Phantom Armies of the Night by Claude Lecouteux

Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead
Claude Lecouteux
Inner Traditions, 2011
320 pages

Reviewed by Uloboridae

As the title promises, this text is a detailed introduction to the “Wild Hunt” literary theme found throughout Europe. Dr. Lecouteux frames the entire book around the hypothesis that the Wild Hunt theme is an ancient pagan fertility (“third function”) motif of Indo-European origin that was later modified for Christian uses.

The first two-thirds of the book is spent looking at the various figures within the stories, their origins, and the many ways the stories were used for promoting a Christian worldview, particularly regarding sinful actions. This is mainly organized as a timeline, with the first chapters starting with the stories in early 1000s and gradually becoming more recent in later chapters. This is where he identifies, and then separates, the Christian additions from what he recognizes as the original Pagan framework. This method results in quite a large chunk of the book dedicated to explaining Christian clerical beliefs. The author starts out with the “Good Women” troops and the troops of the dead, and then goes into the troops that participate in a hunt or a procession of some sort. The troops of the dead reappear in later chapters to clarify the differences between these types of processions.

He also identifies the regional variations of the figures and stories, focusing mainly on Germanic regions (primarily today’s UK, Germany, Denmark, Austria, and parts of Scandinavia) and Germanic-influenced regions in Spain, France, Italy, and Central Europe. Attention is given to famous figures such as King Herla, Hellequin, and Perchta along with lesser known ones such as Oskeria, Dame Abundia, and Guro. Little attention is given to non-Germanic cultures, which is disappointing, but understandable, given that his professional background is specifically Medieval Germanic literature.

Eventually the author ends his timeline-based exploration in chapters 11 and 12 with the evolution of the Wild Hunt stories in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He discusses the romance of Fauvel to lead into the more exploratory aspects of the processions, such as the rowdy troops of the living that imitate the dead and devils. Pausing briefly for a chapter on Scandinavian folklore that resemble more basal Wild Hunt stories, the author then ties up the previous 12 chapters with a review on shared themes and other scholars’ interpretations.
The author then concludes with a dismissal of Odin as a Wild Hunt leader, going into detail as to why he is not a true huntsman figure, and an exploration of living processions that are linked to the lore processions. His final chapter recognizes the fact that no true conclusion can be met about the nature of the Wild Hunt and related stories, a refreshing attitude for books of this subject. The appendixes are translations of old stories and poems that depict or refer to the Wild Hunt and other processions, free of Dr. Lecouteux’s interpretations (those are given in earlier chapters).

Overall, I found this book to be informative from both a historical and a religious viewpoint. There are times where he asserts an idea as if it were fact (particularly with linguistic connections being used to “prove” or “disprove” an aspect or being of the Wild Hunt), which one would not be able to check unless they were familiar with the field. This situation forces a regular reader to either accept his word, or ignore it, which I find a bit distracting. I prefer to have context and information to support either decision, rather than mentally flipping a coin to decide which way to go. Usually I end up just ignoring the unsupported assertions, which thankfully does not interrupt the rest of the book.

This book is written in an academic voice, requiring some sections to be reread to fully comprehend them. Occasionally the book felt dragging due to the repetition of ideas and interpretations. Dr. Lecouteux also has a tendency to pack his books with information, which can be both good and bad. Good because historical Pagan information is limited and many of us need every bit we can find. Bad, because there is often no room left to give context to the random tidbits. Since the book was originally written in French, the references are mostly French and German sources, so trying to trace the information is nearly impossible for other language speakers to do. For someone like me who wants to double-check something for “truthfulness”, this can be irksome.

However, the author is excellent in keeping a neutral, professional tone in his work. He does not promote or degenerate Christianity or Paganism, nor does he reveal which “side” he is on (if any at all). His interest is solely academic, allowing this book to appeal to a variety of readers. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves European and Religious history and lore, as well as those seeking to understand the differences between Christian and Pagan worldviews. It will make an interesting addition to their library. However, due to the lack of context for some ideas, I would not recommend this book to those new to historical paganism. This is a “201” book, something to read after basic knowledge on Pagan worldviews has already been obtained and understood.

