Category Archives: Reviews

Pagan and Spiritual Book Round-Up October 2015

Reading books is a big part of how I grow and develop as a Pagan and Shintoist, and followers of my blog will know that I regularly write my reflections on Pagan-related books that I’ve read. I’ve decided though that writing long reviews on each book has been a bit time-consuming, so instead I’ve decided to try and write monthly highlights of all the relevant books I’ve read. So here’s my reflections on the books I’ve read this October (aside from the ones I’ve already reviewed this month).

whitegoddessThe White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Robert Graves
This book is often considered “essential reading” for those interested in the development of folklore studies, as well as Paganism, in the UK. It’s also often recommended to those who’ve read one of my favourite Pagan-related books, The Golden Bough. Like The Golden Bough, The White Goddess is chunky and academic, but that’s really where the similarity ends. While for me The Golden Bough was something of a life-changer that helped to put me on the path I’m on today, I found The White Goddess far less useful as a source of information on Pagan beliefs. Much of the text, especially the first half, is focussed purely on the deep analysis on the possible hidden meanings of old poems and riddles, and is rather inaccessible to those who are not specialists in this field. While there are a few interesting tidbits of information here and there, I’d say that there’s not really a need for Pagans of today to read this – the ideas have been expressed by others in a more accessible manner elsewhere. Still, good to read for those who want a thorough understanding on the history of Neopaganism’s development as a new religion.

bookofdruidry The Book of Druidry, Ross Nichols

This is a book I found at my parent’s house when I was babysitting my nephew; I suspect my Dad bought it in Glastonbury sometime in the nineties. It certainly feels very nineties – lots of references to Atlantis and UFOs, which were big topics in the New Age movement at the time. I’m beginning to think that Druidry is not really a path for me, as I have yet to read a text on Druidry that’s really inspired me. The Book of Druidry is no different. Full of very dubious history, but rather sparse on what it is that modern-day Druids actually do, I didn’t feel I gained much from this book. The parts on the King Arthur legend were quite interesting, but I prefer Richard Cavendish’s King Arthur and the Grail as a source on information on the different interpretations of the Arthurian legends. Not bad, but not particularly memorable for me either.

zenmotorcycle Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert Pirsig

Knowing that I like books on spirituality and philosophy, my husband recommended Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to me. It’s quite a quirky book – a story based sort of on real life, which is used as a framing device for exploring various philosophical concepts. You could possibly class it alongside Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist loosely in the category of “new age self help fable” as well. It starts of quite well – using the analogy of motorcycle maintenance to explain the difference between classical and romantic thought is effective and interesting, as is some of the author’s thoughts on the nature of quality and its links to concepts in Eastern spirituality. But on the whole, I found this book a bit slow, protracted, confused and more than a little pretentious.

whokilledmrmoonlight Who Killed Mister Moonlight?: Bauhaus, Black Magick, and Benediction, David J. Haskins
**Book of the Month!**

I bought my signed 1st edition copy of Who Killed Mr Moonlight during a reading of section of the book by the author himself, David J, at Atlantis Bookshop, so I thought I’d like it. And I was not disappointed. A brutally honest biography of Goth Rock band Bauhaus by its bassist, Who Killed Mr Moonlight is insane, shocking, funny and extremely enjoyable. There’s plenty of occult content too – David J has dabbled in all kinds of magical practises including voodoo, witchcraft and Sufism, and it’s all included in here. It’s quite rare to read such vivid and in-depth experiences of magic workers in books that aren’t specifically about magic. There’s even a whole chapter devoted to David J’s exploration of the occult with Alan Moore, British occultist and writer extraordinaire. You don’t even need to be a particularly big fan of Bauhaus to enjoy this – I think all those interested in 80s rock and the Goth scene will get a kick out of Who Killed Mr Moonlight.

PaganDawnSamhain2015 Pagan Dawn Samhain / Winter Solstice 2015 issue

I’ve been enjoying my Pagan Federation membership and I was very excited to get my second issue of Pagan Dawn magazine this month. Highlight for me include an interview with Damh the Bard, a column about some of the social problems that occur during Halloween by Sergeant Andre Pardy (I really like his columns), AND an interview with one of my favourite bands, Inkubus Sukkubus (together with a competition to win some of their merchandise)

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Reflections on “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint,” R. Andrew Chesnut

devotedtodeathWhy did I choose to read this book?

Ever since reading various internet articles about Santa Muerte, Mexico’s “Skeleton Saint,” I have been absolutely fascinated by this deity and her fast-growing cult. A personification of Death venerated by people who identify as Catholic, yet whose worship is condemned by the Catholic church? A saint who devotees routinely included the last people we would usually think of as “spiritual,” including drug barons, prostitutes and the police who incarcerate them alike? As a Goth, Pagan, ex-Catholic and someone who has a broad interest in folk religion in general, I was intrigued and wanted to know more.[Read more]

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Reflections on “Oriental Ghost Stories,” Lafcadio Hearn (compiled and edited by David Stuart Davies)

orientalghostWhy did I choose to read this book?

