Review: Blair-Hunt, Tarot Prediction & Divination

Blair-Hunt, Susyn. Tarot prediction & divination: unveiling 3 layers of meaning. Llewellyn: Woodbury, MN. 2011. 283 pages.

This book essentially provides numerous case studies as a way to help the reader learn different spreads. The author has designed fifteen different spreads, divided into beginner, intermediate, and advanced groupings, and gives three sample readings for each spread. My favorite thing about this book is that it provides a wealth of examples of interpreting cards in context, in spreads where they interact with each other, which is one of the challenges that beginning readers face in moving from remembering isolated card meanings to doing actual readings. The variety of spreads provided would also be useful to many beginning to intermediate readers.

The subtitle refers to three different ways to interpret the card that the author sees as running along a spectrum from the concrete to the abstract. She refers to these as the divinatory, therapeutic, and spiritual. (p2 ff) She uses “divinatory” to mean specific information about concrete future happenings. Since I see divination as embracing all three of the areas she lays out, I think she would have done better to name this realm of interpretation the “practical” or “predictive” area. She contrasts this concrete level with two more abstract areas: “Therapeutic” is a level of meaning that I would describe as primarily concerned with psychological occurrences and related symbolic interpretations. For her, “spiritual” is the most advanced and/or abstract level of meaning, where the cards are related to generalized statements about Spirit, the Universe, possibly karma, and the overall meaning of one’s life.

Breaking up interpretation into those three levels is an interesting way of getting readers to think about more possible meanings of their cards, especially for those who tend to fall into one type of interpretation too often. Throughout the case studies, Blair-Hunt tries to interpret each reading on all three levels, but she often falls into the problem of the psychological and spiritual blending into each other. Nevertheless, readers interested in seeing different types of interpretation applied to the same cards and spread would find this book valuable.

Blair-Hunt never explicates any particular religious perspective within which she is working, nor does she discuss the way a religious perspective would influence the “spiritual” interpretation of the cards, which is a tremendous weakness in her work. She seems to be coming from a generalized “spiritual” background which includes belief in channeling, past lives, and being able to contact the deceased, but she never addresses either the Christian origin of cards’ symbolism or their more common use among Neopagans today. The author’s perspective on spirit is that the universe is a place where everything is working for our good and that difficulties or challenges are just lessons on the way to a better experience; her optimism on this front can come across as deeply naive.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the text stems from a similar source: she suggests that if the reader has difficulty dealing with the potential meanings of some cards, especially Death, that the reader just remove them from her deck. This suggestion is followed by reassurance that removing cards will not change the interpretive power of the readings. (16) This reassurance strikes me as frankly ridiculous, because removing cards inherently reduces the range of possible outcomes in a reading, and the point of removing “difficult” cards is specifically to avoid having to think about or interpret their images. The way she writes about it really implies that she sympathizes with readers who themselves have a hard time dealing with the potential meanings of the Death card and other cards with potentially negative meanings, as she repeats this advice more than once, and suggests that it may apply to cards such as the Three of Swords and others. (15) I can sympathize with those who have a difficult time thinking about death, but anyone who intends to read meaningfully for herself or others should be willing to spend time and energy grappling with the shadow issues represented in some cards. Trying to make the deck all sweetness and light – or worse, pretending that life itself is all sweetness and light – is willful blindness and likely to lead to all sorts of significant problems.

In more practical terms, the book is difficult to use because the reproductions of the tarot cards in the spreads are tiny – only three-quarters of an inch high (less than 2cm). The author makes a point of using three different decks (the Gilded Tarot, the Lo Scarabeo Tarot, and the Universal Tarot) but the details of the cards can barely be made out in the minute black and white illustrations. In all but a couple cases there is clearly space on the page for the illustrations to be made larger, making the source of this problem truly a mystery.

In addition to the main text, there are five appendices which contain different types of correspondences for the Tarot cards. The first one is a fairly standard set of keywords for the entire deck. The second discusses choosing significators, relying largely on astrological and personal characteristics. Perhaps the most interesting appendix is one on card combinations, where Blair-Hunt lists specific divinatory meanings for certain cards and combinations in a variety of situations that readers are likely to encounter. I was disappointed that she didn’t discuss whether these interpretations come from some other source, her own inspiration, her concrete experience reading, or a combination of all three.

