Review: Longing for Wisdom

Longing for wisdom: the message of the maxims
Allyson Szabo
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008

General books about paganism are about as common as anything now. Books relating to reconstruction and revival traditions are somewhat rare, but not impossible to find. Books giving a truly pagan perspective on andcient philosophy and how to bring that into modern life are truly rare. I can think of very few titles worth noting. Which is why, despite its being outside my usual traditions, Longing for Wisdom is certainly going to be a book to see much use from me.

The Delphic maxim best known in the modern world is Know Thyself, but there are many more discovered from around the ancient Greek world. In this text Szabo takes many (bot not all) of the maxims and examines them from both an ancient Hellenic standpoint as well as how they can be applied to modern life. Phrases such as “give a pledge and ruin is near” might not make as much sense without the context that the pledge is of oneself to pay off a debt. Anyone who’s racked up a lot on their credit cards and unsure of how to pay them off without filing for bankruptcy could well understand the message behind such a statement. Among other maxims covered in the book are “respect yourself,” “do not wrong the dead,” “teach a youngster,” “honor the hearth,” and “worship the gods.”

Several of the maxims include reflections and meditations one can contemplate when learning about a particular maxim. These exercises take these phrases away from the intellectual consideration and make them real to the practitioner. In order to fully internalize a new world view (or perhaps reinforce beliefs already present), this is the most direct action one can take on that path.

The maxims certainly can apply to other pre-Christian cultures as well. Both my Kemetic and Heathen sides (which aren’t really in opposition) were nodding in agreement to many of the maxims presented and brought to some new ideas thanks to Szabo’s commetary.

Through both her own academic and personal study, Szabo has done a fine job placing the maxims into a modern practice. This book can easily become a good reference as well as a source for inspiration and meditation. She herself states that you can either read the book straight through, or select a maxim at random and simply read that small chapter. If you’re of a contemplative or philosophical slant to your practices, you’d do well to pick up this book.

Five stars.

Review: The World We Used to Live In

The world we used to live in: remembering the powers of the medicine men
Vine Deloria, Jr.
Fulcrum Publishing
ISBN 9781555915643

I think the biggest disadvantage to modern polytheists who are working to revive and reconstruct dormant traditions is a lack of elders. Aside from the obvious, that a lot of traditional wisdom has been lost because of this, what we also lack is people who share our world view and can also potentially reshape the perception of the world around us. For several years, I have believed quite strongly that many of those tales of amazing feats and inexplicable things people saw and recorded in the various lores could indeed have been truly SEEN. Not simply a matter of having a vision, or perception of one thing being a stand in for a spirit or God, but simply taken at face value.

This is why I was so excited as I read Vine Deloria‘s last book, The World We Used to Live In.

For those of you not familiar with his work, Vine Deloria was one of the foremost scholars of Native American religion(s) in the world. When he was younger and a student of theology, he began collecting stories recorded about members of different Nations in history which had to do with what we might now classify as “supernatural” happenings. Under the assumption that indigenous American cultures were not prone to boasting, he took these stories to be true at face value and compiled them into one book in order to present a more thorough worldview of Native Americans. He chronicles several different areas of power which medicine men had in the past and provides a wealth of stories for each: dreaming, healing, distance communication, speaking with animals, speaking with the land, working with sacred stones and plants, “unexplained” phenomena, and the nature of the universe around them.

As I was reading these various recountings, I could EASILY imagine our spiritual ancestors sharing such tales 1000+ years ago. True, in some cases they may have had some extra polish places upon them (Heathens ARE known for boasting, after all), but like Deloria, I too would take them mainly for face value. These stories give a much more whole view of the entirety of the reality the original inhabitants of this country had.

One story which has stuck with me is his recounting of the sacred stones. Medicine men would find/be given some small, ordinary seeming stones and they would be employed in a variety of ways.
“One characteristic of the sacred stones is that they remain within our chronological time while looking for lost objects. That is to say, they disappear and the people wait, sometimes for an hour or more, until the stones return. It must be a spectacular experience to suddenly discover that the stones, which are laid out on a soft buckskin or on top of the bag in which they are carried, suddenly disappear. You would find them gone, and the only indication that they have been there a slight popping, if they choose to go through the sides of the tipi instead of using the door…. Suffice it to say that they are amongst the most valuable religious objects that medicine men can have, since they perform menial tasks for them.”

Other tales you are not likely to soon forget are stories of people (sometimes white) being present or nearby as medicine men told tales of the world forming or of major events, and the soundscapes which accompany them. No instruments would be present, no one there making any sort of sounds. But more than a few stories of people hearing sounds like major storms happening either outside or inside (usually the opposite location to where they were) and absolutely no way for anyone to make those sounds either.

I am absolutely not advocating we appropriate these stories as our own. What I am suggesting is that we look to other cultures whose original spirituality were not completely cut away in order to get a better sense of where we might be had this not happened. This is an excellent book indeed.

Five sacred stones out of five.

Review: The Northern Path

Douglas “Dag” Rossman
The Northern Path: Norse Myths and Legends Retold … and What They Reveal.
Seven Paws Press, 2005
ISBN 0964011306

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 mjollnir out of five.

Mini Book Review: The Chakras in Shamanic Practice

Since I did not read this book in one fell swoop, nor did I keep a log of points I wanted to make, I will present this min book review in note form.

