The Woman Magician by Brandy Williams

The Woman Magician
Brandy Williams
Llewellyn Publications, 2011
365 pages

Reviewed by Nicky

The Woman Magician was born from the author’s experiences with the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), Golden Dawn and Thelema, in which she felt that, as a woman, she was not a magician in her own right, due to the emphasis on the male as the director of energy. Drawing on her feminist beliefs and knowledge of women’s history, experiences and needs, the author sought to create a workable tradition for the woman magician, a Magia Femina.

The first part of the book explores the history of the O.T.O., Golden Dawn and Thelema in relation feminism and the needs of its woman-identified practitioners. Williams recounts her personal experience as a Priestess in each order, particularly her responses to the standard rituals. She then moves on to discuss how women have come to be spectators rather than participants in the Western Magical Traditions, via the exploration of tradition, culture, history, philosophy, theology and magic. Each chapter introduces the reader to a personification of the concept, initially contacted by the author via meditation.

The second part combines her knowledge of Western Magical Traditions with her exploration of the above to create a tradition that is empowering to women, putting them in the role of magician rather than spectator. As the book reaches its conclusion, the author attempts to reconcile her feminist ideals with her relationship with the tradition, as personified by the deity/entity named Lady Tradition.

Initially, the writing struck me as intellectual, thorough and well researched. The author has clearly not simply read a book or two, but critically analysed the contents of many. She draws from a wide variety of sources and is careful to either avoid any dubious sources or to make mention of concerns before explaining why she has included them in her writing.

Additionally, her conclusions are enlightening and had me making note of topics I’d like to explore further down the track. This is not a quick, light read for a rainy day; this is a deep, ponderous work.

The magical system suggested seems workable and sensible for a modern Witch. The rituals are touching and empowering but confronting enough to help the woman grow as a magician and as a person. Having personally participated in a similar ritual based on Inanna’s descent to the Underworld, I can attest to the power of such a rite. I also found the final initiation, the Initiation of the Sun, to be particularly moving. I can imagine the pride a magician might feel at its culmination.

Of course, no book is without its flaws. As I said, it is a meaty book that can’t be read in one sitting. That in itself is not a flaw, however given the weight of the book, I got the impression that there was a lot of assumed knowledge expected of the reader. Although many rituals and aspects of Western Traditional Magic were explored, not all concepts and symbols were not sufficiently explained for one new to the path. Explanations given seemed almost like a reminder overview. This didn’t lessen my appreciation of the author’s work, however it did leave me confused and needing to look things up at times. This is most notable during discussions of the Qabalah. Although vital aspects were explained in detail, some of the concepts introduced to help explain the Qabalah also needed to be explained, as they are not, in my opinion, general knowledge in the same way casting a circle or the Goddess may be in Pagan/magical circles.

I also noticed a couple of points where the author didn’t fully represent a Goddess or myth or got some facts wrong. For example, she lists Áine (sometimes spelled Aine, without the accent on the A) as simply the name Patricia Monaghan gave to the fairy queen and Goddess of spring. However, Áine is an Irish Goddess of midsummer, wealth, love and fertility, who is sometimes counted as a fairy queen and a Goddess of sovereignty. Though the ritual in which Áine appears still manages to be effective, I feel it would have been improved with a fuller, more accurate representation of the deity.

Overall, Williams has written an interesting book and a genuinely inspiring, inclusive magical system that could be enjoyed by women of different levels of experience and background.

Four pawprints out of five.

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The Tarot of Vampyres by Ian Daniels

The Tarot of Vampyres
Ian Daniels
Llewellyn Publications, 2010
312 Pages, 78 Cards

Reviewed by Jasmine Simone

The Tarot of Vampyres, by Ian Daniels, has a lofty goal of helping the user to face their fears
and integrate their shadow self into one balanced whole. It misses the mark in a few places, but
the deck has beautiful art and a surprising depth — even the backs of the cards have meaning.