I really like the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural books, which are reprints of classic horror and gothic stories published cheaply by Wordsworth Editions. I have several of them – their collection of vampire short stories and their Edith Nesbit collection, to name a few – and I was delighted to see that they’d also released some of the works of Lafcadio Hearn. All erudite Japanese people, and a large percentage of people who’ve studied Japan, know the importance of Hearn – he emigrated to Japan in 1890 and was responsible for much of the West’s understanding of Japanese culture through his writings on Japanese customs and folklore. I’ve long been familiar with Hearn but have never owned a collection of his writings, and being a lover of all things Japanese, folky and ghostly, I knew I had to get this book. And with Samhain coming it, now felt like a perfect time to reflect on it!

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

This book compiles stories from Hearn’s books – Kwaidan, In Ghostly Japan and Some Chinese Ghosts – into one volume, with a very nice introduction by David Stuart Davies. The stories are essentially folktales – old, spooky “urban legends” that Hearn came across during his time in Japan, as well as a few other writings about China and Europe. All the stories feature elements of the supernatural, from ghosts to demons to inexplicable magic.

What did I particularly like about it?

To begin with, I LOVE the idea of presenting Japanese ghost stories first and foremost as simply that – horror stories. All too often, East Asian writings (and writing from other non-European cultures) get pigeonholed into “East Asia” or “Oriental” as a genre in itself, as if their literature cannot be appreciated alongside or compared with similar literature from the West. This adds to the myth that Japan and other countries are “inscrutable.” Publishing Japanese ghost stories alongside those by European writers as part of the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural series, in a cheap, almost pulpy, paperback format, is an excellent way of introducing Japanese stories to the masses who may not have any initial interest in Japan, which helps to shatter that “inscrutable” image.

Then there are the stories themselves. Hearn is a wonderful storyteller, who manages to keep a balance of making these stories appealing to the Western reader and retaining their eerie and mystical atmosphere without completely losing their sense of “Japaneseness.” Naturally, I liked some stories better than others; some of the highlights for me included:

  • “The Story of Mimi-Nashi Hoiichi” – The opening story of the book, which has as its protagonist one of Japan’s most fascinating stock characters; a blind lute-player.
  • “Yuki-Onna” – The legends of the mysterious and potentially deadly “snow woman” are well-known to lovers of Japanese folklore, and this version is full of elegance and mystery.
  • Jiu-roku-zakura” – A short but moving tale of a man devoted to his cherry tree. It reminded me a little of Oscar Wilde’s beautiful “The Nightingale and the Rose.”
  • The Dream of Akinosuke” – Something of a mystery story. The real meaning is revealed at the end, but clever readers might be able to guess what’s going on before then…
  • “A Story of Divination” – A neat and somewhat spooky tale exploring the idea of predestination.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

Oriental Ghost Stories has a very eclectic feeling, with strange little essays and extracts included among the stories which add variety. Some people might be put off by this “jumbled” feeling, but I rather liked it. The rather archaic language (especially the old ways of romanising Japanese words) might be a bit jarring to some, but again, I thought this added to the book’s charm.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

I actually learned an awful lot of things I didn’t know about Japanese religion from these stories (I suppose that’s not so surprising – folktales can sometimes offer the greatest insight into spiritual beliefs). Due to the nature of the stories, most of the religious elements described are Buddhist (as Buddhism is associated with funeral rites in Japan), which I liked because I am less familiar with Buddhism (especially on the popular level) than Shinto in Japan. I also learned a few things about Shinto that I didn’t know – for example, I had no idea that incense is considered “unclean” in Shinto and isn’t generally burned at Shinto shrines until reading this book! This made me re-consider my current practise of occasionally offering incense to Inari Okami.

Additionally, I was fascinated to read about the concept of “nazorareru.” Hearn claims that this word “…cannot be be adequately rendered by any English word” but describes it as “…to substitute, in imagination, one object or action for another so as to bring about some magical or miraculous result,” for example, laying a pebble before the image of Buddha instead of building a Buddhist temple in order to evoke the same feeling of piety. I immediately realised that what Hearn is describing is the very same “sympathetic magic” that forms the basis of the theories in The Golden Bough! I realised that the concept of sympathetic magic exists in Japan (as it does in all human cultures), but I had no idea that the Japanese had their own term for it. I was really excited to discover this.

Would I recommend this book to others?

Yes – whether you want to read it to learn more about Japanese folklore, or simply want a good scare, I’m sure you would enjoy this book.