Three and a half 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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The Shaman’s Doorway by Stephen Larsen

The Shaman’s Doorway
Stephen Larsen
Station Hill Press, 1988
258 pages

When I first picked up this book, I had no idea that the author had done so many neat things! I was specifically impressed by his work with mythology and semiotics in practice, and it seems that a lot of what he does parallels a lot of neopagan ritual structures. This means I will have to find out more, because I already like what I’ve seen.

That includes picking up a newer edition of this particular book. Even this edition has a lot to offer. In it, Larsen doesn’t so much describe what shamanism is as he continues the work in mythos that Campbell (among others) created, and places the figure of the shaman within that context. While it is a bit of an academic, abstract approach, this meta-analysis of shamanism still has much value for the modern practitioner, especially as those of us practicing within largely non-animistic cultures try to carve out niches for ourselves.

Even if one is not a practicing (neo)shaman, there’s much that this book has to offer. One of the most valuable parts of the book for me was when Larsen broke down the various stages of development in approaching myth, from the very dogmatic to the very flexible, with a detour into pure scientific rationalism along the way. While it’s a bit biased and overly linear, and Larsen shows a decided preference for a psychological approach to myth, there’s still a lot to think about in how he describes the benefits and shortcomings of each approach.

Similarly, other parts of the book, to include Larsen’s assessment of Eastern vs. Western approaches to myth, should be taken with a grain of salt. However, with a healthy critical eye one should be able to look past that to get to the good brain food in these pages.

Four pawprints out of five.

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The Tree of Enchantment by Orion Foxwood

Note: This is a guest review by Philip A. Bernhardt-House, who graciously agreed to help me cut down on some of my existing review books once I decided to go on semi-hiatus.

The Tree of Enchantment: Ancient Wisdom and Magic Practices of the Faery Tradition
Orion Foxwood
Red Wheel/Weiser, 2008
264 pages

Orion Foxwood’s The Tree of Enchantment presents a novel cosmology of modern fairy seership work, which is deeply rooted throughout in a series of practices and exercises to facilitate contact with otherworld beings and to continually allow a practitioner to align with their three states of being—referred to as the “threefold life”—that is inspired by certain aspects of premodern and folk traditions. It is a work that is poetic and beautiful in its imagery and its vision of divine symmetry and parallelism, and presents a coherent and internally consistent narrative of how these various aspects of the otherworld interact with and are related to one another, and to the seeker, at every stage of the process.

If that brief summary appeals to you, and describes exactly what you’re interested in reading about or studying or seeking, then this really is the book for you, and you should most certainly have a look at it.

Unfortunately, the above is not what Foxwood himself describes is the basis for this work. There are repeated claims that the practices and doctrines detailed in this book are from traditional beliefs, particularly of the Insular Celtic peoples, but this is rarely (if ever) substantiated with references to actual lore (folkloric or literary). There are a few occasions on which Foxwood states that academic study is part of this endeavor (e.g. pp. xiii, 8), but the only academic sources in his footnotes or bibliography are survey essays, several of which are outdated by a century or more. Several are referenced as easily available online, but they do not represent the best or most thorough views of these subjects possible, either in their theoretical subtlety or in their expansive knowledge of actual source materials.

Further, the views presented in this book are not given as one among many possible options for cosmological speculation—they are presented as the “true nature of existence” (p. 22). At another point in the text, Foxwood discusses the various images he uses (e.g. threefold flame, Spindle of Destiny, Tree of Enchantment, etc.), and then says the following: “Note that I did not refer to these images as ‘symbols,’ because they do not symbolize or represent anything. Simply put, they are the actual patterns that exist in the natural and spiritual world” (p. 57). While making the important distinction between imagery being symbolic and descriptive in this work is useful, this statement, as well as others, seem to present almost exclusivist truth-claims to this view of the universe and how it functions, which is not only at variance with a great variety of other spiritual and religious traditions, but it is not even accurate to the cosmological beliefs (as they can be apprehended and understood) of the Celtic and other cultures which are supposed to be their source. This makes the validity of the many guided visualizations given in the book highly questionable, in the view of the present reviewer: if these universal structures and “Vision Keys” simply are inherent to existence, then why would they have to be described in such detail? Why would the content of one’s visualization and visionary experiences need to be delineated so succinctly and at such length, if they could simply be encountered objectively? It is widely known and understood that a great deal of meditative and visionary work is prone to suggestibility, yet can still be quite valid and useful, and such experiences can be considered authentic and even divinely inspired. The system for fairy seership as laid out in this book is not one where there is much room at all for one to simply go to the otherworld and encounter it however it may choose to present itself to the seeker; instead, exact imagery of color, number, gender, size, shape, and other adjectival qualities are given in every exercise, which would suggest to the present reviewer that this is a personal system (a valid one, at that) which has been applied and set up in its presentation here to be a universal one. For those for whom this would work, that’s great; but both tradition and the general variety of human spiritual experience, I think, undermines these claims greatly. One need not make such claims of universal validity and objective spiritual actuality to have a useful or coherent system of spiritual practice and belief.

