Book Review, OUCH: The Theban Oracle

August 24, 2014 by  
Filed under books, reviews

Book Review, OUCH: The Theban Oracle

The Theban Oracle
By Greg Jenkins, Ph.D.
Weiser Books, May 1, 2014
ISBN 978-1578635498
256 pages
Reviewer: Patrick Dunn
No starNo starNo starNo starNo star

This book is set on an intriguing foundation: take the symbols of the Theban alphabet, assign each to a famous occult figure, and use them for divination. This idea is so rich and interesting, it’s easy to imagine productively pondering the biography of some famous occultist, and trying to weave his or her life into your own in a relevant and meaningful way.

I wish I could say The Theban Oracle lives up to that very rich premise. But it just doesn’t. Worse, it pollutes the whole concept.

Greg Jenkins has plagiarized portions of The Theban Oracle. For example, in the entry on Paracelsus, we read

“At the age of sixteen, Paracelsus began his formal education at the university of Basel, where he studied alchemy, surgery, and medicine. . . . By adulthood, he had become known as the precursor of modern chemical pharmacology and therapeutics, and as the most original medical thinker of the century.” (134)’s page on Paracelsus has this to say: “At the age of sixteen, Paracelsus entered the University at Basle [sic] where he applied himself to the study of alchemy, surgery, and medicine” and “Manly Hall called him ‘the precursor of chemical pharmacology and therapeutics and the most original medical thinker of the sixteenth century.'”

If you have a Ph.D., and if you choose to advertise that fact on the cover of your book, and if you make a statement in the introduction about being “engaged in the task of scholarly research” (XI), then you do not get to copy people’s exact words and claim them as your own, whether those words come from the internet or a published book. And changing a few words around does not make it your own words. College sophomores know this. High-school freshmen know this, for goodness’s sake!

Sometimes the plagiarism is a little better disguised, such as here:

“By the late 16th century, when the plague gripped London Simon Forman remained to help the sick, while the doctors who condemned him fled for personal safety. This act of bravery, along with saving many lives, including his own as a result of his alternative medicines, would forever place his image in the light of god, in spite of the many insults he endured from his detractors” (116)

Compare with the Mysterious Britain website:

“When the plague gripped London in 1592 and 1594, Dr. Forman remained in the city whilst a great many members of the medical profession left. This act of courage (although other circumstances may have been behind his stay) aided his reputation, and during those days he saved many lives, including his own; After contracting the plague, Dr. Forman cured himself with his own medicinal waters, quite a feat and one that raised his profile in the eyes of the London people.”

That’s more subtle, certainly, but the ideas come in a particular order, and even the sentence-structure is similar. Rearranging the words of a sentence is not a valid paraphrase, and taking other people’s ideas without citation is, indeed, plagiarism.

Other times, it’s clear that the author has used the thesaurus to disguise the plagiarism, but of course as many a student learns, this is not the same as having your own thought, and can sometimes lead to some ridiculous prose:
From Alchemy Lab, again:

“This high-handed behavior, coupled with his very original ideas, made him countless enemies. The fact that the cures he performed with his mineral medicines justified his teachings merely served further to antagonize the medical faculty, infuriated at their authority and prestige being undermined by the teachings of such a “heretic” and “usurper.””

and from The Theban Oracle:

“By denouncing the revered works of Galen and the standard practice of medicine as a whole, as well as the teachings of his own university, he become [sic] so unalterable in nature that school officials and other authorities would come to consider him a heretic and a despot” (134).

“Despot” and “usurper” are, of course, synonyms — but that doesn’t mean they mean the same thing. Paracelsus might indeed have been seen has trying to usurp Galen’s place. I doubt anyone mistook him for an absolute ruler, which is what a despot is. It’s also likely that “unalterable” is a thesaurus substitution for the word “intractable,” which actually would make sense there. I suspect there are other sources, probably print sources, that I have not found.

When the author is writing his own prose, it is often turgid, sometimes bizarre. Take this example from early in the book: “In what appears to be a simple cipherlike code, and having no bearing in any known language, nor able to form the necessary elements to create verbiage as we might understand it, the alphabet has no other purpose other than to code common words” (21). I read that four times (five, as I copied it here), and I still have no idea what it might mean. A “cipherlike code” — well, a cipher is a kind of code, so does that just mean “cipher”? How does something have “no bearing in . . . “? Don’t things usually have a bearing on, rather than a bearing in, and moreover, what does that mean? Does that mean we can’t link it to a known language? But of course we can! It’s clearly meant to write Latin; it is essentially the Latin alphabet (with one highly impractical and unlikely punctuation mark). It certainly has the “necessary elements” to “create verbiage as we might understand it,” but I’m not sure that this author does.

This example of prose is representative of the whole. It’s not that the style isn’t very good — it’s not, being far too adjective-heavy, but I give that a pass. It’s that the style is nearly opaque to meaning. Words take on meanings they never have had before, and are put together in sentences that defy the laws of syntax. But I’d give all that a pass, with the exception of the plagiarism, which is unforgivable.

