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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The Drums of Legenderry by John Orlando

The Drums of Legenderry
John Orlando
Legenderry.com, 2007
154 pages

This is a peculiar little collection of stories for adolescent readers (and I mean peculiar as a very good thing!). They center around the adventures of the Rhythm Maiden, a river spirit, and her family, some of whom travel quite a ways away in their journeying. It’s a mythos created by the author, but in the grand tradition of complex mythologies that include a good deal of symbolism, as well as the ability to carry cultural values and teachings. The stories are set in a faerie-tinged fantasy world where magic is as common as the air you breathe–but has consequences as well!

The rhythm of the stories, if you will, reminds me very much of mythologies from cultures where the oral tradition is the primary form of communication. This sometimes makes them a little odd to read, particularly when it comes to the dialogue between characters. However, when read aloud, the cadence makes a lot more sense (which also makes subsequent reading better as well). While the book is meant for middle-grade readers, most of them could be told to younger children as well (there are a few with a bit of material, such as allusions to domestic abuse, that may be a bit much for the really young ones). I could see this being a neat book for a story time at pagan events–or in the pagan home with children. And, as an adult, I found the stories to be an excellent break from the more serious nonfiction reading I do for school and so forth!

I think my only real criticism of the book is that it could have used an extra pair of eyes to edit it. There are a few inconsistencies here and there–a mammoth being referred to as both he/him and it in the same paragraph, and a character’s name being spelled both Pika and Pica (a typo, perhaps?) Also, a few places the writing seemed a bit rough around the edges, even in the oral retelling, though this may be stylistic preferences on my part.

Still, I can see this being a wonderful addition to just about any pagan library, whether there are children or not. Storytellers in general may want to take a look at this text, as should those who like to receive a good story as well.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Written in Wine edited by Sannion, et. al.

Written in Wine: A Devotional Anthology for Dionysos
Sannion, et. al. (eds) plus individual contributors
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008
214 pages

Dionysos is one of those deities that I’m surprised I haven’t had more direct interaction with. I think, perhaps, it’s because I’m a modern-day teetotaler (with the rare exception of small amounts for ritual use), and like so many people I’ve primarily associated Dionysus with drinking and wine. However, this particular collection has given me a much deeper and broader perspective on who Dionysos was and is, and while I haven’t had any urge to devote myself to him, I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for him in places where he’s likely to be found.

While the god certainly likes his wine, he is also a deity of passion and sexuality; of wilderness; of ecstatic and terrifying rites of passage; and of liberty. The wonderful variety of prose, poetry, and plays in this anthology attest to this multitude of roles. While it was all enjoyable–there wasn’t a boring or poorly-written piece in the collection–here are a few of my favorites:

The Mystery of Meilikhios and Bakkhios by Sannion: This, of all the “This is what Dionysos is about”, is one of my favorite guides to the nature of the god. It shows, concisely but thoroughly, the dual nature of Dionysos, and why there are sometimes seemingly conflicting stories about him. (Sannion’s The Paths to Dionysos is an excellent companion to this.)

Black Leopard by Rebecca Buchanan: I love modern fiction that integrates ancient deities, and this story is a particular gem. Leopards–sacred to Dionysos–feature prominently in this heartwarming, creative tale.

Dionysus Sees Her by Allyson Szabo: There are several pieces in the collection that touch on Dionysos’ wife, Ariadne, but this poem really touched me. It focuses on the moment the god found Ariadne abandoned by the sea, and illustrates how deeply he loves. Absolutely beautiful.

Lesser-Known Dionysian Festivals by John H. Wells: This one caught my eye simply because the author collects together details about a few dozen ancient festivals sacred to the god. It could be incredibly useful to those wanting to do regular devotionals to him, and it also shows the great variety in the ways that he was (and still is) honored.

There are so many more pieces I could highlight; as I said, they’re all good. The greatest strength of this book is its diversity, not only because different authors approach different aspects of Dionysos, but also because there is that wide variety of voices in several different written forms. This is an excellent text for anyone wanting to understand this particular deity on a deeper level; it’s also a good model for those wanting to do devotional work to a particular deity, but who aren’t sure how that creative work may manifest. It’s a fitting tribute to a god who is most often relegated only to the wine bottle, but who deserves much more attention, and is more present in this world, than that.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Phillupic Hymns by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

The Phillupic Hymns
P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008
292 pages

The world is full of would-be poets. These range from people who are thrilled that they discovered “cat”, “flat”, “rat” and “bat” all rhyme (and therefore should throw them all in one poorly written verse), to those who manage to rise above the usual stuff and present something original. P. (Phillupus) Sufenas Virius Lupus is, thankfully, well on the latter end of the spectrum. Given that I am not a huge fan of poetry, the fact that I have found a book of it that impresses me quite a bit is saying a lot.

