The Teachings of Don Juan – Carlos Castaneda – January BBBR

The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge
Carlos Castaneda
University of California Press, 1998
215 pages

While I’ve read de Mille’s Castaneda’s Journey, I’m not going to attempt to prove whether don Juan Matus actually existed, or whether he was a creation of Carlos Castaneda himself. Instead, I’m going to focus on the quality of this, his first book.

First, I really have to question whether this really is a “Yaqui way of knowledge”. There’s no connection between the Yaqui culture and what don Juan talks about. According to, among other places, the official Pascua Yaqui website, there’s no mention of any of the hallucinogenic plants that Castaneda speaks of, though perhaps more importantly Castaneda never brings up things that are culturally important to the Yaqui, such as the deer dancer or flowers, nor their language. While shamanism isn’t always the same as the main religion of a culture, there are still cultural elements in it. This in and of itself makes me suspicious as to the cultural validity of the material, never mind the functional validity.

Functionally this book is a disaster. I’ve been told you have to “read between the lines” to really get what don Juan was saying. However, all I read is a lot of obfuscation of lore and mysticism. We’re given a few tips and tricks for how to deal with the spirits of some hallucinogenic plants, with no reasons as to why these practices are important. Occasionally there’s something basic and functional, such as the lesson of “finding one’s place”, but this should not be used as a practical text. Castaneda’s analysis is so-so; again, lack of connection between don Juan’s teachings and the actual Yaqui culture is a major flaw.

I would have respected this book a lot more if it had been presented from the beginning as either a novel, or a book “based on a true” story without claiming to be an anthropological breakthrough. As for the claim that it’s a huge breakthrough in popular entheogen lore–popular doesn’t always mean accurate or good quality. There were numerous researchers of various hallucinogens prior to Castaneda; for example, in the 1950s R. Gordon Wasson along with Valentina Povlovna, his wife, went through a series of experiments in Mexico with psilocybin mushrooms. Wasson later cowrote this article in Life magazine about his experiences. Real names were used, people who were traceable were cited, and photos of the rituals were taken–much more respectable than Castaneda’s attempts at mystifying the reader.

I’m pretty underwhelmed. The only saving grace was that it was an entertaining read, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Castaneda was describing trips he’s actually been on. Reportedly the later books have less entheogen use and more teachings, so I may check them out at a later date. Still, I recommend this only as a way to familiarize yourself with Castaneda’s work and for entertainment only–in other words, don’t try this at home, kids!

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Mystical Dogs – Jean Houston – December BBBR

Mystical Dogs: Animals as Guides to Our Inner Life
Jean Houston
Inner Ocean: 2002
208 pages

Well, it’s December again, and just about a year since the very first Bargain Bin Book Review. This month I decided to go a little easier on myself since I just plowed through Eliade’s Shamanism. This was a good choice, a pleasant book of mysticism and spirituality coupled with a variety of stories about dogs the author has shared her life with.

Houston has the usual Western/New Age view of enlightenment–not as a result of years of rigorous meditation, but as a series of realizations during everyday life. I’m not sure I really agree that what the New Age terms “enlightenment” is the same as the Eastern concept, but I do agree with her that dogs can indeed be excellent teachers through example. And in fact her stories are the highlight of this book. I read with joy each tale and anecdote surrounding an array of Airedales, a couple of mastiffs, an Akita and a German shepherd dog, among others. There were occasional moments of sadness in the stories, but for the most part this was an uplifting book.

After each story, the author elaborates on the mystical significance and lessons learned with each dog. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t find these sections to be quite so interesting as the stories. She tends to ramble some, and I found myself losing interest a number of times. However, it’s also entirely possible that I simply don’t mesh well with her ideas or her writing style; she’s a lot more concise when she’s telling a story.

Still, I do recommend this book as a heartwarming bit of light writing that may very well bring you to your own sense of peace. Whether you own a dog or simply the company of your friends’ furry companions, this book is a nice way of looking at the more positive aspects of dog ownership (as opposed to filling in holes in the yard, hiding claw marks on the door, and rescuing small creatures from overexuberant attempts to play).

