The Book of Curses – Stuart Gordon – November BBBR

The Book of Curses: True Tales of Voodoo, Hoodoo and Hex
Stuart Gordon
Brockhampton Press, 1997
242 pages

You know when you go into one of those big box chain bookstores that are all alike, and are immediately met by rows upon rows of discounted hardbacks of various sorts? And the New Age titles are usually something put out by the chain’s own publishing house, or other major houses? I think this started out life as one of those books. I got it from the local Goodwill bargain bin, but this may have been a career bargain book.

This is not a book on how to curse people. It is, however, a collection of stories and anecdotes (all third person, nothing from the author’s own experiences) about curses in various magical and other systems. Some of the book delves into Afro-Caribbean religions; however, the MacBeth curse is also visited, as is the supposed curse on King Tut’s tomb. Gordon also touches briefly on modern witch hunts in the form of the Satanic Panic and child abuse allegations in the 1980s, and on the theory of tulpas, or thought-forms, as potential causes of curses through the power of belief.

While it’s an interesting read, take it with a decent-sized grain of salt. Much of the book is based on hearsay and older sources, and seems mostly to be a collection of whatever fairly common information on curses is available. It’s mostly on par with various Time-Life and other mainstream texts on occultism; don’t use it as a primary text, but there are some interesting bits of information that can lead to further research if you so choose. Also, don’t expect the information on specific religions, such as Voodoo, to be particularly solid; it tends more towards the sensational end of things, with a few facts thrown in for legitimacy’s sake.

In short, this book is good for entertainment, but it most definitely needs supplementation.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Dreams, Symbols and Psychic Power by Tanous and Gray – October BBBR

Dreams, Symbols and Psychic Power: Your Guide to Personal Growth
Alex Tanous and Timothy Gray
Bantam Books, 1990
216 pages

This month’s Bargain Bin Book review was a definite bargain–I found this little text in the middle of a parking lot while walking home from work one day. Deciding that the Universe must have wanted me to read it and review it, I placed it in my BBBR stacks. Having done the reading, I must preface this review by saying that the Universe has sent me a message that it hates me.

Okay, okay–maybe the Universe doesn’t hate me. However, this was a painful book to read. It’s basically a few chapters of halfway decent advice on basic dreamwork wrapped around a bunch of chapters of stereotype-laden dream dictionary.

The first chapter as a basic intro to dream interpretation. There’s a smattering of traditional psychological dream interpretation tossed in there, along with a bit of scientific information about what happens when we dream. I do feel like the authors were trying too hard to ascribe psychic and woo-woo powers to all dreams; I’m of the general opinion that most dreams are mainly our brain’s way of organizing thoughts and experiences from when we’re awake. However, for what the book is, the information isn’t all bad. The second chapter, full of advice on how to remember your dreams better, has a lot of value to it, and adds to the usefulness of this book for general beginners.

The dictionary part…well…I’m really not a fan of the stereotypical dictionary format in any form of spirituality or magical practice. Dream symbols are highly personal, and IMO it matters less what, exactly, you see, than how what you see makes you feel/react. There’s too much material in this book that prods people towards reading too much into something, or interpreting it in a stereotypical manner, rather than looking at the subjective qualities of a particular symbol. A few mentions here and there that dreams are personal won’t really offset the dictionary section of this book. The same can all be said of chapter five, which includes some broad assumptions about specific types of dreams, held up by a handful of anecdotes.

Chapter six is more useful because it includes open-ended advice on how to analyze your dreams. I really think that this book suffered for trying to pigeonhole things that are really very subjective in their interpretation, and overemphasized the recipe-book approach to dream interpretation. Had the book been more focused on the open-ended material in the second and sixth chapters, I think it would have been a much better work overall.

I might recommend this to a beginner with the caveat that chapters two and six are really the only useful portions. Other than that, though, the rest of the pages would make better pulp for new books.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Earthway – Mary Summer Rain – September BBBR

Earthway: A Native American Visionary’s Path to Total Mind, Body and Spirit Health
Mary Summer Rain
Pocket Books, 1990
442 pages

Oops, almost missed this month–grad school has me exceptionally busy. But here it is, the Bargain Bin Book Review for September! I’ll admit, this is the very first book by Mary Summer Rain I’ve ever read. I’ve heard the praise and complaints about her work, but I wanted to find out for myself what the fuss is all about. Some people absolutely love her work, and some hate what they consider to be some of the worst plastic shamanism.

I’m afraid I’ll have to opt in with the latter group. Right off the bat, I was cringing from the pidgin English that “No-eyes”, Rain’s supposed mentor, was stuck with–“Nope, it just be fact”, from p. 26, is just one example. I’m guessing No-eyes is up there with don Juan Matus for being a fictionalized Indian presented as a flesh and blood human being. Trying to buy legitimacy with a made-up mentor = points off your final review.

