Grail Alchemy by Mara Freeman

Grail Alchemy: Initiation in the Celtic Mystery Tradition
Mara Freeman
Destiny Books
Rochester, VT 2014
278 pages

Reviewed by Micheal

I’ve had this book for a few months now, and despite my best intentions, I cannot finish it in one or two days.

Freeman, has done an excellent job at relating the Celtic myths to their counterparts in Christian, Hindu, and other mythos. Relating the Fisher King not only to masculine principle severed from the feminine but also to various other deities such as Osiris, Adonis(dying and being reborn) for example.

Additionally, Freeman views the silver branch to being a miniature version of the tree of life, and she correlates it to a Siberian Shamanic practice of attaching tree branches to their drums, as an aid to help them reach the tree on their journeys (pg. 49).

The meditations, VisionJourneys, are beautifully crafted, I would suggest that they be recorded prior to beginning the journey. Freeman offers a dedication and healing ritual at the end of the book.

Grail Alchemy presents the reader with a lot of information that simply should not be read over in one or two nights. While it has merely ten chapters, this reviewer would suggest that the reader take their time to truly benefit from the research and information that Freeman is making available.

Given the books depth of information, exercises, visualizations, I give the book:

Five pawprints out of five.

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Manifesting True Desires: Learning from Arianrhod and the Tree of Life by Alfred Willowhawk

Manifesting True Desires: Learning from Arianrhod and the Tree of Life
Alfred Willowhawk
Self-published, 2013
134 pages

Reviewed by Nicky

I was quite excited to read this very promising sounding book. The stated premise is learning from and working with Arianrhod’s myths and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life in order to make desired changes in your life. As a devotee to Arianrhod with an interest in the Tree of Life, it sounded right up my alley. However, the book left me disappointed when it did not match its premise.

The book starts on a reasonably positive note in the first section, which recounts Arianrhod’s myths and lists suggested ways of working with the Goddess. The author has an easy to follow informal tone and I appreciated that he emphasised real life working to manifest desires, not just passively sitting by expecting the magic to do all the work. He seemed to have a decent working understanding of Arianrhod’s myths and how they apply in real-life situations. Nothing in here is groundbreaking but there are some potentially effective meditations and it’s easy to understand. I had high hopes that the book would expand upon these principles.

The second section covers the Tree of Life. Unfortunately, this segment is where the book falls down significantly. The explanations of the Tree of Life are unclear and lacking in detail. My understanding is that that Tree of Life is complicated and that it takes a lot of study and practice to fully understand. For that reason, I was disappointed in the short, simple paragraphs discussing the general meaning of each part of it. For something so complex, I expected a more careful exploration. I often felt the author was repeating facts rather than exploring or explaining them.

Additionally, I found the author’s strict adherence to a masculine/feminine dichotomy and other gender binary stereotypes to be problematic and possibly alienating to one who does not identify with either named gender or as more than one. I saw no suggestion that a woman or man could embody other qualities than those traditionally seen as “feminine” or “masculine.” He actually actively discusses the duality of gender as a universal truth and emphasises the necessity of this duality in creation. I understand that this is a traditional Kabbalistic belief but I’ve seen many Kabbalists and magical workers expand these beliefs to include a less black and white practice or system. They treat these things as symbolic representations of deeper mysteries, whereas I felt this book presented them as literal fact.

The book ends with a list of suggested spells that draw from both segments. I presume this is the “manifesting desires” portion of the text, given that it was only talked about in theory in the previous chapters. This might have been fine in another book but not in one actually titled Manifesting Desires. I expected more instruction than a list of spells and some theoretical, albeit wise, advice about doing the physical work and being careful how you word a spell.

To reiterate, the biggest problem with this book is that it doesn’t meet its stated goal of teaching how to use the myths of Arianrhod and the Tree of Life to manifest one’s desires. Although the first segment showed promise, the writing doesn’t draw together the two strands; it reads like two books in one. I wanted a much more in depth discussion on manifesting desires with many examples, suggestions on how to improve your practice and maybe even some advice on getting out of situations you don’t desire. I wanted to see Arianrhod’s myths weaved into a larger portion of the text and more connection made between those myths and the use of the Tree of Life. I wanted more and I wanted it done more clearly, tightly and with a broader, less literal interpretation.

Overall, there is nothing new in this book that I haven’t seen explained better elsewhere. The idea was great; the execution let it down.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Phantom Armies of the Night by Claude Lecouteux

Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead
Claude Lecouteux
Inner Traditions, 2011
320 pages

Reviewed by Uloboridae

As the title promises, this text is a detailed introduction to the “Wild Hunt” literary theme found throughout Europe. Dr. Lecouteux frames the entire book around the hypothesis that the Wild Hunt theme is an ancient pagan fertility (“third function”) motif of Indo-European origin that was later modified for Christian uses.