While many collections of poems are published for the benefit of the poet’s ego, a paycheck, or other self-focused reasons, this is a devotional collection, an offering to a plethora of deities from Egypt, Greece, Rome, Celtic Gaul, and Britain. The earliest poems stem from Phillupus’ 2002 inauguration of the renewed worship of Antinous, the deified lover of the Emperor Hadrian. A large majority, however, came from two short but incredibly fruitful bursts of inspiration and dedication on the poet’s part earlier this year, brought about by an oracle from Dionysos. I was fortunate enough to witness the initial postings online of many of these devotional poems, and was excited to hear that they and others would be brought into a printed collection. I have trouble reading things online, and find the format of a dead-tree book to be much easier on my eyes.

Phillupus is an incredibly gifted poet who stands well above the crowd. Rather than endless attempts at “free verse” (which are usually excuses for overly flowery prose peppered with hard returns at inopportune moments), he has worked largely within ancient styles made popular by Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, and their contemporaries. As I read, I was reminded strongly not only of the delivery but of the highly descriptive language of the Iliad, the Aeneid, and other well known (and more obscure) poems. While this is not a major literary pursuit of mine, I’m familiar enough with the form from my educational background to recognize its modern counterpart. Phillupus has a knack for choosing just the right words in pleasing combinations, and there is not a strained or stretched phrase in the entire collection.

Where many collections of poems seem to be linked together solely by the fact that they all came from the same poet, this book flows well exceptionally well precisely because it was created with such strongly focused intent. This is not a mish-mash of some devotionals, then some free-verse about the poet’s love life, and perhaps some sketchily-written rhymes about cats. Rather, the very fact that it has a definite theme, and that it sticks strictly to that theme, gives it strength.

However, don’t let this fool you into thinking you’ll be reading the same poem over and over again with a different deity each time. The offerings here range from humorous to morose, traditional to playful, with setting in both ancient and modern times. I laughed out loud at the dating plights of Sobek, pondering a past of “typhonic” love while hanging out in a coffee shop waiting for a blind date set up by Anubis. I sat in quiet contemplation of the Matres as they went about their tasks. I witnessed sorrow more than once for the loss of Antinous, and was surprised and a little sad for Ganymede, taken to be a cupbearer instead of a prince. I delighted to see the feral Abnoba, often overlooked, running through the wilderness.

This is a collection that, while it may be enjoyed simply for itself, would lend itself very well to ritual purposes. If you’re tired of the stereotypical neopagan ritual “verse”, and want to be able to incorporate words of devotion that will set the mood for your rite, these works will open the way for the Divine with beauty, grace, and power. There are a couple of prose pieces, as well, that would make excellent readings for group storytelling rites (though any of these would be wonderful for reading aloud). (Do keep in mind, of course, that if you’re using them for any sort of group ritual, even if nothing is written down, it’s more than polite to give credit to the poet–and Phillupus certainly deserves it!) Be aware that there are a number of works in here that are not his originals, but rather are his translations of Latin writings; however, the majority of the material is his own, and it meshes well with the older writings.

I also appreciate that the poems are aimed towards renewing interest not only in modern-day polytheism, but in a syncretic approach as well. Due to his background as both an academic and a practicing polytheist, Phillupus approaches syncreticism with great authority, and without the sloppy eclecticism often seen in neopaganism today. Acknowledging that the gods most certainly did get around the ancient world beyond their initial borders, he allows for historical crossover, with good research and better results.

This is, in all, a marvelous collection, whether you simply want to read it, or incorporate the verses in your own ritual work. I can’t say enough good about it!

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 Gods Within by Jean Williams and Zachary Cox

The Gods Within: The Pagan Pathfinders Book of God and Goddess Evocations
Jean M. Williams and Zachary Cox
Moondust Books Ltd., 2008
160 pages

“The Gods Within” is a small booklet including essays and evocations for fifteen deities (mostly Greek and Roman combined into one) as well as a brief exploration of theory behind evocation rituals. It is concise, though not complete, and contains some of the more basic, well-known information on the deities. Some hard polytheists may flinch at the concept of deities existing only as archetypes in our psyches, but the functionality of the evocations, as well as their beauty, are a definite bonus.

