A Guide to Pagan Camping by Lori Dake

A Guide to Pagan Camping: Festival Tips, Tricks and Trappings
Lori Dake
Rotco Media, 2011
208 pages

My first question about this book is: why didn’t anyone write it before? I mean, really: outdoor festivals have been a part of neopagan culture for decades, and everyone gets their initial trial by (camp)fire, especially if this is their first time sleeping in a tent. But there are also a number of considerations that are unique to the festival environment (and not limited to just pagan festivals) that you won’t find in just any old book on camping.

There’s really only room for one book on this rather niche topic, and thankfully for we the readers, Lori Dake is right on target with this one. She covers pretty much everything you need to know for your first few festival outings, from what to wear and what your basic kit should be for camping, to good etiquette that doesn’t shy away from things like skyclad attendance, or festival hookups. Of course, even if you aren’t a newbie to festivals, there may be useful info if you decide to expand the nature of your participation beyond “festival attendee”. As a longtime vendor at events, I can say that she did a thorough job with the vending section, especially in as small a space as she had for it (instead of writing an entire book, which is entirely possible). And there are good tips for performing, giving workshops, and other participation that newbies may not necessarily feel ready for. Also, festival folk of any vintage may find the generous selection of camp-friendly recipes and related info helpful.

It’s a well-written book overall, and I found very little in the way of typos. I wasn’t crazy about the layout; the sans serif font chosen would have been better for something like a term paper, and the spaces between paragraphs don’t look as professional as simply indenting new paragraphs. The cover art and layout scream “small press”, which (as you may know from my background) isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but it also could have been more polished.

Still, this is a case of not judging the book by its cover. This is a definite gem, and I highly recommend it for festival folk across the board, whether pagan or not. Well done!

Five campfire-smoky 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 Shamanic Drum – Michael Drake

The Shamanic Drum: A Guide to Sacred Drumming
Michael Drake
Talking Drum Publications, 1991
100 pages

If you’re not a fan of core shamanism, you probably won’t like this book. It’s heavily based on material from Harner’s The Way of the Shaman and derivative works. I tried to keep in mind that when it was written back in 1991, there wasn’t nearly as much practical information on neoshamanism as there is now, and most of it was core shamanism. There is a revised edition as of 2002, which has more material; however, as I have not read that edition yet. So be aware that this review is for the original edition.

That being said, I have some things I like about this book, and some things I’m not so crazy about.

    Likes

–Drake definitely knows his drums. His information on drum care is spot-on. This bit of practical information is quite valuable if this is your first book on drumming.
–He also has obviously done practical work; this is a book based on experience, not just a bit of theorizing and making things up to fill the pages. If the things I dislike below don’t particularly bother you, you may find this to be an excellent text to work from, as it covers everything from the cosmonology of the drum, to different drumming rites and practices you can engage in.
–Endnotes! There are Endnotes! Which means you can see where Drake got some of his third-party information. While he doesn’t provide endnotes for every bit of information that didn’t come from his head, what is there gives you a decent idea of his source material.
–There’s a good deal of environmentally-friendly information in this book, so it’s not all about the humans. It’s a healthy reminder of the good things this material can be used for, and I applaud it.

    Dislikes

–The book treats journeying as though it were safe: “Remember that nothing can harm you on your journeys without your permission” (p. 42)
–Chakras are mixed in, without the explanation that they are specifically from Hinduism, not any shamanic culture (this is very common in New Age writings, unfortunately). The same goes for other New Age concepts that are mixed in with the material.
–Native American cultures are given the “noble savage” treatment: “We are drawn to Native American teachings because they are so pure and harmonious…When your heartbeat is one with the Earth’s, you may begin to look, feel and act much like traditional Native Americans, for they too resonate with her” (p. 77) There are also several generalizations about “shamanic cultures” throughout the book that are not particularly universal, and some of which have a very Western approach.

My biases being what they are, I do admit that as a concise guide to core shamanic drumming, this one’s pretty good. I’m split about 50-50 on my likes and dislikes. Again, I haven’t seen the newer edition, so you may want to give that one a try; some of the issues above may or may not have been addressed (for example, the new edition has an appendix on the American Indian Religious Freedom Act). On the other hand, if the new book is just an expansion of the same general material, you may want to keep this review in mind. If I get ahold of the new edition, I’ll give it a separate review.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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Drumming at the Edge of Magic – Mickey Hart

Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion
Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens
Marper Collins, 1990
263 pages

I have a bit of a history with this book. I first bought a copy and read it over half a decade ago, then for some inexplicable reason decided to sell it. Now that I’ve been doing more drumming, I got the urge to read it again, so I managed to track down a copy. What absolutely amazes me is how much of the book I remember, even having read it so long ago. It must have struck me deeply back then, and it’s understandable why.

This isn’t just a story about the history of the drum. Nor is it only a story about Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead. It’s a combination of those, and more. We learn about where drums came from, and we surmise about what the effects of those early percussionists must have been. We see where this instrument captivated Hart from an early age, and wonder at the amazing creations that resulted. We explore the altered states of consciousness the drum evokes, with Joseph Campbell, Alla Rakha, and the Siberian shamans as our guides. From blues and jazz to African talking drums and the bullroarers found worldwide, we are introduced to percussionists of all stripes, spots and plaids.

Between Hart and Stevens, the writing is phenomenal. Rather than following a strictly linear progression, it snakes like Hart’s Anaconda of index cards through pages upon pages of storytelling and factoids. However, it all meshes well together, rather than coming across as stilted or confused. It’s nonlinear, and it works beautifully. There’s just the right mix of personal testimonial, anecdotes, and hard facts.

Anyone who drums, dances, or otherwise is involved with music; anyone who works with altered states of consciousness, whether in shamanic practice or otherwise; anyone who wants to see what makes a rock and roll drummer tick; and anyone who wants a damned good story that’s all true, needs to read this book.

Five pawprints out of five.

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