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Review: A Deed Without a Name

jhp502a54bb94476This is truly a little gem of a book.

The first thing that strikes me about this book is how well written it is. Morgan creates rich images with his sparse prose. He manages to sharing meaningful personal experiences (both his own and those of other witches) without sacrificing the mystery of this path.  Morgan promises a synthesis of practical experience and scholarship, and judging by his footnotes I would say he delivers. It’s rare to find such a satisfying combination of learning and skill in the esoteric genre, so pardon me if I come off as a touch enthusiastic.

There is undeniably a lot of literature to wade through on this topic, and Morgan does an impressive job of summarizing it for a 201 or even 301 student. He seizes on a number of European cultures to illustrate his points, not just the standard witchcraft documents from the British Isles, but accounts from Italy and eastern Europe as well. Most importantly, he makes it relevant for the modern practitioner, detailing how various manifestations manifestations were dealt with historically and how we today as spirit workers can adapt these methods and attain similar experiences.

Oineric woodcut illustrations by Brett Morgan accompany each chapter, inviting the reader to dive more deeply into the many layers of the text. I’m admittedly a sucker for woodcuts, but these alternately fascinate and repulse–just like witchcraft itself.

Now, the following quibbles are really nitpicky things that my own copy-editor brain picked up on and just wouldn’t let go, and would probably not disturb the average reader. There are a few odd editing choices which detract from the overall flow of the book, especially the lack of chapter numbers within the text itself despite these being listed in the table of contents.  The book has a gentle flow from historical evidence to modern accounts, but also might have benefited from some broader subject headings. Chapter 21 on, for instance, is really more of a practical grimoire than the previous historical and folkloric comparisons; this is somewhat indicated by the ToC, but is lacking in the text body itself. Still, these points do not really detract from the message and value of the book overall.

A neighbor of mine who is just beginning to explore the Pagan/Occult paths has been asking me for books to read. I started him out with Phillip Carr-Gomm’s What Do Druids Believe? When he returns it next week, A Deed Without a Name will surely be my next recommendation.

Morgan, Lee. 2013. A Deed Without a Name: Unearthing the Legacy of Traditional WitchcraftAlresford, UK: John Hunt Publishing.

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Preparing for the Journey

A week from now I’ll have crossed the Atlantic and my feet will rest upon the lands of my ancestors. Or at least that’s the romantic image my brain has created. More likely than not the reality of it will be me trying to navigate my way to Newbury from Gatwick on various forms of public transit on way too little sleep.

Still, I’m excited. The climax of the trip (as it were) is a visit to the British Museum and the much acclaimed Celts: Art and Identity exhibit on Monday morning. But thanks to the Druid interpersonal network of my Grove Mother, I’ll be taking a side trip to Wayland’s Smithy and the White Horse, with a possible jaunt over to Avebury as well.  Then it’s back to London to meet up with our Head Druid’s brother for a tour of the more esoteric aspects of London. I’m absolutely giddy at the prospect.

The plane tickets are set, the packing list drawn up, financial institutions notified, and arrangements are being made to look after Jinx-kitty (Hufflespawn is staying with dad for an extra day).  I love traveling and haven’t been abroad since 2011.  And as I think on it, this will be my first entirely solo trip–I’ve always traveled with family or friends before, so the freedom to go where I want when I want in a bit intoxicating.

Other London sites I’d love to cram in somehow are

  • Primrose Hill, site of the first modern Druid gathering led by good ol’ Ewythr Iolo.
  • Tower of London, pay my respects to the resident Ravens and Bran.
  • Treadwell’s and/or Atlantis bookstores
  • Twinings. Because, TEA!

Now, so long as we don’t get any of our infamous New England weather in the next week, I’ll be all set!

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Gestation

8310812Tales are funny things, single moments drawn out into paragraphs and nine months glossed over in a handful of words.

They tell of my rage at the child-thief, the one who–however unwittingly–stole the Awen for his own. They tell of my fury as I hunted him through land, sea, and sky. Of my crow of triumph as I swallowed him whole.

“And, as the story says, she bore him nine months…”

Nine months. So much can happen in nine months. A child can be born. Or, a woman can be turned out of her home to wander the forest in madness as her body swells.

The wheat kernel was poison. As surely as I had once devoured the thief, I retched in vain to purge him from my womb as insanity crept through my mind. No herb or decoction would dislodge him. Better I had left him to sprout in the broad earth and reap my vengeance at harvest, than to let him take root in my own body.

Three, four, five times the moon passed from light to dark. My husband had indulged my assignations with the Pheryllt, with the promise the resulting brew would heal our son.  My burgeoning belly belied a different sort of rendezvous.  Tegid would brook no cuckoldry, real or imagined.

So I wandered. I wandered without the comfort of my children. I wandered past the stink of my broken cauldron and rotting horse flesh. I wandered from the first blasts of Gwynn’s horn through the first snows and darkest night. And as I wandered, so too did my soul become lost.