While tarot decks read differently for different people, I’ve found it to be fairly straightforward,
but time and contemplation reveal a lot of nuance in its responses. The cardstock is typical of
Llewellyn’s releases these past few years. It’s got a rather flimsy feel, but the cards have been
standing up to a lot of use and have a nice, smooth texture and shuffle. As is sadly the norm
lately, there is no bag included with the kit, and the oversized plain white box they expect you to
use falls apart after one or two openings.

The book that accompanies the deck is mostly dedicated to the descriptions and meanings of
the cards. Unlike many companion guides, the book includes no images of the cards, but it does
go into much greater detail on the Minor Arcana than what is usually found in these books. If it’s
a choice between the small black and white pictures normally given and the increased input on
the cards from the artist, I believe the right choice was made.

It sheds a lot of insight into the symbolism chosen, and since this is in no way a clone of the
Waite Colman Smith deck, the look into the artist’s intentions should be helpful for those more
used to “standard” imagery.

Daniels presents the cards as part of a system, and I found the various bits of kabbalah,
alchemy, elements, and Western astrology to be distracting, confusing, and unnecessary. They
aren’t necessary for successful tarot reading, and the information given isn’t enough to equip
a beginner to really use these methods. On the other hand, I thought that creating a “Vampyre
Name” was rather silly, but it was actually kind of fun, and the construction of a vampyre
persona may help lend a helpful distance in facing one’s fears.

The book also features many great exercises to work with the cards, and several interesting
spreads. This is a gorgeous deck that had a lot of thought put into it, although that wasn’t
immediately obvious to me. If you view this deck as being pretty, but shallow, as I did, flip
through the book and give the deck another chance.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Secrets of the Lost Symbol by John Michael Greer

Secrets of the Lost Symbol: The Unauthorized Guide to Secret Societies, Hidden Symbols & Mysticism
John Michael Greer
Llewellyn, 2009
230 pages

Remember a few years ago when Dan Brown was all the rage? His fiction introduced people to a hodgepodge of occult symbols and concepts–and as with anything that ends up tossed into the mainstream, there was a lot of incomplete information and juxtaposition of odd bedfellows. Granted, his works may not have done to magical lodges what the 1990s schlock The Craft did to Wicca, but it’s always a bit frustrating to see people getting only part of the story and little of the context.

And who better to disentangle the facts from the fluff than John Michael Greer? Secrets of the Lost Symbol, an answer to Brown’s The Lost Symbol, is sort of the pocket version of Greer’s well-received The New Encyclopedia of the Occult, which was itself an ambitious, thorough and well-researched overview of various ceremonial, magical and related traditions, symbols and other matters. While the casual curious might have found that particular work daunting in its scope, this distillation of entries that touch on the works of Brown and his ilk is a much more approachable book.

However, it’s not just for the magical “tourist”. Those who are well-versed in other magical traditions but new to more ceremonial traditions may find this to be a good way to broaden their understanding of esoterica. It also would make an excellent guide for students of covens and other teaching groups who want to offer more than just what their own tradition teaches. Writers may find it of use to be able to more accurately infuse their fiction with esoteric elements in a realistic manner, without having to immerse themselves entirely in a study of the occult. In fact, anyone who needs a quick, well-researched and well-written desk reference.

It’s also a good introduction to Greer’s writing in general. If you like this book, consider investing in The New Encyclopedia of the Occult at the very least. He definitely knows his stuff when it comes to magical orders, and is one of the best writers for reaching a variety of audiences.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Arbatel translated by Joseph Peterson

Arbatel: Concerning the Magic of Ancients
Joseph Peterson (translator)
Ibis, 2009
128 pages

This is a guest review by Sannion, who graciously offered to help me clear out my review shelf as I’m on hiatus.

A while back, Lupa put out a request for guest reviewers to handle some of the overflow she’d gotten through her Pagan Book Reviews blog. Being the shameless book hound that I am, I answered the call and snatched up a couple choice titles to read in between my usual Greco-Egyptian fare. The choicest of the choice was undoubtedly Joseph Peterson’s new translation of Arbatel de magia veterum. Just holding the book in my hands was a pleasure. This is a handsomely designed volume by people who take pride in craftsmanship. The illustrations were lovely; the notes added much without being overwhelming; and the original Latin text was provided for comparison, something I always appreciate in a translation.

