Dedicant by Thuri Calafia

Dedicant: A Witch’s Circle of Fire
Thuri Calafia
Llewellyn, 2008
342 pages

Note: This review originally appeared in an issue of newWitch magazine.

With the ratio of students to teachers and groups in the Neopagan community, self-directed systems for the neophyte are in demand. New author Thuri Calafia offers up the first in a planned series of books for this demographic. Similar to Christopher Penczak’s witchcraft series, Calafia’s Circles system is designed to lead the reader from the beginning, all the way through advanced material of her creation.

Much of the material is a rehash of the same standard stuff you’ll find in most Wicca/witchcraft 101 texts—there are the basic ritual tools, correspondences, Wiccan deity archetypes, and so forth. This book is simply Calafia’s interpretation and utilization of these, so it may be a good alternative for those who haven’t yet found an author they agree with.

It’s also unabashedly eclectic, and uses the “almost anything goes” definition of Wicca. If you’re more traditional about things, you’ll probably want to avoid this book. If you’re new to neopaganism, make sure that you read other perspectives along with this one.

I do have to give her credit for encouraging freedom of thought; for example, she leaves it up to the reader as to whether to utilize mild drugs in ritual work (or personal life) rather than preaching absolute abstinence. She also cites her sources with footnotes and includes a full bibliography, something I’ve noticed featured more in Llewellyn’s recent catalog.

For writing essentially a 101 text, Calafia does a great job of laying out the groundwork, and presents it in a unique, workable structure that’s easy to follow and offers a good scaffolding for self-development. Personally, I’d recommend this as a decent starting text with a few reservations, and I’m curious about what her later books will present.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Mystical Dragon Magick by D.J. Conway

Mystical Dragon Magick: Teachings of the Five Rings
D.J. Conway
Llewellyn, 2007
264 pages

Note: This review was originally published in an issue of newWitch magazine.

I’d heard this book was better than Dancing With Dragons; I’m sorry to say the mediocrity continues.

While this volume is supposed to be advanced dragon magic, it follows the poor formula found in entirely too many pagan books of skimming over a number of topics that are only loosely related. There are countless pages of the same stone, herb, and element correspondences that are found in numerous other books, and there’s additional magic 101 material—all with a few words about dragons tossed in for relevance.

Through the training in this book, one supposedly is able to become an enchanter, a warrior, a shaman, and a mystic. Yet these roles are primarily supposed to be achieved through an increasingly dazzling array of shiny ritual tools and trappings, and overly scripted guided meditations that leave little room for personal experience and exploration. If this is supposed to be more than a 101 book, I’m not impressed.

Conway’s research is seriously lacking. She doesn’t employ critical thinking in her material on Atlantis, instead choosing to take as fact anything that supports her views, no matter how sketchy. Her explanations of dragons in various cultures are overly simplistic and show an incomplete picture of extant lore. And while she has a sizable bibliography, some of the books are of questionable quality, and there are no in-text citations for tracing individual pieces of information.

To top it off, Conway is quite dogmatic in her views. While I have no doubt that this is her reality in truth, she present her own subjective experiences of dragons and the otherworld as universal fact. She perpetuates the inaccurate classifications of white, black and gray magicians, and in my review copy she states “No member of the Five Inner Rings [Conway’s dragon magic tradition] is ever called a priest, priestess, guru, master, or any other nonsense name” (22). I wonder how pagan clergy feel having their titles summarily dismissed thusly?

Between the rehashing of material from Dancing With Dragons, and the additional shallow treatment of several magical paradigms—and dragons themselves—I can’t recommend this book to any reader.

One pawprint out of five.

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Beltane by Erin O’Riordan

Erin O’Riordan
Eternal Press
186 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who was nice enough to take on some of my backlog when I went on semi-hiatus.

The general rule, used by book reviewers, literary agents and editors (and I’ve done all but be a literary agent) is that if the first chapter is good, the rest of the book will be, too. Conversely, if the first chapter stinks, it’s a fair bet there’s no point in reading further.

O’Riordan’s novel Beltane is an exception to this rule. The first chapter or so is rife with poor grammar, awkward sentences and more passive-voice. However, I was stuck in a personal situation with a lot of time and not a lot of reading material available, so I plowed through.

I’m glad I did. The story (and the writing) improves over the course of the book, and I found myself actually caring about the characters and what happened to them. The novel centers around twin sisters Allie and Zen, who have been raised Pagan. The book opens with Allie’s wedding, and hints that all may not be well between the bride and groom. Zen falls for Orlando, a married man. How this all plays out is revealed the next year at Beltane, when everyone lives happily ever after.

A book titled after the major Pagan sex holiday should have a lot of sex scenes in it. If this is what the reader is looking for, he or she will not be disappointed. As someone who has written erotica professionally and has reviewed a plethora of erotic fiction in the last two years, I say the sex scenes are well-written, realistic, and move the plot forward – basically all I can ask for in an erotic book.