The first two-thirds of the book is spent looking at the various figures within the stories, their origins, and the many ways the stories were used for promoting a Christian worldview, particularly regarding sinful actions. This is mainly organized as a timeline, with the first chapters starting with the stories in early 1000s and gradually becoming more recent in later chapters. This is where he identifies, and then separates, the Christian additions from what he recognizes as the original Pagan framework. This method results in quite a large chunk of the book dedicated to explaining Christian clerical beliefs. The author starts out with the “Good Women” troops and the troops of the dead, and then goes into the troops that participate in a hunt or a procession of some sort. The troops of the dead reappear in later chapters to clarify the differences between these types of processions.

He also identifies the regional variations of the figures and stories, focusing mainly on Germanic regions (primarily today’s UK, Germany, Denmark, Austria, and parts of Scandinavia) and Germanic-influenced regions in Spain, France, Italy, and Central Europe. Attention is given to famous figures such as King Herla, Hellequin, and Perchta along with lesser known ones such as Oskeria, Dame Abundia, and Guro. Little attention is given to non-Germanic cultures, which is disappointing, but understandable, given that his professional background is specifically Medieval Germanic literature.

Eventually the author ends his timeline-based exploration in chapters 11 and 12 with the evolution of the Wild Hunt stories in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He discusses the romance of Fauvel to lead into the more exploratory aspects of the processions, such as the rowdy troops of the living that imitate the dead and devils. Pausing briefly for a chapter on Scandinavian folklore that resemble more basal Wild Hunt stories, the author then ties up the previous 12 chapters with a review on shared themes and other scholars’ interpretations.
The author then concludes with a dismissal of Odin as a Wild Hunt leader, going into detail as to why he is not a true huntsman figure, and an exploration of living processions that are linked to the lore processions. His final chapter recognizes the fact that no true conclusion can be met about the nature of the Wild Hunt and related stories, a refreshing attitude for books of this subject. The appendixes are translations of old stories and poems that depict or refer to the Wild Hunt and other processions, free of Dr. Lecouteux’s interpretations (those are given in earlier chapters).

Overall, I found this book to be informative from both a historical and a religious viewpoint. There are times where he asserts an idea as if it were fact (particularly with linguistic connections being used to “prove” or “disprove” an aspect or being of the Wild Hunt), which one would not be able to check unless they were familiar with the field. This situation forces a regular reader to either accept his word, or ignore it, which I find a bit distracting. I prefer to have context and information to support either decision, rather than mentally flipping a coin to decide which way to go. Usually I end up just ignoring the unsupported assertions, which thankfully does not interrupt the rest of the book.

This book is written in an academic voice, requiring some sections to be reread to fully comprehend them. Occasionally the book felt dragging due to the repetition of ideas and interpretations. Dr. Lecouteux also has a tendency to pack his books with information, which can be both good and bad. Good because historical Pagan information is limited and many of us need every bit we can find. Bad, because there is often no room left to give context to the random tidbits. Since the book was originally written in French, the references are mostly French and German sources, so trying to trace the information is nearly impossible for other language speakers to do. For someone like me who wants to double-check something for “truthfulness”, this can be irksome.

However, the author is excellent in keeping a neutral, professional tone in his work. He does not promote or degenerate Christianity or Paganism, nor does he reveal which “side” he is on (if any at all). His interest is solely academic, allowing this book to appeal to a variety of readers. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves European and Religious history and lore, as well as those seeking to understand the differences between Christian and Pagan worldviews. It will make an interesting addition to their library. However, due to the lack of context for some ideas, I would not recommend this book to those new to historical paganism. This is a “201” book, something to read after basic knowledge on Pagan worldviews has already been obtained and understood.

Three 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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The Tree of Enchantment by Orion Foxwood

Note: This is a guest review by Philip A. Bernhardt-House, who graciously agreed to help me cut down on some of my existing review books once I decided to go on semi-hiatus.

The Tree of Enchantment: Ancient Wisdom and Magic Practices of the Faery Tradition
Orion Foxwood
Red Wheel/Weiser, 2008
264 pages

Orion Foxwood’s The Tree of Enchantment presents a novel cosmology of modern fairy seership work, which is deeply rooted throughout in a series of practices and exercises to facilitate contact with otherworld beings and to continually allow a practitioner to align with their three states of being—referred to as the “threefold life”—that is inspired by certain aspects of premodern and folk traditions. It is a work that is poetic and beautiful in its imagery and its vision of divine symmetry and parallelism, and presents a coherent and internally consistent narrative of how these various aspects of the otherworld interact with and are related to one another, and to the seeker, at every stage of the process.

If that brief summary appeals to you, and describes exactly what you’re interested in reading about or studying or seeking, then this really is the book for you, and you should most certainly have a look at it.

