Grail Alchemy by Mara Freeman

Grail Alchemy: Initiation in the Celtic Mystery Tradition
Mara Freeman
Destiny Books
Rochester, VT 2014
278 pages

Reviewed by Micheal

I’ve had this book for a few months now, and despite my best intentions, I cannot finish it in one or two days.

Freeman, has done an excellent job at relating the Celtic myths to their counterparts in Christian, Hindu, and other mythos. Relating the Fisher King not only to masculine principle severed from the feminine but also to various other deities such as Osiris, Adonis(dying and being reborn) for example.

Additionally, Freeman views the silver branch to being a miniature version of the tree of life, and she correlates it to a Siberian Shamanic practice of attaching tree branches to their drums, as an aid to help them reach the tree on their journeys (pg. 49).

The meditations, VisionJourneys, are beautifully crafted, I would suggest that they be recorded prior to beginning the journey. Freeman offers a dedication and healing ritual at the end of the book.

Grail Alchemy presents the reader with a lot of information that simply should not be read over in one or two nights. While it has merely ten chapters, this reviewer would suggest that the reader take their time to truly benefit from the research and information that Freeman is making available.

Given the books depth of information, exercises, visualizations, I give the book:

Five pawprints out of five.

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Shamanka by T.E. MacArthur

Shamanka: Oracle of the Shamaness
T.E. MacArthur
Tarot Media Company, 2009
55 pages plus 44 cards

Reviewed by innowen

Shamanka is a unique oracle deck based off the principles of Shamanism. T.E MacArthur created and painted the deck herself and says, “The images are deeply personal to me. I was guided by dreams, visions, and experience to design and complete each one. My influences and training come from Siberia, the Himalayas, Mongolia, Tibetan Buddhism, and the Pacific Northwest. I do not represent any of the cultures either as an expert or claim that they are my own culture. I am at best an amateur anthropologist. It has been a spiritual journey for me and a privilege to share them with you.” The deck’s 44 images focus around a type of shaman, going about their work. The paintings are brightly colored and have a multicultural appeal. The backs of each card show hands set upon a tribal-style background. The cards do not contain any numbers.

The Shamanka companion guide, which can be purchased separately or with the deck, contains 55 pages of good info. There’s an introduction to shamanism, three spreads based off global shamanism topics, and information on each card. MacArthur really delivers with the background info and divinatory meanings (positive and shadow sides). In the first chapter of the Shamanka companion guide, MacArthur believes that her deck can help anyone “reconnect with the Universe and gather knowledge.”

1. What can you teach users?
I drew The Traveler, which shows a female shaman drumming in a tunnel. The companion book says that this card represents “a physical journey.” In this position, this card tells us that using Shamanka can actually be a force of nature in our lives to tell us where we need to go and what paths to take.

2. What are your strengths?
The Shapeshifter. The shaman on this card wears a bearskin and appears ready to dance. The companion book says that this card is about our ability to shape shift, where we can change our behaviors and become something new. As a strength card, the Shapeshifter, tells us that using the Shamanka oracle can help us shift our perspectives and get out of our skins and grow as individuals.

3. What are your weaknesses?
The Spirit Warrior. The shaman on this card, is from the Pacific Northwest. She wears traditional garb and wields a staff out in front of her. The companion book says that The Spirit Warrior on this card is about acting courageously, and becoming a leader. It’s about breaking traditions and standing out… as long as you’re fighting for something you believe in. In this Weakness position, this tells me that the deck will fight for your right to transformation and change, but the images on the cards may not resonate with the images to understand the deep power that can help push you out of your habits and make the change that needs to stick.

One thing I noticed after drawing these cards is their colors. The Traveler shows a shaman in a cave, there’s a lot of dark blues and blacks. The Shapeshifter shows the fiery colors of reds and oranges and The Spirit Warrior displays light colors of green and yellows. It’s almost as if the cards’ colors are telling a story of going from the darkness and into the light by trial by fire.

