A Field Guide to Modern Pagans In Hamilton, Ontario – Neil Jamieson-Williams

A Field Guide to Modern Pagans In Hamilton, Ontario
Neil Jamieson-Williams
Australopithecine Press
146 pages

This is a really cool book. It’s an in-depth study of the pagan community in Hamilton, Ontario by a member of said community. Neil Jamieson-Williams is an academic as well, holding degrees in both anthropology and sociology, and he approaches this work with that as well as his personal background in a healthy balance. His experience as an academic lends itself to a professional treatment of the topic at hand, but his experience within the community he studies tempers it without showing too much bias.

The author starts with a basic overview of modern paganism, and then proceeds into some good advice on how to observe pagans (for we are wily critters!) He’s quite open about the fact that academics may do some pretty covert observations of people who don’t realize they’re being observed, including online in forums and elsewhere. And he stresses the importance of being open with the people you’re observing (no doubt to help would-be observers to avoid “Luhrmann syndrome”*) However, he’s also honest about the methods by which academics may “ethically” obtain material, some of which may raise the hackles of more private pagans. It’s a refreshing sort of honesty.

The rest of the book is dedicated to profiles of different covens and other groups in the Hamilton area at the time of the book’s publication. Jamieson-Williams is quite open about the fact that pagan groups are often short-lived, especially those he terms “Eclectic”, and that his book may be dated in a short time. However, this does not detract from the systematic explanation of the different groups and lineages represented in his chosen demographic, nor the frank appraisal of their varying levels of participation in the community at large (and how that may affect the budding ethnographer’s attempts to study them).

My quibbles are minor. There are a few typos scattered throughout the book, even taking into account my American eyes and the author’s Canadian English. Additionally, there are a few points I would question, such as his assertion on p. 14 that “the vast majority of Modern Pagans absolutely despise the term Neopagan”. I’d say that some do, but not the vast majority. Even if this were a regional difference, it goes against his later cautioning against generalizing based on too small a selection of study participants.

But these are small things, and should not deter even the casual reader. Overall, I applaud the existence of this book. It’s valuable to pagans because it shows us a potential way of communicating about ourselves in a way that nonpagans may be more amenable to than, say, a practical book on spells. It also points the way towards a more advanced way of exploring the community; we do have our academics in the community, though even nonacademics may use this as inspiration for their own explorations and ways of communicating about paganism to others. For academics, pagan or otherwise, it’s an example of a sensitive, yet effective, study of a particular group of pagans that allows the freedom to explore and learn, but also shows areas where we may feel particularly vulnerable and may ask for more respect. And for members of the mainstream community who are not pagan or academic, it’s an accessible guide that shows pagans in a realistic, relatively neutral light. The writing style, while fitting academic standards, is still understandable to the layperson rather than couching itself in too much complexity and jargon. In all, it’s a very balanced book.

Personally, I would like to see more books like this, studies of specific demographics. Granted, not every community has its very own long-term resident pagan-academic. And I don’t think every book should be a carbon copy of this one. However, just as some people study specific tribes, or even specific indigenous communities, so may there be value in looking at individual pagan communities in detail. This has tended to be more slanted towards specific traditions spread across wide geographic locations. But in-depth studies of specific locales and their corresponding communities may help give some insight on unique concepts, such as where pagans are more populous and/or active, and what factors may contribute to that. I also encourage people to take the same well-balanced approach that Jamieson-Williams has in this book, offering a little of something for everyone.

Five pawprints out of five.

* This refers to Tanya Luhrmann, an academic who studied pagans in the ’80’s, who took advantage of the trust of pagans who treated her less like an academic and more like their own after a time. They gave her oathbound material that she then released into a more public domain. (In Wallis 2004 as referenced by Ellwood 2008, p. 62)

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Pagan Visions For a Sustainable Future – various

Pagan Visions for a Sustainable Future
Ly de Angeles, Emma Restall Orr, and Thom van Dooren (editors)
Llewellyn, 2005
282 pages

I am thoroughly and completely impressed by this anthology. In it, the various essayists manage to cover a broad range of topics, from ethics in paganism to sustainable practices. While many of the essayists come from an academic background, the anthology is quite readable and accessible to just about anyone.

