Serpent of Light by Drunvalo Malchizedek

Serpent of Light: Beyond 2012
Drunvalo Melchizedek
Weiser Books, 2007
270 pages

There’s a saying that I’m fond of using when talking about spiritual practices:

It’s okay to have your head in the clouds, just so long as your have your feet firmly planted on the ground.

While trying to empirically prove any spiritual belief is most likely a lost cause, and belief is a heavily personal and subjective phenomenon, when beliefs intersect with more concrete concepts such as history and culture, quality of research becomes highly important. Unfortunately, much of the New Age has a tendency to eschew basic research techniques as “too academic”, and the proponents of a lot of New Age material prefer to not have anyone harsh their mellow, as it were. Hence why New Agers get a bad rap, including among neopagans, who do have a greater tendency to research history, mythology and other -ologies in an attempt to test their beliefs and experiences.

The whole 2012 morass is full of an unwillingness to do such litmus testing. In the spirit of the new Age “anything goes” attitude, the fact that the Mayan calendar ends in December 2012 has spawned an entire genre of “nonfiction” based on trying to prove that this means the world will come to an end exactly where the carvers ran out of stone on that particular timepiece. It seems as though the (primarily white) people who have latched onto the 2012 thing have done little to no research on the actual Mayan and other central American indigenous cultures, and instead pick and choose whatever bits of information will, however tenuously, “support” their claims. It’s one of the worst cases of cultural appropriation.

Serpent of Light is an excellent example of this: the entire book is the author’s ramblings about channeled information and other unverified personal gnosis that has absolutely no historical backing whatsoever. There’s the predictable hodgepodge of “Mayan” beliefs, Eastern philosophies (such as chakras), and New Agery (particularly the infamous crystal skulls, which have absolutely no historical relevance to the Maya or any other indigenous culture).

Here’s an example of what this all causes the author to do:

“I was preparing to go to the Yucatan in Mexico to place specially programmed crystals in jungle temples, and I had never been there before in my life” (p. 52).

So you’ve never been to a place, never interacted with the people, other living beings, spiritual denizens, or the place itself–and you’re going to presume to improve upon what another culture entirely created?

…and this is pretty much what the entire book is: White guy who makes up his own convenient version of history mucks around in other people’s cultural artifacts attempting to improve on them because of what his channeled messages say. I could go on and on, but it would just be more of the same. Unlike The Great Shift, the only other book on 2012 I’ve reviewed here so far, there’s not even practical advice to balance out the drek.

Not recommended.

One pawprint out of five.

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Toltec Dreaming – Ken Eagle Feather

Toltec Dreaming: Don Juan’s Teachings on the Energy Body
Ken Eagle Feather
Bear & Company, 2007
256 pages

Note: This review was originally written for newWitch magazine.

I really tried hard to like this book. Unfortunately, I’m just too skeptical of the author’s claim that he met don Juan Matus, Carlos Castaneda’s teacher of questionable existence, in the flesh. Additionally, saying that don Juan told him to learn from Castaneda’s books because don Juan’s English wasn’t good enough is suspect and sounds like an excuse for not using more reliable sources. The bulk of the source material is Castaneda’s works, which have been highly questioned in both anthropological and modern shamanic fields—and labeled as plastic shamanism by American Indian tribes in Mexico and elsewhere. Rather than backing up the shaky research with more solid sources, his bibliography is littered with more New Age fluff.

Poor scholarship aside, the techniques in the book are pretty good. It’s a heterogenous mixture of Eastern philosophy and New Age practices, aimed at helping the reader become a more effective dreamer. Awareness of the energy body, meeting with Death, and lucid dreaming are just a few of the topics covered. Eagle Feather is an excellent writer, and provides a good array of techniques to help build one’s dreaming ability. As a practical guide to dreamwork and related practices, this is a decent choice. And the author’s writing style is easy to read, punctuated by anecdotes that illustrate the material. Regardless of source, there’s some good, usable material available in these pages.

It’s just a shame that the questionable “Toltec” material wasn’t backed up by direct sources other than Castaneda. If you’re looking for good dream techniques or if you’re a fan of Castaneda’s works, this may be the book for you; however, take a huge lick of salt with it. If you’re looking for genuine indigenous shamanic practices, look elsewhere.

