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

Review of The Book of Practical Candle Magic

candle-magicGenre: Magic

Title: The Book of Practical Candle Magic

Author: Leo Vinci

Overview: There comes along every once in awhile a Pagan book that includes an example ritual so insanely intense that, as a reader, I must question if the author had ever personally attempted it. Donald Tyson’s Rune Magic has incredibly detailed requirements at every turn, and Advanced Circle Magick by Kirk White includes a high magic ritual with such precise choreography that it might require the services of Cirque de Soleil to execute. The novena ritual in Leo Vinci’s Book of Practical Candle Magic, however, is the stuff of legend. Whether or not Vinci ever tried, the novena is the sort of ritual some people will take on as a challenge. In its most intense form, the practitioner must maintain a series of candles, each lit at a precise time, continuously over 49 or more hours. It’s probably going to be more, because the candles should be allowed to go out on their own.

This is either hardcore ritual magic, or utter BS. There is a lot of information here about how to actually make one’s own candles (which can be verified by simply following the instructions) and about magical correspondences (which can be verified through experience or consulting of other resources); the author could well have tried this marathon working, but I’m unlikely to discover more about it firsthand. From a purely hands-on perspective (lighting and extinguishing candles, laying them out, the times of day and week and month which are best for particular kinds of candle magic), this book is chock-full of information. It also includes an explanation about the nature of symbolism which I could have used when writing essays in high school.

The Book of Practical Candle Magic is a re-release; the book has a copyright date of 1981, with 2015 marking the first Red Wheel/Weiser edition. While this may not ring true, 1981 was a long time ago in the minds of a great deal of people; to those in the millennial generation and younger, that’s indistinguishable from the days of Blavatsky’s Theosophistical Society. One of the ways this book shows its age is in the fact that it was titled before it became popular to spell “magic” with six letters, resolves no confusion whatsoever, because it both leaves the pronunciation unchanged, and has led some authors to unfortunate word choices such as “magickian.” However, that’s enough digression for now.

Bottom line, this slender volume is packed with a lot of information about candles and their magical uses. Much of it corresponds to information I have gleaned elsewhere, or simply resonates as true. That’s good, given its lack of sources (see the quibbles section below). Much of it can be verified by experience: there is an entire section on how to make one’s own candles, and that technical information alone makes this book worth owning. The esoteric information would certainly benefit from some footnotes; if not to cite sources, at least to place it in context. Personally, I’d rather see it written, “I heard this information from a guy named Frankie I met on the Jersey shore,” rather than nothing at all.

To follow through on all the example rituals will be a costly affair: candles are only to be used once, and most of these rituals use a lot of candles. If you’re not making your own, buy in bulk. That’s no crack on the author; it’s just the cost of working magic.

Quibbles: There is no section about the author, to explain from whence his expertise springs; the reader will have to judge that by the text alone. That wouldn’t be an issue if Vinci made even a passing attempt at citing sources. Perhaps readers in 1981 were more trusting than I am today, or less curious about how knowledge is passed around.

While I very much appreciate that there specific instructions about making candles herein, the author asserts that coating white candles in the relevant color is generally okay. With that detail, I generally disagree; Vinci does provide specific cases wherein I do not dispute the value of the technique, e.g. dipping the tip of a colored candle in black to focus its negative qualities.

Quirks: The Abrahamic influence is a bit more overt than one might find in a good Hoodoo book; references to angels especially can be found every few pages. There is no doubt in my mind that this system can be adapted to align with all manner of beings not contemplated in Christian or Jewish mythology, but the frequent references may be jarring to some Pagan readers. Refreshingly, the wording throughout suggests that the author is aware of this fact. It also suggests he is unapologetic about his own beliefs, as well he should be.