Unfortunately, the above is not what Foxwood himself describes is the basis for this work. There are repeated claims that the practices and doctrines detailed in this book are from traditional beliefs, particularly of the Insular Celtic peoples, but this is rarely (if ever) substantiated with references to actual lore (folkloric or literary). There are a few occasions on which Foxwood states that academic study is part of this endeavor (e.g. pp. xiii, 8), but the only academic sources in his footnotes or bibliography are survey essays, several of which are outdated by a century or more. Several are referenced as easily available online, but they do not represent the best or most thorough views of these subjects possible, either in their theoretical subtlety or in their expansive knowledge of actual source materials.

Further, the views presented in this book are not given as one among many possible options for cosmological speculation—they are presented as the “true nature of existence” (p. 22). At another point in the text, Foxwood discusses the various images he uses (e.g. threefold flame, Spindle of Destiny, Tree of Enchantment, etc.), and then says the following: “Note that I did not refer to these images as ‘symbols,’ because they do not symbolize or represent anything. Simply put, they are the actual patterns that exist in the natural and spiritual world” (p. 57). While making the important distinction between imagery being symbolic and descriptive in this work is useful, this statement, as well as others, seem to present almost exclusivist truth-claims to this view of the universe and how it functions, which is not only at variance with a great variety of other spiritual and religious traditions, but it is not even accurate to the cosmological beliefs (as they can be apprehended and understood) of the Celtic and other cultures which are supposed to be their source. This makes the validity of the many guided visualizations given in the book highly questionable, in the view of the present reviewer: if these universal structures and “Vision Keys” simply are inherent to existence, then why would they have to be described in such detail? Why would the content of one’s visualization and visionary experiences need to be delineated so succinctly and at such length, if they could simply be encountered objectively? It is widely known and understood that a great deal of meditative and visionary work is prone to suggestibility, yet can still be quite valid and useful, and such experiences can be considered authentic and even divinely inspired. The system for fairy seership as laid out in this book is not one where there is much room at all for one to simply go to the otherworld and encounter it however it may choose to present itself to the seeker; instead, exact imagery of color, number, gender, size, shape, and other adjectival qualities are given in every exercise, which would suggest to the present reviewer that this is a personal system (a valid one, at that) which has been applied and set up in its presentation here to be a universal one. For those for whom this would work, that’s great; but both tradition and the general variety of human spiritual experience, I think, undermines these claims greatly. One need not make such claims of universal validity and objective spiritual actuality to have a useful or coherent system of spiritual practice and belief.

On several occasions, words in certain Insular Celtic languages are given, and are either ill-defined, or given a meaning which they do not necessarily have in the attested linguistic tradition. To give an example of the ways in which this material is not always accurately presented, think of the English word “path.” In religious and spiritual discussions, “path” takes on a whole different meaning, in contrast to when one is talking about a “foot path” through a garden, or “making a path” through objects strewn on the floor in a cluttered room. The word can have many different meanings, depending on context, but it isn’t as if the word “path” itself has a holy and divine valence every time it is used in English. Likewise, this is the case with many of the terms from Insular Celtic languages used by Foxwood. He uses the term sith, which he defines as “soul” (p. 6) or as “walker” (p. 15), quite frequently, as the “threefold life” is dependent upon an understanding of the “three walkers” and how they interact with this world and the otherworld. However, in Scots Gaelic, sith is several different words: a feminine noun (coming originally from Old Irish síd) meaning “fairy,” “hill” or “peace,” which is a very common and important otherworld and fairy-related term, which nonetheless does not have any “soul” valence; and the Scots Gaelic masculine noun sith which means a stride, a rush (as in “rushing forth”), or a manner of standing. As Foxwood usually employs the term in what would seem to be the latter sense, his usage in relation to better-known otherworld vocabulary really requires clarification so as not to mislead those not familiar with these languages. Likewise with what he says about the “toradh, a Gaelic word meaning pith or essence” (p. 21). His pronunciation guide is not quite correct, and he should have clarified that it is a Scots Gaelic word (“Gaelic” can mean any of at least three Goidelic languages—Irish [or Irish Gaelic, but the Irish themselves prefer the former], Scots Gaelic, and Manx). However, the basic meaning of this (despite its usage as such in some sections of the Celtic Reconstructionist movement) is neither “pith” nor “essence,” but instead “fruit” or “produce,” or even “profit.” This applies not only to Scots Gaelic, but to the Old Irish torad and to Modern Irish toradh. When Foxwood says that the “living light that is poured into all” from universal origins is the toradh, thinking of it as the “fruits” or “profits” or “increase” of everything is not necessarily off track, but considering it the “essence” of it would be incorrect, in literal terms that are in line with the linguistic cultures concerned. Bilé is given as the “Tree of Enchantment” (p. 33), but later as the “pillar of white flame” that is the “center post of all life” (p. 233). In addition to the orthography Foxwood gives being incorrect, the Irish term bile is the word for a sacred or important tree (particularly five important such trees in ancient Ireland), but the sense of it as a “world tree” and axis mundi is not present in the original culture. He gives the Welsh terms hiraeth and bro as “ancestral memory or ‘longing for the homeland’” and “’homeland’ or ‘our place upon the sacred land’” respectively (p. 182), but each is simply a term for “homesickness, longing, yearning, desire” and “area, district.”