I wish I could say the Pagan aspects of the story were as realistic and well-done. O’Riordan presents a Pagan path that requires High Priestesses to have multiple (and huge) tattoos, be vegetarian, and abstain from alcohol at all times. To paraphrase the familiar saying, some of my best friends are High Priestesses of varying traditions, and this describes exactly none of them. The story was good, the sex was great, but the Pagan aspects of the book – with the sole exception of the Beltane ritual, which was awesome – made me, a 25-year veteran of the Pagan community mutter “Where the hell did THAT come from?” on more than one occasion.

Three and a half paws out of five.

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Book of Witchery by Ellen Dugan

Book of Witchery: Spells, Charms and Correspondences for Every Day of the Week
Ellen Dugan
Llewellyn, 2009
321 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who graciously agreed to take on some of the extra review copies I had when I decided to go on semi-hiatus.

I am thoroughly enjoying this guest review gig here; I’m going to be sorry when Lupa runs out of books for me to review!

Next on my pile is Book of Witchery: Spells, Charms & Correspondences for Every Day of the Week by Ellen Dugan. I wish she’d written this book in the mid-1980s when I, a new Pagan, was struggling with correspondences and magick and trying to get some sort of regular personal spiritual practice started – preferably one that didn’t involve my almost burning down my own house during a solitary Lammas ritual (which is another story for another day).

Dugan refers to this work as her Book of Shadows. However, unlike most Books of Shadows, this one is organized by the day of the week rather than by season or by Sabbat – which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense, especially for beginning ritualists and spellcrafters. There is also an extra section on full moon workings for each day of the week; If the full moon is on a Monday, do this, if it’s on a Wednesday, do this. Why overwhelm readers with long, complicated sabbat rituals that they can only do once a year and promptly forget when they can cut their teeth on small workings that can be done fifty-two times a year. Frequency breeds familiarity and competence; the more one does a ritual, the easier it becomes to do it, and Dugan had a stroke of genius to make magick, spells and kitchen witchery accessible to all with this format. Kudos!

As a quick reference for correspondences, this book has some value for the more experienced practitioner as well. I’ve never memorized correspondences beyond the basics, have you? However, devotees of the various deities connected with each day of the week may wince at the oversimplification of their Patron’s/Matron’s aspects and history. Fortunately there is enough material about the mentioned deities elsewhere (including the Internet), so anyone who wants to know more can easily research them in depth.

Overall, though, this is a useful, well-written, logically organized book. Alas, my current living situation is such that I cannot try any of Dugan’s spells or rituals for myself and report on their efficacy. If I could, I definitely would!

Four and a half paws out of five!

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Llewellyn’s 2010 Sabbats Almanac – Various

Llewellyn’s 2010 Sabbats Almanac
Llewellyn, 2009
312 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who graciously agreed to take on some of the extra review copies I had when I decided to go on semi-hiatus.

I am honored to be a guest reviewer for Lupa’s book review blog, eager to read something closer to my “field” than the erotica and science fiction I normally critique for a national book review magazine. I bravely told her to “send me anything” only to receive the most random collection of Pagan books I’ve ever seen!

First on the stack was Llewellyn’s Sabbats Almanac: Samhain 2009 to Mabon 2010. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say upfront that I am a relatively new member of the Llewellyn author family. That being said, this latest addition to the Llewellyn annuals (Witches’ Spell-A-Day Almanac, Witches’ Companion, etc.) is, I think, a useful and worthy one. I may not feel comfortable pulling out a Llewellyn Witches’ Datebook out of my backpack when scheduling my next dentist appointment in this small Kansas town, but the Sabbats Almanac is something I will likely refer to from time to time throughout the year – in the comfort of my own home, of course.

Contributing authors to the Almanac include a deliberate mixture of relatively new writers and Pagan “celebrities”; Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, Kristen Madden, Ann Moura, Dan Furst, Raven Grimassi, Michelle Skye, and Thuri Calafia (plus others) all add their expertise and voices.

The history of each sabbat is thoroughly discussed, including an astrological section by Fern Feto Spring. I would have liked a little more explanation of astrological terms for the zodiacally-impaired reader. Kristen Madden provides seasonal recipes for an appetizer, main course, dessert and beverage for each holiday far beyond the usual “bread at Lammas, apple pie at Samhain” fare. Every sabbat section ends with a holiday ritual that can either be done as a solitary or with a group (except Mabon, which definitely requires several people).

In further interest of full disclosure, I’ve never once opened any of the Llewellyn Almanac series until Lupa sent me this one. If the Sabbats Almanac is any indication, I’ve been missing out on a basic, useful source of inspiration and ideas. The Sabbats Almanac, at least, may just become a permanent addition to my holiday book-buying binge.