Title: The Book of Practical Candle Magic
Author: Leo Vinci
Publisher: Weiser Books
ISBN: 978-1-57863-578-8

Book review: The Art of Ritual

Genre: Paganism
Title: The Art of Ritual
Author: Rachel Patterson

daf3b2_b87dc2817fc541ba929c5ae7d52e27f2Overview: Within these pages is a guide to creating rituals. It uses more common elements of Pagan worship, but the underlying principles are useful even if you’re not the sort to cast circles and honor elements. In fact, there are many details drawn from non-circle-casting Pagan traditions, such as a Druidic call for peace and the Hellenic use of khernips, or lustral water, for purification. (One of these days I may just collect all the khernips recipes people use, because there seems to be no end to their variety.) If you are entirely new to Pagan ritual, go with this suggested form and you’ll likely never have any problems, as long as you remember that there’s no such thing as a universal Pagan ritual. If you’ve circle the fire a few times, then feel free to pick and choose what you like; by now you should understand the importance of placing ritual elements in their proper context.

Quibbles: There’s not enough cake! Patterson does make plenty of cake mentions in this book, but unlike Arc of the Goddess, there are no actual recipes for cake. Perhaps she wrote this book first. Perhaps I’m spoiled. Perhaps my mouth is watering because I have written the word “cake” so many times.

Quirks: Patterson uses the kind of slightly-saucy language that many Pagan authors shy away from, and more’s the pity. For example, when she breaks down how she thinks gender-specific items should be laid out on an altar, she writers, “Basically boobs and wombs on the left, willies on the right.” I hope that doesn’t offend any of her readers; it certainly didn’t offend me.

Author: Rachel Patterson
Publisher: Moon Books
ISBN: 978-1-78279-776-0

Book review: Arc of the Goddess

2daca1_0f13271010e44147b896ac66a54cb04fGenre: Paganism

Title: Arc of the Goddess

Author: Rachel Patterson & Tracey Roberts

Overview: This is a book that takes on the challenge of putting the “practical” into a yearly cycle of goddess-focused practice. It’s set up to follow the course of a calendar year, and the reader is invited to focus several different kinds of devotional activities on a different goddess each month. If you jump in with gusto, you’re going to feel and look radiant thanks to a monthly home-made beauty product, and you’re also going to have the opportunity to indulge in a wide variety of cakes thanks to the twelve delicious recipes within.

Based on a course that Patterson and Roberts developed, each chapter includes information on goddesses from many different religions, as well as feast and celebration days from antiquity forward that are celebrated during that month. After studying the material, the student is provided the text of a guided meditation during which the month’s goddess is ascertained. Much of the information about spell work, rituals, altars, and related activities is repeated in each unit (fulfilling a promise that the reader can begin with any month), but with month-specific variations on the activities. Herbs and stones that are aligned with the season are also discussed and then used in mandalas, crystal grids, oils, and the aforementioned beauty product. The cake recipe is tied into the feasting component, making me all the more eager to dive right in.

What’s valuable about this book is 1) the framework for someone to explore relationships with different deities and 2) the extensive information about known goddesses and holy days to guide that exploration. I can see it used as a springboard to develop a much deeper relationship with a particular goddess, or built upon to develop a strong, personal polytraditional practice. Either way, this is definitely not the worst tool for upping one’s game if one isn’t part of a clearly defined tradition.

Also, did I mention cake?

Quibbles: There’s nothing wrong with taking a personal tone while writing a book, but the way it’s done in this book is less intimate than it is confusing. That’s because there are two authors, but the text is dotted with “I” statements that don’t make it clear which of the two is sharing an opinion or experience. It’s possible that they are of one mind, but I could also be projecting.

Quirks: An implicit assumption in this book is the subscription to the idea that all goddesses are, at least to some extent, one goddess. That doesn’t mean that the material can’t be used by someone with a different cosmology, only that the language used may be distracting.

This book is British, which means that some of the ingredients in the recipes may be unfamiliar. It’s nothing a decent search engine can’t resolve, and it adds a cultural flavor that I am glad was not stripped out for American audiences.
Title: Arc of the Goddess
Author: Rachel Patterson & Tracey Roberts
Publisher: Moon Books
ISBN: 978-1-78535-318-5