While Foxwood does admit that this path is a syncretistic one that draws on Southern and Appalachian folk practices, certain Native American strains, and also Christianity, some of his claims do need to be considered in their individual cultural lights, rather than in the manner in which they are presented here. At one point, Foxwood states openly that “I have taken this folk teaching, which was adapted into Christian symbology, and restored what I believe is the more original, mystical, pre-Christian meanings” (p. 27). Whether or not there is validity in this in particular places where it occurs or not (and I leave it up to individual readers to decide that for themselves), it would be useful if Foxwood had mentioned every case in which he exercised his interpretive prerogative in this manner; unfortunately, this is the only place where he mentioned that. He talks at various later points about the fairy races being “fallen angels,” and that “Irish Gaelic Faery teachings…refer to the Dreamer as the ‘Proud Angel’ or ‘Lucifer’…” (p. 181); and in the same place, he talks of an “Oral Faery legend” (one of many he mentions) that involves the creation of the world from a spark of the Star Father. The appeal to oral authority in the latter is questionable; and the existence of a figure corresponding to the Dreamer in Irish (or any Insular Celtic) lore is also quite dubious. (King Arthur is supposed to be sleeping in a cave, ready to awaken when next he is needed, but this is much different from the cosmic implications Foxwood gives.) There is a strain of Irish literate lore that says the aes side are unfallen humanity, or possibly some type of angel, but these are syncretistic and speculative statements within the tradition, and are by no means the only such opinion expressed in the tradition (others say the otherworld peoples are demons, others that they are gods, while others simply say they’re mortals of a particular race descended from Noah). His discussion of the sleeping and opening of the eyes of the Dreamer at various stages in history (p. 182) also doesn’t seem to have much to do with attested tradition in Insular Celtic countries, but instead appears to be similar to Hindu concepts of Vishnu. He speaks of the use of BDSM practices to induce altered states of consciousness, but that such practices are not attested in the lore (p. 30), whereas they are in fact amply attested—St. Colum Cille/Columba, an important early Irish saint who evangelized in Scotland, was reportedly whipped by an angel in a vision; and the important Irish otherworld tale Serglige Con Culainn features the hero Cú Chulainn being flogged with horse-rods (i.e. riding crops!) by two otherworld women who visit him. He says the Fir Bolg are giants (and equivalent to titans, etc.) that attend to the Dreamer (p. 205), but there is little evidence for this view of that race in attested Irish literature. Instead, the more usual race corresponding to such a titanic role, and indeed the usual word translated as “giant” in Irish and Scots Gaelic literature, is the Fomoiri. These examples of inaccuracies could be multiplied greatly.

There are a number of mistakes that are fairly systematic in the work, including “lightening” for “lightning,” “luminal” for “liminal,” and “eminent” for “immanent.” While the places where some of these occur can be read with the incorrect word and some degree of understanding can ensue from such, it is clear in certain instances (e.g. the pairing of “eminent and transcendent”) that the other word is what is intended.

My overall impression of this system suggested to me that it has much more in common with Kabbalistic notions and the theurgy presented in the late antique Chaldean Oracles than with anything from Insular Celtic traditions. The terminology Foxwood uses for the ultimate image of divinity and divine origins, the Holy and Formless Fire, is a particularly Chaldean usage. There is certainly evidence in a variety of Celtic cultures for the idea of the cosmos as being Land, Sea, and Sky (corresponding to Foxwood’s schema, with the Stone/Earth, Ocean/Sea, and Sky/Star worlds). Likewise, the figure of the Greek goddess Hekate, as presented in Hesiod’s Theogony, is said to have had dominion over earth, sea, and the heavens; this is relevant because Hekate is presented in the Chaldean Oracles as the goddess who is, in essence, the Formless Fire. Thus, I wonder if this aspect of Foxwood’s structure in fact comes from a neoplatonic and theurgic understanding of Hekate as basic to the system, rather than anything being taken directly from any attested Celtic culture. The mapping of the Vision Keys presented on page 1 looks very much like the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (Foxwood’s “Tree of Enchantment”?), altered slightly, but with rivers acting as barriers at the expected intervals on the tree. The traditional supernal triangle seems to be echoed quite explicitly by Foxwood’s “triangle of light” composed of the Star Father, the Utterer, and the Holy and Formless Fire. On page 236, Foxwood admits to the similarity between the kabbalistic system and his system, but I would opine that the similarity isn’t one of parallel development, but of conscious and deliberate patterning. Had he admitted this at that stage (and at various other places in the book), I would have been much more forgiving of the way he presented his material. He discusses the “Old Ones before Time” on page 249, and says that certain other traditions refer to these as Stellar Aeons, but then opines “Because this term lacks the feeling and texture of folk concepts, I suspect it is modern and originates in a temple-based tradition.” I suspect that much the same can be said about this entire system as Foxwood presents it.