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Reflections on the “Spiral Music” Collection

MagicalEncounters1

I was really excited to learn that Spiral Music, a small, independent record company in the UK that made some really unique New Age/Gothic/Celtic music in the late 80s and early 90s, has decided to re-release four of its most popular pieces on CD! I still prefer owning physical CDs to files, so I was especially pleased to hear this.

I have grown up with Spiral Music (you could find the CDs in shops like the famous Star Child in Glastonbury) and even today, I use it for meditation and rituals (as well as just listening to it for pleasure because they’re really beautiful). They’re from very much a lost era of music – back when producing commercial electronic music was pretty hard work, and when musicians often saw electronic music as being a low-cost “substitute” for hiring real instruments, rather than being treated as an instrument in its own sake. Philip Le Breton, the producer behind the re-released CDs, certainly seems to have seen it this way – he’s tried to make lots of the electronic sounds as “natural” as possible (for example, electronic choral pieces stay within human vocal ranges), and indeed he mixes lots of real instruments into the work as well.

So I thought I’d take the opportunity of this re-release to share my thoughts on these wonderful musical works, in the hope that Spiral gets a bit more recognition!

MagicalEncounters1Magical Encounters 

This was Spiral’s first releases, and it’s a firm favourite among fans – it’s also one of my favourites as well. Inspired by Celtic legends, it’s designed to evoke images of ancient standing stones and mystic lakes. There’s a lovely pathworking text included to aid with meditation to this music.

Reflecting its early origins (like all of Philip Le Breton’s works for Spiral, it started out as a cassette first), it has two tracks – “Side 1” and “Side 2.” My favourite of these has to be Side 1 – it’s really Gothic-sounding with a bell tolling throughout the beginning. You can hear a bit of Track 1 on the Spiral Music website. The sounds of the bell and choir are coupled with birdsong, creating an atmosphere that’s both eerie and serene at the same time.

Track 2 is nice as well – the sound of running water coupled with mystical sounds, and I really like the finale, which has a dreamlike smallpipe solo.

KnightsDestiny A Knight’s Destiny

Spiral’s second release, A Knight’s Destiny, is one of the less popular releases, possibly because it’s one of the weirder ones. But that’s why I really like it! Based on the Arthurian legends, the music is really strange and dreamy. Listening to it feels like going on a strange, spiritual journey (a Grail Quest, even!), starting with the gloomy, atmospheric opening of “A Wounded Traveller” and going on to the more mystical-sounding “Merlin” and “The Unborn Child Galahad,” finally ending with wild “Dragon.” It’s accompanied by a pathworking text that’s as strange and mystical as the music, evoking both the mysticism and the tragedy of the knights of the round table. Definitely one of the more challenging CDs, but recommended for this very reason.

Special bonus – both “Magical Encounters” and “A Knight’s Destiny” have specially-commissioned artwork by renowned Celtic artist Courtney David on the cover, which is pretty special for any fans of modern Celtic art.

GreenMan The Green Man

By the time The Green Man was released, New Age music had become a pretty big industry. Reflecting this, The Green Man is a little more commercial in sound, attempting to incorporate some of the same sounds that lots of other popular New Age artists were using – pan-pipes, drumming and twinkly bells. The first track is pretty standard-sounding New Age music to me – nice, pretty, but not so distinct. However, the second track is really special – it includes an amazing drumming sequence accompanied by a dramatic bagpipe solo that I always look forward to every time I listen to it. I also really like the pathworking text in this one – it explores the possible “character” of the Green Man and has a nice environmental message. Oh, and you’ve probably seen the cover before – this painting by Aaron Gadd of the Green Man has become iconic.

AtlantisAtlantis

In this CD, Philip Le Breton departs away from Celtic folklore and into the legend of Atlantis. Both Atlantis and whale song were popular New Age motifs at the time, and this music incorporates both. The first track (which is the more “oceany” one) features lots of natural Humpback Whale song. I’ve listened to a lot of music incorporating whale song, and what I really like about this one is that it doesn’t stray into the over-sentimental or schmaltzy background music that you get with lots of other music featuring whales; it’s mysterious, mystical and has a “lonely” quality that really evokes the ocean depths. If you like the strange, eerie music from the old Ecco the Dolphin games, you’ll probably like this. The second track doesn’t have any whale song, but I really like it because it really seems to evoke the ancient myths of the magical Greek city of Atlantis. It has some nice, ghostly seagull calls as well. I find Atlantis the most relaxing of these four CDs, and really enjoy it.

If you want to listen to some really unique, atmospheric, magical and beautiful music from the proto-New Age era, I really recommend getting some of these CDs. Whether you want to use them for rituals or simply want to listen to them to chill out, I’m sure you’ll enjoy them if you have an appreciation for early British electronica as well as all things Celtic and mystical!

