Category: book review

Book Review By Stormlight-Pagan Anger Management by Tammy Sullivan

 

Book Review– Pagan Anger Magic by Tammy Sullivan.

Ah, nothing quite like a New Age Self-Help book. These books are really geared for young people– Uh, that is to say I **hope** they are – who are experiencing and grappling with some of life’s situations for the first time, or haven’t yet come up with a working solution and are searching for some advice. As such, this book isn’t too bad, but it isn’t one I’d recommend to someone grappling with a need for anger management.

The book’s back cover gives the ever present bulleted list of “empowering, essential information” it contains, for instance after reading it, one should know the difference between righteous (someone took credit for your work and got the reward due rightfully to you) and petty (a cute waitress flirted with your boyfriend) anger. Why anger magic is not black magic, how anger magic ties into mythology, and of course, the bread and butter of the Wiccan variety of self-help books: the spells.

Basically, it seems to me the reason this author chose to write a self help book is because she herself had issues with anger management and here’s what she did. It’s important to note that she does not list any sort of background in psychology, self help, or the like. She is a full time writer who practices Wicca.

That said, she offers up the standard dime store and pop psychology found in virtually every other self help book I’ve seen of this type. The watered- down “Left brain, right brain” concept is there to explain why people get angry. There is a question and answer session to explain what the author is trying to do here, that is, transform anger magic into raw energy for self empowerment and improvement. Can a beginner use anger magic? Yes, but it takes years to master. That’s why the book is only 205 pages long. How I know when the transformation of anger to raw energy is complete? When you feel it. The old chestnuts are all there: Don’t impose your will on anyone, the Threefold Law will get you if you do, but its OK to use anger magic, yadda yadda.

It also has the usual list of astrological signs so you can look up your sign and see how you are predestined to handle anger. These are a hoot: Aquarians are nasty and will lash out and “five seconds later they don’t understand why anyone is mad at them.” Libras tend to run from their anger, and assign blame to others. Geminis hold grudges, Sagittarians shoot off their mouths and erupt into brief tantrums, Leos are pushy hotheads who need to control others but not themselves, Aries people can act rashly, Taurii are of course, stubborn jealous people, Capricorns will destroy the object of their anger after plotting it out, “Virgo folk tend to bitch and moan often..,” A Pisces will never let go of a grudge if they get one, and watch out for Cancer signs, whatever you do! If you piss off a Cancer, they will “ ..Take on the anger of others. Threats to their safety or the safety of those they love, bring out their violent streak. They are moody by nature and quick to change from happiness to anger to depression.”

Her chapter on “Sticky Ethics” sums up something I’m not happy about when it comes to fluff bunnies. She gives an example. What if a rapist was loose in your town raping women at random? What should you do? Do a spell so he’ll be arrested? No, the author assumes in order for him to get arrested, he’ll have to rape* again*. I don’t know why the collaborative testimonies of several victims would not result in a warrant, but… Do magic to heal him? No, you’ll create a karmic tie with him. I know, how about working magic to bind or stop him to protect the neighbor hood? Oh heavens no, that would be imposing your will on him, and we must never do that! So…What do you do? Your angry about this. Answer: Pray. Yes, pray. Leave it in God’s hands. Or the Goddess’s. That way you don’t run the risk of any icky karma. That’s very empowering, you know. Yeah, for the rapist.

The meditations are rather fluffy. Despite the fact that this is supposed to be anger magic, the meditations have you feeling happy and peaceful, romping through sunny glades where you meet kindly loving entities who are all too happy to share oodles of wisdom with you for five minutes or so. The one that really confirms the terminal fluffiness of this book is the Morrighan meditation. The Morrighan is actually one of the darkest goddesses of the Celtic pantheon. She is pure battle rage and revenge as the dish best served ice cold. If you deal with Her, She will likely test you hard to see what you got. Warrior to warrior. If you are not the warrior type, pester her at your own risk. This Morrighan from the book can be found in a lovely glade complete with a “melodious” stream and chirping birds. She is described as a tall, black haired older woman.

She stands tall, turns to you and smiles. It is a smile of welcome and safety. She walks over to you and introduces herself warmly as Morrighan. You recognize her as a warrior queen and are unsure how to respond. Morrighan notices this and to put you completely at ease she embraces you in a warm hug.” ((No! I am NOT making this up!!)) The Morrighan in this book is in charge of order and continuity. So she happily whispers all the secrets of this in your ear, says a warm goodbye and you return. I’m sorry. This is not the Morrighan, this is Snow White.

