Following the Sun by Sharon LaBorde

Following the Sun: A Practical Guide to Egyptian Religion
Sharon LaBorde
Self-published (lulu.com), 2010
300 pages

Reviewed by Devo

This book disappointed me on many levels, though I can’t say that it was unexpected. There were many things that irritated me about this book, though a few things stick out in particular. Those being: the author’s sourcing, the author’s tone/writing style, and the actual content of the book.

My biggest complaint about this book is the sourcing (or lack thereof). For me, if you’re not an actual Egyptologist and you’re writing about historical ancient Egypt, you have to have good sourcing in order to be taken seriously. Otherwise, your work means nothing. There are many tidbits and facts in this book that I have never seen before. This is normally a good thing, because it means I’m learning new information. However, in this case, the lack of sourcing makes the book totally useless because I can’t vouch for the validity of much of anything that is written.

My second issue with this book is the author’s tone while writing. I assume that she wanted to be considered “jovial” or easy to approach. However, it just makes the author appear dumbed down, or that the author feels that you, the reader, are dumb. It was so frustrating. Along with her tone, I didn’t like that she made it sound like Kemeticism IS this or IS that. There is no wiggle room. Nothing irritates me more than a black and white book that speaks as though it knows all. Ugh. She is quick to call certain theories “zany” or outlandish. She is very harsh towards ideas that are not her own. Along the lines of harsh content, both her Intro and Conclusion had “stories” in them that made reference to people who misunderstood Kemeticism. That’s fine, but the way she relates these stories to the reader is more of a “I met this person, and they said something stupid in relation to Kemeticism. And now that you’ve read my book, you won’t be as stupid as they were!” What if the people she referenced happened to read her book and they saw her caustic remarks?

And finally, I didn’t like the content of the book. I felt that the content wasn’t well researched at all. And you can definitely see the biases of the author through the content (e.g. a total slap to anything remotely Kemetic Orthodox in nature, or her constant references to the 18th dynasty, a dynasty that she is very much into). To me, an author should promote an unbiased and well researched book, and this book is neither.

All in all, I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, especially not to a beginner (which is ironically the target audience for this book). I fear that if a beginner read this book before anything else- that they would have to unlearn a lot of things that are not generally accepted in the Kemetic community. Plus, due to the bad sourcing, I am afraid that some of the facts or scenarios laid out in this book are incorrect, thereby causing problems for the newcomer who stumbles their way into the online Kemetic community.

1 pawprint out of 5

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Practical Protection Magick by Ellen Dugan

Practical Protection Magick: Guarding and Reclaiming Your Power
Ellen Dugan
Llewellyn Publications, 2011
218 pages

Back in the 1990s when I first started getting into neopaganism, the pagan publishing world was glutted with countless books on spells, rituals, how-to-do-X-type-of-magick, and other compendia of brief and not particularly deep explorations of assorted topics. This book is a throwback to that time, for better or worse.

It does have its good points. The information that the author includes in conjunction with the rituals is often pretty sound. She talks about standing up to bullies, a topic that needs much more coverage, and doesn’t just throw a spell at it. She also uses anecdotes and discussion to illustrate how not to deal with disruptive members of magical groups, how to tell a psychic vampire with good ethics from one without, and setting one’s boundaries more firmly, the latter of which is absolutely essential to staying safe on all levels of being. And the rituals and spells associated with the various topics can help to solidify the lessons in the reader’s mind.

However, there are also some major issues that severely deplete the effectiveness of even the good points. For example, early in the book she gives symptoms of a psychic attack, such as the feeling of being watched, or a heaviness about the shoulders. What’s sorely lacking, though, is a healthy application of Occam’s Razor—“the simplest answer is the most likely”. The feeling of being watched is a remnant of us being mammals, and we are aware of purely physical cues on a not-entirely-conscious level that can still create reactions we are conscious of. And she completely ignores any other potential internal source for these feelings.

In at least one case this could lead to someone not getting proper treatment for a mental condition: she states that having “Vivid, recurring dreams that are especially violent or disturbing” (p. 39). This is a classic symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and can also be associated with other anxiety disorders, and nowhere does she suggest going to a counselor or other professional to rule out any potential diagnoses.

