Make Merry in Step and Song – Bronwen Forbes

Make Merry in Step and Song: A Seasonal Treasury of Music, Mummer’s Plays and Celebrations in the English Folk Tradition
Bronwen Forbes
Llewellyn, 2009
264 pages

I’ve been in the pagan community for over a decade, and while I haven’t been a part of any formal group for any length of time, I have seen numerous examples of attempts at creative, unique group rituals. Some of these end up being rehashes of the usual Cunningham-mixed-with-something variety. If you’d like to avoid that fate, Make Merry in Step and Song is an excellent choice.

Not all Morris dancers are pagan, or even familiar with modern paganism. However, the traditional English dances are becoming more common at pagan events and rituals; incidentally, I was just at a festival this past weekend that featured one of Portland’s Morris dancing troupes. So this is a wonderfully timed text. Forbes does a lovely job of presenting well-researched information on historical Morris dancing and related practices, a tradition that her own family has been involved in for quite some time.

The book is divided up into the four seasons, along with some other miscellany that didn’t fit into any of those. I was surprised that there wasn’t an introductory chapter on the basics of Morris dancing/etc., its history and context, and so forth. Instead, the history is neatly woven into each of the sections as Forbes describes the relevant dance and celebration. This isn’t just a theoretical text, though. She goes into great detail describing the ritual format, the play scripts, the songs, and the dances themselves.

I’m sure most of my readers are familiar with the Spiral Dance, the back-and-forth-winding bane of the uncoordinated (individually and collectively). While the dances that Forbes describes do take some choreography and rehearsal is recommended, she does about as good a job of illustrating them on paper as one can hope to do, so no complaints there (though if you truly are clumsy, you may want to take the suggestion of using something other than blades for the sword dances). Also, because the rituals are largely dependent on dancing, one’s physical ability may prevent them from fully participating in that regard. However, the songs and other non-dancing portions of the rituals are well-fleshed-out, so adaptations may be made as necessary. And you will need a group to perform these rituals, not surprisingly; this is not a working text for the solitary practitioner (unless you have some friends!).

I think my only complaint (and it’s a small one) is a wish for footnotes or endnotes. Forbes does offer a select bibliography, but no real indication as to which books provided which information in her own writing. This doesn’t adversely affect the functionality of the book, but it does make it frustrating if you want to do more research on Morris dancing and related topics and aren’t quite sure where the best starting point is. (She does offer an appendix with information on where to find further resources, however.)

Overall, though, I really, really loved this book. It’s nice to see a practical text that doesn’t fall back on tired formulae (there are no spells or correspondences awkwardly shoehorned in) and that shows good research as a general rule. And it’s even better to see a topic that isn’t commonly covered, rather than the usual rehashes. I would most definitely recommend this to any neopagan group that works with English folk practices, those who want to try new styles of participatory ritual, and folks who are curious about the application of old traditions to the 21st century.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Longing For Wisdom – Allyson Szabo

Longing For Wisdom: The Message of the Maxims
Allyson Szabo
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008
150 pages

“Know Thyself”. This is one of over a hundred maxims carved into a stele outside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. More than empty platitudes, these simple sayings not only guided Greek society, but were also instruments for teaching and learning Greek language and culture. While many people know of the importance of myths of the Olympians and others in Greek religion and culture, not as many are aware of the crucial role that the maxims play not only in a historical context, but the potential applications that they have to practicing Hellenic polytheism today.

Allyson Szabo couches her exploration of thirty-four of the maxims within the context of their origins and their historical uses, having done thorough research. However, rather than leaving them in the past, she shows ways in which they are relevant to our time today, whether we’re pagan or not. She’s very clear in explaining that interpretations–and even translations–lead to a great deal of subjectivity, and so the maxims, despite having been carved into stone, are far from being fixed in stone, metaphorically speaking. So she offers us an excellent context for the remainder of the book.

