I Am of This Land – Dan Landeen and Jeremy Crow

I Am of This Land (Wetes pe m’e wes): Wildlife of the Hanford Site (A Nez Perce Nature Guide)
Dan Landeen and Jeremy Crow (compilers)
Nez Perce Tribe Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Department
1997

This is a neat book I found secondhand. It’s a combination of natural history of various animals at the Hanford site in Washington state, and stories about the animals from Nez Perce mythology. The two areas are well blended for a wonderful look at the wild creatures that the Hanford nuclear site features.

The first section of the book is a summary of Nez Perce culture, to give context for the rest of the material. There’s also a good reminder of the history of the tribe in relation to the United States government, including land grabs and other abuses by the latter. Considering the book is produced by the tribe itself, one can most likely trust to its accuracy.

The rest of the book includes brief explanations of the various animals–mammals, birds, and more–found at the Hanford site, as well as a special section on harmful animals such as poisonous spiders. The information for each animal is not particularly long–usually a sentence or two, if that. So don’t take this as your only field guide. However, there’s good (if a bit dated) information on the status of each species (endangered, threatened, etc.) as well as how commonly it’s found on site. Myths are interspersed throughout the text.

Overall, it’s a neat little compilation. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in Nez Perce culture and myth, as well as anyone who like critters of any sort.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Drumming at the Edge of Magic – Mickey Hart

Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion
Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens
Marper Collins, 1990
263 pages

I have a bit of a history with this book. I first bought a copy and read it over half a decade ago, then for some inexplicable reason decided to sell it. Now that I’ve been doing more drumming, I got the urge to read it again, so I managed to track down a copy. What absolutely amazes me is how much of the book I remember, even having read it so long ago. It must have struck me deeply back then, and it’s understandable why.

This isn’t just a story about the history of the drum. Nor is it only a story about Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead. It’s a combination of those, and more. We learn about where drums came from, and we surmise about what the effects of those early percussionists must have been. We see where this instrument captivated Hart from an early age, and wonder at the amazing creations that resulted. We explore the altered states of consciousness the drum evokes, with Joseph Campbell, Alla Rakha, and the Siberian shamans as our guides. From blues and jazz to African talking drums and the bullroarers found worldwide, we are introduced to percussionists of all stripes, spots and plaids.

Between Hart and Stevens, the writing is phenomenal. Rather than following a strictly linear progression, it snakes like Hart’s Anaconda of index cards through pages upon pages of storytelling and factoids. However, it all meshes well together, rather than coming across as stilted or confused. It’s nonlinear, and it works beautifully. There’s just the right mix of personal testimonial, anecdotes, and hard facts.

Anyone who drums, dances, or otherwise is involved with music; anyone who works with altered states of consciousness, whether in shamanic practice or otherwise; anyone who wants to see what makes a rock and roll drummer tick; and anyone who wants a damned good story that’s all true, needs to read this book.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Magickal Mystical Creatures – D.J. Conway – April BBBR

Magickal Mystical Creatures
D.J. Conway
Llewellyn, 2001
260 pages

This book was a freebie from a friend. I had been less than excited about Conway’s Animal Magick and Dancing with Dragons (though I just got the newest edition of the latter from newWitch magazine, so we’ll see what kind of a review it gets).

I was actually surprised; I liked this one better than the other two. I still have my gripes, but I am admittedly pretty picky. This particular book is an encyclopedia of various mythological beings from around the world–primarily Eurasian, but with a smattering of beings from other places as well. They’re divided by type–canines, gryphons and their ilk, various types of unicorn, etc. (I do have to say I loved the illustrations, too!)

There’s a decent amount of information on each being gleaned from mythological and historical sources. Additionally, Conway adds in psychological interpretations of the kind of people who could either be helped or hindered by each entity, depending on its nature. She does also recommend that dangerous beings be avoided by all but the most experienced magicians (and sometimes not even then).