This is subtitled “a Native American visionary’s path”. I found a hodgepodge of information from a variety of sources, including a ton of Western medicine, with some totem animals and other correspondences thrown in. There’s New Age dream interpretation material, to include a whole bunch of 20th century elements that wouldn’t have been a part of any traditional Native American culture. There’s what’s supposedly Anasazi astrology. And there’s a whole lot of medical advice being dispensed by someone who, to my understanding, isn’t a medical professional. Extra points taken off for an utter and complete lack of a bibliography or other notations of source material.

I can’t, in good conscience, recommend this book to anyone, either as a guide to healthy living, or indigenous spiritual and cultural practices–really for anything except as an object lesson in plastic shamanism. Now I see why so many people complain about this author’s work. This is some of the worst of the worst.

One pawprint 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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Seasonal Dance – Broch and MacLer – July BBBR

Seasonal Dance: How to Celebrate the Pagan Year
Janice Broch and Veronica MacLer
Weiser, 1993
172 pages

I’m admittedly kind of jaded about books on celebrating sabbats and esbats. How many times do we need to know that we can associate bread with Lammas, have pumpkin soup at Samhain, and rut like bunnies at Beltane? Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find a good deal of practical information in this book that’s a decade and a half old now.

The first chapter, “Creating Ritual”, is exceptionally important all on its own. The authors give a detailed process for structuring and writing a good ritual. While it doesn’t have every single answer you may need, it’s a wonderful resource if you’re just learning how to write a ritual, especially one with other people involved. The appendices are also quite useful, especially the ones on song and dance and games (though the appendices of correspondences aren’t too much different from what you’d find elsewhere).

The chapters on individual sabbats do have precrafted rituals, though the authors do advise that if you use one of them (or any other publicly available, widespread ritual), someone else may recognize them–which may or may not be embarrassing. While they offer sample rituals, they do encourage the reader to write their own. They’re fairly generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism, but they are nice and the background information in the first chapter gives added depth to understanding the components of the rituals–much better than just giving people a book of spells and rites and telling them to go to it.

This would be a lovely book to give to a beginner, especially someone who may be in an informal group with other relative newbies. While it certainly shouldn’t be the only resource made available, it is a wonderful addition to a 101 bookshelf.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Divine Nature – M. Cremo and M. Goswami – June BBBR

Divine Nature: A Spiritual Perspective On the Environmental Crisis
Michael A. Cremo and Mukunda Goswami
The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1998
144 pages

I picked this up expecting a general book on ecospirituality. What I got was a book about how the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (commonly known as the Hare Krishnas) is working for sustainability and ecological balance.

I’m not going to judge the theological or social propriety of ISKCON. However, the book itself was an interesting read. A good deal of it was basic environmental awareness. The first few chapters focus on ecological issues that face the world today, as well as environmental and spiritual arguments for everything from humane treatment of animals to using ox power for farming rather than tractors. There’s also an interesting chapter on “Karma and the Environment” which may be of particular interest to those who believe in karma. And the last part of the book details what ISKCON members have been doing as far as sustainable actions and lifestyles go. The book is also peppered with profiles of individual ISKCON members and affiliates and the pro-environment work they’re doing.

Overall, it’s an interesting little book. I have little use for the theological specifics, but I think it’s great to see what other people are doing to A) present the problems that many are ignoring, and B) do something about it. Some of the environmental issues may be preaching to the choir for those who are already aware of them, but they are presented well. Ten years after this book came out, some of the references are a bit dated, but the message is clear.

Four pawprints out of five.

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An Enchanted Life – Patricia Telesco – May BBBR

An Enchanted Life: An Adept’s Guide to Masterful Magick
Patricia Telesco
New Page, 2002
224 pages

This is one of a number of books that have come out in recent years that have attempted to break beyond the paganism/magic 101 barrier. Rather than giving all the answers, Telesco instead works to give the reader a lot to think about–something that’s exceptionally important when moving beyond the basics.

There are dozens of incredibly useful exercises in the book. Some involve self-questioning and reflection; others provide the reader lessons in shifting perceptions. They’re much more in-depth than yet another pile of precrafted spells and rituals, and the reader who makes use of them won’t be disappointed. The first two chapters of the book deal mainly with perceptions and awareness, as well as working more with all five senses, not just sight, our primary sense.

The rest of the book is dedicated to four different archetypes–the Healer, the Teacher, the Warrior and the Visionary. Now, this is just a personal preference, but I’m not really fond of directing people towards specific roles. While I understand the reasoning behind promoting archetypes as templates of the self, the problem is that people have a tendency to lock themselves firmly into those archetypes, newbies especially. I think, perhaps, it would be wiser to offer up archetypes, but then encourage the reader to learn to take them all on, rather than sticking with whatever “element” or “role’ they feel they fit the most. IMO, the more advanced you get, the more adaptable you may need to be (even as you may have your specialties).