The real question is, how does it work? And the answer is — not terribly well. The biographical descriptions are oddly brief and lack detail: we’re told pretty much everyone was loved and honored, until murdered by someone or other, in a rather cavalier fashion, and then some pieties about how wonderful they were, unless they weren’t. There’s a general narrative thread of a liberal, proto-New-Age, gentle soul being savaged by poor, ignorant, usually Christian, fools. Historical facts are glossed over. It matters why the church killed Giordano Bruno, and it had little to do with his magical work. Sometimes minor facts are also changed. I always thought it was a snowstorm, not a thunderstorm, that sent Trithemius back to the monastery. If, of course, the author had cited his sources, I could perhaps find out that my memory is faulty. Similarly, the author makes it sound as if Pietro De Abano was forced to deny the existence of spirits by the inquisition, when of course he was actually charged with heresy for denying the existence of spirits and angels, which according to standard Catholic doctrine at the time, existed.

Every figure’s life is reduced to a few ideas or concepts, a kind of reductionism that might be a bit simplistic. Hypatia is, for example, “The Sovereign Female Spirit, Inward Wisdom, Search for Enlightenment.” The first one is obvious: she’s one of only three women in the whole alphabet. One other, Joan of Arc, is apparently “The Journey Ahead, Change, a New Development.” The third is Bethany (Bethany who? A citation would be more than handy here, since Googling reveals nothing). But why is Hypatia “Inward Wisdom”? Why not “Math”? And who in this list, with the possible exception of some of the frauds (whose fraudulent behavior is often glossed over), isn’t seeking Enlightenment of some kind? Moreover, why isn’t Joan of Arc something like “purpose” or “divine mission” or “absolutely insane”?

The author admits that there are just far too many “luminaries” to include, which is fair. But those sensitive to diversity at all will be disappointed by the inclusion of only three women and few people of color. This dead-white-man list might be due, in large part, to the time-period he has selected from which to draw the names of important figures; but since this time period stretches back to Hypatia, perhaps there could be room for one or two other important women, here or there. There’s also no clear rhyme or reason why certain figures are assigned to certain letters.

These last points — the lack of diversity, the inadequate biographies, the lack of citations, the impenetrable prose — are quibbles in the face of the plagiarism. It is possible for an author to be confused, to forget that a set of notes were copied verbatim rather than original, or just lose track of citations between drafts. This kind of carelessness is forgivable. However, when an author puts Ph.D. after his or her name, it’s a promise of a certain kind of intellectual training and carefulness. Even a Ph.D. may make an accidental slip. But a Ph.D. should know that you cannot use another author’s unique words or ideas without quotation marks and a citation, and you cannot use another author’s ideas without indicating their origin. Basic integrity demands that you do not make use of the work of another without giving them credit. Writing is hard work, and the products of that work deserve respect.

Zero stars.

Review ©2014 by Patrick Dunn

Book Review: Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World

October 16, 2013 by  
Filed under books, reviews

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Book Review: Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World

Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World: Spirituality, Ethics, and Transformation
By Crystal Blanton
Megalithica Books/Immanion Press, February 1, 2013
ISBN 978-1-905713-86-8
188 pages
Reviewer: Christopher Drysdale
StarStarStarStarNo star

Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World: Spirituality, Ethics, and Transformation by Crystal Blanton focuses on developing ideas of transformational healing within a Wiccan spiritual context. The book specifically deals with the crises, trauma, and grief that accompany everyday life.

The core of PFWW was developed through the integration of the author’s professional work as a counselor with her experiences as a Wiccan High Priestess trained in the Rising Phoenix tradition. It was birthed from her own needs in a time of crisis, and her personal stories of transformation give the book a backbone of authority.

“The differences between Wiccans and those who are not become very minimal when we are thinking of the impact that pain, loss, grief, transition, and death have on people. Religion, spirituality, and beliefs have been used throughout history to support living a fruitful life and maintaining balance.”

As Wicca grows and becomes more recognized, professional resources are becoming more necessary. While other long-established (and commonly monotheistic) religious traditions have their own spiritual and ritual practices regarding healing, these aspect of Wicca are presently being developed through the community’s practical experience and hard work.

Crystal Blanton takes the state of the field of therapy surrounding crisis, grief, and transformation, and applies it in a Wiccan context. The book is not only courageous, but a necessary step in understanding how Wicca integrates with all aspects of life.

Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World addresses a needed gap in Wicca-focused publishing. By virtue of the structure(s) of traditions, many lineaged Wiccans may find themselves at times in positions as de facto teachers, priests, and covenmates. They may be called to support and assist others who find themselves overwhelmed in times of crisis.

Solitary practitioners may also benefit from PFWW as well. All people face times of crisis, and Wiccans and Pagans are no different. All of us are sometimes called on to offer both compassion and comfort to those closest to us. And the image of truly isolated practitioners has fallen by the wayside in recent years; even solitary practitioners are often active parts of the larger Wiccan and Neopagan communities.

PFWW is not meant to replace professional guidance in times of struggle and grief. With its practical advice, however, it can and does open the path for leaders who find themselves needing to support someone in trying times. Although the book may act as a useful resource for therapists working with Wiccan clients, its main thrust is for the non-therapist — especially High Priestesses and High Priests.

