Manifesting True Desires: Learning from Arianrhod and the Tree of Life by Alfred Willowhawk

Manifesting True Desires: Learning from Arianrhod and the Tree of Life
Alfred Willowhawk
Self-published, 2013
134 pages

Reviewed by Nicky

I was quite excited to read this very promising sounding book. The stated premise is learning from and working with Arianrhod’s myths and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life in order to make desired changes in your life. As a devotee to Arianrhod with an interest in the Tree of Life, it sounded right up my alley. However, the book left me disappointed when it did not match its premise.

The book starts on a reasonably positive note in the first section, which recounts Arianrhod’s myths and lists suggested ways of working with the Goddess. The author has an easy to follow informal tone and I appreciated that he emphasised real life working to manifest desires, not just passively sitting by expecting the magic to do all the work. He seemed to have a decent working understanding of Arianrhod’s myths and how they apply in real-life situations. Nothing in here is groundbreaking but there are some potentially effective meditations and it’s easy to understand. I had high hopes that the book would expand upon these principles.

The second section covers the Tree of Life. Unfortunately, this segment is where the book falls down significantly. The explanations of the Tree of Life are unclear and lacking in detail. My understanding is that that Tree of Life is complicated and that it takes a lot of study and practice to fully understand. For that reason, I was disappointed in the short, simple paragraphs discussing the general meaning of each part of it. For something so complex, I expected a more careful exploration. I often felt the author was repeating facts rather than exploring or explaining them.

Additionally, I found the author’s strict adherence to a masculine/feminine dichotomy and other gender binary stereotypes to be problematic and possibly alienating to one who does not identify with either named gender or as more than one. I saw no suggestion that a woman or man could embody other qualities than those traditionally seen as “feminine” or “masculine.” He actually actively discusses the duality of gender as a universal truth and emphasises the necessity of this duality in creation. I understand that this is a traditional Kabbalistic belief but I’ve seen many Kabbalists and magical workers expand these beliefs to include a less black and white practice or system. They treat these things as symbolic representations of deeper mysteries, whereas I felt this book presented them as literal fact.

The book ends with a list of suggested spells that draw from both segments. I presume this is the “manifesting desires” portion of the text, given that it was only talked about in theory in the previous chapters. This might have been fine in another book but not in one actually titled Manifesting Desires. I expected more instruction than a list of spells and some theoretical, albeit wise, advice about doing the physical work and being careful how you word a spell.

To reiterate, the biggest problem with this book is that it doesn’t meet its stated goal of teaching how to use the myths of Arianrhod and the Tree of Life to manifest one’s desires. Although the first segment showed promise, the writing doesn’t draw together the two strands; it reads like two books in one. I wanted a much more in depth discussion on manifesting desires with many examples, suggestions on how to improve your practice and maybe even some advice on getting out of situations you don’t desire. I wanted to see Arianrhod’s myths weaved into a larger portion of the text and more connection made between those myths and the use of the Tree of Life. I wanted more and I wanted it done more clearly, tightly and with a broader, less literal interpretation.

Overall, there is nothing new in this book that I haven’t seen explained better elsewhere. The idea was great; the execution let it down.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Practical Protection Magick by Ellen Dugan

Practical Protection Magick: Guarding and Reclaiming Your Power
Ellen Dugan
Llewellyn Publications, 2011
218 pages

Back in the 1990s when I first started getting into neopaganism, the pagan publishing world was glutted with countless books on spells, rituals, how-to-do-X-type-of-magick, and other compendia of brief and not particularly deep explorations of assorted topics. This book is a throwback to that time, for better or worse.

It does have its good points. The information that the author includes in conjunction with the rituals is often pretty sound. She talks about standing up to bullies, a topic that needs much more coverage, and doesn’t just throw a spell at it. She also uses anecdotes and discussion to illustrate how not to deal with disruptive members of magical groups, how to tell a psychic vampire with good ethics from one without, and setting one’s boundaries more firmly, the latter of which is absolutely essential to staying safe on all levels of being. And the rituals and spells associated with the various topics can help to solidify the lessons in the reader’s mind.

