We have now entered autumn, the month of reading according to the Japanese. Not sure what to read? Take a look at September’s reviews and see if any of them take your fancy – this month we even have a book by the managing editor of Patheos Pagan! [Read more]
Tag Archives: book review
Death, dark goddesses and urban folk religion are some of the common themes among the books reviewed this month…[Read more]
This month we take a look at one of Ronald Hutton’s most recent books; an older book on Shinto shrines; one of Paulo Coelho’s more witchy works; and a brand-new release by one of Patheos Pagan’s own writers! [Read more]
It must be near Beltane – this month’s reviews include not one but two books about the Green Man! There’s also a look at the widely-anticipated Godless Paganism and my own thoughts on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians…[Read more]
This month’s reviews include books on Celtic Paganism, Christo-Paganism, and a very new translation of a very old Shinto text…click here to read them all!
This month I’ve read…
- Pagan Planet: Being, Believing & Belonging in the 21st Century, ed. Nimue Brown
- Practical Candle Burning: Spells and Rituals for Every Purpose, Raymond Buckland
- Pagan Portals – Brigid: Meeting the Celtic Goddess of Poetry, Forge, and Healing Well, Morgan Daimler
- Tales of Unease, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (compiled by David Stuart Davies)
- The Face of Jizo: Image and Cult in Medieval Japanese Buddhism, Hank Glassman
- Whispers from the Earth: Teaching stories from the ancestors, beautifully woven for today’s spiritual seekers, Taz Thornton
This was an impulse buy from the discount bookshop near my office (cheap books on esoteric subjects can be hard to come by). It describes all the weird and wonderful religions of the world, from the well-known to very obscure, including Theosophy, Kabbalah, the Rosicrucians, Satanism, and of course Paganism (although Paganism is hardly a “secret” religion these days). There’s a lot of historical detail, making this book a handy reference for those interested in the subject, although it is written in a somewhat bare-bones tone. On the other hand, I very much appreciate that the author has not been tempted to go down the sensationalist route, giving objective and neutral accounts of each religion, and being keen to stress that “esoteric” does not equal “cult.” His treatment of the various Pagan religions seemed accurate to me (and the author seems to have a particular affection for Paganism), and it’s great to see the history of how the Pagan Federation and other groups formed. I also liked Barrett’s celebration of Paganism as a diverse yet cohesive movement: “It is arguable that one of Neo-Paganism’s greatest strengths is its diversity. Although there is sometimes rivalry and mutual criticism between different traditions and groups of Neo-Pagans…there is probably far more commonality between them, and mutual support in the face of opposition, than there is between the many variations and offshoots of Christianity.” Finally, I approved of his reminder to tolerate and respect those whose beliefs may seem kooky to others: “It is important to accept that members of these [UFO] movements believe in the extraterrestrial origin of the messages given to them, just as Mormons believe in Joseph Smith’s golden plates, and Christians believe that the Creator of the Universe became a man of thirty-three years; they should not be dismissed as ‘UFO nuts.’ They are normal, intelligent people; their belief is genuine , and their religions are worth as much attention as all the others in this book.” Admittedly, much of the information found in this book could probably be found online; but it is good to see it presented in such an unbiased and balanced manner as it is in this book.
Natural Magic, Doreen Valiente
Doreen Valiente is one of the most important figures in Paganism, so I thought it was important to read her works. Despite its title, Natural Magic is not so much about working with nature as it is a little guidebook to various aspects of witchcraft, including herbs, working with the four elements, and sexual magic. Valiente’s writing style is lively and engaging (it reminds me a little of Rae Beth), although I felt that this book was a bit of a slow start – this might simply be because I’ve now read quite a few introductory books on witchcraft and much of the content is similar. It’s worth persevering though as there’s lots of interesting content – for me, the highlights were the sections on talismans, dream magic, weather magic, and cartomancy using ordinary playing cards. It is quite a slim read though, and more experienced witches will probably chew their way through it very quickly. Probably best for beginners.
Witchcraft Today – 60 Years On, ed. Trevor Greenfield
**Book of the Month!**
This book was released in celebration of the 60th anniversary of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today, one of the most important Wiccan texts, as a documentation of how far witchcraft has evolved in those 60 years. Admittedly I still haven’t read Witchcraft Today so I was worried that this book might contain a lot of analysis of the original that would go straight over my head, but in fact, aside from the introduction, 60 Years On does not really talk about the original. It is instead a collection of short essays by individuals within witchcraft (some well-known, some unknown), talking about their particular path and what it means to them. Although this book lacks practical information (it isn’t intended to be a reference book for magic or for factual information about different forms of witchcraft), I found it inspiring. I enjoyed all the individual approaches displayed by each author – not only in their practise of witchcraft itself, but also in their writing style. Each account is personal, idiosyncratic, and honest. My favourite essay was probably Rick Derks’ description of Hekatean Witchcraft; not only am I particularly drawn to Hekate, but I found this the best-written out of all the essays, with an excellent bibliography to help out those looking to find out more about Hekate. I also found the section on Dianic Wicca fascinating, specifically because this form of radical feminist Wicca is the least known to me. I’ve never met anyone from this path so it was interesting to be able to find out more about what Dianic Wiccans think about their path. Finally, it was great to see that Kevin Groves, a fellow member of Medway Pagans, had also contributed to this book! It was a great reminder that, although Paganism continues to grow all the time, it’s still quite an intimate and friendly community. Witchcraft Today – 60 Years On succeeds well in celebrating Gardner’s legacy, and gives a fantastic insight into the personal thoughts and feelings of contemporary witches.