The bulk of the text involves her discussion of the maxims she’s chosen to highlight. Anywhere from one to three pages may be dedicated to her really thinking about what each maxim means and what lessons may be drawn from it. Very quickly it’s apparent just how relevant these are to our society. For example, when discussing “Control anger”, Szabo offers some solid, basic psychological advice on how to control–not repress–anger, and why it’s important. “Obey the Law” isn’t just a blind following of whatever’s on the books, but also a call to examine and criticize unjust laws (which also can be tied to “Shun Unjust Acts”). And, perhaps one of the most relevant to our busy society, “Consider the Time/Use Time Sparingly” is a much-needed prompt to examine how we do use the limited resources of time we’re allotted. At the end of each maxim’s section, Szabo includes an exercise or things to contemplate to further incorporate the message of the maxim in one’s life.

I also have to commend her for her excellent footnotes. She goes into great detail with supporting information, historical and otherwise, which just adds to the thorough contextualization of the material as a whole. As with all the Bibliotheca Alexandrina titles I’ve read thus far, the research is among the best available, particularly for pagan publishing standards, and I was not at all disappointed in this regard despite my own pickiness.

This book has a few notable potential audiences. Students (and teachers!) of philosophy should take a look, particularly for seeing a modern application of the maxims rather than only as relics of a culture long past. Hellenic pagans, of course, will want to thoroughly study this text to get a better understanding of the roots of the culture from whence their beliefs came. Neopagans in general, even if Hellenismos isn’t their path, may find this to be of great interest as a solid example of taking ancient “artifacts” and making them relevant to the 21st century. And anyone who likes well-researched nonfiction dealing with a particular topic in great detail will find this to be a highly engaging and informative read.

All in all, another wonderful text from Bibliotheca Alexandrina that will appeal to the scholar and practitioner alike!

Five pawprints 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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The Goat Foot God by Diotima

The Goat Foot God
Diotima
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008
104 pages

This is my first review of a Bibliotheca Alexandrina title; I’ve been anxiously awaiting my chance to dig into the promising line of books that this small press has been producing in the past year. I’ve been familiar with Diotima’s work through essays, but this is the first book of hers I’ve been able to give a good read. BA is one of a tiny handful (I think a total of two, if I’m not mistaken) of small presses that have specialized in producing nonfiction works specifically devoted to individual deities. The Goat Foot God, of course, is entirely about the Greek God Pan. Unlike the more common devotional texts, which often feature a variety of writings by multiple authors, this is entirely penned by Diotima herself.

I wasn’t quite sure what approach she would take with her subject; would this be a book of personal experiences, or of ritual observances? Neither, in fact; this slim volume is a wonderfully well-researched exploration of the primary sources (and derivatives) that give us the basis of our understanding of Pan. Starting with Homer, and including works all the way up to Tom Robbins’ delightful Jitterbug Perfume, Diotima has scoured the corpus of knowledge to offer up a concise but thorough text. Along the way she answers some critical questions about Pan himself: Why do some sources speak of Pan’s sexual desires, and others omit it? How may a feminist approach Pan? How accurate are pop culture depictions of Pan? And just what is up with the infamous statue with the goat? (On second thought, her answers raise their own set of questions and things to ponder…which is not entirely a bad thing.)

I also very much appreciated the context she provides at the beginning of the book. Additionally, her tone is never overly authoritarian, allowing room for interpretation and discussion, as well as those murky areas punctuated by “We don’t really know for sure”. She is also careful not to privilege ancient texts over unverified personal gnosis, which creates a lovely balance to her solid research.

No one should be able to criticize the scholarship of this text. Diotima’s done her homework, and has the citations to prove it. While her writing style does have an academic flavor to it, it’s quite readable for a variety of audiences. About the only complaint I have about the book in its entirety is her excessive use of parenthetical statements–not including the in-text citations. There are parts of the book where there’s literally one in each sentence.

Still, that’s a tiny quibble in the face of what should be considered an exceptionally important text. Greek-inspired pagans, whether Hellenic recons, or more eclectic practitioners, should look to this as a superior source for information on Pan, as well as for a thought-provoking perspective on what “Greek religion really was/is”. The publishing industry should see this book as an example of the sorts of texts that need to be brought into print–well-researched, in-depth explorations of specific deities (which can also be applied to other topics) that can quell the cries for advanced works. This also would offer readers something besides (insert flavor of the week here) Wicca rehashes and poor scholarship.

