Sunday, January 30, 2011

Book Review: Embracing the Moon

Book: Embracing the Moon
Author: Yasmine Galenorn
Subject: Eclectic Neo-Pagan theistic witchcraft
Publisher: Lewellyn
ISBN: 9781 567183047
Score:  5 out of 10


This book started out well, but took a turn for the worst near the end. As Lewellyn books go, it's not bad - I'd even recommend it for a beginner. However, it felt quite like the author lost motivation halfway through and started throwing out spells and poor history to fill space. 

The book is aimed at newcomers to Paganism and witchcraft. In some ways it fulfills this role well, with examples and exercises. In others, as will become apparent, it fails as it implies strongly that both witchcraft and Paganism are religions; a newbie to these fields may not be aware of the scope of each. 

Frequent claims that are easily shattered by a passing knowledge of words or history shake one's confidence in (and, frankly, respect for) the author. Two of the most glaring etymological disasters were her claim that the word "sabbat" was related to an Assyrian festival "sabbatu", observing the new moon, and that the word "bitch", so blatantly Germanic in form, is derived from a name for Artemis and was originally a positive term. In fact, as your etymological dictionary will tell you, "sabbat" is from the Hebrew "Shabbath", day of rest, and thence from "shabath", a verb meaning "he rests". Of course, this etymology would conflict with her apparent dislike of Abrahamic religions. "Bitch" is from the Old English "bicce", thence from Old Norse "bikkju", referring to general female canines. Counter to her claim that the phrase "son of a bitch" once meant "son of the Goddess", we find the Old Norse insult "bikkju-sonr", "son of a bitch". This is why you should always cite your claims. If you pull stuff out of your arse, people will point out that it is shit. Out of deference to this point, I present my source.

Talk of "the Patriarchy" and a negative tone when speaking of "Judeo-Christian religions" grows more and more frequent towards the end of the book, though the first part seems relatively unscathed.


I'd really recommend skipping the introduction. It does a lot to reduce trust in the author; she claims to have seen a unicorn (highly dubious, as it apparently didn't try to impale her) and that looking at the moon and feeling witchy apparently made her realise she was a witch.

While most witches will find it a bit difficult to vocalise what, exactly, makes a witch, actually practising witchcraft tends to be pretty high on the list. In fact many witches I've spoken didn't consider themselves witches until having practised it themselves for several years, and grown in their wisdom, understanding and their craft enough to feel that they had earned that "title" in themselves. Adopting it before actually practising any witchcraft is a bit hard to swallow.

Part One: Ritual Preparation

The best section of the book.
The author begins with a series of visualisation and energy-work exercises. These are good exercises, and the primary reason why I would recommend the book to a newbie. (I might actually tell them to leave the rest of the book until later, when they had a little more exposure to the different forms of witchcraft and Paganism out there.) To the experienced they're of no use, but those who have been practising magic for a year or two may find them quite valuable as tune-up exercises. 

Her examples for rites and invocations, and circle-castings, are pretty fair. However, some of these, involving deities, seem out of place: better to introduce the reader to deities before suggesting they call upon them in ritual. 

The chapter on the elements is quite good. While other books go into these in more detail, her brief two-page description of each element and its correspondences are decent enough for the beginner and her exercises to acquaint one with the elements more physically are good. (For example, she recommends skipping stones across a body of water, collecting interesting stones, paying attention to one's breathing.) This section is followed by some passably decent poetry and invocation calls that some may take inspiration from, or incorporate into their own work or worship.

To her great credit, the author goes into "other astral entities", including angels and why it's bad form to misappropriate these for one's own spiritual path because one feels like one likes them. It's a great shame she doesn't pay more attention to concepts of misappropriation when it comes to deities. 

Galenorn spends four and a half pages here on "the god and goddess in all their aspects". Galenorn is a soft polytheist; while she mentions honouring gods as separate entities, it shows that at the core of it they all reduce down to two in her theology. This is hardly uncommon in books on eclectic Neo-Paganism, and so easy to dismiss. At least she does stress that different deities, for all she believes they are aspects of two, are not interchangeable, which I can appreciate. 