Bottom Line
If you are interested in a new shamanic approach to divination and want to connect to the universe, then give Shamanka a try. This multicultural deck guides you to seeing new perspectives through connecting with shamanic cultures around the world.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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Nature-Speak by Ted Andrews

Nature-Speak: Signs, Omens & Messages in Nature
Ted Andrews
Dragonhawk Publishing, 2004
448 pages

This is a book that I’d had my eye on for several years before finally picking up a copy. What Animal-Speak is to animal totems, so Nature-Speak is to plant spirits and landscapes. It follows much of the same pattern–some basic theoretical information about a particular set of beings or phenomena in nature, then some exercises to work with them, and finally a dictionary section. Andrews addresses some of the expected beings like trees and flowers, but also gives “weeds” a place in this veritable garden as well.

And like Animal-Speak, this book is written in a friendly, inviting manner. Andrews had a knack for writing to a wide audience, making the information accessible and interesting enough to make the reader want to try it out for themselves. This is a book that’s good both for the novice and for the more experienced nature pagan.

However, it also deviates into other areas of esotericism. There are rituals for the Sabbats, for example, drawing on Andrews’ rich experiences in nature. And he delves into such areas as work with angelic beings, as well as splashes of Hermeticism and other ceremonial traditions. In this way it’s a more eclectic text than Animal-Speak‘s quasi-shamanic flavor.

The only real complaint I have about the book is the proliferation of typos. It’s possibly one of the worst for that, to be honest. Every few pages I was picking out some misspelled word or grammatical error. I am unsure what Dragonhawk Publishing’s internal structure was like; it was Andrews’ own company, and now that he is sadly deceased I can’t simply ask. So it may be that he was editing his own work.

Still, for all that it’s a worthwhile read, and I highly recommend it for those interested in its subject matter.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Earthwalks for Body and Spirit by James Endredy

Earthwalks for Body and Spirit
James Endredy
Bear and Company, 2002
200 pages

One of the things I have always appreciated the most about James Endredy’s writings is that he takes spirituality and roots it very firmly in the physical world, perhaps more than just about any other author on shamanism and related topics. It’s a much-needed reconnection in a time and place where too often “spirituality” is focused on ethereal, untouchable things of the mind and imagination, with little hooking them to the “everyday” world. So having exercises and concepts that remove the gap between this word and the other one (if there is even a distinction) is a really welcome change. This, his first book from nearly a decade ago, is no exception.

The premise is simple: walking meditation. For a lot of people, sitting and being quiet simply isn’t a good option. Walking meditation is a way to focus the mind while also allowing the body a chance to settle down and move more intently. However, this book is not simply about focusing on the body, but focusing on the body as being an integral part of the environment it is within. The ability to be aware of both within and without simultaneously allows one to break down the barriers until there is no within or without, only what is.

This isn’t just the same steps made over and over, however. The book contains dozens of unique and incredibly useful ways to walk, starting with the most basic Walk of Attention, which trains the person to be aware of how the body moves and what it’s moving in, to more elaborate group walks, and walks that are aimed at focusing on specific elements or other parts of the environment. In fact, one could work with this book for months, if not years, and not get bored.

Very little of it could be misconstrued as woo-woo; this is spirituality grounded constructively and healthily. Any beings of spirit are encountered in their physical forms, for the most part, and the animals, plants and other phenomena behind the spirits are what are brought into focus. Yet the wonder and awe is not at all lost; on the contrary, Endredy’s walks encourage and facilitate the most fine and complex amazement at the world around us, as well as the bodies we wear. Even the final Walk for Vision only calls for a vision after an entire day immersed in the beauty of physical things.

This is an extraordinary book that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Anyone practicing shamanic practices–in fact, anyone who professes a nature-based spirituality–would do well to pick this book up. And even those who are not particularly spiritual but who would like to reconnect with nature and the world at large may very well benefit from this text.

Five walking pawprints out of five.

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The Shamanic Way of the Bee by Simon Buxton

The Shamanic Way of the Bee: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters
Simon Buxton
Destiny Books, 2004
208 pages

If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while, you’ll know there are three things that set me off. (Okay, more than three. But these are big ones.)

