The Way of the Animal Powers (Part 1) – Joseph Campbell

Historical Atlas of World Mythology Volume 1: The Way of the Animal Powers, Part 1: Primitive Hunters and Gatherers
Joseph Campbell
Harper & Row, 1988
125 pages (large coffee table book)

I was thrilled when I found this book and its companion volume (which will be reviewed at a later date). I love Joseph Campbell’s work, and particularly enjoyed his Primitive Mythology. The Way of the Animal Powers ties nicely into that volume. This book is also one of a large set of books, the Historical Atlas of World Mythology. It’s a decent-sized coffee table-style book, so don’t let the page count fool you!

The content isn’t strictly animal-related. Along with evidence of cave paintings, ritual spaces and other sacred items in the theoretical religious practices of paleolithic cultures, Campbell gives a decent amount of background on the evolution of humanity and its mythology. This is a fascinating read, with numerous threads weaving together telling the story of our ancestors’ beliefs, at least as far as we can surmise. The text is punctuated with a variety of illustrations showing specific examples; the combination is well balanced and informative.

There are those who take issue with some of Campbell’s material, particularly his attempts to globalize mythological concepts. While he does discuss archetypes and motifs, and demonstrates how different cultures (sometimes very far away from each other) may have affected each others’ myths, one should not take this as evidence of a monolithic mythology or that “All Gods are one God”. Still, if supplemented with other resources, this is an excellent read for the neopagan interested in the roots of pagan beliefs.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Dancing With Dragons – D.J. Conway – May BBBR

Dancing With Dragons
D.J. Conway
Llewellyn, 2003
296 pages

I finally got around to reading this one, which just happened to be on the clearance rack. I knew it was pretty popular, though I didn’t realize it was in its thirteenth printing by 2003. I’d imagine there’ve been more since then.

I can see why the book has been so popular–for one thing, it was pretty much the first of its kind. Many pagans think dragons are the best thing since sliced bread, and so a book on dragon magic would have a pretty wide appeal. I’ve only seen one other book of its type, Torrence’s Sea, Land Sky: A Dragon Magick Grimoire which is on my wish list which I have reviewed as of 10 July, 2007.

So what was the first book on dragon magic like? Rather disappointing. I’ve generally disliked Conway’s works because she has a tendency to recycle the basic Wicca 101 material and plug in different cultural trappings; for example, her “Celtic Magic” and “Norse Magic” were practically the same book, only with different sets of deities and spirits. This book isn’t much different.

There’s a bunch of information on the history and mythology of dragons (without any sort of internal citations to show where she got specific bits of information). It seems pretty solid, and she has a good variety of cultures. However, it’s nothing you couldn’t find in any basic book of dragon mythology, such as The Book of the Dragon by Allen and Griffiths. Conway also indulges in a little more “Christians are evil!!!” sentiment than I’m comfortable with (as if no other group or religion had dragons as a symbol for dangerous things).

As for the magic itself, it’s basically Wicca 101 mixed with draconic imagery and a lot of Conway’s own UPG about her own dragon spirits. There are also pages upon pages of correspondences, information on basic Wiccan altar tools,and other 101 information that you could find in any book about Wicca, which makes me think that there was a serious need of filler. I really question the wisdom of some of her own material about dragons; for example, in the basic dragon ritual (p. 118 et. al) she instructs the reader to invoke Fafnir as the dragon of the south. I can’t find any evidence for the other three directional dragons, names Grael, Sairys and Naelyan. Is this UPG? She also talks about dragons as if anyone could work with them, and it’s just a matter of being polite to them.

The chapters on the different types of dragon read somewhat like a D&D manual, and she classifies dragons by their elemental properties regardless of what culture they come from. This just continues a neopagan trend that really annoys me, trying to wrap the entire world up in a neat elemental package. IMO, if you’re going to work with dragons deal with them as individuals according to the culture they come from, not whatever element they remind you of.

Basically, if you’re new to Wicca and you like dragons, you’ll probably like this book. Just don’t make it the do-all and end-all of your research on either topic. As per usual, there’s a lot of questionable material. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen on the internet most of the material available on dragon magic stems from this book. Here’s hoping that Torrence’s work or future books of dragon magic will be improvements over this one.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Firebringer Trilogy – Meredith Ann Pierce

The Firebringer Trilogy (The Birth of the Firebringer, Dark Moon, Son of Summer Stars)
Meredith Ann Pierce
Various publishers and formats

I first read the first book of this trilogy when I was about 7 or 8. Of all the early delvings into fantasy fiction, this one stuck with me the most. It wasn’t until years later that the entire trilogy came back into print, and I was able to read the second two books. I also discovered that I was far from the only grown-up who was delighted to find these YA books available again.