The spells are really simple. One is for weight loss, and the other is to hate smoking. That one is funny. Get a pack of cigarettes, rip them to pieces, stomp on them, yell at them, squirt lemon juice on them, then take it off your property and bury it. If you are an American Indian with reverence to tobacco, this might not be so great.

In all, this book comes off as fluffy trying to be a bit dark. It really doesn’t work. It may help out some very young people who may not have read too many of these kinds of books yet, but for older people like me, it offers nothing I haven’t read a lot before, and none of it has anything new and thoughtful to add to Wicca. It won’t do any harm to anybody to follow its advice, nor will it do much to enrich anyone’s Wicca much either.

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The Art and Practice of Geomancy

I’ve recently finished John Michael Greer’s The Art and Practice of Geomancy, which concerns a Renaissance-era divination technique that comes by way of Arabia, and eventually Africa. In short, geomancy involves a binary code — registered as one dot or two — assembled into four-line figures. It reminds me strongly of I Ching hexagrams, although coins aren’t used to come up with the code. (There’s no reason you couldn’t use coins, however, I suppose.)

You come up with four figures, which are then combined to come up with all the others; they’re all placed in either a shield-chart or, more commonly, the 12-house astrological chart. Interpretation not only takes into account the figures themselves, but their relations to the houses, whether the same figures appear in more than one house, and “astrological” relations such as conjunctions, oppositions, sextile, etc. Reading according to the house technique is immensely complicated; the object sought and the significator vary according to the question and the parties involved.

All in all, I’ve joked that it would be a great divination method for folks with OCD (or CDO, where the letters are in order, as they should be). The book, which is well-written and well-researched, is a stepping stone to a lifetime study. You can conceivably attain very, very clear answers with geomancy — clearer and more precise in terms of time, direction of lost objects, initials of persons — when compared with methods such as ogham, tarot or runes. Such accuracy, however, would take a lifetime of practice — not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you.

Geomancy also lends itself to Western-style discursive meditation and techniques of ceremonial magic which, like the divination system, were largely products of that period. I’ve rarely read up on ceremonial magic, since I don’t have a personal calling, but found it rather fascinating. The Renaissance magical principles of the corpus mundi, anima mundi and spiritus mundi provide a compelling explanation as to why divination — of any sort — works at all: spawned by influences from the soul of the world, events are then expressed in the world’s vital energy (spiritus) before manifesting in the material realm.

Overall, it was an excellent book on a system I previously knew little about. I tried my hand on one chart, but geomancy isn’t a system that sings to me. I have more of an intuitive/oracular mind when it comes to divination; a more discerning, rational mind would be privileged here. Geomancy, by way of its origins and the system of philosophy that surrounds it, also would appeal more to someone interested in either Judeo-Christian practices or, at a stretch, Roman religion, albeit not classical Roman. The Renaissance was influence strongly by the re-emergence of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and literature, and that’s reflected in the system.

Still, I think it’s worth learning about other divinatory techniques, in the same spirit I dabbled with the I Ching several years ago. There’s a technique out there for everybody. (I think geomancy might appeal to engineers!)

Western Mysteries and gummy worms

Lately, I’ve been reading Caitlin and John Matthews’ Walkers Between the Worlds: The Western Mysteries from Shaman to Magus. My goal was to understand a bit more of the roots of ceremonial magic, which seems far removed from what I do as a ban-drui and trance-seer. The latter is a term I’ll use rather than shaman, because I consider the latter word culturally linked to Siberia and the cultures there.

I tend to lack good words for what I am, and I’m sensitive about cultural appropriation. There is, of course, the argument that I am stealing from the ancient Celts by using the word Druid and representing myself inaccurately; to quote Spinal Tap’s recitative to “Stonehenge”: “no one knows who they were or what they were doing.” The term, however, aligns me with Keltria and, prior to that, ADF, from which I get my current spiritual identity. Prior to that, I would’ve identified myself as a Reclaiming Witch. It’s not that those terms encapsulate the totality of my spiritual self, but they’re good shorthand.

As a basic history of Hermetic magic, the book is decent. What bothers me, however, is the first part, which covers what many would call natural magick and what the authors call the Native Tradition.

At the core, I have a problem with the concept of an Ur-religion that all cultures took part of. Not that this is explicit exactly, but I’ve seen that in quite a few overview texts. I also disagree with the assumption of euhemerism; some Gods — most specifically demigods — may be deified ancestors, but I doubt all or even most Gods are. What the Shining Ones are is worth a whole ‘nother entry, and a question that will never be answered by the living. They’re among the true Mysteries, if not the Mystery.

