The Path of Paganism by John Beckett

The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice
John Beckett
Llewellyn Publications, 2012

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Review by Rebecca Buchanan.

John Beckett is a well-known writer and speaker, and a member of the OBOD, CUUPS, and the ADF. In The Path of Paganism, he offers practical, heart-felt, hard-earned advice on how to be Pagan in the world. Not just offer lip service to the idea of Paganism, but how to actively honor the Gods, live their virtues, and find our true purpose.

Beckett divides the book into four sections: Building a Foundation (the origins and purpose of religion, the different types of Paganism, the place of nature in Paganism, the nature of the Gods, and so on); Putting It Into Practice (the importance of prayer and meditation, piety, how to build an altar, ethics, and so on); Intermediate Practice (individual and group practice, sample rituals and circles, initiation, and so on); and Living at the Edge (the importance of continuing to learn and experience and grow our Paganism, whatever tradition it may be). Most chapters end with questions for contemplation or suggested rituals.

Following his proposal that life, experience, and learning are helical or cyclical, not linear, each section builds on the last, returning to previous discussions and ideas with new insights and information and suggestions. For example, in the beginning Beckett discusses growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church; the seeds of doubt planted in his childhood continued to plague him until he really began to take his Paganism seriously; when he finally answered the calls of Cernunnos and Danu and the Morrigan (or maybe, began to hear the calls for what they were is more accurate), everything fell into place and he came to understand why he was here and what he was meant to do.

It has been a long time since I underlined anything in a book. I underlined a lot in The Path of Paganism. The pages are filled with both practical advice and real wisdom. I found myself pausing more than once to wonder how this or that line could apply to my own life, or how would I react in this situation, or gee, I should really try to incorporate this into my practice because it sounds useful! Beckett is a Druid and he does honor the Celtic pantheon; if you’re not, don’t let that scare you away. Much of what he discusses — how to answer the call of the Gods, how to live faithfully in troubled times, how to care for the world and the people around us — can be applied across any tradition.

One element that I found particularly compelling was Beckett’s emphasis on science. More than once, he notes that “bad science makes bad religion.” This, in turn, ties into the over-emphasis we place on literal truth and scientific validation. “When we misuse and misunderstand science we are doing exactly the same thing Christian fundamentalists do when they insist the Bible is inerrant [….] The foundation of their proof has crumbled, and they are forced to deny established facts to pretend otherwise. [….] Science has become the arbiter of truth in our materialistic society and we want science to bless our religion. At the root of this desire is the idea that the only truth worth having is the kind of truth science can validate, that the only knowledge is literal, material knowledge. This is why fundamentalists insist the Bible is literally true — if it’s not literally true, they think it’s worthless. They ignore the value of mythical and mystical truth.” (pp. 32-33) For Beckett — a Druid, an engineer, and an environmentalist — science and religion are the twin branches of a helix, twining together to create a life of virtue and knowledge, a life worth living.

Highly recommended to both those new to Paganism and those already far along their chosen path, especially when read in conjunction with Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up by Lupa, The Earth, The Gods, and the Soul by Brendan Myers, The Earth Path by Starhawk, and A World Full of Gods by John Michael Greer.

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Tree Girl by Julianne Skai Arbor

Tree Girl: Intimate Encounters With Wild Nature
Julianne Skai Arbor
Tree Girl Studios, 2016

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Review by Lupa.

There are certain books that are pagan without expressly using that label; this is one of those. Part field guide, part photography book, it beautifully weaves together science and art while being spiritually viable.

The author, Julianna Skai Arbor, aka Tree Girl, has spent the past several years photographing remarkable individuals from fifty different tree species around the world. Many of these photos feature her or other female models in the nude, embracing the trees in sensual communion. Sometimes the models appear to be sleeping comfortably amid great roots and branches; other times there is a playful exploration. But always the human is only one part of a greater ecosystem, something that this book cannot emphasize enough.

For it is more than pretty pictures. Tree Girl shares in detail the natural history of each species she profiles, as well as the relationships humans historically had with it, to include medicinal uses. More importantly, she is quite clear about how our current actions are threatening many of these great plants and the many other beings who rely on them for food, shelter and more. But she also gives many excellent suggestions for how to reconnect with nature and become a better advocate for the beings we share this world with, for the benefit of all involved. This book is a bold combination of ethereal beauty and hard reality.

