Grail Alchemy by Mara Freeman

Grail Alchemy: Initiation in the Celtic Mystery Tradition
Mara Freeman
Destiny Books
Rochester, VT 2014
278 pages

Reviewed by Micheal

I’ve had this book for a few months now, and despite my best intentions, I cannot finish it in one or two days.

Freeman, has done an excellent job at relating the Celtic myths to their counterparts in Christian, Hindu, and other mythos. Relating the Fisher King not only to masculine principle severed from the feminine but also to various other deities such as Osiris, Adonis(dying and being reborn) for example.

Additionally, Freeman views the silver branch to being a miniature version of the tree of life, and she correlates it to a Siberian Shamanic practice of attaching tree branches to their drums, as an aid to help them reach the tree on their journeys (pg. 49).

The meditations, VisionJourneys, are beautifully crafted, I would suggest that they be recorded prior to beginning the journey. Freeman offers a dedication and healing ritual at the end of the book.

Grail Alchemy presents the reader with a lot of information that simply should not be read over in one or two nights. While it has merely ten chapters, this reviewer would suggest that the reader take their time to truly benefit from the research and information that Freeman is making available.

Given the books depth of information, exercises, visualizations, I give the book:

Five pawprints out of five.

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Beatrysel by Johnny Worthen

Johnny Worthen
Omnium Gatherium, 2013
385 pages

Reviewed by Micheal

Initially, I had a difficult time getting interested in this book; the pace was slow and it started in such a way that it leaves the reader wondering why the demon is after Lady Sasha. However, I continued to read and by the third chapter, I was intrigued and as the characters developed, there’s the unethical psychiatrist, the intelligent and occult oriented professor…I became more and more fascinated with them and their interactions.

I found the book to be a nice blend of mystery, occult, and horror (only in the way that some characters died), and I have yet to read a book that has merged these genres before and Worthen did an exceptional job. The images of the Magickal temple, chants, all possess a realness that one doesn’t find too often in a work of fiction. The characters came alive with their own struggles, many of which, any reader could experience: adultery, lust, jealousy, etc. The one that might be lacking is creating a demon and a new grimoire for the modern age, however, this is developed in such a way in the book that it seems plausible and is not filled with hyperbole or cliched images of classical films.

My one complaint, would be that discovering the identity of the antagonist was too easy, I had suspicions by chapter 30 and knew who it was by chapter 40.

Overall, this was a fantastic read and one that I’ll likely read again. I can easily give it 5 paws out of 5.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Manifest Divinity by Lisa Spiral Besnett

Manifest Divinity
Lisa Spiral Besnett
Megalithica Books, 2013
116 pages

Reviewed by Devo

When I first looked at this book, I will admit that I expected it to be a lot of fluff. However, I was interested in reading about another person’s conception of what divinity is, and how it can be seen in the world, so I decided to give the book a shot.

I was very surprised by this book- in a good way.

The author herself expresses that the intent of her book is to:

“My hope in this book is to help establish a framework to talk about spiritual experience that is not dependent on a particular religious practice or belief.”

And I think that she does a pretty good job with this. She starts the book off by discussing some of her own approaches to divinity, or the Divine, and also goes over what the Divine is. To summarize it briefly, her definition would be as follows:

“I consider any awe experience to be a manifestation of the Divine. Manifest Divinity actually implies that the Divine is present and obvious. We simply bring our attention to it, or bring the Divine into our awareness. When this comes as a surprise, without any effort on our part, the result is awe.

I believe that anything which leaves us awestruck is a manifestation of the Divine. I dare say being filled with a feeling of love that makes one want to hold the whole world in their arms is a manifestation of the Divine.”

The author also discusses some of the shortcomings of our modern society to approaching, seeing and understanding the divine. And finally, she goes into five different forms of Divine manifestation and how we can work to see the Divine in these manifested forms.

All in all, I liked the book. I thought that it was well written and that people of various faiths and practices could read the book and find a way to understand the concepts being brought forward. On the by and large, the author keeps her discussion of the Divine broad and general enough that you don’t feel like she’s necessarily writing about any one type of divinity, or for any particular faith.

The language of the book is approachable and easy to read- you could easily read this book over the course of a few days. And the content within the book could be re-read for new ideas regularly. The author also includes questions at the end of each chapter for you to utilize for becoming closer to the Divine- which should allow the reader to utilize the book over time as they expand their relationship with the Divine. I also think that some of the concepts and discussion points brought forward in this book could be useful for someone who is trying to create their own religion, or for someone who is new to a polytheistic faith, or is trying to explore divinity structures outside of a monotheistic frame.

