Hunker down by the fire with us and check out the bookish winter warmers we’ve been enjoying this month.
What has this book got to do with Paganism? Nothing, really, and everything.
Because our Real Lives inform our relationship with our divinities, and vice versa, and because understanding ourselves is a key part of growth, both spiritual and temporal. Because everyday, practical wisdom is the heart of witchcraft. And because our understanding of gender is at the heart of every aspect of our culture; for those of us who include both goddesses and gods in our personal or traditional pantheons, engaging with ideas of gender which have been inherited from earlier mythologies, is part of our understanding of our gods, our culture, and ourselves.
I’ve been a pagan, mixing with pagan folk for about 30 years, and our culture can be extraordinarily problematic sometimes; binary gender ideas, and a tendency to romanticise old-to-ancient cultural gender tropes, has led to some of the less pleasant and more challenging moments for me in the pagan scene, and so I do unreservedly recommend books on culture and gender in the ‘secular’ world to all pagans, irrespective of how you feel about feminism.
If you’re already on board with this, then read this book (if you haven’t already). It’s engaging, clear, passionate, deeply relatable, well-informed, and sometimes very funny. You may, like I did, see yourself in Ford’s journey, and find yourself understood, encouraged, and validated by her words.
If you don’t think this book is for you because you don’t approve of feminism, or just don’t care, or think it’s going to be a politically-correct buzzkill, then you should probably read this book. It’s not going to be as bad as you think, because Ford, despite her reputation in the dingier corners of the internet (you know, the corners full of fedoras and neckbeards and people who thought Gamergate was actually about ethics in game journalism), doesn’t hate men, has a lot of compassion, and makes a lot of sense. All the men I know who have actually read this book really liked it. I’ll take this opportunity to also unreservedly recommend Cordelia Fine’s excellent “Delusions of Gender”, which is an absolutely kickarse primer in how gender is socially constructed, and also happens to be a marvellously engaging read.
The book is a collection of essays, interviews and articles from non-theistic pagans exploring the different aspects of being a godless pagan. The book is diverse, thought provoking and often quiet inspiring. The writers explore topics as diverse as scientific paganism, emotional pantheism, faith in the earth, non-liiteral deities, non-theistic pagans in history and most importantly, the godless pagan’s place in the broader pagan community.
It’s Winter. What that means in a practical sense is that I make a lot of tea and soup, and sit by the heater at night reading cosy books about English Paganism to kid myself that Winter is actually a necessary part of the wheel of the year, and not personally out to get me and make my life a misery. As far as coping mechanisms go, it’s a relatively harmless one and I make pretty good soup. And I end up with a lot of my bookshelf real estate occupied by Capall Bann publications like this one. Now you know my weakness; if I ever go on a mad rampage, you can throw a random Capall Bann title down in front of me and I shall be pacified.
So yeah, this book. It’s quirky, and charming, and surprisingly salty, despite its “Oprah’s Book Club” style cover (no one would mistake this for, say, a Three Hands Press or Troy publication). Like, really quite salty, in a “oh no she didn’t” sort of fashion. Here are a few examples, from the “Types of Pagans” chapter:
“For every ounce of hereditary witch, you can have several pounds of pretend ones. The pretend ones are much better at it than the real ones who do not tend to be half so impressive.”
“[The Hedge Witch] is one of those ancient phenomena that has cropped up recently…”
“It used to be really hard to be a shaman. You needed to talk with spirits and to have travelled in their realms, rather too closely for most people’s comfort. It is a lot easier now… The shaman’s staff tends to be covered in feathers, beads, rabbit bones and if they are really into it a goat skull that a mate of theirs found in an antique shop in Clapham.
Unfortunately most shamans are not shamans. I am reliably informed that real shamans work with spirits and aim to help people in the community.”
“The Faery Tradition: Members of this group are characterised by the inability to spell the word “fairy”.”
“Their gods are the Norse gods, who they claim are not really chauvinistic.”