On several occasions, words in certain Insular Celtic languages are given, and are either ill-defined, or given a meaning which they do not necessarily have in the attested linguistic tradition. To give an example of the ways in which this material is not always accurately presented, think of the English word “path.” In religious and spiritual discussions, “path” takes on a whole different meaning, in contrast to when one is talking about a “foot path” through a garden, or “making a path” through objects strewn on the floor in a cluttered room. The word can have many different meanings, depending on context, but it isn’t as if the word “path” itself has a holy and divine valence every time it is used in English. Likewise, this is the case with many of the terms from Insular Celtic languages used by Foxwood. He uses the term sith, which he defines as “soul” (p. 6) or as “walker” (p. 15), quite frequently, as the “threefold life” is dependent upon an understanding of the “three walkers” and how they interact with this world and the otherworld. However, in Scots Gaelic, sith is several different words: a feminine noun (coming originally from Old Irish síd) meaning “fairy,” “hill” or “peace,” which is a very common and important otherworld and fairy-related term, which nonetheless does not have any “soul” valence; and the Scots Gaelic masculine noun sith which means a stride, a rush (as in “rushing forth”), or a manner of standing. As Foxwood usually employs the term in what would seem to be the latter sense, his usage in relation to better-known otherworld vocabulary really requires clarification so as not to mislead those not familiar with these languages. Likewise with what he says about the “toradh, a Gaelic word meaning pith or essence” (p. 21). His pronunciation guide is not quite correct, and he should have clarified that it is a Scots Gaelic word (“Gaelic” can mean any of at least three Goidelic languages—Irish [or Irish Gaelic, but the Irish themselves prefer the former], Scots Gaelic, and Manx). However, the basic meaning of this (despite its usage as such in some sections of the Celtic Reconstructionist movement) is neither “pith” nor “essence,” but instead “fruit” or “produce,” or even “profit.” This applies not only to Scots Gaelic, but to the Old Irish torad and to Modern Irish toradh. When Foxwood says that the “living light that is poured into all” from universal origins is the toradh, thinking of it as the “fruits” or “profits” or “increase” of everything is not necessarily off track, but considering it the “essence” of it would be incorrect, in literal terms that are in line with the linguistic cultures concerned. Bilé is given as the “Tree of Enchantment” (p. 33), but later as the “pillar of white flame” that is the “center post of all life” (p. 233). In addition to the orthography Foxwood gives being incorrect, the Irish term bile is the word for a sacred or important tree (particularly five important such trees in ancient Ireland), but the sense of it as a “world tree” and axis mundi is not present in the original culture. He gives the Welsh terms hiraeth and bro as “ancestral memory or ‘longing for the homeland’” and “’homeland’ or ‘our place upon the sacred land’” respectively (p. 182), but each is simply a term for “homesickness, longing, yearning, desire” and “area, district.”