The last two appendices are about the timing that cards can represent and an “empowerment guide” to the Major Arcana. In discussing the timing indicated in cards she uses astrological attributions of the cards that stem from the Golden Dawn without discussing where they come from. But then she creates a timing chart that is completely separate from the Golden Dawn system of attributing the pips to the decans of the zodiac, and doesn’t say where she gets that from either. I am led to believe that she may be unfamiliar with the roots of some of the information she is propagating or that she simply doesn’t care about the historical background of her material. Finally the empowerment guide has color, gemstone, incense, and other correspondences for the Major Arcana, and again she doesn’t cite any sources or explain any background.

If someone learned all fifteen spreads in this book they would be a very well prepared reader for just about any kind of reading someone could ask for, and I really do think this book has a lot to offer in terms of case studies of cards in context. As long as the reader does not fall into the trap of trying to alter the deck to make their understanding of the world sufficiently easy and comfortable, there are some good examples of useful spreads here. If the information in this book is combined with a broader perspective on the Tarot and its history and meanings the reader will have a good resource to help them apply a basic understanding of the deck to its actual workings in real, live readings.

Review: Carson, Celebrate Wildness

Celebrate Wilderness Front Cover w Blurb6 copy

Carson, Jo. Celebrate Wildness: Magic, mirth, and love on the Feriferia path. Natural Motion Pictures: Fairfax, CA. 2015. 116 pages.

This work is not just a book; it is really a complicated work of art with interleavings of prose, poetry, liturgy, theaology (sic) and lots and lots of visual art by Fred Adams, the founder of Feriferia. Together it is designed to communicate something of the Feriferia consciousness of the world to the reader/viewer, and at that it succeeds wonderfully.

The name Feriferia means “celebrate wildness,” from the roots feri-, meaning wild as in feral, and feria, to celebrate. This ecotopian new religious movement founded by Fred Adams after a vision in the early 1950s that everything is united and alive, and the spirit of all is goddess. Out of this came his dedication to creating a new approach to life which revolted against the overculture of the 1950s by celebrating wildness. As Carson expresses it, “Our great work is to unify ecology, artistry, mythology, and liturgy to create a paradise on earth.” (43)

This book serves as an introductory gateway to Feriferia, which concentrates on the ineffable in wildness and cannot be fully expressed even by such a complicated piece of art as this book, although it does a good job of capturing the ecstatic spirit of the movement. Adams’ art constitutes a significant portion of the work, and for those interested in accessing the original spirit of Feriferia, there is nothing like going directly to the source. He drew goddesses in all sorts of contexts and imaginative settings, and these reproductions are as much an important part of the resources in this book as the text.

Part 1 is composed of descriptions of key pieces of art and the ideas they illustrate in the Feriferia path. These introduce the idea of goddess and god as partners, named Kore and Kouros (young woman and young man, in Greek), although Kore, also described as the Divine Daughter, is the central figure in Feriferia myth and practice.

Part 2 introduces the reader to a number of those practices, describing how to create a sacred space, described as a Faerie Ring Henge, whose attributes correspond to the directions and the Wheel of the Year, which is followed by a fuller explanation of the year myth and seasonal celebrations. Interestingly, Feriferia includes a  ninth holy day, named Repose, around the time of American Thanksgiving, between Samhain and Yule. It marks another stage in the goddess’ retreat into her winter seclusion. Also discussed are the phytala, the symbol of Feriferia, the importance of fruit trees, and a number of basic ritual practices, including a lovely ritual for planting and blessing a tree.

Part 3 is described as the “deep roots” of Feriferia, and goes into the mythological sources from which it draws inspiration. Especially important is the myth of Demeter and Persephone (also called Kore, the daughter). This myth played a central role in the Eleusinian mysteries, and like many new religious movements, Feriferia applies its own imaginations to what those mysteries might have been and how they might be translated into modern practice. There is also an emphasis on certain interpretations of Cretan culture, with some citations of archeological studies, although this is not by any means a reconstructionist movement.

Part 4 is entitled “Paradisal Magic – Letting it Blossom” and contains a composite of dreams about how Feriferia could be made manifest in the world, advanced topics including suggestions for exploring sensual sexuality as part of magical practice, a ritual for self-initiation into Feriferia, and Adams’ own “Hallows of Feriferia,” a manifesto of the movement’s intentions.

The material that comes directly from Adams sometimes reads a bit like a Dr Bronner’s soap label with its triumphant proclamations of ideas too grand to be expressed without inventing new compound hyphenated words – love-play-work is an especial touchstone – but this exuberance communicates the joyful sense of idealism that characterized this movement like others in the 1960s and 1970s.

