Trance-Portation by Diana L. Paxson

Trance-Portation: Learning to Navigate the Inner World
Diana L. Paxson
Weiser Books, 2008
276 pages

Given her extensive work in trance work, particularly (though not exclusively) being a founder of modern seidr practice, Diana L. Paxson is an excellent person to be writing an in-depth guide to deliberately achieving altered states of consciousness. While numerous books on (neo)shamanism and other practices give sections or chapters on techniques including drumming, conscious breathing, dancing, and other methodology, this text specialized in explaining trance work in all its detail, and does a great job of fulfilling its goal.

Rather than only focusing on one particular type of trance work (such as only journeying), Paxson offers a more general framework that can be applied in several different contexts. Don’t let this fool you into thinking it’s watered-down however. It’s generalized in the same way William G. Gray’s Magical Ritual Methods explains a generalized approach to ritual magic. In both cases, the authors go into painstaking detail in the mechanics of their subject matter, but without adhering to a specific path.

This truly is a step-by-step guide to trance. Paxson starts with a variety of exercises to train the reader in necessary skills for trance, and to prepare them for what’s next. Trance itself is covered in detail–not only the actual mechanisms for doing so, and ways to shift one’s mind into an altered state, but also information on both physical and incorporeal aid and tools. Additionally, she discusses something many authors overlook–the inherent dangers associated with trance work. Not just medical dangers, which everyone talks about, but the fact that not everything you meet may be nice, and yes, you may have to fight. There are also substantial sections for those who will be guiding others through trance to help them apply the rest of the book to their work.

Trance-portation is a cover-to-cover guide that will be useful to just about any neopagan, neoshaman, or other person wanting help in journeying, astral travel, lucid dreaming, and similar practices. It’s one I’ll be recommended to my own students, and one that I think will be indispensible to most of the people who pick it up.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Shamanic Witch by Gail Wood

The Shamanic Witch: Spiritual Practices Rooted in the Earth and Other Realms
Gail Wood
Weiser Books, 2008
244 pages

I’m always leery of books that claim to mix shamanism and witchcraft, or that the two systems are one and the same (or nearly so). While I understand the tendency towards saying “Hey, these two flavors go great together!”, I also think it’s valuable to emphasize the differences as well. This book, like most others of its niche, integrates witchcraft specifically with core shamanism, which is not traditional shamanism, but rather a somewhat diluted creation of Michael Harner’s. I will, however, attempt to set aside my personal bias against core shamanism for this review, since others may find it more useful than I do.

Wood does present a thoroughly blended combination of core shamanism and witchcraft. A large portion of the book is dedicated to the foundations of core shamanism, everything from basic journeying to working with power objects. A lot of it follows the usual core shamanism patterns–power animals in the underworld, spiritual humanoid teachers in the upper world, and the idea that you only have one power animal which can apparently serve many purposes (as opposed to traditional shamanisms in which the shaman may have numerous helper spirits of all sorts).

The latter half of the book presents a number of more witchcraft-style rituals, complete with circle casting and other hallmarks of Wiccan ritual structure, with some shamanism sandwiched in the middle. Sometimes the combinations are a little clumsy; I’m not sure, for example, whether it’s really necessary to journey and then raise a cone of power, especially when journeying can be exhausting in and of itself. Additionally, there’s a lot of repetitive material–the full opening and closing rites (which take up a few pages in and of themselves) are reprinted in full with each ritual. The same could have been accomplished simply by presenting the basic ritual structure (which Wood did do), and then discuss more briefly the specific differences among each of the rituals presented. I am glad, however, that unlike many “shamanic” authors, she doesn’t try to script journeys as though they were guided meditations (and there is a difference between the two), nor does she limit the reader only to the usual journeys (finding power animal(s), basic soul retrieval, etc.). This is a definite bonus as far as I’m concerned.

My other gripes tend to be specifically with core shamanism, not with the book. If you like core shamanism and would like to integrate it with Wiccan-style witchcraft (or vice versa), this is a decent book for doing so. Wood does leave a lot of room for personal experimentation and growth, too. It’s well-written and well-organized, and while I would definitely not recommend it as one’s only source on shamanism (or witchcraft for that matter), it’s good for what it is.

Four pawprints out of five.