I also have difficulty with the idea of the Western Mysteries as a whole — a tapestry weaving together ceremonial magicians with shamans, cunning men with Christian priests. Is there a commonality between all groups who seek to engage the sacred? Perhaps. But I’m not sure all paths seek to engage the sacred in quite the same spirit. For magicians, it appears to be about control — of powers, spirits, the cosmos. For a priestess or a shaman, it’s about right relationship; there’s a limit to human power, and rightfully so. Forgive the over-simplification or the inexactitude of the terms.

“Mystery” implies there’s something hidden; the Greek term “musterion” means secret rites. And indeed, Mysteries are about secret rites, when you come down to it: they define the initiated (which stems from a term meaning “beginning”) from the uninitiated. For the rites to retain their meaning, their specialness, they must remain hidden.

Ultimately, however, this defines Mystery as an entirely human phenomena. The mysteries of the nature, the cosmos, even the Otherworld aren’t necessarily hidden; they’re out there for anyone with eyes to see and an open mind and heart. Granted, some would argue that initiation is required to point your eyes in the right direction. I can agree with this; quite a few people in the world learn best from the instruction of others. They don’t trust themselves enough to open their eyes, wonder and engage.

But the mystic — the word comes from a Greek term for an initiate into the Mysteries — doesn’t always require initiation into human-formulated ceremonies. There is a subset that’s just, well, born that way. The born-that-way type may not “play well” with members of an initiatory group, or be willing to submit themselves to all the restrictions, traditions and definitions of the group, which are really formulated for human social cohesion rather than sacred import.

Maybe there is a vast tapestry that these many mystics, groups, cultures and experiences are part of. It’s part of my nature, however, to look at the specificity — of culture, time, individual personality — than merge them all into one mega concept, kind of like how gummy worms melt into a giant pancake in a hot car. I’m still looking at the smiling gummy worm faces and seeing them as individuals, albeit merged into one mass of sweet goo.

Oh my. That’s a really awful metaphor.

Prayers at the boundary

From my journal, in February 2009:

Beauty in the odd places: the brutal wind-gust blowing ghost clouds of snow over the country road. The gibbous moon over my aching shoulder in the pre-dawn, the stars glittering in the overhead cold. Lying in bed as we watch the slender forest buck and rear, their surfaces lathered in white.

I end my nights with a prayer, praising the Gods and Kindreds and those I love. I begin with prayers to Boann, the moon and the river, and Aine, the shining sun, depending on which I see. to the spirits of the mountain as I wind my way down it. To Brighid as I make dinner or do dishes, at her supplementary altar in the kitchen.

I’ve been reading Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, and loving it. Not so much for the story, but for the depiction of the ancient Italian way of life: to honoring the fire and the spirits of the storehouse, the boundary-gods of the field.

One of my favorite parts, so far, is the disconnect between Lavinia and Virgil; she cannot understand his “Juno,” the shrew-goddess of women. To the Italians, Juno wasn’t a personality but the in-dwelling spirit in women, as genius is the in-dwelling spirit in men. Venus, similarly, isn’t a goddess on a half-shell, but “the power we invoke in spring, in the garden, when thing begin growing. And we call the evening star Venus.”

A favorite passage:

The world is sacred, of course, it is full of gods, numina, great powers and presences. We give some of them names — Mars of the fields and the war, Vesta the fire, Ceres the grain, Mother Tellus the earth, the Penates of the storehouse. The rivers, the springs. And in the storm cloud and the light is the great power called the father god. But they aren’t people. They don’t love and hate, they aren’t for or against. They accept the worship due them, which augments their power, through which we live.

And i say: Exactly. Exactly.

I do have visions, dreams and experiences of the Gods as personal presences, but that’s not really what they are. They adopt those forms to aid the understanding of a small being, who is overshadowed by the tall forest, the clouds overhead, the babbling waters beneath.

Another excellent, Pagan-friendly book by Le Guin is “Always Coming Home,” which expresses the same type of sentiment.

Merlin’s Return and Monique Wittig

What makes a story sacred?

I’m pondering the situation, in that others find RJ Stewart’s tale of Merlin’s return as meaningful while I do not. I admit that the ritual work it depicts — integrating slain soldiers into the Otherworld — is meaningful work. But why isn’t the telling?

There are several principals involved. One involves good storytelling — in that you must show, not tell. Myths often depict a series of actions, for example; the motivations are left up to the listeners to figure out, if they indeed wish to. Of course, there are exceptions, but most myth doesn’t opt for the psychological realism of the modern novel. It’s not about realism.

For me, sacred story is one that leaves space — for wandering, for imagining, for exploring truths and realities. Jeannette Winterson’s works read to me as sacred story, as well as that of “magical realists.” I’ve had moments with Charles de Lint, Ursula Le Guin, Gita Mehta’s “A River Sutra,” even Patricia McKillip. Certainly Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères.