I have some concerns about the use of mythology based partially on archaeological and other types of research. Carson writes that Feriferia’s “utopian visions of the future” are bolstered by knowing that Crete was an entirely peaceful matrifocal society for over a thousand years. (75) But what if new research proves otherwise? How will the foundations of the faith react to the kind of changes that are part of the nature of research-based knowledge?

In another place, the author states that only humans and the great apes menstruate, when this is in fact not the case. (83) Now, the fact that humans have hidden estrus (which is technically a different thing from menstruation) may very well have played an important role in the development of human bonding and social behavior, but the way it is stated is prone to misinterpretation that endangers the conclusions when scientific knowledge changes, as it inevitably will.

My biggest discomfort about the book is that something about the approach feels slightly off to me in a feminist sense. It’s very hard to put my finger on, but the whole attitude seems like it honors the goddess as the divine feminine other, perpetuating the idea that masculinity is normal and the feminine is other. The clearest example I can point to is that I am inclined to distrust a religious leader who claims to be trying to balance out “the excesses of patriarchy” but still refers to humankind as “mankind” repeatedly in his manifesto. (16, 104)

Overall, though, the movement is not restricted to Fred Adams’ personal beliefs and practices, and this work is the kind of introduction that a complicated subject like Feriferia deserves. I admire the idea of creating a poetic religion that restores soul to the earth and honors the divine feminine, and this work is certainly an extraordinary compilation of key materials from one of the groundbreaking movements in that area.

The author provided a copy of the work and asked me to write about it as part of her “blog tour” for the book. As always, I did my best not to let that influence my review.

Review – Divorcing a Real Witch

Rajchel, Diana. Divorcing a Real Witch: For Pagans and the people that used to love them. Moon Books, 2014. 190 pages.

Diana Rajchel takes a very clear stand that divorce is a life passage that some people go through which involves pain and grief that, like other life passages, lead to an opportunity for renewal. Within this approach, her work is intended as a resource for those going through divorce or its after effects. She shares personal reflection, tries to position divorce within a Wiccan worldview, and offers healing methods for coping with divorce and the accompanying changes through spiritual techniques.

She begins with a discussion of divorce, why people might choose to divorce, especially women, and how divorce fits into a Wiccan worldview, system of ethics, and spiritual practice. This discussion broadens into how divorce is seen in the wider culture, including ways that those who choose to divorce may encounter friction with friends, family, and other relationships. This is not a work to help those trying to make a last-ditch attempt to save a marriage; Rajchel takes divorce as a fact of life – and a fact of the reader’s life. Her view of divorce as a life passage rejects the characterization of “broken homes” and the disproportionate blaming of women that often attach to divorce; she asserts early on that “Divorce is not the fault of a massive failure of character.” (xiii) This nonjudgmental approach is refreshingly direct and appropriately sets the stage for helping readers heal.

Rajchel’s writing is part personal reflection, part handbook, part survey report, and part ritual resource, which makes for an interesting mix. Her discussions of what divorcees might go through is clearly informed by her personal experience, which makes them much more valuable. She has clearly done an immense amount of personal work to process her own experience and be able to discuss the wisdom gained. The resources she has created are aimed squarely at those very personal experiences.

The middle chapters contain most of the resources, which include a number of different rituals, meditations, and other techniques. Rajchel suggests reflections that will shape however the reader chooses to personalize the work, then offers several different variations of a handparting ritual, including versions with one or both members of a couple present, an officiant or not, and more.

Possibly even more valuable are a whole series of guided meditations aimed at dealing with different specific emotional experiences that are likely to arise during and after the process of grieving an ended relationship. Rajchel speaks wisely about the emotional issues that can occur, framing them as a type of grief, and explicitly acknowledging that emotions will recur, change at their own pace, and should not be forced to fit anyone else’s framework or expectations. She also recommends that readers seek additional help such as counseling when needed. With that in mind, her wide variety of meditations and associated techniques are a rich field of resources for processing these emotions in a spiritual perspective.

To balance the personal nature of the experience she brings to her writing, Rajchel does try to get outside her own perspective. She acknowledges same-sex couples, and the differences and difficulties they may face in these situations, and briefly touches on some of the issues that arise when couples with children divorce. In trying to expand her perspective, Rajchel apparently conducted a survey of other Pagans from a number of traditions, but she fails to describe how the survey was created and administered, nor does she describe the overall purpose or conclusions of the survey. The lack of information about this survey is one of the weak points of the work. She cites a few summaries, but mostly uses qualitative and anecdotal reports from within the survey, including some vignettes interspersed with the main text. There are many more of her own personal vignettes, and sometimes I found it difficult to determine which were which.