Although I had never read the Arbatel before, I’d read plenty about it. It’s one of the classic texts of Renaissance magic, influential in the development of the system of planetary or Olympic spirits so important in modern CM. Most of the passages I’d seen quoted from it were fairly dense and dry and a little difficult to follow. They also employed hopelessly archaic language. If ever a book was in need of a clear, concise, and modern translation – it was this one! (After all, the previous translation, from which most of the quotes I’d read had come, was done in the 17th century.)

And Peterson’s translation does not disappoint. He makes this important esoteric text come alive through his simple yet elegant prose. It almost gives one the impression that they’re sitting in at a lecture of learned scholars discussing magic, philosophy, religion and history. In fact, that was probably the most surprising thing about the Arbatel. Most of what I had read about it had led me to believe that the Arbatel was something along the lines of a philosophical grimoire. And there are parts of it like that, but mostly it seems concerned with Neoplatonic theology, providing an overview of the history of magic, and driving home sound ethical advice. In fact, a sizable portion of the aphorisms which make up the Arbatel are devoted to that last topic, which gives a very different impression of magic than many people often have. As Peterson points out in his introduction, throughout the text there are admonitions “to help our neighbors, be positive and grateful, and use time wisely. Above all, it teaches us to pay attention, looking for the wondrous and miraculous. In fact, to the author this virtually defines the magus.”

Peterson’s introduction was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book, and would almost be worth the price alone. He traces the history of Renaissance magic back to Late Antiquity and the Neoplatonists and Hermeticists, with a lengthy discussion on the preservation, use, and adaptation of these important texts. Although none of the information was new to me, considering my interests, I think he handled it well and I’d definitely recommend it to someone who was curious about authentic pagan survivals during this time period.

Of course, the Arbatel being a product of the Renaissance as it is, the “paganism” that it presents is of a very curious sort. There are nymphs, and daimones, and magical creatures and even gods and demigods as part of its cosmology – but these are all subordinate to the one true god of the Christians. The author may quote Homer and Hesiod as authorities on certain matters, but he defers to the Holy Scriptures above all else. Still, if you can manage to skim past the pious interjections, I think you’ll find a lot of genuine worth and historical curiosity in this text. I’m sure I’ll be reading it a couple more times.

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Lightbreaker by Mark Teppo

LightBreaker: The First Book of the Codex of Souls
Mark Teppo
Night Shade Books, 2008
342 pages

Most of the time I never get to meet in person the authors of books I review. So it was kinda cool when Mark Teppo, who recently published his first novel, came up to me at an event we were both at and handed me a copy of Lightbreaker. (Okay, scratch that–it was really cool.) It just so happened that said novel is of one of my absolute favorite genres–urban fantasy.

Markham, the main character, is intoduced to the reader as he is in hot pursuit–of a deer. A glowing deer. With a fugitive human soul in it. Headed straight for Seattle. No good can come of this, right? But it gets better–the soul can leap into human bodies, and only Markham’s magical senses and spirit guides can help him keep from losing his quarry in the metropolitan area. To complicate matters further, the soul won’t be going quietly, and before Markham can achieve his goal, here come the police, who are wholly ignorant of this whole metaphysical reality–or are they? There’s a lot going on, and that’s just in the first two chapters.

I’ll be honest and say that the next hundred or so pages were somewhat slow. But after that things picked up again, and I found it to be an excellent read. Teppo does a good job of worldbuilding, though I might have like a little more expository background writing to give some context to the political intrigue. However, I bet the next book will have more details to that end; as it was, there was enough to keep me immersed in the story in this one. And the ending was both satisfying, while also leaving plenty of room for returns to this world, which I eagerly await.

And guess what? No werewolves, or vampires (sparkly or otherwise)! Instead, Teppo’s story is based on Western occultism, particularly Qabalah and other forms of ceremonial magic. To be sure, there’s a lot of the fantasy element to it–souls shoving each other out of bodies with visible results, qlipothic spirits zapping rival mages–but the author knows his stuff as far as basic western magical theory goes. (Even if he does say that he’s concerned that some will say he didn’t research enough.) Plus–Portland’s in there! Yay!