Be aware that this isn’t a how-to book of hands-on activities to save the world. Rather, it is a discussion of concepts designed to plant the seeds of change in your mind. It’s not enough to say “Here, plant a tree”. Rather, you have to explain why it’s important to plant that tree, both from a practical and a spiritual perspective–and this anthology does a brilliant job thereof.

Here’s a rundown of the essays:

Emma Restall Orr’s “The Ethics of Paganism”: good thoughts on ethics and interconnection, as well as the impact we have on each other (not just humans). A bit idealistic, especially towards the end.

Akkadia Ford’s “Magickal Ecology”: One of my absolute favorites in the book, works with ethics within the Egyptian Negative Confession and shows how these principles may be applied to modern paganism. Lots of good stuff here.

Dr. Susan Greenwood’s “Of Worms, Snakes and Dragons”: Another favorite, *really* down to Earth, lots of valuable points that make environmentalism and sustainability relevant to this reality.

Marina Sala’s “Toward a Sacred Dance of the Sexes”: I didn’t care for this one so much, particularly the revisionist history and idealism. However, I loved the archetypal material discussing the Warrior and the Hunter.

Ly de Angeles’ “What If Everyone Started Telling the Truth?”: A bit more stream-of-consciousness than I really like, and I found myself skipping over bits of it. Has some interested activities in it, though, and there are good points worth reading. Don’t skip it.

Dr. Douglas Ezzy’s “I Am the Mountain Walking”: Yet another excellent one, possibly my favorite of all. So much consideration for others is worked into this, but without pushing ideals onto others. Well-balanced.

Dr. Sylvie Shaw’s “Wild Spirit, Active Love”: A beautiful and thoughtful exploration of why people form such deep, positive relationships with the environment.

Gordeon MacLellan’s “Dancing in the Daylight”: Makes the crucial point that sustainability doesn’t just have to be about paganism, that we can bring ritual into work with everyone willing to work with us, pagan or otherwise. Much-needed essay, another favorite.

“Pagan Politics, Pagan Stories”: A great interview with Starhawk about ritual work in activism, including during demonstrations.

Starhawk’s “Toward an Activist Spirituality”: More good information and anecdotes from her experiences.

Dr. Val Plumwood’s “Place, Politics and Spirituality”: A bit more academic than some of the rest, though it’s still good. A great interview overall. Plus some neat cameos by some of the local wildlife!

Thom van Dooren’s “Dwelling in Sacred Community”: A great essay to wrap up the collection. Brings together a lot of the points in other essays, and makes the reader very aware of the connections. Good stuff.

Eventually I’m going to get around to making a list of books I think should be absolute recommended reading for pagans in general. This will be on that list. It doesn’t get nearly enough appreciation, and I think people get kind of scared away by the idea that it’s all highbrow academia with no practical application. Maybe it doesn’t have a bunch of spells and rituals in it–but it is meant to be brain food. Those who disdain it for being too theoretical are too dependent on spoonfeeding. There are important, valuable, crucial ideas in here, and it behooves us to take them into consideration.

Five impressed pawprints out of five.

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Rites of Pleasure – Jennifer Hunter

Rites of Pleasure: Sexuality in Wicca and NeoPaganism
Jennifer Hunter
Citadel, 2004
248 pages

I really, really, really liked this book. I’ve pretty much been reading anything I can get my hands on as far as BDSM and sex magic goes in the process of cowriting Kink Magic, and so the chapter in this book on that topic was what first attracted me. I’m not surprised I like it, though–I think that her 21st Century Wicca is one of the best (and most underappreciated) Wicca 101 texts out there (and you know it has to be good to impress me 😉

This is definitely a unique book in the existing corpus of knowledge regarding paganism and sexuality in general. Rather than a how-to guide for sex magic, it’s an excellent discussion of ethics and the role of sex and sexuality in the pagan community. You want your paganism 201 material? Here it is, with intelligent, mature discussion of what can sometimes be sticky (literally and figuratively) subject matter. Hunter punctuates her writing with quotes from a wide selection of interviewees ranging from Annie Sprinkle and Dossie Easton to Donald Michael Kraig and Raven Kaldera.