The Goat Foot God has more than accomplished its goal. Pan is presented in all his goaty glory, yet unfettered by conventions and strict definitions. Diotima has done him honor with this book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I am definitely looking forward to reading more both from this author and publisher.

Five hoofprints out of five.

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The Book of Curses – Stuart Gordon – November BBBR

The Book of Curses: True Tales of Voodoo, Hoodoo and Hex
Stuart Gordon
Brockhampton Press, 1997
242 pages

You know when you go into one of those big box chain bookstores that are all alike, and are immediately met by rows upon rows of discounted hardbacks of various sorts? And the New Age titles are usually something put out by the chain’s own publishing house, or other major houses? I think this started out life as one of those books. I got it from the local Goodwill bargain bin, but this may have been a career bargain book.

This is not a book on how to curse people. It is, however, a collection of stories and anecdotes (all third person, nothing from the author’s own experiences) about curses in various magical and other systems. Some of the book delves into Afro-Caribbean religions; however, the MacBeth curse is also visited, as is the supposed curse on King Tut’s tomb. Gordon also touches briefly on modern witch hunts in the form of the Satanic Panic and child abuse allegations in the 1980s, and on the theory of tulpas, or thought-forms, as potential causes of curses through the power of belief.

While it’s an interesting read, take it with a decent-sized grain of salt. Much of the book is based on hearsay and older sources, and seems mostly to be a collection of whatever fairly common information on curses is available. It’s mostly on par with various Time-Life and other mainstream texts on occultism; don’t use it as a primary text, but there are some interesting bits of information that can lead to further research if you so choose. Also, don’t expect the information on specific religions, such as Voodoo, to be particularly solid; it tends more towards the sensational end of things, with a few facts thrown in for legitimacy’s sake.

In short, this book is good for entertainment, but it most definitely needs supplementation.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Beef by Andrew Rimas

Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World
Andrew Rimas
William Morrow and Co., 2008
256 pages

You may very well be wondering why it is that I have a book on the history of the relationship between domestic cattle and humanity on a pagan book review blog. I already have reviews of other books that are about specific animals, such as Of Wolves and Men by Lopez and The Sacred Paw by Shepard and Sanders. However, while those are about wild creatures, Beef studies the relationship we have to a domestic creature–the cow. Underappreciated by many modern pagans as not being “impressive” enough, the cow and bull were nonetheless absolutely crucial to many paleopagan cultures, and I believe in promoting more than just the woo-woo aspect of sacred animals.

The book starts off with a modern discussion of beef as a foodstuff, the different cuts, etc. However, this is followed by an incredibly important section about cattle as sacred animals in various cultures. There’s also a good bit of research done on the actual history of the domestication of cattle, and why this was so important to humanity’s development.

However, even today we are still highly dependent on cattle in this world. Our health as a species through better nutrition, as well as certain areas of economy, have been largely due to cattle over the centuries, and continue to do so today. It’s rather sobering to read through some of the material the author presents.

The wrap-up includes a hard look at the beef and milk industries today. Animal abuse is brought up, along with the horrific conditions in stockyards. And, of course, the pollution caused by the demand for more cheap beef, as well as tropical deforestation, can’t be denied. While Rimas offers some potential alternatives, the main message seems to be “eat less beef”.

Any pagan who works within the context of a culture that reveres cattle, or who works with domestic totems and animal spirits, should pick up a copy of this book. Even if neither of these applies, it’s still a fascinating and educational read. The writing style is engaging, so it’s a quick read, and quite the eye-opener.

Five hoofprints out of five.

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Spiritual Tattoo – John A. Rush

Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding and Implants
John A. Rush
Frog, Ltd., 2005
244 pages

I think I was expecting something a little more image-heavy when I picked up this book, perhaps a pictorial exploration of body modifications throughout history. While it ended up being something different, it certainly didn’t disappoint. Spiritual Tattoo is a fascinating, light-academic exploration of body modifications for spiritual and cultural purposes, both modern and historical, in cultures around the world.