I think one of the most important things that the author brings forward in this book is the idea that the Divine is bigger than us, and that the Divine’s goals and morals may not necessarily line up with our own. She does cover the idea that you can tell a divine entity no, and that each of us needs to understand where our stopping point for the divine is. So the author does cover topics that I’ve seen a lot of authors gloss over.

If I had to pick something that I dislike about this book, it’s the constant reiteration that the Divine is unknowable, and mind breaking. I’ve never been a big fan of that idea, and the author’s concepts relating to that particular concept didn’t do much to change my notions on it. I would have preferred the focus to be more on “don’t put the Divine in a box” over “you are too human to really grok the depth of the Divine”.

However, despite this, I think that the book does have a lot of merit, and I think it’s worth reading. I feel it can be useful for helping people to further understand ways that the Divine can present itself in the world.

Four and a half out of five pawprints.

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The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough

The Sacred Depths of Nature
Ursula Goodenough
Oxford University Press, 1998
174 pages

Reviewed by Ser

I was quite excited by the premise of this book, so I believe I gave it more of a chance than I normally would. The goal of The Sacred Depths of Nature is to unite the two fronts of science and religion… not an easy task. The author is a biology professor with a lifelong interest in religion, and pulls experiences from both aspects of her life as she progresses through the book.

The basic format of each chapter is to present a scientific topic (such as DNA, reproduction, mutation), explain it, and then close with a reflection on how this topic can be seen from a spiritual point of view. This seems to be an excellent way to discuss the many topics, some of which the reader may never have heard of. However, each section is so… science-y. There is a lot of (in my opinion) dry explanation using terminology that would be more familiar to the scientific community, rather than someone more familiar with the religious or spiritual. I feel that the final part, “Emergent Religious Principles”, is where the real value of the book is for me, as it goes beyond the scientific explanations and discusses topics such as gratitude in everyday life, and shows how to apply this scientific understanding to our daily experiences.

There are a number of places in the text (most noticeably large captions of images) that simply stop in mid-sentence, never to be picked up or continued elsewhere in the book. I feel these should have been captured by the editor before publishing.

I was also a bit disappointed in the chapter on the big D – death. The author pays a lot of attention to most of the topics in this book, but I feel the death chapter was sort of lacking. While death can be a simple subject, death is something much meditated upon by religions across the globe. She simply ended the chapter with the statement, “My somatic life is the wondrous gift wrought by my forthcoming death”. I feel there was a lot more she could have touched on, more she could have expanded on to share with the reader how she is able to overcome her fears of the unknown. If your audience often asks the same question or gets stuck on the same topic, that might be a good indicator of a chapter you should spend more of your energies on as well.

I did appreciate the author’s attempt to unify the two seemingly opposite fronts, and I appreciated some of the metaphors (such as a Mozart sonata standing for reductionism). I personally don’t agree that life, when reduced to it’s component molecules, can’t possibly have more to it – a soul, an essence, what have you. I also disagree with her view that animals cannot feel “unique, special human emotions” such as love. However, I enjoyed appreciated this view from another’s eyes.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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Power Crystals by John DeSalvo

Power Crystals: Spiritual and Magical Practices, Crystal Skulls, and Alien Technology
John DeSalvo, Ph.D.
Destiny Books, 2012
189 pages

Reviewed by Ser

Lupa hadn’t told me which book I’d be receiving to review, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book chosen for me was Power Crystals. I had just viewed a few documentaries on the subject of crystals skulls, including Smithsonian’s The Legend of the Crystal Skulls, and I was eager to devour more information on this enchanting topic. Unfortunately, I don’t feel the author lived up to my expectations.

There were three main issues I had with Power Crystals that I would like to discuss. First, this book proved difficult to read and I had to walk away from it numerous times. There are plenty of examples of typos and grammatical issues, as well as repetitive and run-on sentences such as:

– “These practices were all forbidden by the church, and the continued practice of them could lead to excommunication or worst.” (pg. 38)
– “I wrote a book called Andrew Jackson Davis, First American Prophet and Clairvoyant about the nineteenth-century clairvoyant and prophet.” (pg. 57)
– “They hold a power to heal, but modern crystal practitioners have not unlocked the lock.” (pg. 60)
– “Known for his in-depth scientific work on the Shroud of Turin… John DeSalvo holds a Ph.D. in biophysics and, for more than 30 years, scientifically studied the Shroud of Turin.” (back cover)

