Review: Mystic Moon, Norfolk, VA

Mystic Moon, 3365 N. Military Hwy, Norfolk, VA , 757-855-3280

Hours: M 10am-10pm, T-F 10am-9pm, Sat 9am-9pm, Sun 12pm-6pm

This is a big shop, in terms of space, and the way it uses that space is alternately exciting and disappointing.

The building itself is not as well maintained as I would expect. It has a barely-converted-from-industrial feel. There is lots of bare painted concrete, with scrapes in the paint, a thin rug that doesn’t cover the whole floor, and lots of dust. This is not a disaster; if you’re excited about the merchandise, you might not notice at all. But it gave the place an odd, ill-cared-for feeling that seemed unwelcoming to me. It’s  not just small details: moderately important things like providing sufficient light in the dressing rooms have been totally neglected.

I do like that they have dressing rooms, and they have a fair selection of clothing, mostly from the Bruja line. This is mostly pseudo-romanticist styles of blouses, gowns, robes, and skirts in a range of colors and easy-care fabrics. Their sizes run small, though, which perhaps accounts for the preponderance of 1X and larger sizes in stock. They also have an odd sprinkling of fetish type clothing and accessories.

The rest of the merchandise is eclectic. There are lots and lots and lots of small groups of merchandise that are obviously handmade or sourced from particular small-scale suppliers. This means that a shopper has opportunities to find something unique that can’t be bought anywhere else. For example, they have jewelry and talismans made with Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs, which are fascinating, but there’s also a fair amount of childish-looking Sculpey pieces for sale that just made me cringe.

It also means that the store comprises multiple small areas that each seem like a display unto themselves. The overall lack of organization doesn’t help. Their selection of tumbled stones is simply spilled out over a couple of trays, with no divisions, descriptions, or other help for shoppers.

Their selection on what I would consider standard items is equally spotty. There are specially made spell candles for different intentions, hand-carved, and plain 3 inch votive candles in different colors, but no chime candles. They carry their own line of oils and have a wall display of herbs that is larger than most, but some things are out of stock. Jewelry is kind of hard to see in the counter, but they seem to have some selection at okay prices. They have only a few books, many secondhand.

They do also work to provide services to the larger community; I’m not in the immediate area, so I can’t say anything about their events, but they host rituals, classes, divination services, and even a library. The library is as eclectically chosen as the rest of the shop, so I’m not sure how much use it would be, but for the casual reader it might be interesting.

The people were friendly the whole time, and the store cat – a big black kitty – was downright lovey. This is an interesting place to visit, but if it was my main store, I’d be a little disappointed with some of the things it’s lacking. I get the impression that the owners have fallen into the common trap of creating a store based on exactly what they would want or like to offer, without a lot of thought about how different types of shoppers might have different preferences, or what would be most appealing and attractive, as well as easy to navigate, for shoppers.

I see a lot of room for improvement in this store, and I don’t want to dissuade anyone from visiting there. I hope they continue to refine their presentation, because with the space they’ve got, they could be fantastic.

Review: Gardner, High Magic’s Aid

Gardner, Gerald. High Magic’s Aid. Godolphin House, Hinton WV, revised edition 1996. Originally published 1949 under pen-name of Scire. Paperback, 238 pages.

(Please note: the version that I read is available online. It was typeset by and has a few pages of added material from Gavin and Yvonne Frost. A new edition was apparently released in 2010.)

This book is simply awful. If you don’t absolutely have to read it, don’t bother. I’m sorry if that offends anyone, but it’s true. It’s not an attack on Gardner or Gardnerian tradition, it’s an assessment of the book as a book.

This book is like a sausage: it reads as if Gardner ground up average inaccurate meso-pagan romanticisms mixed with the Key of Solomon, added naked women, flagellation, and “witchcraft” for spice, and encased it in a thin film of plot from a badly-written fanfic of Ivanhoe, tied off with a thin thread of fiction related to English Church history.

Because this is a work of fiction, my review is going to be a bit different; I’m not going to summarize the whole plot the way I summarize the contents of nonfiction works. It is unavoidable, however, that the rest of this review will contain some spoilers. Consider yourself warned. Additional trigger warnings for nudity and sexual assault.

Most of the action centers on Thur Peterson, an apothecary-magician, and two brothers who enlist his help in reclaiming their rightful inheritance. There’s even a beautiful “Jewess,” who is a brief distraction, although of course the elder brother ends up marrying the beautiful witch at the end, after they’ve retaken the castle etc etc. Happily ever after and all that.

I would have fewer problems with this book if it were presented as a fairy tale, although it would still be badly written. One thing is certain; it is wildly ahistorical. Two particular anachronisms stick out: although it’s explicitly set in the reign of King John, and more precisely in 1205 (p 17, p 200), there are references to “the spotted death” and many stories of Christian flagellants. The Black Death didn’t arrive until the 14th century. There’s a slight chance that he meant smallpox, which did indeed arrive in England during the Crusades, but other references to “plague” make me pretty sure he was thinking of the bubonic plague. The very first instances of Christian flagellants were not until 90 years after Lackland died, and then they were not in England. The association between extreme flagellant cults and the Black Death reinforces my impression of bad medieval fantasizing.

Aside from that, it’s oddly written in that sometimes it stops and addresses the reader in completely jarring ways. At one point, a brief recap of the previous chapter is given, as if the reader might have forgotten the previous 20 pages in the middle of a paragraph. At another point, Gardner writes:

It is the fashion today to laugh at the magus and his pretensions, to picture him as either a charlatan or a doddering old fool, and bearing the slightest resemblance to the men who were in fact the scientists of the day, who gave us alcohol, but not the atom bomb. (p 159)

And then he blithely goes back to detailing the placement of the incense burners and the procedures for the Solomonic workings under way. Trenchant though these observations may be, it is bad writing and a lack of editing. Instances like this make me wonder if the story was first told aloud, then transcribed and fleshed out without being fully rewritten as a coherent work of prose.

