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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Temple Making by Freddy Silva

Temple Making: The Complete Guide for Transforming Your Home Into a Place of Co-Creation
Freddy Silva (director)
Awaken Productions, 2008
2 DVDs

Sacred space is something that many Pagans are familiar with. However, the New Age community—the target audience for this DVD—includes a more general group of people who may never have thought to honor Spirit in their own homes, especially if raised in a strictly church-based setting. This set of DVDs is geared towards reminding people of the importance of sacred space, as well as a guide to finding the sacred close to home.

Much of the material deals with historical sacred spaces, from temples to groves. Silva touches on numerous auxiliary topics, such as sacred geometry, ley lines, and qualities of energy. He also offers a variety of ideas for applying these to personal space, such as proper use and placement of crystals, stones and other sacred objects according to supposedly ancient secrets.

Unfortunately, a lot of the material is highly unsound. Silva makes some broad and incorrect historical assumptions about ancient cultures, including some gross generalizations about such folks as the Egyptians and the Celts. A good example is his overreliance on supposed uses of geometry such building as European cathedrals—the juxtapositions of geometric shapes over the floor plans for these places was a stretch at most.

And the DVDs are rife with watered-down New Age tripe such as the Law of Attraction and the Seven Laws of Manifestation—a bunch of feel-good, lightweight drek that promises everything will be okay and wonderful, just so long as your thoughts are pure. It’s essentially magic for people who don’t want to deal with the risk.

Overall, while this is a nicely produced DVD set, I can’t in good conscience recommend it for its many flaws.

One pawprint out of five.

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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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Tempt Me With Darkness – Shayla Black

Tempt Me With Darkness
Shayla Black
New York: Pocket Books
384 pages

Some authors are really good at working sex into a plot; while romance novels are supposed to be steamy, I tend to prefer the ones where there’s a story besides the flesh and fantasies. Unfortunately, this book didn’t quite make the blend as smooth as some.

The premise is that Marrok, a fictional knight of King Arthur’s court, has been cursed with immortality after sleeping with (and subsequently pissing off) Morganna le Fey. A descendant of Morganna, Olivia, happens into his life seemingly by chance, and Marrok instantly assumes Olivia is Morganna in disguise (again). Cue much confused feelings of lust on both their parts. Unfortunately, this is where it gets bad. Their first coupling leads to an incomplete life-bond which reveals Olivia as a newbie witch in her own right–the kicker is that the bond was done incorrectly (because Marrok didn’t spill his seed) and in order to keep a now highly-randy Olivia alive, Marrok has to sleep with her numerous times each day. To top it off, there’s an enchanted spell book that holds part of the key to breaking Marrok’s curse floating about, an evil magician who leads an army called Anarki, and…well..I won’t ruin the ending for you.

The characters aren’t particularly memorable, and the plotline could use more originality. The best parts were probably the sex scenes, though phrases like “his thick staff” were rather melodramatic. Granted, these are rather par for the course for the genre, but there wasn’t much that made this book stand out from the crowd.

It’s not an unreadable book, but I have read better from Pocket Books. If you want something for an easy afternoon’s read (whether with licentious intentions or not), it’s worth taking a look, but it’s not something that really jumps out at me for a re-read.

Two pawprints out of five.

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A Witches’ Notebook – Silver Ravenwolf

A Witches’ Notebook: Lessons in Witchcraft
Silver Ravenwolf
Llewellyn, 2005
248 pages

Note: This review was written in 2005 for a publication, but was not published. I’m in the process of pulling out some old reviews on my hard drive.

I have to hand it to Silver Ravenwolf: she’s by far one of the best-selling pagan authors ever, all because she’s found her niche. Thousands of beginning neopagans have been introduced to witchcraft and related topics through her works.

Unfortunately, I had high expectations for A Witches’ Notebook. Hailed by her publicist as “a glimpse of her decades-old journey into Witchcraft,” this newest book held promise for me when I first got it. Finally—a chance to get deeper into the practices and mysteries that she’s only skimmed the surface of in previous works! A glimpse at the material known previously only to her and her students! A candid look at the author before she became famous!

What I’d hoped for was something a little grittier and disorganized than her usual works, something that involved the more advanced studies she’s had to have done if she’s birthed as many covens as she has. What I got was yet another highly-polished series of brief glances at a bunch of topics.

The book in and of itself isn’t awful. Her writing style, as always, is very easy to read and she explains concepts in a manner just about any reader can comprehend. She covers a lot of the basics, and makes sure to emphasize the importance not only of spells and potions but also of purification of self, the idea that magic is a tool for development and the consideration that most neopagans today have to deal with the stresses of the mundane world as a matter of course.

This makes for a series of exercises and essays that are very down-to-earth and practical, but far from stodgy. For instance, in considering the effects of your money magick, she writes “Yeah, the bills got paid, but what the heck did you have to suffer with for six months after that?” (p. 107) She’s obviously been there, done that, got the t-shirt. And a good portion of the exercises she provides, particularly in the first half of the book, are geared towards grounding, centering and advancing the practitioner rather than just tossing magic at love and money.
One thing that can be said for this author is that she does offer a tantalizing taste of magical practices. Ravenwolf introduces the reader to a number of concepts ranging from astrology and herbalism to hoodoo and Powwow magic. Variety is definitely a spice she likes to use.