The cursed fires of Awen, locked away within my own body, those flames would not let me die, no matter how many times cold and hunger overwhelmed me. Against nature, the babe within ensured his vessel’s survival.  Repeatedly I sought death to escape the unceasing burning in my head and the torturous visions–ghosts of the future, shades of the past, far-off phantoms of the present.

Again and again I begged Gwynn for the mercy of the teeth of his red-eared pack. Each time he shook his head, turning the host to ride down other, sanctioned prey.

As the ground thawed and the winds warmed, my feet brought me to the edge of the ocean. The first labor pangs cut through the stupor of visions as I stumbled to the water. No warm chambers or soft beds for Cerridwen. No midwife to help me in my pacing, or hand to hold as I moaned though washes of agony. Just the pounding of the surf as it brought me slowly back to myself, and eased the weight of the trespasser in my body.

And so, as the first of the bonfires were lit on the hills, I birthed the wretched creature.

They say I could not murder the babe so wondrous was his beauty. In truth I could not bear to even look at him. I did not take time or care to sew a leather bag. The baby was born with the caul intact and no sooner had it left my body then I flung it away from me into the devouring ocean. Elffin has ever been a fool.

Nine waves passed over me and I felt the madness recede. I let the chill spring tide carry me higher and higher onto the shore, the polished rocks soothing my body. I dragged myself over to the dark mirror of a tidal pool. The moon rose, and she revealed a woman, once beloved and fair, now bent and white.

Now they say the thief reborn has become a bard, the greatest bard the land has ever known. They say he has sung at the courts of at least three kings, and has performed magic and miracles beyond those of the wisest druids. And they say I am the mother of inspiration.

I can no longer bring myself to care.

I returned home. Winter had cleansed the land of much of the poison from the brew. Bones were all that remained of Gwyddno’s horses, picked clean by crow and wolf and frost. My husband’s ire had likewise cooled, between the storm-whipped winds and lack of someone to run the household.

My own vengeance had been purged at the side of the ocean. My children still need me, and my son is still cursed. Perhaps my mistake was to trust another with work that should have been his. It matters not. It will take time, and it will take care, but my son will have at least one blessing in his life.

What? Did you think I would give up so easily?

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Books Read 2015: Herbs of the Northern Shaman

510-iHrDINL.jpgHerbs of the Northern Shaman was an extremely frustrating read. It’s unclear whether the cause of that frustration can be laid at the feet of the author for writing a book with so much potential that then fell short, or at my own for expecting too much.

What I expected: a detailed catalogue of northern European plants, with explanations of habitat, identification, dosages, and related ritual contexts.

What I got: a catalogue of plants quite literally above the Equator, with inconsistent descriptions, artsy photographs often useless for identification, no information on preparations or dosages, and no mention of appropriate ritual contexts. There are no citations for the authors various assertions, such as “It [Fennel] was once used by the Romans to increase stamina and courage” (p. 41).  Oh, really?  That’s nice, where’s your source?

In addition, several species are included from the Asian continent. At the risk of appearing blatantly Eurocentric, CM herbal preparations are not something I’m particularly interested in, and their inclusion frankly felt jarring. They are technically not outside the bounds of the book since it includes all of the northern hemisphere, but Andrews makes no mention of Chinese culture or traditions in his introduction. If Asian traditions are going to be included, own them up front with the rest of the cultures mentioned in the introduction (Nordic, Russian, Celtic, and Native American), which by themselves lead the reader to assume a European/North American expectation for the species covered.

Another problem is that many of the entries are included because there are compounds in the plants that are known to be psychoactive, but there is no evidence or experience of them being used historically or currently in a ritual or shamanic context–if that’s the case, why include them?  For example the entry on Meadow Buttercup:

According to author Gareth Rose in his booklet The Psychedelics, early Chinese literature states that a flower that grew by streams and brooks could cause delirium…Some authorities [who?] feel that the herb referred to is the common species of Buttercup.  Far more investigation is needed to confirm whether or not the species described actually is the Meadow Buttercup, as the leaves of this type are not really “rounded”. (pp. 15-16)

So, an unverified herb from China, asserted to be a Meadow Buttercup (R. acris) by some unknown “authorities”, may or may not have psychoactive properties. Just how, exactly, is this information either relevant to the topic at hand? In Andrews’ favor, where he does have experience with a particular plant and its effects he details them.  It’s just that those little jewels are few and far between–the exception being the 7-page love letter to Cannabis  (when most entries are 1 1/2 pages at most), which nearly resulted in the book being thrown across the room.

The bibliography does have a few solid sources in it, such as Culpeper and Grieve, and frankly one would be better served in many ways to consult these books directly. There are a couple of other useful titles included there that I may add to my reading list. It’s a fairly “old” bibliography, however, most of the books being from the 1990s or earlier.

I’m more than a little uncomfortable writing this, as I received Herbs of the Northern Shaman as a review copy, and I very much would have liked to give it a good one.  The best I can say for it is that it can serve as a starting point for shamanic herbal exploration. However, to expect anything more of it is to invite disappointment.

*Andrews, S. 2010. Herbs of the Northern Shaman. Winchester: O Books.