As for the magic in the book, it is in fact nearly all “high magic,” as mentioned in the title, which is completely distinct from witchcraft. Rituals are led by Thur in the style of the Key of Solomon and other high medieval grimoires, complete with significant influences from the Kabbalah, writing in Hebrew, and the conjuring of spirits to materialize themselves in incense smoke. It’s worthwhile to note that the high medieval grimoires and the Key of Solomon in particular didn’t come into existence until the 14th or 15th centuries, so this kind of magic is also completely anachronistic to Gardner’s imaginary early medieval setting.

The witch, Morven, plays a subsidary role throughout. She is a gateway through which power flows, and her athame is absolutely necessary for Thur to make the magical sword with which he does his magical operations, but other than that her main purposes are to be naked and keep the incense burners filled while he does all the work.

Yes, there’s nakedness, a fair amount of it. The rules work sort of like this: common people like being naked, especially outside on an English night (season not specified). Witches have to be naked. People doing magic are naked, except when they’re not (more on this later), because nakedness is important to magic, as well as having fun, all of which are looked down upon by the Church, which goes to show how good they all are.

The other purpose, besides being naked, that Morven serves is to initiate all three central characters into the witch-cult, which is “an ancient brotherhood pledged to mutual aid.” If you think this sounds like the Masons, and that Gardner’s recensions of the rituals look an awful lot like Masonic rituals, you’re on the right track. The rituals that follow are very similar to what the Farrars lay out – the Five-fold Kiss, binding, oath taking, light flagellation, and so on. You’ll learn a lot more about the whole thing from the Farrars than from this work, in fact.

Then, far from being about “mutual aid,” it becomes totally and completely clear that the whole point of the men being initiated is to allow them to exercise power over the common people. Morven “agreed that it would give them greater power over the brethren, few of whom ever advanced beyond the triangle.” (p 187, see also p 180-1) The general idea of the witch-cult being about joy, nature, and fertility seems completely disconnected from the rituals of initiation, which are all about power and ceremonial-type magic.

Once they get the authority to force the commoners to support them in assaulting the castle, they take the castle, Thur dies, and the elder brother finally decides to marry Morven, remembering a saying:  “‘Women and castles are much the same.’ He seized her in his arms and his lips sought hers, she struggled a minute, then hers went on his, eagerly.” (p 209) After this romantic little assault, they are inescapably deeply in love, and she consents to marry him in a Christian ceremony.

Just before the end, there is an odd little side-plot appended. A local monk named Stephen realizes that Thur is doing magic, and blackmails Thur into doing magic on his behalf, so that he can get the power he wants. Stephen objects, however, to having Morven be naked while himself and Thur are robed during the rite. Thur proceeds to give Stephen a lecture about how witches have to work naked, but more importantly, she has to be naked in order for Thur and Stephen to learn to control their minds so they can’t be distracted. (p 197-8)

Thus, the whole book is in two minds about the entire subject of nudity. On the one hand, it’s natural and good because it is natural, but on the other hand, it is also a source of distraction – potentially very bad and dangerous! – that men must use to learn to discipline themselves, so that nakedness becomes of no importance whatsoever. In addition, the person who must be naked, and who does so to put forth power, is clearly in a subordinate position to the magus in all of the ceremonial magic situations. The initiation rituals are not exactly like that, but they’re not an instance of Morven taking control, either.

Morven also only speaks briefly about the witch-cult’s ideas of divinity, while Thur will go on and on about God, clearly the Judeo-Christian singular divinity. This deity is presented as the ultimate arbiter of what is good or not; on the whole, the witch-cult is never presented as a viable, coherent alternative system of belief or practice. They’re sort of animist Christians, or the poor oppressed people who show how evil the Church is, but they’re not some hidden survival that’s maintaining its independence in secrecy. This melding of beliefs may be one of the more reasonable things Gardner presents, historically, but there are so many incidents in the book that are directly contrary, and hence totally unreasonable, that the result is just absurd.

As the final example of the primacy of ceremonial magic, consider the ending, where Stephen says goodbye to Morven. He turns out to be Stephen Langton, a real figure in English Church history who was pivotal in resisting John Lackland and making the Magna Carta happen. He rides off into the sunset, “… to fulfil his destiny with the aid of magic’s high art as she had fulfilled hers.” (p 220)

So the real point of the book has been for Morven to be a tool for men and get married, and for Stephen to go off to become a famous Christian archbishop, all through ceremonial magic. If this was a murder mystery, witchcraft would be nothing more than a red herring. The book lives up to its title by being about ceremonial magic, but it has not retained any value in terms of relevance to Wicca.

There’s nothing of artistic value here that makes it worth reading for its own sake. If you’re an antiquarian or researching the roots of the Craft, you might be intrigued by it, but it is neither a foundational text for Wicca nor “a good yarn” as the Frosts dub it on the back cover. It’s a muddled meso-pagan mess.

Review: Renee, Tarot Spells

Renee, Janina. Tarot Spells. Llewellyn, revised edition, 2000, originally published 1990. Paperback, 294 pages.

More than anything else, this book reminds me of a cookbook. In fact, it reminds me of the Southern Living Annual Cookbooks put out by the magazine of that name – a decent cookbook, with some recipes that are good, and quite a few that are serviceable, but nothing stunning. A beginning to intermediate practitioner who wants to expand the use of his Tarot deck beyond the occasional reading could definitely pull this book of the shelf and do a spell.