Overall, I would most definitely recommend this author to my readers, and he’s going on my short list of Authors Whose New Books Get Preordered at Powell’s.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Weiser Concise Guide to Aleister Crowley by Richard Kaczynski

The Weiser Concise Guide to Aleister Crowley
Richard Kaczynski, Ph.D.
Weiser Books, 2009
126 pages

A few years ago, when I was working on exploring different magical paradigms as part of my time as a Chaos magician, I did some basic reading up on Aleister Crowley. I read the Book of the Law, Magick Without Tears, Duquette’s The Magick of Thelema, and made an unsuccessful attempt to get through the Big Blue Brick. I was never a Thelemite, but it was enough to get a basic taste of what the fuss was all about.

Reading The Weiser Concise Guide is sort of like having the Cliff’s Notes version of all that. There’s a very brief, quick biography; a brief, quick introduction to his magical accomplishments; a brief, quick overview of the various magical orders he founded or was a part of; a brief, quick selection of basic rituals; and so forth. Granted, this is a concise guide, one of several this publisher has put out, but there’s so much of Crowley out there that it’s almost impossible to leave an impression in this text of anything more than a car speeding down a highway seeing billboards for various sights, but never pulling off the road.

This made it a sometimes frustrating read, especially as sometimes the transition from topic to topic seemed choppy. I also think that if I hadn’t already read some of his material and otherwise familiarized myself with it that some of what was described might have gone over my head. A basic understanding of occultism and magic will definitely help with parsing this text, though there’s a fair amount, particularly in the biographical portion, that may be accessible to anyone.

Still, the author did an admirable job of trying to distill the essential Crowley into a little over 100 pages. He even managed to add in a good sample of practical material for the “Crowley experience”, as it were. I wouldn’t recommend this as one’s only book on Crowley and related material, but it’s as good a starting point as any, and for someone already familiar with magic and occultism who wants just enough Crowley to know the bare-bones basics to get started with, this is a good choice. Also, do be aware that there are numerous feuds and arguments (to say the very least) among Thelemites and other Crowley fans, and while the author tried to maintain a certain amount of neutrality, there will no doubt be those who can pull political arguments out of the writing of this text. That being said, there is a minimum of actual interpretation of Crowley’s works (though a largely positive view of Crowley himself), and it’s a mostly “just the fact’s ma’am” approach.

Four pawprints out of five.

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A Seeker’s Journey and Initiation into Wicca by Janine DeMartini

A Seeker’s Journey and Initiation into Wicca
Janine DeMartini
PublishAmerica, 2006
194 pages

This particular text, while published via PublishAmerica, was not given any editing by that company. Unedited works (whether through such a publisher or self-published), more than any other, seem to be a bit of a crapshoot. Because there aren’t the extra pairs of eyes looking over the manuscript (unless the author hires a freelance editor), the quality of the book rests solely on the skills of the author. I’ve seen unedited works which were absolutely stunning–and I’ve seen others that simply stunk. This one is a mixed bag; I’d like to start out by extolling its virtues before getting into my criticisms.

I have to applaud the author for coming right out and complaining about some of the issues with many Wicca 101 and related books: poor research, rehashes of the same old stuff, and inaccurate presentations of deities from polytheistic cultures. She then presents her book as an alternative that avoids these pitfalls, and as someone who’s written books for similar reasons, I give her many kudos! And indeed, while she does cover some basic ideas about Wicca, as well as a small section of rituals, she doesn’t do the usual rehash of “This is an athame, and this is what red candles are burned for”, etc. DeMartini also makes it very clear that Wicca is not whatever you want it to be, and explains her background regarding traditional vs. eclectic Wicca from the beginning.

She also covers a lot of experiential information that many authors overlook, especially concerning the neopagan community as a social phenomenon. This includes things like people in the pagan community who mislead others (accidentally or deliberately), a bit of discussion about coven group dynamics, and what happens when you take oaths in more than one tradition over the years. And I really enjoyed the introduction to Omnimancy which, although not expressly Wiccan, is something that she found personally useful–this is partly a record of her own journey, and so it is appropriate to include it.