The topics covered include various sexualities (hetero, homo, bi, etc), polyamory, transgendered people and gender fluidity in the pagan community, BDSM and even sex work, among others. Hunter does an excellent job of treating every topic fairly and evenly. There’s also a good chapter on sex magic and preparations thereof, making this a really good guide overall. And, I am absolutely pleased to say that she makes good use of endnote citations and has a wonderful bibliography. (Those of you who have been reading my reviews a while, or my journal, or talking to me in person, or…well…you get the idea, know that the lack of internal citations in pagan nonfic is one of my major pet peeves.)

Overall, I highly recommend this book to any pagan. Hunter offers a lot of food for thought that I think the pagan community really needs to be paying attention to, especially in light of recent social shifts towards the mainstream. As paganism gets more exposure from outside the community, other people will be asking about our views on sex and sexuality. This book addresses a lot of the controversial issues about sex and sexuality in paganism in a manner that not only can help the individual pagan get a better handle on hir own thoughts on the matter, but could even be offered as a text for non-pagans to read.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Not in Kansas Anymore – Christine Wicker

Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic Is Transforming America
Christine Wicker
HarperSanFrancisco, 2005
276 pages

I first encountered this book when doing research for A Field Guide to Otherkin. I’d heard that the author had a chapter on Otherkin, and that was the first part I read. I wasn’t particularly impressed by what I found; it seemed a bit touristy and sensationalistic, though well-written.

Now that I have time to just read for the fun of it, I decided to give the entire book a chance. Unfortunately, my initial impressions aren’t that much different from how I feel now that I’ve seen the whole thing.

Wicker is a journalist, and it shows from the very beginning. She talks about her peers’ worries that she’ll “go native”, and her attempts not to do so are quite obvious. At least she’s honest, rather than pretending to be a member of a group to try to find out more about it. She states clearly where she’s coming from–not magical, pretty much an atheist, and seriously squicked about certain things (she seems terrified of BDSM in particular and takes any opportunity to describe it in lurid, evil manners).

The book seems largely dedicated to three subjects: Hoodoo, witchcraft and its variants, and Otherkin and vampires. She visits Zora Neale Hurston’s grave to get grave dirt, hangs out a bit with the Silver Elves, and gets witchy in Salem. In fact, she gets to have all sorts of experiences that numerous pagans and magical folk would love to have.

Granted, it does seem that she learns something from the experience. The book is a journey for her, from superstition to magic. Unfortunately, this is bogged down by numerous descriptions of various events and people that seme to be purposely slanted towards the extreme. She freaks out about every single instance of BDSM she encounters, describes in great detail just how bizarre everyone looks, and spends pages upon pages relaying the absolute worst of the paths she encounters. And while some of the people she interviews seem pretty down to earth and informational, others appear to be whoring for attention. Whether that’s the actual case, or just how Wicker chose to portray them, isn’t made clear here.

And everything is taken out of context, with the exception of some of the Hoodoo and witchcraft. Background information on the various topics she covers would have helped to ground her writing and make it seem less sensationalistic. For instance, all she really says about Wicca is that it’s white-light and not every pagan likes it. And she leaps from topic to topic fast enough to make my head spin.

I appreciate what Wicker was trying to do: present the magical fringes of society in a manner that the mainstream can palate. Unfortunately it feels more like a patchwork of whatever she happened to find; from reading this book one might assume that all vampires are into BDSM, all witches are tacky, kitschy, weird people who wear too much eye makeup, and that Hoodoo seems to be the only thing discussed that has any redeeming value. While it’s not as horribly sensationalistic as some of the “occult expose” books out there, there are better “outsider” views of magic and paganism out there and go in more depth; I recommend Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves by Sarah M. Pike, an academic look at the neopagan festival culture by someone who is not pagan but who manages to cover the material in a respectful, even-handed manner while writing at a level that non-academics can easily digest.

As for “Not in Kansas Anymore”…

Two pawprints out of five.