She also sets people up for self-pigeonholing by offering up a set of criteria to determine whether one has one of four psychic “powers”—clairaudience, clairvoyance, empathy, and intuition (the latter of two are actually found in any healthy human being and are products of our evolution as social mammals based, again, on subtle unconscious cues and responses). Some of the criteria are pretty weak:

“I always pay attention to my inner voice or my inner monologue.” Yes, that’s called thinking.
“I can hear it when someone is lying to me.” Welcome to nonverbal communication.
“While being taught something new, I do better by being shown as opposed to being told.” There are lots of people with a more visual learning style as opposed to an auditory learning style.
“I mistrust people who will not look me in the eyes or who look away while speaking to me.” There are some cultures in which it is considered rude to look at someone directly while speaking; additionally, some people even in American culture are just shy.
“I am easily influenced by other people’s moods and emotions.” So are a lot of other people with really permeable boundaries; this is not always healthy.

I wanted to give a few more examples, but this is all I could stomach. Needless to say, the majority of these criteria are just plain human being traits, and I foresee this book making people, yet again, treat these normal human traits as “I’m soooooooo special!”

Overall, I really cannot recommend this book to anyone. The shaky and questionable parts far outweigh the benefits.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Shamanic Way of the Bee by Simon Buxton

The Shamanic Way of the Bee: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters
Simon Buxton
Destiny Books, 2004
208 pages

If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while, you’ll know there are three things that set me off. (Okay, more than three. But these are big ones.)

–Nonfiction, particularly speculative, really niche, or otherwise shaky, with poor research backup.
–Highly questionable anecdotes presented as literal, undeniable truth, without even an acknowledgement that there may be questioning of the sources.
–The idea that the above two are okay because spiritual writing doesn’t need academic/historical/other factual justification.

Sadly, there’s a lot of neoshamanic material that pings these pet peeves of mine. And this book especially hits them hard. The basic premise is that this guy meets this bee shaman when he’s a child, and spends a couple of years learning about beekeeping as well as spiritual elements thereof. Then later on in his twenties he manages to find another bee shaman of a secret, unbroken tradition called the Path of Pollen. Of course, there’s no written record or other evidence of this tradition. While there are some possible bee-related spiritual traditions associated with ancient Greek civilizations, the idea of a complete system derived from that, or contemporary to it, that survived into modern-day Austria and England is highly questionable. So we’re already starting on incredibly shaky ground.

Then come the amazing spiritual experiences–a bee flying through the author, who is accepted by his teacher without question right after his other apprentice graduates (which just seems conveniently perfect). Oh, and the sex scene. There are apparently sexy bee priestesses in this tradition. And we’re treated to a highly metaphor-laden (how many times can you fetishize a bee entering a flower? Never mind that worker bees are female…).

Finally, I want to know how in the hell he managed to kill a full-grown red deer stag (that just happened to knock itself out on a nearby tree) by suffocating it with his hand full of pollen without only a single gash from an antler. Don’t you know there’s a reason wolves and other smaller-than-stag predators, humans included, hunt them in packs? Not to mention, for fuck’s sake, that’s one of the cruelest ways you can kill an animal–if that even actually literally happened.

The whole book is like this. If it’s a Castaneda-style allegory presented as a real, completely true story, then the author is irresponsible for not prefacing it as such. If this all actually happened, then he really needs to question spiritual gurus and their authority.

One pawprint out of five.

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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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Mystical Dragon Magick by D.J. Conway

Mystical Dragon Magick: Teachings of the Five Rings
D.J. Conway
Llewellyn, 2007
264 pages

Note: This review was originally published in an issue of newWitch magazine.

I’d heard this book was better than Dancing With Dragons; I’m sorry to say the mediocrity continues.

While this volume is supposed to be advanced dragon magic, it follows the poor formula found in entirely too many pagan books of skimming over a number of topics that are only loosely related. There are countless pages of the same stone, herb, and element correspondences that are found in numerous other books, and there’s additional magic 101 material—all with a few words about dragons tossed in for relevance.