The book is rounded out with illustrative and interesting personal anecdotes, not only from the author, but also from other contributors. Survivors of grief and trauma share their voices through these pages, speaking from their own Wiccan and Neopagan perspectives on transformational journeys from crisis to integration.

Although Crystal Blanton’s professional experience and training come across in her writing, you’ll find that Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World itself is accessible in its writing style. Though the writing does at times academically-influenced, the book thoroughly explains its terminology. Terms that might otherwise be opaque are defined, sometimes on multiple levels as they impact her points. Techniques and approaches aren’t just presented, but are also illustrated with examples. Each chapter finishes with a set of helpful practical exercises.

Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World: Spirituality, Ethics, and Transformation is a practical and accessible experience-based resource for Wiccan leaders and therapeutic professionals. While the writing sometimes lacks snap and pizazz, the book itself is a unique contribution to the community. It addresses growing needs in the Wiccan community for both personal and spiritual integration and transformation. Four stars.

© 2013 Christopher Drysdale.

Book Review: Choices and Illusions

October 6, 2013 by  
Filed under books, reviews

Book Review: Choices and Illusions

Choices and Illusions: How Did I Get Where I Am, and How Do I Get Where I Want to Be?
Eldon Taylor
Hay House, Inc. Revised edition. (September 17, 2013)
ISBN: 978-1401943387
264 pages; hardcover
Reviewer: Dydan Waters
StarStarStarStarNo star

Choices and Illusions by Eldon Taylor is a must-have for everyone interested in changing any aspect of their lives. Instead of expecting some great miracle to come along and change our destiny, Taylor teaches us to look inward, at the patterns in our thinking. When we find patterns that we use to hold ourselves back, he shows us how to change those patterns.

Taylor presents the material with plenty of anecdotal evidence from his career, breaking the material down into easily manageable portions. Without the overuse of technical jargon, he makes this a book that anyone can read and from which anyone who applies effort can benefit.

We live in a time when people, on the whole, are profoundly unhappy. Mood altering medications are currently being prescribed (and abused) in record numbers, yet the prevailing attitude is one of unhappiness. Dr. Taylor shows that this has nothing to do with the bum rap we got in life; rather, it has everything to do with how we think and the choices we make. As someone who has recently experienced (and continues to process) a number of life-changing events, this book deeply resonated with me. It is spiritual without being preachy, therapeutic without being overly clinical. What more could I want in a self-help book? Three and a half stars. It was great, but it wasn’t that great.

Review ©2013 Dydan Waters.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Thanks to Jana Roberts at Eldon Taylor’s office for sending along a new item: a book trailer. As below.

Book Review: The Flowering Rod

April 30, 2010 by  
Filed under books, paganism, reviews

Kenny Klein
The Flowering Rod: Men and Their Role in Paganism
Megalithica Books (January 30, 2009)
ISBN: 978-1905713288
200 pages
Reviewer: Soli
StarStarNo starNo starNo star

Much discussion still comes from the role of women in neopaganism, and the fact that they have a voice which is still denied in many monotheistic traditions. Because of this, there is a more prevalent focus on women’s mysteries, while mysteries for men are largely absent from the conversation. Kenny Klein seeks to start adjusting that balance with his book The Flowering Rod, which was originally released in 1993.

The rituals included in the book cover the eight sabbats of the Wiccan wheel of the year. The rituals work with a variety of myths, from the Oak and Holly kings to Persephone’s descent in the underworld. Each follow a standard Wiccan format, but especially focus on the divine male. The rituals also encourage men to think about their roles in life and how they interact with the world. Emphasis is placed on those male qualities which do not fall in the limited ideas of what is “manly” behavior. For this, the book is a great reminder to men of what they can be. They are not limited to what society tells them is their role and what makes them real men. We need to encourage this mindset much more and make it more visible. For this, the book is a good tool.

Unfortunately, the spirit of the book for me was greatly soured by several points of inaccurate information. Klein spends a good deal of the first part of the book on the idea that the original peoples of Europe were all egalitarian and that the Indo-European invasion forced patriarchy on the once peaceful folk. Further, statements such a Tyr being the original master of the runes and Odin usurping that position, and that the Goddess Ostara was in fact Ishtar (I doubt Bede would have been familiar with Sumerian mythology) made me balk and put down the book for a while because I was so put off by such blatant errors. Then there is the rehash of the idea that nine million people were executed during the Inquisition, a number greatly overinflated and now the mark of very bad research. Apparently, Klein could update his book to include mention of Magical Judaism by Jennifer Hunter (published in 2006) but not to correct this falsehood. The claim that a British tradition of a Seven Year King, decided on by sports competitions, is the predecessor of the Olympics finally put me over the edge. When such basic history is tossed to the wayside, I have to wonder at the accuracy of the Welsh mythology he uses to make his points throughout the book.

I think that gender mysteries should make a comeback and support those who are developing men’s and women’s mysteries. This can be done without revisionist history. Take a look at the book if you are interested in the topic, but do keep a salt cellar nearby.

Two out of five stars.

