Invoking the Scribes of Ancient Egypt: The Initiatory Path of Spiritual Journaling by Normandi Ellis and Gloria Taylor Brown

Invoking the Scribes of Ancient Egypt: The Initiatory Path of Spiritual Journaling
Normandi Ellis and Gloria Taylor Brown
Bear & Company, 2011
xii + 307 pages

reviewed by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

This book has an intriguing concept, and in its scope it attempts to provide (at least) four things to potential readers: a travelogue of an especially inspirational pilgrimage to and tour of Egypt; a series of writing exercises; a group of thematic rituals and guided meditations; and personal accounts by various participants in the pilgrimage and tour that don’t necessarily have to do directly with what occurred on the trip, but may relate to their earlier experiences, or particular reflections on lessons learned as a result of the trip and the writing exercises done on it, often including short poetic compositions. To entitle this entire collection both “Invoking the Scribes of Ancient Egypt” and “The Initiatory Path of Spiritual Journaling,” however, is a bit of a stretch in both cases, unfortunately.

Information on scribal practices in Egypt is not as plentiful as many of us might hope, but it is far more extensive than is indicated in this book. While both the scribes of Egypt and the participants in this tour and pilgrimage were both “writing in Egypt,” the similarities somewhat end there. To suggest that what exercises are given in this book—however useful or profound they might end up being for some readers and writers—is in any sense a continuation of ancient Egyptian practices any more than any other type of writing done in Egypt today, or done anywhere else in the world by anyone, would need to have better lines drawn to indicate such than what is presented in this book. Further, to refer to the practice of keeping a journal of one’s spiritual exercises and reflections (which is, undoubtedly, a useful and enriching practice) as an “initiatory path” is also an overstatement. Initiation is a far more serious, intense, and dedicated spiritual practice than keeping a journal is, and many individuals keep journals as assiduously as (if not more so than) some spiritual practitioners, and yet to call one “spiritual” simply by virtue of some of the topics addressed in it is likewise an exaggeration, at very least.

For those who take the existence of the Egyptian deities seriously, some of the writing exercises might not be very palatable. Writing an “I Am Isis” aretalogical poem, for example, may strike some as impious, since that formulation and the goddess are being used as a projection screen for one’s own self-exploration.

Some of the rituals given in this book—including those at the beginning and end of the pilgrimage—are not Egyptian-specific, and in fact draw upon an eclectic range of spiritual traditions, including various Native American concepts (though no singular people or culture is named, only vague notions of totem-type animals and their desirable characteristics). In both rituals, which have a directional (East, South, West, North, Above, Below, Center) focus, ending with the phrase “…all our relations” and then “Ah ho” is the format followed. I don’t know the cultural background or training of the main ritualist amongst the group, but I can’t help but feel that doing this sort of North American indigenous tradition-inspired practice as a beginning and end to a pilgrimage in Egypt is inappropriate at best, and culturally appropriative at worst.

Egyptian tradition is not my primary area of familiarity, but even I know that some matters are rather inaccurately portrayed. The Great Sphinx is addressed by some participants as a female (p. 47), and even though the gender of the statue is not entirely certain, the Egyptians of antiquity considered it male. The Egyptian goddess Satis is called the “goddess of satisfaction” at one point (p. 57), but the etymologies of the name “Satis” and the word “satisfaction” are not at all connected (and originate in two entirely different, non-cognate languages!), and Satis herself has no direct connection to such a concept. In reference to Imhotep, the architect of the step pyramid at Saqqara (amongst many other venerable accomplishments), Gloria Taylor Brown writes “[He] is the only example of which I am aware where a historical man has been added to the pantheon of Egypt” (p. 245). Brown’s biography in the book suggests she is a lifelong student of Egyptian studies and teacher of Egyptian mysteries. Thus, it is rather upsetting that she doesn’t seem to know about the possibilities for deification of humans that are present in a great deal of ancient Egyptian religion, nor the further examples of it, including Petesi and Paher (whose temple is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), and which continued through to the early second century of the current era as well with, at very least, Antinous. Granted, few amongst the pharaohs, even, achieved renown as great as Imhotep, but he is far from the only example.

