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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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.

Books Read 2015: Miranda Lundy’s Sacred Geometry

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A couple of weeks ago, I came down with one helluva fever, and was desperate for something short and sweet to distract me.  As Sacred Geometry by Miranda Lundy was the thinnest volume on my “To Read” shelf, I grabbed it and settled into a lavender and eucalyptus bath to try to steam out some of the sickness.

This may be a short work, but it packs quite a bit of information into its 64 pages.  It is beautifully produced with lush illustrations that really inspire one to grab a compass and straight edge and begin doodling away. You read a passage and constantly refer back and forth to the picture on the opposite page until the concept takes root and one can truly grasp it.

The book is well organized, and the presentation proceeds logically from a single point to a line, to a circle, triangle, and square, and from there to the first three basic Platonic solids: the sphere, the tetrahedron, and the cube.  Most importantly, Lundy encourages a sense of play in the reader, at every turn challenging you to try with compass and ruler of your own to re-create her shapes. Her excellent sense of humor also peeks out now and again, my favorite quote by far being, “There is indeed something very sixy about circles” (Lundy 2011, 8).

By the end of the book, the reader is exposed to a number of quite sophisticated geometrical procedures. It may have been the results of the fever, but the last few pages kept me gazing at them for long stretches of time, watching how the lines and points built upon each other to produce sinuous and complicated designs. It should be noted, however, that some reviewers on Amazon (who would seem to have a stronger background in math than I) find there is erroneous information in several places. Checking out this review in particular may be of use to people wanting to dive deeper into the subject.

Sacred Geometry is one of those introductory works that initially presents as being simple and straightforward, but that doesn’t mean the information is necessarily easy to understand fully. I’m very much looking forward to reading some of the other titles in the Wooden Books series, which promise to hold more in-depth discussions of some of the topics covered in Lundy’s book, such as the Golden Section and Platonic and Archimedean Solids.

*Lundy, M. 2011. Sacred Geometry. New York: Walker Publishing Company.

Books Read 2015: Peter Paddon’s Grimoire for Modern Cunning Folk

I am making a concerted effort this year to keep better track of all the various books I read that are relevant to my Druidic path. With any luck not all of these are going to be from the new age section of the bookstore; as most people on a Pagan/Polytheistic course of study will tell you, 201+ books are often best found exploring other disciplines.  Still there will doubtless be many selections from authors in various fields of spirituality, including Druidry, Traditional Witchcraft, and the different strains of Polytheisms.

16348174665_3fb075fa1d_nI will be starting things off with Peter Paddon’s Grimoire for Modern Cunning Folk.   I do feel a little awkward writing this review, since Mr. Paddon recently passed away, but it was the first book to make it out of the “pending” pile this year.  Grimoire will prove most interesting to those practitioners who already have a good bit of magickal/ritual experience as it gives one something to compare and contrast.

Overall I greatly enjoyed this book. It’s a quick read, but is a very comprehensive introduction to Paddon’s own brand of cunning craft. For anyone who has either a CM or “Wiccanate” background, the variations in ritual and worldview are both novel and intriguing.  There are times when it seems as if the author “doth protest too much” about the differences between “traditional non-Wiccan witchcraft” and Wicca; if I had to hazard a guess, I would say this is because of Paddon’s own Alexandrian background. Still, it’s a small quibble in an otherwise fascinating text.

However, as interesting as the subject matter can be, this is a far from perfect publication. Parts of the work read as if they’ve been directly transcribed from one of Paddon’s podcasts, and while he is a very eloquent speaker, that doesn’t necessarily translate smoothly to the written word. Paddon has admitted to self-publishing, and I fear it shows in the quality of the editing and the illustrations (which can be rather pixelated). (Please also bear in mind that I edit for a living, and therefore may have less tolerance for small mistakes.) I wish there been another set of eyes on this text as clearing up a few typographical errors really would have enhanced the quality of the publication.  Also, the organization of the book is somewhat whimsical, and it is not always clear what is the intent of the overall structure. There also is very little in the way of concluding thoughts to tie the often disparate pieces of the work together.

All of this aside, I’d recommend this as just the right tool for breaking some of the ironclad correspondences that have grown out of the Golden Dawn-influenced paths, especially in regard to both magickal implements and establishing ritual space.  There are several interesting pathworkings/mediatations, and a nice rundown of how to apply the Eightfold Wheel in a non-agrarian context.  Paddon’s focus on Welsh deities is welcome, though sometimes his spellings are a bit odd.  If you want a little shakeup for your standard Pagan practice, this book is a great place to start.

Paddon, P.A. 2011. A Grimoire for Modern Cunning Folk. Los Angeles: Pendraig Publishing.