While Foxwood does admit that this path is a syncretistic one that draws on Southern and Appalachian folk practices, certain Native American strains, and also Christianity, some of his claims do need to be considered in their individual cultural lights, rather than in the manner in which they are presented here. At one point, Foxwood states openly that “I have taken this folk teaching, which was adapted into Christian symbology, and restored what I believe is the more original, mystical, pre-Christian meanings” (p. 27). Whether or not there is validity in this in particular places where it occurs or not (and I leave it up to individual readers to decide that for themselves), it would be useful if Foxwood had mentioned every case in which he exercised his interpretive prerogative in this manner; unfortunately, this is the only place where he mentioned that. He talks at various later points about the fairy races being “fallen angels,” and that “Irish Gaelic Faery teachings…refer to the Dreamer as the ‘Proud Angel’ or ‘Lucifer’…” (p. 181); and in the same place, he talks of an “Oral Faery legend” (one of many he mentions) that involves the creation of the world from a spark of the Star Father. The appeal to oral authority in the latter is questionable; and the existence of a figure corresponding to the Dreamer in Irish (or any Insular Celtic) lore is also quite dubious. (King Arthur is supposed to be sleeping in a cave, ready to awaken when next he is needed, but this is much different from the cosmic implications Foxwood gives.) There is a strain of Irish literate lore that says the aes side are unfallen humanity, or possibly some type of angel, but these are syncretistic and speculative statements within the tradition, and are by no means the only such opinion expressed in the tradition (others say the otherworld peoples are demons, others that they are gods, while others simply say they’re mortals of a particular race descended from Noah). His discussion of the sleeping and opening of the eyes of the Dreamer at various stages in history (p. 182) also doesn’t seem to have much to do with attested tradition in Insular Celtic countries, but instead appears to be similar to Hindu concepts of Vishnu. He speaks of the use of BDSM practices to induce altered states of consciousness, but that such practices are not attested in the lore (p. 30), whereas they are in fact amply attested—St. Colum Cille/Columba, an important early Irish saint who evangelized in Scotland, was reportedly whipped by an angel in a vision; and the important Irish otherworld tale Serglige Con Culainn features the hero Cú Chulainn being flogged with horse-rods (i.e. riding crops!) by two otherworld women who visit him. He says the Fir Bolg are giants (and equivalent to titans, etc.) that attend to the Dreamer (p. 205), but there is little evidence for this view of that race in attested Irish literature. Instead, the more usual race corresponding to such a titanic role, and indeed the usual word translated as “giant” in Irish and Scots Gaelic literature, is the Fomoiri. These examples of inaccuracies could be multiplied greatly.

There are a number of mistakes that are fairly systematic in the work, including “lightening” for “lightning,” “luminal” for “liminal,” and “eminent” for “immanent.” While the places where some of these occur can be read with the incorrect word and some degree of understanding can ensue from such, it is clear in certain instances (e.g. the pairing of “eminent and transcendent”) that the other word is what is intended.

My overall impression of this system suggested to me that it has much more in common with Kabbalistic notions and the theurgy presented in the late antique Chaldean Oracles than with anything from Insular Celtic traditions. The terminology Foxwood uses for the ultimate image of divinity and divine origins, the Holy and Formless Fire, is a particularly Chaldean usage. There is certainly evidence in a variety of Celtic cultures for the idea of the cosmos as being Land, Sea, and Sky (corresponding to Foxwood’s schema, with the Stone/Earth, Ocean/Sea, and Sky/Star worlds). Likewise, the figure of the Greek goddess Hekate, as presented in Hesiod’s Theogony, is said to have had dominion over earth, sea, and the heavens; this is relevant because Hekate is presented in the Chaldean Oracles as the goddess who is, in essence, the Formless Fire. Thus, I wonder if this aspect of Foxwood’s structure in fact comes from a neoplatonic and theurgic understanding of Hekate as basic to the system, rather than anything being taken directly from any attested Celtic culture. The mapping of the Vision Keys presented on page 1 looks very much like the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (Foxwood’s “Tree of Enchantment”?), altered slightly, but with rivers acting as barriers at the expected intervals on the tree. The traditional supernal triangle seems to be echoed quite explicitly by Foxwood’s “triangle of light” composed of the Star Father, the Utterer, and the Holy and Formless Fire. On page 236, Foxwood admits to the similarity between the kabbalistic system and his system, but I would opine that the similarity isn’t one of parallel development, but of conscious and deliberate patterning. Had he admitted this at that stage (and at various other places in the book), I would have been much more forgiving of the way he presented his material. He discusses the “Old Ones before Time” on page 249, and says that certain other traditions refer to these as Stellar Aeons, but then opines “Because this term lacks the feeling and texture of folk concepts, I suspect it is modern and originates in a temple-based tradition.” I suspect that much the same can be said about this entire system as Foxwood presents it.