For readers who are not interested in a close study of Egyptian precedents for spiritual practice, and who don’t mind a fair bit of New Age material (including references to Edgar Cayce, Omm Sety, and various other New Age-Egyptian connections), as well as spiritual traditions from a variety of other cultures, being mixed into the ever-intriguing cauldron of Egyptian “mystery,” this will be a very satisfying book. What I found the most interesting and useful about it was the photos and the two principal authors’ narratives about some aspects of the various sites that were visited on the tour. The type of writing exercises offered here are found in many other places, and if approached outside of the specific Egyptian tour and pilgrimage context, may be just as effective to pursue for those who wish to do so.

Two pawprints out of five.

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The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses: From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestations by Claude Lecouteux

The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses:  From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestations
Claude Lecouteux, translated by Jon E. Graham
Inner Traditions, 2013
vii + 246 pages

Reviewed by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

Those who are familiar with the various books published by Inner Traditions that are translations of earlier (usually French) monographs by Claude Lecouteux will be familiar with this great professor’s style, his thoroughness, and the academic rigor he brings to surveying his subjects in comprehensive manners.  Generally, his books present the reader with a wealth of excerpts from primary sources, and his commentary on these is generally cogent and highly valuable.

Unfortunately, this particular book does well in the primary source quotations department—perhaps too well and too extensively at some points—but falls very short in its analysis of the materials.

The book’s subtitle is somewhat misleading:  the majority of the sources he cites are from the later middle ages (generally after 1400 CE), and while some more modern (20th century) accounts are detailed, the elements of “Pagan Folklore” are not as abundant as one would hope if that context is named in the subtitle.

In essence, Lecouteux’s typological analysis of poltergeists and haunted houses groups these phenomena by particular prevailing interpretations of each phenomena:  the poltergeist or haunted house as a variety of noise-making spirit, a manifestation of the restless dead, an instance of pesky household spirits, and demonic activities being the main categories explored.  This is an interesting and noteworthy schema, because when an exorcism is performed by Christian clergy but the culprit of a given “knocking-spirit” phenomenon is a household spirit rather than a demon, of course that methodology does not drive the household spirit away.  For modern readers who are looking to this book as an historical sourcebook for tips and clues on how to best implement one’s own interactions with such spiritual beings, this making of distinctions is an important and useful take-away from reading this systematized collection of data.

Sadly, an overarching interpretation of the entire corpus by Lecouteux is lacking here (though present in many of his other works).  While in some of his other works this can be a slight hindrance to understanding particular (often outlying) instances of whatever phenomenon he is discussing, or they can stretch the transmitted evidence to near the breaking point, with this particular collection of evidence, a conclusion that is more substantial than “it all depends on how you look at it,” in essence, would have been more desirable.

Readers may find this book valuable for the corpus of lengthy primary source excerpts itself, however, and thus anyone who is interested in this subject will want to review this material in Lecouteux’s book themselves personally.

Three pawprints out of five

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The Tradition of Household Spirits by Claude Lecouteux

The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices
Claude Lecouteux
Inner Traditions, 2013
228 pages

Reviewed by Lupa

Household spirits are one of those topics that gets referenced frequently in passing, but doesn’t really get a thorough treatment itself. I rather feel that the spirits of the home have been nowhere near enough attention despite their ubiquitous nature, and so I was pleased to receive this book as a treatise on the subject.

Mind you, this isn’t a modern “here’s how to placate the household spirits” book. Like other of Lecouteux’s works, it’s primarily a literature review, albeit a thorough one if your interest is primarily in European traditions. He collects information and tales of the spirits of abodes across the European continent, and organizes them nicely into a series of chapters that look at how houses were constructed, and then the sorts of spirits that may live there.

Do be aware that he doesn’t really gauge the veracity of sources; for example, the Malleus Maleficarum is given equal footing with the rest of the bibliography; additionally, some of the sources are quite dated. However, the bibliography is quite thorough (if mostly not in English) so if you’re a polylinguist and want to hunt down some of his source material, you have a wealth of options.

