Meta-Magick, the Book of Atem by Philip H. Farber

Meta-Magick, the Book of Atem: Achieving New States of Consciousness Through NLP, Neuroscience, and Ritual
Philip H. Farber
Weiser Books, 2008
170 pages

I think I’ve been a bit spoiled in my reading choices–or maybe I’m just more of a geek than I thought. Here, Phil Farber presents a book that ties together memetics, consciousness and the nature of reality, NLP and other forms of psychology, and magical entities, and I’m thinking over and over again “Wow, I’ve seen this before. I’ve read that, too. Oooh, I’m familiar with this concept!” And then it dawned on me–Farber’s read a lot of the same stuff, and managed to synthesize it into this nifty handbook for working with the entity Atem.

Atem is an egregore created by Farber in conjunction with this book. He is an opener of ways for an entire new group of entities to be created by those magicians who read Meta-Magick–in short, Atem is a catalyst, a means to an end. As such, this book should be taken not as a basic guide to consciousness and magic, or memetics, or entity creation, but in how these and other topics relate to Atem, and the overarching goals associated with him

While Farber includes a satisfactory amount of theory to explain what he’s about, the practical material in this book is even better. For example, working with a six-part structure based on the various elements (such as Attention and Passion) that are part of Atem’s fabrication, Farber guides the reader through a thirty-six day regimen that allows them to not only understand Atem in all his parts in more detail and work these into new entities, but to also have a better understand of the self and its place in reality. There are other rituals and practices as well, and he does a good job of explaining why they’re there. It reminds me, in some ways, of an updated and expanded version of what Robert Anton Wilson was trying to do with Prometheus Rising–help explain how the mind and reality interact.

I would classify this as an intermediate text. Those who have a basis in magic, particularly Chaos or other postmodern forms of magic, will have a better understanding of what’s going on than a rank beginner. However, those who have already read extensively on consciousness and reality, psychology, neurobiology, memetics, entity creation, and other topics that Farber integrates into the Atem working will probably not find too much new material here. I would suggest using this book as a springboard into looking into these other subjects. I do wish he had used internal citations, because I like being able to follow a particular thought to its source and then on from there, but he does offer some resource suggestions to tempt the bibliophile’s appetite.

I think my only complaint is that much of the material works best with two other people. If you are a solitary practitioner entirely, and can’t find other folks who are dedicated enough to give a couple of months to Atem workings, you’re going to have trouble completing this text as described. This is a pretty significant drawback, considering that some magicians are simply isolated, and others don’t prefer to work with others. I wish he would have primarily tailored the material for the individual, with options for small group work.

I do commend Farber for what he’s trying to do here–he’s done a nice job of synthesizing his research into a cohesive magical working that’s effective both internally and on a wider plain of reality. This is a good book to give someone who’s already read Carroll and Hine and wants to do something more specific with Chaos-type magic, particularly surrounding entity work.

Four pawprints out of five.

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New Batch of Facing North Reviews

Facing North, an ambitious repository of reviews of pagan books, recently posted some new reviews. While I crosspost some of my reviews from over here there, I do some exclusives for them. I linked to some here, and here are the newest ones as well:

The Good Cat Spell Book by Gillian Kemp
Rock Your World With the Divine Mother by Sondra Ray
Angel Animals by Allen and Linda Anderson
Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin (this, incidentally, is the book that started my path to graduate school)

Runes For Transformation – Kaedrich Olsen

Runes for Transformation: Using Ancient Symbols to Change Your Life
Kaedrich Olsen
Weiser Books, 2008
230 pages

When I first became interested in paganism back in the mid-1990s, the very first divination set I worked with was the elder futhark of runes. I had a photocopy of a few pages with rune meanings out of a book that I suspect may have been from Ralph Blum’s questionable writings. While runes have never been a central focus in my practice and I no longer utilize them, I do have somewhat of a nostalgic soft spot for them. I am quite pleased with this brand-new text–it takes an entirely innovative approach to the runes, not only as a historical alphabet/divination system couched in venerable traditions, but also as a living, evolving set of energies and symbols that the modern practitioner will find relevant regardless of current cultural context.

