Chinese Power Animals by Pamela Leigh Powers

Chinese Power Animals: Archetypes of Transformation
Pamela Leigh Powers
Weiser, 2000
322 pages

Some things just don’t translate well across cultures–or, at least, the execution could be better. This is one of those things. This book is one of a number out there on Chinese astrology–you know, Year of the Fire Horse, Year of the Metal Dragon, etc.–that tries to make the system available to Westerners. The author takes elements of this system, and then adds them into a rather awkward synthesis along with Western astrology and New Age-flavored animal totemism.

Don’t get me wrong–I like new and interesting ideas. The problem is that the context of Chinese astrology, and various Chinese and other Asian healing systems, isn’t nearly as solid in this book as it needs to be to help people understand the why of the material. We’re left instead with an incomplete and sometimes confusing collection of quick-fix correspondences, and not enough answers.

For example, in talking about different relationships, the author says things like “The Horse has a Cat for a father”, regardless of the actual birth year or personality of the Horse person’s father himself. This makes no sense. And in fact, the whole system falls prey to the common pitfall associated with trying to make Chinese astrology “work” in the U.S.–it becomes a “You’re a [insert animal here], so therefore that means you are [insert stereotyped traits here]”. Because we don’t have the cultural contextual background to really get where these concepts came from, they end up oversimplified.

This could have been a much better book, but it feels slapped together out of convenience and connections between concepts that may or may not actually be relevant to each other. I was unimpressed.

One pawprint out of five.

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Llewellyn’s 2010 Sabbats Almanac – Various

Llewellyn’s 2010 Sabbats Almanac
Llewellyn, 2009
312 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who graciously agreed to take on some of the extra review copies I had when I decided to go on semi-hiatus.

I am honored to be a guest reviewer for Lupa’s book review blog, eager to read something closer to my “field” than the erotica and science fiction I normally critique for a national book review magazine. I bravely told her to “send me anything” only to receive the most random collection of Pagan books I’ve ever seen!

First on the stack was Llewellyn’s Sabbats Almanac: Samhain 2009 to Mabon 2010. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say upfront that I am a relatively new member of the Llewellyn author family. That being said, this latest addition to the Llewellyn annuals (Witches’ Spell-A-Day Almanac, Witches’ Companion, etc.) is, I think, a useful and worthy one. I may not feel comfortable pulling out a Llewellyn Witches’ Datebook out of my backpack when scheduling my next dentist appointment in this small Kansas town, but the Sabbats Almanac is something I will likely refer to from time to time throughout the year – in the comfort of my own home, of course.

Contributing authors to the Almanac include a deliberate mixture of relatively new writers and Pagan “celebrities”; Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, Kristen Madden, Ann Moura, Dan Furst, Raven Grimassi, Michelle Skye, and Thuri Calafia (plus others) all add their expertise and voices.

The history of each sabbat is thoroughly discussed, including an astrological section by Fern Feto Spring. I would have liked a little more explanation of astrological terms for the zodiacally-impaired reader. Kristen Madden provides seasonal recipes for an appetizer, main course, dessert and beverage for each holiday far beyond the usual “bread at Lammas, apple pie at Samhain” fare. Every sabbat section ends with a holiday ritual that can either be done as a solitary or with a group (except Mabon, which definitely requires several people).

In further interest of full disclosure, I’ve never once opened any of the Llewellyn Almanac series until Lupa sent me this one. If the Sabbats Almanac is any indication, I’ve been missing out on a basic, useful source of inspiration and ideas. The Sabbats Almanac, at least, may just become a permanent addition to my holiday book-buying binge.

Four and a half paws out of five!

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Witches & Pagans Magazine, Issue 19

Witches & Pagans Magazine
Various authors, editors, artists and other contributors
BBI Media, Autumn 2009
96 pages

First, a little background: Witches & Pagans is what happened when BBI Media merged their prior publications, PanGaia and newWitch. PanGaia was their more “serious” pagan publication, with a heavy eco-friendly slant and a target audience interested in ritual practices and spiritual experiences. newWitch came about a few years ago, and was met with some skepticism since its general themes were “sex, spells and celebs”. Some feared that newWitch would manifest all the worst stereotypes of image-obsessed teenybopper witches, and yet the publication managed to hold a fine balance between entertainment and facing controversial topics head-on. As a disclosure, I have written for both publications, so my potential bias should be noted.