Title: The Chakras in Shamanic Practice: Eight Stages of Healing and Transformation.
Author: Susan J. Wright

What I thought I would get: A book about working with the energies of the chakras for specific types of trance working, or at least integrating chakras into trance work.

What I got: A book about personal healing which uses the chakras, along with some ritual work and yoga.

What I liked:
*The author presents several different exercises and meditations to help heal issues and/or trauma around the period of life she associates with each chakra. The first covers birth through age six, second is age six-twelve, etc., until reaching ages 55-70 with the crown charkas, and 70+ is covered by the aura/eighth chakra. Before any of you start in on eighth chakra, I’ll get there.
*While she presented soul retrieval in the chapter for the second chakra (way too early in my opinion) she did state loud and clear that it was most likely not a good idea to undergo on at that point in the exercises. Further, she states that the best idea is to get an experienced practitioner to perform the retrieval.
*A very good layout of what the chakras are and what areas of life they can cover.
*Wright also presents her own healing journey at different points through the book and willingly gives detail of rather traumatic events she has endured.
*Wright also does not encourage long-term navel gazing, as can happen with this kind of material.
*Everyone needs healing at some point or another. As far as texts to help accomplish such things, this has some very solid material to use.

What I didn’t like:
*The layout of the material hits a little too close to the New Age ideas around personal healing that I find grating. It’s far too easy for someone to pick up this book, think they’ve worked through the material, and declare themselves a shaman.
*There is a lot more to the chakras than what she presents here. As I stated with my hope for the book, I would have liked more of working with the chakra energy rather than a stage of my own life.
*The cultural appropriation police showed up in my head. First, Wright has trained with John Perkins, who is a hero of mine and the reason I first started to read about shamanism ten years ago. He originally trained with the Shuar of South America (and I do believe he has, given the work he did before outing himself as an economic hit man), and Wright uses some of their imagery and terminology for ritual work. She speaks of constructing mesas (shrines) and finding huacas (elemental representations) for various parts of the healing. At this point in my own work, I think I prefer authors and practitioners who use general English terms for items (unless they’re working overtly with a tradition), thanks to so many modern examples of people “borrowing” terms and having no real sense of what they’re getting into. Second, her visualization experiences included a circle of Celtic shamans. I can’t say what she has and has not experienced in trance, but no such people existed in ancient Celtic cultures. I am tired of seeing such things presented as absolute fact.
*I am still wary of her presenting both the idea and methodology of soul retrieval so early in such a book. I don’t think this is something you can read about and apply, but instead *must* be learned from someone with experience. Especially someone who will physically stand guard when you first perform such trance work. There is danger possible, and if something goes wrong you really do not want to be on your own when it occurs.

3 out of 5 stars.
Intermediate material that is good to have around, but also keep your filters on. If you know what you’re doing, this can be a great aid to your shamanic work.

Mini book review: Druid Priestess

Druid Priestess: an intimate journey through the pagan year by Emma Restall Orr.
Thorsons, 2000.

Something I feel we need more of in modern paganism/polytheism are memoirs. At this stage I am much more interested in reading about how people live their faith and practices than yet another rehashing of what I can find in five other 101/201 books. Druid Prietess certainly fits the bill of the former, with Orr taking the reader through the neopagan wheel of the year to introduce the major concepts of her practice of Druidcraft. From Samhain to Samhain, we go through initiations, births, rebirths, death, exploration, sexuality, harvest, eldering, and back to the beginning. Orr takes many scenes from her own life and applies them to each of the holy tides. Personally, my favorite portions are her interactions with her Gods, spirit guides, local spirits, and one story recounting a ritual done in full view of a nuclear power plant.

If you’re looking for some inspiration, are just curious as to how to go about making a pagan faith an integrated part of your life, or wish to read the story of an interesting and unconventional person, pick up this book.

(Note: This book was originally published as Spirits of the Sacred Grove. I also am not certain if it has been reprinted since this edition and if there is a title change.)

Mini Book Reviews

At some point I am hoping to be able to do more in depth book reviews, but in the interim I can start writing smaller reviews to get into the mindset.

First up is Inner Alchemy: energy work and the magic of the body by Taylor Ellwood. If you practice energy work with any sort of regularity, this book needs to be a part of your library. I suspect even the most well-read and well-practiced worker will find some new material in this book, as the author includes recent scientific discoveries as well as working with DNA and neurotransmitters in a magical way. Each chapter also ends with exercises/journaling questions to expand upon the contents of said chapter, which I find beneficial to help draw out my own opinions and experiences, and also encourage the reader to try out what Ellwood has presented. I don’t automatically agree with everything presented, and my inner proofreader noted a few minor printing errors (chalk it up to the Seshat influence), but the strength of the material easily makes up for this.
(Disclaimer: Yes the author and I are friends, and his blog is listed in my blogroll. My opinion comes independent of this friendship. Had I not liked the book, I would have said nothing about it.)

Next is The Golden Thread: the ageless wisdom of the Western mystery traditions by Joscelyn Godwin. In sixteen short, engaging and well-researched chapters, Godwin presents a timeline of the assorted mystery traditions, from Hermeticism and Platonic thought through Freemasonry, Theosophy and beyond. I was greatly impressed with his ability to work in a wide range of ideas and thinkers I don’t normally see in “popular” treatments of the subject, such a references to Henry Corbin’s mundus imaginalis and the Traditionalist school of the early 20th century. If you are looking for a text to explore the ideas that will neither sail over your head or talk down to you, pick this up.

Hope you’ve enjoyed, and happy reading!