In order to evaluate this book of evocations of deities, its historical context should be considered. Most of the evocations in the text were originally published in 1979, and this book adds a few more as well as essays about the processes of evocation and the deities being evoked. Pagan Pathfinders, the group for whom Williams and Cox developed the rituals the evocations were in, stems from the 1970s as well. Therefore, the very short bibliography and complete lack of citations may be partly excused by the age of some of the material—it’s tough to recall what sources you used a few decades back!

It’s advisable to take this book with a grain of salt, and also not take it as your only source material on the deities—especially as beside the eleven Greek/Roman deities, there are only three Egyptian ones and the lone Celtic representative, the Morrigan. Reconstructionists will most likely be able to pick apart the research of the book, and what is offered is nowhere near a complete system—there could have been a lot more room dedicated to the actual system the authors use. However, “The Gods Within” is valuable for the lovely evocations which may be used as-is, or provide inspiration for other writings.

Three and a half pawprints 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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Yokai Attack! by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt

Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide
Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt (artwork by Tatsuya Morino)
Kodansha International
192 pages

Holy crap, but this is a fun book! Think of the monsters and other critters you’ve perhaps encountered in anime and manga, or video games out of Japan. (I’m especially thinking Okami here.) Yokai Attack! provides the background mythology on some of these beings, and numerous others–some of the scariest (and, in some cases, silliest) monsters in Japanese mythos.

While there are the usual suspects such as the Kitsune and various forms of Tengu, did you know about the Kara-Kasa and Bura-Bura, an umbrella and lantern respectively that have been animated into haunts? Or what about Konaki Jiji, who imitates a baby to gain contact with a human which it then crushes to death? These and dozens more Yokai may be found in the pages of this book (not literally, of course!).

The book is put together like a tongue-in-cheek field guide. Amid the suggestions for what to do if you meet up with one of these beings (such as keeping a leaky ladle in your boat in case of a meeting with the Funa-Yurei), there’s solid research about them. The authors are careful to note when a Yokai is of relatively recent origin, and what that origin likely is. For all its manga-ish appearance, it’s a decent resource.

Speaking of manga, the artwork is excellent. It’s not the typical manga-style, though it does mix traditional designs with modern aesthetics. And there are fun little additions to the layout, like little “Post-it notes” and other things with a bit of extra info here and there.

Overall, if you’d like an introduction to Japanese mythology, particularly as is pertains to things that go bump in the night, this is a good read.

Five 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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Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic – Jenny Blain

Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-Shamanism in North European Paganism
Jenny Blain
Routledge, 2002
186 pages

This book was recommended to me as a good introduction to what seithr, shamanistic practices based in Northern European cultures, is. Specifically it focuses on the oracular aspects of the practice. Rather than a practical how-to manual with step-by-step instructions, it is a thoughtful and well-balanced text on the topic from someone who is both an academic and a practitioner. It fills two niches: the need for more material on seithr; and the need for more academic material on neoshamanisms in their own right, rather than as footnotes in shamanic discourse.

Blain presents a mixture of historical references to support the existence of seithr in Northern Europe, both before and after large-scale Christianization. However, she also approaches these materials with a critical eye, rather than simply accepting them as truth. She neatly weaves these in with commentary from modern practitioners of seithr, as well as her own experiences.

There are a number of controversial topics brought up in a generally neutral manner, allowing for the contemplation of the material discussed. A good deal of the book concerns gender issues in relation to seithr and the modern heathen movement, particularly the resistance to seithr by more conservative elements. The questions of whether seithr is strictly “wimmin’s work”, whether or not that disempowers it, and whether a seithman is “unmanned”, are all brought up and discussed in detail, both in the context of historical evidence and the modern heathen community.

Blain also tackles authenticity and seithr. Is it shamanism? Is it a legitimate, authentic practice? Are neoshamanisms in general authentic? Can “shamanism” be defined? Can a practitioner truly give an impartial review of seithr? These topics and more all provide a wealth of brain food to chew on.

While it isn’t an easy-breezy book to read, being written in high academese, it is an excellent introduction that gives context for the modern practice of seithr, as well as providing numerous resources that may be traced for more information. The fact that it is written by a practitioner who is also an academic only serves to deepen the value of this book. Hopefully it will encourage the weakening of the terror of “going native” in academia

Five pawprints out of five.

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