Drawing Down the Spirits by Filan and Kaldera

Drawing Down the Spirits: The Traditions and Techniques of Spirit Possession
Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera
Destiny Books, 2009
338 pages

It’s seldom that I get a book for review that’s truly something new under the Sun. While I get lots of good stuff (and some real stinkers, too), most of the books are variations on preexisting topics that have already been written about to a significant extent. Not so this one. While there have been books in the neopagan genre that have touched on spiritual possession, as well as less intense practices such as aspecting and “drawing down”, full-on possession has largely been left to academic perusals of African diaspora and shamanic practices and belief systems. So getting to read an entire text dedicated to the actual practice of spirit possession was a definite treat, particularly as “spirit work” has become more prevalent in recent years.

The text starts with a good theoretical overview of possession work–what it is, where it came from, and what people have been saying about it. Then we get into some of the details that are useful in setting up the actual practice, such as a thorough discussion of cosmologies (after all, understanding “what” spirits and gods are and “where” they are as well goes a long way in having context for working with them). After that, there’s a wealth of information on things to keep in mind when doing your own possession work, to include the good, the bad, and the terrifying.

Do be aware that this book is heavily influenced by the authors’ biases, to the point that some parts could be interpreted as offensive to some readers. For example, they are very much hard polytheists, meaning that they believe that individual deities are just that–individuals, not parts of a single archetype. Those who see deities in a more archetypal form are referred to as “atheists” in this text, which could be potentially inflammatory in its interpretation of what that may mean to the individual archetypal pagan. The dedication to hard polytheism over all other theistic views is a constant theme in the book, and because it comes across as heavy-handed at times could be off-putting to some readers.

However, I say this as a caveat, because I want people to be prepared enough to be able to look beyond it if necessary so that this book can be appreciated for what I really want to say about it: If you have any interest in the practice of spirit possession, you want this book. I don’t do possession work myself, at least not to the extent discussed here, but I know people who do, and this meshes pretty well with what they’ve described of their own experiences. The authors most certainly know their audience–they’re familiar with neopagans who may be themselves unfamiliar with full possession work, and therefore much of the material is geared toward not only helping the individual practitioner do their work with a relative amount of safety, but also doing so in an environment where what they’re doing may be seriously misinterpreted. Also, while the book (thankfully!) isn’t full of prescribed, pre-crafted rituals, the appendix with the detailed ritual outline is a definitely valuable resource.

There’s not much more I can say at this moment without utilizing the material myself, and I do have to wonder how a better environment for full possession might affect the experiences not only for myself, but for other neopagans who have only done such things as aspecting. Will this book help create more opportunities for this sort of work? Only time will tell. Needless to say, this is one of the best resources I’ve read this year, and it’s definitely keeping a good spot on the bookshelf (or off it, as it’s needed).

Five pawprints out of five.

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Make Merry in Step and Song – Bronwen Forbes

Make Merry in Step and Song: A Seasonal Treasury of Music, Mummer’s Plays and Celebrations in the English Folk Tradition
Bronwen Forbes
Llewellyn, 2009
264 pages

I’ve been in the pagan community for over a decade, and while I haven’t been a part of any formal group for any length of time, I have seen numerous examples of attempts at creative, unique group rituals. Some of these end up being rehashes of the usual Cunningham-mixed-with-something variety. If you’d like to avoid that fate, Make Merry in Step and Song is an excellent choice.

Not all Morris dancers are pagan, or even familiar with modern paganism. However, the traditional English dances are becoming more common at pagan events and rituals; incidentally, I was just at a festival this past weekend that featured one of Portland’s Morris dancing troupes. So this is a wonderfully timed text. Forbes does a lovely job of presenting well-researched information on historical Morris dancing and related practices, a tradition that her own family has been involved in for quite some time.

The book is divided up into the four seasons, along with some other miscellany that didn’t fit into any of those. I was surprised that there wasn’t an introductory chapter on the basics of Morris dancing/etc., its history and context, and so forth. Instead, the history is neatly woven into each of the sections as Forbes describes the relevant dance and celebration. This isn’t just a theoretical text, though. She goes into great detail describing the ritual format, the play scripts, the songs, and the dances themselves.

I’m sure most of my readers are familiar with the Spiral Dance, the back-and-forth-winding bane of the uncoordinated (individually and collectively). While the dances that Forbes describes do take some choreography and rehearsal is recommended, she does about as good a job of illustrating them on paper as one can hope to do, so no complaints there (though if you truly are clumsy, you may want to take the suggestion of using something other than blades for the sword dances). Also, because the rituals are largely dependent on dancing, one’s physical ability may prevent them from fully participating in that regard. However, the songs and other non-dancing portions of the rituals are well-fleshed-out, so adaptations may be made as necessary. And you will need a group to perform these rituals, not surprisingly; this is not a working text for the solitary practitioner (unless you have some friends!).

I think my only complaint (and it’s a small one) is a wish for footnotes or endnotes. Forbes does offer a select bibliography, but no real indication as to which books provided which information in her own writing. This doesn’t adversely affect the functionality of the book, but it does make it frustrating if you want to do more research on Morris dancing and related topics and aren’t quite sure where the best starting point is. (She does offer an appendix with information on where to find further resources, however.)

Overall, though, I really, really loved this book. It’s nice to see a practical text that doesn’t fall back on tired formulae (there are no spells or correspondences awkwardly shoehorned in) and that shows good research as a general rule. And it’s even better to see a topic that isn’t commonly covered, rather than the usual rehashes. I would most definitely recommend this to any neopagan group that works with English folk practices, those who want to try new styles of participatory ritual, and folks who are curious about the application of old traditions to the 21st century.

Five pawprints out of five.

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