One very useful section, on pages 238-239 (at a late enough stage of the book that such a reminder is extremely useful) emphasizes the importance of meeting one’s basic physical needs of good water, nutritious food, adequate sleep and regular exercise in doing the entirety of this work successfully. While this is not a teaching unique to Foxwood’s system, and perhaps is something that should go without saying, having it appear at that stage of his system’s presentation (when one would be very prone to getting away from physical concerns altogether) was an excellent reminder of the importance of doing this basic bodily maintenance and appreciation. Within his own system, it fits with the teaching that the various walkers are reflections of one another, just as the cosmic template Foxwood elucidates is one in which there is a fractal-like self-similarity to the cosmos and the processes and beings within it. This type of cosmic schema is a useful thing in and of itself, and would make this system appealing to anyone who enjoys such a spiritual aesthetic.

As I stated initially, this system is not useless nor invalid, and its coherence is attractive; but, the entire presentation is marred by the constant appeal to “ancient authority” and “oral tradition” and “ways of the ancestors” that simply cannot be proven, and a great deal of which does not match attested lore. As a modern system inspired by some aspects of fairy belief in Insular Celtic cultures, synthesized with large helpings of more widely known esoteric traditions (including kabbalah, the Chaldean Oracles, and so forth), this is an excellent book and an enjoyable exploration, that begins in the experience of “divine discontent” (which some might know through the Christian mystical tradition’s terminology, the “dark night of the soul”) and works towards a healing, holistic connection to the universe and to all of life. However, if one is looking for something that accurately reflects the beliefs and practices of the “fairy faith” (which is post-Christian in the forms now known), much less pre-Christian Celtic practices, then this is not the place to find them.

Two Formless Fires out of Five.

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Echoes of Alexandria by H. Jeremiah Lewis

Echoes of Alexandria: Poems and Stories
H. Jeremiah Lewis
Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Nysa Press
260 pages

I actually read this a few weeks ago, but I’ve been so backed up with finals that I just now got the chance to sit down and write out the review. I have the Bibliotheca Alexandrina edition, but the book is now available via Nysa Press.

Whereas the last of Lewis’ books that I reviewed, Balance of the Two Lands, is nonfiction, this text includes fiction and poetry, as well as a scattering of nonfic essays, flavored heavily by the author’s Greco-Egyptian polytheistic syncreticism. He displays a great deal of versatility as a writer, because I like this book every bit as much as the last.

Much of the poetry scans like old Greek verses, addressing the gods and other beings with praise and fine description. One could simply say “Eilieithuia is associated with midwifery”, but instead Lewis writes “…lend [the expectant mother] your strength, so that she can grit her teeth/and bring her screaming baby into the world” (105). These poems would be excellent choices for ritual work, even if not in a strict Greco-Egyptian context. However, they also make for good reading as well.

The stories are of a similar quality. They make the gods seem even more real, multi-dimensional, even moreso than the original myths which often focused on the foibles and failings of divine and semi-divine beings. I think my favorite story is “The Beautiful Reunion”, which describes Hathor’s thoughts as she awaits her lover Horus, and how she feels conflicted over her attraction versus her independence. (And, of course, there’s the amusement of Horus greeting her with “Hello, sexy. I’ve missed you”.)

Overall, I found this to be a highly entertaining and enjoyable collection, and once again, Lewis does not disappoint. Highly recommended whether you want a good read for a cold night, verses for ritual use, or alternate, though faithful, interpretations of ancient myths.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Sacred by Beck and Walters – September BBBR

The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life
Peggy V. Beck and Anna L. Walters
Navajo Community College (now Diné College), 1988
370 pages

The vast majority of books out there about “Native American spirituality” are utter hogwash. However, I picked this text up because I figured with it being published by a community college operated by Native Americans, that it would be a pretty accurate overview of the subject material. I wasn’t disappointed in the least.

First and foremost, The Sacred establishes the cultural contexts that Native Ameican tribal religions have developed in. While there are some generalizations made, the authors in no way try to equate these various belief systems or combine them into some universal path. Instead, they identify some common general trends, and then spend much of the book providing individual examples from a variety of tribes. The specific subjects run the gamut from shamanism to peyote rituals, ghost dancing and similar religious movements to rites of passage. I also appreciated the frank discussion of the very real effects that the colonizers had on the indigenous cultures, to include the variety of opinions and reactions that were offered.

While it is a textbook, it’s nowhere near dry or overly academic. One gets the distinct sense of these being living traditions, unlike many texts which try to place indigenous people in some mystical past. There’s a good balance, too, between stating the basic facts and displaying pride in heritage. The many photos add to both the scholarly value and humanistic elements of the text.