–Nonfiction, particularly speculative, really niche, or otherwise shaky, with poor research backup.
–Highly questionable anecdotes presented as literal, undeniable truth, without even an acknowledgement that there may be questioning of the sources.
–The idea that the above two are okay because spiritual writing doesn’t need academic/historical/other factual justification.

Sadly, there’s a lot of neoshamanic material that pings these pet peeves of mine. And this book especially hits them hard. The basic premise is that this guy meets this bee shaman when he’s a child, and spends a couple of years learning about beekeeping as well as spiritual elements thereof. Then later on in his twenties he manages to find another bee shaman of a secret, unbroken tradition called the Path of Pollen. Of course, there’s no written record or other evidence of this tradition. While there are some possible bee-related spiritual traditions associated with ancient Greek civilizations, the idea of a complete system derived from that, or contemporary to it, that survived into modern-day Austria and England is highly questionable. So we’re already starting on incredibly shaky ground.

Then come the amazing spiritual experiences–a bee flying through the author, who is accepted by his teacher without question right after his other apprentice graduates (which just seems conveniently perfect). Oh, and the sex scene. There are apparently sexy bee priestesses in this tradition. And we’re treated to a highly metaphor-laden (how many times can you fetishize a bee entering a flower? Never mind that worker bees are female…).

Finally, I want to know how in the hell he managed to kill a full-grown red deer stag (that just happened to knock itself out on a nearby tree) by suffocating it with his hand full of pollen without only a single gash from an antler. Don’t you know there’s a reason wolves and other smaller-than-stag predators, humans included, hunt them in packs? Not to mention, for fuck’s sake, that’s one of the cruelest ways you can kill an animal–if that even actually literally happened.

The whole book is like this. If it’s a Castaneda-style allegory presented as a real, completely true story, then the author is irresponsible for not prefacing it as such. If this all actually happened, then he really needs to question spiritual gurus and their authority.

One pawprint out of five.

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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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Shamanic Wisdom by Dolfyn

Shamanic Wisdom: Nature Spirituality, Sacred Power and Earth Ecstasy
Dolfyn
Earthspirit, Inc., 1990
184 pages

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I want to not like it, because there’s a decent helping of cultural appropriation in it. Lots of “medicine” and various appropriations of watered-down indigenous concepts that have become so common in new age neoshamanisms. However, there are also some useful rituals for practicing a nature-based animistic path. I think it might have been a better book framed as animism rather than shamanism, and without the pseudo-Native trappings.

The good stuff includes practices for connecting with the directions, animals, plants, the sun and other celestial bodies, and various other denizens of the natural world. They’re designed to recreate awareness of these things we often take for granted, and the author does have a nice ecological flavor in her presentation of the material. The rituals are also not too difficult to enact, and this would be a great book in a lot of ways for a newbie pagan just learning to reach out to the world around hir.

However, as with so many other neoshamanic texts, there’s an element of entitlement, as though Nature will automatically always help us. While the chapter on eco-magic does emphasize giving back, the overall approach is fairly lightweight and says nothing about any of the potential dangers of connecting with these spirits. And there’s not really a discussion of the differences between what is presented here and indigenous practices. There’s the usual brief and somewhat stereotyped animal totem dictionary, just as a bonus.

Taken with some cautionary salt, this can be a useful text for beginners to nonindigenous animistic practices. Be skeptical, but also be open.

Three pawprints out of five.

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The Shaman’s Doorway by Stephen Larsen

The Shaman’s Doorway
Stephen Larsen
Station Hill Press, 1988
258 pages

When I first picked up this book, I had no idea that the author had done so many neat things! I was specifically impressed by his work with mythology and semiotics in practice, and it seems that a lot of what he does parallels a lot of neopagan ritual structures. This means I will have to find out more, because I already like what I’ve seen.

That includes picking up a newer edition of this particular book. Even this edition has a lot to offer. In it, Larsen doesn’t so much describe what shamanism is as he continues the work in mythos that Campbell (among others) created, and places the figure of the shaman within that context. While it is a bit of an academic, abstract approach, this meta-analysis of shamanism still has much value for the modern practitioner, especially as those of us practicing within largely non-animistic cultures try to carve out niches for ourselves.