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The Art of Shapeshifting by Ted Andrews

The Art of Shapeshifting
Ted Andrews
Dragonhawk Publishing, 2005
320 pages

This book hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of Andrews’ other works, such as Animal-Speak or Animal-Wise. Which is a shame, because it’s a great book on a particular niche in animal magic that all too often ends up with a cursory explanation and a few basic exercises if you’re lucky. What Andrews presents in this book is the art of shapeshifting, and he goes into more detail and depth with it than I’ve seen anywhere else in print.

The book starts the reader out with a decent amount of preparatory material. Andrews explains his theories on how and why shapeshifting dance works, such as how energy flows in this sort of work, and what the body is capable of. He then segues into basic exercises to condition and prepare both the body and spirit for shapeshifting itself; there’s a good deal of breathwork and use of particular postures which will come in quite handy later on when invoking an animal spirit or energy. He also draws on the importance of mythology, particularly archetypes, to add an extra layer to the experience of shapeshifting.

When it comes time to try shapeshifting dance, the reader should be well-prepared in anticipation of the event. Any of a number of props and other items may be utilized, and the reader who has read thoroughly should have a good understanding of what they’re for and which will be useful to hir personally. Once basic shapeshifting dance has been achieved, Andrews also includes both magic and mysticism which can incorporate shapeshifting, as a way to show that it’s not necessarily done only for its own sake. As I mentioned, this is a very thorough approach to the topic.

I think my only complaint is with the layout of the book. There are a few places where the font sizes chosen don’t seem to really mesh well together, which can be a bit distracting. However, this is a minor issue overall. I could do without some of the correspondences, too, with things such as herbs, deities, and stones. However, some people prefer more trapping and tools, and so these may be useful to other readers.

Overall, I think this book fills its niche quite nicely, and deserves more attention than it’s gotten.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Celtic Totem Animals by John Matthews

Celtic Totem Animals
John Matthews
Red Wheel/Weiser Books, 2002
192 pages plus CD and 20 cards

There are only so many ways you can rehash basic totem animal material. Usually it comes down to “What is a totem animal? How do I meet my totem? What does each totem mean? What do I do once I know my totem?” and so forth. John Matthews has attempted to try to put a Celtic spin on things, as he did with Celtic Shamanism.

Much of the material in the book that came with this set is based on the usual neopagan totemism material, mixed with core shamanism. Guided meditations are presented as “journeys” (when they are not the same thing). Totems are painted as generally benign, and there’s not much offered in the way of warning in case one encounters an unhappy totem animal. He also invokes a number of human-animal interactions, and shapeshifting, as “totemic” or “shamanic” experiences. Some of these are real stretches of speculation; while I can see where the spirit of totemism flows through Celtic mythology, I have to question some of his historical assumptions.

Still, practically speaking, Matthews offers a pretty decent totemic system. While he limits his focus to twenty birds, mammals and the occasional cold-blooded critter that feature in Celtic myth and culture, he does briefly mention that other animals may show up as well. And his yearly cycle for working with the totems does offer a good structure for integrating theory into practice. I wish he’d spent less time talking about lore (which is what a large portion of the book is dedicated to) and more to development of the practical material, as well as discussion of his own experiences.

The totem cards are a complete disappointment. They’re tiny, and the card stock is about on par with a cheap postcard. They won’t last long, and the small size doesn’t really allow the artwork to have as much detail as it could. The drumming CD is a nice addition, though it’s specifically tailored for the totemic “journeying” described in the book–20 minutes of a single drum, 20 minutes of two drums, 30 minutes of one drum. As with any drumming CD, you’re limited by the time constraints of the recording.

It’s a nice effort, but it has a number of flaws. It almost comes across as something that was created primarily to tap the market of totem and other magical “kits” that was just hitting its stride when the set first came out. It’s not the worst totem kit I’ve seen, but neither is it the best. The originality of some of the material gives it some bonus points, but it could have been better.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Modern Shamanic Living by Evelyn C. Rysdyk

Modern Shamanic Living: New Explorations of an Ancient Path
Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Weiser, 1999
110 pages

There are numerous introductory texts on neoshamanism out there; most have the usual material–what is shamanism, how to journey, what are the three worlds, how to find a power animal, etc. Evelyn Rysdyk offers up her own interpretation of these ideas in her book, Modern Shamanic Living. What sets her book apart from others of its vein is the archetype of the hunter/gatherer that she works with as part of her own shamanic work.