While Rush admits that discussion of some of the earliest deliberate modification, including among Neanderthals, is based on a good bit of conjecture, he raises some interesting points on body modification as it relates to universal human experiences. However, further in the future he’s able to stand on more solid ground, with plenty of evidence and illustrations that draw a firm line from spiritual and other life-shaping experiences to body modification. He also intelligently discusses the modern use of body mods, particularly in postindustrial societies. Rather than painting every modern person who gets a tattoo, non-ear piercing, or other modification as an immature rebel or otherwise maladjusted individual, he instead gets to the heart of the reasons why people have these things done, even in a culture where it’s still often frowned upon.

Rush balances an academic level of research with an accessible writing style. He organizes the material creatively, and not always in a strictly linear fashion. Instead, the chapters are arranged by themes in spiritual body mods, exploring each one in depth and with care.

Overall, this is an excellent read. Some of it may be preaching to the choir when it comes to the already inked and pierced and so forth, but it’s also a valuable text when demonstrating that there’s more to body mods than rebellion–that in fact these fill in the gaps for the meaningful rites of passage that are lacking in American cultures, among others. Rather than being a recent counterculture phenomenon, Rush shows us that body modifications and spirituality have gone hand in hand in very consistent ways for millenia.

Five inked pawprints out of five.

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The Long Descent – John Michael Greer

The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age
John Michael Greer
New Society Publishers, 2008
258 pages

This isn’t a strictly pagan book; however, the author is well-known in the pagan and occult communities. Additionally, the material in this book will be of interest to many pagans (and non-pagans as well!). Instead of speaking primarily from a place as a spiritual leader, in this book, Greer emphasizes his experiences as “a certified Master Conserver, organic gardener and scholar of ecological history” (as per his bio).

The Long Descent is an in-depth discussion of an often-ignored possibility for the future. Having studied the destruction of numerous civilizations throughout history, the trend that Greer observes the most is that of slow decay, often staggered, over a period of centuries–hence the title of the book. I can already see two groups of people who will be, at the very least, irritated about the holes that Greer pokes in the futuristic mythologies they tell. One will be those who believe that technology will save us all, and keeping industrial civilization going is only a matter of finding the right invention. The other will be fatalistic would-be anarchists (or Rapturists, or those waiting for the Veil to fall etc.) who anxiously await a sudden Apocalypse that will bring everything as we know it an end–either ushering in a new paradise, or a hellhole.

Either way, Greer offers a much more time-tested pattern of change. However, instead of leaving us with a pessimistic view of the future, in which we’re all victims of plagues and violence, he provides a good number of constructive solutions for making a smoother transition from industrial society to a more agrarian one. (He argues that the linear perspective of civilizations, that industrialism is automatically “higher” and “better” than agrarian ones, is unrealistic–similar to claiming that monotheism is an automatic improvement over polytheism in the grand, linear scheme of things). Surprisingly, he does not support having small, self-contained communities scattered everywhere, though he does strongly favor community interaction; the lone cabin of the survivalist is inferior to the remainders of cities, towns, etc.

He does realistically explore the down sides of this potential future; it’s not all sunshine and windmills. As health care degrades, people will succumb to illnesses and injuries that even a century ago were major threats. (One of his suggestions is to do as much DIY health care as possible.) However, overall this is a hopeful book, one that balances the very real possibility that a few generations from now there won’t be the internet, automobiles, and other luxuries we’ve come to expect–and realistic, accessible solutions for riding out the worst parts of the transition. Additionally, as he advocates acting now, rather than waiting until it’s too late, it’s a very much-needed reminder that simply thinking about the issues won’t change things.

There is an excellent chapter on spirituality and post-peak-oil that pagans should particularly take interest in. While he doesn’t promote one religion over another, he does take a good, hard look at how the reality of one’s living conditions can interplay with spiritual beliefs. He manages to blend it nicely into an otherwise primarily secular book.

Whether you’re pagan or not, whether you believe in progress, apocalypse, or some other potential future, and whether you’re a reader of Greer’s popular Archdruid Report blog, give this book a try. You may throw it against the wall, you may love it dearly, but I’m betting that you’ll have something to say about it once you’re through.

Five informed and empowered 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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