Olsen presents us with a solid overview of the history and origin of the Norse runes. However, before he even gets into that, he throws a chapter on the nature of reality at the reader, asking us to challenge our perceptions and assumptions, particular with regards to magical thinking. This sets a stage for an introduction to the runes not only as symbols with correspondences, but as tools for shaping and understanding subjective reality.

While Olsen has done his research, drawing extensively on primary texts, he strongly supports the use of Unverified Personal Gnosis as a key to one’s individual relationship to the runes and their meanings. This is a much more organized and introspective process than mixing up runes and the I Ching, for example. While UPG is crucial, it is still set within the context of historical meaning, and the two are meant to complement each other, even if their information doesn’t entirely agree. In short, Olsen allows the historical material on the runes to serve as a solid foundation on which the practitioner may then build hir own extensive personal research–a healthy balance.

The runes are also not treated as only tools for divination. One of the most valuable dimensions of this book is the potential for a Western system of internal change. Olsen blends techniques from NLP and other psychological systems, as well as other areas of modern science, with runic magic and spirituality to create a wonderfully workable system. The runes are promoted as tools for understanding interconnection between the self and the world, and various elements thereof; as energies that may be utilized in improving the self in deep, fundamental capacities; and making connections with deities, among other capacities. The depth with which Olsen explores these possibilities is commendable, and I say this not only as an experienced psychonaut, but also a counselor-in-training.

Practitioners who are critical of UPG may find this book to be too UPG-heavy for their tastes. This all comes down to a matter of subjective preferences. Olsen does an excellent job of presenting his material, and beyond a certain point it’s not really possible to change peoples’ minds. The solid research may mollify some by-the-book folks; however, I can also see this book coming under fire from exceptionally conservative individuals.

Overall, this book is a winner. Whether you are Asatru, or a psychonaut in need of a system for internal exploration, or merely someone who appreciates the magic and aesthetics of the elder futhark, this text is an excellent choice.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Ecopsychology edited by Roszak, Gomes and Kanner

Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind
Edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes and Allen D. Kanner
Sierra Club Books, 1995
334 pages

So you might wonder why I’m reviewing a book on psychology here. It’s not just because there’s an essay on ecopsychology and shamanism in it (though that’s a definite talking point). Rather, it’s because (outside of neopaganism) ecopsychology is the closest thing to animism that the dominant culture in the U.S. has at this point. I found numerous parallels between this book and my own beliefs as a pagan and (neo)shaman, and I think that any pagan who has animistic beliefs and/or has a commitment to the world around them (environmental or otherwise) should take a good, long read of this book.

One of the editors, Theodore Roszak, coined the term “ecopsycholoy” in his 1992 book The Voice of the Earth (which is on my want list). This anthology is a continuation of that current. It contains over twenty essays from therapists, ecologists, and other folks on the psychology of connection with the world around us–and seeing ourselves as a part of that world, not separate from it. I’m not going to go through every single essay; I will say that I enjoyed every single one–this is a very solid collection. I do want to highlight a few of the themes covered:

–Ecopsychology as a way to make the boundaries between Self and Other more permeable, but not to the point of the complete dissolution of Self. One of our biggest problems is that we’re too independent, to the point of ill health on numerous levels. Ecopsychology finds healthy balances that address both the needs of Self and of Other.

–Another theme, related to that, is ridding ourselves of our hangup on dualities–for example, not assuming that reducing the rigidity of one’s boundaries of Self will automatically result in a complete loss of Self. Instead, ecopsychology promotes a different way of looking at the world.

–Social issues are another theme. Ecopsychology is brought into conjunction with feminist theory in a few of the essays. The domination and controlling headspace of men enacted towards women is directly linked to the domination and control of the natural environment by humanity, particularly in the Western world. Additionally, there’s a brilliant essay on confronting racial issues in ecopsychology, as well as the concept of “deconstructing whiteness” and what that means for psychology and ecology.

–The current destruction of the natural environment is explored as being the result of pathologies, to include addiction and narcissistic personality disorder. These are some of the most powerful essays in the collection, and as they’re early on, they’re a hard-hitting opener.