Even if one is not a practicing (neo)shaman, there’s much that this book has to offer. One of the most valuable parts of the book for me was when Larsen broke down the various stages of development in approaching myth, from the very dogmatic to the very flexible, with a detour into pure scientific rationalism along the way. While it’s a bit biased and overly linear, and Larsen shows a decided preference for a psychological approach to myth, there’s still a lot to think about in how he describes the benefits and shortcomings of each approach.

Similarly, other parts of the book, to include Larsen’s assessment of Eastern vs. Western approaches to myth, should be taken with a grain of salt. However, with a healthy critical eye one should be able to look past that to get to the good brain food in these pages.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Bear Daughter by Judith Berman

Bear Daughter
Judith Berman
Ace Books, 2005
422 pages

I don’t do much shopping for fiction any more, unless someone recommends a title. However, I was visiting my hometown not too long ago and stopped in at the sci-fi/comic book shop that I used to buy fantasy titles from on a weekly basis. I happened to see this novel and was drawn by the cover art, as well as the title. Because of it, I may just have to start browsing fantasy fic again.

Cloud is a twelve-year-old girl. Or, at least, she is now. Up until the beginning of the story, she was a brown bear living in the woods near a human settlement. Unsure of her place now, and with the leader of the community literally after her life, Cloud must figure out where to find safety, and why it is that she no longer wears a bearskin. The answers to her dilemmas are far from ordinary, as she is about to find out.

Normally I wince when an author tries to weave Native American cultural and spiritual elements into a work of fiction, particularly fantasy. Berman has the advantage of being an anthropologist, and additionally rather than trying to say that Cloud and her people are of a specific tribe, she instead draws on general cultural themes in the tribes of the Pacific Northwest (and is honest about doing so). Rather than being some lofty, Clan of the Cave Bear wannabe, Bear Daughter portrays a realistic, unromanticized and yet fascinating world created of threads of both truth and creative fiction.

I think my favorite parts had to be the descriptions of Cloud’s experiences with the spirit world. Berman does a spectacular job of capturing the otherworldly qualities of reported experiences in shamanic journeying and similar practices, yet Cloud’s own travels are anything but rote repeating of anthropological reports. Instead, the spirit world here is a unique thing, fraught with the same level of danger but not with the exact same beings. Again, it’s a great balance between what is in this reality, and what comes of the cosmology of a created world.

In short, I absolutely loved this book. I only wish the author had written more! I would recommend it especially who like a good bit of animism in their stories, but it’s a great read in general, too.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Sacred by Beck and Walters – September BBBR

The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life
Peggy V. Beck and Anna L. Walters
Navajo Community College (now Diné College), 1988
370 pages

The vast majority of books out there about “Native American spirituality” are utter hogwash. However, I picked this text up because I figured with it being published by a community college operated by Native Americans, that it would be a pretty accurate overview of the subject material. I wasn’t disappointed in the least.

First and foremost, The Sacred establishes the cultural contexts that Native Ameican tribal religions have developed in. While there are some generalizations made, the authors in no way try to equate these various belief systems or combine them into some universal path. Instead, they identify some common general trends, and then spend much of the book providing individual examples from a variety of tribes. The specific subjects run the gamut from shamanism to peyote rituals, ghost dancing and similar religious movements to rites of passage. I also appreciated the frank discussion of the very real effects that the colonizers had on the indigenous cultures, to include the variety of opinions and reactions that were offered.

While it is a textbook, it’s nowhere near dry or overly academic. One gets the distinct sense of these being living traditions, unlike many texts which try to place indigenous people in some mystical past. There’s a good balance, too, between stating the basic facts and displaying pride in heritage. The many photos add to both the scholarly value and humanistic elements of the text.

If you’re tired of generic “Native American spirituality” and dry anthropological studies, this is a great alternative. It shouldn’t be seen as the be-all and end-all of the subject, but it’s a good reality check and a nice resource if you want a quick reference to accurate information.

Five pawprints out of five.

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