The cooler nights and rainy days of April have left us lots of time to get our teeth into some books. Welcome to the April edition of Committee Reads.
Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage by Dion Fortune
One of my favourite bits of Terry Pratchett’s near-infinite wisdom is his lovely summing up of the differences between wizards’ and witches’ magic. Pratchett genders it, not entirely without good reason (and in keeping with the laws of the Discworld), and it goes thus:
“It’s the wrong kind of magic for women, is wizard magic, it’s all books and stars and jommetry. She’d never grasp it. Whoever heard of a female wizard?… “Witches is a different thing altogether… It’s magic out of the ground, not the sky, and men never could get the hang of it.”
As we all know, here on the round world, sans turtles, gender is less proscribed in terms of practice, but I’ve never been able to shake the beautiful grain of truth in Pratchett’s summation of the differences between what is essentially “witchcraft” ™, and what is essentially Ceremonial Magick. Nobody lynch me; pith is pith, and I’m not trying to pith anyone off here.
Getting to the point, though, reading this constantly reminded me of that Pratchett quote. That is because the book reads like this:
“The esotericist does not use the term ‘sex’ as we do; he speaks of ‘life-force’, which he conceives to be an energy of an electrohydraulic type, a radiating and magnetising vibratory activity, similar to electricity, to which it is very closely related, yet capable of compression and of exercising pressure after the type of water-power.”
Now, I like reading technical manuals. In my last job I used to have to read a lot of them, many of them from the 19thC. I also like reading old books, and the comparative formality and verbosity of older prose is a thing of pleasure to me. And I like reading alchemical and Hermetic texts. You’d think that finding one book that was the stylistic lovechild of all three of these things would thrill me beyond measure, but in actuality it was, to be honest, about as enjoyable as combining sauerkraut and maple syrup (both of which I love, but ew). I feel guilty and slightly ashamed describing the work of the great Dion Fortune in such a way, so go ahead and call me a philistine and I’ll wear that – but honestly, it was an awful lot like what I’d imagine reading “Kent’s Mechanical Engineers’ Handbook” would be like, if Kenneth Salisbury just happened to be tackling the Great Work and the Alchemical Wedding. I’m tempted to deposit this on the shelf next to the two volumes of Kent’s, and at some point attempt to make a diesel-powered version of the Seven Planes of Manifestation of the monad, and see if it makes a decent engine for a Spitfire.
This book was written in 1924, so I was fully prepared for the attitudes towards gender being a product of their time, and utterances such as “One of the principal causes of trouble in unmated women is the stagnation and staleness of their unused life-forces…” came as no huge surprise, but it still jars to read of abortion as “murder”, and that same-sex sexual stimulation leads to “mental breakdown”, and that the practitioner will “give himself over unreservedly to evil”. At least Fortune and I can agree that “contraceptives are better than nervous disease”. Because, well, they are.
I’ve read reasonably widely on gender, sexuality, and the occult, and I can honestly say that so far, while I have no issue with the basic philosophical crux of this book, it’s not saying anything particularly groundbreaking in the greater narrative of Western Mystery Tradition, and the engineering-manual prose and outdated social notions made it so far the least enjoyable book on the subject that I have read. All in all I prefer poetry and metaphor to jommetry. Sorry, Dion.
Spirits of the Sacred Grove by Emma Restall Orr
Part autobiography, part community snapshot and part whimsy, this book gives the reader a look into the author’s world at each of the High Days.
Orr’s writing is intelligent and descriptive, and her portayals of the seasons in England and Wales make me want to pack a suitcase and visit the UK tomorrow. I also drew some easy parallels between the highs and lows of her local Pagan community and some of the things we experience here in Australia.
That said, I did find some parts a little jarring. Discussions of spirit and ancestor guides did at times feel more like someone discussing imaginary friends, and this distracted me from the narrative.
I still really enjoyed Spirits of the Sacred Grove, and would recommend it to anybody interested in Druidry or Paganism and how it fits into this modern world. Ideally, I would recommend it to those who have been around for a while and are able to take it with something of a grain of salt.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
This month I’m doing another re-read, of a series close to my heart.