It’s very obvious that she’s done her work, and her anecdotes back it up. She’s a great teller of true stories, and she’s seen and done quite a bit. There are a lot of things of interest, especially (though not exclusively) to newbies.

However, this leads into my first criticism. The book could have been better organized. The chapters don’t always segue well from one to the next, and at times it reads more like a collection of essays on a loose theme. Additionally, the book is overbalanced towards anecdotes, which aren’t well-woven with the practical material. It’s all good stuff; it just isn’t tied together well into a cohesive work, which sometimes made it frustrating to try to put together in my mind.

The other problem stems directly from the fact that the book apparently wasn’t put through any formal editing process beyond the author’s own work. While at times DeMartini’s writing is engaging, overall the book reads like a rough draft manuscript. There are certain consistent patterns that kept throwing me off, most notably a frequent appearance of incomplete sentences. Additionally, there were a number of typos, as well as the use of the wrong word (an example being “throws” instead of “throes”).

I realize, as an author and an editor myself, that the prospect of taking one’s pride and joy and running it through the red ink of the editing process can be intimidating. I specifically went with the publisher that I did because I had a loooong discussion with the editor about keeping my writing mine, while improving the overall quality. However, the criticisms I have are things that would be readily fixable by an editor, either a freelance editor, or one with a different publishing company*. As is, the rough draft quality of the book significantly diminished its readability.

There is a good amount of material in this book, don’t get me wrong. DeMartini absolutely has the right ideas and the experience, and this could be a wonderful counterpoint to the usual re-re-rehashing of “This is an athame…” etc. If it were to be thoroughly and professionally edited and reworked, it could be one of the best–and this coming from someone who’s damned hard to impress with basic Wicca material any more.

*PublishAmerica is possibly the most notorious vanity press out there; the SFWA staged a well-known sting a few years ago.

Two and three quarters pawprints out of five.

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Our Gods Wear Spandex by Christopher Knowles

Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes
Christopher Knowles
Weiser Books, 2007
234 pages

I had a number of reasons for being really excited about reading this book. One, I am a geek. While I’m a bit of a latecomer to comic book geekery in specific, I’ve done a good bit of catching up. Two, I’m also a sometimes-practitioner of pop culture magic (a concept that my husband, who wrote a practical guide on it, introduced me to). There’s really not much about the intersection of occultism and pop culture out there other than some examinations of trends in movies and books in general, so this text pinged a lot of my geek buttons.

The idea itself is excellent: examine the trappings of the occult in various comic books, both from major publishers like DC and Marvel, and smaller indy publishers, as well as the relationship comic book fans have to the characters and stories as modern-day mythology. There’s plenty of material available, some of it subtle, a good deal of it (especially recently) more open.

Knowles most definitely knows his comic books, at least more mainstream ones. He draws on a wide variety of titles, and brings in a lot of little details about their origins (occult and otherwise). He also explains the contexts in which different characters were created and/or revived, particularly social and political issues, which adds significantly to the depth of his research. His research on the various flavors of occultism in and of itself is pretty solid as well; I’m not sure how active he himself is, but if he’s coming more from the perspective of an observer, he’s done pretty well.

His enthusiasm for the topic comes through in his writing, and I’d love to hear him speak about comic books sometime. He makes nonfiction into a story, as his writing has a narrative quality to it. I would love to read just a straight comic book history from this author. This book could have used extra proofreading, as there are some typos, but that’s not on the author.

Unfortunately, the execution of the material wasn’t nearly as good as I had hoped. First, the book feels more like it’s written for the comic book end of the audience rather than the occultists, despite having been picked up by one of the premiere occult and pagan publishers in the industry, and seems to have been promoted primarily within the comic book scene. It’s a book entirely composed of theory and research, rather than any practical material. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, other than that the bias may be a bit disappointing to those expecting more occult-specific material.