You can find out more about these CDs, listen to some sample tracks, and of course buy them at http://spiralmusic.com. Just bear in mind the Spiral won’t be making any more copies of these CDs once they’re all sold out, so get in quick!

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Reflections on “Llewellyn’s Witches’ Datebook”

WitchesDatebook

The year is now on the wane, and as Lewellyn’s Witches’ Datebook 2016 is now available to buy, I thought I’d look back on how useful the 2015 edition, the first I’ve ever bought, was to me.

In a nutshell…

This is a year-long planner/organiser – with a witchy twist! Not only does it highlight dates of significance to Pagans and witches, it also has (quite extensive) passages on things of a magical/Pagan nature, including spells, festivals (including those of other religions), rituals and symbols. It also includes moon phases and significant astrological events each day.

What did I particularly like about it?

As a newbie Pagan, I’ve found it really useful to have such an accessible and friendly planner to help me keep track of notable Pagan dates – especially the Sabbats and the Full Moons. Trying to memorise the Wheel of the Year and other significant dates can be tough for new Pagans and witches, so this book really did help.

I also like it simply as a way of reinforcing my identity as a Pagan. While I did take the step of covering my Datebook (I don’t actually want everyone I meet to know that I’m into Paganism/witchcraft), I feel a little bit of personal pride every time I open it up – it reminds me of the Path I’m on and how much I enjoy living the Pagan way every day. It’s actually a source of comfort – I feel good just knowing that this book, my little token of Paganism, is always in my bag. Perhaps it does have a magic of its own.

As I mentioned above, the Datebook includes a lot of additional text about spells, etc. which can be interesting to flick through if, say, you’re stuck on a train journey with nothing to read (although all this text does have its downside, which I’ll get to in a moment).

Finally, I actually really like the production of the book itself. It’s a paperback of non-gloss paper (easy to write on), cheaply spiral-bound. Although you could call it “cheap,” this is actually a lot more practical than the better-quality hard-back datebooks, diaries and planners out there – it’s much lighter, the spiral-bind means that the spine doesn’t break as it tends to do with square-bound books that are used heavily. I’m sure that this method of production helps to keep the cost down; everything Llewellyn tends to be expensive, but I’m sure that having cheaper materials has made this diary cheaper for the consumer than it would be if they had focussed more on quality. My datebook is still in very good condition even after daily use over nearly a year – not a single page has fallen out and it looks like it could last a good deal longer. In fact, its durability, combined with its lightness, is a really big selling point.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

The biggest downside, as with a lot of Llewellyn publications, is that it’s made for a US audience. This is a big problem for UK users – not only are none of the UK bank holidays and festivals are included, but some of the moon phases are slightly off due to the time zone difference between the US and the UK. All the dates therefore have to be double-checked.

Additionally, while the additional text is fairly interesting, I thought most of it was unnecessary and used up useful space – especially the text that occurs within the diary pages. It uses up a lot of space, which means the space for each day is rather cramped – I prefer having lots of space so I can write lots of things when planning my days. The illustrations throughout the text are pretty but, again, they use up space – I’d have preferred fewer. Additionally, there’s only a single page for notes at the back – I write a lot, so it would’ve been really useful if they’d cut down on the text, and given much more room for notes. Lots of witches write a lot because they’re constantly thinking about rituals and spells and other musings, so I think other people would feel this way too. I would’ve loved to have been able to use this datebook a bit like a Book of Shadows, with plenty of space to write my own material.

Finally, some of the little bits of text included in the date entries seemed very irrelevant to me. Every day is given a “colour,” but without any explanation as to why that colour has been assigned to that day – were they simply arbitrarily assigned by the editor to each day without any real meaning? Then there are occasional little factoids like, “The Hindu god Kurma relates to the virtue of perseverance,” but the date it’s on will have absolutely no relevance to Kurma or Hinduism or anything else. These factoids again take up space. I would have preferred facts that were more relevant to the date (more inclusions of important dates from other religions, for example), for no facts at all.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

As I mentioned, it’s really helped me as a newbie Pagan to keep tabs of significant dates, and I really liked just having something of a Pagan nature on me that I could use everyday. However, as I’ve now become more familiar with Paganism and as so many of the important dates for me are Shinto rather than Pagan, this book has become less useful to me. I suspect that for 2015, I will buy a more neutral datebook (that’s more UK-centric) and simply write in all the important Pagan and Shinto dates. But that’s certainly not to say that I didn’t like the Witches’ Datebook or didn’t find it very useful initially – it’s simply the case that I no longer feel it’s necessary as I am more familiar with the Pagan year now.

Would I recommend this book to others?