It is definitely what it says on the label: Tarot Spells. It is not about understanding Tarot, and it is not, by any means, about how to create your own spells. I want to give it credit for what it is, but I also have some criticisms about how the author decided to frame the book. These don’t outweigh what the book does well. I want to acknowledge that since I’m someone who enjoys crafting her own spells, some of these critiques might be a bit like Anthony Bourdain complaining that Southern Living’s cookbook uses too much salt and sugar and not enough different spices and cooking techniques.

What the author did well was make the book simple to use. This leads to a lot of repetition; although Renee sets up a general ritual for how to perform a Tarot spell in the introductory material, she repeats most of that content, with some variation, for every spell. This indicates to me that the book is clearly not intended to be read in order – it’s set up as a reference, where each spell or small group of spells can stand independently.

To add to its reference value, it also includes 101-type information like an FAQ, a list of color symbolisms, and some other suggestions for enhancing spells. But these suggestions are basic and bland. (And in places, simply false: piezoelectricity has many practical applications, but it is most certainly not true that “If you squeeze a crystal, it will build up an electrical charge.” (p 281)) The basic introduction to ideas of magic in the introductory material also makes it accessible to the beginning practitioner. But the abstract material is more of an appendage hung on what is, at heart, a practical book.

This is my one complaint: it’s so relentlessly practical that it doesn’t do anything to help the reader move beyond the 101 level. At the end of this, you might have picked up a few ideas about creating your own Tarot spells, just by example, and sure, there are a few ways you can customize the spells a bit, but it’s a cookbook, definitely not a textbook.

Again, if that’s what the reader wants, great. The Tarot material here is definitely more specific, and hence more useful, than broad generalizations like “Combine Tarot cards to represent an image of what you desire.” I also very much like the idea of Tarot as a set of symbols that “can be used to make complex statements.” (p 1) To switch to that metaphor, this is a phrasebook, not anything that teaches you how to construct statements in the symbolic language.

If the author had taken time and space to explain a little more about why each card was chosen, and how they interact, I would have liked the book more. If the author had made the effort to explain how the reader might adapt or customize the spells in more detail, I might have loved it. As it is, I can see how it would be useful to some readers, but I can’t recommend it universally.

I also have some ethical concerns with this book. There are plenty of good spells for three of what I call the Big Four, the four most common purposes that drive people to try to use magic: Renee includes several variations for prosperity, love, and healing. But she walks a fine ethical line in a few places: there is a love spell specifically to gain the love of another person, which I find unacceptable, and there is a spell that borders on revenge (the last of the Big Four). It specifies that a thief “feel nothing but pain and torment” until the stolen item is returned. (p 268) Wishing ill on an ill-doer is certainly a common emotional reaction, but acting on that wish is a very dangerous action and should only be taken in specific circumstances after significant consideration of the ethical issues involved. This is certainly inappropriate in a generalized spell against a thief.

On the good side, the use of symbolism in the suggested card layouts is sometimes interesting – pyramids, staircases, and more complex arrangements provide variety, and are sometimes quite clever. But the layouts vary between narrative – telling a story in order, towards a defined goal – and simply descriptive, with different cards representing different aspects of the desired outcome. Expanding the understanding of that, and possibly incorporating more narrative and less wishing, might have made the spells more interesting and adaptable.

To return to culinary metaphors, since they’re not designed to be customized, and they’re addressed to the widest possible audience, the recipes – or spell recipes – are adapted to generalized tastes. They rely on the basic flavors, with lots and lots of salt and sugar, but a dearth of more interesting seasonings.

The most obvious example of this reliance on a few simple ingredients is the repeated use of cards like the Star and the World, which are used in so many different ways that they become leached of more complex meanings and start looking like generic “good outcome” or “wishing” cards. In 72 spells (aww, almost the same number of spells as there are cards in the Tarot deck, how cute), the Star appears in 18, the World in 17, and the Magician appears in 13 as a general symbol of the person doing the spell. Five other Major Arcana cards appear 8-10 times each.

On the other hand, there is very minimal use of the Minor Arcana. No pip card appears more than six times, the rest only once or twice, and more than a dozen of them do not appear at all. Yes, there are suggestions to use the court cards as significators, but the constant reliance on Major Arcana cards – and especially on a thin handful of pretty generically positive symbols – mean that ultimately, a lot of the spells look alike.

For the casual or beginning magic user, this could be a handy reference with some good examples. I’m sure that’s why it has sold well and been reprinted multiple times. For the reader with a palate for more variety and flavor than basic comfort food, this work will not satisfy your appetite.

Review: Gadon, The Once and Future Goddess

Gadon, Elinor. The Once and Future Goddess: A symbol for our time. HarperCollins, 1989. Paperback, 405 pages.

The effort to recognize and restore the place of female power, authority, and divinity, especially in areas of study like archaeology, prehistory, and history, is deeply important to women’s empowerment and our reimagining of the possibilities of Western culture. But there is good reason to think that in the first blush of excitement over the possibilities, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. Gadon, like many others, fell prey to the myth of matriarchal prehistory which Cynthia Eller has so capably exposed as not just inaccurate but an unstable foundation for women’s spirituality.

Let me say up front that I largely agree with Gadon’s descriptions of the dehumanization of women through modernity and patriarchal societies as documented in the historical record. But Gadon is determined to read that narrative back in an unbroken arc to prehistory, where the silent evidence of artifacts rather than texts is more accommodating of Gadon’s reinterpretations. By the end of the work it becomes obvious that Gadon really wanted to write about contemporary female artists and their reenvisioning and reclaiming of women’s bodies and women’s meaning. Those chapters may be valuable, but the majority of the book is devoted to pseudo-historical imaginings that have great potential to do harm.