Two pawprints out of five.

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The Hawaiian Oracle – Rima A. Morrell

The Hawaiian Oracle: Animal Spirit Guides from the Land of Light
Rima A. Morrell (art by Steve Rawlings)
New World Library, 2006
144 pages plus 36 cards

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a totem deck/book set. I’ve had this one sitting in my personal collection for a while, and figured it was about time to take a break from my review stacks. I also wanted to give myself a fresh look at it, because someone I respect as a totemist gave it a pretty scathing review last year, and I didn’t want that biasing my approach.

There’s good and bad in the set, so I’ll give you some details in list form:

The Good:

–The author emphasizes interconnection and responsibility to nature in the book. There are some valuable lessons for postindustrial cultures who often take the environment and its denizens (includes humans!) for granted. It’s obvious that she’s passionate about being a caretaker, and while she doesn’t include it quite to the extent that, say, Susie Green does in the Animal Messages deck, it was a nice touch. (In addition, she walks the talk, having set up a charity and refuge for rescued animals of various sorts, for which I give her major kudos.)
–Morrell has a Ph.D. in Huna, a New Age mix of Hawaiian mythology and other elements. She’s pretty familiar with Hawaiian mythos, and includes mythological information on each of the animals along with her interpretations, to flesh out the meanings and give people more to ponder when working with each animal.
–The cards themselves feature some of the most beautiful artwork by Steve Rawlings (who sadly only gets mentioned on the copyright page and the acknowledgement in the back of the book, instead of on the cover of the book or box). A lovely blend of realistic depictions of animals and brightly colored environments, the pictures make working with this deck extra delightful!

The Bad

–One of the first things that stuck out was the author’s dogmatic adherence to vegetarianism even in the face of historical facts. I’ve no problem with vegetarianism in and of itself; however, Polynesian cultures are not and never have been vegetarian, and they did not simply begin eating meat because of contact with the Europeans. Yet she asserts this very idea on the first two pages (6-7) of the introduction.
–Lemuria and Atlantis: Arrrrrrgh. This is New Age stuff, pure and simple. Yet, like so many New Age authors, she tries to connect these fictional, completely unproven, conveniently lost continents to Hawaiian indigenous culture.
–Related to my last point, her book is based on the aforementioned Huna–which is not traditional Hawaiian religion. It’s a creation from the latter half of the 19th century when spiritism and other such things were all the rage, and while it (and this book) dabble in Hawaiian religious and cultural elements, they are not synonymous. The author (who as I mentioned has a Ph.D. in Huna gained from University College in London, U.K.) claims to have spoken to indigenous Hawaiian practitioners of this, but she doesn’t give any indication of what status they have in their indigenous culture(s) or where they learned their material. Given that even indigenous cultures can have their frauds (being indigenous in genetics does not automatically confer full understanding of indigenous culture if you are primarily white in culture), I have to question how verifiably indigenous her information really is. This looks more like cultural appropriation than indigenous Hawaiian religion and culture.
–“Land of Light”? This idealization of Hawaiian culture (and it’s definitely not limited to the subtitle) smacks of the Noble Savage stereotype.

Honestly, I’m leaning towards setting aside the book and keeping the cards. Unless you’re brand new to animal card divination and don’t yet feel you can interpret the cards based on your own observations (and the study of a species’ natural history, from whence its lore ultimately springs), it’s really not necessary. The information that is provided on cultural and other contexts is spotted with questionable content. Read through the book to get an idea of the author’s perspective and intent for creating the deck, but take it with a huge lick of salt.

Two pawprints out of five (though I give the art a five!)

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Women Who Run With the Poodles – Barbara Graham – March BBBR

Women Who Run With the Poodles: Myths and Tips For Honoring Your Mood Swings
Barbara Graham
Avon Books, 1994
150 pages

I totally admit I bought this book for the title. I’ve read Estes’ Women Who Run With the Wolves, and I can see where a lot of it has become cliched in the realm of self-help. This book was an attempt to parody that, and numerous other self-help books–and those of their readers who have gone way beyond self-help and into self-over-criticizing and other counterproductive behavior.