Four pawprints (how appropriate) out of five.

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The Birth Order Book – Kevin Leman – November BBBR

The Birth Order Book
Dr. Kevin Leman
Revell, 1996

Okay, so this month’s Bargain Bin Book Review technically isn’t a book on magic or other esoteric topics; however, I found it in the pagan/occult section of the clearance rack, so I say it counts 😉 . Though jokes aside, I actually found it to be a good read, and I think that psychology can be an incredibly useful tool in magical works; I’ll explain more in a bit.

The basic premise is that our personalities are shaped by how our parents treat us based on our birth order. For example, the firstborn child generally gets a lot of attention coupled with a lot of responsibility, the middle children may feel somewhat ignored (depending on circumstances), and the babies of the families often rule the roost. Only children may additionally take after the firstborns, though there are unique traits as well. All of these are presented as generalizations based on the author’s observations among his patients, rather than hard and fast dogma. I found a lot to resonate with as a youngest child who was also a quasi-only due to being the youngest by nine and a half years. There’s also a lot of material on coping with your birth order “issues”, as well as tips on marriages between different birth orders, and information about how to work with your own children to avoid programming the worst traits into them by accident.

Where I see this as being useful for magical practitioners is as a complement for things like astrology and tarot reading, as well as other systems that either deal with telling a person something about hirself and/or that rely on knowing something about the person to get results. While birth order isn’t everything, it can add a dimension of understanding to a person’s internal and external environments. If you’re currently slogging through old conditioning and other such things, either through meditation or other methods, this may be an interesting book that provides some food for thought on how you got to be the way you are. It’s not a complete guide, but it gave me something to think about.

Four pawprints out of five.

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The Spirit of Shamanism – Roger N. Walsh – October BBBR

The Spirit of Shamanism (reprinted as World of Shamanism, 2007)
Roger N. Walsh, M.D., Ph.D.
Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990
286 pages

I can’t say enough good stuff about this book. It’s this month’s Bargain Bin Book Review, and it’s quite possibly the best one I’ve picked up.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled against shamanism for years has been that shamans are schizophrenic or otherwise mentally ill and generally dysfunctional. This goes against more recent observations that the shaman is actually one of the most psychologically healthy people in hir society. This excellent book is an in-depth look at the psychology of shamanism, from a very positive, constructive and yet objective viewpoint. Euro-centric bias is tossed out the window, and shamanism (or, rather, the various forms thereof) is explored from within the contexts of the cultures it stems from.

Walsh draws upon a number of ideas and inspirations. Campbell’s explanation of the Hero’s journey is applied to the shaman’s development, from ordinary citizen to community leader. Of particular interest is the motif of the initiatory crisis, the time in which the shaman undergoes extreme changes internally and may exhibit incredibly odd behavior to the consternation of other members of hir society. This, and the seeming “delusion” of the shamanic journey are studied in great detail throughout the book, and the importance of these two experiences in particular cannot be ignored.

To me, the most valuable gift this book offers is the detailed explanation throughout of how shamanism, rather than paralleling the unhealthy and disorganized experience of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, in fact has much in common with modern psychological practices ranging from psychoanalysis to Jung’s work, and in particular to the modern practice of transpersonal psychology. The placebo effect is explored, and its effectiveness in both shamanism AND in Western medicine is discussed; in fact, there are a couple of chapters that focus specifically on shamanic healing and how/why it works. Finally, the altered states of consciousness inherent to shamanic practice are shown to be, not a matter of escapism and trickery, but of a path towards enlightenment-like states of being, though different from the states achieved through yoga and other forms of meditation.

It’s an incredibly well-researched book as well. Unlike too many of the texts on shamanism today, this one takes an academic approach rather than a New Age one, yet as mentioned doesn’t fall prey to the usual academic pitfalls. There are numerous in-text citations and a nice, meaty bibliography.

In all, we’re left with a picture of shamanism that has less to do with dysfunctionality, quackery and superstition, and more to do with modern healthy practices that, in some cases, Western psychologicy has only recently “discovered”. While the author does not go so far as to tell people to dump their therapists and become shamans (which anyone with good sense knows is irresponsible), he undoes decades of Western bias as well as the later romanticism that has all too often been applies to shamanism. In this text we’re allowed to see that shamanism is both terrifying and ecstatic, and is an evolution rather than de-evolution of human consciousness.