Witches & Pagans has managed to blend elements of both magazines. This issue, for example, features interviews with musician S.J. Tucker and author R.J. Stewart (the faery AND initial issue!), something that newWitch was keen on. However, articles on 19th century mystic Ella Young, a surprisingly well-researched article on Cherokee fey beings, and several other in-depth writings on a central theme of Faery hail back to the best of PanGaia.

The regular columnists provided me with some of my favorite reading overall. Isaac Bonewits explored the practice of magic at different stages of one’s life, and how factors ranging from physical health to years of experience and knowledge can shape one’s energy and thereby one’s practice. Galina Krasskova did an excellent job of tackling the practice of celibacy as part of the ascetic’s path, something that a heavily hedonistic neopagan community may not often give much thought to. And I love Archer’s article on connecting to the wilderness through forests and their denizens, both physical and archetypal.

Those who were used to reading only one of the parent publications that merged to create this one may feel disappointed that there isn’t more of “their” stuff in there. However, one thing I appreciate about Witches & Pagans is that it brings together two potentially separate demographics in the pagan community–the more “serious” practitioners who look askance at the supposed “fluff” content of newWitch, and the energetic (though not always neophyte) envelope-pushers who might see their counterparts as muddy sticks. Both groups have much to offer in their own way, and Witches & Pagans does a nice job of showcasing the best of both worlds.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Naturalistic Occultism by IAO131

Naturalistic Occultism
The Society of Scientific Illuminism, 2009
96 pages

Scientific Illuminism was described by Crowley as “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion”. A number of attempts to explain magic through science have been made, including (but not limited to) The Science of the Craft by Bill Keith and Real Energy by Isaac and Phaedra Bonewits, both of which (similarly to Peter J. Carroll’s brand of Chaos magic) utilize quantum physics as the “how” of magic. Naturalistic Occultism is much more psychology-heavy, explaining everything from astral projection to divination using almost exclusively various psychological models and schools of thought.

Certain accusations (by others, such as some scientists) that psychology is a “soft” discipline aside, the author does a pretty good job of basic, bare-bones explanations. He certainly achieved his overall goal of explaining occult concepts and techniques without resorting to mysticism and superstition. For example, he shows how the astral body is actually the brain’s own perception and understanding of the shape and appearance of the physical body itself–the image that the brain carries of the body, as it were. This doesn’t stop him from including a brief appendix with instructions on how to astrally project using this concept.

And I suppose that’s one of my complaints with this book–it’s brief. One of my partners, who is similarly enamored of a more scientific way of explaining esoterica, remarked on what he read as seeming like an abstract rather than a full text, and I would agree with him. There are some very good ideas started in this book, and yet the author could have gone so much further. I would have liked to have seen more thorough explanations of how psychology explains the various occult concepts he covers, as well as a greater variety in the concepts explored. I also would have enjoyed more practical applications of the psychological model of magic that is espoused in this book, because I did like the couple of appendices with that sort of thing in them. I wasn’t quite so thrilled by the occasional tendency toward “debunking” that came across in the writing; one can explain the science of mystical practices and still have a constructive view towards those practices, an example being The Spirit of Shamanism by Roger Walsh. (Just as a note, there were some more constructive aspects to the material as well; it didn’t all come across as debunking.)

In short, there needs to be more, because this is a good start. Overall, I liked the book, and I’m only docking it points for its brevity. If you want a very concise look at the psychological model of magic, this is a good text to have on hand. And there most certainly need to be more rational approaches to a series of topics that often fall prey to ridiculousness and need some serious paring with Occam’s Razor. More writing from IAO131 along this vein would be one such welcome thing, to be sure.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Fun Signs – Hans Wilhelm – January BBBR

Fun Signs: The Most Accurate Zodiac Guide Ever Drawn
Hans Wilhelm
Wallaby Books/Simon and Schuster, 1981
96 pages

“Hey, baby, what’s your sign?” Who at this point hasn’t heard this dated cliche? From about the same time period came this odd little paperback cartoon guide to sun signs. when I saw it at the local Goodwill, I couldn’t resist a bit of brain candy–I totally admit to being a sucker for things whimsically illustrated.

If you’re looking for an in-depth guide to astrology–this isn’t it. It’s a very basic overview of sun sign information. What is in there aligns with much of the common info on the zodiac, so the author did do his research. However, it’s about on par with any of a number of “date by your sun sign!” booklets. The saving grace of this one, of course, is the illustrations. Simple but expressive, the drawings made me wish there was more of a market for humorous paganism/spirituality/etc. 101 texts in comic/cartoon format. (Of course, everyone knows paganism is serious business!)

If you happen across this long out of print book in a secondhand shop, pick it up as a novelty or amusement. There’s nothing new here that you can’t find in any book on astrology, but it has its own charms for the drawings.