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Ritual Body Art – Charles Arnold

Ritual Body Art: Body Painting for Ritual & Magic
Charles Arnold
Phoenix Publishing, 2001
176 pages

When I first got this book I thought it was going to be a hell of a lot more advanced than it is. Instead, it’s useful only because it draws together a whole bunch of magical correspondences, which you could get out of a collection of Cunningham’s books.

This isn’t to say there isn’t any good material in it. If you’re new to paganism and don’t know much about correspondences, and want to play with body art a bit, this is a good book for you. The chapters mainly deal with color symbolization, oils, materials you’ll need, props and jewelry, and some common symbols you may want to try using. There are also some suggestions on how to tailor body painting to different Sabbats and Esbats. In short, it’s a very basic how-to-get started guide.

The examples are rather limited, and divided sharply by a polarized view of male and female–there’s a lot of “male this” and “female that”, and, in addition, are heavily fertility-based, particularly for women. Pregnancy and childbirth get a lot of time, especially in the photos in the center. And his only body art for a woman who has had an abortion involve tears of mourning and a bloodstained hand–in fact, it’s the exact same design as miscarriage except for the bloody hand. How about an abortion design of rejoicing in one’s own choice, maybe with an Artemisal motif? Granted, the reader can certainly create new designs, but couldn’t the examples have been a little more imaginative and varied?

I’d really only recommend this book to beginners who don’t have the cash to pick up a few books on correspondences and symbols. It’s a good pocket guide, but nothing I’d be running out to buy.

Two pawprints out of five.

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The Virtual Pagan – Lisa McSherry

The Virtual Pagan: Exploring Wicca and Paganism through the Internet
Lisa McSherry
Weiser Books, 2002
192 pages

This is one of those books that has a definite audience. While most of the information in it will be familiar to the majority of people reading this review, there are people for whom it is perfect. Those people are the ones who may or may not be new to paganism, but who are relatively new to the Internet.

The general overview of the book is that it’s Wicca 101 + Internet 101 – the pagan internet 101. McSherry explains the basics of both Wicca and getting online with excellent detail–she thinks of pretty much everything. It’s a good beginner’s book just for that material.

However, where this book really shines is in online group dynamics. It’s obvious she has the experience she claims, as her writing is thoroughly backed up by anecdotes. She’s careful to explain how online communication differs from in-person communication, how misunderstandings can arise even easier, and how to deal with a setting that is more easily left than a HPS’ home. She also guides the reader through reasons to (or not to) join up with an online group.

I only have two very minor quibbles. First, she uses Wiccan and pagan interchangably, and on p. 9 says that all pagasn follow the Wiccan Rede. That’s not so–I and many other pagans follow neither the Rede nor any ethical statement like it. The other minor gripe is on p. 45, she says not to follow any group that accepts outlandish things like pop culture entities and the Illumunati as “truth”. As someone who has worked my fair share of pop culture magic (and who is married to Taylor Ellwood, author of the book, Pop Culture Magick) I do have to disagree that modern mythology is less effective *in practice* than ancient mythology. If we can use modern ritual tools to work with ancient beings, we can also use modern (and ancient) technology to work with modern mythology.

However, those two points are two very minor disagreements I have, and they do not take aweay from the quality or purpose of the book. If you know somebody who’s just getting online, and they’re pagan (new or not) pickup a copy of “The Virtual Pagan” for them. I really wish I’d had this back in the mid-90’s when I first discovered paganism and the internet about the same time, becuase it *really* would have made my introduction a lot smoother–and probably helped me to avoid some of my early flame wars!

Edit, 12 February 2007: Lisa emailed me this response to my quibbles ‘n bits (she is a nifty person, by the way :):

“The first one was the result of a young writer getting a tad steam-rolled by a publisher. In retrospect, I didn’t think it through and I let them make an editorial decision I now regret.

The second. . . well. . . all I can say is that I HADN’T heard of anyone even vaguely respectable working with pop culture. I certainly wouldn’t say anything like that now. (Although, I still think people who buy into conspiracy theories and secret groups like the Illuminati are more likely in the ’10 foot pole’ category than trustworthy. J )

Far be it from me to shit on modern magic!”

So there you have it!

Five 1337 pawprints out of five.