Gadon’s historical errors and problems are pervasive. She cites Maria Gimbutas as an inspiration and takes Gimbutas’ often-discredited interpretations as authoritative. Gadon then presents these to the reader as if they were the predominant archaeological position. Similarly, Gadon bases an entire chapter on the theories of an archaeologist since disgraced for potentially smuggling antiquities and whose evidence for “the Great Goddess” and a matriarchal society was wholly discredited. Gadon’s reliance on these sources might have been barely excusable for a non-scholar twenty years ago, when she was writing, but our understandings of history and archaeology have developed significantly since then. Today’s readers need to be aware of these issues and look elsewhere for their information.

She also plays a neat shell game with visual evidence, asserting that similarly-described patterns in three different places have distinct meanings related to the goddesses she wants to identify: on page 43, diamonds and chevrons represent water, on page 49, diamonds are a sign of the vegetation goddess, and on page 53, bands of dots and zigzags are snakeskin designs. Similarly, bull horns are both symbols of masculinity and a representation of the lunar crescent – so is the moon a male symbol, too? In later chapters, Gadon slides from one goddess-figure into another, the snake and bird goddess(es) being sometimes separate and sometimes the same, but regardless, Gadon presents all evidence as supporting the pan-Goddess hypothesis.

This kind of sloppy scholarship does nothing more than convince me that interpreting prehistoric artifacts is an extremely difficult field in which it is easy to pick the possible interpretation that supports preexisting assumptions. She also conveniently ignores other possible interpretations. For example, rather than goddess figures, archaeologists might be unearthing Neolithic erotica, which does not necessarily mean that women were valued or powerful. I guarantee that an archaeologist digging up my current culture would find lots of representations of women, but that doesn’t mean women are running an idyllic goddess-worshipping matriarchy.

For someone who wants to imagine herself back in time, Gadon’s disconnection from any physical realities of the period is sometimes annoying and sometimes laughable. Her penchant for inappropriately syncretizing everything leads her to try to unify the rhythms of agricultural food production and those of hunter-gatherer production – in every bioregion and climate! – to support the idea of universal spring sacrifices. She has also apparently never seen winter wheat. (72) This is one more symptom of how she slides back and forth between the symbolic and the actual much too easily.

Gadon’s inaccuracies are not merely symbolic, though: she asserts that people’s “material life improved” as they moved into agricultural communities, when in fact, nearly all the extant evidence shows the exact opposite. (45) Every time a large enough population of humans concentrated, “herd” or “crowd” diseases cropped up, and in fact, even when they survived childhood, farmers were less well nourished and in poorer health overall than their predecessors.

Even in discussing the presence and role of the Goddess in the very society from which she comes, Gadon is sloppy with her evidence, giving incorrect Biblical citations for her quotes, ignoring the Old Testament, and failing to differentiate between popular Catholicism and the Church’s actual teachings. She also wanders through the ideas in her typical scatterbrained way, tossing off odd comments like the idea that the moon brought menstruation into Mary’s iconography by association. (204) Huh?

Most problematic for me was  Gadon’s unremitting gender essentialism. The tactic of valorizing things previously derided for being “female” is an important part of changing patriarchy, but unquestioningly accepting the patriarchal framing of what women are is a major strategic error. Gadon argues that women’s wombs are the source of their power. (289) Reducing women to their reproductive systems is dehumanizing and wrong no matter who does it.

The idea that some of the Goddess images are also phallic, and thus incorporate men, is as backhanded a way of justifying the Goddess as a universal representation of deity as the idea that the Christian god is neither male nor female. The “coincidental” connection to Christianity suggested on page 44 is frankly insulting to Christians in tone and verges on spiritual-cultural imperialism. Replacing the “default male” assumption with a “default female” assumption may help break down patriarchy, but it still defines some people as normal and some as Other.

Ultimately, Gadon’s fascination with visual representations means I should not be surprised by her finally stating bluntly that “the sacred image is not an illusion of reality, but reality itself.” (200) But Gadon does not realize that this willingness to valorize iconography – whether theological or visual, whether life-affirming or otherworldly – is a major root of much of the damage done by patriarchal systems that she decries. The kind of interpretation of the world that deliberately, knowingly, prefers its ideas, or theology, or goddess worship, over reality, and insists that reality will simply have to conform itself to those ideas is the same kind of interpretation that supports refusing women abortion as a life-saving medical treatment, because the reality of the woman’s death isn’t nearly as important as the invisible spiritual interpretation someone else has imposed.

What’s really valuable in this book is the material on contemporary culture, art, and the idea of the goddess. She could have written a perfectly good book about that without doing violence to prehistory and archaeology along the way. Her chapter on the artist as prophet of the Goddess’ reemergence offers a variety of visions of the Goddess in contemporary life and can be read as an invitation to the reader to join that process. I would think that knowing where that journey is headed would make the deep delving of the beginning of Gadon more relevant, more inspiring, and more worthwhile for women who haven’t yet encountered the reemergence of the Goddess, or haven’t encountered it as fully. She concentrates, as usual, on visual imagery, and runs the risk of making women who are not artists or whose artistry occurs in different media feel as if they are not as fully participating in the reemergence of the Goddess, but even for that, this material is uplifting and inspiring.

Towards the end of the book, Gadon acknowledges that there is no real evidence for the kind of society she spent so much time imagining, and mentions the fact that the mother goddess archetype puts too much emphasis on women’s reproductive capacity, but this two-page slice of reality does little to outweigh her first several chapters. (303-304)

Similarly, Gadon’s comment that “sacred narrative often preserves memories of how people experience cultural changes,” is very true and a much better statement of that fact than the overused trivialization that victors write history. (117) But her excellent suggestions about things like women reclaiming the process of birth from an overly-medicalized approach don’t have to be grounded in imaginary ancient sacred narrative to give them truth and power.