©2010 by Soli.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Book Review – The Northern Path

January 26, 2010 by  
Filed under books, heathenism, reviews

Book Review - The Northern Path

Douglas “Dag” Rossman
Seven Paws Press (June 30, 2005)
ISBN: 978-0964911390
252 pages
Reviewer: Soli

At first glance, Norse mythology can be a daunting dragon. Rough living, the world coming into being from a cow licking an ice man and humans starting as trees, enough names with Thor as a root you would need a spreadsheet to keep track of them, and then the world ends and no one can stop it and even the Gods die. Not only can it be depressing, but finding a good starting place isn’t always easy. I regularly see people new to Heathenry inquiring about good books to start with in order to become familiar with the lore. Douglas “Dag” Rossman has provided one which I think should be in the top five list of Things to Read First In Asatru with his book, The Northern Path: Norse Myths and Legends Retold…And What They Reveal.

The first section of the book is Rossman’s retelling of several tales from the Eddas along with his take on Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied. His tales focus heavily on those involving Old One Eye, including a take on the tale of Odhreorir very much in line with my fellowship’s view of the relationship between Odhinn and Gunnlod. “Beowulf” and the Ring cycle have both been greatly compressed, and are a much less intimidating introduction to both tales. Finally, Dag shares stories of Thor, the theft of Idunna’s apples, how Skadhi came to marry Njord, Loki’s binding, and Ragnarok. Each of the stories in the book show Dag’s own style, and not all follow what would be considered the canon of the lore. I don’t think this is a drawback; since there was certainly no written canon a thousand years ago, it is easy to think of different skalds varying stories based on region and their experiences.

Part two of the book covers Germanic cosmology and gives insight into the mindset of the people. Among the topics covered are the relevance of mythology, how he himself came to be a skald, an introduction to the Aesir, Vanir, elves, the enemies of the gods, the significance of Ragnarok, and how the lore has survived into modern times. I was very interested to read about his own experiences of creating an initiatory experience using the lore for young men attending Sons of Norway campouts. The idea of teen boys learning about their ancestry by participating in mock adventures and having to fare out alone at night combined with the mythology would make the Gods come alive for these young men. Truly, I am surprised that Rossman did not identify outright as Heathen, though he does mention people worshiping the Gods in modern times and his own implementation of an old Germanic mindset in his life.

One line that stuck out for me when I was reading was this section where he describes his idea that the battle between Thor and Jormundgand as allegory for order and chaos in the universe.

“In the scenario just described, it seems clear that Thor acts as a representative of Order, and the Midgard Serpent a representation of Chaos. Their first two encounters are standoffs, a reflection of the dynamic balance that exists between Order and Chaos, and which I believe lies at the heart of the orlog. So long as this balance is maintained, the Nine Worlds will continue to exist. Should Thor finally prevail over the Serpent of Chaos, nothing could ever change, stagnation would set in, and all possibilities for future creativity would cease. Should Thor be slain, Order would totally disintegrate, and the Nine Worlds with it. Alas, the Eddas tell us of yet a third possibility, a final confrontation between the two adversaries at Ragnarok (the Doom of the Gods) in which both will be slain …and the Nine Worlds consumed by fire and flood.” (p. 194-195)

I don’t agree with the honoring of giants who are depicted as outright enemies of the Gods, mind, but I thought this to be one of the simplest and clearest explanations as to why they might exist.

This is an excellent book for any Heathen library. Not only is it perfect to hand to someone to introduce them to the mythology and worldview without overwhelming them with names and unfamiliar terms, for those who are well versed in the lore it’s a very entertaining spin on the mythology. One can easily imagine a skald coming around the community a thousand years ago, with tales both familiar and new, all having his own special spin and perspective threaded throughout. Rossman’s work is truly inspired.

Five stars out of five.

Review ©2010 by Soli.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Book Review: Raising Hell

December 15, 2009 by  
Filed under books, left hand path, mysticism, reviews

Book Review: Raising Hell

Kali Black
Megalithica Books (March 21, 2009)
ISBN: 978-1905713387
136 pages
Reviewer: Ian Vincent
StarStarStarStarNo star

This book is a spirited attempt to reclaim that most twisty and controversial of magical ideas, Black Magic — and is also a manual of what the author calls “Anarchashamanism.” The position taken could be broadly described as anti-capitalist, non-hierarchical (power-with rather than power-over), ecologically aware and rebellious without falling into the trap of simple knee-jerk opposition.

The three lines which preface the book sum up the author’s position nicely:

“Never sacrifice individuality for individualism.
Never sacrifice rebellion for contrariness.
Never sacrifice dignity for arrogance.”

The introduction gives a quick look at the history of the two key terms, Black Magic and Anarchism. I felt there was a touch of self-supporting bias to the history, especially in reference to the Satanism of the pre-revolutionary French Court (I don’t really think La Voisin was making “calculated protests” against the church, for example), but the author does freely admit that both black magic and anarchism lack a true unbroken tradition (and indeed says the same for all modern magic “trads,” which is refreshing).

Black’s angle on black magic (heh) is summed up well in this quote — after referencing the Voudon-inspired slave rebellion in Haiti, Black writes:

“This spirit of rebellion, freedom, independence and self-reliance is the very spirit of black magic. Times have changed, and the dominant religion is now capitalism.”