If this all isn’t overtly pagan enough for you, check out the titles of some of the photos: “Silver Beech Root Fairy”, “Cathedral Fig Dryad” and “Sequoia Meditation” are just a few of the animistic names Tree Girl has given her works. It’s a divinely feminine book, celebrating women’s bodies without heavily sexualizing them, and placing women in the context of the natural world around us. And within the very first chapter, she details the way in which she connects with the tree physically and spiritually. Her process should be familiar to anyone who has worked with nature spirits embodied in wood and flesh.

Whether you be naturalist or feminist, artist or environmentalist, witch or Druid or animist, this is a deeply inspirational book that you may draw deeply from again and again. As there are fifty trees, perhaps you could spend a week meditating on each one’s unique spirit, with a week on either end to prepare yourself to enter this great work or to bring it back out to share with the world. Or simply let it be something you enjoy paging through when you feel the need to live vicariously through a passionate artist’s works.

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New Paths to Animal Totems by Lupa

New Paths to Animal Totems: Three Alternative Approaches to Creating Your Own Totemism
Lupa
Llewellyn Publications, 2012

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Review by Jennifer Lawrence.

Choosing – and then having – a totem, or spirit animal, is one of the most ubiquitous experiences in Neopaganism today. It is such a well-known experience that there are even memes about it, where people turn the situation humorous by claiming Bruce Campbell, Chuck Norris, Lady Gaga, Darth Vader, or some other celebrity or fictional character as their spirit animal.

When people think about totems, generally they think of them through the lens of a particular culture. Very often – as much as nine times out of ten, perhaps – the specific culture they think of is “Native American”. Not a particular tribe, but a generic composite spanning an aggregation of the better-known tribes: Cherokee, Apache, Lakota, possibly Seminole, Cheyenne, Comanche, or sometimes Tlingit or Haida (Raven is a very popular totem). Rarely, someone will study up on the beliefs of other peoples around the world as regards spirit animals. But cultural frameworks are not the only way to study or meet totems, and this book provides three other pathways to learn about them: Correspondences, Bioregional, and Archetypal.

The author, Lupa, has been developing these paths for a number of years now, and her blog, A Sense of Natural Wonder (http://www.thegreenwolf.com/blog/) has become a key resource for seekers wanting to learn more about totems and learning to become closer to the spirits of nature in general. She has published three previous books on related topics and served as editor to two anthologies on unconnected Neopagan topics. A fourth book, Plant and Fungus Totems: Connect with Spirits of Field, Forest, and Garden has come out since the publication of this one.

The first pathway discussed in this book, that of Correspondences, begins by explaining – for those new enough to Neopaganism that they don’t yet know – what correspondences are, and then listing some examples of correspondence systems: astrological, seasonal, directional, elemental. Other forms of divinatory systems are discussed (Tarot, ogham, runic), and the section on astrology discusses the Chinese zodiac as well as the Western one. She points out that systems of correspondences can change over time, and emphasizes the need to make personal connections with the totems linked to these systems, rather than relying solely on stereotypical associations. There are invocations and outlines for rituals and spells in the last half of this section, and many suggestions meant to inspire thoughtful introspection that can lead to a much deeper, richer relationship with the totems you interact with.

The second pathway in the book – this reviewer’s favorite – is that of Bioregionalism. Specifically, it emphasizes learning about the specific animals native to the reader’s part of their country. For the reviewer, for example, who lives in the Midwest, in a suburban area near Chicago, by Lake Michigan, that means the totems more likely to be interacted with are apt to be animals like raccoons, tree squirrels, possums, the occasional coyote, robins, sparrows, garter snakes, American toads, and once in a while, hawks or falcons. Larger mammals like wolves, buffalo, and moose are nowhere to be found in this part of the States, and even deer and foxes are more likely to be seen only once the city itself is left behind and one travels out to more rural areas. This approach to totems helps the reader build a stronger relationship with the creatures he or she is more likely to see every day, and the frequency of that interaction is one of the qualities that makes it possible to connect all the more closely. In Arizona, an individual might have connections to sidewinder rattlesnakes, scorpions, Gila monsters, and buzzards; in the far north in Montana, a reader would indeed be likely to see wolves and elk, but also animals like marmots, Canadian lynx, bighorn sheep, and black bears. In Florida, there might be endangered Florida panthers, manatee, red wolves, bobcats, otters, armadillos, and capybara. Each bioregion will play host to its own set of creatures, some of which will be common and found over most of the country (deer, raccoons, squirrels), and others which will be found in that area alone.