Yes, it’s about unicorns, dragons, gryphons and wyverns. However, these are not fluffy little pastel beings. The unicorns are fierce warriors out on the plains, with sharp cloven hooves and razor-edged spiral horns. Characters die in the series, and the dangers are made very clear.

There is, of course, a prophecy involving the main character, Jan, the prince-to-be of the herd. The twists and turns of the story, though, lead him in some very interesting directions. For YA lit, this trilogy gets quite complex story-wise, and the characters show definite development and growth.

What I find particularly interesting in a pagan sense is the religions of the various herds of unicorns. For example, Jan’s herd does a circle dance every full moon to Alma, the mother of all, and there is a yearly pilgrimage to the sacred spring across the plains in the unicorns’ ancestral home, now overrun by wyverns. Additionally, Pierce gets into some really interesting ideas on spirituality in her writing as the story develops.

I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you; needless to say, this isn’t your average unicorn story.

Five hoofprints out of five.

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Man and Beast – Reader’s Digest

Quest For the Unknown: Man and Beast
Reader’s Digest
1993
144 pages

I originally bought this book as a single copy rather than part of the entire series. As is normal for the type of book collections that Reader’s Digest, Time/Life and other magazine publishers put out on “odd” topics, this one is a nicely designed hardcover with a good mixture of text and pictures. The cover, in fact, has an awesome picture of an eagle mask on it.

But enough about the cover. Let’s go inside.

The book covers a wide variety of mystical aspects of animals, starting with a solid introduction to cryptozoology, then seguing into shapeshifter lore, and finally heading into the worship of animals and animal-based deities. Each section devotes well-researched text about its topic, punctuated with many full color illustrations, all captioned to show relevance.

It is a pretty basic book, of course, as it’s meant for the general public. Those who are already well-versed in animal-based mythology, cryptozoology and related topics will find most fo the material familiar. On the other hand, if you’re new to any of these topics, or just want a basic reference book around, this is a good choice. Additionally, if you’re a parents and want to introduce your teenaged child to animals in mythology and ritual, this would be an excellent guide as the language isn’t particularly difficult and most intelligent teens (even preteens) should have no problem with it.

Overall, a really nice coffee table book. Nothing really outstanding in the pagan/occult realm, but a good introduction.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Banshee by Patricia Lysaght

The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger
Patricia Lysaght
Roberts Rinheardt, 1997
433 pages

It’s been a few months since I read this, but the information stands out in my mind more than most books do. I’d been talking about it recently, so i decided to go ahead and do my official review of it.

This is by far the most comprehensive, scholarly exploration of Irish banshee lore out there. Tired of fantasy fiction featuring male banshees, and confusion between banshees and other denizens of the Otherworld? This book sets the record straight.

The author draws a lot of her information from two sets of surveys about banshee lore; one is from the turn of the 20th century, and the other is from the 1970s. The surveys targeted regular, everyday people across Ireland in numerous counties, and Lysaght is careful to show the distribution of the respondents. Lysaght herself is concerned less with what mythology books have to say, and more what the common person in the country fo the banshee’s origin believed via oral tradition.

There’s also a lot of discussion as to what the banshee actually is (dead relative, faery woman, etc.) as well as her appearance. Her behavior is also scrutinized, as is the comb that is sometimes featured in anecdotes about her, and whether she is seen, heard or both. And there’s a good talk about the origins of the word bean-sidhe, “faery woman”, and the connotations thereof.

Lysaght has been absolutely meticulous in her research. Primary sources are a definite plus, and her bibliography is quite solid. Her writing style is excellent, too–rather than being bored by dry academic writing, I found myself drawn into her quest to find more information about this enigmatic member of mythology.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Serpent Worship – anonymous

Serpent Worship
Anonymous
Tutor Press, 1980

The full title of this book is Serpent Worship, aka Ophiolatreia: The Rites and mysteries connected with the origin, rise, and development of serpent worship in various parts of the world, enriched with interesting traditions, and a full description of the celebrated serpent mounds & temples, the whole forming an exposition of one of the phases of phallic, or sex worship, aka The Rites and mysteries connected with the origin, rise, and development of serpent worship in various parts of the world, enriched with interesting traditions, and a full description of the celebrated serpent mounds & temples, the whole forming an exposition of one of the phases of phallic, or sex worship.