Four pawprints out of five.

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The Talisman Magick Workbook – Kala and Ketz Pajeon – August BBBR

The Talisman Magick Workbook
Kala and Ketz Pajeon
Citadel Press, 1992
244 pages

This month’s Bargain Bin Book Review is a handbook on creating magical talismans using combinations of existing symbols from cultures and practices around the world. There is theoretical discussion of talismans and the individual symbols, as well as extensive information on correspondences. In short, it should in theory contain everything you need to get started on talisman magic. But let’s get into the nitty-gritty.

I give the authors kudos for addressing the worry that they’re giving powerful tools into the hands of anyone who wants them, and therefore are responsible for other peoples’ actions. I think they handled this concept very well, and present the information in a well-balanced manner that all but the most misguided of practitioners should understand. I’m not particularly sure what in this book would be considered particularly offensive; it primarily deals with fairly common symbol sets such as zodiacal astrology, the I Ching, Norse runes, and the Tarot. Still, there will always be magical busybodies worrying themselves over what their neighbors are doing.

The information on the symbols themselves is pretty standard, though a few of their sources aren’t so great–for example, they draw on Ralph Blum (among others) for rune information. Given that the book was written in 1992, when there was a lot less source material, it’s forgivable–however, be aware that there may be inaccurate information from these sources. If you’re going to study these symbols and systems beyond the talisman magic explained in this book, make sure you refer to other source material.

Where I actually see the most potential value for this book is for Chaos magicians wanting to indulge in a bit of paradigmal piracy, and others who aren’t too concerned about in-depth study of the systems drawn on. If you want a quick “plug it in, charge it up, and let it go” bit of magic, this will be a good single text to work from. However, if you’re more type-A about historical and factual accuracy, you’ll at the very least want to supplement this text, and if potential inaccuracies really bother you, you may just want to pass it by altogether. It’s a good practical text and it accomplishes the goal it was made for, though.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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Your Sun Sign as a Spiritual Guide – Swami Kriyananda – March BBBR

Your Sun Sign as a Spiritual Guide
Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters)
Ananda Publications, 1971
130 pages

I’m a sucker for vintage pagan and occult books; while there’s a circa-2003 edition out, I managed to snag a somewhat well-loved orange-covered first edition from Ananda Publications at the local Goodwill store (which has a fantastic selection of books, let me tell you! Hooray, Portland!)

Astrology isn’t one of my main areas of focus, so basic books are just about my speed. This one was definitely a nice introduction in a slim volume. The author provides a down-to-earth overview of astrology, the differences between different types of astrology, and a basic look at what each planet’s influence is. He also demonstrates how a person may not necessarily “match” their sun sign’s attributes at first glance, and how the lunar and rising signs may contribute to the interpretation thereof.

The sections on individual sun signs was quite enlightening. One of the main reasons for the book is to show how we aren’t trapped by our sun sign, but instead finding positive ways to channel natural inclinations. I got the most out of my own chapter, Scorpio, though it was nice to read interpretations of others and compare them to the people I know in those signs.

I don’t really have any complaints about this one–it did was it set out to do in a thorough, easy to read manner. There weren’t any huge glaring errors, and I learned quite a bit. I’ll be hanging onto this one, not just because of its age, but also because it’s a good basic resource for functional astrology.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Born on a Rotten Day – Hazel Dixon-Cooper – August BBBR

Born on a Rotten Day: Illuminating and Coping With the Dark Side of the Zodiac
Hazel Dixon-Cooper
Fireside, 2003
192 pages

I knew I was going to enjoy this book from the moment I got it. Born on a Rotten Day is everything the title–and the wonderful cover art–suggests. It’s a humorous look at the less-than-lovely traits of the various Sun signs in astrology at their very worst. And it contains all the things those other books may be afraid to tell you about yourself.

Each chapter is divided into sections on men and women lovers, family members, bosses, and yourself, all under the sign in that chapter. The common patterns are translated into what it means in dealing with each of these people, and solutions to the best way to defuse bad situations are offered. The book is incredibly well-written, and takes the worst aspects of each sign for an entertaining trip.

Keep your sense of humor intact, though. This isn’t meant to be taken 100% literally. What Dixon-Cooper provides is an exaggeration of the negative traits as a way of pointing them out. As a Scorpio, for instance, I may not be so bitchy that my “moods range from irritable to pissed off…on one of your good days”. However, it’s a good reminder for me to watch my temper and intensity, both when dealing with others and with myself. I got a good laugh out of that entire chapter, but I also learned a few things, too, that put me more into perspective for myself.