Even if you just want to emulate your ancestors (or someone else’s ancestors, for that matter), there are some practices described in passing, such as how to honor or not anger certain spirits, offerings, and the like. Again, it’s not a how-to book, but it is a nice survey of spirits that you may wish to research further.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Faery Tale by Signe Pike

Faery Tale: One Woman’s Search for Enchantment in a Modern World
Signe Pike
Penguin Group, 2010
300 pages

Reviewed by Ser

This book I picked up from my local library on a whim. Browsing my favorite Dewey Decimal sections, I came across this unobtrusive, green-spined book about faeries. While faeries aren’t a topic I generally choose to read about, I was feeling adventurous and figured, “why not?”, and took it home with me.

I am pleased that I did; I love this book! The author, Signe Pike, chronicles her personal journey to discover if faeries really do exist. Her path takes her across the British Isles, visiting many famous historical sites, and stumbling across lesser-known sites along the way.

The author met many different people during her trip, each contributing their own stepping stone to complete her path. From famous fantasy world builders to a troupe of unlikely motorcyclists, Signe’s open and accepting personality welcomed each person into her circle and created lasting memories.

This book was written gently; while there is a lot of discussion of history and mythology, it isn’t written with the scholar in mind. Faery Tale is written for the hopeful, the ones who still lie awake at night, one eye opened, wondering if that noise really is a creature in the closet even though they stopped believing ages ago. The language is casual and welcoming, honest and open for discussion.

I feel there is so much to be gained from this book – information about the places she visited, as well as subtle life lessons – that I’m almost convinced it could be worth a second read (a rare occurrence for me!). The most touching message I took from the book is so simple, and perhaps often overlooked: trust your intuition. Perhaps this is too often ignored by people today, both in the magical communities and elsewhere. People are so concerned with doing things correctly, and making sure everything is real, that their focus on accuracy chases away the faery dust and glimmering lights. Just going with your intuition can bring about so many opportunities for adventure, for revelation, and for just plain fun!

Five pawprints out of five.

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My Name is Cernunnos by Dusty Dionne and Jared Mackenzie

My Name is Cernunnos
Dusty Dionne (Author) and Jared Mackenzie (Illustrator)
Jupiter Gardens Press, 2013
62 pages

Reviewed by Uloboridae

As a reader, one of the many book-related phrases I have heard in life is “don’t judge a book by its cover”. In this case, my mistake was judging a book by its title.

I selected “My Name is Cernunnos” because I thought it would be a nice little story about Cerrunnos, or perhaps be a young child’s introduction to deities or mythology related to Cerrunnos. Instead, it is essentially “Baby’s first Animal Guide dictionary”, where Cerrunnos introduces the reader to some of his animal friends and describe what they symbolize. Not a bad, but it was completely unexpected.

The story centers on the reader being introduced to Cernunnos’s animal friends around the forest, both wild and domestic. The reader learns from Cernunnos about each animal’s particular powers, and learns how to apply their lessons to the reader’s life (i.e. appreciate what you have, listen to the adults in your life, etc.).

This could have been a good book, but the lack of consistency in both its writing style and its subject matter is why I give this book a low score. Most of the book is written in plain English and the symbolism is basic and easy for a young child to understand, so why have fancy words like “widdershins” to describe the energy of Cat when “clockwise” or “counterclockwise” works just as well? Why does the idea that Cat has opposing energy currents even matter in the first place? There is no explanation. At least the description of the Hummingbird having fairy garb and fairy associations makes sense because Hummingbirds DO look and act like common depictions of fairies. In contrast, the description of Cat just becomes too abstract for a young child, to the point where it’s meaningless (even as an adult, I fail to see what point Cat’s description has for the reader). To be fair, the book does give a glossary at the end of what those, and other new (to the child) terms mean. As a result, for others this may be turned into a teaching tool for their children.

The cow is another animal whose introduction felt wholly out of place. Most of the book had animals in rather familiar North American/European settings. When Cow came along though, suddenly a picture of a Hindu addressing an Indian Cow in religious regalia appears, with a vague description on how Cow is “a God to some people”. What People? Tell us more, this sort of thing is interesting! Don’t just randomly do this with Cow when you could add this sort of information to many of the other animals, like Cat and Crow. Children’s books do not need an overload of detail, but being very vague can make them lose interest too.