If you’re tired of generic “Native American spirituality” and dry anthropological studies, this is a great alternative. It shouldn’t be seen as the be-all and end-all of the subject, but it’s a good reality check and a nice resource if you want a quick reference to accurate information.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Witches & Pagans Magazine, Issue 19

Witches & Pagans Magazine
Various authors, editors, artists and other contributors
BBI Media, Autumn 2009
96 pages

First, a little background: Witches & Pagans is what happened when BBI Media merged their prior publications, PanGaia and newWitch. PanGaia was their more “serious” pagan publication, with a heavy eco-friendly slant and a target audience interested in ritual practices and spiritual experiences. newWitch came about a few years ago, and was met with some skepticism since its general themes were “sex, spells and celebs”. Some feared that newWitch would manifest all the worst stereotypes of image-obsessed teenybopper witches, and yet the publication managed to hold a fine balance between entertainment and facing controversial topics head-on. As a disclosure, I have written for both publications, so my potential bias should be noted.

Witches & Pagans has managed to blend elements of both magazines. This issue, for example, features interviews with musician S.J. Tucker and author R.J. Stewart (the faery AND initial issue!), something that newWitch was keen on. However, articles on 19th century mystic Ella Young, a surprisingly well-researched article on Cherokee fey beings, and several other in-depth writings on a central theme of Faery hail back to the best of PanGaia.

The regular columnists provided me with some of my favorite reading overall. Isaac Bonewits explored the practice of magic at different stages of one’s life, and how factors ranging from physical health to years of experience and knowledge can shape one’s energy and thereby one’s practice. Galina Krasskova did an excellent job of tackling the practice of celibacy as part of the ascetic’s path, something that a heavily hedonistic neopagan community may not often give much thought to. And I love Archer’s article on connecting to the wilderness through forests and their denizens, both physical and archetypal.

Those who were used to reading only one of the parent publications that merged to create this one may feel disappointed that there isn’t more of “their” stuff in there. However, one thing I appreciate about Witches & Pagans is that it brings together two potentially separate demographics in the pagan community–the more “serious” practitioners who look askance at the supposed “fluff” content of newWitch, and the energetic (though not always neophyte) envelope-pushers who might see their counterparts as muddy sticks. Both groups have much to offer in their own way, and Witches & Pagans does a nice job of showcasing the best of both worlds.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Ancestral Airs by Verda Smedley

Ancestral Airs
Verda Smedley
Dim Light Books, 2008
700 pages

As I was reading this book, I was trying to figure out where to fit it into the categories on this blog. On the one hand, it’s purportedly a reconstruction of a culture 6,000 years old; this includes extensive research into botany, mythology, history and other scholarly studies. But, when you get right down to it, it’s also a fascinating set of stories with well-developed characters, settings, and plots.

Beyond a certain point, we can really know only so much about cultures prior to written history in a region. The stories supposedly tell about the people who lived in the British Isles 6,000 years ago, well before there were any written records; while the author draws from texts about the Celts and other older cultures, these are still newer peoples than what Smedley describes. Whether the people of 4000 BC lived in ways the book described is unknown; nonetheless, the author does a lovely job of weaving together a solid description of her thoughts on the matter, and we get a good picture of what it is they did and believed.

So I chose to primarily read this for its storytelling value. Similarly to my experience of reading MZB’s The Mists of Avalon, it didn’t matter whether the story was literally true or not. I found myself sinking into a world where animism was the central belief, where the plants, animals and other denizens of nature were so important to the people that they took their names from them. I read about the rituals these people performed, as well as the participants’ feelings about them. I witnessed the interactions between individual groups of people, and how they wove into the greater overarching culture of the time. It didn’t really matter whether this was the way things “really happened”; it was a great journey anyway. Even if seen only as a novel, it’s a worthwhile read.

I can’t entirely vouch for the validity of the herbal information; the author knows more about that than I do. A lot of the information about plants peppering the stories dealt with magical uses; however, there were some medicinal uses mentioned as well. For those intrepid enough to backtrack the author’s research, there’s an appendix with the common and Latin names of all the plants (numbering in the hundreds) mentioned. Additionally, she included a thorough bibliography for further research and fact-checking.