On the one hand, there are some amusing moments in the book–I’m waiting to see if some enterprising public speaker comes up with workshops like “Insurance Warrior”, “The Way of the Gastroenterologist”, and “Creating Your Sacred Tax Shelter”. The illustrations are cute, and match the general feel of the book. And there’s some value in pointing out that it’s okay to not be perfect, to have some blemishes. Plus I liked the section on how you don’t really need all sorts of accessories.

However, there are also some down sides. Practically speaking, it reinforces some unhealthy stereotypes such as therapy being useless, as well as some ridiculous elements of the supposed “War Between the Sexes”. It’s a great guide on how to ignore anything useful out of alternative spirituality whatsoever. And the humor does get old after a while; this might have been better as an essay, not an entire book.

If you’re need to be a bit jaded about the self-help industry in general, this might be an okay read. I think the author might have had something more to say than “You don’t need all those useless attempts at self-improvement!”, but tried too hard and didn’t quite get the snappy wit she was attempting.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Great Shift edited by Martine Vallee

The Great Shift: Co-Creating a New World for 2012 and Beyond
Edited by Martine Vallee
Weiser, 2009
256 pages

As 2012 approaches, it’s becoming a hotter topic. Just what will occur? Are we all doomed, or will absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happen? I suppose I should preface this review by saying that I don’t believe in the 2012 mythos, that significant events happen every day that are completely unrelated, and that I don’t take channelled texts literally–I don’t believe they’re more than the writer “channelling” some part of their mind not normally used. If you compare the results of channelling with the culture of the channeller, you see a lot of cultural similarities. So my approach to this anthology of channelled writings about 2012 is already biased.

The book is divided into three parts, one apiece for Lee Carroll “channelling” Kryon, Tom Kenyon “channelling” the Hathors and Mary Magdalen, and Patricia Cori “channelling” the High Council of Sirius. (Why doesn’t anyone ever channel anyone more boring?) About the only way I could take this book seriously was to look at it as purely a mythos, rather than a literal “we channelled this from beings who actually exist Somewhere Out There”. And in that light, there were actually some pieces of good advice that can essentially be summarized as:

–Take good care of your physical health and be aware of your body, instead of ignoring it until something goes seriously wrong
–Be good to yourself emotionally and mentally, and tend to your health there
–Be kind to other people; there’s enough nastiness in the world that needs balancing out

These are quite applicable pieces of advice in these times, and the writers often provide some really useful insights on how to accomplish these things. Western cultures, especially the dominant culture in the U.S., tend to lack interconnection and awareness, and I found some nice reminders to reach out to others, and to reach within myself as well.

Unfortunately, it’s couched in a lot of New Age material, including (of course) crystal skulls and Egypt, and star beings and not-at-all-vicious-as-in-the-Bible-angels. Because of this, I found myself twitching a good bit of the time I was reading. Still, to each their own. If you have more tolerance for New Age material, you’ll have an easier time with the book; even if you don’t, feel free to glean whatever’s useful from it.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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Bird Cards by Toerien and van Dobben

Bird Cards: The Healing Power of the Bird Kingdom
Jane Toerien and Joyce van Dobben
Altamira-Becht, 2003/Binkey Kok, 2007
158 pages plus 55 cards

This is one of the not-so-well-known animal totem decks out there, specializing in birds as opposed to a wide variety of animals. The specialization is a definite plus, because it allows for a number of birds that normally don’t get a lot of attention in commerical totemism books and decks. Along with some of the usual suspects like Crow, Raven, and Owl, there are some birds I haven’t really seen covered–Thrush, Roller, and Gannet, for example. There are a few surprises, too–Phoenix as a representative of mythological beings, and Dodo as an extinct totem.

The overall tone of this book/deck is intuitive. The author (and artist) relied primarily on a series of direct contacts with the totems/spirits of each bird in a personal ritual setting. This carries over into the individual messages associated with each bird. In fact, the entries are almost uniformly based on the author’s intuition and observation. I wish that she had balanced them out with some biology or lore from various cultures, though. Relying only on an author’s Unverified Personal Gnosis can lead to an imbalanced understanding of the possible teachings of each animal. Additionally, be aware that the writing tends towards New Age language (“deva”, “angel”, “light” and “special bird” are just a few terms to be found). The meanings are also primarily positive, with no warning of potential negative traits of each species–IMO/IME, it’s important to have a balanced approach when working with totems, or other spirits for that matter. I do have to say I’m glad the deck is remarkably free of cultural appropriation–one of the advantages from working with one’s own experiences. So that’s a definite point in its favor.