I’ll admit some discomfort with the hunter/gatherer archetype. While I understand that Rysdyk wants to encourage readers to get in better touch with Nature within and without, and to question the harmful effects of postindustrial society, I’m not sure that hyperromanticed conjectures about prehistoric living are the way to go. Rysdyk paints pre-agricultural life as idyllic, and her conception of Nature is similarly romanticized. Additionally, as she is coming from a core shamanic background, some of her conceptions of shamanism, and particularly journeying, are correspondingly New Age-ish. While she admits, for example, that there are harmful spirits (but only in the Middle World), she makes no mention of the possibility that even helper spirits may not always have our best interests in mind. She additionally treats the power animal as a spirit-of-all-worlds, telling people, for example, that they can invite the power animal into the upper world (when, in actuality, the power animal may not even have access to it).

That being said, she also brings up some really important material. I was particularly impressed with her chapter on connecting with the body, and how we’ve managed as a society to become so distanced from what our bodies are telling us. Additionally, she discusses some much-needed perspectives on ecology and sustainability. I wish the book were longer; she could have gone into much greater detail on these and other topics, and while I don’t agree with her on every point, I would have loved to see her ideas fleshed out more fully. She dedicated a significant portion of the small page count to personal anecdotes, and while these are important, I would have liked to have seen more personally applicable material.

If you’re looking for a basic book on neoshamanism, this is a decent choice. The basic techniques are there, and to her great credit, Rysdyk includes not only a bibliography, but footnotes, which I heartily approve of. Use this as a good starting point for neoshamanic practice, and utilize the resources she cites to take it further.

Four 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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Earthway – Mary Summer Rain – September BBBR

Earthway: A Native American Visionary’s Path to Total Mind, Body and Spirit Health
Mary Summer Rain
Pocket Books, 1990
442 pages

Oops, almost missed this month–grad school has me exceptionally busy. But here it is, the Bargain Bin Book Review for September! I’ll admit, this is the very first book by Mary Summer Rain I’ve ever read. I’ve heard the praise and complaints about her work, but I wanted to find out for myself what the fuss is all about. Some people absolutely love her work, and some hate what they consider to be some of the worst plastic shamanism.

I’m afraid I’ll have to opt in with the latter group. Right off the bat, I was cringing from the pidgin English that “No-eyes”, Rain’s supposed mentor, was stuck with–“Nope, it just be fact”, from p. 26, is just one example. I’m guessing No-eyes is up there with don Juan Matus for being a fictionalized Indian presented as a flesh and blood human being. Trying to buy legitimacy with a made-up mentor = points off your final review.

This is subtitled “a Native American visionary’s path”. I found a hodgepodge of information from a variety of sources, including a ton of Western medicine, with some totem animals and other correspondences thrown in. There’s New Age dream interpretation material, to include a whole bunch of 20th century elements that wouldn’t have been a part of any traditional Native American culture. There’s what’s supposedly Anasazi astrology. And there’s a whole lot of medical advice being dispensed by someone who, to my understanding, isn’t a medical professional. Extra points taken off for an utter and complete lack of a bibliography or other notations of source material.

I can’t, in good conscience, recommend this book to anyone, either as a guide to healthy living, or indigenous spiritual and cultural practices–really for anything except as an object lesson in plastic shamanism. Now I see why so many people complain about this author’s work. This is some of the worst of the worst.

One pawprint out of five.

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The Shamanic Drum – Michael Drake

The Shamanic Drum: A Guide to Sacred Drumming
Michael Drake
Talking Drum Publications, 1991
100 pages

If you’re not a fan of core shamanism, you probably won’t like this book. It’s heavily based on material from Harner’s The Way of the Shaman and derivative works. I tried to keep in mind that when it was written back in 1991, there wasn’t nearly as much practical information on neoshamanism as there is now, and most of it was core shamanism. There is a revised edition as of 2002, which has more material; however, as I have not read that edition yet. So be aware that this review is for the original edition.

That being said, I have some things I like about this book, and some things I’m not so crazy about.


–Drake definitely knows his drums. His information on drum care is spot-on. This bit of practical information is quite valuable if this is your first book on drumming.
–He also has obviously done practical work; this is a book based on experience, not just a bit of theorizing and making things up to fill the pages. If the things I dislike below don’t particularly bother you, you may find this to be an excellent text to work from, as it covers everything from the cosmonology of the drum, to different drumming rites and practices you can engage in.
–Endnotes! There are Endnotes! Which means you can see where Drake got some of his third-party information. While he doesn’t provide endnotes for every bit of information that didn’t come from his head, what is there gives you a decent idea of his source material.
–There’s a good deal of environmentally-friendly information in this book, so it’s not all about the humans. It’s a healthy reminder of the good things this material can be used for, and I applaud it.