“Druids are different from Wiccans. I do not know how, because I have never managed to get one to make sense yet.
It takes years to become a Druid and I guess I just cannot find one who is old enough to ask. One told me that it involved him growing his hair and wearing a leather thong round his neck while another said he had not finished the course yet.”
And so on, you get the idea. It’s illustrated throughout with drawings by the author; enjoy the one below. I warmed to her wry sense of humour, even when her observant wit was turned on my sort. Further along, Day turns her pen towards matters of practical witchcraft and spirituality, and, with a conversational, down to earth, and humorous wisdom, she covers these very effectively. This is staying on the bookshelf (not heading down for a trade at my local second-hand joint), and while it’s not a comprehensive “how-to”, like, say Buckland’s, it’s got the spirit of how-to nailed down fairly nicely. And it goes jolly well with soup and tea.
Well researched with a healthy reference section and glossary, this is a useful and accessible handbook for ecclectic pagans with a beginner’s interest in astronomy to further their practice.
Although someone Northern-hemisphere centric, it’s packed with useful information, diagrams and interesting little tidbits of history and lore. Lighthearted and easy reading, a great start for anyone looking for an introduction to the utility of learning the night sky.
This book while slightly older (published in 1968) is still quite useful. It delves into the historical evidence in Europe to help gain insights into the Druids. His observations on the human psyche and the romanticised notions about Druids that have sprung up with little basis in empirical evidence are interesting and somewhat illuminating. He consults literary sources such as the writings of Julius Caesar to help bring the observations of outsiders to bear and understand how this aligns with archaeological finds. Throughout the book, his main goal is factual information, not idealised notions. Although there have been new digs found in the years since this book was written and new theories have emerged this is still a valuable source of information, well researched and presented. The writing style is clear, concise and accessible. Well worth a look.
In this sequel to Captive Prince, which I reviewed last month, former prince Damen travels with prince Laurent to the borders of his former homeland. While I found the first book a little slow-moving, I really enjoyed the complexities of the political intrigue and alliances in this second book. Damen is drawn closer and closer to dangerous, calculating Laurent but the secrets of both men muddy the waters and complicate things almost to breaking point. Both characters become far less two-dimensional as we learn more about their pasts. This book is probably not for everyone but it’s a healthy dose of well-written, homegrown queer fantasy. Bonus points if you risk the audiobook version, read by a particularly pervy-sounding American.
Book Review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson
Reviewed by Sarah Morgan
“You cannot walk here and feel you are alone. Those who are born here are branded by Pendle. They share a common mark. There is still a tradition, or a superstition, that a girl-child born in Pendle Forest should be twice baptised; once in church and once in a black pool at the foot of the hill. The hill will know her then. She will be its trophy and its sacrifice. She must make her peace with her birthright, whatever that means.”
So begins Jeanette Winterson’s novella about the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612.
Winterson, whose interest in the occult and Elizabethan magic has been a recurring theme throughout her career, wrote this story for the 400th anniversary of the trials, and blends well-researched history with local legend and her trademark poetical magic realism to weave a tale that includes not only the Pendle Witches and their accusers, but also John Dee, Edward Kelley and William Shakespeare. She explores the religious and sexual politics of the age, as well as the personal disputes that background the trials, and weaves those seamlessly with the high magic and folk magic of Elizabethan England; the pursuit of immortality and the perfected soul through the scientific magic of Alchemy, and the use of wortlore and cunning-magic to solve practical rural problems, through healing or harming. Winterson has done her research well, and captures the essence of these, finding a place where they meet without contradiction; the witch-trials become the Daylight Gate of the title – a liminal space between worlds, linking not only High and Low magic, but also a population caught between two Christianities, between the twin blasphemies of “witchery and popery”, between piety and superstition, love and fear, salvation and redemption, between fear of the Devil and old folk traditions, the restrictions of wealth and of poverty.
At this crossroads, history is written.