Second, in the Introduction the author voiced his wish to “be the first scientist/paranormal researcher to carry out the first objective study of ancient crystal skulls”. However, this goal is not carried out even through the second chapter. Chapter Two started out with a lot of potential, briefly mentioning the Schumann Resonance and how it might contribute to a connection between crystals and the human brain, but then goes on to spend a lot of time on biblical references that don’t contribute to his point. For example, DeSalvo inserts a large quote from Ezekiel 1:22-28, citing a “significant reference to crystal”: “Over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of an expanse, shining like an awe-inspiring crystal”, followed by many more lines with no further crystal references. The author then quotes the Bible three more times, with more examples of how something is shining “like crystal”. The author is using these examples to illustrate “the holy significance of crystal”, but to me, these are just similes and do nothing to strengthen his argument.

Part Two was focused on crystal skulls and the tests performed on these skulls to determine their age. The premise of this section was interesting, but again there was an issue of the author’s objectivity. In one section, he states, “We all know the power of prayer and the energy it releases” (pg. 57). This area would have benefited from a short discussion on his view of the power and energy of prayer before comparing it to crystal energy. I also question his definition of “specific” when he says that “soon” is a specific time frame (pg. 104) – soon could mean in an hour, or it could mean a month from now. He also includes some side stories which detract from the subject of the book; in chapter 4, he says that he believes in spiritual healing, though he has never experienced success healing with crystals or any other gems. To qualify his belief, he explains an experience at a charismatic healing program, spanning two pages, which ends in, “This is the mystery of God’s will. I do believe Jesus healed my back that day” (pg. 59). Again, this seems to detract from his goal of scientific research and objectivity. He brings up a scientific subject, such as string theory, then with the next sentence states his experiences and assumes his reader will accept them as reality because he does. I would also like to know why he feels that scrying with crystals is successful, while healing with crystals is not.

Lastly, I feel that the last two sections of the book need a lot of expansion. Section Three, and in particular Chapter 10, deals with meditation, and seems almost entirely written by his friend Helene Olsen. While her input is important, there should be more sources and discussion on meditation than just quotes from one person! Chapter 11 seems to serve as an advertisement for his other books, as he mentions their titles four times in a span of four paragraphs. It is also worth noting that the author seems to see God as male-only energy, taking a lot of his reference from his time in the Christian church, which may not sit well with some readers. He prefaces his section on Enochian meditations and journey to the Thirtieth Aethyr with a warning to undertake this exploration at your own risk, yet I don’t think he was able to get his point across about why we would want to try this meditation, how it relates to crystals, and what it can offer.

Part Four, dealing with Atlantis and alien technology, comprises a mere 14 pages of the book. What was said about Atlantis seems to not even have been written in his voice and instead reads like a history book (which may actually be more his style, as his previous works include college textbooks). He teases the reader about a “structure” found on the Atlantic Ocean floor that could be a remnant of Atlantis, but then neglects to describe the structure at all! All he says is that it could be man-made – but how? Is it a building? Is it a statue? What could this mean for our view of history? The reader is left wondering.

That said, I do have to compliment DeSalvo on his inclusion of numerous lovely, full-color photos. There are 29 full-color “plates” as well as a few diagrams and photos throughout the rest of the book, all displaying wonderful crystals and skulls. (My favorite photo is #9, a rose quartz crystal larger than the man posing next to it!) I also enjoyed the variety of topics presented by DeSalvo as well as the way they were presented in order to build on each other as you progressed through the book – I just feel many of them are lacking in detail and the scientific attention he seemed to want to give them. There was a lot of potential in this book, but overall it feels rushed – so many details are omitted, sentences confusing, and again it has that lack of objectivity throughout. It seems that Power Crystals was written for a group of close-knit friends – the author frequently mentions how he is close to this skull owner, or this psychic. While it may accurately portray the relationships between skull owners (as ancient and antique skull owners are few and far between), at the same time I wonder why this book was not proofread by these individuals a few times to help the author catch some of the spelling and grammar issues, and perhaps point out a few of the places needing further clarification.

I would not recommend this book to those looking for an objective study of crystal skulls. I would suggest it to someone in passing, if they were interested in personal experiences with crystal skulls and photos of lovely crystal collections, but would suggest skipping the last two, seemingly unfinished, sections.

One pawprint out of five.