One very useful section, on pages 238-239 (at a late enough stage of the book that such a reminder is extremely useful) emphasizes the importance of meeting one’s basic physical needs of good water, nutritious food, adequate sleep and regular exercise in doing the entirety of this work successfully. While this is not a teaching unique to Foxwood’s system, and perhaps is something that should go without saying, having it appear at that stage of his system’s presentation (when one would be very prone to getting away from physical concerns altogether) was an excellent reminder of the importance of doing this basic bodily maintenance and appreciation. Within his own system, it fits with the teaching that the various walkers are reflections of one another, just as the cosmic template Foxwood elucidates is one in which there is a fractal-like self-similarity to the cosmos and the processes and beings within it. This type of cosmic schema is a useful thing in and of itself, and would make this system appealing to anyone who enjoys such a spiritual aesthetic.

As I stated initially, this system is not useless nor invalid, and its coherence is attractive; but, the entire presentation is marred by the constant appeal to “ancient authority” and “oral tradition” and “ways of the ancestors” that simply cannot be proven, and a great deal of which does not match attested lore. As a modern system inspired by some aspects of fairy belief in Insular Celtic cultures, synthesized with large helpings of more widely known esoteric traditions (including kabbalah, the Chaldean Oracles, and so forth), this is an excellent book and an enjoyable exploration, that begins in the experience of “divine discontent” (which some might know through the Christian mystical tradition’s terminology, the “dark night of the soul”) and works towards a healing, holistic connection to the universe and to all of life. However, if one is looking for something that accurately reflects the beliefs and practices of the “fairy faith” (which is post-Christian in the forms now known), much less pre-Christian Celtic practices, then this is not the place to find them.

Two Formless Fires out of Five.

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Witches & Pagans Magazine, Issue 19

Witches & Pagans Magazine
Various authors, editors, artists and other contributors
BBI Media, Autumn 2009
96 pages

First, a little background: Witches & Pagans is what happened when BBI Media merged their prior publications, PanGaia and newWitch. PanGaia was their more “serious” pagan publication, with a heavy eco-friendly slant and a target audience interested in ritual practices and spiritual experiences. newWitch came about a few years ago, and was met with some skepticism since its general themes were “sex, spells and celebs”. Some feared that newWitch would manifest all the worst stereotypes of image-obsessed teenybopper witches, and yet the publication managed to hold a fine balance between entertainment and facing controversial topics head-on. As a disclosure, I have written for both publications, so my potential bias should be noted.

Witches & Pagans has managed to blend elements of both magazines. This issue, for example, features interviews with musician S.J. Tucker and author R.J. Stewart (the faery AND initial issue!), something that newWitch was keen on. However, articles on 19th century mystic Ella Young, a surprisingly well-researched article on Cherokee fey beings, and several other in-depth writings on a central theme of Faery hail back to the best of PanGaia.

The regular columnists provided me with some of my favorite reading overall. Isaac Bonewits explored the practice of magic at different stages of one’s life, and how factors ranging from physical health to years of experience and knowledge can shape one’s energy and thereby one’s practice. Galina Krasskova did an excellent job of tackling the practice of celibacy as part of the ascetic’s path, something that a heavily hedonistic neopagan community may not often give much thought to. And I love Archer’s article on connecting to the wilderness through forests and their denizens, both physical and archetypal.

Those who were used to reading only one of the parent publications that merged to create this one may feel disappointed that there isn’t more of “their” stuff in there. However, one thing I appreciate about Witches & Pagans is that it brings together two potentially separate demographics in the pagan community–the more “serious” practitioners who look askance at the supposed “fluff” content of newWitch, and the energetic (though not always neophyte) envelope-pushers who might see their counterparts as muddy sticks. Both groups have much to offer in their own way, and Witches & Pagans does a nice job of showcasing the best of both worlds.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer

The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth
John Michael Greer
Weiser Books, 2006
272 pages

Druidry is one of those pagan religions that I don’t know as much about as some others. However, getting to read the basics of one particular tradition of druidry has helped flesh out my perspectives somewhat, and so as a near-neophyte to the entire concept, I have to say this was a great introduction. I’ve read and reviewed The Druid Magic Handbook, also by Greer, but this offers more background to that text. (In other words, I suggest reading them both, but in the reverse order!)