And she tells a compelling story in the process; Winterson brings 17thC Lancashire to life in all five senses, delighting in language without holding up the tale, and sacrificing neither magic nor realism in the telling. This is a brutally-real world in which magic exists. Teeth rain from the sky, a severed head talks. A background in the history of the Pendle Witches isn’t required, but those who have one can appreciate the historical accuracy and poetic license – and readers with an interest in Alchemy or pre-Gardnerian English witchcraft will find a lot to recognise as well. At 194 pages it’s a short read and a pleasurable one, and a fine introduction to Winterson’s work for a Pagan audience.
This piece first appeared in Volume 3, Issue 5 (Imbolc 2016) of our old newsletter, Spokes of the Wheel.
This month, we sunk our teeth into some witchy classics, as well as princes, werewolves and farming. We’re an eclectic bunch, really.
A seminal text in the development of the modern traditional European tradition and interest in the occult, Mastering Witchcraft is a comprehensive step-by-step guide to a range of useful tools and techniques with some ceremonial magic influences.
Although much of the information isn’t sourced and some of the content may be ethically disagreeable to a few readers, it is nonetheless candid, engaging and easy to follow.
At first some information might seem too outdated to be useful, but a surprising amount of substances such ‘roman vitriol’ (copper sulphate) can actually be found at your local hardware store.
A classic well worth reading for the serious beginner and experienced practitioner alike.
When I was a child I was obsessed with reading supernatural horror stories and the creature that would always capture my attention was the Werewolf; humans who change into animal form through magic and the lust of the flesh of other humans. The Book of Werewolves is the classic work on the lycanthrope and is jam-packed with curious folkloric accounts of murder, cannibalism, superstition and magic and contains all the classic tropes that the Werewolf is now known for.
Sabine Baring-Gould was a Priest and the book was first published in 1865 and rather than believe these accounts are genuine cases of magic, he believes that Werewolf accounts are caused by mental illness which was a enlightened view for a Priest to have at the time.
These two books, written from the 60s to the 80s and published by Llewellyn, are the work of an author more well-known for her poetry and works for children than her witchcraft; in fact, ‘mainstream’ reviews of these two of Worth’s books describe them as fanciful and whimsical works of fiction, written in the style of a bygone era.
Worth, born in 1933 in Pennsylvania, wrote prolifically, and published ten collections of poetry and three books for young people, as well as the two reviewed here. In 1991 she was given the Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children by the National Council of Teachers of English.
The Crone’s Book of Wisdom is a collection of spells, charms and rituals of magic and magical practice. Worth had interests in astronomy, herbal lore, and talismans, and the Book of Wisdom deals with all of these in an envisioning of the Craft which is not situated within any particular tradition (though it contains aspects which will be familiar to those with interests in Traditional and folkloric witchcraft, Wicca/Wiccanate NeoPaganism, and Ceremonial Magick).
– The Materials of Wisdom, which covers basic plant lore, working tools, robes, balms and tinctures, etc.
– Inscriptions of Power, in which Worth explores the creation and inscription of amulets and talismans,
– Thrice A Dozen Charms – a collection of spells for everything from binding an enemy, to procuring the moon’s aid, gaining immortality, winning love and affection, reveal truth, and break troublesome habits. Her instructions and correspondences are meticulous, and her incantations read beautifully in a combination of Latin and antiquated poetical verses.
– Ceremonies for the Year: twelve rituals for various times of the year, some of which correspond to the eightfold Wheel of the Year, and some which are lunar celebrations.
The Crone’s Book of Words is a collection of poetical spells and incantations. In Worth’s own words from her introduction:
“This book arises from certain premises: that words themselves are a means to emotional control over exterior phenomena; that magic today is the same weapon that it was, even though we lay hands on it in a new spirit, even though we are uncertain of its uses and wield it unwittingly or even unwillingly; that all rituals, ancient and new, spring from the same vision of a possible order to life, an order that heals and reconciles effectively by its very roots in mental process. The rituals, or spells, or poems – and these names can all stand for the same thing – that are set down here deal with aspects of experience at once too simple and too complex for any other approach.”