The section on the Runes is the poorest in Part One, and as a Heathen it makes me very angry. On no account do I suggest following Galenorn's advice on the Runes. She really doesn't know snot about them, and as she's at least aware that they are living energies, she should know better than to give a piss-poor, three-line description of each Rune and then tell her readers to go out and mess about with them. Her suggestion that Runes should only be annointed with blood in spells pertaining to oneself is false - ALL Runes should be blooded. That's how they are finished, completed, solidified. The most laughable definition of a Rune is for Kenaz, which she links to "healing, love and passion, creativity, strength". The Rune-poems for Kenaz involve heavy mention of charnal houses, rotting children and ulcers. Turns out, it's not so nice. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in the Runes pick up "Taking Up the Runes" by Diana Paxson and "Rudiments of Runelore" by Stephen Pollington, and not to trust Galenorn on this matter at all.

Part Two: Spellcraft

This section isn't so bad, particularly the beginning chapter on "Magical Living". She gets quite paranoid in a short section on "portals", suggesting to the reader that having a mirror facing a window or a door will lead to all sorts of tentacled horrors from the Dungeon Dimensions taking up residence under your bed. (Seriously?) On the whole she has some interesting ideas about how to integrate one's craft and one's faith into one's life, which many people struggle with doing for a time. Not a bad chapter, and of course one doesn't have to use any ideas one doesn't like.

At this point, however, she starts incorporating more and more spells. That in itself isn't really a shock, given the title of part two. But it is poorly done. This is a problem primarily because she simply writes the spell down with instructions on what to do, and doesn't say why this or that is done. The implication seems to be that the reader, if she so chooses, is just to do the spell as written. Which is very strange, as nearly every witch of experience I have spoken to strongly recommends writing your own spells. Example spells are great when learning, but Galenorn doesn't teach these well. She doesn't give examples and then illustrate what she uses and why, and what other methods other witches might prefer. She simply lists the spell and leaves it at that. This is poor teaching, and poor witchcraft. Ladies and gentlemen, I wholeheartedly recommend writing your own spells. Nothing you memorise and perform from someone else will be quite as keyed to who you are, what you need, and how your mind processes symbols as a spell you write yourself. 

One of the great pet peeves in the world of witchcraft is the assumption many young or new witches seem to have of witch-bottles being simply any spell in a bottle, and it's possible Galenorn is where they get this idea. A witch-bottle is a protection spell, and indeed Galenorn lists hers in a protection section. However, witch-bottles include two types of ingredients, and neither type appears in Galenorn's bottles. (These two types of ingredients are pieces of oneself to claim the land and what's on it as one's own, such as urine, nail-clippings and blood, and things that cause harm to warn other things off, like iron nails, broken glass, barbed wire and so forth.)

Galenorn also includes a binding spell, being one of the cruelest types of spell one can cast - a spell that chains free will, chains a mind - and gives no ethical discussion on these types of spells. This is quite shocking.

Overall a poor set of chapters. Plenty of spells, but no instructions on how to write one - and frankly, if you can't write one you shouldn't be casting one, so it's wasted paper.

Part Three: Shadow Work

Galenorn names anything a bit odd or otherworldly "faerie", so if that's one of your pet peeves, this section would really annoy you. Dryads are not faeries. Black Annis was a bloody witch, a boogeyman figure first attested in the 18th century. This is where the twin problems of misappropriation and overgeneralisation appear, and they continue through to the end of the book. She has a short chapter on these overgeneralised "faeries", including an invocation ritual for the Green Man, which is a title she confusingly uses for her soft-polytheistic god in the next chapter. 