It is a very useful deck. Toerien offers a nice variety of layouts for the cards, and isn’t dogmatic in how it must or mustn’t be used. And it’s quite possibly one of the loveliest decks I’ve ever seen! van Dobben is an incredible artist, bringing vivacity and brilliant color to each of the birds.

Overall, I think this deck is a good one. I would strongly suggest researching beyond the book when working with an individual bird totem, and also be aware of the “white light” bias of the text. But it’s a nice alternative to some other decks out there. Good stuff!

Four feathers out of five.

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Temple Making by Freddy Silva

Temple Making: The Complete Guide for Transforming Your Home Into a Place of Co-Creation
Freddy Silva (director)
Awaken Productions, 2008
2 DVDs

Sacred space is something that many Pagans are familiar with. However, the New Age community—the target audience for this DVD—includes a more general group of people who may never have thought to honor Spirit in their own homes, especially if raised in a strictly church-based setting. This set of DVDs is geared towards reminding people of the importance of sacred space, as well as a guide to finding the sacred close to home.

Much of the material deals with historical sacred spaces, from temples to groves. Silva touches on numerous auxiliary topics, such as sacred geometry, ley lines, and qualities of energy. He also offers a variety of ideas for applying these to personal space, such as proper use and placement of crystals, stones and other sacred objects according to supposedly ancient secrets.

Unfortunately, a lot of the material is highly unsound. Silva makes some broad and incorrect historical assumptions about ancient cultures, including some gross generalizations about such folks as the Egyptians and the Celts. A good example is his overreliance on supposed uses of geometry such building as European cathedrals—the juxtapositions of geometric shapes over the floor plans for these places was a stretch at most.

And the DVDs are rife with watered-down New Age tripe such as the Law of Attraction and the Seven Laws of Manifestation—a bunch of feel-good, lightweight drek that promises everything will be okay and wonderful, just so long as your thoughts are pure. It’s essentially magic for people who don’t want to deal with the risk.

Overall, while this is a nicely produced DVD set, I can’t in good conscience recommend it for its many flaws.

One pawprint out of five.

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Writing Spiritual Books – Hal Zina Bennett

Writing Spiritual Books: A Bestselling Writer’s Guide to Successful Publication
Hal Zina Bennett
Inner Ocean Publishing, 2004
222 pages

With the advent of the internet, print on demand services, and a growing number of pagan and occult publishers and self-publishers, there are increasing opportunities to be a published author. However, just because you have an idea and can string a few words together doesn’t mean that you’re automaticaly going to get your book accepted. What Bennett offers is a guide to book writing that specifically focuses on the spiritual genre.

I’ve enjoyed some of Bennett’s other works, including Spirit Animals and the Wheel of Life and Zuni Fetishes. This book, however, is another animal entirely. Instead of being a text focused on a particular spirituality, this is a wonderfully thorough guide to writing a book about your own spirituality. Bennett’s extensive experience as an author, as well as a writing coach, shines through in this work.

Bennett cover a lot of ground just concerning writing itself. He helps the would-be author to get started, not with a traditional outline, but with the more creative mind map. He also brings up some excellent points about the importance of knowing your audience and what you’re trying to tell them, rather than only writing for yourself. There’s even an entire chapter dedicated to putting together effective exercises for the reader to test-drive theoretical material with. There’s not so much material on the actual publication and promotion process, but what he does offer is good advice.

I think the main consideration that readers of this blog may want to keep in mind is that the advice does tend to more heavily favor New Age/Metaphysical writing, rather than pagan or occult texts. Therefore, some of the assumptions that are made might not fit your experience; for example, he assumes that you’ll agree with the Perennial Philosophy as popularized by Huxley. Additionally, some considerations specific to pagan and occult writing, particularly regarding audience and topics, are not covered here.