I think my biggest complaint is that it’s simply not enough. Many of the beings that she recommends as being safe aren’t necessarily so. For example, she presents unicorns as being mostly positive beings who can lead the reader into Faery. However, there’s not much warning about the fact that unicorns were originally seen as fierce, dangerous creatures, and that Faery generally isn’t someplace you want to just waltz on into. Even the “nice” faeries aren’t particularly safe, especially if you study the original lore. As with a lot of basic pagan titles of the mid 1990s, things that really aren’t safe and easy are presented as welcoming and available to all, with little warning of potential hazards.

And this is why I strongly recommend that you not stick with just a dictionary. While this has its uses, it’s a starting point primarily, and the actual practical information comprises less than a score of pages, and it’s mostly spellwork 101. Use this guide to get you introduced to what’s out there, but then do your research with other sources, both on magical practice and on lore surrounding the beings you want to work with.

Three pawprints out of five.

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The Cave Painters – Gregory Curtis

The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists
Gregory Curtis
Anchor Books, 2006
278 pages

I’ve been fascinated by cave art for years, particularly that found in southern France (such as Lascaux, Les Trois Freres, etc.). However, I hadn’t really done any in-depth study on it, other than what I got incidentally through things like Joseph Campbell’s works. The Cave Painters wasn’t just a good read–it managed to blow away a lot of my preconceived notions about paleolithic art and its spiritual/cultural implications.

Curtis offers a detailed, though fast-paced, collection of highlights of the study of paleolithic art in the past century and a half. Special attention is given to the experiences and contributions of Henri “the abbe” Breuil, as well as lesser known (to the layman, anyway) folks as Max Raphael, Annette Laming-Emperaire, Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Jean Clotte. The primary theories that these experts postulated are explored in detail, and their succession (and occasional debunking) are described. It’s an absolutely fascinating true story, and it’s apparent that Curtis did some serious research into this book.

Additionally, the art itself is explored. One thing that I really appreciated was the presentation of the idea that paleolithic peoples weren’t “primitive”, but instead were the first classic civilization. There are good arguments against the application of pure ethnography to the interpretation of cave art, in which the cultures of modern hunter-gatherer cultures are used as potential models for paleolithic cultures. The latter are treated as independent entities, and more weight is given to the actual evidence found specific to them, as opposed to speculation based on modern cultures. In all this is the art, which is shown to have much more structure and skill than is often assumed, and which reveals quite a bit about the people who created it over 20,000 years.

Also fascinating were the ideas that Curtis presents about the importance of animals to paleolithic peoples. Along with Breuil’s hunting magic, he presents such concepts as the painted animals representing different clans symbolized by their respective totems (particularly stemming from Raphael’s material), illustrations of myths being circulated at the time, and the shamanic theories put forth by David Lewis-Williams and Clottes. It definitely gives good food for thought, particularly from an animal totemists’ perspective.

Rather than being a dry, stereotypically boring academic text, The Cave Painters is written well enough that just about anyone could pick it up and give it a good read. His descriptions are compelling, and he’s remarkably talented at organizing the information in a sensible manner that conveys the importance of the people, theories and discoveries in relation to each other. However, it’s not dumbed-down in content, for all its accessible language. There’s an impressive bibliography, and Curtis did quite a bit of interviewing in the process of writing this book as well.

Where this book ties into neopaganism is that it does show that there have been solid theories for the meaning of paleolithic art since Breuil’s hunting magic ideas. The latter are still commonly found in neopagan thought, and I’ll admit a certain fondness for them. However, given that there is newer evidence that counters Breuil’s ideas, I appreciated the chance to get the basics of alternate theories laid out in a good, understandable format. I certainly want to do deeper research, but this book is a great introduction. Whether your interest is incidental, or whether the cave art is a primary topic of interest for you, I highly recommend it. It’s a relatively quick read, but packed full of information, without a wasted word in the entire thing.

Five ochre pawprints out of five.

