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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Soul Retrieval by Sandra Ingerman – August BBBR

Soul Retrievel: Mending the Fragmented Self
Sandra Ingerman
HarperCollins, 1991
224 pages

This month’s Bargain Bin Book Review was of interest to me both as a shamanic practitioner and as a future therapist. The author has a Master’s in counseling psychology, the same degree I’m working toward, and I was curious to see where her psychological background would come into play in this integral part of shamanic practice.

Ingerman does a very thorough job of describing the soul retrieval process, though she cautions the reader that the book should not be one’s only source, and that in-person training is suggested. I’m not sure how much I agree with that, particularly given that the author and her cohorts with the Foundation for Shamanic Studies do, or have in the past, offer such workshops. However, do be aware that this is not beginner-level materal, and shamanic practitioners should have a good bit of journeying under their belt, as well as good relationships with spiritual allies before embarking on this work. This is a great resource to have, though, if you are ready to try soul retrieval, either on yourself or others.

It also includes a really nice selection of anecdotes, more than many books. This serves to illustrate more fully the process of soul retrieval as well as the effects it has. The many testimonies from her clients say quite a bit not only about her experience but also her effectiveness. It’s well-balanced between how-to and anecdotal information.

She does come from a core shamanic background, but I was pleased to see that she acknowledged that journeying isn’t necessarily a safe thing, nor did she conflate journeying with guided meditations. Her main concerns with dangers in journeying, including during soul retrieval, were with the integrity of the shaman’s soul, as well as parasitic spirits “hanging on” on the way back out of the journey. And there was some discussion of what to do when the soul of the client doesn’t want to come back, or is stuck.

While there are occasional things I personally disagree with, overall I think this is a great text. Once I’m ready to do soul retrieval in practice, this will be an invaluable guide.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Sacred Earth edited by Jason Gardner – July BBBR

The Sacred Earth: Writers on Nature and Spirit
Edited by Jason Gardner
New World Library, 1998
172 pages

This month’s Bargain Bin Book Review is a collection of quotes from various nature writers’ previously published works, ranging from Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold to Thomas Berry and Paul Shepard. The general theme is spirituality, and what makes Nature sacred; however, the many ways in which “sacred” manifests for the writers are lovely to read. The book is divided into four sections: experience, texture, practice, and belief, and this creates a nice progression of thoughts from one subtheme to the next.

The editor, Gardner, made some very nice selections. Some, like Leopold’s “green fire” in a dying wolf’s eyes, are fairly well-known. However, he also did some digging into more obscure works from some of the writers, and while hardcore environmentalists may be familiar with most of the writing, there were some surprises for me, and no doubt for other readers as well. The topics that the writers covered included all of Nature, from animals and plants, to the weather, to the stars and other heavenly bodies. Yet while many of the quotes spoke of connection and immersion in Nature, and even identification with it, a few spoke of personal disconnection, and distraction, and wishing for better connection. And, of course, the general cultural disconnect from Nature found in the United States was critiqued a number of times. But it was the ones that showed that even these dedicated writers had their off days made me feel better for not being connected to Nature 24/7.

This would be a lovely collection for those pagans for whom Nature is the central part of their paganism. There’s a wealth of quotes for inspiration, and perhaps even for ritual recitation. However, it’s the imagery conveyed in the words that really touched me, and this didn’t require formal meditation, or ritual practice, to appreciate. This is one of those books that you can pick up and open at random, and find something lovely inside.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Ceremonial Circle by Sedonia Cahill and Joshua Halpern – June BBBR

The Ceremonial Circle: Practice, Ritual and Renewal for Personal and Community Healing
Sedonia Cahill and Joshua Halpern
Harper Collins, 1992
200 pages

This month’s Bargain Bin Book Review ended up being a useful resource for both my paganism and my (future) therapeutic practice. Written by two psychologists of a spiritual bent, it can basically be summed up as “ritual practices for people who don’t want to use the word ‘pagan'”. This gives it certain amounts of versatility that more blatantly neopagan books might not have in reaching a broader audience.

The book is essentially a 101 guide to ritual construction. Written in such a way as to not evoke any specific religion (though it draws on “Native American” spirituality–more on that in a moment), it breaks ritual practices down into basic components, but without going too heavily into theory. It’s a practical guide, a toolkit for creating rituals for everything from rites of passage to celebration to grieving, as well as connection to the Earth and other living beings. Not surprisingly, there’s a great focus on healing, including healing of the psyche, and the use of ritual for that purpose.