I think Black makes a better fist of explaining the difference between actual anarchism and the distorted public image of same than they do in trying to reclaim Black Magic — a key quote here describes anarchism as “the absence of rulers rather than the absence of order,” which is an important distinction most people outside of anarchist thought rarely consider.

I especially liked this line: “Maintaining a ‘spiritual’ dimension to one’s life in a critical and flexible manner provides an excellent defence against religion and ideology, whereas dogma of any kind does not.” Take that, Dawkins!

After the introduction, the book is in two parts. The first, “Guerrilla Warfare,” covers a set of basic techniques and observations. The second, “Guerrilla Mind Theatre,” covers more advanced exercises and goes deeper into Black’s model of Anarchashamanism.

The exercises given all emphasise personal, flexible, paradigm-shifting and idiosyncratic approaches and are applicable to all levels of practitioner. I did like seeing some of the less common ones, such as “make knots with intent.” I was also very glad to see the exercise “attend a variety of different religious services over an extended period,” especially backed up with provisos given for avoiding cult recruitment.

I loved the phrase “controlled superstition” as a descriptor for the magical mindset, and Black’s version of the multi-model approach (though not using the term). Black also covers such possibly controversial areas as sex-magic and entheogen use with intelligence and care. Like much else in the book, I found some of the positions taken on “culture” a bit strident (e.g. having a whole chapter on how veganism is the only moral and correct diet for a true magician, or saying that early religious conditioning is “. . . a weakness of character that is easily overcome”), but the point of view given is understandable and well expressed.

Part 2 kicks off with my absolute favourite chapter in the book, “Ancient and Mystical Secrets of Toontra.” Toontra, introduced in a suitably daft and po-faced manner, is working with cartoons (starting with a ‘toon version of yourself) as a visualisation/ projection tool. It’s a great idea, nicely explained. The emphasis that “not taking yourself seriously is one of the most important skills a magician must master” is a fine way to harness that spirit of Discordian silliness so often missing from modern praxis. There is also a very good sidebar on importance of earthing oneself to remove pompousness etc.: “In my experience, few things can earth you quite as well as scrubbing the toilet.” How true!

Next, Black takes a couple of chapters to define Anarchashamanism, beginning with a robust defence of the shamanic calling. Anarchashamanism is then defined thus: “. . . the development and practice of an organic and uniquely personal spirituality and the adoption of a Shamanic relationship with a community without creaing or imposing a power structure or hierarchy. Tough call.”

Rather than being a separate specialist in a community which looks to the shaman for spiritual insight, “the anarchashaman despecialises,” guiding the other people to their own spiritual insight rather than doing it for them. A fine idea, well delineated.

Black also makes a good point on the class-related aspects of modern spiritual guidance: “In the Western hierarchy of sanity people in positions of wealth, authority or power may legitimately receive unearthly guidance, and poor or working class people just get a choice between being labelled crazy or superstitious.” The Anarchashaman endeavours to empower others rather than imposing their ideas of who or what they should be — a wise position when dealing with spiritual and personal development, and here given as an antidote to existing hierarchies of belief and control.

A program of exercises is given next to develop this working style. I found a few problems here.

The first exercise is “Kill your TV.” Although I understand the impulse to divorce oneself from the corporate conditioning which often goes hand-in-hand with TV as a medium (and, like the author, I’ve read such works as “Four Arguments for the Abolition of Television”), it seems odd to pick on TV — especially as the author is perfectly comfortable to use memes and archetypes from film and animation. . . and mostly, the very same corporations that make TV shows also make films and ‘toons.

I’m also unsure of the wisdom of renaming mojo-bags as “bombs” and leaving them in public places. . .

A version of “High” magic, suitably adapted to the authors anarchic take, is then explored in some depth. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of developing your own style of ritual, the acquiring of useful and accurate self-knowledge, etc.

For example, on the subject of banishings, Black recognises their use, makes note of their hierarchical aspects, observes the artificiality of dividing the “mundane” from the “magical” world (I agree entirely here), says they don’t personally use ’em — but goes on to suggest that their use is to be decided by the individual, and then gives pretty good instructions for performing them if you should choose to do so.

At this point in the book the Black Magic elements are brought forward to a greater degree. Ritual is mostly described as being used for worship of Luciferian entities — ranging from classical Satanic forms to fictional villains/ antiheroes such as Riddick or the Alien Queen — and the summoning of demons.

If you’re going to do this . . . well, the advice given is lucid and useful (i.e. if you make a deal with a demon, be very careful with the small print) and it does cover the model where such entities are manifestations of one’s own self. It doesn’t have too much that’ll help you if the demons turn out to be actual independent entities (in terms of protection and banishing). This is, to put it, mildly a controversial area — so caveat emptor.

The last couple of chapters explore the nature of sacrifice, creation of initiation rites and ritual tools. As previously, these are discussed with intelligence and knowledge. I would have liked some kind of conclusion to be drawn at the end, tying the Anarchashamanic and black magic perspectives together further, but it’s not a crippling loss.

Overall, I think the take on black magic as such is a little too forgiving of the less friendly elements of the practice. Also, I don’t really think the book quite manages to reclaim “Black Magic” as a term (or actually spend all that much time trying to do so) — but Black does repurpose the phrase for their own use effectively.