There’s plenty more to this meaty text. For pagans, there’s plenty to chew on. Besides the parallels between ecopsychology and animism, and approaching the world as an interconnected whole populated by spirits, deities, and a living Earth, there’s also a neat essay about combining core shamanism and ecopsychological practice. And one of the essays delves deeply into indigenous shamanisms and what the author brought out of an experience halfway around the world from where he lived.

This is not an easy text to read, and not just for the writing style. It thoroughly challenges many of our assumptions about how the world is put together, and how we as humans (especially those of us in Western cultures) approach it. If you feel like it’ll be preaching to the choir, read it anyway. If you think it isn’t relevant to anything in your life, read it anyway. And if you think you’ll disagree with every bit of it–you got it, read it anyway. There aren’t that many books that I would consider absolute required reading for neopagan folk, but this is one of them.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Spirit Animals and the Wheel of Life – Hal Zina Bennett

Spirit Animals and the Wheel of Life: Earth-Centered Practices for Daily Living
Hal Zina Bennett
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2000
176 pages

There are a lot of totemism/animal spirit 101 guides out there, and it can be tough to find one that isn’t the same old stuff. I am pleased to say that Spirit Animals and the Wheel of Life is one that stands out. Based on the author’s personal spiritual practices formulated over several decades, and deeply rooted in ecospiritual practices, it adds a definite positive flavor to the corpus of literature on practical neopagan totemism.

At first glance, the book seems like just another rip-off of various Native American tribes’ practices. Some may suspect the wheel format, with animals at the four cardinal directions, up and down, and the center. However, the directions, the Earth and the Sky, and the self are more universal than that, and Bennett does a great job of keeping these concepts from being mock-ups of “Native American spirituality”. While he does talk a bit about indigenous practices, more often he speaks from his own personal background as a spiritual person as well as a psychologist.

The system that Bennett has created provides a structure for pathworking that bridges spirituality and psychology. Each position on the wheel represents a different developmental stage, and the animal associated with each position can help with its respective stage. While Bennett provides his animals for each direction, he does emphasize the fact that these are personal, particularly the power animal of the center. He also includes some examples of meditations and rituals that may be used within the structure of his wheel, which makes this a more usable system than those that simply approach the wheel from a symbolic perspective. This is wonderfully interactive material.

I think my only complaint is that he could have gone a lot deeper with the pathworking aspects of the system. He only briefly describes the stages at each point in the wheel, and I think he could have easily gone into more depth without losing the reader. The developmental aspects of his system are one of its strongest points, and I’d like to see them taken further.

However, even as it is this is a great book. It’s incredibly sensitive to ecological issues and the connection between neopagan totemism and the environment, as well as our role in the whole mess we’re in. It offers tools to help us reverse the damage, and emphasizes the need to connect ourselves–to ourselves, to other living beings, to our spirituality, and to draw all these together into one cohesive view of life. The reader who expects a simple introduction to animal totems will find instead a greater wealth of knowledge and wisdom, and tools to wield them for constructive change.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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Secrets of Shamanism – Jose and Lena Stevens

Secrets of Shamanism: Tapping the Spirit Power Within You
Jose Stevens, Ph.D. and Lena S. Stevens
Avon Books, 1988 (newer edition available)
228 pages

This is not a book about how to be a shaman, despite the title. (The authors don’t claim it is, either.) What it is, is a book primarily made of psychological and holistic techniques that are inspired by the authors’ studies on shamanism. If you look at the book this way you’ll probably like it a lot better than if you’re critiquing it for not being a book about shamanism.

There are a lot of useful techniques in here, some of which I’ve used (or are similar to things I’ve done). Some of them I wasn’t so interested in, such as the “stretching time” exercise. However, there are some great pathworking exercises in here to help you A) identify and banish bad habits, and B) instill better habits. It’s a great workbook for self-improvement, and I can easily see ways to alter the exercises if you want less of a “shamanic” feel to them. The authors explain what it is that works about these exercises, so that you know the mechanics as well as the how-tos of them.

I did get annoyed now and then with the “shamanic” elements, like “medicine wheels” and such. There were also blatant generalizations, such as the “Native American Heyoka” which was presented as a figure to emulate for breaking bad habits. No tribe-specific cultural history was given as an explanation. Additionally, some of the fictitious stories the authors included to illustrate some of their points made some generalizations about indigenous people.

