Review of Earth Power

Earth Power, 1987 edition

Genre: Paganism

Title: Earth Power

Author: Scott Cunningham

Earth Power is one of those classic old Llewellyn books that pack my family shelves. Our copy is from the 1985 third printing, which was before the editors at Llewellyn started spelling “magic” with a “k.” It was also printed some years before author Scott Cunningham’s death in 1993 at the tender age of 36.

As a young Pagan I was advised that one rough way to evaluate a book on these subjects is by checking the length of the bibliography. Earth Power contains a list of 40 different sources, although since the author didn’t use footnotes or another technique to cite them, it’s difficult to know how much of the material within is drawn from each, or results from synthesis or outright invention. With magic, however, the true test is in using the spells and techniques described and tracking results. While I love the idea of magical experimentation, this is just a book review. It could be several years before I draw any conclusions about the efficacy of the spells within, but the reading alone allows for inference.

Unfortunately, the chapter “Magic Spelled Out” begins with this clunker: “Magic is the use of the natural forces of nature to bring about needed changes.” Sigh. I suppose professional editors were considered largely unnecessary even back in the ’80s. That said, it’s probably the most important section of the book, because in it Cunningham laid out what needs to be going on in the practitioner’s head to make any of this stuff work. Being that spells often manifest results indirectly — making verification more difficult, but not impossible — being clear on technique is all any of us have to hang out hats on. This is one of the reasons I’ve got a certain level of skepticism about magic itself: will even a badly-written spell work if I visualize well enough, or do no spells work because it’s all hooey? The fact that skepticism could well undermine how efficacious is spell will be just makes this stuff all the harder to judge objectively. I have two hemispheres in my brain, and visualize one of them as the skeptic and the other as the caster. Thus far it’s worked well enough for me.

Later sections look at magic in terms of elemental or natural powers, which is a reasonable way to organize the volume. Had Cunningham organized by intention of the spells, surely many of his readers would have flipped from index to page without even considering technique.

There are spells in this book that I may never be able to try, like the one on page 46 to stop a cyclone. I think the author meant tornado, but it might work for both, if the knife is sharp enough. I haven’t been in the path of a hurricane in a long time, either. Unlike when I’ve opened up books like Tyson’s Rune Magic, I get the sense from the writing that Cunningham tried a lot of these; Tyson’s stuff feels to me like it was all just made up to sound cool. I can’t point to exactly what gives me that sense, but I do believe that Cunningham believed all this stuff would work. What I cannot say is how rigorous he was testing some of the more specialized spells; did he ever stand in the path of a cyclone?

Many of these early Llewellyn books left me scratching my head when I first flipped through them, because there was a lack of academic rigor to them. It’s a shame that Cunningham can’t reissue this one with actual footnotes, and perhaps with a bit more focus on tying the magical theory to the specific spells, and explaining why, for example, “image magic often employs apples,” (p 86). At the same time, these authors from before the turn of the century laid the groundwork for more serious investigation into these practices. I may have been somewhat turned off of magic by the lack of depth in books like these, but honest introspection discloses I would have been out of my depth with more advanced works.

The magical “resources” available in 2017 are both far better and far worse than anything Cunningham produced. I imagine he was sincere, and that these spells worked for him. I am not entirely satisfied with how he presented that work, but it’s not like we’ve figured out how to consistently deliver a better product.

Thanks, Mr. Cunningham, for getting a ball rolling that we still can’t entirely move with our minds.

Title: Earth Power
Author: Scott Cunningham
Publisher: Llewellyn
ISBN: 0-87542-121-0

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Pixylations: a review

Genre: Fiction

Title: Pixylations

Author: Joe Laudati

If you’ve ever passed over a book because it’s about fairies and you’re not really into fairies, I stand with you yet I also stand corrected: my friend Joe Laudati handed me a copy of his book Pixylations, and I am glad to have read it. Yes, I read it out of friendship, but to my delight I enjoyed it as well!