This is followed by a chapter on shape-shifting, possibly the most bizzare in the entire book. She begins with a few pages on "totems", and mentions her own as a panther. Small problem: panthers aren't actually animals. A panther is a large wild cat that happens to be melanistically gifted, making the fur black, and this includes jaguars and leopards. This is her "totem animal" (I feel the use of "totem" in this sense is somewhat flawed, but ymmv), but she doesn't appear to understand what it actually is. So, is it a leopard, or is it a jaguar? They are two quite different big cats. This is easily ignored, however, when she describes an experience of literal shapeshifting she had when drunk, high and severely sleep deprived. (While these are tried and tested methods of achieving trance, it does lend a certain disrepute to her claims.) She says after this experience she has done no work with shapeshifting. Fine. What appals me is that she then goes on to teach shapeshifting. Something she has done once, while drunk, high and sleep deprived, and never even tried again since. It's absolutely shocking that she thinks somehow that she has the knowledge to teach this, and I really wonder about what she thinks of teaching from an ethical standpoint. 

The book ends on a low note, with rituals for gods and goddesses. She starts with mention of a goddess that appears to be universal, linking this deity with the Willendorf Venus and similar (despite the fact that we have as much evidence that that model is a deity as we do that it is prehistoric porn). More false claims appear, such as that of the "triple goddess phenomenon" (her words) being a "world-wide archetype". It's not. It's a relatively new concept, and it's only a world-wide archetype if you inaccurately and brutally thrust it upon deities from a variety of cultures that, historically and mythologically, had little if anything to do with said archetype. It's new. If you like archetypes that's fine, but don't pretend they're ancient concepts, don't pretend that this archetype applies universally. 

Another cringe-worthy element surfaces in this chapter: deifying fictional characters. She does this with Morgana and Merlin of the Arthur mythology, and it's very bad form. Deifying Lilith, the human-come-demon of Jewish mythology, is bad enough - doing it with known and established fictional characters is awful, and has no place in informed Paganism. The whole chapter is poorly researched, and smacks of a last-minute addition - she even mentions Herne, an Anglo-Saxon ghost haunting an English forest, as another name for Cernunnos. I don't know where these people get these ideas - possibly other poorly researched books.

The phrase "the God of Paganism" appears several times in this final chapter - a false, insulting and homogenising phrase that implies a) that Paganism is one religion, instead of the vast religious umbrella it is, and b) that all Pagans worship this one god. It would be laughable if it weren't so offensive.

Finally, she brings up the devil. "No witch will believe in the devil", she says, making a sweeping statement that either ignores Christian witches or pretends that they do not exist, neither of which is an acceptable thing to do. Many witches believe in the devil. Some, I imagine, even worship him. It's possible that this is less a deliberate snub of Christian witches, and that Galenorn legitimately thinks that witchcraft is a religion, and that all witches believe and practice as she does.


I felt this required a special mention. The vast majority of the books she lists are poor and should not be recommended at all, which in itself is an indicator of where she must be getting it from. There are a couple of gems in here - Ed Fitch's "Magical Rites from the Crystal Well" is recommended to me by a Wiccan as a decent book on Wicca, and Frazier's "The Golden Bough" is a good historical standard Pagan text - though much of the more Pagan oriented information is actually incorrect, so while it's interesting to learn where some new Pagan ideas come from, mistaking them for historical should be avoided. Brian Froud is a poor resource for faeries. Nice art, poor information. Ditto Ted Andrews's foray into this area; while his Animal Speak is okay, his work on faeries is poor.

And So... ask if I would recommend this book. And I would, to a beginner or witch of a couple years who is wanting to reinvigorate his or her practice. But I would recommend Part One, and the first chapter of Part Two. The rest of it can be discarded, or browsed briefly for ideas to incorporate into rituals or spells you're writing yourself. Possibly it's a result of Lewellyn's publishing policies, possibly the author ran out of ideas, but the surplus of spells, poor teaching practices and the simply bad information presented in the second half of the book are not forgivable. Five out of ten: one good half, one bad.

Purchase or preview Embracing the Moon here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

We Should Be Angry.

I criticise the United States of America, probably more often than I should. Their healthcare policies shock and appal me. Their taxation levels surprise me. Their public education system is, well, broken. (Why does it take four years to get a bachelor's degree over there? Inquiring minds want to know.) But in America, still, despite a great war upon it from the religious right, abortion is legal.

