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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Not in Kansas Anymore – Christine Wicker

Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic Is Transforming America
Christine Wicker
HarperSanFrancisco, 2005
276 pages

I first encountered this book when doing research for A Field Guide to Otherkin. I’d heard that the author had a chapter on Otherkin, and that was the first part I read. I wasn’t particularly impressed by what I found; it seemed a bit touristy and sensationalistic, though well-written.

Now that I have time to just read for the fun of it, I decided to give the entire book a chance. Unfortunately, my initial impressions aren’t that much different from how I feel now that I’ve seen the whole thing.

Wicker is a journalist, and it shows from the very beginning. She talks about her peers’ worries that she’ll “go native”, and her attempts not to do so are quite obvious. At least she’s honest, rather than pretending to be a member of a group to try to find out more about it. She states clearly where she’s coming from–not magical, pretty much an atheist, and seriously squicked about certain things (she seems terrified of BDSM in particular and takes any opportunity to describe it in lurid, evil manners).

The book seems largely dedicated to three subjects: Hoodoo, witchcraft and its variants, and Otherkin and vampires. She visits Zora Neale Hurston’s grave to get grave dirt, hangs out a bit with the Silver Elves, and gets witchy in Salem. In fact, she gets to have all sorts of experiences that numerous pagans and magical folk would love to have.

Granted, it does seem that she learns something from the experience. The book is a journey for her, from superstition to magic. Unfortunately, this is bogged down by numerous descriptions of various events and people that seme to be purposely slanted towards the extreme. She freaks out about every single instance of BDSM she encounters, describes in great detail just how bizarre everyone looks, and spends pages upon pages relaying the absolute worst of the paths she encounters. And while some of the people she interviews seem pretty down to earth and informational, others appear to be whoring for attention. Whether that’s the actual case, or just how Wicker chose to portray them, isn’t made clear here.

And everything is taken out of context, with the exception of some of the Hoodoo and witchcraft. Background information on the various topics she covers would have helped to ground her writing and make it seem less sensationalistic. For instance, all she really says about Wicca is that it’s white-light and not every pagan likes it. And she leaps from topic to topic fast enough to make my head spin.

I appreciate what Wicker was trying to do: present the magical fringes of society in a manner that the mainstream can palate. Unfortunately it feels more like a patchwork of whatever she happened to find; from reading this book one might assume that all vampires are into BDSM, all witches are tacky, kitschy, weird people who wear too much eye makeup, and that Hoodoo seems to be the only thing discussed that has any redeeming value. While it’s not as horribly sensationalistic as some of the “occult expose” books out there, there are better “outsider” views of magic and paganism out there and go in more depth; I recommend Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves by Sarah M. Pike, an academic look at the neopagan festival culture by someone who is not pagan but who manages to cover the material in a respectful, even-handed manner while writing at a level that non-academics can easily digest.

As for “Not in Kansas Anymore”…

Two pawprints out of five.

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Return of the Bird Tribes – Ken Carey – March BBBR

Return of the Bird Tribes
Ken Carey
HarperSanFrancisco, 1988
252 pages

I bet you thought I forgot about this month’s Bargain Bin Book Review! Nope. I’ve just been pretty busy, but technically it *is* still March, and I do reserve the right to post the BBBR any time in the month. That being said, I will try to be a little earlier about it. But without further ado, here’s this month’s BBBR.

I was thrilled when I found this book on the bargain rack, since it was one that I’d been wanting to read for quite some time. I’d heard it was partly totemic, partly Otherkin-related, and so my curiosity was piqued.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by the result. This is one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of the New Age. The author claims to have channelled the entire work through communication with a “higher being” that watches over humanity, and is in fact one of a number of these higher beings. As is common among New Age channelling, the message is uber-positive, “love” and “peace” are thrown around like confetti, and the general message is “This generation is ever so special–time for you to realize your potential!”