And it’s perhaps the last that gives me my basic principle for sacred storytelling: “There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember… You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”

Yes, it’s “telling” the reader, but it’s doing so in the language of poetry, which seems to transcend the whole notion of pedantic-telling. It leaves room for imagination, room for you to spin the details, the meaning in your own life. “Merlin’s Return” just doesn’t have those qualities, at least in my reading of it.

Sacred storytelling merges, on many levels, with the art of poetry. It uses language — often repetition of themes as well as phrases and sounds — to beguile the mind out of its normal state. Note the repetition in Wittig’s famous passage, and how it lulls the mind.

I admit that I have an inherent bias against Stewart’s story in part because I’m sick to death of Merlin and medieval-type settings. Granted, there are times I like these familiar settings, but I’ve just been over-exposed through the years. However, “cliche” isn’t alien to sacred storytelling; the presence of the familiar is actually a key for the listener. What makes it something other than cliche is the feeling that there’s always something valid in the experience, whether it’s a fresh perspective or an old memory.

End of the day: the style of writing wasn’t poetic enough to appeal to me and I just don’t like Merlin stories. Your sacred storytelling perspective may vary. 🙂

Review: Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids

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Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids is a collaborative work by R.J. Stewart and Robin Williamson. I picked it up with high hopes, since it was recommended on a Druidic reading list (precisely which, I have since forgotten). I also have a soft spot for Stewart’s previous work, Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses, one of my few mementos from a trip to Salem at the age of 18. The latter book has some truly wonderful pictures and, to the best of my memory, seemed true to its subject matter.

Celtic Bards also features artwork. Alas, Chris Down — while amazingly talented at Celtic knotwork and semi-abstract patterns — doesn’t have a talent for the human figure, and his drawings were a distraction rather than a draw. Otherwise, the book has two main functions: as a collection of tales and stories translated and/or collected by the two authors, and a collection of several essays putting the Bardic and Druidic traditions into context.

The tales are decent enough — the ancient ones, as well as some of the folk tales. Of course, there are compilations aplenty of Irish and Welsh stories and myths; in that regard, this is a relatively slim and modern addition to the field.

I don’t care as much for the authors’ modern poems and stories. I don’t object to their inclusion — after all, part of the book’s purpose is to illustrate storytelling as a sacred art — but they simply aren’t to my taste. An example: the lengthy story, “Merlin’s Return,” depicts the wizard conducting magic to send the spirits of modern soldiers to the afterlife. It reads as the typical anti-modernity fantasy, in which the dysfunctional modern world finds its salvation in quasi-medieval myth and magic, a time believed to be healthier to the land and the human spirit. Personally, I don’t believe in romanticizing the past. (Being a woman, much of human history wouldn’t have been conducive to my personal development, health or basic sanity, but that’s a rant for another day.)

The rather simplistic modernity-is-bad theme seems to run as an undercurrent throughout, which irks me. Also irksome were the essays, which rehash Iolo Morganwg’s cosmology of the three rings of existence and his vision of the Bardic system. It wasn’t the inclusion of Morganwg’s works so much that bothered me, but the belief that his vision represented an ancient system and the true origins of Druidry. At worst, he was a plagiarist and liar; at best, he invented a working system that is meaningful to people today. No matter what way you hash it, though, Iolo didn’t unearth ancient lore.

Stewart’s final essay, “Magical Story-telling,” was intriguing in its premise: storytelling is a magical act and can be used as such. It certainly does help a culture transmit its sacred knowledge and understandings to the next generation. And oral tales do make use of the ancient “art of memory,” which relies on visual content to cue the storyteller’s memory. Is the art of memory magic? You can use it for such, perhaps, but in its day it was eminently practical; it was a way to remember information before the written word. (Ogham, which he doesn’t mention, was used for that purpose as well.)

As an aside: he uses the tarot as an example of sacred storytelling; on the contrary, tarot was a secular card game, not a storytelling device. (Since regular playing cards can also be used for divination, its history as a card game doesn’t take away from its usefulness as a magical tool. Anything that creates random patterns can be used for divination.)

He ends with an exploration of magical story in modern times, but cautions against the use of magical story for psychotherapy. Such stories must have roots in tradition, he claims. And with both, I ask myself: Why? Who determines tradition, or what constitutes “therapy”? If the use of a story is profoundly healing to an individual’s psyche, is that not transformative, mystical, powerful? The movie Avatar deeply touched many viewers; could that story not be sacred to them? Or superheroes, which people have followed religiously since childhood? Or, in my case, Elfquest or Tolkien?

