Rainbow Medicine by Wolf Moondance

Rainbow Medicine: A Visionary Guide to Native American Shamanism
Wolf Moondance
Sterling Publishing Company, 1994
192 pages

I tried to give this book a fair chance, despite my misgivings about claims of “Native American shamanism” from someone who, to my knowledge, isn’t recognized by any official tribe. (Having Cherokee and Osage genetics does not predispose one to knowing about a culture one has not been exposed to, or its religious practices.) While there are some useful practices in here, trying to call them a complete system of shamanism–or calling them Cherokee or Osage practices–would be seriously misleading.

As the title suggest, the information here is organized along the colors of the rainbow, though with an addition of “burgundy”, and several chapters on the directions and other natural phenomena. Each chapter includes the record of a journey the author did with the theme of the chapter, followed by a number of meditations, craft projects and other activities associated with the theme. And that’s pretty much it.

In and of themselves some of the journaling and meditation exercises are good reflection tools. Unfortunately, some of the activities, particularly crafts, are hijacked from various indigenous cultures, taken out of their context, and presented as “universal” practices. This, of course, dilutes their purpose as they need context which is unfortunately not provided here. One person’s journeying does not make up for the loss of an entire culture. Additionally, as mentioned, this seems to have less to do with complex Cherokee or Osage spirituality and more with core shamanism, New Age practices, and the author’s background in “human development” (does she have a degree in developmental psychology? Nothing is for sure.).

While I have no doubt that this can be an effective set of tools, both for the author and for some readers, I was disappointed by the lack of context, including but not limited to the lack of making direct connections between the author’s personal journey, and the exercises themselves. How much of this is the author’s own subjective experience, and how much is cultural material (however it may be presented)? It’s never made very clear.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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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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Soul Retrieval by Sandra Ingerman – August BBBR

Soul Retrievel: Mending the Fragmented Self
Sandra Ingerman
HarperCollins, 1991
224 pages

This month’s Bargain Bin Book Review was of interest to me both as a shamanic practitioner and as a future therapist. The author has a Master’s in counseling psychology, the same degree I’m working toward, and I was curious to see where her psychological background would come into play in this integral part of shamanic practice.

Ingerman does a very thorough job of describing the soul retrieval process, though she cautions the reader that the book should not be one’s only source, and that in-person training is suggested. I’m not sure how much I agree with that, particularly given that the author and her cohorts with the Foundation for Shamanic Studies do, or have in the past, offer such workshops. However, do be aware that this is not beginner-level materal, and shamanic practitioners should have a good bit of journeying under their belt, as well as good relationships with spiritual allies before embarking on this work. This is a great resource to have, though, if you are ready to try soul retrieval, either on yourself or others.

It also includes a really nice selection of anecdotes, more than many books. This serves to illustrate more fully the process of soul retrieval as well as the effects it has. The many testimonies from her clients say quite a bit not only about her experience but also her effectiveness. It’s well-balanced between how-to and anecdotal information.

She does come from a core shamanic background, but I was pleased to see that she acknowledged that journeying isn’t necessarily a safe thing, nor did she conflate journeying with guided meditations. Her main concerns with dangers in journeying, including during soul retrieval, were with the integrity of the shaman’s soul, as well as parasitic spirits “hanging on” on the way back out of the journey. And there was some discussion of what to do when the soul of the client doesn’t want to come back, or is stuck.

While there are occasional things I personally disagree with, overall I think this is a great text. Once I’m ready to do soul retrieval in practice, this will be an invaluable guide.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Shamanic Mysteries of Egypt by Scully and Star Wolf

Shamanic Mysteries of Egypt: Awakening the Healing Power of the Heart
Nicki Scully and Linda Star Wolf
Bear & Co, 2007
230 pages

Okay. I’m going to give this book some leeway because the authors make it very clear that what they’re presenting is New Age material. While they may take some concepts and flavorings from Egyptian mythos, what they’ve created are only very loose semblances, and they’re up front about that. Therefore I won’t pan the book as I would if they’d tried to convince me that the material was ancient, but I will have a few caveats.