The other major problem with this book is that the organization and structure are haphazard. Chapter titles reveal their repetitive nature, and while there is an attempt to progress from discussion to rituals to further discussion to conclusions, the lack of an overarching structure makes it unclear why some choices of topic were made and where the reader should turn for a particular topic. On the other hand, the episodic nature of the writing is amenable to a reader who is going through a particularly painful life passage and who may want to pick up the book, scan one part, put it down, and take it up again at a later point. Regardless, the rituals and meditations, as well as the overall perspective on divorce as a life passage from a Wiccan perspective make it a valuable work.

Rajchel expresses her purpose by saying “We must become our own heroes because no myths deal with failed interdependence.” (7) While I might quibble that some myths address irreparable breakdowns in trust and intimate relationships, her overall point is quite true – divorce as we know it is a fact of life, for Pagans as for others, and it is not something for which we have a standard narrative template, mythical or otherwise. It is up to us to shape our own personal and spiritual responses to it in the ways that are best for us. Rajchel’s book provides valuable and important resources for doing that work.

Review: Kynes – Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Correspondences

Kynes, Sandra. Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Correspondences: A Comprehensive & Cross-Referenced Resource for Pagans & Wiccans. Llewellyn, 2013. Paperback, 528 pages.

Sandra Kynes’ book of correspondences competently addresses the fundamental needs of magical practitioners as well as offering opportunities for contemplation for those who want to expand their knowledge and understanding of correspondences. Kynes has done a skillful job of corralling a sprawling mass of information into a reasonably accessible format, and that alone makes this book a success for its intended audience.

In her introduction, Kynes touches on some important points regarding the nature of correspondences and how they interact with each other: “…we can bring correspondences to life by thinking in terms of a web. Doing so not only allows us to expand the links of attributes, but it also allows us to personalize the way we use magical correspondences.” (4) She illustrates the ways correspondences are interrelated and has used that fact to guide her in the difficult decisions that have to be made in any work such as this one.

In particular, Kynes restricts the scope of her material by only listing as correspondences items that have an independent listing of their own. For example, under correspondences for “love,” she does not list Oshun, because there is no independent listing for Oshun. With commendable transparency, Kynes acknowledges the Celtic influences on her practice and experience and her lack of knowledge about Afro-Caribbean paths. As a result, she chose not to include entries for the orishas or similar spirits. As a result of this consistency, for every item that is listed as a correspondence, the reader can consult a main entry to see its other correspondences.

Regardless of how the title describes it, no work like this can possibly be “complete,” and Kynes’ explanations about the way she shaped the work are part of what makes this book valuable. She explains that she is trying to walk a “middle ground,” and specifically aimed to capture the items, powers, and spirits that are most commonly used by Pagans and Wiccans at the current moment, including the ones most frequently mentioned in the bibliography, which contains largely recent popular works. Combined with the consistent and concise style of her entries – which I quite appreciated – the result does live up to the title of “cross-reference” as a resource.

Kynes also wisely avoids the trap of trying to categorize every item under every possible system of correspondences. If a particular plant does not have a specific connection to one of the runes of the Futhark, for example, Kynes does not try to create one. This restraint is wise, because trying to create correspondences that are not natural quickly becomes an effort at pseudo-categorization and simultaneously drains the magic out of the connections that truly do exist. The author deserves praise for not trying to apply a one-size-fits-all approach, and it speaks well of her understanding of the meanings of correspondences.

Kynes alludes to these deeper issues of correspondence and connection by briefly referencing Bonewits’ theories of correspondences and Eliade’s more scholarly investigations of magical imagination, but she leaves unanswered the question of how she combined and culled the correspondences drawn from her numerous sources. On one hand, such incessant citations would make the work incredibly unwieldy, but on the other hand, at least a small mention of this perennial question would have pointed the reader in the direction of further personal development. Regardless, the work as it stands is still tremendously useful as a starting place for intermediate practitioners to begin their own reflections on correspondences and how to put them into practice.

Since this is a reference work, the structure and layout are vitally important to its functionality. On the whole, the contents are clear and readable; I appreciate the amount of effort that went into making the entries reasonably uniform. The sections are organized in a way that is probably most useful for off-the-shelf needs: correspondences for intentions first, then separate sections on plants, minerals, animals, deities and beings, time reckoning, and general theoretical concepts.