The down side is that most of the topics aren’t covered in any depth whatsoever. Instead of drawing deeper into her hinted-at notebooks, once again she simply flings out a few spells and bare explanations of concepts associated with each topic she covers. They tend to be rather haphazardly organized as well, with little background to offer a transition from, say, Powwow to Reiki. And most of these topics deserve a lot more material presented on them before they should be worked with. A half a dozen pages does not a healer make.

In addition she’s horrible about citing sources. She does include a bibliography, but there are absolutely no in-text citations to support her information. While this is supposedly a collection of tidbits from her personal archives, we shouldn’t be expected to accept everything she says just because she’s an elder.

And she definitely needs a better copy editor. From page fifteen: “[I]t seemed like I could have counted the threads in the cotton sheet I was laying on…all of a sudden I could smell the sheep it was derived from…” Enough said.

In short, while it’s a nicely-written book in a lot of ways, it’s just another rehash of 101 concepts. The most advanced section of the book is nothing more than yet another dictionary of herbs, over sixty pages’ worth. Do we really need to devote more ink and paper to that? For that matter, do we really need yet another skim-the-surface 101 book? There’s little to set this book apart from Ravenwolf’s other books, let alone the dozens—if not hundreds—of beginner’s books already on the market.

If you’re just starting out, you may want to give A Witches’ Notebook a look while you’re browsing to see if it speaks to you. After all, Ravenwolf didn’t become as popular as she did by writing books that collect dust on the sellers’ shelves. Otherwise, don’t waste your money. There’s nothing here that can’t be found elsewhere whether at a basic or advanced level.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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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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The Magic of Shapeshifting – Rosalyn Greene

The Magic of Shapeshifting
Rosalyn Greene
Weiser Books, 2000
258 pages

This is going to be a looong review. Where do I start with this book? I have a complicated relationship with it; I first bought it in 2002, back when I was in a “belief” stage of my belief-doubt-belief cycle about being a therianthrope. I didn’t have much exposure to the therian-specific community, though I’d had off and on contact with the Otherkin community through which I met a number of therians. Since then, I’ve read it several more times, and I’ve finally, five years later, gotten around to reviewing it. I’ll admit that each time I’ve read it my opinion of it has gone down, largely because each time I have a better understanding of therianthropy, both from my own perspective and from the therian community at large. Same thing goes for magic, which plays an integral role in The Magic of Shapeshifting.

One of my biggest complaints is that the author (or three authors, writing under one name, according to one rumor) accepts historical accounts of lycanthropy as completely, literally true. This is what she bases a lot of her proof that “shifters: (including physical shifters) have existed for millenia, well known to the populace but only recently suppressed. She relies particularly on questionable sources such as Montague Summers, and she takes no critical eye to any of her material, which irritates me to no end.

She also bases most of her magic on a mixture of spiritism/Theosophy and a smattering of Asian concepts of energy work, and assumes that the subjective biases of these systems are universal. Her approach is rather dogmatic, as if there’s only one way to skin a werewolf. And she doesn’t cite any sources for the practical aspects of her work, which is a shame as it could have been strengthened by showing that other people have gotten similar results, though not necessarily using the techniques she utilizes for the same end. While she uses footnote citations for historical information, I was left wondering where she got her inspirations for the more hands-on material, and what sources she learned to acquire the building blocks for her magical work.

I think what I dislike the most, though, about this work are all the huge assumptions and broad stereotypes she applies to therianthropes in general, many of which are inaccurate, and none of which are backed up with anything other than anecdotal information from other, often unidentified, people that we’re supposed to expect are telling the truth. Given the gullibility of the author in accepting whatever Mr. Summers wrote without question, I have to wonder how much critical consideration went into whatever her informants told her, or if she ever questioned her own experiences to any degree. While belief in yourself is healthy, never questioning yourself isn’t–if she did ever look at the possibility that not everything in this book was literally true, she doesn’t show any evidence of having done so.

Some of the inaccuracies are blindingly obvious when viewed by anyone with more than a passing involvement in the therian community. This includes her assertion that most therians go through a “phase” as a fox shifter before “maturing” into another species; that all therians have totem animals that are the same species as their therioside; the claim that a number of terms she throws around are “commonly” used in the therian community (what she calls the “shifter community”, but it’s the same thing), when in actuality I’ve never heard most of them anywhere except from her book; that therians have an aversion to turquoise; and her overemphasis on the existence of organized therian “packs”. In fact, there’s a lot of information just on the community itself that could seriously mislead readers who aren’t familiar with the actual community.

Additionally, she seems to have some weird ideas about physical animals. Some of it is strange esoteric biases, such as the idea that black animals attract evil spirits, or that the color of an animal’s fur or eyes determines its magical prowess and even personality. Last I checked, this didn’t hold true for humans, and I haven’t found in my decade-plus experience with animal magic that it does for nonhuman animals, either. She also has some blatant biological mistakes in there, such as the “fact” that foxes have retractable claws (they don’t).

