The Black Ship by Malphas

The Black Ship
Waning Moon, 2009
120 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Kirsten, who awesomely agreed to give me a hand with the last of the backlog of review copies.

Hello there, guest reviewer Kirsten, here.

I’d like to open by saying that this book, while barely more than a hundred pages (111, to be a bit more precise), is more of a daunting read than expected, probably not for those just starting out; there’s a level of familiarity with magical practice as a whole that is taken as a given, though no single background is assumed. This is dense stuff; a spare and nicely open-ended framework of a system, seemingly based in bits of a strange array of things that I’d never have guessed would work together, and may not for some; chaos magic, hints of Temple of Set and Order of the Trapezoid-type left hand path imagery, a take on Feri’s triplicate soul-system, ancestor traditions and Gnosticism. It’s a guide to a bare-bones framework that is both deeply weird, and one of the most grounded and levelheaded examples of a left-hand path that I’ve ever seen.

The Black Ship neatly avoids much of the anti-establishment posturing and oh-so-evil imagery prevalent in many books on left hand practices, though some of the terminology used is down those roads. Instead, it adheres to the idea that in order to do anything useful outside of yourself, you first have to have your house and your head in a good working order. And you are given tools with which to sort these out, sets of practices and meditations that are very, very simple, the kind of simple that could be very useful if you have the know-how and want to tweak it, though they work fine on their own as well.

There are some places where the author’s fervour about their purpose for the whole thing gets a bit…purple?…and muddies the clarity of the lesson in question. The exercises themselves are very clear and well-worded, but the author’s intended application can get strange. Not a bad thing, mind you; strange can rattle your head out of its well-worn paths, shift your modes of thinking a bit, but some might find the concept of specieswide evolution via mass magical intent a little off-putting. All of the pieces of practice I named are in the service of a very transhumanist, transformative philosophy, here, one that goes happily hand-in-hand with technology and even space travel.

My biggest qualm with this book is with one really very simple thing. There are repeated mentions of a ‘Pandemonium Mandala’, which diagram or shape is never given, or even described beyond a very vague sentence in the beginning, to the reader. This drove me absolutely nuts, because it is spoken of as something very important to meditate upon and use as symbolism. However, none of the problems here really intrude on the appreciation of a good, solid, left-hand-as-in-focusing-on-the-self-first set of works. Taken with a judicious application of salt, there’s a great set of tools here, even if you don’t want to work with them precisely as the book says.

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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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Meta-Magick, the Book of Atem by Philip H. Farber

Meta-Magick, the Book of Atem: Achieving New States of Consciousness Through NLP, Neuroscience, and Ritual
Philip H. Farber
Weiser Books, 2008
170 pages

I think I’ve been a bit spoiled in my reading choices–or maybe I’m just more of a geek than I thought. Here, Phil Farber presents a book that ties together memetics, consciousness and the nature of reality, NLP and other forms of psychology, and magical entities, and I’m thinking over and over again “Wow, I’ve seen this before. I’ve read that, too. Oooh, I’m familiar with this concept!” And then it dawned on me–Farber’s read a lot of the same stuff, and managed to synthesize it into this nifty handbook for working with the entity Atem.

Atem is an egregore created by Farber in conjunction with this book. He is an opener of ways for an entire new group of entities to be created by those magicians who read Meta-Magick–in short, Atem is a catalyst, a means to an end. As such, this book should be taken not as a basic guide to consciousness and magic, or memetics, or entity creation, but in how these and other topics relate to Atem, and the overarching goals associated with him

While Farber includes a satisfactory amount of theory to explain what he’s about, the practical material in this book is even better. For example, working with a six-part structure based on the various elements (such as Attention and Passion) that are part of Atem’s fabrication, Farber guides the reader through a thirty-six day regimen that allows them to not only understand Atem in all his parts in more detail and work these into new entities, but to also have a better understand of the self and its place in reality. There are other rituals and practices as well, and he does a good job of explaining why they’re there. It reminds me, in some ways, of an updated and expanded version of what Robert Anton Wilson was trying to do with Prometheus Rising–help explain how the mind and reality interact.

I would classify this as an intermediate text. Those who have a basis in magic, particularly Chaos or other postmodern forms of magic, will have a better understanding of what’s going on than a rank beginner. However, those who have already read extensively on consciousness and reality, psychology, neurobiology, memetics, entity creation, and other topics that Farber integrates into the Atem working will probably not find too much new material here. I would suggest using this book as a springboard into looking into these other subjects. I do wish he had used internal citations, because I like being able to follow a particular thought to its source and then on from there, but he does offer some resource suggestions to tempt the bibliophile’s appetite.

I think my only complaint is that much of the material works best with two other people. If you are a solitary practitioner entirely, and can’t find other folks who are dedicated enough to give a couple of months to Atem workings, you’re going to have trouble completing this text as described. This is a pretty significant drawback, considering that some magicians are simply isolated, and others don’t prefer to work with others. I wish he would have primarily tailored the material for the individual, with options for small group work.

I do commend Farber for what he’s trying to do here–he’s done a nice job of synthesizing his research into a cohesive magical working that’s effective both internally and on a wider plain of reality. This is a good book to give someone who’s already read Carroll and Hine and wants to do something more specific with Chaos-type magic, particularly surrounding entity work.

Four 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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