The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios by Marlene Dobkin de Rios

The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios: 45 Years with Shamans, Ayahuasqueros and Ethnobotanists
Marlene Dobkin de Rios
Park Street Press, 2009
190 pages

Note: This review is by Bronwen Forbes, who has been a huge help in cleaning up the last of the backlog of review books.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would not have been all that interested in reviewing this book. Even though I grew up in the 1970s, my drug of choice has always been alcohol, not marijuana, not hash, not (passé though it may have been by then) LSD. My chosen Pagan path cannot under any definition be considered shamanic. However, over this past winter I had a regular Saturday afternoon gig reading tarot cards at a local shop that sold and promoted ethnobotanicals. When the store was raided and preemptively temporarily shut down by a SWAT team (literally) in anticipation of a state bill making the pot-like K2 illegal (K2 brought about $7,000 profit into the shop a day) I suddenly became very interested in ethnobotanicals, their history, and why the Powers That Be shut down a shop over a substance that wasn’t even illegal yet.

The Psychedelic Journey didn’t answer my questions, but it did provide some very interesting insight into why naturally hallucinogenic plants are such a big deal for a culture – whether that culture is “for” them or “against” them. de Rios did most of her academic research in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, but was able to apply much of what she learned to the drug culture in America.

What de Rios learned, or at least what she was most interested in studying, is how the ritual and cultural influences surrounding the consumption of ethnobotanicals (native hallucinogenic plants) impact the user’s experience. Here in the 21st century we may say “Well duh!” at the notion that one’s background and cultural orientation influences one’s altered-state experience, but back in the 1960s and 1970s this was apparently a totally new idea.
Knowing that de Rios is an academic, and having ready my share of dry, scholarly research (I was first editor for my husband’s Ph.D dissertation in ancient history), I expected to be bored silly by this book. I wasn’t. de Rios writes in a very accessible, easy style that even a novice in the field – like myself – can understand.

For the mainstream Pagan community, The Psychedelic Journey probably isn’t going to be very interesting or very useful, although the references to bufotonin (prime ingredient in old witches’ flying ointment recipes) are interesting. For anyone following a more shamanic path, I’m sure that de Rios’ insights in the field of ethnobotany and how native healers around the world use those plants will be of great value to their personal spiritual practice.

Four and a half paws out of five

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The Black Ship by Malphas

The Black Ship
Malphas
Waning Moon, 2009
120 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Kirsten, who awesomely agreed to give me a hand with the last of the backlog of review copies.

Hello there, guest reviewer Kirsten, here.

I’d like to open by saying that this book, while barely more than a hundred pages (111, to be a bit more precise), is more of a daunting read than expected, probably not for those just starting out; there’s a level of familiarity with magical practice as a whole that is taken as a given, though no single background is assumed. This is dense stuff; a spare and nicely open-ended framework of a system, seemingly based in bits of a strange array of things that I’d never have guessed would work together, and may not for some; chaos magic, hints of Temple of Set and Order of the Trapezoid-type left hand path imagery, a take on Feri’s triplicate soul-system, ancestor traditions and Gnosticism. It’s a guide to a bare-bones framework that is both deeply weird, and one of the most grounded and levelheaded examples of a left-hand path that I’ve ever seen.

The Black Ship neatly avoids much of the anti-establishment posturing and oh-so-evil imagery prevalent in many books on left hand practices, though some of the terminology used is down those roads. Instead, it adheres to the idea that in order to do anything useful outside of yourself, you first have to have your house and your head in a good working order. And you are given tools with which to sort these out, sets of practices and meditations that are very, very simple, the kind of simple that could be very useful if you have the know-how and want to tweak it, though they work fine on their own as well.

There are some places where the author’s fervour about their purpose for the whole thing gets a bit…purple?…and muddies the clarity of the lesson in question. The exercises themselves are very clear and well-worded, but the author’s intended application can get strange. Not a bad thing, mind you; strange can rattle your head out of its well-worn paths, shift your modes of thinking a bit, but some might find the concept of specieswide evolution via mass magical intent a little off-putting. All of the pieces of practice I named are in the service of a very transhumanist, transformative philosophy, here, one that goes happily hand-in-hand with technology and even space travel.

