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

Standing between death and the dead

This time of year is when I most strongly feel the ancestors around me.  Memorial Day was yesterday, and tomorrow is the anniversary of my father’s birth.  Six years ago my cat went missing on June 9, and I wonder if he yet lives, or I may honor him among the dead.  This past weekend I helped adopt someone who lived in my town until his death four years ago as a community ancestor.

Perhaps that’s why I found myself weeping as I wrote yesterday’s remembrance of Taliesin Myrddin, who died trying to prevent hate.  I didn’t know the man at all, nor any of his loved ones; this was not personal grief.  Normally I don’t feel the deaths of strangers deeply; there are far too many people dying in the world for me grieve them all and yet live.  His death touched me, and divination confirms that my own dead wanted it to.

First, a little something about Ludwig Montesa, a man “whose unconventionality, both mentally and physically, sometimes unsettled people who didn’t know him,” according to one obituary.  He died in 2013, while I was at a point in my studies of Hellenismos at which I was learning about Hekate, the Deipnon, and ancestor veneration.  I knew him as a friendly, if slightly peculiar, man who was a constant presence in our downtown; when news of his death spread, I found stunned to discover the number of people whose lives he had touched.  My first ancestor offering was made at the impormptu shrine which emerged not far from where his parents ran a gift shop.  It had much the look of many impromptu shrines:  flowers, candles, heartfelt messages of grief were included, but also Metro cards, which to him were the connection to his favorite metropolitan area.

In the years since his passing, I have come to know Ludwig Montesa better than I did in life.  He transgressed boundaries of gender and personal space, ignored the hobgoblins of shame and comparison to others, and embraced himself with joy and abandon.  He was known for high-fives that never seemed to end, karaoke performances unfettered by self-consciousness, and an enduring love for New York City (which to me was the most alien thing about him).  Each May since he died there has been a Ludwig Day replete with games, musical performances, and remembrances.  I’d never been able to make it for one reason or another, but it was clear that Ludwig Montesa had a festival in his honor, much like the heroes of old.

This year I decided I was going to lead an ancestor-veneration ritual for Ludwig.  It meant forgoing Rites of Spring, but local praxis should take precedence.  Family members were on board, and one of them was in attendance.  A photographer for our local paper was also there, and gave me some images from the event.

It was a short ritual, with about fifteen people in attendance.  I set up a low table as a shrine, using a black cloth and candle mostly because people in this color associate black with death.  Before it was a really stunning framed portrait that captures Ludwig’s eccentric flair.  I did a brief overview of ancestor veneration and how in Hellenic tradition the dead are down in the underworld.  I invited him to attend and poured out an offering of Diet Coke, one of his favorite beverages.  Participants were invited to offer flowers, Metro cards, and brief remembrances; I had some of the first two for people who were unprepared.  (Cards with money still loaded on them will be distributed to those in need in his name.)

This was the first public ritual I’ve ever led, and it went quite well.  I felt Ludwig’s presence and had the opportunity to honor him in a way befitting his near-shamanic life.  Our communities all have local heroes, and it’s appropriate to identify and honor them.

Coming off of that experience, and readying myself for this annual pilgrimage of mine, I found myself learning about a young man who stuck is neck out to help some strangers, and got a knife in it for his trouble.  It’s both hard to bear and completely inspiring.  How many of us would put their bodies between hate and harm like Taliesin Myrddin did?  Who among us truly knows the answer to that question without it being tested like it was for him?

There’s more to tell in that story, to be sure; a member of his family may be speaking with me soon, and his mother seems to be responding to this tragedy with a combination of love and activism.  Like her son, she inspires me, and I hope to be able to speak to her at some point.  Even if I lived in that town, I am not the kind of reporter who could knock on a door and say, “Your son was just violently killed.  How do you feel?”  There is a need for personal space and time which transcends freedom of the press.

For me, the time for honoring death will continue through July, as I intend on undertaking the Vigil for the Bulls again.  It’s curious that it is now, as spring bursts into life, that death is closest to me.  Such is the mystery.

In closing, some pictures of the ancestor rite for Ludwig Montesa.

Cultivating sources

Rev._Paul_Beyerl

Paul Beyerl [Wikimedia Commons].

When I asked to interview Paul Beyerl for this week, it was because I strongly believe in preserving the wisdom of our elders.  Now in his seventies, Beyerl was easy to talk to in part because he’s not put off by the idea that he’s an elder.  What I wasn’t expecting from the conversation was news that his church’s center would be uprooted and moved in the near future, after 24 years establishing a botanical garden in the suburbs of Seattle.

That’s the joy of journalism: discovering interesting information that the people holding it don’t necessarily think is newsworthy.  It takes good questions, intuition, luck, and often a lot of time to get those answers.

Earlier in the week, The Wild Hunt posted an update about the Druid Daniel Scott Holbrook, based on a court transcript in which the prosecutor asserted in closing arguments that Holbrook had not downloaded hundreds of images accidentally, as he’s claimed.  There were people who had that information when I wrote the original article, but for various reasons didn’t believe it to be newsworthy, ergo I didn’t find out until I saw the transcript, and only then did I start asking questions.

The occasional detractor of the news site for which I write will complain about a lack of investigative journalism.  I have to wonder if such people understand what that kind of work requires.  While it’s not technically difficult, conducting investigations takes quite a bit of time.  Back when newspapers were the go-to source for news, there were reporters who spent weeks or months on a single story, talking to people and sifting through documents in search of the truth.