I disagree with Gadon’s essentialist take on femininity, but I agree that we – as part of the women’s spirituality movement and as part of the earth-centered spirituality movement – are participating in reconstructing the mythology and cultural consciousness of our time. I think we should try to do so on a stable and sustainable basis, rather than on fancies mistaken for fact. As a result, for a casual reader, I strongly recommend only engaging with the last part of the book and ignoring the prehistorical sections, if you read it at all.

Happy Mabon! The Myth of Progress and a book review

Happy autumn equinox to everyone!

The Myth of Progress is my article about Mabon at the Slacktiverse:

This is what I love about Mabon; more, perhaps, than any other Sabbat, it is a festival about which Pagans are actively making their own myths, in all their many forms. Mabon is an opportunity for us to look at our myths, and the stories we tell ourselves about our world, our past, and our potential futures. And since Mabon is so open to reinterpretation, it reminds us that if we don’t like those stories, or where they’re going, then maybe we can start telling the story differently, trying many versions, until we find the ones that we can live with and live in.

So, what’s your myth? How do you use a myth – of progress, or something else – to tell your own stories?

And the latest issue of Eternal Haunted Summer includes my review of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan:

For readers who want to spend a lot of time inside the head of a stereotypical twelve-year-old boy, these books will be a fun romp. The stories might inspire kids to go on and read the original myths, and they are fine as light entertainment, but they have plenty of problems, too. If I gave these books to children, I would also have some very serious conversations with them about some of the subtler messages conveyed, and I wouldn’t use these books as a first introduction to the Olympic pantheon.

Review: Lale, Asatru for Beginners

Lale, Erin. Asatru for Beginners. e-book second edition, 2009. 157 pages.

Asatru for Beginners is by Erin Lale, an Asatruar who has run for office as a candidate for the Libertarian party. Lale moderated an MSN group for Asatruar for several years, and the book grew out of the FAQ and resources for that group. The book’s origins show clearly, and while it tries to be representative of many or most Asatruar, at times the author’s personal and political agendas come through with startling clarity.

Despite the title, I wouldn’t actually recommend this book for beginners. I think it would be most useful for someone who has a foundation in Asatru and wants to see what the collective documents of a group of Asatruar look like. Reading the book, I think I get a sense of what a lot of the conversations on the list must have looked like to come to these mostly-consensus positions. Encountering those as filtered through the author could be useful for someone trying to get more involved in Asatru, but it does not even attempt to be an unbiased look at Asatru written for someone with no basis.

Perhaps the most useful parts of the book are an alphabetical listing of deities, which I can see as a great resource for beginning practitioners, and the simple rituals for major life events. There is also a rune chart and some straightforward descriptions of how magic might be incorporated in an Asatru framework, plus an overview of additional resources. All of these would be valuable for anyone starting to follow the Asatru path.

The book could certainly do with more thorough editing. It is repetitive, reflecting its structure as parts of a FAQ rather than a book meant to be read linearly. Some things are a little oddly placed or phrased. A warning against not taking oaths in a language you do not understand is included in the FAQ answer on initiations, which seems strange to me. (13) In another place, the text seems to say that the political power of the Roman Empire was only broken after the Protestant Reformation. (33) Surely this is a mistake of confusing the religious power of Rome in Catholicism with the Roman Empire, but it seems to demonstrate a lack of attention to detail, especially since this is the second edition of the book. Some capitalization issues (“Science,” “Lesbians”) and paragraph problems also make the book look less professional than it might otherwise.

Unfortunately, the bigger problem is that some issues that have plagued Northern European reconstructionists show up here too. Lale says that there is disagreement within Asatru about “whether a person must belong to a particular nation in order to be that particular type of heathen.” She continues: “Those who say no are called universalists.  Those who say yes are called folkisch.  However, even among the folkisch, the tradition of tribal adoption is honored, and those of mixed ethnicity are welcomed as long as they have some ancestors from the given nation.”

This seems to me to only begin to scratch the surface of the tremendous issues surrounding race within Asatru. That may be appropriate for beginners, and is certainly okay on a website’s FAQ, but this is a missed opportunity for Lale to expand this material into a better form. Later, the Asatruar involvement in Kennewick Man situation is mentioned, and the author says that Kennewick Man “is 9,000 years old, and dates from a time before the modern races evolved,” which seems to me to confirm an outdated form of thinking about races as simply biologically distinct, rather than a complex interaction of biology and culturally-defined categories that can vary greatly. (15)

The issue of race in Asatru’s history comes up: Lale disavows any connection between Nazi Germany and Heathenism in confused ways; she acknowledges that some Nazis used some Heathen symbols, but maintains that Hitler was a Christian and that Heathens were persecuted in Nazi Germany as well. (33, 34) Again, I understand the limitations of a FAQ, but in a book, surely this could have been addressed with more nuance. The Nazis and their attitudes toward religon were not monolithic, and the text here seems too much like an attempt to claim fellow-victim status to deflect reasonable criticisms that have been raised and continue to crop up about Asatru interactions with white supremacy and other forms of racism.

The strangest part of the whole book for me was the way it addressed – or didn’t – issues of gender and sexuality. Responsible reconstructionists have to grapple with the ways that ancient traditions did or did not address gender and sexuality, especially given the fact that the ancients may have had very different conceptions of those issues than we do today. Lale seems determined on the one hand to insist that Asatru is not hostile to gays and lesbians and on the other to maintain the gender essentialist structure of historical Northern European cultures, right down to using derogatory terms for queer people. This is especially baffling because Lale herself is bisexual.

Addressing gays, Lale writes: “In any case, homosexuality was certainly never outlawed among the heathens.  Some of the gods were sexually ambiguous.” (106) I’m sure the fact that this was “never outlawed” in the past will be reassuring to gay people uncertain of their possible reception in Asatru today. There seems to be an assumption that gay men are effeminate, as another related statement points out that “Both transvestism and changing gender are practiced by some of the gods in our myths.” (105) Given the plethora of easily-available information on trans* issues, it is especially strange that Lale retains the outdated and pejorative “transvestitism.”

