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.

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