Still, overall, this book has a lot to offer, if you can overlook the mild appropriation and New Age generalization. The exercises are overwhelmingly solid and useful, and there are many good tools that modern shamans (and others) can use, with or without the shamanic trappings.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Journey to Enlightenment – Ross Bishop

Journey to Enlightenment
Ross Bishop
Blue Lotus Press, 2008
248 pages

I’ll admit that when it comes to anything that’s more New Age than Neopagan, I’m a tough crowd. Ross Bishop, happily, has presented a book that got through my cynicism and gave a wonderfully balanced approach to healing internal wounds. I am quite pleased to have had the opportunity to read this book.

A good bit of Journey to Enlightenment centers on healing the traumas (no matter how seemingly small or supposedly unimportant) from childhood. It’s not just a matter of blatant abuse, but of simply not being understood, or having to deal with the bad conditioning your parents may have had that may have affected how they raised you, even if they never meant to hurt you and loved you dearly. However, Bishop also touches on a number of other issues that people may have unhealthy relationships with, such as finances and social skills.

The thing that makes this book valuable is that Bishop gently guides the reader into facing hir traumas head-on, without guilt or shame, and without too much pressure. He offers a set of thirteen principles that build upon each other as the book progresses, which form the core of a system for going into the self, confronting the issues and getting in touch with the inner child, and bring about healing for all aspects of the self, past and present. Guided meditation is used as a tool to further this process, though a lot of the book is brain food, things to get the reader really thinking about the issues, rather than a book full of rote, stock meditations and exercises. It’s a nice balance of things to think about and things to do.

If you’re expecting traditional shamanism a la Siberia and the Amazon, you won’t find it here. However, Bishop manages to bring elements of shamanic practice into 21st century postindustrial terms in a way that channels much-needed lessons and healing to an audience that can benefit from it. He never claims to be descended from eighteen Native American shamans, or attempts to frame his experiences in anything pretentious; he is down to earth, and strikes a good balance between (neo)shamanism, and healing psychology.

The writing style is pleasant; Bishop is a good writer, and conveys his concepts with thoughtfulness and depth. He has good research, too, and is well-grounded, something that more of the New Age should pay heed to. He proves that one can have a solid footing and still explore spirituality without floating off into the ethers. Other than a few typos, it’s a really good read structure-wise, and the layout far exceeds that even of some larger presses.

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 Birth Order Book – Kevin Leman – November BBBR

The Birth Order Book
Dr. Kevin Leman
Revell, 1996

Okay, so this month’s Bargain Bin Book Review technically isn’t a book on magic or other esoteric topics; however, I found it in the pagan/occult section of the clearance rack, so I say it counts 😉 . Though jokes aside, I actually found it to be a good read, and I think that psychology can be an incredibly useful tool in magical works; I’ll explain more in a bit.

The basic premise is that our personalities are shaped by how our parents treat us based on our birth order. For example, the firstborn child generally gets a lot of attention coupled with a lot of responsibility, the middle children may feel somewhat ignored (depending on circumstances), and the babies of the families often rule the roost. Only children may additionally take after the firstborns, though there are unique traits as well. All of these are presented as generalizations based on the author’s observations among his patients, rather than hard and fast dogma. I found a lot to resonate with as a youngest child who was also a quasi-only due to being the youngest by nine and a half years. There’s also a lot of material on coping with your birth order “issues”, as well as tips on marriages between different birth orders, and information about how to work with your own children to avoid programming the worst traits into them by accident.

Where I see this as being useful for magical practitioners is as a complement for things like astrology and tarot reading, as well as other systems that either deal with telling a person something about hirself and/or that rely on knowing something about the person to get results. While birth order isn’t everything, it can add a dimension of understanding to a person’s internal and external environments. If you’re currently slogging through old conditioning and other such things, either through meditation or other methods, this may be an interesting book that provides some food for thought on how you got to be the way you are. It’s not a complete guide, but it gave me something to think about.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Shamanism – Graham Harvey (ed.)