Further confusion arises when Lale states that “Modern male seidh practitioners are generally presumed to be gay unless they are transvestites.” (142) The relationship between seidh and gender and sexual identity in the myths is a complex and fascinating topic, but this offhanded statement obscures the potential richness of the topic as point of great interest to queer people interested in Asatru.

This approach also reflects the simplistic gender essentialism that pervades the book. Simple rituals for life events are included, but they are extremely gender-specific (at coming-of-age, women get a jewel, men a weapon) and only mention heterosexual unions.

Lale takes pains to assure women that “In heathen times, the traditional roles of women had value and power.” (102) Yes, the economic power of the home manager is not to be disregarded, but what of the contemporary female Marine who feels drawn to Asatru as a way to embrace her warrior identity?

Finally, in some places, Lale makes flat-out assertions and presents her personal positions as definitive, normative, and inherent in Asatru. For example, she says simply, “Asatru women do not cut their hair,” with a related explanation that women who cut their hair are whores or slaves. (94)

Her libertarian position comes out in statements this FAQ entry on gun control: “A free people is an armed people, because only an armed people has the means to remain free. Slaves are forbidden weapons; free people carry them openly.  A society in which only the police carry weapons openly is a police state.” (104) She does mention that not all Asatruar will agree with all the answers she gives, but in other places she tends to at least acknowledge variation of opinion. This topic is treated as an essential part of Asatru belief and practice.

All in all, this book may be helpful for some beginners, but it is not one I would recommend to someone just starting to explore Asatru. It falls prey to several problems specific to Heathenism, but more importantly, it seems to reflect the opinions of a relatively narrow subsection of that culture with very specific political and social views.

I thank Ms. Lale for providing a review copy of her book to me. It did not prejudice me in favor of her work.

Review: Edghill, Bell, Book, and Murder

Edghill, Rosemary. Bell, Book, and Murder: The Bast Novels. Paperback, 448 pages. Forge, 1998. Omnibus edition of Speak Daggers to Her, 1994, Book of Moons, 1995, and The Bowl of Night, 1996, by the same author.

These three novels are set in mid-1990s New York, and follow the experiences and exploits of Bast, a Witch who has to draw on all her talents, mundane and magical, as she stumbles into a series of murders, betrayals, intrigues, and even a curse. In the first novel, one of Bast’s friends is found dead, possibly as a result of malefic magic from an unethical coven and coven leader. Bast’s investigation navigates deep currents of what magic means in the world today and how we can and should use it and respond to it; the outcome is ambiguous in some ways, which is one of the things I love about these books.

Edghill accurately represents the uncertainties of working with magic. There’s no hocus-pocus here, no Harry Potter-esque wand-waving that makes lights flicker, and not even any telepathic messages or ominous Tarot readings. There aren’t detailed accounts of rituals, either – very little of the book takes place in the setting of a circle or ceremony.  Instead, Edghill represents magic as we experience it: in the workings-out of intent in the world, with all the attendant murkiness, with multiple causes and effects intertwining, and with a distinct lack of clear-cut choices in most situations. Bast resolves the situation with the potential curse, but the resolution is as magical – or not – as the suspicion of malefic action was in the beginning, depending on how you see the whole situation. (I’m being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers, but also because simplifying the complexities of the plot would destroy the exact effect that I appreciate about this book.)

In the second book, Bast faces the politics – good, bad, ugly, and stupid – of the magical community in the 90s, from Niceness Wicca to an S&M leather coven, from Ceremonial Magic to Womyn’s Goddess worship, plus seekers of all stripes. I can’t speak for the accuracy, not having been in that historical setting, but Edghill’s portrayals come across as incisively accurate and still a good assessment of the kinds of politics and power plays that go on between individuals and groups. Bast herself is something of an insider-outsider, giving her a chance to reflect on the biases of her own viewpoint, which is an exercise that every reader ought to engage in as well.

The third book finds Bast squarely in the middle of a confrontation between neo-Pagans, fundamentalist (often rendered hilariously as “funny-mentalist”) Christians, and the law enforcement agencies who have to try to sort everything out. Villains and potential villains abound; achieving the right relationship between law and justice is more like a complex negotiation than a straightforward set of consequences. This one is the most difficult for Bast personally but also leads to the most reflection on the hard limits to which Bast will and will not go – even in the face of desire.

These works have aged well; there are a few places where a cell phone would have really changed the plot, but those are simple enough to overlook that they don’t distract from the pleasure of reading. Since the explosion of Cunningham-type self-initiated solitaries and the fashion for “magick” (sic) among teens in the Silver Ravenwolf vein, the makeup of the community one finds at open rituals and bookstores has changed a bit, sometimes quite a bit, but the population Bast interacts with is familiar to anyone who has spent a little bit of time around Pagans and magic-users.

The only other big difference from the present day is the lack of an overarching cultural concern about war that has been present since September 11th. For those who can (or want to) cast themselves back to the seemingly idyllic 90s, when whether everyone brought potato salad to the potluck rated as a major concern, these books will be familiar territory.

I’d recommend these to anyone who is pursuing a Pagan or Wiccan path and especially people who enjoy murder mysteries. It’s great to see a well-executed example of the genre set in our sub-culture, and you might just learn something about magic and meaning along the way.

Review: Rodda, Liars for Jesus

Rodda, Chris. Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History. Kindle edition.

When you need this book, you need it badly. When you don’t, it’s possible to find Rodda’s detailed investigation into the politics and religion of the early American republic bogged down in minutiae. But what Rodda has actually done here is a talented investigation of history, especially for someone not trained as an historian, and this work is an outstanding contribution to the fight against religious extremism in this country.