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Nature-Speak by Ted Andrews

Nature-Speak: Signs, Omens & Messages in Nature
Ted Andrews
Dragonhawk Publishing, 2004
448 pages

This is a book that I’d had my eye on for several years before finally picking up a copy. What Animal-Speak is to animal totems, so Nature-Speak is to plant spirits and landscapes. It follows much of the same pattern–some basic theoretical information about a particular set of beings or phenomena in nature, then some exercises to work with them, and finally a dictionary section. Andrews addresses some of the expected beings like trees and flowers, but also gives “weeds” a place in this veritable garden as well.

And like Animal-Speak, this book is written in a friendly, inviting manner. Andrews had a knack for writing to a wide audience, making the information accessible and interesting enough to make the reader want to try it out for themselves. This is a book that’s good both for the novice and for the more experienced nature pagan.

However, it also deviates into other areas of esotericism. There are rituals for the Sabbats, for example, drawing on Andrews’ rich experiences in nature. And he delves into such areas as work with angelic beings, as well as splashes of Hermeticism and other ceremonial traditions. In this way it’s a more eclectic text than Animal-Speak‘s quasi-shamanic flavor.

The only real complaint I have about the book is the proliferation of typos. It’s possibly one of the worst for that, to be honest. Every few pages I was picking out some misspelled word or grammatical error. I am unsure what Dragonhawk Publishing’s internal structure was like; it was Andrews’ own company, and now that he is sadly deceased I can’t simply ask. So it may be that he was editing his own work.

Still, for all that it’s a worthwhile read, and I highly recommend it for those interested in its subject matter.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Madame Xanadu by Wagner, Hadley, Friend, Fletcher and Major

Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted
Matt Wagner (Writer), Amy Reeder Hadley (Pencils, Inks), Richard Friend (Inks), Guy Major (Colors),
Jared Fletcher (Letters)
Vertigo, 2009
240 Pages

Reviewed by Covert

This is the first trade paperback of a series following the life of Madame Xanadu, a seer and magical
consultant in the DC/Vertigo Universe. The series starts out in medieval Britain as the DC version of
Camelot falls and Nimue (as she is known then) tries in vain to stop the fall. In the process, she loses
most of her powers and spends the rest of the book (and the next thousand or so years) regaining them.

I cannot sing the praises of this book loudly or often enough. This is one of the most accurate and
sympathetic treatments of a Pagan character in a comic that I’ve ever read, frankly. Nimue has a distinct
love of life and her home (whether that be Britain, China, France, or the States), and does what she can
to protect that. Unfortunately, when history and her efforts to protect her friends and home collide,
history always wins. Madame Xanadu is flawed, she’s impulsive and naïve and lets her anger get the
better of her. But we see her grow. We see her learn where her place is in a fast-moving world, and how
she can help those she loves. That really endears the series to me.

Plus, Disenchanted is littered with Pagan/occult elements and themes. Most obviously, in the beginning
of the book she prays to Brigid and Arianrhod, uses everything from the elder futhark to tarot (which
she invented in this universe) to divine her and others’ future, and deals with fellow Fae, demons, and
even Death herself. The theme of fate versus free will, tempered with divination, is something that is at
least touched upon in the life of every Pagan or magician who tries to predict the future. The treatment
of this theme in Disenchanted is interesting to say the least, and occasionally calls to mind the Greek
tragedies where knowing of and trying to avoid destiny creates it. The theme of the isolation created by
practicing magic (and being a centuries old member of a magical race) is sadly more resonant with me
than it really should be.

Overall, this is an amazing start to a good series. The other trade paperbacks are Exodus Noir, Broken
House of Cards, and Extra-Sensory. I recommend Broken House of Cards, and Extra-Sensory if you
particularly liked the first and third volumes. Do not read Exodus Noir unless you really feel the need
to finish the series. The art is atrocious and the plot is so mediocre that even the presence of Madame
Xanadu in a relationship with a woman is not enough to make me like the book.

Note: This book is for mature readers, and contains a rape scene and the word g**sy. The treatment of
the rape is period appropriate, and Madame Xanadu is appropriately appalled. The use of the slur is not
to harm or dehumanize a character, but instead to excoticize Madame Xanadu.

Five pawprints out of five for this book, four for the overall series.