It’s essentially an overview of the role of snakes and related creatures around the world and throughout history. There’s a heavy emphasis on the Classical world–Greece, Egypt, and surrounding civilizations, though a number of North and South American cultures are also featured, among others.

Now, admittedly, it was written in 1889, so the writing style is quite different from today, and as it is an academic text from the time it’s not designed to be easy reading. However, there are plenty of scholarly texts from around the same time that are much easier on modern readers, IMO.

There also doesn’t seem to be a lot of organization to the text. The information is sometimes arranged in a seemingly arbitrary way, and isn’t always tied together very well.

I’d imagine that not everyone will have as much issue with this as I did. Thanks, but no thanks–there are much better books that have the exact same information in a better format. This is officially my newest Worst Book Ever.

One pawprint out of five.

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The Witches’ Sabbats – Mike Nichols

The Witches’ Sabbats
Mike Nichols
Acorn Guild Press, 2005
132 pages (not including preface, etc.)

It’s been a good long while since I’ve read anything specifically pertaining to witchcraft; most of my studies and practice in the past few years have been less about religion, and more about practical and metamorphic magic, as well as smatterings of shamanism. But I’d heard some good stuff about this book, and decided to snag a copy for myself.

If you need a really good resource on the history of the eight sabbats, this is your book! I’ve seen a number of books published in recent years on specific sabbats, but they always seme to be stuffed full of prefabricated rituals. This is a wonderfully streamlined book that will be an excellent addition to both beginning and experienced pagans’ libraries; beginners will get a good overview of the origins of the sabbats, while more experienced folk can breeze past the books of pre-written rituals and use the information in The Witches’ Sabbats as inspiration to create their own rituals from scratch.

I won’t fault the book for not having in-text citations because the earliest drafts were written nearly 40 years ago. However, the lengthy bibliography promises many wonderful book hunts, and is additionally a cornucopia of nonfluffy sources. Much of the material in the book originated from essays that may still be found online (including Mike’s own website). However, there is some unique material here. Additionally, for those of us raised on books rather than computers, and whose optical systems are thus conditioned for the visual setup of paper rather than a very long webpage, this is an ideal format. And it won’t run out of power, doesn’t need to be turned on, and is a heck of a lot easier to carry around.

Oh, and for those of you who are in the habit of skipping the foreword and preface? Don’t, especially not with this book–there are some really good pieces of information in them.

My only little bitty quibble is that it’s occasionally quite evident that the chapters were written individually. It’s mentioned a number of times that the Celts started their celebrations the sundown before the big day, something that probably only needs to be mentioned once at the beginning; and he occasionally also refers to something “in another esay” or somesuch.

Still, this is only a tiny complaint, and overall I think this is an awesome book. I can definitely see why the writings are considered classics in the realm of neopaganism, and this is a great way to not only have a convenient, easy-to-navigate, portable version of these writings, but to also give something back to the guy who did all that hard work and who often goes uncredited.

Five celebratory pawprints out of five.

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A Book of Beasts – Pennick and Field

A Book of Beasts
Nigel Pennick and Helen Field
Capall Bann, 2003
220 pages

There are things I really love about this book, and things that I’m not so wild about–but that’s normal for me. I’m a tough crowd all by myself 😉

This is basically a bestiary for modern times. Penniock and Field detail the lore, mythology, and other relevant esoteric information about numerous animals in Europe. The great thing about it, though, is that they approach their topic in a manner that I really haven’t seen before in the neopagan market. Rather than spending pages upon pages talking about the totemic virtues of different animals (though the information they give on power animals is decent), they discuss everything from the traditional bestiaries to animal costumery to the use of animal parts in folk medicine. There’s even a section about the treatment of horses in urban areas (not as bad as one might think!). The choices in topics is truly unique, and I was pleasantly surprised.

The other thing that makes this book really valuable is that it’s an in-depth exploration of the lore of a particular region, rather than attempting to be a book for the entire world. This allows the authors to go into greater detail. The book is more slanted towards the United Kingdom, though Germanic, French, and even Slavic mythologies and histories end up referenced. This is what I’d really like to see more of, honestly.