Nowe, I have nothing against love, peace, and achieving one’s full potential as an individual and as part of a society. Gods know we need more of that. The problem is that this particular conveyance of that message is wrapped up in a bunch of cultural appropriation and seriously revisionist history. We have a Caucasian, New Age author supposedly channelling information about Native American cultures, everything from White Buffalo Calf Woman to Hiawatha and the Iroquois League (the entity he’s channelling supposedly was one of the main players at the forming of that treaty). It’s pretty much a cliche, and it’s a classic example of cultural appropriation. And, also in the style of the New Age, the channelling includes the idea that, prior to a point 2,500 years ago (conveniently at a time and place where we have no written history) the Native Americans were all peaceful and living in a virtual utopia–I’m surprised he didn’t try to claim they were all vegan. And all of human history has apparently been manipulated by these higher powers–apparently humans themselves can’t understand reality beyond a certain point; we have to have a higher spirit to help us.

Now, I have no issue with Unverified Personal Gnosis. However, it’s important to view any UPG, no matter how inspired, with constructive criticism. The fact that most of the material matches with New Age revisionist history rather than commonly accepted history should be cause, at the very least, for skeptical comparison. The entire work, though, is presented as genuine, without any critique or questioning whatsoever. No, it’s not romantic to analyze one’s meditations and question them. But it’s also not healthy to romanticize Native Americans as the “Noble Savages” while thousands are barely scraping by on reservations across the country.

This book would have been better off if the author had taken the results of his channelling efforts and distilled them into a direct critique of modern society, adding a grain of salt for good measure. He could have discussed the virtues of literal vs. metaphorical understanding of what he received. There are some good points in here, including the idea that a person can evolve beyond the basics of everyday life, and that the way we’re doing things now is a Bad Idea. However, they’re so wrapped up in apocalyptic fantasy, cultural appropriation and the basic assertion that we’re essentially being directed by higher powers (instead of by our own wills) that the lessons in here are all but lost in a sea of drek.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Animal Totem Astrology – Debbie Burns

Animal Totem Astrology
Debbie Burns
Lansdowne, 2001
~78 pages

The concept for this book was really neat; the execution, on the other hand, fell far short of full potential. This was an attempt at a totemic zodiac, a combination of neopagan totemic qualities and traditional Western astrology, mixed in (supposedly) with some indigenous beliefs about the animals associated with certian birth months (though the source material pretty much confirms a basis in plastic shamanism.

The author explains the animals associated with each month (conveniently, they correspond to the twelve Western zodiac signs). She also brings in seasonal and time-of-day correspondences to try to show the qualities of people according to when they were born, all based on totemic qualities mixed with common astrological information.

Unfortunately, what could have been a really neat idea fell flat. I would love to see someone work with totem animals in association with Western astrology to create a new system–but I’d like to see it done in more depth. I highly doubt that what was described here is traditional to any tribe,a dn i think the author would have been much better off starting from scratch, studying both astrology and modern totemism, and then creating her own system based on these two areas of spirituality. Instead, she draws from some of the worst offenders of plastic shamanism, including Sun Bear and Jamie Sams, and perpetuates a whole bunch of drek. Her bibliography is barely over a dozen books, and almost all of them are New Age treatments of indigenous topics. She presents the whole thing as genuine “Native American” spirituality, in the grand tradition of her predecessors, and the whole thing ends up a train wreck.

I’m giving it an extra half of a pawprint, just because I like the concept (as long as it’s presented as a new system). But other than that, meh.

One and a half pawprints.
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Earth Angels – Doreen Virtue

Earth Angels: A Pocket Guide for Incarnated Angels, Elementals, Starpeople, Walk-Ins, and Wizards
Doreen Virtue
Hay House, 2002
176 pages

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I picked this book up. I’d heard it was something kind of like Otherkin, but not using that term. I was a little leery when I saw that the author was a very popular, angels-are-all-sweetness-and-light New Age icon, but decided to give it a try anyway.

Talk about Otherkin Lite.

“Earth Angels” are basically people who are reincarnated “elementals” (read: therianthropes, elves and fae Otherkin), angels (read: angelkin), starpeople (read: aliens), Wise Ones (read: people who worked magic in a past life) and walk-ins. Okay, that’s not so very different from what a lot of Otherkin believe.

However, it’s how she explains the phenomenon of people who were not human in other lives that ruins the book for me. First off, the way you determine what type of “Earth Angel” you are is basically a 30-question “Are you like this? How about this?” quiz that would fit in perfectly on Quizilla–samples of questions are whether you’re overweight, if you dye your hair, if you’re of Celtic ancestry, whether you’re good at handling money or not, if you practice Reiki, or believe in magic. Supposedly these things tell you what type of Earth Angel you are (never mind that pretty much everything she asks about are things that are common among garden-variety humans, too).