This is a book I had to read in bits and chunks over time; at 700 pages, it’s a lot to read! The formatting left a bit to be desired, most notably the complete lack of page numbers which, in a book this length, is frustrating when trying to find where I left off, or where I found a piece of information or a snippet of story I wanted to go back to. Also, I can’t for the life of me find information about the publisher, the owner of the publishing company, or the author.

Ancestral Airs is a thoroughly enjoyable read, regardless of how much salt you choose to take the research with. Whether you choose to read it as I did, in little pieces, or simply spend several hours going from cover to cover in one fell swoop, I hope you like this unique combination of research and narrative.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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Dancing God by Diotima

Dancing God: Poetry of Myths and Magicks
Diotima
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008
200 pages

Poetry usually isn’t my preferred reading material, but every so often I find a book of it that I truly enjoy. Dancing God is the second volume of poetry that’s caught my attention in such a way, the first being The Phillupic Hymns by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus. In this particular text, I was treated to a lovely variety of verses, some of which are strongly flavored by mythology–but all of which speak to the human condition.

Diotima’s verses are generally not long, but instead are bite-sized descriptions of her interaction with the world, Divine and mortal alike. There are four themes, each with its own section: Gods, Myths and Sagas; Love; Life; and Death. Diotima has done a lovely job of sorting her works into these categories, but the variety she displays demonstrates an understanding of multiple perspectives on each theme.

The poems in the Gods, Myths and Sagas section may be of particular interest to pagan readers. Her works encompass several mythologies, from Greek to Celtic to Japanese; primarily, though not exclusively, they are snippets of story or honor (or both!) offered to a particular deity. Some are rooted in the deities’ contemporary cultures, such as a rather macabre description of Dionysus’ darker aspects, a retelling of Fenris’ chaining, and a poem to Hekate as “lady of the hounds”. Others, such as Icarus’ musing on human’s common flight in airplanes, a poem comparing the original manifestation of angels to their modern “cute” depictions, and wondering “Do the old gods walk the streets of London?”, are more modern commentary. They all weave together well, and demonstrate that the gods are not, in fact, dead at all. These would all make lovely incorporations into private rituals and meditations.

All of the poems, however, are exquisitely crafted. Both the kind and the painful sides of love are evoked (I was particularly fond of “Communication”, with its recurring line “Damn you, pick up the phone!”). “Life” is a short section full of little slices thereof, commentary on the day to day (and yet how unusual it can be from this angle!). The theme of death is dealt with using everything from grief to black humor, a good catharsis for working through loss.

Having been assaulted with bad verse and worse attempts, Dancing God is a reminder that we still have muse-touched poets today, those who create beauty through carefully structured words. There’s magic in these pages, and Diotima is an accomplished magician when it comes to evoking the feelings she wishes to convey.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Gargoyles – Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker

Gargoyles: From the Archives of the Grey School of Wizardry
Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker
New Page Books, 2007
240 pages

Note: This review originally written for and published in newWitch magazine.

This started out to be a really interesting book. The author gives a lot of really detailed information on the history and construction of gargoyles, as well as the origins of certain designs and themes found in this unique stone critter. I enjoyed reading about the cultural and religious influences that contributed to the design of gargoyles (including modern pop culture), as well as the stories behind specific gargoyles, such as those at Notre Dame. The material is accented with some lovely black and white illustrations, which really add to the book.

Pesznecker has a great writing style, with an open, friendly tone, and a concise manner of conveying the information. While it was a relatively quick read, the book offered a lot of good information in a small space. Additionally, some of the information from outside sources was backed up with in-text citations (very much appreciated!) as well as a hefty bibliography.

However, when the book veered into modern magic, I started finding a lot more filler. I realize that the book was partly written as a training manual for Grey School students, but do we really need yet another 101-level explanation of ritual tools, the elements, and how to construct and cast a spell? Additionally, a lot of the practical magical information was only tangentially related to gargoyles. And her “Magickal Safety” section (136-137) asserts that “Most magickal practitioners” believe your magic comes back threefold, and that “The best way to study magick is with an experienced mentor or a respected magickal school”. Non-Neopagan magicians and happy solitaries might look askance at these.

Overall, it’s a great idea; this is a subject I really haven’t seen broached in Neopaganism. There were some really creative possibilities here, but it seems like the book just sort of sputtered out in the last 80 or so pages. Get it for the solid research on historical gargoyles, but supplement the practical material.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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