Finally, and this may be debatable, the book uses the term “medicine” frequently when referring to what each animal symbolizes. This could be considered cultural appropriation to some. Personally, I would not be comfortable reading this to a child, as I am not a member of any Native American tribe and did not grow up in a culture that gives context to the concept of “animal medicine”.

The illustrations in the book are charming and colorful, drawn in a comic-like style. There is a variety of people and animal activities present, along with different details to search for that tells a story (on their own and with the written text). The facial expressions (on humans and other animals), for example, are varied and can create a story within itself to the imaginative reader. My favorite is the page where Deer gives a monster an exasperated look, as if to sigh and say “You again? Are you kidding me? I just got rid of you on the last page”. I literally laughed out loud when I noticed that. I do not know if this book is meant to be as a print or as a .pdf file, but I feel that the illustrations would benefit greatly from being in a printed book format. The .pdf file format tends to degrade the images a bit, to the point where the labels on the animals are not quite legible.

Overall, I feel that this is an interesting topic and is arranged in a good format for a children’s book. However, I would recommend a tightening up of the language, and making the information more consistent, and clear.

Three pawprints out of five.

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The Catalpa Bow by Carmen Blacker

The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan
Carmen Blacker
Routledge, 1999
384 pages

The Catalpa Bow is a gold mine for lesser known Japanese religious practices, and it’s a shame that this book is often overlooked. Unlike a lot of books that pertain to Japan and its religions, The Catalpa Bow doesn’t pull any punches and the author doesn’t sugar coat or hide her data behind any amount of political agendas as so many books seem to do. The Catalpa Bow discusses a variety of religious practices within Japan, but Blacker mainly focuses on the practices surrounding various mediums and ascetics.

The book starts out with a brief overview of the Japanese religious structure. Blacker goes over the way that religion changed within Japan, covering the basics of Shinto origins and how those practices morphed once Buddhism was introduced into the country. She also goes into some depth regarding how later government influences changed the topography of the Japanese religious landscape and the impact that the government had as a whole.

Once she has set up a foundation to work on, she goes into detail about the various roles and powers that mediums and ascetics are said to have in Japan and the methods and trials that people go through to gain and maintain these powers. Blacker then wraps up her book with methods of how the Japanese might do spirit work or perform spirit journeys as well as discussing oracle methods and exorcism methods. All in all, the book is incredibly informative and is written with a lot of respect for the culture and the people that are the subject of Blacker’s research. Additionally, unlike a lot of authors, Blacker experienced a large portion of her topics first hand- going through some of the same trials and procedures that the other ascetics and mediums were going through (such as fire walking, fasting, sutra recitation, etc).

This book is definitely written with an academic slant, though I don’t think that it’s dry in its approach. Blacker does a good job of giving you a wide foundation of terms and background information so that you should be able to pick this book up and follow along even if you don’t have a lot of pre-existing knowledge of Japan or its religious practices. Blacker discusses a lot of things that I have never seen mentioned in any other book, and I definitely would recommend this book to others, as I feel it captures a glimpse of Japanese religion that just doesn’t exist in very much capacity in the modern era. I feel like her book peels back the layers of time and shows you a glimpse of Japanese religion before the modern era took over and it definitely has left me wanting to learn more about pre-WWII era Shinto. Additionally, a lot of the topics discussed in the book have applied to my current religious practice and have given me ways to reconsider and re-evaluate some of the stuff I do when interacting with gods.

Here are some excerpts from the book that I found interesting:

The term yorishiro also describes a wide variety of objects used as temporary vessels for the kami. Many yorishiro were long and thin in shape—as a tree, a banner, a wand—as though the numinous presence, like lightning streaking down a conductor, could be induced by such means to descend from his higher plane to ours. Thus trees, particularly pine trees, have always been a favourite vehicle for the kami’s descent. (p. 20)

The power-giving qualities of seclusion in darkness have been interestingly explained by Origuchi Shinobu. Sacred power is often manifested in Japan, he writes, inside a sealed vessel. In the darkness of this vessel it gestates and grows, until eventually it bursts its covering and emerges into the world. … Before sacred power, as manifested in a being from the other world, can buist its skin and appear in our world, it must pass a period of gestation in the darkness of a sealed vessel. Likewise the ascetic who wishes to acquire sacred power undergoes a period of gestation in the nearest he can find to an utsubo vessel, a cave or darkened room. In this womb-like stillness he undergoes his fasts and recites his words of power, emerging only to stand beneath his waterfall. (p. 77)

5 pawprints out of 5.