The Druidry Handbook, while being the material for the First Degree in the Ancient Order of Druids in America (of which Greer is the Grand Archdruid), is also quite suitable for the individual interested in self-instruction. It’s impeccably organized (in sets of three, of course!) and Greer has a definite talent for explaining things thoroughly but without overcomplication. The book starts with an honest assessment of the history of druidry, including some of the more controversial (and occasionally fictitious) roots, though even the fiction is valued for its mythological if not historical qualities. Greer then presents the basic philosophy and practices of AODA druidry, along with some 101 material such as sacred days, correspondences, and a beginner’s introduction to ogam. This is followed by three paths of specialization that the reader may explore; the Earth Path deals largely with ecology as applied spirituality, the Sun Path with ritual practice, and the Moon Path with meditation. The wrap-up includes information for those wishing to utilize the book in a formalized practice, whether through the AODA or not.

Even those who aren’t specifically interested in druidry may want to take a good look at this book. The meditation section, for example, has a series of practices that are useful and effective regardless of one’s personal spiritual paradigm. The seasonal rituals, too, may be adapted for use outside of druidry, being well-structured and lyrical in their own right. In fact, many of the regular practices could be incorporated into a variety of paths.

There are so many good things to say beyond this. I do, however, want to especially point out the eco-friendly focus of the material. Many books on supposed “Earth-based religions” barely give lip service to actual hands-on ecological practice, preferring instead to write rehashes of moon rituals and so forth. Greer promotes everything from tree planting to spending extended periods of time getting to know the land you live in, and makes compelling arguments linking spirituality with physical practices and activities. This adds a nice context to the reasons behind the more abstract portions of ritual practice and so forth, and provides an additional layer of meaning.

My only quibbles are personal disagreements, and they’re pretty minor. For example, in talking about the druidic conception of reincarnation through different species, Greer writes “Someone who displays the vanity of a cat or the empty-headedness of a sheep clearly didn’t learn the lessons those forms teach, and must go back to relearn them” (p. 56). This is an anthropocentric view which judges nature of nonhuman species as biased by human opinions on what is considered to be valuable. (Perhaps life as a cat or sheep can show why it is that cats and sheep and others are the way they are, and why that’s valuable in and of itself without human judgement!) ETA: I’ve since learned that this is something specific to AODA material, not Greer’s personal perspective, just FTR.

But I’m being pedantic, really. Overall, I enjoyed this book, and I’ll be keeping it on my reference shelf. Even if I never practice druidry myself, there’s plenty of valuable information here.

Five paws full of oak leaves out of five

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Thorn Magazine, Volume One, Issue One

Thorn Magazine, Volume One, Issue One
Various authors, editors, artists and other contributors
December 2008
72 pages

Before I start this review, a disclaimer: I have been taken on as a reviewer by this publication, and have a book review in this issue. Please note the potential for bias, though I will do my best to maintain my neutrality.

The quality of neopagan dead tree magazines vary greatly. On the one hand, you have a small grouping of professional magazine publishers who have consistently managed to put forth decent material on a schedule. On the other, you have the magazines that never made it past the first issue, DIY zines of varying stripes and qualities, and some miscellaneous forgettable examples throughout the years. Running a magazine is tough, because it means multiple times a year you’re collecting, editing, laying out, printing and distributing material from all sorts of writers and other creatives. Burnout is common in the (relatively) small press magazine world.

I have a lot of hope for Thorn magazine, however. Started by “Chip O’Brien, the hideous result of a mad experiment by the Rutgers English department”, this is a pagan mag that goes well beyond spells and shiny objects. For this first issue, Chip and Co. managed to compile a delightful variety of articles, commentaries, artwork and other items. There’s too much to discuss every single item in detail, but here are a few of my favorites:

–The Wild Hunt (magazine column version) by Jason Pitzl-Waters: Despite the prevalence of paganism on the internet, not all pagans love spending time online as much as I do. So I thought that the addition of a summary of some of the highlights from the Wild Hunt was a great way to help the less cyber-focused still get access to a wide variety of pagan-relevant news bits. I thought it translated well, especially as I am a regular reader of the blog itself.

–Without a Watchmaker: An Atheist’s Search for the Gods by Robert Koskulics: Having recently taken up with someone who identifies both with the terms “pagan” and “atheist”, and having seen a recent spate of discussion of atheism in paganism via various popular pagan blogs, I leaped on this article almost immediately. It’s a sensitive treatment of one atheist’s experiences joining a coven for their Samhain celebration; while the author was frank about the points where he maybe wasn’t so moved by the ritual as the pagans were, I did enjoy his conclusion: “Gratitude for my life and my place in the world is almost as good as knowing why I should be grateful in the first place” (p.11). It’s a beautiful piece, and one of my favorites from the entire issue.