Then, her information about each group is not only based on stereotyped behavior and belief patterns that are common among everyday humans as well as ‘kin, but it’s really, really, really white-light and saccharine. For example, she says that all incarnated elementals are major environmentalists, always happy (but prone to mood swings), and “physically robust”. And as far as the whole Wise Ones thing goes, a lot of it plays right into the Atlantean thing–the whole “Oh, magic isn’t for regular people–anyone who works magic must be at a higher vibrational level than everyone else!” thing as well as the Burning Times persecution complex. All walk-ins, on the other hand, supposedly walked in because they have some mission to fulfill.

And speaking of missions, according to this book, all Earth Angels are here for the purpose of Saving the World!

I don’t doubt that the author ran into a lot of people who, were they in the Otherkin community, would be considered Otherkin. However, this book shows a distinct lack of skepticism and self-questioning, things that are common in the Otherkin community. Instead, it tells readers exactly what they want to hear–“You love nature, so you must be an Incarnated Elemental!” or “You love helping people and often find yourself in codependent relationships–you must be an Incarnated Angel!” While the end of each chapter on specific types of Earth Angels does have some tips on how to counteract the negative aspects of being whatever you are, it’s assumed that by answering the spiffy little quiz at the beginning that you are an Earth Angel–there’s nothing on questioning yourself further, only how to fulfill your God-given mission!

If you think being other than human is a great way to feel special, feel free to pick this up. Otherwise, save your money.

One pawprint out of five.

Personal Power Animals – Madonna Gauding

Personal Power Animals: For Guidance, Protection and Healing
Madonna Gauding
Godsfield, 2006
144 pages

This is one of those books that really just doesn’t stand out from the crowd of books on totems and related topics. There’s really nothing original, and what is covered has been explored more thoroughly by other authors.

The first part of the book talks about various systems of animal symbolism, such as both the Western and Chinese Zodiacs, as well as some very basic totemic information. Then the rest, a little over half, if I recall correctly, was just another totem animal dictionary, and not a very good one at that. The information was sparse and not very detailed, dabbling a little in several puddles rather than diving deeper into the surface. A short paragraph on mythology. another on what a person under that totem is supposedly like personality-wise.

Unimpressive. If you happen to be a beginner, it will introduce you to a few concepts, for which I gave it an extra star, but that’s about it. There are much better, more thorough alternatives.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Serpent Worship – anonymous

Serpent Worship
Anonymous
Tutor Press, 1980

The full title of this book is Serpent Worship, aka Ophiolatreia: The Rites and mysteries connected with the origin, rise, and development of serpent worship in various parts of the world, enriched with interesting traditions, and a full description of the celebrated serpent mounds & temples, the whole forming an exposition of one of the phases of phallic, or sex worship, aka The Rites and mysteries connected with the origin, rise, and development of serpent worship in various parts of the world, enriched with interesting traditions, and a full description of the celebrated serpent mounds & temples, the whole forming an exposition of one of the phases of phallic, or sex worship.

It’s essentially an overview of the role of snakes and related creatures around the world and throughout history. There’s a heavy emphasis on the Classical world–Greece, Egypt, and surrounding civilizations, though a number of North and South American cultures are also featured, among others.

Now, admittedly, it was written in 1889, so the writing style is quite different from today, and as it is an academic text from the time it’s not designed to be easy reading. However, there are plenty of scholarly texts from around the same time that are much easier on modern readers, IMO.

There also doesn’t seem to be a lot of organization to the text. The information is sometimes arranged in a seemingly arbitrary way, and isn’t always tied together very well.

I’d imagine that not everyone will have as much issue with this as I did. Thanks, but no thanks–there are much better books that have the exact same information in a better format. This is officially my newest Worst Book Ever.

One pawprint out of five.

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The Wicca Handbook – Eileen Holland – BBBR January 2007

The Wicca Handbook
Eileen Holland
Weiser, 2000
309 pages

This, folks, is THE stereotypical fluffy Wiccan book.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with Wicca as a religion (or any other religion, for that matter). However, the way that the author writes about her religion was enough to make me want to throw this one out the window a number of times–just in the first 50 pages!

