The Witch’s Book of Shadows by Jason Mankey

The Witch’s Book of Shadows
Jason Mankey
Llewellyn, 2017

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Review by Lisa McSherry.

For so many witches, the Book of Shadows is a tool fraught with nervousness. My first BOS — a hardbound journal with a black cover — was deeply pretentious, written in Theban with an inkpen and using carefully chosen inks, a setup that lasted about a month before inertia took over and I stopped using it for several years. My near-daily journal of the time instead contains all of my memories and witch plans, along with typical musings about school and my relationships. For many reasons I love my first BOS but it wasn’t until the pretentiousness was eliminated that it became an actual tool. I suspect my situation is one many newcomers face, a suspicion borne out by my many students over the years who worry a great deal more about how their BOS looks, and less about what goes inside. A few authors have taken on the “How To Do a Book of Shadows” topic over the years, but not until Jason Mankey produced The Witch’s Book of Shadows do I think that it has been well done.

One of the best aspects of this book is that Mankey does a great job describing how a witch will have many Books over time, that they aren’t permanent but meant primarily to capture data that isn’t easily tracked. Practically speaking, his rituals for releasing old Books were good, as is the whole notion that you can start a Book and then transfer that data into a new Book as need arises or as new technologies become available. This is a great approach. Maybe Mankey’s words will help put a stake in the trap of perfectionism and get on with the real Work. He certainly takes the time to describe the pros and cons of many types of Book: journal, binder, cut-and-paste, and handwritten; all of which allows the reader to consider what will work best for them.
Mankey also does a good job discussing the many different options one can take when constructing their own Book and while construction and usage of the BoS take up a large part of this book, Mankey also delves into a brief history and talks about what the future may hold for them in this electronic age as well. I found the “Alphabets, Fonts, Inks, and Symbols” chapter helpful, as well as the “Cleansing, Consecrating, and Other Rituals” chapter. The chapter discussing the history of the Book (“Out of the Shadows”) was interesting and as a witch who works a great deal in a virtual environment, “New Frontiers and the BoS” was a oft-overlooked addition.

I do have a few small criticiscms: the focus is strongly Wiccan, although includes a surprising amount of Christian imagery and language. I call this out especially since it is part of a series (#5, in fact) of books for Witches in general. Many witches, including myself, are not Wiccan, so placing an emphasis on that path feels more than a little off-putting.

Of all the Witch’s tools, the Book of Shadows is the most personal. Mankey has done a great job making it accessible as well.

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The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic by Owen Davies

The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic
Edited by Owen Davies
Oxford University Press, 2017

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Review by Jason Mankey.

This is a challenging — and mostly academic — look at magical traditions over the last 3,000 years. I’m a huge fan of Davies’ contributions to magical history, especially Grimoires: A History of Magical Books and Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History, and this volume is a solid supplement to that work. But because it’s a collection featuring several different scholars, the tone throughout is uneven, and some essays feel far more relevant and enlightening than others.

While reading Witchcraft and Magic, I couldn’t stop wondering who the intended audience for this book is. It’s far too academic for casual readers, and probably not in-depth enough for academics. Topics I was intimately familiar with (such as the emergence of the Modern Craft) felt like they were given short shrift, while things I was less interested in seemed to take up more space. Often times I felt as I were reading a text-book designed for college students enrolled in Religious Studies 101.

Readers looking for a history of Modern Witchcraft along the lines of Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon will be mightily disappointed. Modern spiritual Witchcraft covers just eight or so pages, with no mention of Victor and Cora Anderson nor of the rise of “Traditional Witchcraft” over the last ten or so years.

I also found a chapter on “Witchcraft and Magic in Anthropology” somewhat uncomfortable. Perhaps it was fashionable to call the magic of the Azande people of Sudan “witchcraft” in the 1920’s, but I think we can do better today. I’m sure they have their own name for it, and translating native interpretations of magic to simply “witchcraft” feels limiting and reads as a desire to place everything in a Euro-centric box). We can and should do better.