The more strident and preachy passages are understandable in the context of the author and, if you agree with their position, they will no doubt inspire. If you’re critical of any absolutist position . . . less so. But there’s nothing wrong with taking a stance.

Conspicuous by their absence in a book about rebellious counter-hierarchical magic are any mentions whatsoever about self-defence, shielding, counterspells — any combat magic techniques at all. Not even the oft-suggested, “go and learn a martial art” hint, or even suggestions of how to combine magical approaches with other direct action. The assumption that one can oppose something using magic, but that your opponents would not use magic too, is a little naive — and odd considering the militaristic models used in first half. After all, in a sense this is a book of Tradecraft for magicians — which in the context of rebellion against the militarised, monopoly-of-violence state structures is apt, but does perhaps lead to a merely oppositional position (though the book to its credit often emphasises mere dualistic tussles aren’t the solution). I would have liked to see more, shall we say, practical applications given.

But for the most part, these are minor quibbles about a book which I found interesting, useful and entertaining to read.

4 stars out of 5 — one point given for Toontra alone!

Review ©2009 by Ian Vincent.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Ian Vincent was born in 1964 and is a lifelong student of the occult. He founded Athanor Consulting, a specialist paranormal protection consultancy, in 2002. He closed Athanor in 2009 to better focus on studying wider aspects of the Art. He blogs on magical theory.

Book Review: Initiation in the Aeon of the Child

December 15, 2009 by  
Filed under books, initiation, mysticism, reviews, thelema

Book Review: Initiation in the Aeon of the Child

J. Daniel Gunther
Ibis Press (January 1, 2009)
ISBN: 978-0892541454
224 pages
Reviewer: Shawn Gray

This is truly one of the most informative new esoteric books that I’ve read in quite a while. When I heard that a new book had come out that was immediately put on the required reading list for students of the A∴A∴, I wasted no time in borrowing it from a friend. After reading it through, I wasted no time in getting myself a copy as well. Gunther’s 30-plus years of A∴A∴ experience comes shining through in this work explaining the new formula of initiation in the Aeon of Thelema and the how this applies to the methods of magick and mysticism as taught in the A∴A∴.

Gunther is not new to the field of publication, although this work will likely be the one that he becomes best known for. He serves on the editorial board of The Equinox (published by Weiser) and has also acted as consultant and adviser for other publications on the subject of occultism. This combination of both publication experience and practical knowledge in the magick of the A∴A∴ makes Gunther eminently qualified to write a book on this subject, as indicated by both Hymenaeus Beta, head of Ordo Templi Orientis, and James Wasserman, well known occult author and practitioner, in their comments on the jacket and in the introduction.

The author’s aim in writing this book is to shed light on the change brought to initiatic formulas with the advent of the New Aeon of Thelema, and how these changes affect aspirants in their practices and outlooks on life. One way in which he does this is to compare and contrast the new initiatic formula with the old motif of the Dying God with its “corrupt model of Purification Through Suffering.” This is certainly not the first time that this comparison has been made in a literary work, but the depth and knowledge that Gunther brings to the discussion makes this book a fascinating read. Rather than simply quickly and shallowly describing the Egyptian background to the Thelemic understanding of the Aeons of Isis, Osiris and Horus, as has been done many times before, Gunther brings well documented Egyptology to the table. His use of academic references provides the discussion with a solid grounding in sound scholarship, and his explanation of the detail of Egyptian hieroglyphs is one that I found fascinating.

The Egyptian angle is not the only one that the author uses to support his discussion. He also makes use of the psychological work of Jung and Neumann in discussing the role of images and archetypes in formulating our understanding of the initiatic formulas. With the weight of these scholarly sources lending stability to the academic foundation of his work, Gunther makes use of key texts of Thelemic mysticism (The Vision and the Voice, Liber LXV, etc.) to explain the unique perspective on the process of initiation encountered in Thelemic systems — both O.T.O. and A∴A∴. While the author explicitly states that he is not a member of the O.T.O., he certainly has a deep understanding of the Thelemic initiatory process in both systems (and offers an enlightening discussion on the differences between the two in a recent interview on the Thelema Now! Podcast).

Despite all of the scholarly references, the footnotes, and the impressive bibliography (which can be intimidating to some), Gunther’s book is not a difficult read. At only 191 pages (excluding the excellent glossary and appendices), it is not overly lengthy. On the contrary, one wonders just how it is that the author packs so much “advanced” information into such a short work and still manages to make it so readable and comprehensible. It’s like Aleister Crowley meets Lon Milo DuQuette. In fact I must concur with Wasserman, who on the back of the jacket states that in his opinion, this book is “the most important original work to be published since the death of Aleister Crowley.” Hymenaeus Beta even goes so far as to state that this book deserves a place in the curriculum of the O.T.O., showing what kind of reception this book is getting in the Thelemic community in general.

The originality of this work is one of its strongest points. It does deal with some material that has been covered before on a cursory level in other books, but the depth that he brings to the discussion of the theme of Thelemic initiation, and the degree to which he elaborates on themes that many people may only have a passing grasp of, make it a valuable and educational read. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to those interested in Thelema — its mysticism, cosmology, and system of initiation.