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Spiritual Scents by Shauna Aura Knight

Spiritual Scents: Creative Use of Scent and Fire in Ritual
Shauna Aura Knight
Jupiter Gardens Press, 2013
20 pages

Reviewed by Hilde

As more people discover they have intolerances and allergies the use of scents has become an increasingly important topic. The restrictions of many areas also make the use of live fire difficult or even completely unavailable. But limitations of attendees and venues need not be a worry for a facilitator willing to make some compromises. Knight bring her experience as both an attendee and a leader of ritual to provide alternatives for practitioners.

The majority of the alternatives the author offers are possibilities most people are already aware of, like using battery operated candles instead of wick candles or using water instead of oils. She also suggests the use of guided techniques to stimulate the mind into feeling and smelling what may not be physically available.

Even if there are restrictions with scent, it doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be used entirely. A little bit of organization, like splitting the smudging of sage between multiple people, can greatly reduce the amount of smoke. Substituting one sense for another is also an option, like using a rattle to cleanse with sound instead of cleansing with scent like smudging.

While I appreciate having all of these ideas readily available in one booklet, I didn’t see anything new or innovative. A little bit of common sense and creativity could easily lead a facilitator to choosing many of these options on their own.

Three pawprints out of five.

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The Ruin of Beltany Ring by C.S. MacCath

The Ruin of Beltany Ring: A Collection of Pagan Poems and Tales
C. S. MacCath
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, March 2013
86 pages

Reviewed by Ser

The Ruin of Beltany Ring starts off with a beautiful, heartfelt forward by one of my favorite pagan authors, Deborah Blake. I am pleased to agree with her praise and thoroughly enjoyed the read.

Switching between poems and short stories, the author twists you up in one storyline before whisking you off to the next world, not giving you a chance to collect your scattered emotions. That is, if you read it all at once as I did my first read-through, unable to put it down. The stories are so unexpected, so honest and heartfelt yet unyielding. They could be told by anyone, they’re not exclusively pagan, except the threads of magic that run through each one.

I was most struck by the short story, “Ink of the Dead”. There is so much life in those words, and while the storyline itself isn’t pagan-centric, take those elements out and it’s just not the same.

There were a few formatting issues and misalignments, perhaps only in the .pdf version, but nothing that detracts from the spirit of this book. Highly recommended to read, more than once.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook by Kenaz Filan

The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook
by Kenaz Filan
Destiny Books, 2011
320 pages

Reviewed by innowen

The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook is a introductory text on practicing the New Orleans blend of voodoo. Filan acquaints the reader to what exactly this is, how it differs from Haitian voodoo, and gives you a history of the practice, its influences, and loa. Finally, there is a small chapter that includes some things the reader can try out.

Good

Many pagan books delve right into the practical hands-on of their topic without giving any background information. While I do enjoy books of that nature, The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook, spends most of its time laying the groundwork to tell the reader how the region was formed and how this tints the flavor of magic/conjure that comes out of the city. You can practically smell the foods, or hear the blues while reading the book. I also loved how the structure of the book builds off from the previous chapters. Doing so made a great transition from the historical, to the knowledge on the loa, and to the conjure and practical stuff in the later chapters.

Bad

This book is billed as a guide to the practices and tools and formulas of New Orleans voodoo, and there are some but the bulk of the book is culture and history. I was hoping that the book would help me delve a bit more into the practices that make voodoo mysterious. Instead I learned a lot more about the history of the region, the people who are prominent, and the loa worshipped. I really didn’t get the hands on aspect that I was hoping for.