Worth’s writing is lovely and evocative; the charms and rituals are a pleasure to read, or to inspire a tone for crafting your own.
“White as an eggshell,
White as a bone,
White as chalk
Or the milk of the moon,
Is the written word
Of the ancient Crone,
Who works by wind,
Sun, water, and stone.”
This book is a delight for those that want to live a little bit more sustainably and independently. While not everything in this book is going to work for everyone there is a lot of great information to be had.
The chapter on poultry was a delight as someone who keeps chickens in their yard it was full of nifty tips. While the ideal scale that is aimed at in this book is for properties larger than your standard block, the principals are sound and there are plenty of ideas that could be scaled back or adapted to a suburban property.
The language is friendly and accessible in this book and doesn’t hide behind pretentious subtext. The author wants us to succeed, and that is clear in the way they communicate ideas and structure the book.
This one was recommended by a fellow dabbler in Queer fiction. I was drawn to it because the author is a Melbournian and hey, Queer fantasy. This is the first in a trilogy about the former prince Damen who, after getting betrayed by his brother, is sold into slavery to a neighbouring royal family. Damen is soon entangled in the intricacies of court politics and a play for the throne.
I found muscular, clever, brave and selfless Damen to be something of a Mary-Sue, but his new master Prince Laurent is like a handsome grown-up Draco Malfoy, but twenty times as vicious.
While quite graphic in places, Captive Prince was a good escape. For extra fun, get the Audible version read by the rather pervy Stephen Bel Davies.
Take a peek and what your intrepid PCV committee have been nerding out on this month.
Animism: Respecting the Living World by Graham Harvey
An interesting work that examines what animism is and how it plays a part in the lives of people and how they interact with the world around them.
Harvey explores the different definitions of animism, both positive and negative to help establish a brief history of the word and its usage before he delves into the pagan and new age views of animism.
He also spends quite a bit of time explaining why it is important to use the word animism instead of seeking a new title for it. In a nutshell to reclaim what he outlines as a mostly negative connotation associated with the word.
He does explore animism in several indigenous cultures around the world as well as those in the pagan paths, it makes for some interesting reading and at 212 pages is an accessible length exploration.
Circlework by Shan/House of the Goddess
I was lucky enough to find this in a secondhand bookshop recently. It’s one of the older books on pagan practice, published in 1987 by House of the Goddess in the UK, and it’s a lovely zine-style book, typed (rather than typeset), with the page numbers and chapter-headings hand-written, and lovely hand-drawn illustrations throughout. I’ll confess right now to an absolute weakness for publications like this, so I snaffled it up with barely a flip-through because it felt nice to hold.
It turns out this was a good decision, because it’s a beautiful book, written in a warm, informal, encouraging voice, with gentle, practical humour and a twinkle in the eye, as well as sound and meaningful ritual advice. It’s a beginners’ book, so don’t expect to go summoning the Elder Gods afterwards (because, you know, that’s what *all* the Advanced Paganism For Fancy Witches books teach you, right?); it’s more like a lovely one-on-one chat with a knowledgeable, wise, and understanding High Priestess. Honestly, I think every pagan’s library needs a few books like this and it’s a shame this one is kind of hard to find. If you can get your hands on a copy of this, do. It’s a valuable piece of Craft history, and it contains things like these “other examples of Pagan Law”:
Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon by Stephen R Wilk
This book is written in an accessible, conversational style, and like many conversations the author frequently goes off on odd tangents. These tangents are fortunately interesting and likewise entertaining, but they are substantially numerous.
Although the evolutionary path of myths is explored, it’s still a fairly dry, academic text which doesn’t delve far into speculation about meaning or cultural significance.
Well researched and mindful of the notorious fallibility of some ancient sources, it’s a thorough exploration of an enduring myth which continues to abound in popular culture today.