Here’s a run-down of the various complaints I have:

–Shoddy historical research and other questionable content

She accepts, without question, the stories about Gardner learning from Dorothy Clutterbuck and how Gwen Thompson received the Wiccan Rede from her (conveniently deceased) grandmother, and that there are plenty of family traditions with centuries-old teachings passed down (p 6, 8,11) . Finally, she supports none of these with outside evidence; the only footnotes she uses are for direct quotes, mostly from the Farrars’ works.

Holland is also an advocate of the whole “natural witch” idea that supports the concept that some people are “naturally” better than others at magic (which I find rather elitist)(p. 13). Anyone can work magic; it’s a matter of achieving the proper mindset, not your past lives. And she assumes that all inverted pentacles are Satanic, forgetting that certain British traditions use it as a symbol for the second degree (p. 37).

–Blatant bias against anything outside the pale of her own personal preferences; this isn’t a book presenting Wicca objectively–it’s the Gospel of Wicca according to Holland. She also basically says that all Wiccans focus primarily on the Goddess and that the divine is female (numerous references to the Goddess as primary deity). She also talks about how dangerous it is for anyone to work with elementals (p. 50-51). While she may have issues with them, she should be presenting them as her own experience rather than the ultimate truth (a common theme for a lot of this book).

She has a serious issue with many religions and practices outside of Wicca, including Satanism (which she goes after numerous times), Chaos magicians, and anyone who practices animal sacrifice (which, by the way, includes Afro-Caribbean religions such as Voodoo adn Santeria)(p. 14). Her descriptions show quite blatantly that she doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about in regards to any of them and that she’s filtered them all through her white-light filter without really taking the time to walk in the others’ shoes. In fact, she advises the readers not to evfen *read* about anything outside of her personal biases (p. 26). It’s pretty obvious who Holland’s boogey-men are. She’s also pretty phobic about non-vanilla sexuality, which is revealed in her nervous approach to the cords and scourge (p. 41). And, no surprise at all, she speaks out vehemently about “black magic” (p. 15-16), which brings us to…

–Severe lack of consistency

This is a major inconsistency. After pontificating for pages about the evils of black magic, what does she include? Not one, but two love spells designed to attract a specific person, which any experienced pagan will tell you is a major ethical no-no! (You can find them on p. 107-109)

She also says that the title of witch shouldn’t be used “lightly” (p. 12), and then on the next page she says that if you feel like calling yourself a witch, that means you must be one!

–Other points of interest

She stereotypes gay couples by saying all of them have a “male” partner and a “female” partner (p. 18)–guess she’s never met any lesbian couples that were made of two butches or two femmes.

Don’t get me wrong–there is a lot to like about this book, too. It’s chock full of excellent correspondences of all sorts. She explains the uses of the various altar tools, as well as the correspondences of the four traditional elements, among others. She includes a lot of rudimentary information on the basics of spellwork, though each topic is covered briefly enough that anyone wishing to work with spells as a beginner would do well to supplement this book with others. However, once you have a basic understanding of spells, there are a lot of good basic suggestions in this book.

It does follow the usual format of 101 texts in that it skims over the surface of a bunch of different topics; for example, you wouldn’t want to base an entire practice of totemism solely on her brief chapter on animal correspondences and spells. But it is a useful collection of information for the beginner.

If she’d cut out the first 40 or so pages of the book, it would have been a wonderful collection of introductory information. The problem is she prefaces it with a bunch of blatant biases and inaccuracies and presents it as universally Wiccan. It’s a good book wrapped up in awful dogma. If you can ignore the latter, the former is a good addition to the paganism 101 book shelf. Unfortunately, a lot of newbies may not know the difference and may swallow her biases as holy writ.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Animal Powers Meditation Kit – Farber and Zerner

Animal Powers Meditation Kit: Spiritual Guidance from Your Totem Teachers
Monte Farber and Amy Zerner
Zerner/Farber Editions, Ltd., 2006

43 pages, 12 cards, 1 CD, 12 pendants

I have found the totemic answer to the “Teen Witch Kit”.

There has been a recent fad ever since Silver Ravenwolf came out with her kit in 2004. A number of authors have come up with similar prefabricated spell kits, meditation kits, and similar “everything you need in one box!” kits since the TWK came out (despite the fact that the reviews on it were largely negative).