Through the training in this book, one supposedly is able to become an enchanter, a warrior, a shaman, and a mystic. Yet these roles are primarily supposed to be achieved through an increasingly dazzling array of shiny ritual tools and trappings, and overly scripted guided meditations that leave little room for personal experience and exploration. If this is supposed to be more than a 101 book, I’m not impressed.

Conway’s research is seriously lacking. She doesn’t employ critical thinking in her material on Atlantis, instead choosing to take as fact anything that supports her views, no matter how sketchy. Her explanations of dragons in various cultures are overly simplistic and show an incomplete picture of extant lore. And while she has a sizable bibliography, some of the books are of questionable quality, and there are no in-text citations for tracing individual pieces of information.

To top it off, Conway is quite dogmatic in her views. While I have no doubt that this is her reality in truth, she present her own subjective experiences of dragons and the otherworld as universal fact. She perpetuates the inaccurate classifications of white, black and gray magicians, and in my review copy she states “No member of the Five Inner Rings [Conway’s dragon magic tradition] is ever called a priest, priestess, guru, master, or any other nonsense name” (22). I wonder how pagan clergy feel having their titles summarily dismissed thusly?

Between the rehashing of material from Dancing With Dragons, and the additional shallow treatment of several magical paradigms—and dragons themselves—I can’t recommend this book to any reader.

One pawprint out of five.

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Synarchy by D.C.S.

Synarchy
D.C.S.
SVT Publishing, 2009
216 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.

The second book on the stack that Lupa gave to me to guest review was Synarchy, a novel about the end of the world – the one currently scheduled for December 21, 2012.

As with most other fin de siècle tales, Synarchy features conspiracies, counter-conspiracies, power-hungry world leaders, intrigue, and super-advanced technology working to either bring about the end of the world or prevent the end of the world – all for the good of mankind. And this is only the first book in the series!

What makes Synarchy truly stand out from the other stories in the genre are an overabundance of appallingly amateur grammar and punctuation errors, frequent awkwardly constructed sentences, and too many character-building sentences that consist solely of a description of the person’s eye color. The fact that the author’s bio in the back of the book states that she is also working on a series of short stories based on the Synarchy 2012 txt roleplay game explains the abrupt descriptions, but does not excuse them.

A little digging on the Internet proved my suspicion that this is a self-published book – the basic grammar and punctuation issues alone speak of a total lack of an editor’s eye. I am aware that a lot of good books go unread by the general public because the established publishing companies don’t want to take a chance on an unknown author and/or niche market story. For those books and authors, I am all in favor of small press and self-publishing opportunities. I am also aware that a lot of stuff the established publishing companies reject they reject due to lack of unique story and basic writing skills.

That being said, the addition of ancient aliens (including one we referred to as the Norse God Loki) is a novel and interesting addition to the fin de siècle formula. Technogeeks may love this book and cope better with the Twitter-esque characters and odd sentence structure. Apparently this luddite curmudgeon reviewer is just not the target audience.

One and a half paws out of five.

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Rainbow Medicine by Wolf Moondance

Rainbow Medicine: A Visionary Guide to Native American Shamanism
Wolf Moondance
Sterling Publishing Company, 1994
192 pages

I tried to give this book a fair chance, despite my misgivings about claims of “Native American shamanism” from someone who, to my knowledge, isn’t recognized by any official tribe. (Having Cherokee and Osage genetics does not predispose one to knowing about a culture one has not been exposed to, or its religious practices.) While there are some useful practices in here, trying to call them a complete system of shamanism–or calling them Cherokee or Osage practices–would be seriously misleading.

As the title suggest, the information here is organized along the colors of the rainbow, though with an addition of “burgundy”, and several chapters on the directions and other natural phenomena. Each chapter includes the record of a journey the author did with the theme of the chapter, followed by a number of meditations, craft projects and other activities associated with the theme. And that’s pretty much it.

In and of themselves some of the journaling and meditation exercises are good reflection tools. Unfortunately, some of the activities, particularly crafts, are hijacked from various indigenous cultures, taken out of their context, and presented as “universal” practices. This, of course, dilutes their purpose as they need context which is unfortunately not provided here. One person’s journeying does not make up for the loss of an entire culture. Additionally, as mentioned, this seems to have less to do with complex Cherokee or Osage spirituality and more with core shamanism, New Age practices, and the author’s background in “human development” (does she have a degree in developmental psychology? Nothing is for sure.).