I became aware of this book when, in response to more of David Barton’s ingenious lies, Rodda made it available for free download. The book is matched by an excellent website that features not only Rodda’s rebuttals but also detailed, extensive citation material. Barton often claims that he uses images of his original sources – well, Rodda does him one better by putting up images of her sources in their entirety instead of trimmed to fit misquotes.

Rodda uses primary sources (the original documents) in the way that professional historians do: she approaches each document in its entirety, and does extra work to put it into context. It’s not just about who wrote this; when did he (and they were mostly all men) write it? Why? Was he answering a letter? Was he being sarcastic? Were there behind-the-scenes political maneuvers taking place that affected what was said or how it was meant? (Answer: yes, almost always.) Barton fails each of these criteria and abuses primary sources in almost exactly the same way conservative Christians abuse the Bible in their misreadings of it.

Seeing that pattern of misuse and abuse of texts and sources was the single most interesting thing to me about this book. The way that pseudo-historians like Barton are willing to lie – not just make mistakes, not just misconstrue, not just misread, but lie, and then mangle the sources to seem to back up what they have to know is a lie – is demonstrated over and over and over again. You don’t have to absorb the details of the political wrangling around establishing the University of Virginia to understand this.

Barton and co. learned this kind of eisegesis and prevarication by doing it to the Bible. This goes beyond taking quotes out of context. It goes beyond accidentally taking seriously a passage that is meant sarcastically. It is a systematic reconstruction of the text to support a desired outcome, and it’s how extremely conservative Christians have learned to treat all “sacred texts,” starting with the Bible. Reading this book should also make you suspicious of the kind of simple Biblical allusions used willy-nilly by the far right.

It also reveals some fascinating insights into conservatives’ ideas about authority. As near as I can figure out, the conservative attitude is that if something happened while so-and-so was in charge, especially if so-and-so consented to it or was notified of it, then so-and-so must have actively wanted it to happen, must have desired it, intended it, designed it, and been in full accord with the results. (Except when that’s a bad thing that happened to a good person, of course, which counter-examples only they can spot.) If half of Barton’s bunk gets blown away by misquotes and simple lies, another quarter of it gets trashed by this misconstruction of intent, power, and authority. The remainder is more complex lies, and Rodda tackles those as well.

The one weakness in this book is that Rodda has gotten so familiar with her material that sometimes she forgets to pull back and provide a quick overview or summary for those of us who haven’t been living with the Rockfish Report and the correspondence about Central College for the last few years. Some sharp recapitulations, especially at the ends of chapters, would do wonders for providing easy-to-quote refutations. The other thing readers should be aware of is that this is the first volume in a projected trilogy. It takes much more time and effort to counter lies than it does to propagate them, and Rodda has done a spectacular job of it here, but she realized in the process of writing that she had taken on a larger task than she originally thought.

When I realized how important this book was for me to have, and how grateful I was that someone had tackled this necessary but disgusting task, I bought the book, although I had already downloaded it for free. I plan to buy the next two volumes and will be glad to have them as reference material. If you don’t find it important for you to have the details, you should still have the Liars for Jesus website bookmarked just in case: think of it as being Snopes to Barton’s urban legends. If you do decide that this is an important cause, and you find all the information you need for free, then please consider donating $5 or $10 (the cost of the Kindle edition) to a charity of your choice that supports these causes such as the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, where Ms. Rodda is Senior Research Director.

Review: Starhawk, The Pagan Book of Living and Dying

I have not had new posts for a while because an uncle of mine died, and I was spending time supporting my mother and being with family. As a result, I drew heavily on this book, which I had had for a while but hadn’t read. I hope to resume something like my usual pace this week.

Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare, and the Reclaiming Collective. The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over. HarperCollins, 1997. Paperback, 353 pages.

I turned to this book when I needed resources, and it provided. If you’re going to be in a leadership role in the Pagan community, you should at least have read this book, and I strongly suggest you should own it. If you’re a Pagan, you may not see it as important, but it is a handy thing to have around and could provide interesting resources and challenges for you around Samhain.

This book is a compilation of articles, meditations, rituals, prayers, chants, songs, poetry, and more. It manages somehow to be both wide in scope and deep in content, and although it is not assembled for front-to-back reading, I found the comprehensive table of contents easy to use.

Part one, The Pagan Tradition, has thealogical material, reflections, and meditations. Uncharacteristically, this is the part I have read the least of, because it wasn’t what I needed when I pulled this book off the shelf. What I have read looks thoughtful and articulate, and comes from a variety of writers, without trying to express a monolithic view of what Paganism is or ought to be. Part two, The Pagan View of Death, has some very useful discussion of specifically how Pagans can understand death, again, with respect for a variety of viewpoints.

Part three, The Dying Process, and part four, Death Has Many Faces, are the “meat” of the book. The section on the dying process includes many personal reflections, some of which will bring tears to your eyes and others which will make you laugh aloud. The summary material provides good advice of several kinds to those working with the dying or the grieving, and generally advises an approach that lets those closest to the situation take the lead, with others providing support and nurturing, while making sure to take care of themselves at the same time. It addresses issues relevant to people in a wide range of grief situations, including sudden or violent death, the death of a child, deaths from HIV, and abortion. Specific suggestions give concrete options while the general themes are consistently carried throughout.

Part five, Carrying On, has other advice that is invaluable, especially for Pagans who may find themselves counseling or consoling people who are still working through the grieving process weeks, months, or years later. This section may seem almost irrelevant to someone who has not experienced the death of someone close, but it is one more indication that this book was put together by people who have experienced that which they write about.