Not that I dislike the book; for what it is and was intended to be, it turned out great! It’s a rather Aquarian pathworking system using Egyptian and sort-of shamanic elements. The pathworkings are arranged in groups. Two of them are–again, very loosely–based on the major arcana of the tarot, though the connections to the original cards might not immediately be evident. Then there are a number dedicated to the elements, as embodied through Egyptian phenomena (such as the Nile for Water). The authors then bring everything that the pathworker has done up to this point into a cohesive path toward “love” and “healing” (however you wish to interpret those particular concepts).

Kemetic pagans and others may disagree with the fairly light interpretation of the deities and other Egyptian beings; they’re shown as being a bit more nice and cooperative with the developing human spiritual being than ancient mythos describes (but again, this isn’t supposed to be grounded in the older mythos). I’m not sure I entirely agree with this being described as a “shamanic” text; guided meditations aren’t journeys, and while there is a death-rebirth theme to more than one of the pathworkings, that doesn’t make something automatically shamanic.

However, it’s still a quite useful text. The pathworkings, despite my qualms with the trappings, do build on each other, and do challenge the pathworker to delve deep within and wrestle with things that may not be easy to face. Certainly this books offers a good bit to think about and meditate on.

I didn’t like it quite so much as Scully’s Power Animal Meditations, but this is another decent collection of pathworkings along a specific theme. If that’s your style of working, this may be just what you’re after.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Seeing in the Dark by Deatsman and Bowersox

Seeing in the Dark: Claim Your Own Shamanic Power Now and in the Coming Age
Colleen Deatsman and Paul Bowersox
Weiser Books, 2009
240 pages

I think I’m reaching the point with (core) shamanism 101 books that I hit with totemism 101 books a few years ago–I’m getting tired of them, and want to see something besides rehashes of the same stuff. I had really hoped, when I read the first few pages of Seeing in the Dark, that it would be something different: the authors spoke of the many ecological and social injustices that we face today, and hinted that shamanism could be a tool for counteracting these destructive forces. Instead, what I got was the usual core shamanism 101 material: journeying without risk, lots of nice helper spirits, medicine wheels, and healing techniques. While these things certainly can be used in making the world a better place, the emphasis was mainly on self-help and other core shamanism standards.

Mind you, it’s good core shamanism 101 material. The book is a pretty complete guide to the basics. Granted, it’s the same thing you’ll find in any of a number of other core shamanism books, albeit with the authors’ own unique way of describing it and the reasons behind it, but this would make a good beginner’s book with a lot of material. And the authors have a keen sense of the human psyche and how to use shamanic techniques to heal it–again, standard core shamanism fare, but they present it in a nicely written fashion, backed up with a decent assortment of practices.

The material sometimes contradicts itself. For example, when talking about helping spirits, on p. 101 the authors quote another writer who essentially says that if you meet a hostile spirit, it always means there’s something wrong with you and your approach that you’re projecting. But then on 113-116, the authors’ own material describes spirits that are hostile in and of themselves, particularly those that are reluctant to or incapable of passing over to the next life. On page 10 they say that modern shamanism isn’t about taking things from other cultures, and then on 132 openly encourage people to borrow freely from other cultures with no caveats. The authors decry the “I” culture of the modern United States, and then describe a form of shamanism that is mainly about the individual shaman getting things from the spirits–teachings and gifts–with almost nothing about giving back to the spirits, making offerings to them, or seeing what it is they need.

I won’t get into my standard disagreements with core shamanism. What I will say is that, contradictions aside, this is a good intro to core shamanism. It didn’t knock my socks off, as it were, but I’m also hard to impress. If you want the basics, and this title’s convenient to you, pick it up. Just be aware that there’s not much to differentiate it from any of a number of other similar titles.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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Beyond 2012 by James Endredy

Beyond 2012: A Shaman’s Call to Personal Change and the Transformation of Global Consciousness
James Endredy
Llewellyn, 2008
220 pages

Leave it to James Endredy to write a book on 2012 that actually makes sense. I’ve liked what I’ve read of his work, particularly Ecoshamanism (which is one of my absolute favorite books on shamanism). It took me over a year after I first learned about the book to get it and read it, but I’m glad I did–it came at a good time.