Within these divisions, however, some problems arise. A few entries simply don’t make sense: “Revenge (to seek, protect from)” really should have been split into two separate topics, rather than leaving the user guessing which correspondences are appropriate for the purpose at hand. The plants are subdivided into “Trees,” “Herbs, Garden Plants and Shrubs,” and “Miscellaneous Plants” based on unexplained criteria – why is allspice not an herb, to use just one example? This separation is supplemented by an appendix listing the names of all plants alphabetically, then telling which subheading they can be found under. The author does go to the trouble of listing plants’ scientific names, which is extremely valuable for novice and seasoned botanist alike.

The biggest single problem I have with the work is the decision to place both the Futhark and the Ogham under the section on time reckoning. It is true that these systems can be connected with the flow of time, but they are both independent systems with a strong internal logic, and are used for divination and symbolic representations much more frequently than as time descriptors; perhaps this is different in Kynes’ experience with the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Worse yet, these systems are listed in alphabetical order. The Futhark, for example, are not listed in their own order (fehu, uruz, thurisaz, etc.), nor are they listed in the order of the half-months assigned to them, but in alphabetical order by the English names. The same was done to the Ogham. The correspondences for the Tarot are placed in the separate miscellaneous section, but there too, the Major Arcana cards are alphabetized by name, which will confuse novice and experienced user alike.

The place where everything should be listed in purely alphabetical order is the index, and this nearly lives up to its purpose. The index to a work like this is what makes it truly a cross-reference and not merely a dictionary. The only problem is that the index is organized under the same subheadings as the individual sections are, so readers need to know roughly where they are looking in order to find something’s multiple references.

Overall, the book does what the author sets out as her intent in the introduction. Once a reader becomes acquainted with the structure, this work can be an invaluable reference for someone just starting to learn how to use correspondences, a Witch who needs to look something up quickly, a Pagan who needs a starting point to research a new item, or an intermediate practitioner reflecting on examples as a way to explore the deeper meanings of correspondences. Readers who are willing to get drawn into the web of cross-references that the author has woven will likely find themselves discovering unexpected relationships among familiar tools and ideas. Its potential for sparking new ideas makes this book both a reference and a good starting place for further exploration.

Double review: Fortune, Sea Priestess and Moon Magic

Fortune, Dion. Sea Priestess. Weiser: New York, 1978. First published privately in 1938. Paperback, 316 pages.

Fortune, Dion. Moon Magic. Weiser: New York, 1978. First published in England in 1956. Paperback, 241 pages.

Please note there are spoilers in this review.

These are probably Dion Fortune’s most famous occult novels. Set in 1930s and 40s England, they revolve around the magical workings of Vivian Le Fay Morgan, who at various points is also called Morgan Le Fay and Lilith. In each one she finds a working partner and does a series of magical rituals, and the real fascination of the novels is the way they convey the spirit or atmosphere of what those experiences might have been like.

The rituals Fortune describes seem drawn from both the Golden Dawn as she would have been familiar with it and something much more like Gardnerian Wicca. She uses some of the language and symbolism of the Golden Dawn, including its emphasis on astrology and allusions to Qabala. Sea Priestess is written from the point of view of Morgan/Lilith’s working partner, who naturally cannot comment on the sources of her rituals, but in the sequel, Moon Magic, Morgan/Lilith says explicitly that the rituals of Sea Priestess were part of her work as an Adeptus Minor. (51) And although many parts of the rituals are (perhaps deliberately?) vague, she also specifically mentions using the “Banishing Ritual of the Greater Pentagram.” (66)

On the other hand, much if not most of the narrative of the books as novels is taken up with the emotional reactions and relationships between Morgan and her successive partners. In a way, they are largely psychological studies of the tension inherent in different kinds of attraction and closeness, especially in the social and emotional context of that period’s gender roles, expectations and prejudices. This is unsurprising given that Fortune studied psychoanalysis, but it might be less than fascinating to someone who doesn’t care about what might be called the “complexes” of the time.

Regardless, it is clear that Morgan/Lilith uses her partners to create a wellspring of personal and sexual attraction that she channels for her own purposes: in the first, she builds up her magical personality, and in the second, she seems to be doing a working that is largely aimed at releasing some of the sexual issues of the culture as a whole. I’m still only beginning to acquaint myself with the Golden Dawn, but as presented by Regardie, its basic rituals seem to eschew emphasis on sex entirely, certainly not drawing on it for the motive power of their rituals. This is why I say parts of the novels read much more like Gardnerian workings, and I think that these contribute to their enduring popularity among Wiccans even though Fortune and her society went to great lengths to make it clear that she was not herself involved in witchcraft or Wicca.