The real treasure in this book is the stock of rituals, prayers, songs, poems, meditations, and visualizations. A lot of material here comes from Starhawk, especially prayers, but plenty of it is from other people, largely from the Reclaiming Collective. Again, the breadth of material is impressive, including a prayer for cleaning the rooms of someone who has died. I found the resources easy to modify, to pick and choose and reassemble something that worked for the situation I was in.

I have not done many of the meditations, but I look forward to trying them, and I think that some of them could provide great pieces for Samhain rituals, even for a solitary who has little to grieve. There are also excellent starting points for Pagans to think about and prepare for their own deaths, including basic suggestions about legal issues to consider, as well as practical and magical ones.

I would have liked to see more material about hospice and palliative care, and how to work with the medical community to achieve the goals of the patient in the case of a long and debilitating terminal illness. I don’t know if that omission is the result of a lack of awareness and experience with hospice and palliative care; that area of care has certainly grown and developed in the last decade. Another factor may be that this book does provide the kind of “need it now” resources that I praise. But there is also plenty of material for longer-term reflection, and I think a chapter on what hospice care is, how it works, when you or a loved one might choose it, and how to define the goals of care and get them met would have been a tremendous addition.

You may not like or enjoy all the material presented in this book; almost certainly, you will not agree with all of it. But I found that it had adaptable resources when I needed them, and that even the material that I found jarring was a useful stimulus to additional thinking and meditation.

In order to be in concert with natural cycles – the whole cycle, from beginning to end to new beginnings – even Pagans who are not grieving or have never grieved should face the existence of death, including their own. This book is a good place to start that process, and a tremendous contribution to the Pagan community’s shared pool of knowledge, understanding, lore, and ritual.

Review: 13 Magickal Moons, Occoquan, VA

13 Magickal Moons, 407 Mill St. #201, Occoquan, VA 22125, 703-492-2211

Hours: Sun-Tues 12pm-5:30pm, W 12pm-9:30pm, Thurs-Fri 12pm-5:30pm, Sat 11am-5:30pm

This store is a little hard to find. It’s at the very end of Mill Street, the main part of the Occoquan historic/shopping district, at the opposite end from where you enter the area from the highway. It’s on the second floor, over the rug shop. The sign might be visible from across the street, but when you’re right underneath it, the railings make the sign almost invisible. The entrance is via an external flight of stairs that starts just beyond the rug shop’s corner.

Merchandise and selection: 13 Magickal Moons has a strong emphasis on its own in-house product lines. For example, they didn’t have regular essential oils, but had a variety of oils that seemed to be mostly perfume oils (not extracted from plants), plus their own custom blends for particular purposes: Full Moon, Isis, etc. They also had in-house brands of salves, herb blends, incense, candles, Books of Shadows, plate-and-chalice sets, and witch bottles, as well as pre-prepared spells meant to be “activated” by the user by a recitation and intention. A good idea of the selection of in-house products is available through their website.

They had a good selection of tumbled stones, also for reasonable prices. The book selection seemed haphazard at best; it was heavy on Tarot, lacking basic classics like Cunningham or contemporary bestsellers like T. Thorn Coyle. It seemed to be more a selection of what the owner would like to read (or has read) than what she thought was best to offer. (Or maybe she hasn’t thought about the difference.) I did discover good-quality used copies of High Magic’s Aid and The Sea Priestess, but I don’t know how regularly they get in interesting used items like that. There were two or three Tarot decks available, but the selection seemed to be similarly eclectic; I didn’t see a standard RWS, for example.

Prices: The store’s no-nonsense setting and attitude were reflected in low prices on basic supplies, like chime candles for 35 cents and many stones, even large pieces of tiger’s eye and amethyst, available for a dollar. But so much of the product selection is focused on the in-house brands that I felt like I was actually shopping for pre-made spells or major components, instead of just picking up my own supplies. There was a huge selection of candles incorporating herbs and oil blends hand-made for specific purposes, but since I like to make my own correspondences and rely more on my own focused intent than an imbued spell component, I wasn’t very attracted to them.

There is also a basic selection of jewelry, mostly silver, with some pretty gemstone pendants. Prices were a little high on the silver pieces, probably because of the tendency to high margins in retail jewelry. They also had some pretty handmade jewelry pieces, including hand-knotted malas (Buddhist prayer beads) with semiprecious gemstones for very reasonable prices, ranging from $30 to $60. A few things, like the healing salves, didn’t have clearly marked prices.

Healing services, including Reiki, and Tarot readings are available for prices about average in this area. The very active schedule of classes had some stand-alone classes available for $15, but most of them were part of longer sequences related to the in-house tradition. The owner is a member of the Order of the White Moon and offers OWM teachings on women’s spirituality. (Full disclosure: I am also a member of OWM, but I have had no direct contact with the owner through OWM and was unaware of her connection prior to visiting the shop.) She also has her own tradition; information about that is available online.

Side note: The three store cats were friendly, with one tubby tabby escorting me through the store and offering comments on my observations. The owner greeted me kindly and was available if I needed anything. My favorite part of my visit there was that when she was checking me out, she put my purchased stones in a baggie and added a spoonful of sage and lavender as a way of cleansing the stones of any energy or intent from other people who might have handled them before I bought them. That’s a perfect example of a gesture that takes little effort on the part of the merchant but is a very thoughtful and considerate acknowledgment of the customer.

Overall: I enjoyed my visit there, but got the strong impression that the store is aimed at a specific community and acts more as a base for classes and the in-house lines of candles and so on than as a merchant aiming at the general public. This store wouldn’t be much help to someone new and exploring the Pagan path, for example, unless he wanted to start classes there. It’s not a place where I would discover new things that expand and enhance my personal practice, either. If I were a practitioner in the nearby area, I could use it as a source for supplies, and would definitely go there if I wanted something for a particular purpose but didn’t want to go about making it myself or didn’t know how to.