The final section of the book deals with the pathway of Archetypes. In this system, creatures become symbols – metaphors — for particular concepts, experiences, and qualities. In the work of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who defined and described the concept of archetypes, archetypes dwelt in the unconscious of the human brain, and an understanding of archetypes as guideposts to human behavior helped individuals to understand how that behavior was shaped by behavioral, neurochemical, and biological events and processes that had happened a long time in the past. The author points out that while a common understanding – or misunderstanding – of archetypes has led to any number of well-known symbols (dogs as hard workers, bears as healers, etc.), in the system of archetypal totemism, each creature may indeed have a different meaning from person to person. She stresses the importance of the self-interview and several other psychological tools described in this section to make certain that the meaning an individual ascribes to an archetypal totem actually fits what that totem means to that individual. She also cautions that, although working with archetypal totems is a process born from a psychological set of tools, it is in no way a replacement for actual psychological therapy, and should not be construed as such.

The final two sections in the book deal with learning how to combine the systems in the book and work in those combined models (Chapter Six) and other sorts of work with animal totems (Chapter Seven). Both chapters provide a wealth of advanced practice and ideas for individuals who have thoroughly practiced the exercises and ideas in the first part of the book. Part of chapter seven deals with certain American taboos – working with parts of dead totems (deer antlers, animal hides) and extends to eating parts of them; chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys, sheep, geese, ducks, and goats are all considered food animals in most countries, and yet they are all animals that can be connected to in totemic work. In some cultures, eating the flesh, eggs, milk, etc. of such animals is considered a way to become closer to that creature, and partaking of its essence, although it is a practice that vegetarians and vegans would not choose to take part in. This chapter also discusses working with the totem spirits of domestic animals that we commonly regard as pets: cats, dogs, parrots, snakes, fish, rats, hamsters, lizards, and even horses.

Finally, at the end of the book are a bibliography, a list for recommended reading, a glossary, and two indexes that will provide helpful research material for those wanting to do and learn more: a list of animal nonprofit organizations, and a guided meditation for finding totems.

This is one of the most useful and well-written books on totems ever written, and most certainly the finest one written in the last decade or so. In the years to come, it is not unrealistic to believe that it will come to be regarded as a foundational work in the study of totems and how to work with them. It is certainly not unrealistic to state that, for those who wish to not only begin learning how to work with totems but also to work with them in a myriad of ways that deepen the connections one makes, this is the book to add to one’s library.

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The Witch’s Cauldron by Laura Tempest Zakroff

The Witch’s Cauldron: The Craft, Lore & Magick of Ritual Vessels
Laura Tempest Zakroff
Llewellyn Publications, 2017

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Review by Natalie Zaman.

I’m kind of in love with Llewellyn’s Tools series. Written by different authors, each little volume (literally—it measures a neat 5 by 7 inches) is a fast read that offers a sampling of spell and ritual, mostly by the author, but also by several contributing authors for a nice mix, but also a good dose of lore, history and background: Know thy tools—which, even in the mundane sense is a necessary if you’re going to use a tool properly. Laura Tempest Zakroff’s The Witch’s Cauldron, the latest addition to this series, explores this humble, yet mighty vessel. As with other volumes in the Tools Series, several other writers contribute essays; in The Witch’s Cauldron, they’re cleverly pre-titled “Stirring the Cauldron.”