However, there are also some major issues that severely deplete the effectiveness of even the good points. For example, early in the book she gives symptoms of a psychic attack, such as the feeling of being watched, or a heaviness about the shoulders. What’s sorely lacking, though, is a healthy application of Occam’s Razor—“the simplest answer is the most likely”. The feeling of being watched is a remnant of us being mammals, and we are aware of purely physical cues on a not-entirely-conscious level that can still create reactions we are conscious of. And she completely ignores any other potential internal source for these feelings.

In at least one case this could lead to someone not getting proper treatment for a mental condition: she states that having “Vivid, recurring dreams that are especially violent or disturbing” (p. 39). This is a classic symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and can also be associated with other anxiety disorders, and nowhere does she suggest going to a counselor or other professional to rule out any potential diagnoses.

She also sets people up for self-pigeonholing by offering up a set of criteria to determine whether one has one of four psychic “powers”—clairaudience, clairvoyance, empathy, and intuition (the latter of two are actually found in any healthy human being and are products of our evolution as social mammals based, again, on subtle unconscious cues and responses). Some of the criteria are pretty weak:

“I always pay attention to my inner voice or my inner monologue.” Yes, that’s called thinking.
“I can hear it when someone is lying to me.” Welcome to nonverbal communication.
“While being taught something new, I do better by being shown as opposed to being told.” There are lots of people with a more visual learning style as opposed to an auditory learning style.
“I mistrust people who will not look me in the eyes or who look away while speaking to me.” There are some cultures in which it is considered rude to look at someone directly while speaking; additionally, some people even in American culture are just shy.
“I am easily influenced by other people’s moods and emotions.” So are a lot of other people with really permeable boundaries; this is not always healthy.

I wanted to give a few more examples, but this is all I could stomach. Needless to say, the majority of these criteria are just plain human being traits, and I foresee this book making people, yet again, treat these normal human traits as “I’m soooooooo special!”

Overall, I really cannot recommend this book to anyone. The shaky and questionable parts far outweigh the benefits.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Everyday Witch A to Z Spellbook by Deborah Blake

Everyday Witch A to Z Spellbook
Deborah Blake
Llewellyn, 2010
246 pages

I’ll start this review with the caveat that I’m really not a fan of spell books. They’re one of those remnants of the 90’s ZOMGWICCA publishing boom that I wish would just fade away. It feels as though the formula is “Write the main how-to book on a given tradition/topic/etc. Then write the related spell book. And after that? Somehow tarot.

That being said, I do not constitute the whole of the esoteric and related readership. And if someone were to insist that they needed a spell book, either to work with directly or as inspiration, I’d recommend this one as a potential addition to the witchy library. I’ve generally been a fan of Deborah Blake’s writing, and I’m not surprised she managed to write a spell book that I can give a positive review.

I think a lot of it is that she came up with a really wide variety of spell ideas. There’s more than just the usual lineup of healing, protection, money and LUV ME PLEASE! There’s a spell to boost advertising in business endeavors, and another to increase the likelihood of a damaged friendship being mended in a mutually favorable fashion. There are also things that can be used to boost–but not replace–mental health treatment, such as one to decrease emotional sensitivity, and another to focus on working through mental illness in general. And, as the title suggests, these are all arranged in alphabetical order–and some of the titles, like “Jerk Avoidance” and “Shit Happens” added a bit of levity. And the spells themselves are well-written and don’t involve hard-to-obtain materials like eye of honey badger.

There are a few pages of additional information helpful to spellcasting. Along with some guides on writing and casting spells, and when to cast or not, there’s also a bit of a blurb on familiars penned (by proxy) by Blake’s feline familiar, Magic, that’s actually pretty good even in its brevity. This is a nice guide for anyone new to the concept of spellcasting, but those who seek new ideas beyond the usual stuff may find this to be a good source of inspiration.