Most of the books on 2012 are gloom-and-doom–the world is coming to an end in 2012 because the Mayan calendar says so, and all the bad things in the world are just more reasons to sit and mope and/or pontificate about this. And yet….and yet….this always struck me as really nowhere near constructive–especially since the end of the world had been predicted numerous time and had never happened. Beyond 2012 completely reframes the 2012 situation. Not only is the world not ending (except, maybe, as we know it) but 2012 is a good marker for a shift in consciousness and the way we make our decisions regarding the very real world we face right this moment, rather than some apocalyptic fantasy near-future. Endredy takes the root information on the 2012 phenomenon and manages to make a great deal of sense about it.

While Endredy’s shamanism does play a significant role in the material in this book, it is not strictly a book on shamanism. The techniques that he includes are more open than that, and are practices for those who wish to put forth conscious effort in making a better world in the face of environmental, social, and other destruction. Building altars, for example, is a fairly common technique in modern spiritual practices, and many of the techniques he provides for self-reflection aren’t so different from many of the concepts I’ve been learning about in my graduate-level psychological training.

What Endredy does provide is a keen awareness of the interconnectivity that humanity has with all of the rest of Nature, and a thoroughly developed, deeply-felt series of relationships with natural phenomena. A large portion of the book is written to reflect dialogues he’s had with the various phenomena of Nature, some of his most important teachers. What has always struck me about his work, both through his writing and in the occasion I was able to participate in a rite of passage he facilitated, is how sincere it is–he’s about the least pretentious person I’ve ever run into, and this includes within his shamanic practice. The material in Beyond 2012 reflects a primary focus on rebuilding that connectivity and awareness on a greater scale, and offering people a variety of tools to choose from. I know I’ll be keeping this text in part for work with my therapeutic clients, because there’s a lot of versatility here.

And in fact, this book has a lot of potential readers. In addition to shamanic practitioners and pagan folk in general utilizing this in spiritual and other manners, environmental activists and mental health professionals both can take the ideas into the wider social sphere. Additionally, I would love to give a copy of this to every person who’s convinced that the world’s going to hell in a handbasket come 2012, to show them that there are much more constructive ways to look at this potentially transitional period. I never thought I’d give this rating to a book on this subject, but here goes:

Five optimistic pawprints out of five.

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Seeking the Spirit of the Book of Change by Master Zhongxian Wu

Seeking the Spirit of the Book of Change: 8 Days to Mastering a Shamanic Yijing (I Ching) Prediction System
Master Zhongxian Wu
Singing Dragon, 2009
240 pages

Note: This review is also appearing in an upcoming issue of Thorn Magazine, along with longer reviews not posted here.

While the core focus of the book is on the Yijing as a divinatory system, Wu presents an elaborate spiritual context surrounding the ceremony of divination. He goes into great detail explaining his particular interpretation of Chinese tea ceremony, not only its physical actions but observations such as the differences in how the tea tastes and feels on different points of the tongue to allow a deeper savoring. There are also various meditative poses for each of the eight days involved in learning Wu’s method of Yijing; while the system could be used by someone with a day job, some of the suggestions (such as spending days hiking) may be difficult without planning.

I’m not entirely sure I agree with the author’s interpretation of the wu as shamans. He presents a highly romanticized picture of the wu as composed primarily of royal “enlightened beings.” While I would assume there were some such practitioners who engaged in divination, Wu fails to mention that “wu” is also attributed to peasant women by some sources, and he doesn’t mention whether the “shaman kings” of the Wu dynasty were uniformly enlightened, or whether some had feet of clay.