I would love to throw myself into that kind of work, but if I spent 40 hours a week on chasing down mysteries in the Pagan community, I wouldn’t have time for any other writing.  I contribute to several other news sites and publications, all of which pay me a flat write per story, stories which take time to research and write.  The Wild Hunt is no different in that regard.  My family couldn’t afford to give up those other sources of income, and The Wild Hunt treasury isn’t big enough to pay me what I would need to do that full time.

What’s required for deeper, more thorough investigations?  Money.  Lots and lots of money.  To turn just one reporter into an investigative machine would require more than doubling how much money is donated during the annual fund drive.  I base that on my own situation, which is unusual because I’m not the primary earner.  Replacing my lost income, plus adding a new reporter to the weekly rotation (because I likely wouldn’t have a finished story every week, and the ten-year-plus tradition of new content daily could not be broken) would run about $20,000.

I stand ready to do more for the Pagan communities.  Are Pagans and polytheists willing to step up and make that possible?

Difficult work

I volunteered to take on the Kenny Klein coverage for The Wild Hunt, which until this week was just a matter of checking a court docket from time to time.  That changed when Klein was convicted.  When witnesses finally testified, what came out of their mouths was horrifying to me.  It’s the first time I have ever felt the need to take a purifying bath after writing.

One thought remains with me:  I hope Klein will have access to ministers of his faith while imprisoned.  I believe everyone deserves that opportunity.

Business as usual

“You are now on the business beat,” said my editor to me yesterday.  That suits me just fine, because I am fascinated with how we struggle with money issues in the Pagan communities.  We’ve got a fair amount of poverty (some by choice), and a fair amount of guilt over doing well.  There are rules about who can charge what money for which services without automatically being deemed jerks.  The permutations may be endless.

Business_presentation_byVectorOpenStock

Last week I spoke with a vandalism-targeted Pagan shop owner who has dealt with proselytizing inside and out, broken windows, Chick tracts and spit-attacks.  On the flip side, I was honored to interview Abby Willowroot, whose spiral goddess design is a staple in Neopagan circles.  (Side note:  I really, really dig interviews with elders.)  Yesterday I wrote about the ongoing issues faced by esoteric business owners, whose products and services are often indistinguishable from outright scams to the average observer.

Do Pagans and polytheists risk a loss of our core values by getting serious about business, or is it one of the best ways to ensure that we are seen as serious and legitimate religious practitioners?  That debate is sure to rage for quite some time to come.

Yule be sorry

Christmas_with_the_Yule_Log,_Illustrated_London_News,_23_Dec_1848What curious news stories emerge from the Pagan and polytheist communities, such as the notion of trademarking Yule.  I came away from writing that with the impression that there was indeed a villain in that story, but that I may not have spoken to em directly.  To be fair, that feeling is almost always intensified when I interview attorneys, since they are trained to speak out of both sides of their mouths.  (That’s not a disparagement; more like an acknowledgment.)

I wonder if online selling has made it harder to promote a product without it appearing to be a shameless copy of someone else’s work.  That isn’t to say that I believe that’s what is happening here; only the Shadow knows.

Review of Ancient Egyptian Magic

ancient-egyptian-magicGenre: Magic

Title: Ancient Egyptian Magic

Author: Eleanor Harris

Overview: I opened this book knowing only as much about ancient Egypt as I recall from sixth grade, when building pyramids out of sugar cubes was in vogue. In short, I’m far from an expert in this area. I opened this book — a 2015 edition of the 1998 original — curious about the subject, and eager to learn. I closed with the sense that Harris did her research thoroughly, with it presented a plausible way to apply ancient Egyptian magical techniques to modern problems.

Hoping that more knowledgeable people have weighed in, I turned to the internet and found mixed reviews. On Goodreads,for example, one person found it thorough and another lacking. All I can say is what should always be said: it’s best to understand the sources the author uses, but one has to start somewhere.

Between these covers are an overview of the religious context in which these techniques were developed (magic was apparently incorporated into ancient Egyptian religion as thoroughly as it has been into modern Wicca), translated and modernized instructions for using them, and resources including glossaries of terms and deities, further reading, and catalog houses through which to shop for appropriate items (because the internet wasn’t all the big for commerce prior to the turn of the century).

There’s not a lot of information about ancient Hellenic magic, but the drier Egyptian climate was kinder. Rather than be jealous that students of Egypt have many papyri to study whilst my coreligionists have mostly lead tablets, I was drawn to the similarities since there was a lot of cultural exchange. What clues about Hellenic magic can I find in Egyptian sources which, for example, refer to the agathos daimon? Certainly the ethical system was similar; magicians did what they wilt and accepted the consequences, or not if they were strong enough to avoid them. Those hints about my own traditional roots were tantalizing.

On the other hand, much of the Egyptian system Harris describes wouldn’t sit well with me, whether or not my ancestors practiced similarly. She describes the use of shape-shifting as a means to trick or bully gods and other spirits into doing one’s bidding; failing that, magicians had no problem threatening gods to get their way. Not my cup of tea, but certainly an interesting insight into this fascinating culture nonetheless.

Quibbles: There are several instances in which the author provides substitutes for the components listed in the source material because the original materials are not practical to obtain. That’s fine, but I wish she had spent more time laying out what those original components were; that would allow modern magicians to more easily choose other substitutes based on their personal circumstances.

Conclusion: Assuming the scholarship is solid, Ancient Egyptian Magic appears to be a good starting point for learning about these ancient magicians, but nothing more. Magic did not exist in isolation, and it’s important to understand the cultural and religious context of the magical scripts presented here before attempting to apply them today. It may be just a starting point, but it’s a good point from which to start.

Title: Ancient Egyptian Magic
Author: Eleanor Harris
Publisher: Weiser Books
ISBN: 978-1-57863-591-7