Despite these criticisms, there are things about this book that I genuinely enjoyed. It’s an absolutely beautiful book: the images alone make this book worth flipping through, with many far outside the realm of “the usual” pictures one sees in books and articles about magical traditions.

The book is at its best when discussing the modern period, and the majority of the text covers the last 600 years or so. I once read that it takes about thirty years for new academic information to reach the masses, and anyone looking for up to date academic interpretations of Europe and North America’s Witch Trials will find them here. Davies’ own chapter on “The World of Popular Magic” is a welcome antidote to much of the unscholarly information currently floating around about cunning-craft and other forms of folk magic.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for an academic approach to society’s views on magic and witchcraft over the last several hundred years.

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Norse Goddess Magic by Alice Karlsdottir

Norse Goddess Magic: Trancework, Mythology, and Ritual
Alice Karlsdottir
Destiny, 2015

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Review by Shirl Sazynski.

It’s rare to find a beginner’s book on adept-level magic, let alone one that is well-organized, grounded, easily understood, and part of Heathenry. Norse Goddess Magic is exactly that, focusing on visionary and trance work, known to the Norse as seidhr and utiseta. It serves both as an introduction for those who have great difficulty entering trance, and provides a rare compendium of Norse goddess lore that’s useful even if you have no interest in trance work.

True to its title, this book explores the “Mother” Goddess Frigg and her twelve divine “friends” : Eir, Saga, Gna, Gefjon, Snotra, Lofyn, Sjofyn, Var, Fulla, Hlin, Syn and Vor. Karlsdottir invites personal experience with them as real people through guided journeys, invocations, and rituals. Since little is known from the Eddas about these twelve “minor” Goddesses, this book helps the reader fill in those gaps with their own experience. By exposure to — and comparison with — the trance experiences of others, it also helps in expanding upon the lore. The emphasis in this book on forging and strengthening relationships with the Gods is spot on.

This is a guide to beginning seidhr techniques, including a basic understanding of how to use myth and ritual structure to enhance entering trance, remain there, exit peacefully, and take good care of yourself afterward. The techniques covered open this oft-misunderstood realm of Asatru and Heathenry to anyone with the patience to still their mind. The structure of this book begins with how to understand mythology and its uses in ritual, ideas to open up the imagination for beginners, and a definition of trance work. Then, that work begins with basic (and fairly safe) techniques accompanied by a ritual format that provides some protection to the novice seidhr practitioner.

One caveat: trance work is never, by its nature, without danger. Norse Goddess Magic provides a compass in very unpredictable territory that should guide you to the door of the right person and send up some basic defenses. However, trance work with beings you’ve never met is exactly like wandering in a foreign country. Even a novice can stumble headlong into a profound, fate-altering experience the very first time they trance. The danger of dealing with spirits is routinely ignored in modern books on the subject, a major blind spot I wish this book had covered more fully.*

After continuing with a guided meditation, the author opens up about her own experiences in trance work. Then, a chapter is devoted to each Goddess in turn (other Goddesses mentioned briefly include Freyja, Nerthus, Frau Holle, Holda, Berchta and Brigid.) The Goddess chapters begin with lore, add interpretations by the author, continue with a guided trance journey, and close with a ritual and invocation for each Goddess.

The author’s cautious approach is very balanced. However, Alice Karlsdottir is a master in the Rune Gild, and has worked as priestess for several kindreds. I wish that she spoke with more confidence, but she is carefully circumspect that these are just her experiences.

Esoteric polytheism needs to move confidently past both this reticence from elders to pin down their own gnosis as real and valid and the fundamentalist tendency to over-humanize the Gods and their behavior based on stories laced with symbolism and meant to teach lessons (often humorously) about the consequences of certain actions within a society. Regardless of the outer path, when someone has mastered visionary work, common elements and beings occur. There are consistencies of places we arrive at, powers woven by the Gods, and elements of their appearance that do not always fit a translation of the Eddas but help signify a spirit or deity’s power and personality traits. Our ancestors certainly knew these common elements and passed on some of that knowledge. This is that shared gnosis of a living faith Karlsdottir is describing.