It is also legal in Turkey, Tunisia, Bangladesh, ALL of Europe except for Ireland, Germany and Poland, all the -stans except for Pakistan and Afghanistan*, Cambodia, Cuba, India and a dozen other countries besides.** It is not legal in my country.

My country is New Zealand, and it's got a lot going for it. On most issues, I can hold my head high as a New Zealander. We have some of the world's most liberal laws regarding prostitution, we are nuclear-free, we love the whales and all that. But when it comes to abortion, our laws are an international embarrassment. I am ashamed of them. And I am angry.

To get an abortion, women here have to show that the pregnancy is causing serious harm to her physical or mental health. Two specialists have to sign her off. She has to jump through hoops in order to obtain an abortion in ways that are stressful and upsetting, particularly if the pregnancy itself is distressing to her.

I am pro-choice, childfree, and a little tokophobic. I believe strongly that a woman should have ownership of her own body, and be able to choose what happens to it while she's living and after death. And I believe men should have those same rights for their own bodies (which means I'm not terribly keen on circumcision before the boy is informed and able to choose for himself whether or not he wants one). I don't want children, and never have done. I don't mind children... actually I quite like them, as they tend to be more interesting than adults with better things to say. Adults tend to talk about work, which is odd because they rarely enjoy it while they're there. Children talk about Batman, which is totally something I can get behind. I love my cousins. When I have them, I'll dote upon my nieces and nephews. I simply don't wany any children of my own.

Tokophobia, for those unaware, is a fear of childbirth or pregnancy. I say I'm "a little" tokophobic because I don't have a problem being around pregnant women, I don't suffer nightmares or anxiety attacks when thinking about pregnancy. I do, however, feel a bit anxious. Actually, I feel a bit anxious now. The thought of being pregnant myself is repulsive to me; I genuinely don't understand why other women enjoy it. (Although "enjoy" may be a bit strong, depending on woman and pregnancy.)

While I'm careful about contraception (I'd be a fool if I wasn't), it's pretty clear that my reasons for wanting a change in abortion laws in New Zealand are partly selfish. I want to ensure that, should the worst happen, I needn't fear that I'd have to carry a baby to term. I want to ensure that I - and other women throughout the country - are able to obtain abortions without needing to go through further distress. Partly selfish, I say - even were I sterile, I'd want this right for the women of New Zealand. Hell, even were I personally opposed to having an abortion, I would still want this right for other women. That right to choose. And right now, the laws we have suggest we are not capable of making that choice ourselves.

Abortions aren't nice. In a better world, one would always conceive only when one wanted to. Even when a conception is happily accepted, though, circumstances can change. Jobs are lost, partnerships are broken. Mutations happen - and no woman should be forced to carry a baby with anencephaly or cyclopia to term. (Images of such children are disturbing enough in themselves. Birthing one would be heartbreaking.) In a better world, every foetus would be wanted. Every baby loved. Every child properly raised, well-fed, well-taught, clothed, loved, supported. But - shock! - we do not live in this ideal world. And this is a sad thing. Abortions are a sad thing. But they are, unfortunately, a necessary thing. Oh! for a 100% guaranteed form of contraception.

The whole "she should just have kept her legs shut" argument is a post in and of itself, so I won't go into it here. It will be a post of vitriolic anger. Topics will include "women can be sexual beings without being whores" and "babies shouldn't be punishments".

Finally, one asks oneself - if abortion isn't legal, if one has to jump through so many hoops to obtain one, why are sterilization operations so expensive? So difficult to get? So impossible if you're young and childless? A woman with her tubes tied isn't going to need an abortion (well, one hopes); one would think cheaper, easier sterilization operations would be a better option.

Further reading: ALRANZ, for abortion law reform in New Zealand.

*There's five of them: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
** Gathered from here. Dark blue indicates "Legal on request".