Bottom Line: I recommend The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook for those who want to learn more about the culture and beginnings of the spiritual tradition. This book is light on how-tos but is filled with the background information needed to really tie the spiritual practice into it’s rightful place in magical traditions. For those who want to know more about the practical aspects, you can probably find websites (like Lucky Mojo) more resourceful on the hands on.

3.5 pawprints out of 5

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Worlds Apart by Stephen B. Pearl

Worlds Apart
Stephen B. Pearl
Dark Dragon Publishing, June 2013
352 pages

Reviewed by Ser

It should be noted before going further that I received a prepublished, uncorrected proof for review. Therefore, it didn’t have the cover art or summaries to hint at what I was getting myself into.

Worlds Apart is a romantic fiction novel about Alcina and Markus, two pagans from similar yet completely different worlds. Both dealing with struggles and opposition in their respective worlds, their paths suddenly intersect when a science experiment-slash-ritual brings Markus hurtling into Alcina’s world.

It took me a little while to get into the story, but once I was in the plot it was enjoyable. There were a plethora of characters but it wasn’t too complicated to keep track of them. The only confusing spot for me was when the author chose to continue the story in Markus’ world after his disappearance, and I had to play catch-up to figure out who these new characters were. I’m glad the author did choose to continue the story in this world though, as it really helped build up the storyline and presented some new characters (including a sex-obsessed vampire).

I especially enjoyed the tension as Markus learned of Alcina’s world, its different cultures and technologies. The times he stumbled brought a realistic and relatable humor. I thought it was cute that he uses The Magic School Bus to learn our world’s science – excellent choice, Markus!

The author also chose to use humor in some of the chapter titles. Generally good, these sometimes spoil the chapter’s content, and titles such as “Why are the Cute Ones Always Nutz?” only took me out of the story wondering why that “z” is there.

The pagan elements were, on a whole, interesting. There were spots I felt could do with more explanation (as I do not have experience or knowledge of certain deities) or just an extra sentence or two to clear up what was going on. There is a lot of Christian-bashing, mostly directed at an overly zealous cult, but also Christian hate in general. I’m pleased that, for the most part, such generalized hate is commented on by other characters and explained that not all Christians (or those practicing other monotheisms) are bad.

Romance novels are not my cup of chai, and had I known that was the genre of this book I would not have picked it up. There are plenty of sex scenes (and mentions of “nether lips”, which amused me rather than entice me). As it is romance, there was also plenty of sexual humor and discussion outside of the sex scenes – I can’t think of a character in the book that didn’t have some discussion, mental or otherwise, about another character’s breasts, legs, or butt. While appropriate for a romance novel, it isn’t realistic. The only character not interested in boffing, an unnamed side character, was told by Alcina that it was her responsibility to “be a woman” and that her desire to not have sex was only a power game. (pg 58) There are also a few spots of sexism, and not just from the cult. Particularly Markus and Alcina’s discussion about how things are “only chauvinistic when it doesn’t exactly work to your benefit”…”Exactly, just ask any woman”. (pg 169)

Some of the descriptions were a bit of a stretch as well; my particular favorites being, “Only the very observant would notice that her small breasts only rose and fell with breath when she spoke,” (pg 53) and “She liked the fact that this stranger had hoped to see her [naked]” (pg 41). While now realizing this is a romance novel, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Really?” No matter how attractive someone is, I don’t think I’d ever be comfortable, let alone enjoy, being nude around a person who popped out of my ritual circle speaking another language and poking me with magical language-translating earrings (similar to a Babel fish, though I’m still a bit fuzzy on the particulars).

There were a number of typographical and grammatical errors, particularly from Chapter 29 on, but as I read the uncorrected proof I cannot speak to whether these have been revised. There was also a spot of character name confusion, as Markus was referred to as Marlon (pg 10) and I had to reread a few times to see if I had simply missed the addition of this new character. Hopefully, this too was corrected.

After reading this proof, I was ready to give this book a low score. I didn’t enjoy the plethora of sex and genitalia-obsessed characters and felt it detracted from the book. When I looked up the book to see if it had been published, and saw the cover, I realized I had to reconsider my review and base it on the book as it was intended. Looking at the plot, character development and overall writing, I think this would be an enjoyable book for any romance fan.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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