While I have no doubt that this can be an effective set of tools, both for the author and for some readers, I was disappointed by the lack of context, including but not limited to the lack of making direct connections between the author’s personal journey, and the exercises themselves. How much of this is the author’s own subjective experience, and how much is cultural material (however it may be presented)? It’s never made very clear.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Serpent of Light by Drunvalo Malchizedek

Serpent of Light: Beyond 2012
Drunvalo Melchizedek
Weiser Books, 2007
270 pages

There’s a saying that I’m fond of using when talking about spiritual practices:

It’s okay to have your head in the clouds, just so long as your have your feet firmly planted on the ground.

While trying to empirically prove any spiritual belief is most likely a lost cause, and belief is a heavily personal and subjective phenomenon, when beliefs intersect with more concrete concepts such as history and culture, quality of research becomes highly important. Unfortunately, much of the New Age has a tendency to eschew basic research techniques as “too academic”, and the proponents of a lot of New Age material prefer to not have anyone harsh their mellow, as it were. Hence why New Agers get a bad rap, including among neopagans, who do have a greater tendency to research history, mythology and other -ologies in an attempt to test their beliefs and experiences.

The whole 2012 morass is full of an unwillingness to do such litmus testing. In the spirit of the new Age “anything goes” attitude, the fact that the Mayan calendar ends in December 2012 has spawned an entire genre of “nonfiction” based on trying to prove that this means the world will come to an end exactly where the carvers ran out of stone on that particular timepiece. It seems as though the (primarily white) people who have latched onto the 2012 thing have done little to no research on the actual Mayan and other central American indigenous cultures, and instead pick and choose whatever bits of information will, however tenuously, “support” their claims. It’s one of the worst cases of cultural appropriation.

Serpent of Light is an excellent example of this: the entire book is the author’s ramblings about channeled information and other unverified personal gnosis that has absolutely no historical backing whatsoever. There’s the predictable hodgepodge of “Mayan” beliefs, Eastern philosophies (such as chakras), and New Agery (particularly the infamous crystal skulls, which have absolutely no historical relevance to the Maya or any other indigenous culture).

Here’s an example of what this all causes the author to do:

“I was preparing to go to the Yucatan in Mexico to place specially programmed crystals in jungle temples, and I had never been there before in my life” (p. 52).

So you’ve never been to a place, never interacted with the people, other living beings, spiritual denizens, or the place itself–and you’re going to presume to improve upon what another culture entirely created?

…and this is pretty much what the entire book is: White guy who makes up his own convenient version of history mucks around in other people’s cultural artifacts attempting to improve on them because of what his channeled messages say. I could go on and on, but it would just be more of the same. Unlike The Great Shift, the only other book on 2012 I’ve reviewed here so far, there’s not even practical advice to balance out the drek.

Not recommended.

One pawprint out of five.

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Toltec Dreaming – Ken Eagle Feather

Toltec Dreaming: Don Juan’s Teachings on the Energy Body
Ken Eagle Feather
Bear & Company, 2007
256 pages

Note: This review was originally written for newWitch magazine.

I really tried hard to like this book. Unfortunately, I’m just too skeptical of the author’s claim that he met don Juan Matus, Carlos Castaneda’s teacher of questionable existence, in the flesh. Additionally, saying that don Juan told him to learn from Castaneda’s books because don Juan’s English wasn’t good enough is suspect and sounds like an excuse for not using more reliable sources. The bulk of the source material is Castaneda’s works, which have been highly questioned in both anthropological and modern shamanic fields—and labeled as plastic shamanism by American Indian tribes in Mexico and elsewhere. Rather than backing up the shaky research with more solid sources, his bibliography is littered with more New Age fluff.

Poor scholarship aside, the techniques in the book are pretty good. It’s a heterogenous mixture of Eastern philosophy and New Age practices, aimed at helping the reader become a more effective dreamer. Awareness of the energy body, meeting with Death, and lucid dreaming are just a few of the topics covered. Eagle Feather is an excellent writer, and provides a good array of techniques to help build one’s dreaming ability. As a practical guide to dreamwork and related practices, this is a decent choice. And the author’s writing style is easy to read, punctuated by anecdotes that illustrate the material. Regardless of source, there’s some good, usable material available in these pages.