My biggest qualm with this book is with one really very simple thing. There are repeated mentions of a ‘Pandemonium Mandala’, which diagram or shape is never given, or even described beyond a very vague sentence in the beginning, to the reader. This drove me absolutely nuts, because it is spoken of as something very important to meditate upon and use as symbolism. However, none of the problems here really intrude on the appreciation of a good, solid, left-hand-as-in-focusing-on-the-self-first set of works. Taken with a judicious application of salt, there’s a great set of tools here, even if you don’t want to work with them precisely as the book says.

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Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

Daughters of the Witching Hill
Mary Sharratt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
352 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who graciously agreed to help me clean up my backlog of review books as I continue to slog through grad school.

In 1612, seven women and two men were tried and hanged as witches in Lancashire, England. Sharratt, who lives in Lancashire, has written an extraordinary fictional account of the lives of these alleged witches, the trial, and the times.
Cunning woman Elizabeth Demdike grew up in Catholic England, but when the Protestant Reformation makes her faith illegal, she still manages to use the prayers of her childhood to bless and cure her sick neighbors and their livestock. She is aided in her efforts by Tibb, a familiar spirit who loves her as her husband never did.

But Elizabeth’s best friend Anne is visited by a familiar spirit of her own, and chooses a different path than Elizabeth – one of curses and fear instead of healing and hope.

In time, Elizabeth’s granddaughter Alizon develops powers similar to her grandmother’s. Instead of learning to use them and consequently embracing the Old Religion (Catholicism), Alizon rejects her family heritage. When she has an unfortunate angry encounter with a peddler that leaves the man completely paralyzed on one side, charges of witchcraft are brought – not only on Alizon but also on her entire family and their closest friends. Alizon can only pray and not lose faith as the story reaches its tragic, inevitable conclusion.

Sharratt uses transcripts of the actual trials as the basis for the book, as well as stories and legends from around Lancashire. The result is an extremely well-written, highly detailed story that will effortlessly transport the reader to a time when James I was king and his book Daemonologie, was number one on the 17th century England bestseller list. It’s one thing to know the characters are, or were, real people. Sharrat brings them to full life, flaws and all, but without turning them into stereotypes. They could be your dotty grandmother, your annoying little sister, your childhood friend.

Which is not to say that, as a Pagan reader, this was a particularly easy read. Quite the opposite, in fact. New Pagans may feel outrage about the over-inflated “nine million” victims of the “Burning Times” but reading a detailed narrative of the arrest, trial and hanging of one young person has a much deeper emotional impact. I cried at the end. This book should be on every modern witch’s bookshelf.

Five gold paws out of five

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Beltane by Erin O’Riordan

Beltane
Erin O’Riordan
Eternal Press
186 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who was nice enough to take on some of my backlog when I went on semi-hiatus.

The general rule, used by book reviewers, literary agents and editors (and I’ve done all but be a literary agent) is that if the first chapter is good, the rest of the book will be, too. Conversely, if the first chapter stinks, it’s a fair bet there’s no point in reading further.

O’Riordan’s novel Beltane is an exception to this rule. The first chapter or so is rife with poor grammar, awkward sentences and more passive-voice. However, I was stuck in a personal situation with a lot of time and not a lot of reading material available, so I plowed through.

I’m glad I did. The story (and the writing) improves over the course of the book, and I found myself actually caring about the characters and what happened to them. The novel centers around twin sisters Allie and Zen, who have been raised Pagan. The book opens with Allie’s wedding, and hints that all may not be well between the bride and groom. Zen falls for Orlando, a married man. How this all plays out is revealed the next year at Beltane, when everyone lives happily ever after.

A book titled after the major Pagan sex holiday should have a lot of sex scenes in it. If this is what the reader is looking for, he or she will not be disappointed. As someone who has written erotica professionally and has reviewed a plethora of erotic fiction in the last two years, I say the sex scenes are well-written, realistic, and move the plot forward – basically all I can ask for in an erotic book.

I wish I could say the Pagan aspects of the story were as realistic and well-done. O’Riordan presents a Pagan path that requires High Priestesses to have multiple (and huge) tattoos, be vegetarian, and abstain from alcohol at all times. To paraphrase the familiar saying, some of my best friends are High Priestesses of varying traditions, and this describes exactly none of them. The story was good, the sex was great, but the Pagan aspects of the book – with the sole exception of the Beltane ritual, which was awesome – made me, a 25-year veteran of the Pagan community mutter “Where the hell did THAT come from?” on more than one occasion.

Three and a half paws out of five.

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