For beginners of Paganism / Witchcraft, perhaps – as I said, the fact that it’s US-centric is a big downside for UK users, who have to exercise some caution when relying on it to get their dates right. If Llewellyn (or any other company) were to produce a UK edition of a Pagan/Witch datebook, I’m pretty sure I’d snap it right up.

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Reflections on “The Gospel of Loki,” Joanne M Harris

GospelLokiWhy did I choose to read this book?

Another charity shop find! Although Asatru is not a large part of my path, I do have an interest in Norse mythology, and especially Loki (like so many other fans of the Norse gods!). At first I was dubious – I’ve read a few modernised tales featuring Loki before and not found them fantastic – but then I noticed that this one is written by the best-selling author of Chocolat (another novel with some Pagan overtones), which reassured me enough to spend £1 on The Gospel of Loki

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

It’s very simply a collection of some of the most famous of the Norse legends from the Eddas, told from the perspective of Loki, the Trickster. Told through Loki’s witty, teasing narration, all the favourite stories are here, from the beginning of the Nine Worlds (and Loki’s “birth” from Chaos) to the golden days of Asgard, to its eventual downfall at Ragnarok.

What did I particularly like about it?

First and foremost, I loved how close the re-tellings of the stories are to their originals. There’s no wild deviations or attempts to gild the lily – Harris has retold the tales very faithfully, but also very appealingly, from the point of view of the Trickster God. She captures the real essence and emotion of the stories, including their epic scope and bawdy wit. Harris is at her strongest when dealing with the more humorous tales – some of episodes, and the characters’ reactions to turns of events, are laugh-out-loud funny. Harris polishes and displays the original tales of the Norse gods in such a way that their cleverness and excitement really shines through. I especially loved her account of the origin of the eight-legged horse Sleipnir and the adventures of Loki and Thor in Utgard – although I already knew the stories very well, I still enjoyed experiencing them again through Harris’ lively writing and looked forward to all their twists and turns.

I also liked the ingenious way in which, by making Loki the focal point of the stories, Harris weaves all the various Norse tales into a continuous, flowing narrative – which really enhances the stories and stresses their epic nature. Rather than simply ending, the ending of one story will lead directly to the beginning of another, and the actions of one character will prove to be an important motivation for another character’s actions later. This also allows for a real shift of tone – we go from laughing during the heyday of the gods, to feeling genuinely sad when it all comes to an end.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

Surprisingly, I found the depiction of Loki a little derivative and perhaps not as interesting as he could have been. Loki is an archetypal bad boy, using (occasionally jarring) modern American slang to demonstrate his rebel nature (he even uses the phrase Your Humble Narrator just like Alex in A Clockwork Orange). There’s nothing really new and original to his character – we’ve all seen this Loki before in the Thor movies. That’s not to say that Harris’ Loki has no appeal – you’ll end up liking him regardless – but I was hoping for something perhaps a little more developed. On the other hand, the mysterious Odin, with his obscure motivations and complex relationship with Loki, is a very interesting character indeed. Perhaps Harris could have explored the Loki/Odin relationship a little more? Perhaps they could have had some final, revealing words during their last hours at Ragnarok? But perhaps Harris deliberately kept her characters symbol to be more in keeping with the spirit of the Eddas, and to avoid eclipsing the stories themselves.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

It certainly got me interested in reading up a little more about the Eddas and about Asatru in general, as well as filling in some of my knowledge gaps on Norse mythology. I feel after reading The Gospel of Loki, I understand the nature of the Norse Gods, the Nine Worlds and the magic of the runes a little more.

Would I recommend this book to others?

Definitely to those interested in Norse mythology! Veterans will really appreciate how close the stories are to the originals, while newcomers will enjoy The Gospel of Loki as an easy to read and highly entertaining introduction to some of the wittiest tales and appealing characters in the world of ancient mythology.

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Reflections on “A Kitchen Witch’s Cookbook,” Patricia Telesco

kitchenwitchWhy did I choose to read this book?

It was a lucky find! I saw it in a charity shop for £1.50 and had to get it.

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

It does what it says on the cover! A collection of recipes selected for the magical significance of their ingredients, preparation method, appearance or cultural associations. There’s over 300 recipes in here, including main meals, snacks, desserts and drinks. Additionally, there’s quite a lot of explanation how to bring magic into one’s cooking, as well a large collection of appendices and lists of the magical properties of particular foods and items.

What did I particularly like about it?

Admittedly, I haven’t actually tried any of the recipes in here yet (I am a *very*  reluctant cook), so all my opinions are based entirely on the writing and not on the tasting! But judging on the writing alone, I thought this was a very good book on magical cuisine. Written with that friendly, engaging tone that can be found in many Llewellyn publications, it’s very easy to follow and, appropriately enough, digestible. And the concept of “kitchen magic” is fantastic; as Telesco puts it, “Magic is no longer just for the Circle; it is no longer the occasional book read or spell performed – herein, magic becomes part of everyday experiences and expressions, specifically those involving food.”