Secret Places of the Goddess: Contacting the Earth Spirit by Philip Heselton
This is a lovely meditation on finding sacred and magical spaces in nature. Heselton, author of the recent, excellent biography of Doreen Valiente, walks us through some of the sacred spaces of his homeland, whilst exploring the history and nature of sacredness in the landscape, how to engage with sacred space, how to take from them and how to give back to them. He explores woods, glades and groves, streams, springs and the sea, hills, boundaries, liminal spaces. He devotes chapters to the different times of day, the wheel of the year, how we experience nature through our senses, how to cast a circle outside, how to tend and care for sacred spaces.
The text is peppered throughout with well-chosen and evocative quotations from other authors, both pagan and literary; far from being simply a “how-to” book, this is a love-song to Nature and to the connection to the divine that we find when we open ourselves to Her. It is both personal and instructive, and while it is UK-centric, Heselton’s approaches and philosophies are all applicable to interactions with our local landscapes. This is a book I will keep coming back to; it’s rich and profound and a pleasure to read.
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
I was really underwhelmed by the recent TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s classic, American Gods, so last month I decided to revisit the novel itself, along with several others of a similar ilk.
Small Gods is one of the lesser known, lesser appreciated standalone Discworld novels. It tells the story of the acolyte Brutha and his adventures with the great god Om, whose power has dwindled so much due to lack of belief that he has been reduced to the form of a cantankerous one-eyed tortoise.
At surface level, this novel is an excellent parody of mainstream religions. Going deeper, I love the discussion of the nature of belief, religion and the gods themselves that Small Gods, along with Gaiman’s American Gods and the Pratchett/Gaiman masterpiece Good Omens, welcomes. That it’s done in Pratchett’s usual quick-fire, cerebral style is an added bonus.
Reviewed by Ryan McLeod
It’s a strange experience discovering a God or Goddess that is unfamiliar to you for the first time.
You may have come across them in a classical painting, a reference in a poem or a book on mythology it catches your imagination or has a spark of recognition. It encourage to find out more and search through obscure references books looking for the earliest of references and may even push you further explore the culture or history of the people that originally worshipped your new God. And that’s why it’s been such a pleasure to review Daughter of the Sun – A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Sekhmet.
Sekhmet is a Goddess I really knew very little about. The joy of this anthology is the diverse views and perspectives on the Goddess that that paints a such a vivid picture. Tina Georgitsis has done a stellar effort here as editor of this anthology consisting of such a diverse range of material this book is full of exciting stories, beautiful poetry and wonderful art. We are introduced to Sekhmet; A Goddess of the ancient Egypt pantheon. Sekhmet is a Goddess of many facets: Avatar of justice, warrior, healer, hunter and mother. You’ll will learn so much about the character of this Goddess throughout this anthology.
This book is filled with poetic inspiration and vividly paints a picture of Sekmet very much alive and radiating with power thousands of years later after the fall of Ancient Egypt. I thoroughly recommend you get copy Daughter of the Sun if you are familiar with Sekhmet you will find it an invaluable resource. If you are just learning about this Goddess for the first time like I am, it is a wonderful introduction.
This review first appeared in Volume 3, Issue 5 (Imbolc 2016) of our old newsletter, Spokes of the Wheel.
This month we thought we’d share some of our finds from the 2017 Clunes Booktown Festival and elsewhere. There will probably be more detailed reviews of some of these in coming editions of Committee Reads, but for now take a peek at the most recent editions to our reading piles…
Animism: Respecting the Living World by Graham Harvey – This book came highly recommended by members of the community, so I caved and purchased a copy.
Asimov’s New Guide to Science by Isaac Asimov – Asimov is a freaking genius and this was $2.
Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford – Got this signed by Clementine Ford, reason enough.
Pagan Consent Culture: Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy, edited by Christine Hoff Kraemer and Yvonne Aburrow – This is a recent release, and in the light of the recent discussions on community safety and consent in occult and pagan practice, it seems like a very interesting read, exploring different traditions’ philosophies of consent, as well as sexual initiation, community responses to abuse, education of children, mental health issues, and much more. It clocks in at over 500 pages and was very reasonably priced for all that. I’ve enjoyed co-editor Aburrow’s previous books, so this seemed like a must-read.
