campbell gives a decent amount of background on the evolution of humanity and its mythology. This is a fascinating read, with numerous threads weaving together telling the story of our ancestors’ beliefs, at least as far as we can surmise. The text is punctuated with a variety of illustrations showing specific examples; the combination is well balanced and informative.

There are those who take issue with some of Campbell’s material, particularly his attempts to globalize mythological concepts. While he does discuss archetypes and motifs, and demonstrates how different cultures (sometimes very far away from each other) may have affected each others’ myths, one should not take this as evidence of a monolithic mythology or that “All Gods are one God”. Still, if supplemented with other resources, this is an excellent read for the neopagan interested in the roots of pagan beliefs.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Man and Beast – Reader’s Digest

Quest For the Unknown: Man and Beast
Reader’s Digest
144 pages

I originally bought this book as a single copy rather than part of the entire series. As is normal for the type of book collections that Reader’s Digest, Time/Life and other magazine publishers put out on “odd” topics, this one is a nicely designed hardcover with a good mixture of text and pictures. The cover, in fact, has an awesome picture of an eagle mask on it.

But enough about the cover. Let’s go inside.

The book covers a wide variety of mystical aspects of animals, starting with a solid introduction to cryptozoology, then seguing into shapeshifter lore, and finally heading into the worship of animals and animal-based deities. Each section devotes well-researched text about its topic, punctuated with many full color illustrations, all captioned to show relevance.

It is a pretty basic book, of course, as it’s meant for the general public. Those who are already well-versed in animal-based mythology, cryptozoology and related topics will find most fo the material familiar. On the other hand, if you’re new to any of these topics, or just want a basic reference book around, this is a good choice. Additionally, if you’re a parents and want to introduce your teenaged child to animals in mythology and ritual, this would be an excellent guide as the language isn’t particularly difficult and most intelligent teens (even preteens) should have no problem with it.

Overall, a really nice coffee table book. Nothing really outstanding in the pagan/occult realm, but a good introduction.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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