Four and a half paws out of five!

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Witches & Pagans Magazine, Issue 19

Witches & Pagans Magazine
Various authors, editors, artists and other contributors
BBI Media, Autumn 2009
96 pages

First, a little background: Witches & Pagans is what happened when BBI Media merged their prior publications, PanGaia and newWitch. PanGaia was their more “serious” pagan publication, with a heavy eco-friendly slant and a target audience interested in ritual practices and spiritual experiences. newWitch came about a few years ago, and was met with some skepticism since its general themes were “sex, spells and celebs”. Some feared that newWitch would manifest all the worst stereotypes of image-obsessed teenybopper witches, and yet the publication managed to hold a fine balance between entertainment and facing controversial topics head-on. As a disclosure, I have written for both publications, so my potential bias should be noted.

Witches & Pagans has managed to blend elements of both magazines. This issue, for example, features interviews with musician S.J. Tucker and author R.J. Stewart (the faery AND initial issue!), something that newWitch was keen on. However, articles on 19th century mystic Ella Young, a surprisingly well-researched article on Cherokee fey beings, and several other in-depth writings on a central theme of Faery hail back to the best of PanGaia.

The regular columnists provided me with some of my favorite reading overall. Isaac Bonewits explored the practice of magic at different stages of one’s life, and how factors ranging from physical health to years of experience and knowledge can shape one’s energy and thereby one’s practice. Galina Krasskova did an excellent job of tackling the practice of celibacy as part of the ascetic’s path, something that a heavily hedonistic neopagan community may not often give much thought to. And I love Archer’s article on connecting to the wilderness through forests and their denizens, both physical and archetypal.

Those who were used to reading only one of the parent publications that merged to create this one may feel disappointed that there isn’t more of “their” stuff in there. However, one thing I appreciate about Witches & Pagans is that it brings together two potentially separate demographics in the pagan community–the more “serious” practitioners who look askance at the supposed “fluff” content of newWitch, and the energetic (though not always neophyte) envelope-pushers who might see their counterparts as muddy sticks. Both groups have much to offer in their own way, and Witches & Pagans does a nice job of showcasing the best of both worlds.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Ancestral Magic by Moondancer Drake

Ancestral Magic
Moondancer Drake
P.D. Publishing, 2009
176 pages

I was contacted about reviewing this book because of the theme of magic and mysticism in it (as the title suggests!). And as it’s from a small press that specializes in LGBT themes, that gave me extra incentive to want to check it out. That was a good choice on my part, because not only have I been introduced to a new publisher, but I just got done with an enjoyable read!

The three main characters throughout the book are single mother Sky, her son Drake (who happens to be blind, though this is treated realistically and respectfully throughout the book), and their friend and Sky’s former sister-in-law, Meg. The story starts out pretty quickly, with Sky receiving notice (amid financial woes) that she has inherited an estate from an aunt she never met–which is a bit of a trope, but I was willing to keep going with it. Meg is asked to go along for the move, which of course leaves things open for the crush that Meg’s had on Sky for, well–a while, anyway.

This isn’t just some instant happily-ever-after story, though. Once these three end up in Green Grove, their new home, Sky finds a potential new male suitor, Meg has to deal with her jealousy–oh, and everyone in town is magically talented. Not stage magic, but the sort with wards and healing and invisibility. It’s a rather Wiccan-flavored magic, even using common Craft phrases like “She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes” and “So mote it be”, which should appeal to a certain demographic. (There’s also not the sometimes-preachy “Here is what Wicca is and isn’t” dialogue that too many Wiccan-flavored novels go into–bonus!) I won’t spoil the rest of the plot for you; needless to say, it’s a good setup. (Do be aware that there is one mild, nicely-written, sex scene.)

Unfortunately, if I could find any fault in this novel, it’s the pacing. Of the three main characters, only Drake seems at all surprised the first time he’s told about magic. Meg seems to have known all along, but that’s not made very clear until later in the book, and it seems rather abrupt. I think the author could have done more background and buildup of this particular twist in the plotline and made the transition from “Magic? What’s that?” to “Wow, magic IS real!” a bit smoother. I also found the ending to be a bit deflated compared to the buildup, though it did make me happy (I got very invested in the characters–what can I say?)