It’s still another spell book, and I’ll admit the cover got the hairy eyeball from me. But if ya gotta have a spell book, you could do much, much worse than this creative approach.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Egyptian Revenge Spells by Claudia R. Dillaire

Egyptian Revenge Spells: Ancient Rituals for Modern Payback
Claudia R. Dillaire
Crossing Press, 2009
192 pages

It’s no secret that the original pagans were no stranger to curses. From tribal shamans to priests to everyday people utilizing folk magic, part of most magic-workers’ arsenal was curses and other maleficio. The Egyptians weren’t an exception to this, and contemporary examples of magic that would make white lighters’ toes curl can still be found today. Of course, “black magic” being antithetical to the Wiccan rede and many other neopagan ethical guidelines (or, at least many neopagans’ interpretations of said ethical guidelines), curses can sometimes be a subject that gets skirted around–or subjected to flame wars.

Kudos, then, to Claudia Dillaire, for writing a book on something new for a change! In this case, it’s revenge that’s the topic of the day, whether dealing with a jilted lover (including those with stalker-like tendencies), ruining someone financially, or simply messing with someone who has already messed with you. There are dozens of incantations, spells and rituals for multiple uses–and while some of them are most definitely for revenge, there are also some for more benign forms of protection, reflection spells, etc.

This isn’t a book of old Egyptian spells, but is instead a collection of modern Wicca-flavored spellcraft with some Egyptian influence. There’s a decidedly Wiccan feel to them, with the common inclusion of candles, crystals, common “witchy” herbs, and incense, and the fairly standard spoken portions. While they do incorporate calling on Egyptian deities, in some ways this could be any of a number of spell books.

I’m not entirely sure how the author interprets Egyptian neopaganism in the first few chapters, where she’s establishing some context for the spells. Sometimes it seems like she’s comparing “Egyptian magic” to Wicca (that in particular, as opposed to general neopaganism); other times, it’s as though she’s trying to differentiate between them. Given that the spells themselves are pretty heavily Wicca (or at least witchcraft) flavored, I would have hoped she’d be a little clearer about how much Wicca and witchcraft influenced the unique brand of Egyptian magic she compiled from research and practice. In fact, if there’s anything seriously missing here, it’s a better explanation of where, exactly, she’s coming from. I was left a little unsure as to where the connection is between ancient Egyptian religious practices that spanned several millenia, and her personal practices today.

I’m also not a Kemetic pagan, and Egyptian religion and culture aren’t things I know a whole lot about, so I can’t speak too much to the quality of research. There was nothing glaringly wrong, and the bibliography had a mix of scholarly and practical source material. I could have hoped for in-text or other citations, especially for the historical information, but it’s a bit late for that now!

If you’re looking for some inspiration to unleash some wicked magic–or at least vent some frustration creatively–this is a good book. Don’t pick it up as an example of historically-based Kemetic paganism, however; it’s rather too eclectic for that. It’s a unique creation of the author’s, and gripes aside, I think it’s a nice change from the usual strict adherence to “Harm none”.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Crafting Magick With Pen and Ink by Susan Pesznecker

Crafting Magick With Pen and Ink
Susan Pesznecker
Llewellyn, 2009
240 pages

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

The neopagan community has a lot of writers in many genres, and there’s a demand for resources tailored to our own interests. While general books on “how to be a writer” offer many of the same practical advice found in this book, what makes it stand apart is the more esoteric material. Amid the how-to’s of writing, Pesznecker provides rituals and other magical aids in facilitating one’s creativity.

Pesznecker, who has a Master’s degree in nonfiction writing, explains just about everything the aspiring—or existing—writer could want, neopagan or otherwise. She covers such topics as different methods for provoking greater creativity, refining one’s unique voice, writing effective dialogue and description, revision techniques, and why good readers make better writers. Her information is well-organized, though not always in a strictly linear fashion.

From a magical and spiritual perspective, the author offers quite a bit of support. Along with magical practices to utilize throughout the writing practice to help stay focused, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to writing ritual material and spells. I also liked her concept of writing “sparks”, prompts based on neopagan religious material.

All this theoretical material is nicely punctuated by journaling exercises to further solidify the concepts through practice. Even though I’ve been a published author for a few years and have a pretty good system down with my writing, I picked up some good tips to incorporate, and I’d definitely recommend this to newer writers as well. Whether you’re writing nonfiction, fiction, or ritual material, there’s plenty to love about this resourceful text.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Amulet Manual – Kim Farnell

The Amulet Manual: A Guide to Understanding and Making Your Own Amulets
Kim Farnell
O Books, 2007
134 pages

Note: This review was originally written for and published in newWitch magazine.