Farber and Zerner have found their own niche in this fad with the Animal Powers Meditation Kit. It includes a small booklet, a number of cards with pictures of the animals on them, a CD to go along with your meditations, and twelve pendants, one for each animal covered, with a cord to hang them on.

At first I thought “Hey, this is a great idea!” The authors don’t claim that this is the do-all and end-all of totemic work; it’s their own system that they created, based on their own meditations. It’s obvious that they put a lot of thought into it, and that it’s very personal to them. They also avoided the bulk of cultural appropriation that so many totemic authors fall into.

The artwork is absolutely beautiful; woodcuts by Zerner’s mother, and Zerner’s own collages, illustrate the kit with vibrant colors and vivid representations of the animals. And the idea of the kit it self isn;t so bad; a book to help you learn meditations while focusing on the card that represents a particular animal whose qualities you want to emulate, listening to a CD with music and affirmations associated with that animal, and wearing the pendant of the animal to help remind you that you do have those qualities.

Unfortunately, the actual execution wasn’t all that great. The booklet is only 43 pages long, and while the material is good, I was lefting wanting to know more. How did they develop this system? Do they have any anecdotes as to how it has helped them or other people? Has the kit been “road-tested” by other people?

Additionally, because of the structure of the kit, it’s limited to only 12 animals, and most of these are some of the more “popular” ones–bison, horse, cat (cougar), etc. Only one insect, butterfly, and dolphin represented all aquatic life. While there’s variety compared to, say, the books that try to be more Indian than thou, it’s still pretty limited. Their writings on those animals are decent, but I think they could have gotten away with about 30 animals in this format. If making the pendants was an issue, they could have done 15 double-sided ones.

And that leads me to the “extras”. The CD, while well-intentioned, wasn’t all that great. I was enjoying the music–until the people (I’m assuming the authors) started talking. Gods love them, I’m sure they put a lot of effort into writing just the right affirmations, but the only thing I could think of was “New Age Animal Totem Spoken Word”. I don’t know if it was just the way they recited them, but it just did not work for me at all.

The cards that you contemplate during meditation are quite lovely, and I like the concept. Part of the cardboard packaging is designed to stand up and display an individual card, which is a nice way to keep from wasting even more cardboard and plastic (these kits tend to require a lot more packaging than you’d think). The pendants had nice little designs based on the woodcuts, but the plastic used was incredibly cheap. They’d look a lot less tacky if good quality resin had been used.

This is why mass-manufactured “kits” aren’t really my favorite thing in the world. I like handmade spell kits made by individual pagans and shops; because the items inside are of a good quality and often given blessings by the creator. This, and all manufactured kits, falls far short of that level of quality.

All in all, as I said, the idea was a good one, but the execution really wasn’t all that great.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Ritual Body Art – Charles Arnold

Ritual Body Art: Body Painting for Ritual & Magic
Charles Arnold
Phoenix Publishing, 2001
176 pages

When I first got this book I thought it was going to be a hell of a lot more advanced than it is. Instead, it’s useful only because it draws together a whole bunch of magical correspondences, which you could get out of a collection of Cunningham’s books.

This isn’t to say there isn’t any good material in it. If you’re new to paganism and don’t know much about correspondences, and want to play with body art a bit, this is a good book for you. The chapters mainly deal with color symbolization, oils, materials you’ll need, props and jewelry, and some common symbols you may want to try using. There are also some suggestions on how to tailor body painting to different Sabbats and Esbats. In short, it’s a very basic how-to-get started guide.

The examples are rather limited, and divided sharply by a polarized view of male and female–there’s a lot of “male this” and “female that”, and, in addition, are heavily fertility-based, particularly for women. Pregnancy and childbirth get a lot of time, especially in the photos in the center. And his only body art for a woman who has had an abortion involve tears of mourning and a bloodstained hand–in fact, it’s the exact same design as miscarriage except for the bloody hand. How about an abortion design of rejoicing in one’s own choice, maybe with an Artemisal motif? Granted, the reader can certainly create new designs, but couldn’t the examples have been a little more imaginative and varied?

I’d really only recommend this book to beginners who don’t have the cash to pick up a few books on correspondences and symbols. It’s a good pocket guide, but nothing I’d be running out to buy.

Two pawprints out of five.

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