This the third book in the series follows the adventures of Harry, Ron and Hermoine as they face their third year at the magical school of Hogwarts in the wilderness of Scotland.
The story continues to capture the imagination and put readers into another world filled with wonder.
Prisoner of Azkaban is the last of the shorter books in the series as JK began to write longer and longer books after this which ties in well with the transition from childhood to adolescence that begins in this book.
I cannot recommend the series enough, probably out of a sense of nostalgia, they are a thoroughly enjoyable read nonetheless.
Even amidst the madness that has been March, we’ve somehow found time to read! Welcome to the March edition of Committee Reads. 🙂
A Book of Beasts by Nigel Pennick and Helen Field
I have to admit I’m a bit of a sucker for anything Capall Bann publishes; this is another of Nigel Pennick’s “overview” books (I reviewed his “Book of Primal Signs” last month). As an overview of animal lore, it’s one of the best books I’ve seen, drawing on more interesting folklore, historical practice and myth than the usual books of its kind.
Personally I’d have liked a bit more detail, but it feels a little churlish to be peeved about that because it *is* an overview, rather than an in-depth study of specific animals, and it does do what it says on the box – and provides some interesting directions for further study. 217 pages long, with 11 chapters on topics such as: Medieval bestiaries, Beasts and the Gods, Animal Powers, Ritual Guising, Beasts in European Fighting Arts, Witch Animals, Animals as Mantic Assistants, and Remedial Beasts, plus others. If you’re interested in animal lore, this is a cut above what’s generally available, and Pennick includes a seven-page bibliography of primary and secondary source material to guide further reading.
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson
One of those personal accounts of suffering used as a vehicle to make a point, it gives the reader that perfect blend of schadenfreude humour and feelings of solidarity.
It’s a rambling mess of a book peppered with a few genuinely valuable insights about radical self-acceptance, journey, and growth. No naff exercises to ignore or cures to try, just perspectives on how to learn to live with, around and in anxiety.
The kind of book to read in the bath while trying not to panic over all the things one should be doing instead of taking a bath.
How to Make and Use Talismans by Israel Regardie
(ISBN: 0 85030 093 2)
At 63 pages, this little text is a nice introduction to talismans from a Ceremonial Magic perspective, written by one of the greatest authors on the Golden Dawn (and intimate of Aleister Crowley). Chapters include: 1. Origin of Talismans; 2. How To Overcome Unfavourable Aspects; 3. Words of Power; 4. Talismans of the Five Elements; 5. A Practical Example; 6. How To Charge The Talisman. It’s short and sweet; this is a subject to which thousands of pages can easily be devoted, but this is a good introduction to the basics, clear and brief, but not lacking in serious content.
Rockspider by Vikki Petraitis and Chris O’Connor
**Content warning**: this book contains discussions of some of the most vile paedophile cases in Australia.
The author of this book Vikki Petraitis worked closely with Dective Senior Sergeant Chris O’Connor from the Child Exploitation Squad who is considered a national and international expert on the subject matter.
In this book she has achieved a harrowing insight into how these predators work, the tools they use and how to combat them. As a teacher part of her goal is to arm parents and guardians with the knowledge to protect their loved ones from behaviors such as grooming.
What is good about this book is the way that at the end of each chapter Vikki and Chris have what they call an ‘In Context’ section where they talk about aspects of the MO of each offender and what has been done since to try and fix the problem but also suggests things to consider keeping an eye out for to protect loved ones.
Why did I read this book? To be honest I read this book because of the chapter called ‘The Satanist’ which refers to a case close to our own community and to understand how it was viewed and dealt with by law enforcement professionals at the time.
What is bad about this book is the depth to which that it pushes you out of your comfort zone, the fact that each chapter is dedicated to a real life case from Australia, and the nauseous feeling that I had everytime I picked it up.