Shamanism: A Reader
Graham Harvey (editor)
Routledge, 2003
~430 pages

Well, it took me the better part of two weeks, but I finished this academic anthology over the weekend–and found it to be worth the effort. It was good to see a collection of essays that both approached traditional shamanism with an open mind, and also embraced the existence of neoshamanism (while also bringing up issues with it). I do have to agree with Erynn Rowan Laurie on her observation that the quality of the essays varied quite a bit, and the themes and topics didn’t always seem to mesh well. Though I do also agree that there were some real winners there. So here are my personal opinions on some of them:

I Liked:

–Ioan M. Lewis’ “Possession and Public Morality”, which was an intriguing essay on how shamanic rituals can be used to uphold community moral standards through using public peer pressure to extract confessions of broken taboos. This process then allows the community to heal rifts caused by these violations and release the social tension.
–Alan T. Campbell’s “Submitting”, which got me thinking about attitudes towards shamanism and seemingly implausible realities.
–Edith Turner’s “The Reality of Spirits”, an *excellent* argument against the fear of “going native” by anthropologists and other academics. Based on the experiences of the author and her husband, and a really good commentary on the practical application of anthopological research.
–Chungmoo Choi’s “The Artistry and Ritual Aesthetics of Urban Korean Shamans” is a fascinating look at Korean shamanism, which isn’t nearly as well known outside of academic circles (and the Koreans themselves, of course).
–Mihaly Hoppal’s “Ethnographic Films on Shamanism” is another good one, specifically covering films of Asian (primarily Siberian) shamanism, how these films have progressed and what they contribute, as well as the political climates at the times they were made. This essay and the last were particularly unique contributions.
–Both Bernard Saladin d’Anglure’s “Rethinking Inuit Shamanism Through the Concept of ‘Third Gender'” and Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer’s “Sacred Genders in Siberia: Shamans, Bear Festivals and Androgyny” are excellent perspectives on gender issues within shamanism; the latter is also a nice look at the Carnival-esque feel of the bear festivals.
–Piers Vitebsky’s “From Cosmology to Environmentalism: Shamanism as Local Knowledge in a Global Setting” didn’t surprise me when I enjoyed it thoroughly; I’m generally a fan of Vitebsky’s works, including The Shaman. Here he explores the juxtaposition of shamanic knowledge that’s designed for a specific environment into global society, and how removing the inherent cosmology of a shamanic system necessarily changes it. One of the best in the collection.
–Ward Churchill’s “Spiritual Hucksterism: The Rise of the Plastic Medicine Men” is an essay that I actually really like; it’s a good commentary on cultural appropriation.

I Didn’t Care For:

–The reprinting of a chapter of Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman; I would have liked to have seen something different from him, though it was one of only two essays on the initiation process of shamanism. In fact, there were a few reprints in here, and it would have been nice to encounter more original material.
–There were a couple of essays I simply could not get into, primarily because I found them rather dry, or otherwise uninteresting. These included Thomas A Dowson’s “Like People in Prehistory”, Marina Roseman’s Remembering to Forget: The Aesthetics of Longing”, Gordan MacLellen’s “Dancing on the Edge: Shamanism in Modern Britain”, and Robert J. Wallis’ “Waking Ancestor Spirits: Neoshamanic Engagements With Archaeology”.
–Sandra Ingermann’s “Tracking Lost Souls” wasn’t horrible, per se, but it was rather jarringly discordant with the rest of the collection. It’s a very New Agey interpretation of core shamanism, and it didn’t fit in with the more scholarly approaches. An examination of neoshamanism, or a critique and comparison of various modern systems, would have worked better than Ingermann giving us a play-by-play of her method of soul retrieval.
–Beverley Butler’s “The Tree, The Tower and the Shaman” was just strangely written and arranged; I had trouble following it, and ended up skipping a good portion of it. I’m also not sure how relevant it is to shamanism, from what I could gather.

Despite my personal dislikes, I still think this is a good anthology to have in your collection if you have any interest in shamanism. The good essays are excellent, and they outnumber the not so great essays by quite a bit. I’m quite pleased with this collection, and I’ve already used it as source material in my writing, as well as gleaned some inspiration for the further development of therioshamanism.

Four pawprints out of five.

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