What makes a story sacred?

Stewart tries to answer this, but he comes off as wagging a finger at modernity and not answering the larger questions. I might try to think about and process that a bit, coming up with my own answers.

In final summation: the book earns two and a half half-told tales out of five. You could do better and you could do worse.

Of clapboard dogs and pita cows

Lately, I’ve been reading Ceisiwr Serith’s latest work: Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

It is a fascinating read, I must say. Perhaps owing to my long years in ADF and deep love of ancient history, I’m intrigued by his ideas — the PIE pantheon, ritual elements such as soma/haoma, etc. I love thought experiments, and prefer reading this text as such. As a thought experiment and exploration of an imagined proto-religion, it’s wonderful.

… but as a ritual system, it’s ridiculous. PIE religion, as constructed, relies heavily on animal sacrifice — expected due to the times and circumstances of the people. As quasi-nomadic people of the steppes, they likely made temporary altars of turf and had few ritual implements. All this I understand and accept.

The reconstructed rituals also revolve around animal sacrifice — except that pita bread is substituted for the animal, called by the name of the animal and even tied to the ritual stake before it is “slain” by an ax-bearing champion. The altar is made of turf and a set of ritual poles is pounded into the ground, a ditch dug, etc. Two pieces of leather take the place of actual cattle and are addressed as such. The liturgy is in reconstructed PIE, which largely looks like gobbledygook without vowels. Only the gods know how it’s pronounced, pronunciation key in the appendix notwithstanding.

And soma/nektar? Mead with powdered barley and ghee. A waste of good mead, that.

My favorite part so far was the horse sacrifice, which involves a stripped-down pinata with a bottle of soma/nektar/mead inside; the severed pinata head is put on a stake. The ritual also involves a dog sacrifice — in the form of a clapboard cut-out dog that’s ritually bisected with an ax and then either buried or sunk in water. Burying or sinking ritual implements is mentioned in several places in the book, which doesn’t quite seem eco-friendly.

The ritual format prizes form over function. Serith readily admits that no one really knows why the dog is ritually killed and cut in two, for example. Maintaining the rudiments of the reconstructed ritual is more important than, say, understanding why such actions are done or even the spirit in which said actions are performed. (This is one of my big beefs with ADF as a whole, cow pun intended.)

At the end of the day, our world no longer resembles the supposed world of the PIE people. And I say supposed because, in the end, it’s a linguistic theory. Scholars are still arguing over the purported people’s homeland, for example; we truly don’t know who these people were, or if our reconstructions are especially close to their lived reality. In some senses, it’s an ancient version of Esperanto, expanded to religion and culture.

We no longer live in a world where our food is kept on the hoof for preservation and transportation purposes. Cows are no longer a measure of wealth, and we no longer migrate from pasture to pasture. We have few ax-wielding champions and no bona fide kings. To enact such things in ritual is akin to playing dress-up: form before function. Ritual substitution makes sense if you usually have a sacrificial animal for a rite, and cannot due to (temporary) circumstances under your control. To always have bread instead of an animal truly requires a ritual revision. In a non-herding culture, why isn’t, say, homemade bread a worthy sacrifice? (I’m starting to sound like Cain and Abel!)

In the end, the Gods don’t need our cows or our pita bread; they need our love, attention and respect. The relationship should be about love — the Hindu bhakti or devotion — not “I’ll give you this so you give me that.” Our physical offerings are piddling things to the divine; it is the act of giving with the whole heart that counts, the acts of praise, love — the treatment as family and friend.

And while I was especially fascinated by the PIE gods, I can’t imagine worshiping them. Why worship Westya, when you can worship Brighid, Hestia, Vesta — hearth-goddesses whose names, rituals and meanings are known, even in part? Why worship Perkwunos instead of Thor, Taranis, Perun, Dagda? Dyaus Pter instead of Jupiter, Zeus, Tyr, Nuada? In other words, why go for the reconstruction when you could go for the attested “real deal”?

I suppose the fact that I consider historical deities the “real deal” and reconstructed ones as, well, reconstructed is part of my failure to make the cognitive leap. I’m quite simply an unbeliever when it comes to the PIE experiment and happy with Brighid, Morrigan, Aonghus and the whole Celtic crew, as well as the non-Celtic deities I worship (Ganesha, Hera, etc.) I love the history that comes with the Gods, the unity — perhaps imagined — with worshipers in other times and places. Perhaps some folks get that with PIE gods; I don’t, although I love reading about them.

In the end, I do highly recommend the book, although I’m not quite finished with it yet (I’ve a third to go). It’s a fascinating thought experiment.