The Power of Animals – Brian Morris

The Power of Animals: An Ethnography
Brian Morris
Berg Publishers, 2000
288 pages

Brian Morris spent a number of years living among the indigenous people of Malawi in southeast Africa. His focus in this, and a companion volume that I’ll be reading soon, “Animals and Ancestors: An Ethnography”, is the relationship between the various cultures in Malawi, and the native fauna. “The Power of Animals” specifically focuses on relatively more mundane aspects, such as the hunt and other everyday interactions with animals, as well as touching on moeity in relation to animal-symbolized clans.

The book is divided up into four primary chapters. The first goes into great detail about the basic social structure common in Malawi cultures, and describes its matrilineal nature. Central to this structure is the sedentary village-based lifestyle that primarily involves women, children, and elders, and the mature men who are considered outsiders, and who may have several families in several villages among whom they divide their time. This segues into the next chapter which goes into greater detail on hunting traditions. Not only are older traditions covered, but the changes wrought by European invasion and the rise of capitolism, as well as the overhunting of wildlife by European hunters and the ivory trade in general, are examined as well. Folk classifications make up the third chapter. The taxonomy of animals in Malawi is quite different from Eurocentric taxonomy, and the differences in relationship between humans and animals is made quite clear per culture in this respect. Finally, there’s a chapter dealing specifically with the attitudes the Malawi tribes have towards animals, based upon the research done in the previous three chapters.

This is an incredible look at one particular set of cultures’ views towards animals, and nature in general. The difference in worldview between these people, and people in post-industrial countries, is at times astounding. Reading this also reminded me of the detachment that American culture has from nature in general. For instance, Morris pinpointed the erroneous argument that meat-eating, and the pleasure derived thereof, is primarily a Caucasian corruption, by exploring the eagerness to procure meat that the people around him studied. Additionally, Morris is careful to point out that his research was done in the field, while digging mice up or otherwise participating in day to day activities with his “subhects of study”, and his close relationship shows in his work, which lacks the detachment, Eurocentricism and condescension often found on anthropological work.

The writing is quite academic, and those who aren’t used to this style of writing may take a bit to get used to it. However, it is far from being a dry read, and once I got into the rhythm of Morris’ writing style I really enjoyed myself. I will say there are a number of typos and grammatical errors, but content-wise this book is excellent.

This truly is a wonderful look at a very complex series of human-animal attitudes. I’m looking forward to reading “Animals and Ancestors” to see what the rest of his research on this says.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?


The Banshee by Patricia Lysaght

The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger
Patricia Lysaght
Roberts Rinheardt, 1997
433 pages

It’s been a few months since I read this, but the information stands out in my mind more than most books do. I’d been talking about it recently, so i decided to go ahead and do my official review of it.

This is by far the most comprehensive, scholarly exploration of Irish banshee lore out there. Tired of fantasy fiction featuring male banshees, and confusion between banshees and other denizens of the Otherworld? This book sets the record straight.

The author draws a lot of her information from two sets of surveys about banshee lore; one is from the turn of the 20th century, and the other is from the 1970s. The surveys targeted regular, everyday people across Ireland in numerous counties, and Lysaght is careful to show the distribution of the respondents. Lysaght herself is concerned less with what mythology books have to say, and more what the common person in the country fo the banshee’s origin believed via oral tradition.

There’s also a lot of discussion as to what the banshee actually is (dead relative, faery woman, etc.) as well as her appearance. Her behavior is also scrutinized, as is the comb that is sometimes featured in anecdotes about her, and whether she is seen, heard or both. And there’s a good talk about the origins of the word bean-sidhe, “faery woman”, and the connotations thereof.

Lysaght has been absolutely meticulous in her research. Primary sources are a definite plus, and her bibliography is quite solid. Her writing style is excellent, too–rather than being bored by dry academic writing, I found myself drawn into her quest to find more information about this enigmatic member of mythology.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Buckskin and Buffalo – Colin F. Taylor

Buckskin and Buffalo: The Artistry of the Plains Indians
Colin F. Taylor
Salamander Books
128 pages

This is an amazingly wonderful book! It features excellent color photos, both full-size and detail, of dozens of circa 19th century Plains Indian works of leather, including shirts, leggings, robes, and other practical artwork. Beadwork, quillwork adn paint adorn these works of buffalo deer, elk, antelope and bighorn sheep hides, and the author selected some astoundingly lovely pieces.

The text that accompanies each one goes into the source, the components, and the cultural significance of both the objects themselves and their adornment, as well as interesting bits of information about certain details, such as a particular type of bead or feather used, or the importance of the piece in its culture. The tribal origins of each entry are also discussed, including cases where the author disagreed with the museum or collection that held the piece, and details explaining why (ie, this detail resembles this tribe instead of that tribe).