Here’s an excerpt from the introduction, to give you an overview of the contents:
“We have divided this anthology into three parts. In ‘Developing Pagan Philosophies of Consent’, the reader will find both tradition-specific and personal approaches to consent-based ethics. These essays show how Pagan lore and liturgy shape our writers’ understandings of consent, as well as how their ideals translate into real-world practice. Writers also tackle complex issues such as consent in a power differential, the ethics of sexual initiation, negotiating rape culture in traditional myths, and understanding sexual relationships with the gods.
Section Two, ‘Responding to Abuse and Assault’, focuses on the narratives and needs of survivors. In addition to personal narratives of abuse and healing, writers examine the kinds of situations that can hide abuse, as well as the circumstances under which whistleblowers may be disbelieved or ignored. These essays outline policies to help prevent sexual abuse and assault and to effectively respond to it when it occurs, as well as considering how abuse survivors might be better accommodated in community.
Finally, in ‘Building Communities of Autonomy and Empathy’, our writers provide resources for teaching and practicing consent culture. These essays include reflections on consent culture parenting, curricula and exercises for children and adults, practices for sacralising pleasurable touch in both groups and on an everyday basis, ethical approaches to teaching sacred sexuality and sex magick, and more.”
Pagan Rituals: Scripts and Inspiration for All Occasions by Willow Polson – In recent times it seems I’ve become a collector naff books of ritual. I am oddly okay with this.
Seed Collection of Australian Native Plants by Murray Ralph – This was essential.
The Art of Urban Sketching by Gabriel Campanario – I’ve always been a fan of this style of sketching and wanted to understand the principals better so this was an easy choice.
The Kabbalah Tree by Rachel Pollack – An introduction to the Tree of Life and the Sephiroth, by the author of ‘Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom’, and featuring art by Hermann Haindl. I’m not a serious student of Kabbalistic philosophy, but it is fascinating and profound, and this seems to be a decent exploration for someone with no background in the culture or philosophy.
Walking a Sacred Path by Dr Lauren Artress – This was a second-hand cheapie, and I’m wondering if it’s going to be a bit naff, but it has decent reviews from respectable publications, and I thought it might be worth a go, because labyrinths are interesting, ey.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin – This was another $1 Booktown bargain find. I bought it for my friend Kylie, who has been wanting to read the series for a while. I just love the eighties cover art.
Bottersnikes and Gumbles by S A Wakefield – Although I’ve been a fan for a long time, this edition has illustrations in it that my other edition did not.
Palimpsest and Deathless by Catherynne Valente – I bowed to peer pressure after a brilliant blog post by a friend, the constant rave reviews by people whose tastes I trust, and a song by SJ Tucker that made me cry. I’m almost scared to actually read them in case I can’t leave the house for days and can’t work because I’m lost in Valente’s worlds, but hey, I can always get another job, right?
Saltwater Vampires by Kirsty Eagar – I normally couldn’t give a toss about vampire fiction, being of the firmly-held belief that it reached its peak with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But with tales of vampires born from the wreck of the Batavia crashing a modern-day Australian music festival, I found it hard to turn this one down.
The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia A McKillip – This one was a gift from a friend this month. So far it’s strong, rich fantasy full of archeology and lyrical descriptions. Just my bag.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro – The author of the marvellous ‘Remains of the Day’ has set a novel in just-post-Arthurian Britain, featuring at least one knight of the Round Table. What’s not to love?
The Chosen by J R Ward – I bought this because I’m obsessed with the Black Dagger Brotherhood and this is the latest book in the series. BDB are one of my guilty pleasures. 😉
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper – I picked this up for $1 at Booktown. It was a great bargain and an edition/cover I hadn’t seen before.
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.