©2009 by Shawn Gray.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Occult Author Spotlight – Bill Whitcomb

Occult Author Spotlight - Bill Whitcomb

Note: This is my last column for the Occult Author Spotlight. While there are many other authors to discuss and I hope someone will take over and write about those authors, the demands of several of my own ventures as well as some changes in my spiritual life prohibit me from continuing.

I was first introduced to Bill Whitcomb’s work when a friend bought me The Magician’s Companion for my birthday one year. I immediately saw the usefulness of this book as a compendium of information about various magical systems, symbols, archetypes and other information that could prove useful if you needed to quickly get information on a particular subject within occultism. I’ve used it on a few different occasions to improve the efficacy of my works, and it remains a book I consult on a regular basis. The book looks at both western and eastern systems of magic and discusses succinctly the elements of those systems, while also providing reading lists for people who would like to go more in depth with the materials. Another added benefit is that Whitcomb lists the systems by their use of numbers, so you’ll see a few systems with the number seven. Reading through the entire book can be quite novel and useful.

I met Bill shortly after I moved to Portland and became good friends with him. During that process, I learned about his second book The Magician’s Reflection, which had gone out of print some time ago and didn’t look like it would come back into print from the original publisher. With some wheedling on my part, he eventually got the rights back and decided to republish that book with Megalithica books.

The Magician’s Reflection is an instruction book in how to create your symbol system for magic, with an encyclopedia of possible choices you could make for that. Naturally you shouldn’t limit yourself to what is presented in the book, but the various examples that Whitcomb provides can provide useful inspiration as you develop your own system of magic. Whitcomb also includes the alphabet of dreams, a magical language with its own cipher, and an appendix about a system of time magic called Nar, written by a friend of his, which utilizes different patterns and colors to help a person manipulate possibilities in time. Both the alphabet of dreams and Nar provide some intriguing ideas about where a unique system of magic can be created and developed. The Magician’s Reflection provides you your own key for doing that as well.

Bill is currently working on the Dream Manual, which is a book with art and some phrases to be used for meditational purposes. If you go to his website you can learn more about this project. He and I are working on another book together, which is a best practices of magic book. It’s still very much in the rough draft phase, but will be available at some point in the near future.

Recommended Reading

  • Whitcomb, Bill. (1993). The Magician’s Companion: A Practical and Encyclopedic Guide to Magical and Religious Symbolism. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications.
  • Whitcomb, Bill. (2008). The Magician’s Reflection. Stafford: Megalithica Books.

©2009 by Taylor Ellwood
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Book Review: Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, Over?

October 22, 2009 by  
Filed under books, reviews

Book Review: Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, Over?

Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot. Over?
Collen A’Miketh
Megalithica Books (April 20, 2009)
ISBN: 978-1905713301
136 pages
Reviewer: Ian Vincent
No starNo starNo starNo starNo star

When I read a book, especially a book about magic written by a practitioner, there’s always a need to let go of my own perspective a little. Everyone views the world in a unique way defined by their experiences, character and knowledge — and if I stay too stuck in my own point of view, it’s hard to fully grasp the perspective of the writer. (I strive to do this because I think I learn far more from people I don’t agree with than those I do — preaching to the choir doesn’t open any new doors.)

This was very much the case with this book. A’Miketh comes to magic from a background in computer programming, high ritual, and runic working — very different from my own entry point to the Art. His premise centers around bringing magic out of “The Tower” (personal, solo, ritual workings) and making it “Travelling Magic” (direct interaction with the outside world, working in non-ritual space).

The early parts of the book — which are a fairly clear recounting of his own techniques and mindset, aimed at an intermediate-level reader — were a mostly pleasant exercise. Some areas we seemed to have agreement on how various models of magic interact with reality but in the areas where we did not, I could see his point. The various exercises and techniques seem practical and relevant — though none of it was particularly earth-shattering or new.

There were a few areas where his writing style didn’t sit too well with me — a level of what felt very forced (and very America-specific) humour, for example. But nonetheless an agreeable, though hardly ground-breaking, read on the subject.

One area I especially noted was that he continually emphasised what he considered to be the most important traits for a magician to possess — intelligence, flexibility and humility. Especially humility — even taking time to address the problem of arrogance among magicians. “Can’t argue with that,” I thought.

Then, in the last couple of chapters, it all came crashing down. My ability to stay at a remove from my perspective rather than that of the writer ceased utterly. My opinion shifted rapidly from somewhat favourable to one of — and I do not use the phrase often or lightly — moral disgust.

In the the last two chapters, A’Miketh mentions a technique he calls “People Sigil Magic.” Here is his description of it:

“. . . PSM is used like ordinary sigil magic except we transmit our Will to another person in such a way that they accept it with little or no argument.”

He also says,

“If we can get information about our Will to them, without giving them a chance to object, then we’ve effectively ‘inserted the sigil.'”

He later describes his use of this technique to, essentially, edit the personalities of his friends to better suit his idea of them, to “fix” whatever “problems” he perceives them to have:

“. . . I just actively imagine the person that certain way when I am around them and refuse to accept their version of Reality . . . Healthy, not an alcoholic, losing lots of weight . . . whatever it is that seems to be something they are struggling with.”