It’s just a shame that the questionable “Toltec” material wasn’t backed up by direct sources other than Castaneda. If you’re looking for good dream techniques or if you’re a fan of Castaneda’s works, this may be the book for you; however, take a huge lick of salt with it. If you’re looking for genuine indigenous shamanic practices, look elsewhere.

Two pawprints out of five.

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The Hawaiian Oracle – Rima A. Morrell

The Hawaiian Oracle: Animal Spirit Guides from the Land of Light
Rima A. Morrell (art by Steve Rawlings)
New World Library, 2006
144 pages plus 36 cards

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a totem deck/book set. I’ve had this one sitting in my personal collection for a while, and figured it was about time to take a break from my review stacks. I also wanted to give myself a fresh look at it, because someone I respect as a totemist gave it a pretty scathing review last year, and I didn’t want that biasing my approach.

There’s good and bad in the set, so I’ll give you some details in list form:

The Good:

–The author emphasizes interconnection and responsibility to nature in the book. There are some valuable lessons for postindustrial cultures who often take the environment and its denizens (includes humans!) for granted. It’s obvious that she’s passionate about being a caretaker, and while she doesn’t include it quite to the extent that, say, Susie Green does in the Animal Messages deck, it was a nice touch. (In addition, she walks the talk, having set up a charity and refuge for rescued animals of various sorts, for which I give her major kudos.)
–Morrell has a Ph.D. in Huna, a New Age mix of Hawaiian mythology and other elements. She’s pretty familiar with Hawaiian mythos, and includes mythological information on each of the animals along with her interpretations, to flesh out the meanings and give people more to ponder when working with each animal.
–The cards themselves feature some of the most beautiful artwork by Steve Rawlings (who sadly only gets mentioned on the copyright page and the acknowledgement in the back of the book, instead of on the cover of the book or box). A lovely blend of realistic depictions of animals and brightly colored environments, the pictures make working with this deck extra delightful!

The Bad

–One of the first things that stuck out was the author’s dogmatic adherence to vegetarianism even in the face of historical facts. I’ve no problem with vegetarianism in and of itself; however, Polynesian cultures are not and never have been vegetarian, and they did not simply begin eating meat because of contact with the Europeans. Yet she asserts this very idea on the first two pages (6-7) of the introduction.
–Lemuria and Atlantis: Arrrrrrgh. This is New Age stuff, pure and simple. Yet, like so many New Age authors, she tries to connect these fictional, completely unproven, conveniently lost continents to Hawaiian indigenous culture.
–Related to my last point, her book is based on the aforementioned Huna–which is not traditional Hawaiian religion. It’s a creation from the latter half of the 19th century when spiritism and other such things were all the rage, and while it (and this book) dabble in Hawaiian religious and cultural elements, they are not synonymous. The author (who as I mentioned has a Ph.D. in Huna gained from University College in London, U.K.) claims to have spoken to indigenous Hawaiian practitioners of this, but she doesn’t give any indication of what status they have in their indigenous culture(s) or where they learned their material. Given that even indigenous cultures can have their frauds (being indigenous in genetics does not automatically confer full understanding of indigenous culture if you are primarily white in culture), I have to question how verifiably indigenous her information really is. This looks more like cultural appropriation than indigenous Hawaiian religion and culture.
–“Land of Light”? This idealization of Hawaiian culture (and it’s definitely not limited to the subtitle) smacks of the Noble Savage stereotype.

Honestly, I’m leaning towards setting aside the book and keeping the cards. Unless you’re brand new to animal card divination and don’t yet feel you can interpret the cards based on your own observations (and the study of a species’ natural history, from whence its lore ultimately springs), it’s really not necessary. The information that is provided on cultural and other contexts is spotted with questionable content. Read through the book to get an idea of the author’s perspective and intent for creating the deck, but take it with a huge lick of salt.

Two pawprints out of five (though I give the art a five!)

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