Overall, it is a really nicely done work. However, one question is left unasked. We’ve seen the pretty artwork and have learned its immense importance. Now can we please return these to the people to whom they are so very important?

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Primitive Mythology – Joseph Campbell

The Masks of God, Volume 1: Primitive Mythology
Joseph Campbell
Penguin, 1991
528 pages

I’ve used Campbells’ works and derivatives thereof as source material before; however, this is the first time I’ve sat down and read it cover to cover, instead of a chapter here, a section there.

Campbell explores the possible origins of human religion within the evidence left behind by ancestors long dead, both physical and mythological. He studies the value of imagination and metaphor in spiritual experience, and makes a noble effort to reconstruct what may have been the religious beliefs of paleolithic peoples.

The thing I love about his work is that he weaves in anthropology and psychology with mythology to create a multilayered piece of writing that is nothing short of adventurous. Not only does he give thorough explanations for why he makes his theories, but his style evokes the settings for these myths, both the gods themselves and the humans who worshipped them.

Primitive Mythology is an absolute must-read for anyone wanting to get past Neopaganism 101. His history of the various rites that came out of hunter/gatherer and agrarian societies will pretty much put to death any of the “Wicca is as old as the cave paintings!” arguments, but also offer ample material for creating one’s own primitve belief system.

In short, Campbell was a master at what he did, and this book is proof positive of that. Read it, enjoy it, learn from it.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Ancient Rites and Ceremonies – Grace A. Murray

Ancient Rites and Ceremonies
Grace A. Murray
Senate, 1996
256 pages

I dearly hope that no one ever actually uses this book as a serious source of anything but examples of Anglo-centric anthropology. I originally picked it up in the hopes that it would be a treatise on religious rites of various cultures. Instead, what I got was a book full of horribly condescending discussion of a number of cultures’ practices, few of them religious in nature. There’s a definite tabloid feel to the whole thing, given that the author focused largely on such scandalous topics as cannibalism and foreign sexual practices.

This book was written in 1929, and it’s a perfect example of WASPish prejudice presented as scholarship. Everyone from South Africans to Scandinavians are thoroughly stereotyped and judged against the standards of the writer (who I assume was British). I did get occasional glimpses at her attempts to make the place of women a little more proud, explaining that in certain socieities where women did most of the work, they were exceptionally important.

After the first few pages I read this primarily for the entertainment value. Thankfully, while we’re far from ridding academia of prejudice, things aren’t nearly so blatant as this, and much better sources are available. There is some good information here and there, but it’s so wrapped up in crap and Western bias that as a whole it’s not worth buying it unless you find it at a seriously reduced price.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Art and Society in Roman Britain – Jennifer Laing

Art and Society in Roman Britain
Jennifer Laing
Alan Sutton Publishing, 1998
188 pages

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. The author took what could have been really dry material and made it absolutely captivating!

She describes how the Roman occupation of Britain affected the artwork of the region, from the height of the Roman Empire to its decline. Not much is discussed of pre-Roman art except how its influences survived the Romans, but the blending is still there.

Laing shows how the Roman and Celtic styles were uniquely combined according to area and type of artwork. Some, such as mosaics and murals, are almost purely Roman, while items like brooches and other metalwork retain a strong Celtic undertone. Once the Roman grip loosened somewhat, we get to read about how the recession of the Romans and the combination of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon tribal styles affect the local artwork. It also shows how some of what is often stereotyped as purely Celtic is, in actuality, hybridized.

The text is wonderfully easy to read, yet very evocative of the items that are being described. The text is beautifully illustrated with photos and drawings.

This would be an excellent choice for anyone interested in how art reflects societal changes, or Roman or Celtic art and culture.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Totemism – Jean-Claude Levi-Strauss

Jean-Claude Levi-Strauss
Beacon Press, 1971

This was a vital source for the totemism chapter for my own book on animal magic. It’s a classic anthropological text on the subject as pertains to indigenous cultures around the globe.

Strauss spends much of the time explaining and exploring the various theories about totemism that developed in the first half of the 20th century. The book first came out in 1962, and it’s interesting to trace the deveopment of social anthropology through contemporary quotes.

The information itself is quite solid, and makes for good source material for traditional totemism. It’s not the easiest read in the world, and it comes across as very much an academic text. However, it’s well worth slogging through the lingo (if you aren’t already familiar) and the translation is excellent.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in totemism from any angle, particularly pagans who may yearn for more academic looks at totemism.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Newer entries »