That being said, it was still a great read; the author has a particularly good skill for characterization and description, and her dialogue is realistic. If the plot was a bit wanting, it was still a good story. I would definitely recommend this to my readers as a good plane ride book, a nice afternoon curl-up-and-read, or a commuting companion.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Between the Worlds – Stuart Myers – April BBBR

Between the Worlds: Witchcraft and the Tree of Life – A Program of Spiritual Development
Stuart Myers
Llewellyn, 1995
230 pages

I generally find mashups of Wicca/witchcraft and other magical systems to be somewhat clumsy affairs, usually because the relatively new interpretations of witchcraft sometimes seem to water down the much older systems that they’re paired with. I can understand the desire to draw together elements of multiple magical/spiritual paths, but all too often the results come across as contrived if they’re presented as anything more than the author’s own personal blend. (Plus it’s irritating to hear over and over again how everyone from Siberian shamans to Jesus of Nazareth was really practicing witchcraft.)

The author of Between the Worlds made a worthy attempt at blending Wicca and Qabalah; considering that a lot of the correspondences and other elements of Wicca stem from Qabalistic symbolism, they’re a much better pairing than others I’ve seen. The text is highly practical, composed entirely of exercises, meditations and rituals for growth and personal evolution using the Tree of Life as scaffolding. While much of it is based on Qabalah, Myers manages to weave in odd bits of witchcraft here and there, particularly as a way to show how the tools and techniques of that system can be used in conjunction with the more complex symbolism of Qabalah.

I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by the attempt to take the duotheistic/soft polytheistic theology of Wicca and juxtapose it with the monotheistic (or hard polytheistic, depending on who you talk to) theology of Qabalah. Granted, Qabalah is pretty flexible in and of itself, but I find the God/Goddess thing to often be oversimplified. That’s where most of my issues with the book stem from, and if you can work around it, you’ll probably find it more useful than I did.

Overall, it’s a highly useful book, and offers much to the reader who is willing to go through and utilize the tools offered in its pages. It’s been out of print for several years, though used copies are fairly easy to find. A good book for a Wiccan/witch wanting to incorporate more Qabalah, or simply wanting a more detailed and structured method of personal evolution than what your average Wicca 101 book offers.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Make Merry in Step and Song – Bronwen Forbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five pawprints out of five.

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Lllewellyn’s 2008 Herbal Almanac – various

Llewellyn’s 2008 Herbal Almanac: Herbs for Cooking and Crafts, Health and Beauty, Growing and Gathering, History, Myth and Lore
Llewellyn Publications, 2007
312 pages

People often assume that because the Llewellyn almanacs are dated (and are called “almanacs”), that most of the information in them isn’t relevant beyond the year they’re published. The truth is to the contrary. While the 2008 Herbal Almanac does include a few pages of lunar information that can be used with herbal magic and growing, this is no Farmer’s Almanac. Instead, it’s an anthology of informational essays on a wide variety of topics related to herbs and plants, sure to be relevant for years to come.

The book is divided into sections: Growing and Gathering Herbs, Culinary Herbs, Herbs for Health, Herbs for Beauty, Herb Crafts, and Herb History, Myth and Lore. Each section contains anywhere from three to eight essays of a nice variety. While overall I enjoyed the quality of the writing and information in here (albeit as someone who does not work extensively with herbs beyond cooking), here are a few of my favorites:

Endangered Herbs by Patti Wigington: Because some of the most commonly used herbs in magic are often ubiquitous (and even weeds) it can be easy to forget that not everything that’s an herb is easy to procure, or has a healthy population overall. This essay details a few herbs that, while used frequently in magic, are endangered from habitat loss, overuse, and other reasons. The author offers some excellent alternatives, as well as tips on sustainable consumption (culinary and otherwise) of these plants.

Shadowplay: Herbs for the Shady Garden by Elizabeth Barrette: You don’t need full sunlight to be able to have a garden. This excellent essay details what may be planted in the shade, as well as some ideas for helping the herbs to grow.

Organic Gardening Practices by Lynne Smyth: Another one of the gardening essays, I liked this simply because it’s a good, basic introduction to ways to garden without chemicals, and in a sustainable manner. Those who claim to be close to the Earth would do well to adopt as many of these practices as possible.

Henna for Hair by AarTiana: I love henna, and have been using it for a few years to dye my hair red. This was a nice guide to using henna, and while I already knew a good bit of the information, I learned a few things (including the fact that Lucille Ball used henna!)

Paracelsus, Plants, and the Doctrine of Signatures by Mark Stavish: This was a little denser read than most of what was in this book, but still quite accessible. A good introduction to a hermetic/alchemical take on magical herbalism, and a more thorough explanation of why we use correspondences than most short writings offer.

Crafts for Kids Unfold Outdoors by Sally Cragin: I’m childfree, but I wholeheartedly support exposing children to nature as soon as possible. This lovely article not only promotes an Earth-friendly approach to using natural items in crafts, but includes a number of how-tos on some very simple creations that can be fun for kids and grown-ups alike!

Overall, this is a great collection. Some of the essays are more 101-level, so this would be an excellent choice for a newbie, but there are some interesting things for the more advanced as well.

Five pawprints out of five.

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