The authors present a nice balance of how-tos and anecdotes. One entire chapter is dedicated to interviews with various experienced ritual leaders, including Starhawk, to get their perspectives on creating rituals through the medium of a circle. These interviews add a nice touch of “been there, done that, here’s what worked” to the hands-on material.

I did take off some points because of a bit of cultural appropriation. The authors, as mentioned earlier, borrow from what they perceive as “Native American” spirituality. This is presented pretty generically, and without a lot of discussion of the original cultural contexts of the practices. Additionally, there’s not a lot of information presented for each–the sweat lodge, for example, gets a few paragraphs at best, never mind that improperly done it can be deadly. And they toss the word “shamanic” around more than I’m comfortable with; surviving an abusive childhood, for example, does not automatically make one a shaman. While I understand the authors’ desire to present a wide variety of potential ritual practices, “trying to be like the Indians” generally ends up with some deficiencies, and while they did address needing to respect the cultures drawn from, I found this aspect of the book to be pretty lacking.

Overall, though, this is a really valuable resource, especially if you need to design a ritual for people who aren’t necessarily pagan, but are open to animistic spiritual/psychological practices. I’m keeping it for my own uses, and would recommend it to others.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Circle of Stones by Judith Duerk – May BBBR

Circle of Stones: Woman’s Journey to Herself
Judith Duerk
LuraMedia, 1989
70 pages

I initially picked this book up because it had the same main title as one of my favorite books, A Circle of Stones: Journeys and Meditations for Modern Celts by Erynn Rowan Laurie, and occasionally I’ve had people mistake the two in conversation. So I was curious as to what this other text was all about, since it had gotten favorable feedback.

This Circle of Stones is a lovely little text on women’s mysteries and connecting to the Divine Feminine, including that within. Rather than being an academic text or how-to book, it’s a veritable stream of consciousness filled with philosophies and advice for coming more fully into one’s identity as a woman. Much of it hints at a different society where there’s not millenia of sexism and worse oppression towards women, and what that might look like. I’m generally somewhat cynical about “herstory”, but I liked this as an alternate concept of what could be.

Because of this, I think my favorite parts of the book were the meditations beginning “How might your life have been different…”. They’re short meditations on what might have happened if, for example, women-only spaces that weren’t based on shutting women away, and how that might affect a woman’s development over her lifetime. Rather than telling the reader what to think, the author simply invites contemplation and personal consideration.

I will warn those who are intent on historical accuracy that there is a bit of revisionism, particularly at the beginning, to the tune of “There used to be matriarchies before the patriarchies took over”. However, this is minimal, and most of the book–including the practical material–is not based on this premise.

Overall, a lovely read, and I understand why others have spoken well of it.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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Between the Worlds – Stuart Myers – April BBBR

Between the Worlds: Witchcraft and the Tree of Life – A Program of Spiritual Development
Stuart Myers
Llewellyn, 1995
230 pages

I generally find mashups of Wicca/witchcraft and other magical systems to be somewhat clumsy affairs, usually because the relatively new interpretations of witchcraft sometimes seem to water down the much older systems that they’re paired with. I can understand the desire to draw together elements of multiple magical/spiritual paths, but all too often the results come across as contrived if they’re presented as anything more than the author’s own personal blend. (Plus it’s irritating to hear over and over again how everyone from Siberian shamans to Jesus of Nazareth was really practicing witchcraft.)

The author of Between the Worlds made a worthy attempt at blending Wicca and Qabalah; considering that a lot of the correspondences and other elements of Wicca stem from Qabalistic symbolism, they’re a much better pairing than others I’ve seen. The text is highly practical, composed entirely of exercises, meditations and rituals for growth and personal evolution using the Tree of Life as scaffolding. While much of it is based on Qabalah, Myers manages to weave in odd bits of witchcraft here and there, particularly as a way to show how the tools and techniques of that system can be used in conjunction with the more complex symbolism of Qabalah.

I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by the attempt to take the duotheistic/soft polytheistic theology of Wicca and juxtapose it with the monotheistic (or hard polytheistic, depending on who you talk to) theology of Qabalah. Granted, Qabalah is pretty flexible in and of itself, but I find the God/Goddess thing to often be oversimplified. That’s where most of my issues with the book stem from, and if you can work around it, you’ll probably find it more useful than I did.