Set in Ireland in a decade not too long before our own, Pixylations is a tale about Faela, a fairy with a solid streak of trickster, and what transpires when she is forced to spend time around a human family to make up for some unfortunate events in which she was thoroughly involved. The human characters inject many of the elements readers desire in a novel, such as romance and miscommunication. (As an aside, I’m now wondering why Apollon is closest to the muses, given the heavy influence Hermes and Aphrodite have in the best fiction.) Faela, as viewpoint character, provides insight into the realms of mortal and fey alike.

Laudati does what any author must when there’s a lot of (often contradictory) source material: he finds a solid thread, and uses it to weave together a fey world that is internally consistent and interesting to read about. It’s a thread tied to plausible human characters, characters who make decisions on insufficient information and with motivations that resonate with what the readers know of them. Some of those characters remind me of ones that crossed the screen during one of my father’s favorite movies, The Quiet Man, but I’m not suggesting that one begot the other. At least to an American such as myself, Ireland is a land full of magic and strong women, which perhaps are not unrelated. Pixylations has both, and if one of those women appears to be a man-hater, well there’s no reason to draw conclusions based on first impressions alone. To do different would be to judge a book by its cover, wouldn’t it?

Actually, judging this book by its cover might not be that terrible an idea. The art, as with all the illustrations, are painstakingly rendered by the author, who is also a really amazing sculptor. (He manifested my dream of a Hestia statue, and while I feel I can judge his writing independent of that relationship, the reader is invited to draw different conclusions that my own.) It appears he captured Faela just after she’s launched herself into the sky, to be carried upon breezes and gossamer wings to her next adventure. The expression on her face evokes the bliss of being a fairy, and similarly Laudati captures the motivations and emotions of each of his characters in the prose between these covers.

Title: Pixylations
Author: Joe Laudati
Publisher: CreateSpace
ISBN: 978-1541359277

Spare the religion, neglect the child

I’m very interested in Paganism continuing into the future, but I wonder if the experiences that bring people to Pagan traditions also make it more difficult for them to lead their children along that same path.

baby-20607_1280Most of us did not grow up Pagan. Many first-generation Pagans had some kind of traumatic ending to their religious affiliation of childhood, the kind that makes one rail against authoritarianism and oppression. They (well, we; I fit this description myself) made a choice to be Pagan. I know that does not fit the experience of every single first-generation Pagan, but I would be very surprised if it were not a majority of us.

The traditions we were taught in childhood stay with us. Passing them on, I imagine, can be as automatic as swallowing. For those of us who have picked up the threads to a different set of traditions, passing them on is not reflex. It is a conscious act, one that can require considerably more research or creativity than simply being an eclectic, adult, solitary Pagan might require.

Articulating an adopted tradition clearly enough that a child can understand it is a lot of work. Moreover, many of us who are now Pagans did not like being forced to follow a religion that didn’t feel right. Between those two dynamics, the parental approach which seems most reasonable might be, “I’ll let my children decide for themselves.”

To paraphrase Geddy Lee, if you choose not to decide for them, you still have made a choice. In this case, odds are you’re choosing a non-spiritual life for your offspring. If you do give them a religious upbringing, it could go either way, but I only know what that looks like when it comes to a monotheistic faith. For pan- and polytheists, one might imagine children learning those practices would end up prepdisposed to respecting other religions, and perhaps even the choice to follow no religion at all.

The assumption that religion is an imposition results from specific monotheistic dynamics more than anything else. Christian religions are going to feel more uncomfortable to a young person who is secretly gay, because of the teachings against homosexuality. Likewise, girls might not feel exactly empowered by some of the misogynistic teachings in the Bible.

I need to examine that last bit — about ancient sexism — more closely. Pretty much all ancient societies operated under “might makes right” rules which put women at a serious disadvantage. I practice Hellenic polytheism, and the ancient Greeks relegated women to being seen, not heard; the disparity between men and women was grossly unfair and simply awful. The difference between my ancestral chauvinists and Abrahamic ancestral chauvinists is that no one is claiming that my ancestors’ words are infallible. Like many other Pagans, we would rather practice our religion in modern society, a society where although people don’t always agree on what discrimination looks like, we at least acknowledge that it exists.