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Not really Pagan, but it’s been a huge month for the PCV and even we need a break from Paganing. This one had been languishing in the tsundoku pile for an awfully long time and was finally liberated on the grounds that I needed the literary equivalent of a nice cup of tea – and I loved the BBC adaptation of this book, with its quietly stellar cast led by Judy Dench.
Originally published in 1853, Cranford brings to life an imaginary mid-19thC English country village and its mostly-female population, with deft, economical prose and affectionate wit. Gaskell was a revolutionary at the time, writing about matters of class and social divisions, and devoting much of her life to humanitarian work. Her writing is no less engaging for this, and Cranford is a sometimes-sharply loving portrait of a disappearing rural way of life, populated with characters as warm as the candlelight they live by. If this sounds like your literary cup of tea, read it and watch the series. It’s a gem.
Layla, Queen of Hearts by Glenda Millard
Again, this book is not especially Pagan per se, but I am in love with this series and would recommend it as a warm, nurturing bedtime story for people of all ages. Just like the preceeding book, The Naming of Tishkin Silk, Layla: Queen of Hearts is written in Millard’s signature whimsical style and revisits the wonderfully unconventional Silk family and their rambling rural property, known as The Kingdom of Silk. Even though this is a book written for young people, the author does not shy away from themes of love and grief, exploring them in a mature and accessible way. The small-town setting and descriptions of rolling hills, orchards and the red dirt of back roads were very familiar to me as someone who lives in rural Central Victoria… So much so that I was hardly surprised when I later learned that the author is from here originally.
The Orphan’s Tales: in the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
(ISBN: 0553384031 )
I was brought to the attention of the work of Catherynne Valente by two of SJ Tucker’s albums where she reads excerpts and sings songs based on the tales in this book (and it’s sequel In the Cities of Coin and Spice). The excerpts and songs were so captivating, alluring and evocative that they bought so many highs and lows of emotion that I had to try the actual source material.
In the Night Garden introduces us to the world and concept of the interconnecting tale, a story within a story.
Valente paints such vivid pictures in her tales of characters, locations and draws us into a place of pure imagination, where we cannot help but feel connected to the tale and see and feel the story unfold before our eyes.
The tales hold a beautiful link to mythology and are so beautifully written that it is a pleasure to read.
I cannot recommend this highly enough, nor listening to the works of SJ Tucker that are drawn from this source material.
When Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Winner of two prizes at the Premier’s Literary Awards earlier this year, When Michael Met Mina tells the story of Michael, the son of a right-wing anti-Islam spokesperson and Mina, who fled Afghanistan with her mother via a refugee camp, a leaky boat and a detention centre. While this premise has the potential to produce two-dimensional characters and a formulaic storyline, this novel really hits hard, with a beautifully complex investigation of the characters’ fears and hopes, and a very relevant look at the reception different cultures and religions receive in Australia today.
The February edition of what the bookish, bookly booknerds of your committee have been reading. 🙂
The Book of Primal Signs by Nigel Pennick
There are plenty of books of symbols out there, mostly very similar and simply covering the basic appearance and meaning of symbols of various cultures. This isn’t one of those. Pennick, an academic and prolific occult author, explores the historical and occult use of 39 specific glyphs in some depth, explaining their evolution and their place in the Western Mystery Tradition. Illustrated with over 300 pictures, and extensively referenced, this is a good volume for further reading on specific symbols, and a pleasure to dip in and out of, as I have been doing this last month. Symbols covered include: House Marks, Craftsman’s Marks and Sigils, the Tree of Life, the Rose, the Heart, the Hexflower, Plaits and Knots, the Eye and the Peacock, the Sigils of Mammon, the Eight-Spoked Wheel, and many more.
The Real Witches’ Garden by Kate West
This month I am re-reading a Kate West book, a fairly prolific UK based author on Witchcraft who has written a number of other books in The Real Witches’ series including – The Real Witches’ Kitchen, The Real Witches’ Coven and The Real Witches’ Book of Spells and Rituals.