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Value of Formal Prayer

Formality is something many Pagans lack when we interact with deity. Informality can be wonderful, too - even the most staunch ceremonialist must at times, one feels, sit back with a drink and speak at leisure with their gods. Some are lucky enough to have set, specific formal rituals that are properly followed, as in Wicca. Many groups, even those that are eclectic, create rituals that are quite formal in construct. My own rituals tend to be a mix of formality and informality - one following the other as the business of the rite is dealt with and the sitting and chatting over a warm glass of mead comes to the fore. 

But outside of ritual, most of us have no written prayerbooks to depend upon (while a couple of quite good ones have been published, they cater to a specific religion, or a specific flavour of eclecticism). Hellenic Polytheists, of course, are lucky to have the Homeric and Orphic hymns at their disposal when they feel like offering formal prayer to a deity - and often have some to choose from. For others, they may have to form their own with references from lore. There are few Pagan religions with a book of hours or book of common prayer to fall back upon when words fail one, or lend some structure or formality to one's prayer.

I believe that formal prayer has value. That daily devotionals have value. There is something of a movement away from formal prayer in Paganism, possibly on the basis that we tend to have quite close, personal relationships with our deities. Why bother with formality if we can have a friendly chat? It's still respectful (at least, I hope) and it's more personal. I value informal prayer as well, as I mentioned; those informal chats are important too. Formal prayer, however, speaks to us as well as the gods and on a level we may not consciously appreciate.

I think I'll define formal prayer here as a prayer that has an element of cultus. Cultus is an observable act or element within a religion, so a prayer with cultus would be one someone else would recognise as prayer or religious action. It's not something, in other words, one can do sitting on the bus. Perhaps one chooses to light a candle, or kneel at one's bedside... to clasp his hands above one's dinner plate as one says grace or to leave an offering at a shrine, an altar, at the foot of a tree. One might read a rosary or set of prayer beads, or sing a chant. All these may be formal prayer; in this instance, I'm referring to formal prayer with an element of repetition.

The element of repetition may be the time of day, the place, the form in which the cultus takes. The prayer needn't be necessarily the same words each time. One person may write a different prayer for each day of the week, another might write an opening or a closing (or both) and speak from the heart between the two. Another person might simply speak their deity's name and pray without words. You don't have to use fancy words unless it appeals to you.

There's a monastic sort of inner stillness that repeated prayer and repeated devotion can bring. Simply lighting a candle and standing or kneeling before an altar can indicate to your mind and even your body the beginning of a sacred moment, a sacred communication. You are focused on your deity (or ancestor, or spirit, or other entity worthy of your prayer or observance). When repeated daily you can surprisingly quickly become conditioned to becoming calm and focused and of a spiritual mind, and simply standing in front of your altar may convey to you a sense of that stillness.

Concepts like "Pagan Monasticism" very much appeal to me - to a point - and I'll write up a post on it later. I've heard it mentioned by quite a few people now with a kind of yearning - a yearning for that structure, that stillness, that ability to focus solely on studying one's religion and serving one's god for even a short length of time.

Of course, while it would be nice to escape the world for a month and rush off to a monastery every time we felt the need, it's not a possible thing for us. Not at this point, anyway. Incorporating a moment of that structure and that stillness is often all we can manage. But it's worth making the effort.

The danger of repeated prayer and repeated cultus is that it may lose all meaning, and become repeated actions or words with no feeling behind them. Not every prayer will be truly satisfying and occasionally the best of us will rush through it with our minds on something else. The unsatisfying ones are more than made up for by the ones that take your breath away. But if you find yourself rushing through it more times than not, it may be time to change it. Stop. Try something else. You may keep your prayer informal for a week to give yourself a break, and return to your formal prayer to realise with a start how much you had missed it. Or you may find yourself rewriting it entirely. A Pagan's personal practices and beliefs may change over time and prayers should change to reflect those changes.

Most of all, it deepens our relationships with our deities. Formal prayer allows - and aids - us to concentrate on our deities, to offer our time and our love to them in a formal, quiet, still and sacred moment.