Pagans aren’t saddled by ancient words carved in stone. That means that hate isn’t automatically part of the religion. That’s a powerful difference, one that’s overlooked in much anti-religious rhetoric expounded upon by prominent atheists. A closer look often shows their arguments as being against monotheism, because that’s what they feel causes harm. Polytheistic religions are usually dismissed as irrelevant by such thinkers.

Young adults try new things, but my hypothesis is that young adults who never practiced a religion are far less likely to experiment with one. Our children may not continue to practice the exact same Pagan faith as adults; they may not practice a (Pagan) faith at all. That’s okay. They have the tools to evaluate religion and determine its value. If they decide to lead a non-spiritual life, they are making an informed decision, and one which they may reevaluate when they get married, or have children of their own.

Ironically, by “allowing” our children to choose, we strip them of that choice, or at least make it a harder one to make. Personally, I don’t fault my own parents for bringing me up Roman Catholic. Absent that decision, I would not be a priest of Poseidon today.

The gods work in mysterious ways.

Review of Old Gods, New Druids

Genre: Paganism

Title: Old Gods, New Druids

Author: Robin Herne

Within the pages of Old Gods, New Druids I found an approach to explaining a Pagan religion which made me smile. This is a book not about a fictive monolithic Paganism, nor do its authors purport to have the one true answer to the question of how one should be a Druid in modern times; instead, the reader is regaled with academic research sprinkled with a healthy dose of humility and ignorance. “Even if some mystical stone tablet with all the answers on were to be unearthed tomorrow,” reads one passage, “it would not compel modern polytheists to follow suit. . . . what we seek is inspiration, not a rigid template to slavishly emulate.” Far too often do authors slip into absolutist language when explaining what they know about their paths; any book lacking that failing should be a welcome addition to the shelves of the curious Pagan or polytheist. (For those who would prefer a rigid template to slavishly emulate, be advised that this book is probably not for you.)

This book is part of a far more ambitious project, the creation of an extensive curriculum for the teaching of Druidry. I’m not a Druid, but I do know that the love their learning. Old Gods, New Druids is not plagued by overly-dense prose, but as the first of seven tiers of learning, each likely to be more challenging than its predecessors, it represents the beginning of a long journey. Some books which are this ambitious are packed with so much information that the tentative seeker will be intimidated. Heck, if my introduction to Druidry last century had been written like this book, I might just be a Druid today.

Even Pagans who don’t think of gods as beings with agency won’t feel left out of these pages, although those who consider magic to be the preeminent form of religious expression may. For Druids (at least these ones), magic is secondary to sacred relationships.

That relationship with magic is but one lesson in this largely excellent tome. Relationships with gods are also covered, as well as the festivals which have emerged based on the rather limited information about what ancient Druids were actually up to. Relationships with trees and herbs, land spirits and animals are all covered, and there’s a fair amount about how one might apply ancient teachings to modern problems, like the ongoing cultural struggle over who is eligible to enter into a marriage contract. It may be me, or relationships might be an unspoken facet of Druidry.

The quirks and quibbles I discuss next notwithstanding, I recommend this book as a decent overview of the religion.

Quirks: Technically, I don’t know who wrote this book. The name on the cover is Robin Herne, but in the introduction it’s explained that “this book is a joint effort between[sic] a number of people” who are never named, simply described as a “small group of people living in East Anglia . . . who are part of a ritual group that has been running since 1993,” which is also never named. Using “Robin Herne and friends” or “Robin Herne and the members of the Llama Druid grove” would have provided clarity without sacrificing anonymity, if that’s what was intended.