The organization of the text leaves much to be desired. The chapters don’t always segue well from one to the next. Additionally, and this is a big complaint on my part, Knowles spends a lot of ink interjecting 101 material both about the history of comics and occultism. Given that there are numerous texts that cover these concepts more than adequately, the space could have been better put to use. The same goes for the bulk of the material on the actual occult aspects of comic book characters. It reads mostly like a laundry list or a high school report; there’s not a lot of analysis of the information amid the statement of the facts. And while Knowles does cite some sources here and there, he engages in a LOT of speculation about the supposed occult influences on various characters. Granted, we know a lot more about the activities of, say, Grant Morrison than we do about Jack Kirby, thanks to interviews and so forth. However, speculation should be presented as just that, not as undisputed fact.

I really think that the laundry list should have been shortened significantly, and a lot of the not-directly-relevant 101 material cut out. What would have been more valuable would have been extending the more solid information that we do have–for example, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman and their occult-influenced works could easily have been given a chapter apiece. While I don’t think the contributions of Kirby and others should have been ignored, I think Knowles missed the chance to go more in-depth with some of these creators and their creations.

The same goes for the “reverent” approach towards heroes that Knowles attributes to many comic book fans. He hints at it here and there, but never really examines it in detail. Given that there are people who work with comic book characters in magical practice, and folks who see them as modern manifestations of ancient archetypes in spirituality, he could have done some research on this sort of modern practice. Of course, he also refers to Joseph Campbell’s work as “obscure” (p. 193), so he may be more mainstream than I had initially assumed (again, reference the heavier influence towards the comic book audience in the book overall).

Finally, one quibble in gender-related terminology I’d like to bring up. On p.167, Knowles states, “In Miller’s stories, Elektra is essentially devoid of a recognizably feminine personality, and became quite square-jawed and muscular in his later renderings. One can even argue that Elektra is essentially a transvestite or transsexual character, and that the trauma of her father’s death effectively removes her femininity” (italics mine). No, no, and furthermore, no. A masculine woman is NOT automatically transgender. Given, however, that the comic book aesthetic relies quite a bit on gender dualities, I’m not surprised to see this misunderstanding of nondualistic gender and sexual identity.

Given that this is the first (to my knowledge) book to explore the occult history of comic books, it’s not surprising that there are some flaws–this is common with the first of any sort of book. Despite my complaints, it’s a good effort, all told, and still worth reading (albeit with some caveats). I’m a pretty picky reviewer, and as mentioned, geeky enough to have nitpicks that other readers may overlook. However, I’m going to give it….

Three pawprints out of five.

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Enochian Vision Magick – Lon Milo DuQuette

Enochian Vision Magick: An Introduction and Practical Guide to the Magick of Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley
Lon Milo DuQuette
Weiser/Red Wheel, 2008
262 pages

I think I must typify one of the target audiences for this book. I have no ceremonial background whatsoever, but I love getting at least a basic idea of paths other than mine. I start to fall asleep while reading Crowley and GD material, but I also don’t want to have to deal with overly fluffy, watered-down info. Here is a lovely compromise for getting a foot in the door with Enochian magick–or at least having an idea of what’s going on with all those angels.

As always, Lon Milo DuQuette has presented his information in an accessible, but solid manner. While it doesn’t have the amount of wit of the Chicken Qabalah, once again his writing has managed to help me understand a rather complex topic.

This isn’t just a book on theory, though the history of how Dee and Kelley obtained the Enochian system was appreciated for its context. Instead, DuQuette lays out what all those various charts and weird words are actually for, and then guides the reader through rituals to put them into practice. He draws heavily from the original materials, including some that have been unearthed since Crowley’s time, and I think many readers will appreciate all the sifting, organizing and slogging through primary texts that he’s done.

The really nice thing about this book, though, is that because he’s done such a good job of referencing these original items, and showing where they apply to the actual practices in the book. This means that if a reader wanted to trace things back to Dee and Kelley’s material, the road map is already in place. However, the text is also sufficient just for those who are curious, or who want to be able to practice but aren’t at a point where they’re going to dig through earlier material.

Five pawprints out of five.

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