Kate has not laid out a tome of how to garden, filled with methods of composting, times to prune and plant, etc. Instead what she has done is provided a method of activating the imagination and realising a way to work a bit of your tradition in to your life and your garden.
The book takes a look at a variety of styles of garden and lifestyles and discusses ways to incorporate a bit more craft into these. She strives to offer a practical approach for everyday pagans, whether they are renters or home owners, living in a small apartment or a larger allotment.
One of the things I really like about this book is the realistic approach she encourages to cultivating your own witches’ garden. Kate encourages people to factor in their time commitments, and lifestyle, rather than shooting for the idealistic thatched roof cottage with a large rambling garden filled with various plants that can be used for healing, or other aspects of their path.
For beginner gardener’s this might need to be followed up with some books from the Diggers Club range or something similar. While it isn’t an instruction manual of how to get from point a to point b, what it does is kindle the imagination and give ideas for the reader to get started, a launching pad if you will into the realm of possibilities.
The Saga of the Volsungs translated by Jesse L Byock
For mythology fans, Heathens and fantasy lovers this is a fantastic read. The Saga of the Volsungs is one of the sources that has inspired generations of creators with its high fantasy seeming elements.Some of the notable inspired creators are – Wagner when he composed the Ring cycle in the 1800’s, and William Morris and JRR Tolkien in their writing works.
It is a compelling tale that spans about 76 pages, however, depending on the copy you buy you get a nice introduction giving you history and background of the area, time and the writings as well as pages of endnotes that provide valuable clarifications.
If you like epic feats, dragon slaying and magic artifacts in your stories then this is probably for you.
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
This is a fantasy novel I’ve felt compelled to revisit for some years now, and I’m glad I finally made the time. Holdstock’s exploration of psychological and mythological themes through the fantasy genre will intrigue anthro-nerds and Pagans alike. While this may be a fantasy novel, Holdstock certainly considers ideas such as how mythology, folktales and more contribute to collective and cultural consciousness – ideas which easily translate to the modern Pagan egregore.
Tales round the Cauldron by Paddy Slade
(ISBN: 186-163 0468)
Back in my teens, I got my first book on Paganism – Slade’s “Natural Magic”. A beautifully-illustrated gem of a “Pagan 101” book, it basically changed my life, since for the first time I found that a lot of the belief system I’d cobbled together from folklore, history, and mythology was a real, living, vibrant thing, practised by people all over the world. I hung on every word, bought more books, and proceeded down this path – and I can’t thank her enough.
Slade’s writing style is informal, conversational, but full of love and joy for what she does, and for the land she lives on. Whilst it sounds ridiculous in this day and age, when we can get a writer’s entire bibliography from one click, it never occurred to me to see if she had written anything else. So it was with a squeaky, nostalgia-soaked excitement that I found this because a friend was getting rid of it. Most books about Paganism are how-to, non-fiction books about witchcraft and/or spiritual practice; this is a collection of stories, parables and pathworkings, written from within the craft, and in Slade’s warm, fireside-tale authorial voice, making the title very apt.
It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you want to settle down somewhere cosy and immerse yourself in a few quiet moments, listening to a witch talk to her fellow witches, conjuring the sight of a fox in the moonlight, the imposing yet comforting presence of the Horned God, the feel of a plant coming into flower, then this may just make you very happy.
The Boundless Sublime by Lili Wilkinson
I read a lot of YA novels as part of my job, and none have stood out recently as much as Lili Wilkinson’s tale of a young girl seduced into joining a dangerous cult. Well-researched and thrilling, this story had me guessing right until the last chapter, and Wilkinson’s cult leader, “Daddy”, is particularly disturbing but extremely well written.
It was interesting to read later that the author grew up in a family with ties to Scientology. She presented her research to this book in a YouTube series titled Let’s Talk about Sects.