Five enthusiastic pawprints out of five.

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Choice Centered Tarot – Gail Fairfield – September BBBR

Choice Centered Tarot
Gail Fairfield
Ramp Creek Publishing, 1984
154 pages

This is an older edition of the book now known as “Everyday Tarot”, but since this is what I pulled out of the bargain bin, this is the review you get 😉

I read tarot on the side, but not that often. Still, I have enough experience to have more than the basics down, and I really liked the angle this particular author took. The book is very much a psychological approach to Tarot, with a strong emphasis on what the individual symbols mean to each reader and querent. Rather than being dogmatic about what each card means or doesn’t mean, Fairfield encourages the reader to really think about the symbolism, even to the point of thinking very carefully about the colors in a deck before purchasing it. She advocates an approach to tarot that has a lot of preparation rooted in personalization rather than superstition.

I also like her comparison of divination to sitting in a hot air balloon. You can see a lot more than just the immediate surroundings, and get a much better perspective on what’s going on. It’s a very open-ended approach, one that allows a lot more freedom of personal interpretation and perception.

The meanings she gives for the individual cards are her own, admittedly, but she gives a lot of detail–and the preceding information provides the context within which she reads. Her section on designing and using spreads is also valuable.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It’s an incredibly useful tool for Tarot readers of any experience level, and would be a definite help in creating a more thoughtful, conscious approach to reading, rather than just going by whatever the book says.

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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Good Witch, Bad Witch – Gillian Kemp – July BBBR

Good Witch, Bad Witch: Sweet Spells and Dark Charms
Gilliam Kemp
Bulfinch, 2002
64 pages + 52 cards

The first thing that drew me into this set is the artwork. Bright colors, beautifully painted, with whimsical images of witches, both “good” and “bad”. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any notation of who are artist was. Still, the artwork is a lovely illustration of the text.

This set is…well…it’s best summed up as “cute”. There’s a very playful air to the way Kemp writes about her good and bad witches, 26 of each. The Good Witches include the Stardust Witch, who “makes dreams come true” (22), the Fire Witch who “makes temperatures rise” (32) and the South Witch, who “predicts a happy phase when the sun will shine for you” (36). The Bad Witches, on the other hand, features such characters as the Warty Witch, who “speaks to you in a vein of honesty, ‘warts and all'” (46), the Wickedest Witch who “reveals that jealousy may create havoc” (49) and the Venomous Witch who is “as poisonous as an adder’s fang” (55). The various roles of each of the witches in this divinatory pack deal primarily with everyday concerns such as love and good living. Along with descriptions of the “personality” of each witch, the general attributes and forecasts that each card suggests are explained. Each entry is completed with a brief spell that fits the theme of the card that comes up.

Some may look askance at some of the spells; for example, there are several that are dedicated to ruining someone else’s relationship or getting revenge on others. These hearken back to historical witchcraft, in which the spells for love and healing were joined by the equally common spells for revenge and sickness–in modern practices of witchcraft (particularly Wicca) the latter aren’t spoken of as much in an attempt to improve P.R. for paganism as a whole. While most witches choose not to implement such spells, the fact that they exist shouldn’t be denied. It all comes down to personal ethics.

I think my only complaint is that it is pretty lightweight. The descriptions are quite brief, and I would have enjoyed reading about how Kemp actually created the deck–a story is always a nice addition. Still, for being a little gift-box divination set, it’s pretty darned good.

For all its cute factor, this is a very usable deck. Kemp did a great job of designing some sample layouts to be used with this deck, and they serve a very functional purpose. If you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary that keeps even the “bad” witches light-hearted, this is a fun deck to work–or play–with.

Four pawprints out of five.