Interestingly, the ways that Morgan/Lilith goes about using attraction as a magical force make her seem almost determined to defy Fortune’s own position as laid out in her Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage, where she is takes pains to admonish readers to abide by both the strictest letter of the law and spirit of social constraints on relationships.

In Sea Priestess, Morgan’s partner is a single man who does not mind running some risks to his reputation. When she is done with him, he ends up tumbling into a marriage that almost seems to take him by surprise, but which the narrator assures us is satisfactory. It has some touches of the esoteric, so if it is not as exciting as his relationship with Morgan, it is perhaps more realistic and thus more sustainable. But in Moon Magic, much of the work takes place while the male character is trapped in a defunct marriage, and Lilith and her partner debate and acknowledge how closely they are splitting hairs between what is and is not acceptable in different contexts.

Fortune writes in the introduction to Moon Magic that the character of Morgan/Lilith had taken on a life of her own which compelled the writing of the second book, and also takes pains to point out that “the viewpoint of Lilith Le Fay is purely pagan,” by which she primarily means not constrained by Christian codes of conduct underpinning societal expectations. (9) She acknowledges that Lilith – as the more developed, independent personality that was only beginning to take shape in Morgan – might be Fortune’s own “Freudian subconscious,” but leaves it as an open question.

The plot of Moon Magic itself is a bit of an open question as well, since the narrative ends with the climax of the magical workings. If the work was propelled by the characters themselves, then perhaps Fortune simply stopped when her characters stopped and didn’t bother to try to tag on an ending that would satisfy conventional expectations of either plot or morality.

Let me be clear, though, that Morgan/Lilith isn’t merely depicted as some kind of conventionally attractive succubus; part of the tension of the books is the way they struggle with the gender roles of the time. Both men find their fascination and satisfaction with Morgan/Lilith stemming from the fact that she is so very powerful, and not just magically; she has a dominant force of personality and does not hesitate to take the lead, directing them, even manipulating them for her own purposes. At the same time, the characters tend to stay within the gender constructs of more powerful vs less powerful; they invert them but don’t really subvert them.

For these purposes, although Fortune’s nonfiction work tends to identify esoteric doctrine with mystical Christianity, Morgan/Lilith’s “paganism” comes out in the way she favors a different set of symbols: in both works, she hearkens back to pre-Christian imagery, acting as a priestess of the moon and the ocean, and as representative of the transpersonal feminine personified in the goddess Isis.

The works are replete with (romanticized) Egyptian symbolism and imagery, and everyone has past lives, including ones in Atlantis. Fortune handles these tropes rather better than most authors, perhaps because in her time they were relatively new and hadn’t yet degenerated into cliches that invariably evoke the most ridiculous fluff of the New Age. At the very least, they’re better integrated here.

And on the whole, Fortune is a much better writer of occult fiction than Gardner; her interest in the psychology of her characters lends them greater depth, although it would be harder for them to be shallower than Gardner’s. Still, they are primarily occult fiction: great value of these books is that she does manage to convey a lot of the atmosphere or energy of magical workings; her male characters are by no means enviable, and in many ways are quite jackasses; while Morgan is fascinating, she’s clearly not a normal human being, so it’s hard for readers to identify with her either.

The works really are set firmly in the context of 1930s and 40s England, culturally as well as physically, so there are some things readers unfamiliar with the period won’t really understand (including the horror of divorce and social strictures on illicit relationships). If you’re only interested in the occultism, that won’t matter much, but you should know that she’s not just talking about airy-fairy imaginary worlds here. Although her characters spend as much time in trance as they do in the real world, they do in fact live in the real world as well.

The great gems of these works are her poems. Many readers may be content with looking at these and the more lyrical pieces of prose as excerpted by the Farrars and others, and prefer to skip the novels entirely. Readers interested in them as telling the working-out of magical rituals will probably enjoy them, but people looking for a good yarn will probably find them disappointing and frustrating. Morgan/Lilith makes every aspect of her life serve the ends of her magic, and in much the same way Fortune shows no compunction in turning every piece of the writing towards conveying the spirit of the rituals. At the same time, they are not handbooks for conducting rituals yourself, and while many people – such as the Farrars – have drawn from them to create their own workings, it takes a good bit of adaptation and creativity to do so. Much like their protagonist, these books will only satisfy on their own terms.

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: 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.