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Witches Revelation by Timothy Gibbons

Witches Revelation: A Novel
Timothy Gibbons
Self-published, 2010
276 pages

The world has fallen into chaos. The human population has been devastated by a plague. The remnants of the U.S. military struggle to maintain what order they can amid attacks by a strange religious cult with entirely too much firepower. The remaining civilians do what they can to survive amid the turmoil. One young woman finds herself the final survivor of a massacred encampment, and suddenly thrust into a world tinged with esoteric symbolism–and reality.

Such is the basic plot of this first novel by Timothy Gibbons. It’s an intriguing premise, and the world-building is pretty solid. Gibbons manages to create a believable dystopic future, albeit one somewhat scant on details at times, but a rich visit nonetheless. While his characters are a bit flat, they’re interesting enough to follow through, and some development does occur over the course of the story.

Gibbons is a good writer. His description is good, but his dialogue is better. The conversations flow well, and even the internal dialogue of the characters has good life to it. Spots of humor shine amid the sober background, and there’s a lot of talent in there. And while the pace is slow sometimes, the conclusion both is satisfying, but also leaves plenty open for future books.

The book does fall prey to some common self-publishing problems. While Gibbons is a good writer, there are some areas–such as the aforementioned issues with character and plot–that a good editor could help him tighten up. And there are numerous typos through the entire thing, which got to the point of distraction. Finally, he does what a lot of esoteric fiction writers do–too much tell, not enough show, when weaving the esoteric elements into the storyline. Less exposition, more demonstration, would have helped this a great deal.

Still, for a first novel, self-published, it’s a good showing. I think with some professional editing for both style and content, Gibbons could have some truly outstanding works on his hands. As it is, it’s a good but not great read, worth a look and definitely worth finishing.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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Pagan Metaphysics 101 by Springwolf

Pagan Metaphysics 101: The Beginning of Enlightenment
Schiffer Publishing, 2011
128 pages

This book has so much potential. The concept is awesome: a book on paganism that doesn’t even start with tools and rituals and such, but instead gets to the very roots of the beliefs and cosmology through the language of metaphysics. Not “metaphysics” as in “woo”, but the nuts and bolts of “How does this work? Where did this core belief come from? Why do pagans often have this sentiment?” It’s the first in a planned series of books that build on each other to explore paganism in theory and practice, and is the foundational text thereof.

I will say that in some places it veers much more closely to the New Age than neopaganism. Most neopagans don’t really put much of an emphasis on Atlantis, for example. But there’s a lot that is more relevant, from how “energy” works, to practical work with karma (albeit a new Age tinged version thereof). Starting the book with a bunch of questions for the reader to answer about their own beliefs was a brilliant idea, because this book has a lot for a person to think about. Consider it brain food for spiritual exploration.

Unfortunately, the execution leaves me wondering whether the publisher even had an editor or proofreader look over this text, or whether the manuscript was simply put into print straight from the author. I found numerous typos, and places where the writing was rough and awkward to read. The organization didn’t always make sense, and sometimes the transition from topic to topic was less than smooth. I could kind of see the flow of where the author was trying to take the book, but it needs a good bit of refining.

Also, there are certain things that some neopagans may find downright offensive. The idea, for example, that Helen Keller (and other people born with disabilities) chose, prior to birth, to incarnate into a life with such challenges has all too often been used as a patronizing form of discrimination, as well as diminishing and even silencing the actual concerns of people with disabilities. This, and a number of other concepts that are more popular among New Agers than pagans, may cause some pagans to put the book back down (which is a bad idea–more on that in a moment).

My biggest complaint, though, is that the book simply could have been more. It’s a scant 128 pages, fewer if you take out the table of contents and whatnot, with fairly large text. The author covers a variety of topics, and yet many of them only get two or three paragraphs. I found myself saying on almost every page “This is really cool! But what about this element of it? Can you explain in more depth?” There are so many places where she could have expanded into more detail and background about just about everything she talked about, and still had a really good, coherent book that fit what seems to have been her intent with it.

What I would love to see is a second edition of the book someday, one that has better editing, has had more feedback from neopagans and what they more commonly believe, and, most importantly, more expansion on the material that’s already in here. Even with my complaints about the book in its current form, I do think there’s a lot of value to it–you just have to dig some. There is the aforementioned element of philosophical and soul-searching brain food that just about anyone would find useful, especially at a point of trying to find one’s spiritual identity (or simply as a refresher if you’ve been doing this a while). And despite the New Age woo that sometimes gets a little overwhelming, there are also awesome reminders that we are human beings in this life, and that sometimes that means things that are wholly human and physical and perfectly okay even if they aren’t strictly “spiritual”. There’s good grounding in there.

Three 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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