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When I See the Wild God – Ly de Angeles – June BBBR

When I See the Wild God: Encountering Urban Celtic Witchcraft
Ly de Angeles
Llewellyn, 2004
288 pages

This is one of those books that seems to have lost its focus. Some of it appears to be aimed at modern pagan men’s mysteries and the God aspect of the Divine, but then there’s also the (by now stereotypical) Celtic aspects of it. However, the bulk of the book is a rehash of Wicca 101, with the usual ritual tools, casting the circle and calling the quarters, etc. And the book doesn’t flow particularly well; sometimes the progression of chapters seems rather disjointed.

Because of this, I found myself skimming the book a lot, more because it was very familiar material than because it was poorly written. I actually like de Angeles’ writing style; she’s an excellent storyteller, and it perks up the fiction quite a bit. If it were just marketed as a Wicca/witchcraft 101 book, it’s be one of the better-written ones on the market. All the basics are here in an easy to read format.

Unfortunately, I just really couldn’t get into the book as I think it was meant to be. The male aspects are primarily a little bit of talk at the beginning of the book, and a mention of some gods. The Celtic flavoring is no different than in other books on “Celtic Wicca” or similar modernized systems with Celtic names in it. Granted, she does a decent job of Celtic mythology 101, but it shouldn’t be taken as genuine Celtic culture, just the usual mash-up.

If you’re looking for a basic book on Wicca 101, this one is a good intro, but if you want men’s mysteries, check out The Pagan Man by Isaac Bonewits or King, Warrior, Magician, Lover by Douglas and Gillette.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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Dancing With Dragons – D.J. Conway – May BBBR

Dancing With Dragons
D.J. Conway
Llewellyn, 2003
296 pages

I finally got around to reading this one, which just happened to be on the clearance rack. I knew it was pretty popular, though I didn’t realize it was in its thirteenth printing by 2003. I’d imagine there’ve been more since then.

I can see why the book has been so popular–for one thing, it was pretty much the first of its kind. Many pagans think dragons are the best thing since sliced bread, and so a book on dragon magic would have a pretty wide appeal. I’ve only seen one other book of its type, Torrence’s Sea, Land Sky: A Dragon Magick Grimoire which is on my wish list which I have reviewed as of 10 July, 2007.

So what was the first book on dragon magic like? Rather disappointing. I’ve generally disliked Conway’s works because she has a tendency to recycle the basic Wicca 101 material and plug in different cultural trappings; for example, her “Celtic Magic” and “Norse Magic” were practically the same book, only with different sets of deities and spirits. This book isn’t much different.

There’s a bunch of information on the history and mythology of dragons (without any sort of internal citations to show where she got specific bits of information). It seems pretty solid, and she has a good variety of cultures. However, it’s nothing you couldn’t find in any basic book of dragon mythology, such as The Book of the Dragon by Allen and Griffiths. Conway also indulges in a little more “Christians are evil!!!” sentiment than I’m comfortable with (as if no other group or religion had dragons as a symbol for dangerous things).

As for the magic itself, it’s basically Wicca 101 mixed with draconic imagery and a lot of Conway’s own UPG about her own dragon spirits. There are also pages upon pages of correspondences, information on basic Wiccan altar tools,and other 101 information that you could find in any book about Wicca, which makes me think that there was a serious need of filler. I really question the wisdom of some of her own material about dragons; for example, in the basic dragon ritual (p. 118 et. al) she instructs the reader to invoke Fafnir as the dragon of the south. I can’t find any evidence for the other three directional dragons, names Grael, Sairys and Naelyan. Is this UPG? She also talks about dragons as if anyone could work with them, and it’s just a matter of being polite to them.

The chapters on the different types of dragon read somewhat like a D&D manual, and she classifies dragons by their elemental properties regardless of what culture they come from. This just continues a neopagan trend that really annoys me, trying to wrap the entire world up in a neat elemental package. IMO, if you’re going to work with dragons deal with them as individuals according to the culture they come from, not whatever element they remind you of.

Basically, if you’re new to Wicca and you like dragons, you’ll probably like this book. Just don’t make it the do-all and end-all of your research on either topic. As per usual, there’s a lot of questionable material. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen on the internet most of the material available on dragon magic stems from this book. Here’s hoping that Torrence’s work or future books of dragon magic will be improvements over this one.

One and a half 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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