Overall, it’s a highly useful book, and offers much to the reader who is willing to go through and utilize the tools offered in its pages. It’s been out of print for several years, though used copies are fairly easy to find. A good book for a Wiccan/witch wanting to incorporate more Qabalah, or simply wanting a more detailed and structured method of personal evolution than what your average Wicca 101 book offers.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Women Who Run With the Poodles – Barbara Graham – March BBBR

Women Who Run With the Poodles: Myths and Tips For Honoring Your Mood Swings
Barbara Graham
Avon Books, 1994
150 pages

I totally admit I bought this book for the title. I’ve read Estes’ Women Who Run With the Wolves, and I can see where a lot of it has become cliched in the realm of self-help. This book was an attempt to parody that, and numerous other self-help books–and those of their readers who have gone way beyond self-help and into self-over-criticizing and other counterproductive behavior.

On the one hand, there are some amusing moments in the book–I’m waiting to see if some enterprising public speaker comes up with workshops like “Insurance Warrior”, “The Way of the Gastroenterologist”, and “Creating Your Sacred Tax Shelter”. The illustrations are cute, and match the general feel of the book. And there’s some value in pointing out that it’s okay to not be perfect, to have some blemishes. Plus I liked the section on how you don’t really need all sorts of accessories.

However, there are also some down sides. Practically speaking, it reinforces some unhealthy stereotypes such as therapy being useless, as well as some ridiculous elements of the supposed “War Between the Sexes”. It’s a great guide on how to ignore anything useful out of alternative spirituality whatsoever. And the humor does get old after a while; this might have been better as an essay, not an entire book.

If you’re need to be a bit jaded about the self-help industry in general, this might be an okay read. I think the author might have had something more to say than “You don’t need all those useless attempts at self-improvement!”, but tried too hard and didn’t quite get the snappy wit she was attempting.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Wicca Unveiled by J. Philip Rhodes – February BBBR

Wicca Unveiled: The Complete Rituals of Modern Witchcraft
J. Philip Rhodes
Speaking Tree, 2000
192 pages

While I’m tired of Wicca 101 rehashes, at least this one is on traditional rather than eclectic Wicca. Rhodes has many years’ experience in British Traditional Wiccan (BTW) covens, and uses this book to pass on information about the rituals and beliefs involved. Granted, I’m not BTW myself, so to an extent this review isn’t quite as informed as, say, Mike Gleason’s, but here are my thoughts.

On the plus side, the book is a fairly complete overview. It includes different initiatory and celebratory rituals, such as those for handfasting, and initiations in the Wiccan degree system. There’s also the prerequisite Sabbat and Esbat rites, and even planetary rituals which hail more towards modern Wicca’s ceremonial magical roots. Basic correspondences and incense recipes are to be found in the appendices, though they’re rather sparse.

However, there’s nothing that really makes this book stand out. It’s basically BTW for people who want a basic idea of its rites, but don’t want to slog through the Farrars’ massive black book. There are also some assumptions made that have essentially been discounted–the concept of an unbroken line of witchcraft going back hundreds or thousands of years, the “black/white” dichotomy of witchcraft, and other outdated things. The first chapter, which includes the history and theory of witchcraft, could be much more fleshed out as well; the book is mostly rituals.

It’s not terrible, but it’s not great, either. If you want an easy introduction to BTW rites and don’t want to spend too much time researching it, this will work. If you want something more substantial, read the Farrars.

Two and a half 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 Hell-fire Club by Donald McCormick – December BBBR

The Hell-fire Club (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult)
Donald McCormick
Sphere books Ltd., 1975
206 pages

I’ll admit I was a little leery of this book when I first picked it up, since the cover and format make it come across as a rather sensational pulp paperback. However, for $1.29 I was willing to give it a shot, especially since I’d recently seen the episode of the Sci Fi channel’s Ghost Hunters at a friend’s place that featured the Hell Fire caves where Sir Francis Dashwood and others were rumored to have enacted black magic.

All told, it’s a better book than I expected. The author is concerned less about sensationalism (though there is a touch of that) and more about determining whether there actually was any truth to the accusations of black magic and other debaucheries. He does a significant amount of research, drawing on letters and other primary documents from contemporary times, and weaves them together in a nicely organized tale. He also emphasizes the social and political contexts that the Hell-fire Club existed in, rather than trying to get it to exist in a vacuum for his own purposes.

The writer of the introduction insists that the author is wrong, that there actually were Satanic masses going on at the time, though he doesn’t offer much evidence. Still, those who want to believe this is true may dislike this book. Additionally, because it is an older text, and there are newer resources on the topic, readers may want to compare it to more recent research. For an introduction to the topic, though, it’s not bad at all.

A reasonably good read with better research and presentation than a lot of the New Age drek floating around today.

Four pawprints out of five.

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