Review of Hearthstone’s books

When I started my formal study of Hellenismos, Hearthstone was required reading. Eir two books of interest, Devotion: Prayers to the Gods of the Greeks and In Praise of Olympus: Prayers to the Greek Gods have become some of the most well-used books in my collection. Almost daily I read a Hearthstone prayer to one deity or another. I got Devotion about six years ago, but when I bought the other recently I decided that these books deserve a review before I wear them out and have to buy new copies.

It’s with Hearthstone that I first learned to appreciate poetry. What’s otherwise stopped me is what seems like rampant pretentious behavior in and near poems and poets; these are written for the gods, which perhaps makes such ego exercises impossible. The turns of phrase make my heart flutter with their elegance. Here’s an example about Hermes:

In any land, in any age, your people prosper; in any land, in any age, you find a place; in any setting, you belong.

There’s just a flow created by the word choices which carry the reader on. That’s particularly important for reading aloud; many writers — myself included — don’t think about how long sentences challenge the voice. Yes, there’s a few really long ones among these prayers which might leave the unprepared reader gasping for breath, but Hearthstone is more than generous with commas, semi-colons, and dashes to help us through the tough times. Silently or aloud, the words drip with passion for and power from the divinities thus celebrated.

There are other things about Hearthstone’s writing to make me swoon; for one, the use of semicolons is correct. For another, the word “god” is not capitalized in any of these prayers, for Hearthstone (or her editor) knows that it never should be. It’s no wonder reading these works makes me feel faint after a day scrolling through Overcapitalized Blog Posts about Important Subjects.

At the core of Hearthstone’s work, though, is an insistent power. The reader may not feel it by browsing the book, or reading it cover to cover. It may take actually using these prayers, speaking them aloud, to sense it. It may take reading them over and over again, but the power is there, and it becomes more evident with each pass through these words. If it weren’t for my robust mustache, I’m certain I’d detect sweat on my upper lip. These are prayers that get the attention of gods in part due to their muse-inspired beauty, and in part because many English-speaking Hellenists are using them.

The author explains in the introduction to Devotion that she began writing these prayers in part because there weren’t many out there at the time. Many others — myself included — have composed and even published books of prayers to the theoi, but only rarely do these more recent offerings match the passion expressed by Hearthstone. For beginners on the path, those only passingly curious about Hellenic worship, and seasoned devotees alike, these books would only enhance a library to which they were added.


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

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

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

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

Book review: Revealing the Green Man

Genre: Paganism

Title: Revealing the Green Man

Author: Mark Olly

olly-green-manOverview: Thin enough to be readable, but scholarly enough to be a resource, Revealing the Green Man is a book I wish had been written thirty years ago. I’ve long held the Green Man in special regard, and this slender volume is Olly’s attempt to explain the context from which awareness of him emerged.

There is some careful scholarship between these covers, such as tracing of links between metals like copper to the cults associated with this icon, which is widespread in medieval European art and architecture, even making appearances on Christian church buildings. Less careful — but equally fascinating — are the parallels the author draws among many vegetative gods around the world, from Dionysos to Denka to Tlaloc. There are many more plant gods than most of us realize, but Olly asserts without evidence that to precivilization humans, “the earth was regarded as one universal deity.”

It’s fun to speculate on the idea of an underlying “true” religion, but there’s simply no evidence that our ancestors were indeed all of one mind on that question. Olly does not need to make that unsupported claim in order to push the environmentalist agenda that underpins this book. I have always associated the Green Man with defense of the planet and the environment, yet I hold no illusions of a universal, matriarchal, goddess-revering humanity in the distant path. We do not need to desperately prove that all gods are one god in order to listen to the message of the Green Man.

Still, but for some instances of sloppy scholarship in pursuit of a thesis, this is a solid book built upon some excellent research. At just over a hundred pages, I recommend it as an introduction for anyone curious about the historical relationship between our species and this forest god.
Title: Revealing the Green Man
Author: Mark Olly
Publisher: Moon Books
ISBN: 978-1-78099-336-2

Book review: Universal Heartbeat

Genre: Music
Title: Universal Heartbeat:  Drumming, Spirit and Community
Author: Morwen Two Feathers

universal-coverOverview: This collection of essays by one of the progenitors of the community drumming movement presents author Morwen Two Feathers’ views on the values and pitfalls of ecstatic drumming. Along the way, she explores thorny issues of cultural appropriation as well as the deeper benefits of participating in group drumming. Two Feathers and her husband, Jimi, founded the Earth Drum Council and ran it for decades. In short, this is a woman who knows what she’s talking about, and it would be worth your time to pay attention.

Buried in the back are the parts that I found most valuable: guidance on the council model of making decisions, as well as clearly-defined guidelines for drum and fire circles. That much of this guidance feels like common sense doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be laid out in writing; on the contrary, this is how to preserve it for people who don’t get it intuitively. I discovered several nuances that I had always seen but never observed, like not standing between the drummers and the fire. Keep moving like a planet: the closer the orbit, the faster the dance.

This is one person’s perspective on drumming, but such a perspective Morwen Two Feathers has! She has learned from some of the best, and that doesn’t just include how to hit the drum on the head, either. No, Two Feathers has absorbed wisdom about indigenous cultures and how members of the overculture can honor their practices; she has learned about the science and mysticism associated with drumming and applied it to her life; she has served as a leader in this movement and through her experience the reader can gain a more subtle and profound understanding of how all these pieces fit together.

Quibbles: If only words were enough to describe the power of the drum, this book would be a masterpiece. Even so, Two Feathers does a phenomenal job.

Quirks: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am an anti-capitalist. Morwen Two Feathers capitalizes far more words than I ever would. I would say that if e.e. cummings is 0 and SHOUTING is 100, Two Feathers is around a 70 to my 23. For example, I’ll grudgingly accept Neopagan, but she goes for Neo-Pagan. I’m fine with western civilization, but Two Feathers calls for Western Civilization. (It’s possible that the quirk in question here is actually mine.)

Title: Universal Heartbeat:  Drumming, Spirit and Community
Author: Morwen Two Feathers
Publisher: Twin Star
ISBN: 978-0-9817193-1-3