This is how A’Miketh appears to define “humility” — as having the right to use magic to edit the minds and souls of his friends without their consent, for what he sees as their own good. Treating his kith and kin as faulty programmes to be debugged.

What awful arrogance. The sheer presumption of it.

I can understand the desire to help your friends deal with their issues, certainly. But the point is, they’re their issues. Aside from the truly vile attitude that his version of who they should be matters more than their own, he is also robbing them of the chance to fix themselves and become stronger through the struggle to do so. Denying them their own Path.

I must note, in fairness, that the one detailed example he provides did include the target in discussion about “the possibility of doing some spell work” for him. I also note that he says,

“. . . there are limited circumstances where my ethical sense of right and wrong permits me to influence people. They are not just any Joe Schmoe, they are my friends.”

But he still does it. To his friends. Mostly without their knowledge or consent. To make them fit his idea of who they should be.

Back when I was a professional exorcist, my team and I had a technical term for a spell cast without consent to forcibly influence the mind of another. That word is “curse.”

If people ask for help, or are a clear and present danger to themselves or others, then working magic for or on them is acceptable, even laudable. To do so against their will, in fact concealing that magic is being performed on them, is no more acceptable than slipping Rohypnol into a woman’s drink because you think she should fuck you.

At best, this book is the output of a naive hypocrite who preaches humility and lack of arrogance but is unable to practice it. At best.

In all conscience I cannot recommend it to anyone except as an object lesson in how not to practice magic with conscience and respect for others.

Short version:
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

Zero out of five stars.

Review ©2009 Ian Vincent
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Ian Vincent was born in 1964 and is a lifelong student of the occult. He founded Athanor Consulting, a specialist paranormal protection consultancy, in 2002. He closed Athanor in 2009 to better focus on studying wider aspects of the Art. He blogs on magical theory.

Book Review: Pop Culture Magick, 2nd Edition

Book Review: Pop Culture Magick, 2nd Edition

Pop Culture Magick
Taylor Ellwood
Megalithica Books; 2nd edition (August 14, 2008)
ISBN: 978-1905713127
144 pages
Reviewer: RainSingingWolf
Full starFull starFull starFull starHalf star

When I first heard that somebody was seriously considering writing a book on media magick (specifically pop culture), I was both thrilled and terrified. As a longtime lurker on many boards, I have encountered so many terrible ideas using new media that I was doubtful when opening this book.

With this one book, my impression of pop culture magick has completely changed. I commend Ellwood for identifying the importance of previous (and current) belief systems, rather than simply disregarding them, as so many authors are prone to do. The first few chapters of this book are devoted to what exactly “pop culture” is, why it is important in our lives, and how powerful it can be. The idea that simply exposing people to something can give it power isn’t a new idea; however, Ellwood emphasizes exactly how important this factor is in one’s life from commercials (merchandise identification) to news (celebrities). With such a wellspring of options and power available in every day situations, it seems that using pop culture is an obvious choice for creating magick.

Ellwood emphasizes the importance of keeping one’s magick current to one’s living situation and personality. Finding a story or character that one identifies with can completely change the enthusiasm for magick; thus, a more powerful magick is made available to the magician. This concept is no different than when a magician may go searching in older religions for a god/dess that matches his or her needs.

According to Ellwood, a plethora of media is available for a creative magician to use. This includes: comics, cartoons, anime, books, movies, video games, card games, and even commercials! And why not? Many people follow characters or celebrities so closely that they know them better than family, friends, or even themselves; additionally, many books or movies provide clear rules and structure for their worlds that could easily be adapted for one’s own rituals. He generously shares examples from his own attempts and successes at using pop culture, as well as those of fellow magicians. If a reader is feeling up to the challenge, exercises are provided at the end of each chapter that can easily be used just as they are or adapted for one’s own ideas.

Like a responsible mentor, Ellwood not only emphasizes the positive in using these new techniques, but also reminds the reader of the risks associated with the practice. Just like every day people, characters from many sources have positive strengths that are just as strong as their flaws. While working with entities one may get the benefit of better strategy; however, that same character may have a splash of arrogance that can easily rub off on the magician.

Another useful thing Ellwood offers the reader is appendices with the various media he references throughout the text, as well as further explanations on some of the techniques he mentions. He also provides a bibliography of the texts he references, which could be useful to the reader.

The only problems I had with this book are completely technical. The font appeared small to me, and I’m not sure whether or not this has to do with the particular font or the actual font size. Also, while I understand the use of “hir” is a generous attempt at being gender-conscious, I find it’s usage to be hideous, especially in a book.

Using pop culture for one’s practices is certainly not a new idea, but many people are afraid of moving beyond the safe boundaries of known magical techniques. Ellwood invites readers to join him and others in, at the very least, giving these new techniques a chance. While the book is small, it provides a variety of examples to open the mind of the reader to the possibilities. Whether one is just curious about pop culture magick or seriously considering using it, I recommend this book.

4 and a half stars out of 5.

Review ©2009 RainSingingWolf
Edited by Sheta Kaey

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