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The Second Circle – Venecia Rauls

The Second Circle: Tools for the Advancing Pagan: Tools for the Advancing Pagan
Venecia Rauls
Citadel, 2004
240 pages

This is one of several books on Paganism 201 that have come out recently. It’s definitely recommended!

The comparison of the pagan path to the progression of apprentice – journeyman – master is aptly utilized. I’m also very impressed by the book chapter, wherein Rauls shows the reader the many different avenues that can be travelled outside of the metaphysical section. That’s where paganism 201 can really be found!

I’m also fond of all the Jungian imagery she brings in. She talks particularly about his concept of synchronicity, and how it relates to magical practice. Definitely another good lead for the intermediate seeker.

And I do have to give her two thumbs up for explaining the differences between pets and familiars. Her discussions on magic, particularly how deities aren’t always necessary, and the ethics of magic, are also highly recomended reading!

I do have a few complaints. On p. 24, she says that all alchemical texts were really just referring to sex–in actuality, sex is just one way alchemy can be interpreted; the original alchemists were speaking both of the literal physical components as well as personal enlightenment. Also, I think her chapter on omens and synchronicity shpuld have warned that people very easily can create self-fulfilling prophecies, *looking* for ways to prove what they *think* (subconsciously) will happen and ignoring other signs (ie, anything long and cylindrical being called a cigar).

In her section on visiting magical spaces created by others, either ancient or modern, she neglected to tell people not to mess with others’ ritual areas–ie, if you see a sand painting by a modern Native, don’t add things to it just because you think you should! And, on p. 134, she says that animal sacrifice is illegal. It is, in fact, legal, according to the 1993 US Supreme Court ruling 508 US 520, the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye vs. City of Hialeah. Also, she harps on the “evils” of illegal drugs (and some legal, such as salvia), but then advocates the use of legal drugs for magic–including alcohol. A drug is a drug, and all drugs can cause a useful state of consciousness, depending on dosage. The reason so many people overdose or have bad trips is because of misinformation, which perpetuates the bad stereotypes.

Finally, I really didn’t like the final chapter. She talks about “roles” within paganism, such as healer, warrior, bard, oracle, etc. I think this gives the idea that you *have* to specialize in something–I tend to agree with Robert Heinlen: “Specialization is for insects”. We are all healers, warrior, scribes, and oracles–and whatever else we need to be.

However, overall, I would recommend this book to someone looking to branch out. I’ve been a pagan and a magician for a decade, and I really could have used this book about 7 years ago. This is an incredibly realistic look at what options are available to the intermediate pagan, without a ton of fluff and filler. It even got me thinking some about where I am now–and that says to me that it’s a worthwhile read for anyone, just to get you thinking about your path and where you are on it. I’d especially pick it up if I was feeling stuck or discouraged–there are some really good ideas in here!

Four pawprints out of five.

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Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves – Sarah M. Pike

Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community
Sarah M. Pike
University of California Press, 2001
315 pages

There aren’t enough stars out there for this one! This is one of the few examples of academic studies of the pagan community that manages to not be condescending and too concerned with the details. The author immersed herself in the pagan gathering culture by going to Starwood and a number of other large festivals, and the result is superb.

The pagan festival is presented as a place outside of mundania, a piece of Faerie on Earth where pagans can come and explore themselves, *be* whoever they are, without fear. Pike also explores how childhood experiences shape adult identities, and how the child self is brought to the fore in the freedom of the gathering.

It’s not all love and sparkles, though. One entire chapter is dedicated to cultural appropriation by neopagans, primarily of Native American cultures, but also of Afro-Caribbean religions as well. She also describes the hypocrisy of Christian-bashing, though she does explore its roots in negative experiences with churches. And she doesn’t ignore the fact that problems do occasionally crop up, from annoyed neighbors to sexual predators.

Despite being an academic text, the writing is anything but dry. And her citations are flawless, something that I wish more authors would duplicate.

Overall this was a very, very accurate and enjoyable read, good, bad and ugly. I recommend it not only for pagans to get an honest look at themselves from a curious outsider’s viewpoint, but also to nonpagans as one of the best introductions to pagan culture.

Five pawprints out of five.

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