I also loved the level of detail in A Kitchen Witch’s Cookbook; the additional explanations about kitchen magic and other pointers, right down to the presentation of the food and dining table, are almost as long as the main recipe sections themselves.

Speaking of the recipes, I liked that they were a good mix of both more complicated dishes and those with very basic recipes, such as for making pesto. The inclusion of really simple dishes put me, as a complete novice, a lot more at ease. I also liked how varied from there, drawn from many different cultures’ cuisines. Some were really creative as well, such as the idea of making chips out of sliced bagel – what a great idea!

Finally, I liked the overall presentation. The book is peppered with nice illustrations and quotes about food and cooking from famous people, adding to its appeal.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

Just a few nitpicks, really. I thought it would have benefited from a proper index, including an index of recipes based on particular sabbats and festivals as I’d find this particularly useful. I was also a little surprised that, among the huge variety of different recipes from different cultures, there were a few notable absences – there was no recipe for Samhain Soul Cakes, for example. Finally, while I liked the illustrations, most of them weren’t of the actual dishes described. Having a few pictures of the dishes themselves would have been helpful.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

A Kitchen Witch’s Cookbook has reinforced for me the idea of bringing magic and Pagan ritual into everyday activities, and emphasised the importance of home cooking within the Pagan lifestyle. I only hope I can get over my fear of cooking and actually put some of the recipes to the test!

Would I recommend this book to others?

Yes – and despite the title, I think this book is just as suitable for Pagans who do not practise magic as those that do. I also think that the broad range of dishes means that the book would appeal both to Pagans with a lot of experience of magical and ritual cooking, as well as Pagans such as myself who are less confident about cooking and need something to gently encourage them!

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Reflections on “Shinto: A Celebration of Life,” Aidan Rankin

ShintoCelebrationlifeWhy did I choose to read this book?

It was on my wish-list of Shinto-related books and was one of the cheaper options available (books on Shinto tend to be pricey)!

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

Shinto: A Celebration of Life is an introduction to Shinto from a Western perspective. It’s quite a good contrast to Sokyo Ono’s Shinto: The Kami Way which I reviewed earlier; whereas Ono’s work is an objective study of the beliefs and practises of Shinto written by a native Japanese, Shinto: A Celebration of Life is a more emotive and subjective work which goes more into the philosophy and way of thinking behind Shinto, as well as drawing comparisons with other belief systems. Some of the concepts that the book explores in particular depth are kami, kannagara and musubi.

What did I particularly like about it?

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Shinto: A Celebration of Life. When I received it and took a look at the back, I noticed that the author Aidan Rankin is a member of the Theosophical Society and not a Japanese national or an academic of Japanese Studies, which immediately put me on my guard. I have been rather disturbed by the messages in books written by other notable members of the Theosophical Society, and dubious of those trying to write about Japan without some formal qualification. But in fact this is a really nice work, with none of the misguided views that other members of the Theosophical Society might have held in the past – it explicitly emphasises Shinto as a universal religion, relevant to those from all countries and walks of life. And what’s more, I found that for the most part, Rankin’s understanding and interpretation of Shinto corresponds well to other studies I have read on the religion.

“Celebration” is an apt word for the title of the book; it really is a celebration of Shinto which expresses the optimism and positivity of Shinto very well. Rankin holds the view that Shinto, as both an ancient, indigenous nature-based religion and as a religion that has stood the test of time and continued unbroken for its long history, holds some of the keys for all “developed” countries experiencing environmental, social and spiritual crisis. This includes the economy (“markets…make sense only when they serve the interests of communities and take account of culture and ecology as much as measurable statistics of profit and growth” ) , welfare (“We look after ourselves by looking after each other”) and respecting cultural diversity (“Preserving the diversity of human cultures ensures that as wide a variety of sources of wisdom remain at the disposal of humanity as a whole”).

I really liked Rankin’s broad comparisons between Shinto and many other belief systems, from Australian aboriginal religions to Norse beliefs to Daoism. The comparisons with Daoism in particular were very interesting – I had never before considered Shinto to be a form of “Dao,” despite the character for “dao” being part of the word “Shinto,” but I can now easily see how the Way of the Gods can be considered a Dao and I really like the idea.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

Although the tone of the book is friendly and its message is positive, whether it is a 100% accurate portrayal is occasionally questionable (one might have suspected that from the decision to use a typically Buddhist pagoda on the front cover rather than a more traditional Shinto object). Firstly, there are some outright howlers – Rankin seems to think that Ise Shrine, one of the most important shrines in Japan, is located in Nagasaki. Having lived in Nagasaki for two years and having visited Ise Shrine, I can say with every confidence that Ise Shrine is in Mie. Careless errors like this are damaging to the book’s authenticity and should have been spotted before publication.