Most Pagans, once they have some experience, prefer to create their own rituals, spells and magical objects. The Amulet Manual is a basic guidebook to making amulets, magical objects aimed at drawing a particular sort of energy, influence or entity.

The first part of the book deals with the history of amulets in various cultures, and gives brief overviews of common amulets found everywhere from South America to ancient Egypt. The author also explains the difference between an amulet and a talisman, and provides a basic ritual for creating and charging your newly created amulet.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to magical correspondences that may come in handy when making amulets. The usual suspects—herbs, stones and planetary energies—are covered, though Farnell also covers sigilization (classic and Chaos magic). Her research is good and there’s a good bit of information in these pages. If you already have several books of magical correspondences, though, you may find much of the material redundant. In fact, the best audience for this book is the Pagan who has the basics down and wants to test the waters of amulet magic, but can’t afford a lot of books. It’s compact, though it shouldn’t be taken as the do-all and end-all of correspondences.

I do wish she would have cited her sources, or at least provided a bibliography. There’s a lot of information quite clearly taken from third party sources, and she doesn’t give credit for any of it. Additionally, it would be nice to know where she got her historical information.

If you’re still a relative beginner and want a good introductory text to the theory of amulet creation, this is a good start. There’s no practical how-to information on the actual creation of amulets, but this gives you basic building blocks.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Everyday Witch A to Z by Deborah Blake

Everyday Witch A to Z: An Amusing, Inspiring and Informative Guide to the Wonderful World of Witchcraft
Deborah Blake
Llewellyn, 2008
264 pages

Blake, in her second book, has created a collection of short encyclopedic entries on a variety of topics related to witchcraft. Aimed at being both entertaining and useful, it’s a brightly laid-out text with a wide variety of presentations for the information therein.

I found it to be a mixed bag, personally. Here are some of the things that stood out to me:

Likes:

–There’s a good bit of humor mixed in with the information, which makes it an entertaining read. The “input” from one of Blake’s cats, Magic, is absolutely adorable (though useful as well), and there are some cute puns tossed in, including in section headers.
–There are footnote citations in addition to a bibliography. This pleases me, since it gives at least some idea of where Blake got her information. Unfortunately, the footnotes mainly refer to direct quotes, so there are still a lot of books in the bibliography whose contribution to this book are unclear. However, the footnotes that are there are a definite step in the right direction!
–I like the odd bits of information that I haven’t run into before. I was really curious as to what would be included in the “X” section, and found out about Xorguineria, a Basque form of witchcraft. And there are other gems here and there that, even after over a decade of practice, were brand-new to me.
–This isn’t just an encyclopedia of information. There are spells, advice column entries, and other tidbits scattered throughout, which makes it a practical guide in a lot of ways. It’s sort of a mix between book and magazine–but with a longer shelf life than the latter!

Dislikes:

–I know the tone is supposed to be light-hearted and fun, but it often goes beyond humor and comes across as an attempt to snag the teen demographic (many of whom don’t care for the “teen-friendly” writing aimed at them), whether that was the intent or not. Sometimes a conversational tone can be too casual, and there are several places where this happens.
–Some of the source material is suspect. For example, on p. 10 Blake cites Yasmine Galenorn’s assertion that “son of a bitch” was originally a compliment because “bitch” was supposedly a euphemism for a/the goddess. I would have preferred to see a more solid historical source for this information (I’d lay odds that it ultimately comes from Barbara Walker or another similarly sketchy “scholar”).
–A lot of the material is witchcraft 101 rehashed and barely skimmed over to any depth. In trying to get a wide variety of topics in there, from herbs and stones to ritual etiquette to various deities, the reader is left with a cursory bit of information on most of them.