Practically speaking, the book is a little hard to follow because of its disorganization, which sometimes comes across as a stream of consciousness of ideas. This doesn’t make the book unreadable, just more difficult to parse.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Ecotherapy – Edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist

Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind
Edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist
Sierra Club Books, 2009
312 pages

I’ve been anxiously awaiting this book since I heard about it in my ecotherapy class last semester. As soon as a copy was available at Powell’s Books, I picked it up and dug in. While a large portion of my interest in the text is as a future therapist, I’m reviewing it here because there’s a lot of relevant information for ecologically minded pagans regardless of career path; this is the same reason I also reviewed the original Ecopsychology anthology that this is a follow-up of sorts to.

I think I was expecting more hands-on, how-to techniques for “greening” one’s therapy practices. While there were some essays that dealt with this, many of them were more general ecopsychology theory, with some anecdotes from the authors’ experiences with clients. At first I was disappointed, but I thought about the nonlinear nature of ecopsychology, and decided that this was an appropriate approach anyway. So take this not only as a collection of ideas to weave into a therapeutic practice, but also as a more general overview of ecopsychology in the 21st century. I enjoyed all of the essays, but here are a few that stood out, particularly of interest to eco-pagans:

–“Ecopsychology as Radical Praxis” by Andy Fisher: An excellent argument on why it’s impossible to truly separate ecopsychology (theory) from ecotherapy (practice); it’s also the first of multiple essays in the collection that connect psychological practice to social issues and activism.

–Embodying Sentience” by Amanda Leigh Morrison: Eating disorders, body image issues, and our culture’s dis-connection from the physical body are examined from an ecopsychological perspective. The focus on reconnecting to the body as the vehicle in which we move in this world, and the important connection between physical and psychological health, may be old news to some pagans, but it’s an excellent interpretation of these concepts.

–“Transformation Through Service: Trans-species Psychology and Its Implications for Ecotherapy” by G.A. Bradshaw: No doubt probably one of the most controversial essays in this collection, this one examines the current ecological and psychological crises we face through the psychology of nonhuman animals, particularly the manifestations of stress and psychological disorders in these other beings. It’s a strong argument for treating animals not only humanely, but as other peoples.

–“Creative Restorative Ecotherapeutic Practices” by Mary Watkins: This long essay is valuable particularly for its ability to touch on just about all of the basic themes of the anthology overall: the harm caused by our hyperindividualistic society, the importance of rewriting psychological and social narratives, the controversies surrounding the act of “rocking the boat” that ecopsychologists and other critical psychologists engage in, the relationship between person and place, and building reconnection.

–“The Greening of the Self” by Joanna Macy: While all of the essays in the ecospirituality section of this anthology are well worth the read, this one was my favorite. Macy, ever the inspiring writer, gives a bright beacon of hope, showing three important ways in which people in Western cultures are losing the highly insular, small-ego focus, and developing broader, more interconnected ways of seeing the Self.

–“Altars of Extinction” by Mary Gomes: I cried while reading this account of ritual practices and altars set up to lost species; it’s a project I would like to take on myself when I have a little more time, and it’s one of the most concrete examples of an ecotherapeutic practice. Interestingly enough, this essay was originally published, in a different form, in a 2005 issue of Reclaiming Quarterly; the original essay, along with contact information for the author (in case you want information on the project) may be found here. The new version is definitely a good addition to the anthology.

The one thing that frustrated me was that there were so many essays that often the authors could only offer brief introductions to their topics. While some of them have books and other publications of their own, it’s still going to necessitate more research on my part. This isn’t a horrible tragedy, but there were a number of essays where I got to the end and wondered “Wait, where’s the rest? This is good stuff!”

The first portion of the book may not be quite so interesting to those not in the field of psychology, but the essays are worth a read nonetheless, if for no other reason than to shoot holes in the stereotype of the uncaring, distant, pagan-unfriendly therapist armed with a bunch of pills and strict diagnoses. Additionally, the eco-focus, along with a couple of really good essays on practical dreamwork, should offer more than enough fodder for pagan practices. Overall, I would most definitely recommend this to any neopagan reader; there are a lot of good ideas in here that could be as well adapted to ritual practice as to therapy (and often the twain do meet in this collection).

Five inspired pawprints 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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