Of course, astrology (particularly when limited to the Sun sign) only goes so far. However, this is a great book to add to any astrological library. It’s an amusing reminder of our quirks and flaws, and the fact that they’re usually not as horrible as they could be (nor are they without counterbalances). I absolutely loved reading this, and I highly recommend it.

Five deadly venom-laden Scorpio stingers out of five.

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An Elfin Book of Spirits – The Silver Elves

An Elfin Book of Spirits: Evoking the Beneficient Powers of Faerie
The Silver Elves (Silver Flame Love and Zardoa Silverstar)
Silver Elves Publications, 2005
264 pages

My first exposure to the writings of the Silver Elves was through their Magical Elven Love Letters, writings of philosophy, spirit and magic flavored by their unique and lovely interpretation of what “elven” is to them. An Elfin Book of Spirits is exactly the sort of light-hearted, yet practical and powerful writing that I have learned to enjoy from them.

The book is a modern-day grimoire in the classic sense–a series of entries on various spirits within a specific system, along with suggested rituals for evoking them. I was already hooked on the book by the first page, when the Silver Elves explained their philosophy on evocation–cooperation rather than command (something I heartily agree with!). The method for working with the spirits involves a form of divination to determine which spirit would have the best ideas for a particular situation (if you don’t already have a particular being in mind). I approve of this open-ended method, as it allows the spirits more participation in the planning of the ritual.

The rituals and spirits are based loosely on astrology (and not just Sun signs, either–there’s a lot of work that went into this sytem). There are 360 spirits, one for each degree of the Zodiac; each entry for a spirit includes its degree, sigil, name, motto, evocation, and additional astrological information.

The areas of influence for the spirits are generally positive and constructive, with practical, everyday applications. Don’t, however, interpret this as being “overly white light” or “fluffy”. The Silver Elves and the spirits they work with don’t turn a blind eye to the fact that there’s negativity in the world, and they don’t try to gloss it over with New Age Band-aids. You won’t find spirits of vengeance here, but instead beings who will help you find a constructive, healthy way of dealing with bad situations and making the most of good ones. This book also isn’t exclusively for elves; any magical practitioner who is interested may find something of use here.

Pretty much my only complaints (and they are minor overall) are technical. There are a number of typos and misspellings throughout the book, but nothing terrible. Also, the binding of the book doesn’t leave quite enough margin on the inside edge, which makes reading the first few pages rather difficult without breaking the spine of the book. However, these are tiny things, and the fact that I enjoyed reading the book is much more important than a couple of physical flaws.

And one warning–there are a number of photographs of practitioners and other elfin folk in the book, a couple of which pay no heed to current prohibitions on uncovering the body. They’re no worse than other books on magic that include an occasional picture of a nude Wiccan in ritual, etc. And the photos in general are nice accents to the text.

Five pleasant pawprints out of five.

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The Only Astrology Book You’ll Ever Need – Joanna Martine Woolfolk – April BBBR

The Only Astrology Book You’ll Ever Need
Joanna Martine Woolfolk
Scarborough House, 1990; Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006

And so here we have April’s Bargain Bin Book Review, the 1990 edition of this book (without CD) plucked from the fate of pulping at the last moment! It’s actually been on my list for a bit, since I wanted to be able to translate the chart that was created for me last year. So when I saw this on the clearance rack, it was all mine from the word “go”!

I was very pleased, too. The title is quite accurate, at least for a novice to astrology. The information is very well-organized, starting with the Sun sign and moving on through the various planets. Rather than obfuscating the necessary information with tons of jargon, the interpretations of each planet/sign combination is explained in simple but thorough terms. Woolfolk certainly doesn’t waste any words, but instead stuffs this text full of everything you need to get a decent idea of what your chart supposedly means.

Granted, not everything fit me exactly, but then again this sort of basic astrology isn’t really a “one size fits all” thing; more like guidelines to how your chart may be interpreted. I’m sure that people who focus more on astrology tend to get more complex information out of the planets, but for someone just curious about their chart, this is a good guide. I can’t speak for the book’s facilities as far as creating your own chart, as mine was done for me, but it’s definitely an excellent guide if you can draw it up yourself.

Overall, very good introduction to the topic. I’m definitely hanging onto it so I can periodically look at my chart and see how much of it actually applies to me as I change throughout the years. While I don’t think we’re slaves to the stars, so to speak, I think there’s something to be said for using one’s chart for very general ideas of areas to enhance or change as needed.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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