I wouldn’t call this an advanced text; rather, it’s intermediate-right-after-the-basics. It’s the kind of book you give to a person when they’re just beginning to branch out from learning about the Sabbats, and correspondences, and some of the more common deities and spirits. Despite my qualms about the archetypes, I do think it’s a great text for bridging the way between basic and intermediate magical work, and the wealth of information and exercises in the text is the real strength of this book.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Magickal Mystical Creatures – D.J. Conway – April BBBR

Magickal Mystical Creatures
D.J. Conway
Llewellyn, 2001
260 pages

This book was a freebie from a friend. I had been less than excited about Conway’s Animal Magick and Dancing with Dragons (though I just got the newest edition of the latter from newWitch magazine, so we’ll see what kind of a review it gets).

I was actually surprised; I liked this one better than the other two. I still have my gripes, but I am admittedly pretty picky. This particular book is an encyclopedia of various mythological beings from around the world–primarily Eurasian, but with a smattering of beings from other places as well. They’re divided by type–canines, gryphons and their ilk, various types of unicorn, etc. (I do have to say I loved the illustrations, too!)

There’s a decent amount of information on each being gleaned from mythological and historical sources. Additionally, Conway adds in psychological interpretations of the kind of people who could either be helped or hindered by each entity, depending on its nature. She does also recommend that dangerous beings be avoided by all but the most experienced magicians (and sometimes not even then).

I think my biggest complaint is that it’s simply not enough. Many of the beings that she recommends as being safe aren’t necessarily so. For example, she presents unicorns as being mostly positive beings who can lead the reader into Faery. However, there’s not much warning about the fact that unicorns were originally seen as fierce, dangerous creatures, and that Faery generally isn’t someplace you want to just waltz on into. Even the “nice” faeries aren’t particularly safe, especially if you study the original lore. As with a lot of basic pagan titles of the mid 1990s, things that really aren’t safe and easy are presented as welcoming and available to all, with little warning of potential hazards.

And this is why I strongly recommend that you not stick with just a dictionary. While this has its uses, it’s a starting point primarily, and the actual practical information comprises less than a score of pages, and it’s mostly spellwork 101. Use this guide to get you introduced to what’s out there, but then do your research with other sources, both on magical practice and on lore surrounding the beings you want to work with.

Three 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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The Book of Shamanic Healing – Kristin Madden – February BBBR

The Book of Shamanic Healing
Kristin Madden
Llewellyn, 2002
230 pages

I’m always happy when I get a Bargain Bin Book that gets a good review. I’m of the mind that just because a book isn’t bright, shiny and new, or even in print any more, that it isn’t necessarily worse than what’s currently enjoying fifteen minutes of shelf time at the local big box bookstore. The Book of Shamanic Healing, which first came out over half a decade ago, is definitely a great read, and shouldn’t be overlooked despite its age.

This is not a complete book on shamanism, and it’s neoshamanism (although the author was raised with traditional shamanism in her family, which does add to her perspective). What it is, is a wonderfully thorough guide specifically on what the title says–shamanic healing. If you don’t have a basic understanding of shamanism in general, you’d do well to set this book aside for the moment and read a few 101 books. Then, come back to this awesome text, and give it a go.

Madden does a wonderful job of covering a variety of techniques and tools that the shaman may use in healing patients. From energy work and crystals, to dreams and stories, and even a really good chapter on drumming as a healing tool, she offers the reader a wealth of information. Her first chapter brings us into the material by reminding us of the humbling concept that we ourselves have been and may still be wounded, and this vulnerability and experience may be one of the most valuable tools we have as healers. And she adds in a highly commendable chapter on healing through one’s own creativity.

What really sets this book apart from a lot of modern neoshamanic texts is its practicality and groundedness. You won’t get made-up “real live Indian!” teachers and gurus used to try to add validity to Madden’s teachings. Nor will you get a long ego-ridden ramble about just how great the author is. Rather, she offers her own experiences to punctuate what is a great text on the very practical, everyday considerations of having a healing practice. She reminds us of the importance of coming into a healing with a clear mind and a clear location, that not every healing will go perfectly, and she thinks of a lot of small details that might get overlooked otherwise. In short, it’s quite apparent that she’s done the work and been in the trenches herself.

She doesn’t really go into potential dangers of healing too much beyond protecting yourself from the illness you are extracting. Nor does she mention much about barriers and issues in things like soul retrieval where things may not go as planned. There’s very little about working with spirits, and considering some illnesses may be caused by malevolent beings, one would do well to not consider this quite a complete guide to shamanic healing. However, that being said, this is still a very valuable text for any shaman, especially those who may be working for those beyond their immediate family, to have on hir shelf. I know that when the time comes for me to start training as a healer, this will be an important book for me.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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