The first third of the book is an extended introduction: Chapter one covers cauldron basics, everything from definitions to uses to the root of the word “cauldron.” which I found particularly interesting. This is followed by a chapter on mythology and lore that goes beyond Ceridwen and encompass a variety of cultures—while I loved the retelling and discussion of Baba Yaga and her flying cauldron, I thought the Cauldron Game, which discusses cauldrons as vessels of victory was really insightful. Chapter three covers the practical aspects of the cauldron, materials used, considerations for purchasing, and, I was surprised, making your own cauldron. Of course forging is mentioned—it kind of has to be, but not all of us are smiths. Considering what a cauldron is and can be (read the book to learn more!) the idea that cauldrons can be made of paper mache and 3-d printed illustrates (I thought) an important aspect of evolution in the Craft: while we honor the past, we must make for our own times.

Things get interactive for the remainder of the book with suggestions and guidance for preparation (Chapter 4: Getting Started; please do read up on Cauldron Safety—again very thorough because not all cauldrons are crucibles!), ritual (Chapter 5: In the Circle—Ritual Arts; my favorite, Cauldrons as Ritual Markers—not just an excuse to buy/make more cauldrons!), spellwork (Chapter 6: Making Magick—Spellcraft and the Cauldron; I want to try Angus McMahan’s “Soaking a Spell”—an innovative and practical use for a cauldron in spellwork.) and divination (Chapter 7: The Seers Cauldron; loved the Dice Cup.). Chapter 8, Thinking Outside the Cauldron was my favorite in the book because it made me see my own world with new eyes—there are cauldrons, and thus the possibility of magic everywhere: in my bathroom, on my stove and in my laundry room. The book closes with a look at the cauldron as a virtual vessel; the spiritual cauldron of ideas, inspiration and devotion.

The Witch’s Cauldron is a little book, but incredibly thorough and perceptive, a cool crash course on cauldronaria from an experienced practioner with a flair for storytelling, and making what could be dry material a fast and fun read.

The copy of The Witch’s Cauldron that I hold in my hands is the redesigned package for Llewellyn’s Tools series. While I know one should definitely not judge books by their covers, cover and interior art are important aesthetics that express the character of a book. That said, I like both styles of covers for different reasons, but this new packaging—definitely more pared down and reminiscent of the styling of Wooden Books main line (http://woodenbooks.com), lends a very “book of shadows” quality to the series, while the interior illustrations maintain a sense of “yes, magic is serious business, but it can also be whimsical”—and sometimes that’s what magick is all about.

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Grovedaughter Witchery by Bree NicGarran

Grovedaughter Witchery: Practical Spellcraft
Bree NicGarran
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017

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Review by Hugh Eckert.

Every once in a while you run into a book and find yourself thinking, “Wow, I wish I’d had this when I was starting out!” NicGarran’s book is one of those- it’s basic in the best possible way: fundamental, taking nothing for granted, with an emphasis on doing your research. It’s written very clearly, and the author’s patient and practical tone is very helpful. There’s a strong emphasis on safely dealing with “real world” elements such as fire and dangerous plants.

This is not to say that this book is for beginners only. I really appreciated her discussion of the scarcity and endangered status of some magical plants, and her suggestions for substitution. The book covers a wide range of spell purposes and formats, with a good balance of “how to” and “recipe” sections. Many of her innovations could usefully expand the toolkit of any experienced spellcrafter. The reference material is useful, too- there are listings of plants by magical use, plus further sections for the “go-to” purposes like warding and hexing.

NicGarran’s system is heavily herbalism-based; in that and in many other ways it resembles folk magic systems from a wide variety of cultures, with one major difference: there are no goddesses or gods, no spirits, no prayers. This underlines an important point about this book- she views witchcraft as practical spellcraft, and presents her system without any religious elements. She states her position at the very start of the book; you can quibble with her definitions, but I can tell she wouldn’t budge an inch! That being said, she presents a strong framework that doesn’t require religious, spiritual, or astrological/lunar elements, although it would be easy (and probably enhancing) to add them in.

The book could use a separate section on raising and directing energy into spells to empower them; there are mentions of this scattered through the work, but consolidating them would make things clearer. The advice about spiritual attack is in general good, but I would have added a qualification that it can happen, and advice to seek a qualified spirit worker if it does.

This is a really impressive work- NicGarran has built it from the ground up, and tested every spell and charm that she’s created. I’m not much of a magician (though my spouse is), but I do occasionally need to do some spellwork. I’m going to keep this one on my shelf- I have a feeling it will end up being very useful.

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