Some people are going to love this book, and the light-hearted tone. Others are going to look at the things I didn’t care for, and possibly others, and not consider it to be serious or well-researched enough. I think it is a book that has a definite audience, primarily among newer folks who may head to the big box stores to get some introductory information. They may very well find this to be an appealing choice, and it’s definitely a lot more fun than some beginner’s texts. However, I would add the caveat that, like a lot of the typical Llewellyn “skim over a whole bunch of topics in one book” stuff, that it should serve as a gateway to deeper research on what the reader finds most interesting, particularly because of my misgivings with some of the source material.

Personally, I liked Blake’s Circle, Coven and Grove better, but I’m probably also not the ideal audience for this newest book. Therefore I’m giving it…

Three 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)

The Good Cat Spell Book – Gillian Kemp

The Good Cat Spell Book
Gillian Kemp
Crossing Press, 2008
122 pages hardback plus oracle poster

This is the latest release from spellcrafter Gillian Kemp. It’s also the newest book to focus on cat magic, and one of the more interactive ones as far as your cat is concerned.

The book focuses on the cat as a familiar. While I agree with Kemp that a familiar is an animal who actively aids in magic, I disagree that the main factor involved in whether a cat (or any animal) is a familiar is love. You can love a pet dearly, but that doesn’t make hir any more likely to be a familiar than a family member would be a magician hirself. She also includes astrological profiles for cats; the information didn’t particularly match my two cats, but then again astrological generalizations presented in brief often tend to be hit or miss.

Kemp provides dozens of spells for a variety of purposes, from love to prosperity to reversing your luck. Your cat simply acts as a cat normally would, and that energy is placed into the spell or divination. A good example is “To Speed Cash to You Quickly” (p. 43), which basically involves enticing your cat to play with money as a toy, with a little extra “oomph”.

While the cats are well-treated, some of the spells may offend some peoples’ ethics. The very first spell in the book, “To Bewitch the One You Love” (p. 14), involves compelling a specific person to think of you; “To Keep the One You Love” (p. 17) and “For a Lover To Return To You” speak more of insecurity than love. “To Encourage Your Parents to Reconcile and Reunite” (p. 31) is similarly aimed at those who may be tempted to try to interfere with a situation that they may not completely understand.

The Cat Oracle is a reworking of the old divination trick of watching the movements of an animal to get an answer. There’s a poster in the back of the book that has a set of symbols arranged in a particular way, and however your cat moves will determine which symbol is relevant to your question. If you do have a feline familiar, this may be a neat thing to try out.

I’m torn on how to rate this book. On the one hand, there are some useful things in here for those who like cat magic. However, on the other, the borderline manipulative spells, as well as my disagreement about what actually constitutes a familiar, and a complete lack of a bibliography or references, take away points. So I’m going to give it…

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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Titania’s Wishing Spells – “Happiness” and “Wealth” – Titania Hardie

“Happiness” and “Wealth” from the Titania’s Wishing Spells series
Titania Hardie
Quadrille, 2005
App. 50 pages each

I received these two little hardcovers as a nifty bonus along with Good Fortune and How To Attract It. (Hooray for nifty bonuses!) They’re adorable little books, and while I normally am not a spell fan, these charmed be, to be sure.

You won’t find a bunch of magical theory in these; they’re pure spell book, and so best for someone who already has the basic mechanics of magic down. What I really love about them, though, is the simplicity of the spells. They’re reminiscent less of the flashy “First you do this, and then you do this” formulae in modern spell books, and more akin to folk magic. One of the spells for happiness involves planting a tree, and several involve flowers of various sorts. Some of my favorite wealth spells draw on old customs regarding old shoes. They’re neat little spells that you can work into your everyday life and home, and won’t take a lot of time out of your day.

As with so many of the Quadrille publications of Hardie’s works, these are lovingly illustrated with full colors. If nothing else, Hardie’s works are by far some of the most aesthetically pleasing. And these are adorable enough that you could probably make a gift of them to someone who might not be so witchy, but who would appreciate the charm. However, these are also quite workable spells, so don’t pass them off as only decorations.

Five pawprints out of five.

I’m not going to ask you if you want to buy Happiness, but if you want the book by that name, click here

I also won’t ask you to buy Wealth, but you can get Titania’s book on that subject here