Her information on shifting isn’t universally bad; I found her descriptions of some of the features of mental shifting to be accurate to my own experience. And there are some exercises in there that could actually be useful for gaining control of one’s ability to shift, or to improve one’s relationship with the part of the self that is the therioside. Her methods for raising levels of “shifting energy” are simple psychological triggers that can be used by anyone in a ritual setting to help achieve the proper altered state of consciousness for invocation (of another entity or a part of the self)–not that this is bad, just that it’s nothing new (but again it can be quite useful).

What this book really comes across as is someone in the furry community who has a serious grudge against the therian community. My reason for believing this is that she holds up the furry community as the best place for a “shifter” to go find other “shifters”, while her very scant opinions on the (online) therian community is that it’s full of cultists and other unsavory people. (There’s nothing wrong with furries, of course, but even many members of that community will quickly tell you that “furry” and “therian” are not the same thing, though there are some furs who are also therians–but they’re a minority.) Additionally, some of her biases, such as the proliferation of fox therians who turn into other types of therian later on actually more closely mirrors furries, in which there are a LOT of fox fursonas (though it’s common for people to create new fursonas as they get more involved in the community). She also emphasizes costuming (fursuits) in the book quite a bit as an aid for getting in touch with the animal, and even gives a diagram for the leg extensions used in quadsuits, or quadrepedal fursuits.

In short, this reads like a furry who has a personal vendetta against the therian community. Granted, not everybody gets along with everybody else in the community–but welcome to life. There’s nothing that says a therian can’t be a part of the furry fandom, but when a book on therianthropy (which it pretty obviously is despite the use of the word “shifter”) quite conspicuously eliminates almost any reference to the therian community except for a couple of sharp-toothed remarks, this strongly suggests personal rather than professional issues.

That being said, my wrapup of the book is this: If you read it, keep a shaker of salt very handy (you may need to refill it a couple of times). There are some magical/psychological techniques that some therianthropes may find useful for becoming more comfortable with shifting and gaining better internal balance. However, the bulk of the book is essentially drek. My suggestion would be to hit up some online therian sites and do your research there; the Werelibrary, the Marsh, and Absurdism are good starting places.

One pawprint out of five.

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The Celtic Shaman – John Matthews

The Celtic Shaman: A Handbook
John Matthews
Element Books, 1991
224 pages

I’m in the middle of reading (or re-reading) all the books on shamanism and related topics currently in my home. I wanted a light read, so I pulled this one off the shelf. It’s one that I “inherited” through marriage, and while my husband normally has impeccable taste, I wasn’t so crazy about this particular book.

I suppose the main theme of this book could be “Where’s the Shamanism?” The author is apparently attempting to reconstruct the Celtic shamanic tradition; thankfully, he doesn’t try to say that the druids were all shamans. However, what this book ends up being is Celtic neopaganism with some shamanic techniques and concepts thrown in for flavor.

The book *is* well-written, though there are some typos in there. And as a book on shamanic-flavored Celtic neopaganism, it would actually be pretty good. Maybe not entirely historically accurate, but it would be functional for those who are quite happy in a modern paradigm. The author covers a lot of ground for the basic to lower-intermediate practitioner, particularly in introducing hir to this magical/spiritual system. While a lot of the material is Celtic neopaganism 101, there are some exercises which would have the potential to help the reader start on a more intermediate path.

One of the biggest problems is that the mixture of components isn’t well-blended. There’s information on Celtic mythology, including various dictionary-style lists of gods, “totem” animals (animals found in Celtic myth, but with no proof as to whether they served as clan/family totems or not), and correspondences for the directions that don’t seem to have any actual foundation in Celtic culture. (I’ll touch more on this in a minute). The shamanism portion is mainly a sprinkling of techniques, and the idea that the shaman is primarily an eco-pagan, with not too much focus on the community service. The two areas of study do not sit well together.

The issue is that there’s too much *neo*paganism and *neo*shamanism mixed into this. I can see elements of Harner’s core shamanism in there, particularly the focus on healing (as opposed to other shamanic functions), and it seems that the author has a rather incomplete understanding of what *traditional*, indigenous shamanism(s) is. Additionally, the bulk of the exercises are very heavily scripted guided meditations; shamanic journeys tend to be *much* more free-flowing and individual.

My other complaint is that while he seems to have a lovely bibliography in the back, the fact that there are no internal citations, either in-text, footnote or endnote, means that I had no idea how he used them (other than asterisks denoting which sources were particularly useful–but not why). This meant that there were a LOT of times when I sat there, scratching my head and wondering “Oooookay, where did he get THIS piece of information? Where is this COMING from?”

I don’t really feel the author accomplished his stated intention with this book. If he wanted to reconstruct the shamanic practices of the ancient Celts, then he needed to be looking at older forms of shamanism, not neoshamanism.

Two pawprints out of five.

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