I don’t mind Pagan pseudonyms, but this is super vague. If more people actually read introductions before buying books, I think this wishy-washy approach would cause people who understandably (but incorrectly) conclude that this book is all fluff to give up on it. Thankfully, the actual meat is treated with a bit more rigor, but I would struggle with the ethics of citing this work in my own research simply because I have no clue as to who the authors might be. It also results in the interchangeable use of “I” and “we” without any context. Other books I’ve read with multiple authors have always clarified which one was writing that “I,” but I suppose that’s more challenging when the book is authored by an unknown number of people, all but one of which are unnamed.

Quibbles: If ever a book was published without a professional editor looking it over first, it was this one. I think a lot of people who are strong writers (or their publishers) simply don’t understand two very important facts:

  1. spell check doesn’t prevent you from using the wrong word, and
  2. you will never, ever spot problems in your writing style without help.

The biggest problem with this book is the use of “etc.” It is used dozens of times throughout these pages. Not only is it distracting, it’s also lazy. This is an unfamiliar religion, but “etc.” implies that the reader should just know what the author means because they’re already on the same page. No, they’re not. Use all the words.

Another one that popped out at me as inconsistent capitalization. Is it insular tribes, Insular tribes, or Insular Tribes? All three are used. A good rule of thumb to use is that if you find you sometimes forget to capitalize it, you should never capitalize it. Other than e.e. cummings, who forgets to capitalize a name? No one, because that is the only thing that should be capitalized in English.

The best way to solve these problems overall is to buy more Pagan books and encourage publishers and authors to use editors. I’m an editor, but I don’t edit my own work, and neither should anyone else. As for this book, it really is wonderful despite that glaring deficiency, and I do still recommend it.

Title: Old Gods, New Druids
Author: Robin Herne
Publisher: O Books
ISBN: 978184942266

When words matter

The article I wrote about Pagan copyright violations was complicated.  For one, the laws themselves are complicated.  For another, many people (Pagan and not) believe they understand those laws, when mostly all they understand is what other people have told them.  That can lead to people with good intentions violating laws or harming other people.  Yuck.

What I cannot understand is the way people dig in, and really fight for the right to make infinite copies of works others created, even after authors patiently explain how these actions bring harm.  That’s why I felt it was important to capture some of those sentiments.  This is not evidence that Paganism is fracturing and falling apart (if it ever was together), because this is not a Pagan issue at all.  21st-century people seem to feel thoroughly entitled to get it all for free, and when the legitimate channels of free information bore them, they will go to incredible lengths to justify this theft.

Wiccan and, I am certain, other Pagan ethics are quickly tossed aside in favor of having another book for free.  I’m not claiming the moral high ground here; I downloaded some music before the turn of the century that I shouldn’t have, and I do understand the allure, but the magnitude of the problem is mind-blowing.  The cognitive disconnect is such that I am sure someone is downloading Pagan Ethics as you read this.  Considering that the group owner was not only unapologetic, but openly admitting he’d put the content someplace where it again could be illegally downloaded, is evidence of a problem which isn’t just him, or that one group, or people who follow a Pagan or polytheist religion.  It’s all of us, and something has to change or art itself may be relegated to something people only do as a hobby.

There are some who believe they are sticking it to the man, or believe that all information should be free, or down with government.  I get that, I really do.  I wonder how many female/gay/trans/minority/disabled authors feels empowered by their actions?  Is it possible that theft is simply theft, and shouldn’t be used as a form of activism any more than rioting should, because it’s impossible to predict who will be harmed?

Perhaps we need to find a way to return to patronage of the arts.  I know that Patreon is out there, but I’ve avoided it simply because it carries with it an expectation to perform like a circus animal, generating content to keep the patrons happy.  That’s not how art is created, and I don’t think it’s how patronage works best.  I’ve been researching a book on Pagans and money for five years and it could be another five before I get it written.  It would be far longer if I had to stop to provide proof-of-life content; I’d have to work on posts and fresh content instead of reading and taking notes on what I’d like to say.  It seems to work for some folks, but I am not sure it’s for me.