Then there are a few disputable interpretations of Shinto beliefs. One is that Shinto is “free of neurotic fears about death.” While it is true that Shinto doesn’t have much to say on death and the afterlife, it overlooks the fact that death is very much taboo in Shinto and seen as something negative and unclean (which is perhaps one reason why Japanese may turn to Buddhism for answers about death, as Buddhism offers greater reassurance).

I was glad that sections from the Kojiki, the ancient text that features the myths of Shinto, were included, but occasionally they are hard to read due to the over-use of parentheses and awkward translations of kami names. Similarly, the way in which quotations are included is clumsy at times as Rankin seems to like using the “sic” suffix for even the most trivial of matters, such as not capitalising the word “musubi” where Rankin would. Using “sic” can imply a slight feeling of contempt towards the person one is quoting, so I felt it was far too over-used here.

The book is also lacking explanations and descriptions as to how Shinto is actually practised by ordinary people in Japan. Although there is a little bit of information on kamidana and a few other key ideas, I have a feeling that someone new to Shinto would not gain a good understanding of what this religion actually looks like in Japan.

Finally, I found the sections on “Musubi” and “Kannagara” to be rather long yet rather vague; I feel they could have been explained in a more precise and concise manner. Perhaps an examination of the kanji of these words would have helped.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

I found this book to be a very positive and affirming work on Shinto, which left me feeling good after reading it. Shinto is quite rule-bound compared to Neopaganism, and at times the effort to satisfy to all the requirements in Shinto can leave me feeling a little harried and touched with self-doubt. This warm and joyful book reminded that Shinto is, at its heart, a warm and joyful religion, and that at its heart no form of worship of Shinto can be wrong provided it is done with the right intentions. Some of the ideas that resounded with me in particular include:

  • Ancestor worship in Shinto is a way of remembering that everything is connected; that we are not only connected to those around us, but also those who came before us and those who will come after.
  • Shinto attempts to find a healthy balance between material living and spiritual living – “Connecting with Kami is therefore the opposite of withdrawing from the world.”
  • It doesn’t matter as to whether the concept of kami is monotheistic, polytheistic or something else entirely (something I explored in this blog here)
  • Shinto, and the related Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi, recognises that beauty is found within imperfection – “Nature’s perfection is expressed through flaws” 

Would I recommend this book to others?

Due to the lack of pure factual information on Shinto (as well as some of the factual errors) and some of the vague terms in which certain Shinto concepts are described, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as an introductory book on Shinto. However, to a Shinto practitioner who has already grasped the basics of this path, I would say this makes really nice side-reading alongside more academic works, and a great alternative perspective on Shinto.

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Reflections on “The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess,” Starhawk (20th Anniversary Edition)

SpiralDanceWhy did I choose to read this book?

It’s not only considered by many to be “essential reading” for new Pagans (especially Wiccans), but I also had many personal recommendations to read it. So I figured I should!

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

First published in 1979, this is one of the most important books that helped define and construct the ideas behind modern Witchcraft – and especially Wicca as a Goddess-based religion. Although similar in many ways to other introductory books on Wicca, in that it includes a bit of history, explanations of the deities,  and introductions to rituals, festivals and techniques of Witchcraft, The Spiral Dance is special in that it was one of the first books to explicitly connect Wicca with feminism, which reflects the social and political climate in which it was written.

What did I particularly like about it?

Firstly, I was delighted to find that The Spiral Dance wasn’t what I had expected from some of its reviews. I had heard criticisms that it pushes its feminist agenda too far, and that Starhawk’s tone is even misandrist in places. I was therefore expecting something a bit preachy and hot-headed, which is what put me off reading The Spiral Dance for a long time.

Having finally read it, I think those criticisms are rather unfair.  Yes, there is a feminist agenda, but Starhawk is careful always to relate feminism back to the ideas of Goddess-worship rather than focussing primarily on the political and social aspects of the movement. She sees the re-emergence of Goddess-worship as a way for women to love and value themselves as women, despite what society might say about them otherwise. To love and honour one’s self is to love and honour the Goddess, and vice versa. And I thought Starhawk was quite careful to avoid any kind of man-bashing; she talks about the more radical form of Dianic Wicca but does not advocate it and she makes sure the Great God has plenty of attention even though the main subject of the book is the Goddess. Indeed, on paths that exclude a Male force, she states, “A female-only model of the universe would prove to be as constricting and oppressive to women as well as men, as the patriarchal model has been.” Moreover, she stresses that feminism is not about creating a society that merely benefits women more, but men too – her view is that men suffer just as much under a society that overemphasises competition, dominance and other aggressive qualities that are considered good “masculine” virtues (I’ve always thought that it’s a shame feminism is called “feminism,” and not something like “equalitism” or “genderism” because its ideals apply to all genders).

