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: 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.

Recent labors

I’ve been quiet here lately, mostly to work on my dissertation (a finished draft of a chapter  is such a satisfying thing!), but I’ve also had a few things appear elsewhere.

At PaganSquare, I’m tentatively trying a new kind of short commentary on different works. This approach will be less comprehensive than my reviews usually are, aimed at introducing some lesser-known works to a generalist audience rather than critiquing common materials. I tackle Israel Regardie’s compendium of Golden Dawn material to start:

Overall, Regardie’s compendium can be a paradox: nearly impenetrable to the casual reader, seemingly outdated and irrelevant, for those who have the interest and the patience to immerse themselves in it, it is fascinating and invaluable.

Read the whole thing.

In the fall issue of Circle Magazine, my article “Guarding the Theshold – Everyday Warding for the Home” is featured as part of the Home and Harvest theme:

I live in a busy urban area, so warding my home is vitally important to me on many levels. Creating a sense of mental and emotional privacy is a necessary part of urban life. More than that, though, my warding designates my home as a space set aside, defined by my intention, as the place I and my partner live and love. Casting and maintaining this magical boundary is not just about defining the edges of our home, but about shaping the very meaning of home in our everyday lives.

The full article is available through free download from the Circle website.

Have a wonderful Labor Day weekend, if you celebrate that, and if not, enjoy the turning of the seasons. May your labors bring you a bountiful harvest!

Review of Sacred Space 2013

Sacred Space lives up to its description as a conference for intermediate to advanced esoteric and magical practitioners. That’s pretty high praise, when you think about it.

The draw at Sacred Space is the presentations and rituals. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing chance to connect with old and new friends from around the region and more, and the interactions and chance talks or meals together are fantastic, but an introvert who didn’t know very many people could go to Sacred Space and get a lot out of it without any of that happening, if she was interested in intermediate to advanced ideas and practices.

What you won’t see, by and large, at Sacred Space, is the kind of lazy intellectual “recycling” that keeps us awash in Wicca 101 part the kajillionth and yet sparsely prepared for Wicca 201 or practicing in the real world. Many of the presenters at Sacred Space are deeply involved in their subject material. As an academic myself, I especially appreciate it when people have a deep intellectual grasp of their subject, whether that’s reflected in reading ancient texts or assimilating a breadth of current material, or serious study across traditions.

When Gwendolyn Reece presented on Athena, for example, her strong grasp of the ancient texts was synthesized with her own perspective through Kabala, resulting not just a skilled retelling of some of the myths, but some interesting suggestions for alternative possible meanings, and she took care to differentiate one from the other.

I can also see and appreciate that most presenters at Sacred Space have a richness of experience measured not just in years of practice but in the ways they’ve put their ideas into action in the world. You can be fairly sure that a presentation at Sacred Space will not be someone’s rehashing of just one book they read, or a mismash of someone else’s blog posts half-digested and regurgitated at random.

Christopher Penzcak’s presentation related to his book on the 12 Gates of Witchcraft, for example, showed the way he worked to synthesize the breadth of his experience. He explicitly said that he encourages his students to cross-train outside their natural comfort zones in terms of magical techniques, and he shared a lot of comparing and contrasting ideas in different areas. The only downside was that he spent so much time on the background of his topic that he really only touched on about half of his 12 categories; I wish he had gauged his use of time better in that talk.

Sacred Space also tries to be fairly broad in its coverage. Having Luisah Teish as a featured presenter this year brought in an emphasis on the African Diaspora traditions, for example. They bring in featured presenters from outside the region to give us in this area a taste of Paganism from other centers, which makes it a great opportunity for people who otherwise wouldn’t get to see West Coast teachers, for example.

There are usually a fair number of folks from the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel; I get the strong impression that ASW deliberately fosters the kind of intellectual engagement with Wicca and the Western mystery traditions in general that prepares its members to present here, and they do credit to their tradition when they do, but this is not “ASW’s conference.” One of the things I have very much enjoyed, though, is when ASW pulls people together to do rituals, because they put a lot of work into presenting good rituals, and I encourage you to check them out if you ever attend. Maggi Setti’s ritual to Brigid drew on lots of different pieces of symbolism, and I think a lot of the benefit to me from that ritual is going to be returning to those symbols and contemplating them at different times and in different contexts.

Another amazing ritual is the Conjure Dance. This is a unique opportunity to enjoy wonderful drummers and chants and to see and make offerings to deities and powers from all over the world. That in and of itself would be both a good party and an education. This setting, though, is the foundation for a powerful possession ritual. It’s very difficult to describe, but well worth experiencing.

One of the things Sacred Space does not focus on is vending. Don’t get me wrong – there are vendors, and quite good ones, at Sacred Space. I get more interesting and unusual high-quality stones there than just about anywhere else, and there was some amazing art. But shopping opportunities are secondary to providing a solid conference in terms of quality presentations, so if you think you’re coming to Pagan Ren Faire, you’ll be disappointed.

My only real frustrations at Sacred Space had to do with the hotel hosting the conference. Just like any conference-at-hotel situation, there are apt to be bottlenecks at mealtimes as everyone tries to squeeze in breakfast or lunch during the same time period. The Holiday Inn we were at did not handle these things very well, and since it’s a distinctly suburban location, the only alternatives require a car. I would encourage people attending to plan ahead for those issues, pack some snacks, and do a lot of deep breathing. The influx of several youth hockey groups on Friday and Saturday also led to some interesting dissonances; that wasn’t even the hotel’s fault, and from what I heard, they tried to communicate between the groups where needed, mostly requests for quiet.

On the whole, Sacred Space is a well-crafted, high-quality regional conference that draws featured presenters from across the country to present on topics of interest to intermediate to advanced magical and esoteric practitioners and to create engaging rituals.

NB: I am obviously not objective, since I also presented at Sacred Space this year. I did my best to leave that out of consideration.

Ix Chel Wellness: Open house today, Indiegogo campaign ongoing

Some discussion of my trip to Pantheacon will be forthcoming, I promise, now that I’ve got my body back in its accustomed time zone and my feet underneath me and all. In the meantime, I want to share the word about a healer in the local community who’s doing great work: Adam Miramon.

He’s hosting an acupuncture open house today in Takoma Park. There will be free acupuncture mini-sessions and a chance to learn more about acupuncture and Adam’s work overall.

Adam is also currently running an Indiegogo campaign to help launch Ix Chel Wellness, his own acupuncture and Reiki practice. Check it out – he’s got a focused budget, but even trying to start on a shoestring, professional healing takes money.

I’ve been having acupuncture with Adam for a few months now, and it’s having remarkable benefits. He is a skilled practitioner. But above and beyond that, he’s a good healer.

Adam is extremely professional. He does an amazing job of creating and holding a healing space for every session. This differentiates his work from many other experiences of alternative treatment I’ve had, and allows it to be much more effective on a mental and emotional level.

He also has a passionate commitment to strong ethical standards, especially patient privacy. I’ve been studying Reiki with him, and he emphasizes this material in his classes as well, showing that it’s a core component of his identity as a healer.

Donating to the Indiegogo campaign is a way of helping someone from our own community in pursuing his dream in a way that will enable him to serve others. And if you want to experience exemplary complementary medicine for yourself, book an appointment.

(FYI, Adam did not ask me to post any of this, nor am I receiving anything from him in exchange.)

Kindred Spirit has a new location

Kindred Spirit has moved to 2354 E. Little Creek Road, Norfolk, VA 23518, with a phone number of 757-480-0424. The new location is in a newer strip mall between a Pizza Hut and Dollar General. It’s a little hard to see from the road, but worth the trip.

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.