I've heard it mentioned by others that there's a movement within Paganism away from prayer itself. I was quite taken aback to hear this; non-theistic Pagans aside, why would you not communicate with your deity? It may be some form of backlash against unfortunate experiences with a previous religion, or perhaps misunderstanding on how the word "prayer" is used - some people associate it primarily with supplication. Nevertheless, I haven't run into anyone like this myself. Just looking at interest in prayer books and prayer beads, I think it's well-valued in Paganism, and growing more so. As it should.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Why Am I Here?

I am here (on blogger, writing this now) for two reasons, primarily, and these two reasons overlay a whole set of inklings and thoughts and motivations.

My first reason is that my Feminism Button has recently been pushed. I think I'll get to the reasons why in another post, but essentially it boils down to the pro-choice stance on abortion, and what this means (and more importantly, what opposing stances mean) for a woman's ownership of her own body.

I grew up as a feminist. I was a feminist when I was very small, though I didn't think of it that way; I simply felt that girls could do anything boys could do, and any suggestion otherwise would have to be thoroughly explained and vigorously defended. I think perhaps Lisa Simpson worked her influence on me somewhere in those early years. Then of course the 1990s gave us Girl Power in the form of the Spice Girls, which really wasn't much to do with feminism but made you feel somehow empowered about being female anyway. I've essentially remained unchanged in my stance since I was little, and honestly haven't done much investigation into the concept of and history of feminism. I know my country was the first in the world to grant women the vote back in 1893, something of which I'm fiercely proud. So I'm not well versed in the lingo, I'm not well read in this area, I'm not active in feminist protests or movements. So you'll have to forgive me if my words are a bit unversed in this area. It is, I think, something I shall be working on. But I believe any person is entitled to the same rights as any other regardless of whether they are male, female, or third gendered. My rights as a woman are something I've always simply taken for granted. I have since childhood always assumed I would be afforded the same rights and treatment as a man would and rarely think about it.... and as a result, when it appears that I may be losing out in some way by virtue of having a uterus I am at first shocked and appalled, and then very angry. Quite simply, I am a woman, I deserve no less than others by virtue of being such, and I'll be damned if I'll let anyone take my rights away from me.

My second reason is that I hoped to write and post a series of book reviews on the subjects of Paganism and witchcraft. I feel one can never have too many reviews to read through when wondering on what to spend their hard earned money, and there are far too many reviews (particularly on book purchasing websites) that simply laud the book without going into any detail about what made the book great, and where it failed. And they always fail. Even the bests books on Paganism and witchcraft have particular flaws, and these should be discussed even in a five-star review. Besides, this or that reviewer might be brand new to Paganism and not know their athames from their hammers.

To that end, I intend to post reviews on books I have read and own, mostly on the subjects of witchcraft, Paganism, mythology and theology. I'll give scores out of ten and... well, frankly my book standards are pretty high. After nearly eleven years as a practising Pagan and more reading about the occult I am bitter, angry and dissillusioned with much of what I read. So many "facts" stated without citations, so many biblographies loaded with the author's own works, so much arse. And yet, I buy more books, I return to the library, all in the vain hope that I'll find a book I really like. So even on the books I do enjoy, I intend to review rather harshly. The bad points often stick in my mind better than the good, anyway. I'll also post reviews from friends if they are happy to share, so they may use a different scoring system than myself. Rest assured anything not written by me personally will be properly attributed to its author(s).

As mentioned, I've been a practising Pagan for nearly eleven years, and a practising witch for just as long. As a child with a long interest in the occult (for some reason) it was inevitable that I would stumble upon "real witchcraft" at some point. Unfortunately when I did so, I was naive and believed pretty much everything I read if it was classified as "non-fiction". I started out, as many do, with eclectic Neo-Paganism falsely marketed as Wicca. That served me well for a couple of years, but I had always had theological issues with "the rede" and eventually attempted a more general eclecticism. In time I came upon the Nordic pantheon, fell into Heathenry (Norse Reconstructionism and Recon-derived religions) and remain there quite happily. I have a thorough interest in other religions as well. I'm a Hedgewitch of sorts, and a religious one (ditheistic), which is a path I doubt I'll go into any detail on in future.

So, those are my two reasons, and the background to each. And here I am.