Now for the quibbles ‘n bits. The book uses the exact same pseudo-Celtic font for the section and chapter headings that they’ve used in every book I’ve gotten from them, which leads to bland layout. There are numerous typos throughout the book, as well as spacing errors (especially neglecting to put a space between sentences). This really makes me wonder about the rumor I heard that Capall Bann makes authors edit their own work instead of having in-house editors. Also, the book lacks in-text citations. While the bibliography is quite solid from all appearances, there were a number of pieces of information that I questioned and I really would have liked to have access to where, exactly, the authors got the information. Still, the biblio itself is lacking in known bad sources, so it’s in a much better position than a lot of books I’ve skewered for this reason.

Finally, a couple of personal disagreements. First, they’re quite upset about laws against feeding wildlife, birds in particular. My counter to this is that any time you feed wildlife, you A) teach it to be dependent on humans, something which gets passed on to the young, and B) teach it to lose its fear of humanity, making it more vulnerable to human-borne harm. We have problems with Canada geese here in the States because of available food and artificial ponds, and the geese often no longer migrate (which is decidedly unnatural). Also, the authors seem to think that if you work with predatory animals in a spiritual manner for too long, particularly invocation, you’ll lose touch with your humanity. This goes directly against my own experience as both a wolf therianthrope and an animal magician. Predators are no more “wild” than prey animals like deer, rabbits and squirrels. The danger is in the human perception of those animals becoming an excuse to be an idiot, IMO/IME.

Still, these are pretty minor complaints in light of the fact that this is the first book on animal magic I’ve read in a good long while that truly has something different to offer. If I ever expand my Top Ten List of the Most Underappreciated Books on Animal Magic, this one may be a strong contender for a spot.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Primitive Mythology – Joseph Campbell

The Masks of God, Volume 1: Primitive Mythology
Joseph Campbell
Penguin, 1991
528 pages

I’ve used Campbells’ works and derivatives thereof as source material before; however, this is the first time I’ve sat down and read it cover to cover, instead of a chapter here, a section there.

Campbell explores the possible origins of human religion within the evidence left behind by ancestors long dead, both physical and mythological. He studies the value of imagination and metaphor in spiritual experience, and makes a noble effort to reconstruct what may have been the religious beliefs of paleolithic peoples.

The thing I love about his work is that he weaves in anthropology and psychology with mythology to create a multilayered piece of writing that is nothing short of adventurous. Not only does he give thorough explanations for why he makes his theories, but his style evokes the settings for these myths, both the gods themselves and the humans who worshipped them.

Primitive Mythology is an absolute must-read for anyone wanting to get past Neopaganism 101. His history of the various rites that came out of hunter/gatherer and agrarian societies will pretty much put to death any of the “Wicca is as old as the cave paintings!” arguments, but also offer ample material for creating one’s own primitve belief system.

In short, Campbell was a master at what he did, and this book is proof positive of that. Read it, enjoy it, learn from it.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn – John Williamson

The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn: Myths and Symbolism of the Unicorn Tapestries
John Williamson
HarperCollins, 1987
260 pages

This book is a must-read for neopagans. Williamson details a large portion of medieval symbolism that, while superficially Christian, is at the core Greek, Roman, or Northern European in origin, shown through the multilayered iconography of the seven Unicorn tapestries.

He draws from sources thst are generally respected, if sometimes somewhat dated–Frazer, Campbell, Eliade, Graves–as well as lesser known scholars like Ananda Coomeraswamy. This is academic work, not neopagan, though the writing style is incredibly accessible.

Of particular note are the ways the author traces the nonmedicinal meanings of herbs and other plants and why those traits are applied to animals as well. There are some definite surprises–even the Unicorn represents a multitude, from Christ to other dying vegetation deities, from the Sun to the Moon. He weaves in the cycle of the Oak King and the Holly King, supported by the constant presence of those plants in the tapestries at key points. This is sure proof of that particular motif so beloved by many neopagans.

My only complaint is that he recycles quotes throughout the book, but this is an incredibly minor stylistic detail compared to the solidity of the text. This book is essential for those curious about the origins of herbal and animal properties from medieval times, as well as proof of the Oak King/Holly King symbolism as something older than the 20th century.

Five pawprints out of five.

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