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Shamanism – Mircea Eliade

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
Mircea Eliade
Arkana (Penguin), 1989
610 pages

Nope, I didn’t fall off the face of the planet. Instead, I’ve been plowing my way through this massive text. This is considered the grandtome of shamanic resources, and rightly so. For its time, it was the most complete reference on the topic, and while research since the 1950s has illuminated areas of knowledge that Eliade had no exposure to, nearly half a century after its first English translation Shamanism is still required reading for anyone interested in shamans and shamanism.

The first few chapters cover general shamanic subjects, such as being “called”, the initiatory ritual and illness, and how shamans obtain their power and spirit helpers. These are followed by a number of chapters on shamanism in various regions of the world; not surprisingly, Siberia and surrounding areas get the most in-depth coverage. Finally, there’s an excellent chapter on the various common elements found in shamanisms around the world, certain themes and practices that are universal, or very nearly so.

I’ll admit that when I first bit into the foreword, I was a bit intimidated. It’s excessively dry, even for academic writing, and I was wondering if I was going to suffer through hundreds of pages of this. However, once I got into the first chapter, I was pleasantly surprised to find that his heavily formal tone shifted to a much more informative and readable style. That’s not to say that it’s an easy read; it took me about two weeks to finish this off, and I found myself occasionally having to re-read paragraphs as I began to skim rather than comprehend.

I think really the only areas where I have any complaint whatsoever are primarily content based. While Eliade makes an excellent observation on the common elements of many shamanisms, I’d like to know his perspective (if any) on if there’s anything significant about their differences. Unfortunately he died over two decades ago, so short of journeying to the underworld (or sky, depending on cosmology) to talk to him, I’ll just have to weep that I’ll never know for sure, at least not in this life. The other small gripe is his treatment of anything that deviates from a certain “standard” of shamanism as “degraded” or, in his words, “decadent”. Given that the “classic” Siberian shamanism may have been influenced by middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures, as well as more southerly Asian ones, some shifting and hybridization is to be expected anyway. A lot of his argument does center around the loss of the actual ecstatic “flight” through dance and other actions, replaced in some cultures by mediumship, feigned trance, and/or drug use. I’m going to have to read more to decide whether I really agree with his assessment of the latter as being lesser (especially the first and third) or not.

Still, overall, this is a must-read. Expect it to take some time (unless you really, really like academic writing). Take notes, or underline things. It’s full of information, and while it should be supplemented with newer source material, a lot of it still stands quite firmly as a resource.

Sort of off topic, I’ve always wondered how you pronounce “Mircea Eliade”. Not being Romanian, I had to ask Google. It appears that I was close in some respects, but not in others–here’s a lively discussion about it.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Sacred Paw – Shepard and Sanders

The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth, and Literature
Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders
Arkana, 1985
244 pages

I love this book. It’s currently out of print, but not too hard to find. As the title suggests, it covers the relationship between humans and bears, and it covers everything from natural history to fairy tales. And, in the same vein as Lopez’ Of Wolves and Men and Ryden’s God’s Dog, it traces our mythological relationship with bears from paleolithic times on.

The text opens with a thorough explanation of the evolution, distribution and habits of the eight species of bear on Earth today. From the enormous brown bear, to the small tropical sun bear, the diversity of bears is given center stage, and it’s remarkable just what amazing creatures they are. The authors do a great job of honoring the bear as s/he really is, in and of hirself. The text is thorough, but approachable.

However, my favorite part of the text is where the authors trace the Bear Mother and Bear Sons mythological motif from its possible advent in paleolithic caves, through hunter-gatherer societies and later agriculture, all the way up to modern day folk and fairy tales. They give a really good argument for the shifting of the emphasis of the myths from the Bear Mother to the adventures of her sons, who eventually become purely human heroes. The Underworld and Rebirth themes of the Bear Mother are slowly stripped form her until she is nothing but a memory. There’s also some really good material on rituals for the hunting of the bear from numerous cultures around the world. We’re shown both the similarities and individualities of the different rituals performed around the world.