Another thing that I was expecting was for the book to be very much essay-based and philosophical in tone. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that there’s a lot of practical material in here. It’s packed full of exercises in magic and meditation, chants and invocations, specific spells and herbal charms, which are all conveniently indexed at the front. This makes The Spiral Dance readily usable for the practising Witch. Some of the rituals for group work really appealed to me; I loved the idea of the “Word Association Trance” and saw how many of the other role-play type rituals would be quite therapeutic.

Finally, I liked Starhawk’s style of writing. It’s highly readable, friendly and positive, filled with sincere passion and warmth throughout. It’s poetic without being pretentious, instructive without being dense, deep without being impenetrable. It’s a pleasure to read.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

Several of the things I wasn’t so keen about in The Spiral Dance can be applied to lots of other books I’ve read on Paganism. Firstly, despite not been mentioned in the title, Wicca/Witchcraft (and not general Paganism) is the focus of this book. There is therefore a heavy focus on magic and coven work. If the title has lead to you expect a more general work on Goddess-worship with a broader focus than Witchcraft, you may find yourself a little disappointed (although I still found plenty here for non-Wiccan Pagans as well).

Secondly, I wasn’t keen on her presentation of her interpretation of Witchcraft history as fact – something I’ve criticised about other Pagan books previously. Much of the history of Paganism and Wicca is incredibly sketchy indeed, and I think it’s much better to present it as conjecture rather than absolute fact. Although, to Starhawk’s credit, she does mention this problem in the anniversary introduction, and what’s more, she stresses that witchcraft is a “religion of poetry, not theology,” and that all teachings (including historical) should not be considered absolute.

Finally, it’s a minor niggle, but I thought that the use of in-text asterisks together with footnotes at the end of each chapter was a little distracting and perhaps unnecessary. I’m sure there may have been a more elegant way of highlighting revisions from previous editions or including notes.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

More than anything, it’s helped me understand and appreciate the history of modern Goddess-worship and its socio-political significance. I also found it very affirming; Starhawk views Witchcraft as joyous, free and poetic, something I’ve always felt too. It also gave me plenty of ideas for future rituals.

Would I recommend this book to others?

Yes – although perhaps only to beginners, and then, only those with a specific interest in Goddess worship/Witchcraft as this is the main focus. This book is very much a primer on Witchcraft, so experienced Pagans might not find so much new material here, but for those new to the Craft, it’s a very good resource.

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Reflections on “Shinto: The Kami Way,” Sokyo Ono

ShintoKamiWayWhy did I choose to read this book?

This was one of the first books I read when I started getting into practising Shinto. I saw it appear on lots of recommended reading lists for Shinto so I thought Shinto: The Kami Way would be a good reference material.

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

Quite simply, it’s a concise introduction to Shinto first published in the 1960s, making it one of the older English-language books on Shinto out there. It includes its history, its characteristics both as a religion and as a socio-political construct, and of course descriptions on how worshippers practise their faith. Throughout the book there are photos and illustrations, which are really useful for those unfamiliar with Shinto.

What did I particularly like about it?

I really liked Dr Ono’s attitudes towards Shinto and how he presents the religion objectively and honestly. He’s very quick to dismiss common claims that Shinto is 100% Japanese, highlighting its many foreign influences, and doesn’t shy away from talking about the more unpleasant sides to the history (i.e. its use by the far-right). While he concedes that Shinto is a “racial religion,” he also concedes that “it possesses a universality which can enrich the lives of all people everywhere,” which is an encouraging message for the international Shinto community.

It’s also a very simply and gently-written book. Although its a book of academic significance, it’s clearly aimed at the general reader as well.

Finally, for such a small volume, this book manages to cover a surprising amount of material, from shrines to festivals to Shinto’s history.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

The only problem I had was the length – although it does cover a lot, I wish it could have been a little longer with a bit more detail! Especially for the rather high price.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

Shinto: The Kami Way mostly confirmed and reaffirmed some of the things that I already suspected about Shinto, for example:

  • People can be regarded as kami too
  • Performing one’s daily duties well is a form of kami worship
  • In contrast to Buddhism, Shinto is quite positive about material possessions and wealth – as long as they are desired and acquired for the benefit of the community
  • Shinto is taught and learned far more by direct experience (for example, attending festivals) than by preaching or texts
  • Shinto is an optimistic religion, holding that the world is inherently good

Would I recommend this book to others?

Definitely to those new to Shinto looking for a nice, clear, accurate introduction. Despite being such a little book, its importance to the world of international Shinto studies and its presentation of factual details probably makes it worth the cost.

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