–The Extraordinary Healing And/Or Totally Fraudulent Powers of Orgone by Jeff Mach: I’m a bit familair with Reich from an occult perspective, but also from the perspective of a psych grad student. I haven’t yet read Reich’s works directly, though I have them in my possession, but I did have a class where a Reichian therapist sat in as a substitute for the usual professor and talked a bit about his practice. Mach’s article, on the other hand, tends to favor the more occultish interpretations of orgone energy, Reich’s theoretical energetic matrix that permeates, well, everything. While he does touch on Reich’s work in psychotherapy, much of the article deals with the more esoteric applications of orgone–and the conspiracy theories surrounding Reich’s persecution and mysterious death in prison. Reich and his work are not a simple topic to tackle, and Mach does quite the admirable job of presenting his case.

The Cauldron of Poesy (translation) by Erynn Rowan Laurie: This is a circa 7th century poem written by an Irish fili, or poet-mystic; Laurie has done a lovely job of translating it. Translation is always a bit of a challenge, especially with poetry, because often the original words are specifically chosen for their rhythm and sound, and trying to make a translation that sounds just as nice isn’t easy. Laurie preserves the meaning while creating something that is pleasurable to read and recite.

–Thralldom in Theodish Belief by Joseph Bloch: I’ll admit that I’m no expert on heathenry, and I know less about Theodism than other sorts, such as Asatru. However, I was utterly fascinated by this approach to a neotribal membership process that draws on the concept of a newcomer to a culture being a thrall, a “nobody”, who then must earn their place in society, through working within some very specific parameters. It’s a wonderfully thorough way to weed out potentially problematic applicants and to show who’s really dedicated to being a part of the tribe. I admit that I couldn’t help but be reminded, to an extent, of the spirit of the Master/slave relationship in BDSM–while the Theodish thralldom is in no way sexual, the general concept of a willing sacrifice of one’s power for a particular goal/purpose seems to be a commonality.

There were plenty of other things that I loved, to include a beautiful critique of Gimbutas’ faulty research, some absolutely amazing artwork, and spotlights on pagan-related pop culture. Admittedly, there were also a few pieces I thought weren’t as strong. Tchipakkan’s “Hanging with the Gods”, a discussion of her and her family’s experiences with “real live encounters” with the spirits and deities made me want to reach for my Occam’s Razor. Starwolf’s “Wyrd Science: A Lab Report” was supposed to include “20% craft skill, 60% research and 20%….insane inspiration!”, all I really saw was a couple of instructables on how to make a copper wand and a “Psychic Shield Generator”, with no real scientific method, research, or other content. And Jack Lux’s “An Evening With Uncle Chuckie” discussed the author’s inspiration to thumb his nose at “white lighters” and their pesky ethics after a presentation by the infamous Charles Cosimano; it came across more as a rebellious OMGDARKMAGICIAN, and my end reaction was “Gee, so you cast a curse and it might have worked. That’s nice”.

Still, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this magazine, and even the parts I wasn’t so impressed by may absolutely tickle someone else. Also, I’d like to mention (and here I’ll definitely admit my bias as a writer!), Thorn is one of very, very few paying venues for pagan magazine contributors. Granted, as a startup, they’re limited in what they can afford to pay. However, considering most of the time writers have to settle for a contributor’s copy of the magazine they get published in, or maybe a free subscription, this is a welcome change. I strongly suggest that if you like what you see from this magazine, that you treat yourself to a subscription–and help keep this excellent publication afloat.

Thorn is by far the most professional startup I’ve seen, and if the first issue is an indication, this will definitely be a strong voice in pagan publishing for years to come.

Five pawprints out of five

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Celtic Totem Animals by John Matthews

Celtic Totem Animals
John Matthews
Red Wheel/Weiser Books, 2002
192 pages plus CD and 20 cards

There are only so many ways you can rehash basic totem animal material. Usually it comes down to “What is a totem animal? How do I meet my totem? What does each totem mean? What do I do once I know my totem?” and so forth. John Matthews has attempted to try to put a Celtic spin on things, as he did with Celtic Shamanism.

Much of the material in the book that came with this set is based on the usual neopagan totemism material, mixed with core shamanism. Guided meditations are presented as “journeys” (when they are not the same thing). Totems are painted as generally benign, and there’s not much offered in the way of warning in case one encounters an unhappy totem animal. He also invokes a number of human-animal interactions, and shapeshifting, as “totemic” or “shamanic” experiences. Some of these are real stretches of speculation; while I can see where the spirit of totemism flows through Celtic mythology, I have to question some of his historical assumptions.

Still, practically speaking, Matthews offers a pretty decent totemic system. While he limits his focus to twenty birds, mammals and the occasional cold-blooded critter that feature in Celtic myth and culture, he does briefly mention that other animals may show up as well. And his yearly cycle for working with the totems does offer a good structure for integrating theory into practice. I wish he’d spent less time talking about lore (which is what a large portion of the book is dedicated to) and more to development of the practical material, as well as discussion of his own experiences.