I can’t comment much on the use of rune lore in this book for chants and to open rituals, as it differs from the more visually-oriented methods I was taught. Other people may respond to these verbal methods more. Or the Goddesses may teach them completely different ways of working that suit their minds. (This book is certainly a good guide to seeking out that kind of knowledge directly.)

Norse Goddess Magic ends solidly with three intriguing fairy tales in the appendix, a glossary of terms, a visual guide to the runes and a bibliography jam-packed with good scholarship. Even if you’ve done seidhr for ages, this is still a very useful book to have on hand as a reference. Several times I found, in these pages, independent corroboration of details I’ve experienced in trance, leading me to believe that the author truly met with these Goddesses – whether or not we always share the same viewpoints about them.

This is a valuable contribution to a field with very little reliable guidance, especially in Heathenry. I highly recommend it.

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Queer Magic by Lee Harrington and Tai Fenix Kulystin

Queer Magic: Power Beyond Boundaries
Edited by Lee Harrington and Tai Fenix Kulystin
Mystic Productions Press, 2018

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Review by Anthony Rella.

While the term “queer” has veered closer to being mainstream, it continues to retain the layers of trauma, danger, and transgressive excitement layered into its historical uses. What is “queer” is that which could not fit into the norms prescribed to us, and thus needed to find its own space to grow on the edges, in the cracks and corners. Queerness exists for itself, and it is medicine that heals and brings wholeness.

Thus queerness is elusive, evolving, and pluralistic. So, too, is this collection of pieces gathered together by editors Lee Harrington and Tai Fenix Kulystin. They have accomplished an impressive feat, publishing the voices and images produced by a wildly diverse and fascinating array of individuals.

One significant theme threaded throughout these works is the queer magical power of embodiment. In the essay “Living with Attunement with Sensation Rather than Identity,” Z Griss offers a queer praxis in which the sensory body leads in anchoring and producing the self in all its emerging complexity. Rather than encasing our experiences in labels and identity scripts, Griss shows a productive arc in which the body teaches and reveals mysteries of the self. Yin Q’s “Blood, Body, Birth, and Emptiness: Queer Magic in my Life and Work” articulates power and possibility within stigmatized experiences around cutting and BDSM, transforming her experiences of cutting into “rituals that affirmed life, whereas in prior years, [she] had focused on the thrill of annihilation.” In “The Endlessly Unfolding Mirror: An Introduction to the Queer Sex Magic of Traditional Witchcraft,” Troll Huldren offers body acceptance and eroticizing the Abject as a path to magical power.

Another queer theme emerges as the multiplicity of identity and porousness of self. M.C. MoHagani Magnetek’s “thaMind-Sol Lady’s Revenge” tells of an experience of duality between the speaker and an alter-ego, in which both strive to seek effective strategies to maintain dignity in the face of transphobia. The Reverend Teri D. Ciacchi articulates an experience of self as multiplicity, using the pronoun “we” “to express my internal experience of being an individual embedded in an ecological web of relatedness.” Ade Kola and Aaron Oberon in their respective essays explore the fluidity and multiplicity of identity through experiences of ritual possession, articulating ways in which deity contact becomes an unexpected site of queer transformations.

In an anthology of so many gifts, one of the highlights are the interviews of wolfie, who brings in the perspectives of First Nations queer elders Clyde Hall and Blackberri. wolfie’s “Chapter 23: The Plague Years” speaks to their own history and experience of living through the height of the AIDS epidemic. Kulystin and Harrington dedicate this anthology “to our queer ancestors and magical forebears,” and reverence for those who came before permeates the work, particularly in pieces such as Pavini Moray’s “The Glitterheart Path of Connecting with Transcestors.”

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