The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery
The third novel by the bestselling French author (and professor of philosophy) , this is a novel about the connections between mankind, art, and nature, in an ethereal fairytale set in Burgundy, Italy, and the elven world called “The Pavilion of the Mists”. It follows two young girls with elfin blood, raised by humans; Clara, who possesses considerable musical and clairvoyant gifts, and Maria, whose gift is communication with nature. Both are being prepared for the war that will follow the rising of a great evil.
Despite the fantasy-staple subject matter, this is far from cliché; Barbery’s language is exquisite, her musings on art, nature, creation and destruction are thoughtful and complex. It’s a beautiful read if you have time to allow yourself to be fully immersed, steeped in a very distinctly European magic-realism.
You may miss your stop if you’re reading it on the train. You may not care.
Just as we used to do in the old newsletters, our lovely and bookish committee will be posting here on our new blog a monthly roundup of what we’re reading (or re-reading!)
A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones & Nigel Pennick
This book takes you on a fascinating journey through European history and how different cultures and religions affected each other and the influences and practices that carried through and the role they played.
A Suggestive Inquiry Into The Hermetic Mystery by Mary Anne Atwood
After re-reading Lyndsay Clark’s wonderful novel, “The Chymical Wedding” recently, I finally picked up the work which inspired it. Published in 1850, “A Suggestive Inquiry” is notable not only for being a seminal work on alchemical philosophy, and for being written by a woman in the 19thC, but also for its back-story; it was written as an introductory companion volume to the intended magnum opus of Atwood’s father, and he published it without reading the manuscript first. When he finally read the published book, he claimed that it revealed too many Hermetic secrets, and withdrew or purchased back every copy of the book, and burnt them all, along with his unfinished great work. Only a handful of copies survived, and it is from these that the book was finally reissued, nearly 70 years later. Not just a fascinating book but also a marvellous piece of alchemical history.
Pagan Portals: Australian Druidry by Julie Brett
A succinct look at adapting our craft to the Australian seasons and how. It looks at the wheel of the year, cycles and ways to be more in touch with the Australian landscape in our practice. It proposes new ideas for Australian practitioners and explores issues that I’ve seen posed in many an online forum.
Pagan Portals: The Morrigan – Meeting the Great Queens by Morgan Daimler
Morgan examines the aspects of Morrigan drawing upon academic texts (providing plenty of references) and historical sources and discusses the aspects of the Morrigan, the mythology and symbology behind them in a modern context using accessible language.
Her book is aimed at providing clear information for readers of all levels, and providing a source of information that is readily available.
At just on one hundred pages, it is not a long read by any stretch of the imagination but Daimler crams an awful lot into those pages and I feel that I got value from the $4 I paid for it on the Kindle store.
Someplace to be Flying by Charles De Lint
Urban fantasy mixing Celtic and native American mythology; taxi driver Hank is drawn into the world of the Animal People from the dawn of time, after rescuing photographer Lily from a mugging one evening – they are both rescued in turn by ‘The Crow Girls’, and their reality will never be the same.
I have a love-hate relationship with De Lint; so much irks me about his writing, but I still somehow really enjoy his stories. This is probably the best-written, in my opinion, of the ten or so of his that I have read, and the story, cast of characters, and the world in which it is set (it’s one of his Newford books) are engaging and involving. A lovely, relaxing, escapist holiday read.
The Virgin in the Garden by A.S.Byatt
I’m less than 100 pages into this, but I’m enjoying it. I loved Possession and liked Angels and Insects and this is classic Byatt; filled with sly asides, literary allusions and metafictional devices. A little drier and more domestic (so far) than the other two mentioned above, but clever and a pleasure to read. It’s the first of Byatt’s “Frederica” quartet, and centres around a play written about Queen Elizabeth I, in the same year Queen Elizabeth II is crowned; those involved orbit each other with a mixture of tensions, both personal and aspirational.
The Wise Man’s Fear: The Kingkiller Chronicle Day Two by Patrick Rothfuss
In the sequel to the acclaimed Name of the Wind the reader continues to follow the tale of Kvothe on his adventures, learning more of his past and how he came to be an innkeeper in a small village in the middle of nowhere after being such a famous adventurer.