The totem cards are a complete disappointment. They’re tiny, and the card stock is about on par with a cheap postcard. They won’t last long, and the small size doesn’t really allow the artwork to have as much detail as it could. The drumming CD is a nice addition, though it’s specifically tailored for the totemic “journeying” described in the book–20 minutes of a single drum, 20 minutes of two drums, 30 minutes of one drum. As with any drumming CD, you’re limited by the time constraints of the recording.

It’s a nice effort, but it has a number of flaws. It almost comes across as something that was created primarily to tap the market of totem and other magical “kits” that was just hitting its stride when the set first came out. It’s not the worst totem kit I’ve seen, but neither is it the best. The originality of some of the material gives it some bonus points, but it could have been better.

Three pawprints out of five.

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The Phillupic Hymns by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

The Phillupic Hymns
P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008
292 pages

The world is full of would-be poets. These range from people who are thrilled that they discovered “cat”, “flat”, “rat” and “bat” all rhyme (and therefore should throw them all in one poorly written verse), to those who manage to rise above the usual stuff and present something original. P. (Phillupus) Sufenas Virius Lupus is, thankfully, well on the latter end of the spectrum. Given that I am not a huge fan of poetry, the fact that I have found a book of it that impresses me quite a bit is saying a lot.

While many collections of poems are published for the benefit of the poet’s ego, a paycheck, or other self-focused reasons, this is a devotional collection, an offering to a plethora of deities from Egypt, Greece, Rome, Celtic Gaul, and Britain. The earliest poems stem from Phillupus’ 2002 inauguration of the renewed worship of Antinous, the deified lover of the Emperor Hadrian. A large majority, however, came from two short but incredibly fruitful bursts of inspiration and dedication on the poet’s part earlier this year, brought about by an oracle from Dionysos. I was fortunate enough to witness the initial postings online of many of these devotional poems, and was excited to hear that they and others would be brought into a printed collection. I have trouble reading things online, and find the format of a dead-tree book to be much easier on my eyes.

Phillupus is an incredibly gifted poet who stands well above the crowd. Rather than endless attempts at “free verse” (which are usually excuses for overly flowery prose peppered with hard returns at inopportune moments), he has worked largely within ancient styles made popular by Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, and their contemporaries. As I read, I was reminded strongly not only of the delivery but of the highly descriptive language of the Iliad, the Aeneid, and other well known (and more obscure) poems. While this is not a major literary pursuit of mine, I’m familiar enough with the form from my educational background to recognize its modern counterpart. Phillupus has a knack for choosing just the right words in pleasing combinations, and there is not a strained or stretched phrase in the entire collection.

Where many collections of poems seem to be linked together solely by the fact that they all came from the same poet, this book flows well exceptionally well precisely because it was created with such strongly focused intent. This is not a mish-mash of some devotionals, then some free-verse about the poet’s love life, and perhaps some sketchily-written rhymes about cats. Rather, the very fact that it has a definite theme, and that it sticks strictly to that theme, gives it strength.

However, don’t let this fool you into thinking you’ll be reading the same poem over and over again with a different deity each time. The offerings here range from humorous to morose, traditional to playful, with setting in both ancient and modern times. I laughed out loud at the dating plights of Sobek, pondering a past of “typhonic” love while hanging out in a coffee shop waiting for a blind date set up by Anubis. I sat in quiet contemplation of the Matres as they went about their tasks. I witnessed sorrow more than once for the loss of Antinous, and was surprised and a little sad for Ganymede, taken to be a cupbearer instead of a prince. I delighted to see the feral Abnoba, often overlooked, running through the wilderness.

This is a collection that, while it may be enjoyed simply for itself, would lend itself very well to ritual purposes. If you’re tired of the stereotypical neopagan ritual “verse”, and want to be able to incorporate words of devotion that will set the mood for your rite, these works will open the way for the Divine with beauty, grace, and power. There are a couple of prose pieces, as well, that would make excellent readings for group storytelling rites (though any of these would be wonderful for reading aloud). (Do keep in mind, of course, that if you’re using them for any sort of group ritual, even if nothing is written down, it’s more than polite to give credit to the poet–and Phillupus certainly deserves it!) Be aware that there are a number of works in here that are not his originals, but rather are his translations of Latin writings; however, the majority of the material is his own, and it meshes well with the older writings.

I also appreciate that the poems are aimed towards renewing interest not only in modern-day polytheism, but in a syncretic approach as well. Due to his background as both an academic and a practicing polytheist, Phillupus approaches syncreticism with great authority, and without the sloppy eclecticism often seen in neopaganism today. Acknowledging that the gods most certainly did get around the ancient world beyond their initial borders, he allows for historical crossover, with good research and better results.

This is, in all, a marvelous collection, whether you simply want to read it, or incorporate the verses in your own ritual work. I can’t say enough good about it!

Five pawprints out of five

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