–The book treats journeying as though it were safe: “Remember that nothing can harm you on your journeys without your permission” (p. 42)
–Chakras are mixed in, without the explanation that they are specifically from Hinduism, not any shamanic culture (this is very common in New Age writings, unfortunately). The same goes for other New Age concepts that are mixed in with the material.
–Native American cultures are given the “noble savage” treatment: “We are drawn to Native American teachings because they are so pure and harmonious…When your heartbeat is one with the Earth’s, you may begin to look, feel and act much like traditional Native Americans, for they too resonate with her” (p. 77) There are also several generalizations about “shamanic cultures” throughout the book that are not particularly universal, and some of which have a very Western approach.

My biases being what they are, I do admit that as a concise guide to core shamanic drumming, this one’s pretty good. I’m split about 50-50 on my likes and dislikes. Again, I haven’t seen the newer edition, so you may want to give that one a try; some of the issues above may or may not have been addressed (for example, the new edition has an appendix on the American Indian Religious Freedom Act). On the other hand, if the new book is just an expansion of the same general material, you may want to keep this review in mind. If I get ahold of the new edition, I’ll give it a separate review.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic – Jenny Blain

Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-Shamanism in North European Paganism
Jenny Blain
Routledge, 2002
186 pages

This book was recommended to me as a good introduction to what seithr, shamanistic practices based in Northern European cultures, is. Specifically it focuses on the oracular aspects of the practice. Rather than a practical how-to manual with step-by-step instructions, it is a thoughtful and well-balanced text on the topic from someone who is both an academic and a practitioner. It fills two niches: the need for more material on seithr; and the need for more academic material on neoshamanisms in their own right, rather than as footnotes in shamanic discourse.

Blain presents a mixture of historical references to support the existence of seithr in Northern Europe, both before and after large-scale Christianization. However, she also approaches these materials with a critical eye, rather than simply accepting them as truth. She neatly weaves these in with commentary from modern practitioners of seithr, as well as her own experiences.

There are a number of controversial topics brought up in a generally neutral manner, allowing for the contemplation of the material discussed. A good deal of the book concerns gender issues in relation to seithr and the modern heathen movement, particularly the resistance to seithr by more conservative elements. The questions of whether seithr is strictly “wimmin’s work”, whether or not that disempowers it, and whether a seithman is “unmanned”, are all brought up and discussed in detail, both in the context of historical evidence and the modern heathen community.

Blain also tackles authenticity and seithr. Is it shamanism? Is it a legitimate, authentic practice? Are neoshamanisms in general authentic? Can “shamanism” be defined? Can a practitioner truly give an impartial review of seithr? These topics and more all provide a wealth of brain food to chew on.

While it isn’t an easy-breezy book to read, being written in high academese, it is an excellent introduction that gives context for the modern practice of seithr, as well as providing numerous resources that may be traced for more information. The fact that it is written by a practitioner who is also an academic only serves to deepen the value of this book. Hopefully it will encourage the weakening of the terror of “going native” in academia

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Book of the Vision Quest – Steven Foster

The Book of the Vision Quest: Personal Transformation in the Wilderness
Steven Foster with Meredith Little
Bear Tribe Publishing, 1983
170 pages

I have a love-hate relationship with this book. On the one hand there’s some really useful information in it. On the other, it smacks of wannabe Indianism. Let me elaborate on each.

The Good: The book is a good guide to what we’ll call vision questing, for simplicity’s sake. The second chapter of the book in particular is basically a handbook that seems designed for people that the author would guide out into the desert for their experiences. It has good practical information, though it should not be taken as your only source for this material. The bulk of the book involves anecdotes from various peoples’ experiences, used to illustrate different aspects of the quest. It’s well-written, and with a good balance of voices.

The Bad: It basically reads like “white people trying to be Indians”. Indigenous people are spoken of in the past tense, and in romanticized terms. While I understand that there are plenty of people trying to reconnect with the land, with each other, with themselves, too often people try to copy from other cultures without taking their own cultural contexts into account. There’s no real distinction made between the context of a society for whom vision questing is an integrated part of one’s life cycle, and a society for whom it is an alien experience. While the detachment of mainstream Americans is made clear, the manners in which we may experience our quests differently are not made so clear. Additionally, the use of the term “vision quest” may lead people to believe that the book is indigenous in origin.

I do see what the author was trying to do, and I think it’s a noble effort to try to get people reconnected. I just wish it weren’t in such a romanticized manner.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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