The Story of Bacchus, Andrew Dalby
** Book of the month!**
Another book I pinched borrowed from my Dad’s collection. It’s a novella-length “biography” of the Greco-Roman God of Wine, Bacchus, drawing from the original ancient sources of his mythology. All the major episodes of Bacchus’ life are here – his conception and birth, his upbringing among the nymphs and satyrs, his creation of wine, and his many encounters with mortals. Dalby does a great job of stitching together these separate accounts into a flowing, chronological narrative, and what’s more, he pairs his romantic, and often humorous, re-tellings of the stories with historical analysis and interpretation. One would think that this result in a confused or distracting text, but amazingly it works well. I really enjoyed it, and it certainly made me more interested in this deity. I can imagine it being a source of inspiration and knowledge for any modern-day Maenads!
I have to admit – the main reason I bought this book was because someone posted the cover art on a Pagan-related Facebook group, and I loved it. There’s something almost Miyazaki-esque about the colour, lighting and subject matter. That’s what prompted me to track down this fantasy novel. But you know what they say…never judge a book by its cover, and sadly, this book was a good example of this rule for the most part. Although the blurb describes it as a fantasy novel about magical forests and ancient gods, there’s rather little of this in the book. Most of it is focussed on a rather dull story of Mafia warfare and an equally dull family caught up in it all. The more fantastical parts of the novel are quite interesting, taking direct inspiration from Pagan ritual, worship of the Horned God and the concept of the resurrected Green Man but they are completely overshadowed by the aforementioned main plot. Disappointing, I’m afraid to say. Still, that cover though!
I bought this while getting Christmas presents at the fantastic Hedingham Fair online shop; I have a particular fondness for the Green Man but haven’t read books specific to him (apart from Greenmantle above). This is one of these books made by a small publishing house, and it feels it – it’s cheaply printed and bound and the text inside is amateurishly written, poorly edited and riddled with typos. Thankfully, there’s also something charming and nice about it – with its friendly tone and focus on local traditions, it feels very British. For such a little book, it’s also got a surprising amount of varied content on the subject of the Green Man, including legends, guides on local churches and landmarks where Green Men can be found, rituals for honouring the Green Man, craft ideas, and even the full script for a short Mummer’s play featuring the Green Man. I additionally liked the attention paid to the Green Man within Christianity – I much prefer it when Pagan texts emphasise the links between Paganism and Christianity rather than focussing solely on the differences. It may not be a slick product, but for lovers of the Green Man, this book would probably make a welcome addition to a collection of literature about this mysterious figure.
This little book is a nice introduction to Shinto. Mainly aimed at newcomers to Shinto, I still like reading introductory books to Shinto even though I’ve read quite a few now because you always get some new perspectives on the faith. Understanding Shinto gives a lot of historical context on Shinto and what’s interesting is that it looks at some of the important, influential figures within Shinto, which is somewhat unusual. It also has some interesting insight into the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and the role of Shinto in Japanese beliefs in death and the afterlife. It’s also beautifully presented with full-colour illustrations and photos on almost every page. It’s just a shame that it’s so short. It’ll leave you wanting more.
This really more of a bound essay than a book – you can read it very easily in one sitting. Herbert investigates the beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons, drawing from the writings of Roman settlers, the Venerable Bede, and texts of the Anglo-Saxons themselves (runes and Old English a-plenty). It’s a very detailed, interesting and academic piece, but due its length I can’t help but think the general reader would find this more appealing as part of a larger collection of essays on Heathenry, rather than as a stand-alone essay.
A Popular Dictionary of Shinto, Brian Bocking
Exactly what it says in the title – an A-Z of Shinto-related, Japanese terminology. I flicked through the whole book, which was very interesting and meant I discovered a lot of new aspects of Shinto, such as obscure kami and practises. Generally, I thought the explanations were pretty good – clear and easy to understand. But there were two things I thought could have been added to improve it. Firstly, it could perhaps do with a few simple illustrations to help those unfamiliar with Shinto tools and architecture; this is pretty common in Japanese dictionaries. Secondly, there isn’t a single Japanese character in the whole book. I thought this was a considerable oversight – the kanji used to write Japanese words is very important, especially in matters pertaining to religion. Including kanji for each entry should have been an obvious thing to do, and would have greatly aided understanding for those who can read Japanese (and there’s a lot of non-Japanese people interested in Shinto who can).
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).
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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]