Pretty much my only complaint is that the authors occasionally repeat themselves, stating a particular fact twice in the book, each time worded as if it were the first time. However, this is a minuscule complaint in light of the excellent quality otherwise.

This would be a superb companion to David Rockwell’s excellent study of bears in ritual and myth, Giving Voice to Bear. If Bear is your totem, or you otherwise have an interest in ursine mythology, this would be an excellent read for you. The same goes for anyone interested in tracing the roots of mythology to paleolithic times; co-author Paul Shepard has written a number of volumes on human-animal interaction in behavior and myth, and his expertise and solid research, paired with Barry Sanders’ skills, make this a solid reference.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Totem and Taboo – Freud

Totem and Taboo (A. A. Brill trans.)
Sigmund Freud
Dover Thrift Editions, 1998
138 pages

This classic has been on my to-read list for ages; I finally managed to get ahold of a copy not too long ago. I wanted to read it primarily for its historical value; although I’m interested in psychology, I’m more fond of Jung’s theories. Still, Freud is worth reading just to have read his pioneering works, and since this one delves into areas of my interest, it fell prey to my bibliophilia.

It’s about what I expected. On the good side, it was an interesting look at the possible psychology behind the concepts of totemism and taboo in what Freud refers to as “primitive” or “savage” societies. Some more modern examples are cited as well, showing that the mindset behind the concepts may be found in other types of society. It’s a good look into Freud’s head, too, as he systematically explains what source material he’s using, how he came to his conclusions, and some further food for thought for the reader. It’s a pretty complete understanding of totemism and taboos for the time Freud wrote it.

Unfortunately, its validity as a source for modern work is marred by the fact that Freud was still a product of his time. His observations may be painfully Euro-centric, and his occasional notes towards admitting his bias don’t counteract the damage that may be done. The behaviors associated with totemism and taboo are compared largely to the beliefs of neurotics and children in “modern” society. Additionally, his interpretation of the reasons behind these practices is quite narrow; totemism is essentially boiled down to an origin involving a group of brothers overthrowing their father as a way of gaining control of his harem. Additionally, totemism is assumed to *replace* religion in indigenous cultures, not compose part of it.

Read it for historical and background information, but take it with a grain of salt, and use sparingly as source material if you’re researching totemism or paleopagan religious practices. Granted, the value that I have for it may be different from that of a psychotherapist, but while I can appreciate it for its initial contribution, I have little functional use for it other than as a somewhat outdated look at indigenous (and not so indigenous) beliefs.

Three pawprints out of five.

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The Shaman – Piers Vitebsky

The Shaman
Piers Vitebsky
Little, Brown and Company, 1995
184 pages

This is one of my favorite books on basic shamanism from an anthropological perspective. I’ve read it before, but this is the first time I’ve read it since I started this review blog. I think it’s well worth talking about, though, so here’s my official review 🙂

The author, an anthropologist, has spent several decades studying shamanism within the context of a number of cultures. He presents a nice collection of facts and anecdotes about the shamanic experiences of people in these cultures. From the altered states of consciousness to the spirits encountered along the way, from healing to showmanship, from the political status of shamans to neoshamanism today, Vitebsky offers one of the best introductions to the concept of shamanism and what it is the shaman does. This concise book is quite thorough, and while the material is densely packed it’s written in a manner that even a rank beginner can understand. You won’t find a bunch of how-to instructions, but what you will get is solid research to get a good understanding of the context of shamanism.