Still, it is an excellent book for what it was meant to be, and definitely worth a read if you’re a would-be author of spiritual books, especially if you don’t have a background as a professional writer. It reads like a manual for the average reader who has some ideas, but isn’t sure how to implement them, rather than someone who is a seasoned writer in some genre or another. Regardless of your experience level, there’ll be good information and ideas for you in this book.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Shamanic Drum – Michael Drake

The Shamanic Drum: A Guide to Sacred Drumming
Michael Drake
Talking Drum Publications, 1991
100 pages

If you’re not a fan of core shamanism, you probably won’t like this book. It’s heavily based on material from Harner’s The Way of the Shaman and derivative works. I tried to keep in mind that when it was written back in 1991, there wasn’t nearly as much practical information on neoshamanism as there is now, and most of it was core shamanism. There is a revised edition as of 2002, which has more material; however, as I have not read that edition yet. So be aware that this review is for the original edition.

That being said, I have some things I like about this book, and some things I’m not so crazy about.

    Likes

–Drake definitely knows his drums. His information on drum care is spot-on. This bit of practical information is quite valuable if this is your first book on drumming.
–He also has obviously done practical work; this is a book based on experience, not just a bit of theorizing and making things up to fill the pages. If the things I dislike below don’t particularly bother you, you may find this to be an excellent text to work from, as it covers everything from the cosmonology of the drum, to different drumming rites and practices you can engage in.
–Endnotes! There are Endnotes! Which means you can see where Drake got some of his third-party information. While he doesn’t provide endnotes for every bit of information that didn’t come from his head, what is there gives you a decent idea of his source material.
–There’s a good deal of environmentally-friendly information in this book, so it’s not all about the humans. It’s a healthy reminder of the good things this material can be used for, and I applaud it.

    Dislikes

–The book treats journeying as though it were safe: “Remember that nothing can harm you on your journeys without your permission” (p. 42)
–Chakras are mixed in, without the explanation that they are specifically from Hinduism, not any shamanic culture (this is very common in New Age writings, unfortunately). The same goes for other New Age concepts that are mixed in with the material.
–Native American cultures are given the “noble savage” treatment: “We are drawn to Native American teachings because they are so pure and harmonious…When your heartbeat is one with the Earth’s, you may begin to look, feel and act much like traditional Native Americans, for they too resonate with her” (p. 77) There are also several generalizations about “shamanic cultures” throughout the book that are not particularly universal, and some of which have a very Western approach.

My biases being what they are, I do admit that as a concise guide to core shamanic drumming, this one’s pretty good. I’m split about 50-50 on my likes and dislikes. Again, I haven’t seen the newer edition, so you may want to give that one a try; some of the issues above may or may not have been addressed (for example, the new edition has an appendix on the American Indian Religious Freedom Act). On the other hand, if the new book is just an expansion of the same general material, you may want to keep this review in mind. If I get ahold of the new edition, I’ll give it a separate review.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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Behaving As if the God in All Life Mattered – Machaelle Small Wright

Behaving As if the God in All Life Mattered
Machaelle Small Wright
Perelandra, Ltd., 1997
270 pages

I think what I was expecting in this book was an exploration of animism and consideration of living beings other than our own–but more in the format of When Elephants Weep. Instead, this book is part biography, part New Age animistic philosophy text. It’s not what I expected, but I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway.

Much of the book is about Wright’s life history–her rough start after her parents divorced and indicated that neither one really wanted her, her eventual ensconcement into a Catholic girl’s high school in which social politics were the name of the game, and how she managed to find a good relationship nonetheless that eventually helped bring her to Perelandra, an eight acre piece of land that became the setting of her work with Devas, the spirits of nature. While I normally am not a big fan of biographic storytelling as a primary teaching device, I found that I really got into her background story. I also found that her transmissions of lessons from the Devas were well-interspersed with the story.

Her conception of Devas is very similar to my conception of totems–archetypal beings that watch over an entire species, and are independent beings rather than figments of the imagination. While her experiences are positive, and she seems to believe that one’s experiences with Devas should never be negative, overall, I found I agreed with a lot of what she was saying. I sometimes looked askance at some of her claims about the actions of the Devas–for example, there were a few anecdotes where garden pests were wreaking havoc, but after she talked to their respective Devas they’d miraculously disappear or move off to somewhere else (within hours).

If you don’t have a lot of tolerance for New Age-flavored writing, this may be a bit saccharine for you at times. However, it’s a great story, and inspiring in a lot of ways.

Four pawprints out of five.

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