Unlike earlier anthropologists, Vitebsky’s viewpoint is quite enlightened. He points out the shortcomings of his predecessors, who characterized shamans as everything from archaic leftovers to mentally disturbed outcasts. He also cautions against trying to boil shamanism down to a particular facet, such as trance, while tossing out other important aspects, like community and culture. He is not overly critical of neoshamanism, though he only devotes a very small portion of the book to it and explains how it differs from traditional shamanism. He clearly shows his research, and is not afraid to critique other scholars; for example, he challenges Mircea Eliade’s assertion that shamanism has “an apparently timeless quality…[and] appears to stand outside political history” (p. 116). To back up this criticism Vitebsky goes into great detail how shamanism has interacted, both positively and negatively, with both political and religious bodies in various cultures, and how it has sometimes come into great conflict with various powers thereof. (I should also add that I have no opinion myself on Eliade yet, though his work is on my reading pile.)

This contributes to a very down to Earth look at shamanism worldwide, though it does NOT purport to be the do-all and end-all resource; nor does it try to claim that all shamanisms are one shamanism. Rather, as I said, it’s an excellent introductory book, mixing text and illustrations to create a good resource for anyone interested in traditional shamanism from a theoretical point of view (as opposed to a hands-on workbook).

Five pawprints out of five.

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Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor – Ruth E. St. Leger-Gordon

Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor
Ruth E. St. Leger-Gordon
Bell Publishing Company, 1972
196 pages

I first picked up this book because it dedicates a couple of chapters to black dogs/whisht hounds, one of my favorite ghosts/cryptozoological entities. The author collected a variety of stories and tales of everything from hauntings to dancing stone circles to wart healing white witches and created this nice compendium of folklore specific to Dartmoor in the UK. Apparently Dartmoor has more than its fair share of etheral and paranormal activity, as evidenced by the rich abundance of examples the author was able to give.

The folklore chapters are much stronger than the witchcraft ones. St. Leger-Gordon collects a nice variety of local examples involving ancient stones and ruins, as well as tales of souls condemned to transformation and impossible feats before they can rest, as atonement for their wickedness. She manages to fit a lot of these stories in without shortening them too much–in fact, she does an excellent job of managing her space, tying the stories together without adding too much filler. And rather than only relying on older stories, she brings up a number of relatively recent (to her time, anyway) examples, showing that haunts and hunts and other such things do persist into modern day (though she worries for their continuation amid “progress”).

The witchcraft chapters, on the other hand, are heavily littered with a lot of Margaret Murray’s bunk. The author also takes Gerald Gardner’s claims of Wicca’s antiquity as truth, which damages the integrity of the book as a whole. However, the examples of both healing and cursing done by local witches (who use Bible verses in their wart charming, rather than dancing to Diana) show once again the local folklore in practice. St. Leger-Gorden would have been better off sticking to the traditional folklore rather than attempting to bring in modern, unverified sources that draw less on the traditions and more on 19th-century romanticized reconstructions.

Still, overall I really liked reading this book. Beyond the poor modern research it’s an excellent look at the tales and traditions of a particular part of the world shown in detail, written by a skilled author. Definitely a keeper!

Four pawprints out of five

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Primitive Song – C.M. Bowra

Primitive Song
C.M. Bowra
World Publishing Company, 1963
284 pages

Since paleolithic cultures fascinate me, I was really excited about reading this book. The author uses anecdotes and information about modern hunter-gatherer cultures ranging from Eskimos to the Andamanese to Australian aborigines as a way of attempting to trace the roots and development of song. He weaves his theory with samples of song lyrics and his analysis thereof, and explains how day-to-day life in such a culture affects the role and subject material in songs. The material is well-balanced in this regard, and I felt that the author had really done his research thoroughly.

The book is a product of its time; while it’s not as heavily Euro-centric as some older (or even contemporary) anthropological texts, there’s still a subtle bias in the writing. Additionally, Bowra makes some assumptions about hunter-gatherer cultures across the board, though he does do a good job of trying to back his theories up with examples. And the writing style is rather dry; I found myself sometimes having to reread something because it simply didn’t register.

Still, overall it’s a good resource even despite its age. Anyone interested in paleolithic cultures, particularly paleopagan religions or music, may want to check this out. Those experimenting with shamanic techniques may also find material of interest here, particularly if song is a part of their practice.

Five pawprints out of five.

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