Category Archives: Reviews

Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1100 (Review)

Witches and Pagans coverMax Dashu has posted significant excerpts of her multi volume project on the history of witchcraft at her Suppressed Histories website for years, and publication of her research in book form has been eagerly anticipated. This first installment (which Dashu refers to as Volume VII) covers the years 700 to 1100 – a good choice, because this period is critical to understanding the peak of the witch craze in late medieval and early modern times. This is also a period in European history where not a lot of information is available to the average Pagan.

Dashu is explicit that she is writing for a lay audience, but this is a thoroughly researched and referenced work, with a large bibliography and over a thousand footnotes. There are some readers who will think she excessively belabors her points, but there is so much misinformation out there, often written by slipshod academics and well-intentioned Pagans who rely on these academics, that a solid scholarly work was sorely needed. The conclusions Dashu reaches will not be startling to better informed researchers inside and outside academia, but the weight of evidence on which she bases her findings is gratifying in this highly contentious field. No doubt there are many who will be surprised.

The book utilizes linguistic analysis, place names, archaeology, folk customs documented by clerics, early theological treatises on demonology and witchcraft, and mythology of pagan origin recorded by Christians. Dashu is well aware of the shortcomings of each of these methodologies and discusses them frankly. Still the amount of evidence, from many types of sources, leads to well grounded conclusions. This book mentions in passing some of the biases which hamper academic research on witchcraft, leading to often repeated yet erroneous beliefs that have seeped into Pagan discourse.

Dashu informs us that Pagan beliefs and shamanic practices not only survived well into the Middle Ages in supposedly Christianized regions, they were widespread and deeply adhered to, particularly by the lower classes. Shamanic practices and worship of goddesses and nature deities were equated with witchcraft and devil worship by clerics and formed the basis for persecution. Though trials for malefic sorcery also existed in pagan Rome, the intensity and tone of the Christian persecution was different and significantly broader, including for example healing and divination. Aristocratic government and church leadership were intricately connected and both used dispossession of pagan culture along with persecution of witches as a way of solidifying power. The healers, diviners, and keepers of tribal history known as witches were overwhelmingly female, and witch persecutions were part of a pervasive Church strategy to further subjugate women, who were already dominated by men within their pagan cultures. Dashu firmly establishes that for centuries the targets of the witch hunts were shamans, usually female, and that the purpose of witch persecutions was to establish Christian hegemony and solidify aristocratic power.

Dashu also attempts to piece together what those pagan belief systems and female shamanic practices that were under attack actually were, and here her findings must be treated as incomplete. She focuses a great deal on Germanic cultures, and practitioners of the various Germanic traditions will find a wealth of information here. She discusses the importance of the distaff in women’s mysteries and the Norse practice of “sitting out” to achieve psychic insight. She explores the little that is known about northern European goddesses. She devotes an entire chapter to the important Icelandic poem The Volupsa. This is not, however, a definitive look at any Norse tradition, and really to have attempted that would have taken this book too far afield. I have noticed a tendency in witches in my acquaintance to devote their reading solely to authors like Dashu who approach witchcraft from a solid feminist perspective. There would be nothing wrong with that if there were more Pagan writers with a true understanding of feminist theory, but there are not enough of us around to be so selective. If the material here sparks some new interest you will need to draw from a variety of sources on the runes and Norse literature. I was particularly dismayed to hear a friend say she was inclined to cut out any reference to the god Odin from her practice after reading this book. I am a Dianic priestess, and it is more than okay with me if a woman only wants to worship goddesses, but I think we must remember that male as well as female archetypes become distorted in support of male dominance. It is important that we recognize patriarchal bias in our Pagan heritage, but it is equally important that we do not stop there.

Witches and Pagans is slow reading and cannot be tackled in one or two sittings. Dashu’s writing style is clear and straightforward, but the nature of the material is that it is dense. An index would be helpful. There is a web address for an index in the book which took me to a 404 error page. There are quite a few line drawings in the book which add a great deal to the text. This is a great resource with a lot of helpful information. I hope we will not have to wait too long for the next volume of “The Secret History of the Witches.”

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Review: Female Erasure

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Regular readers of this blog are aware of what I think about censorship. (I don’t like it, even if you think your views are correct.) When the forthcoming publication of Female Erasure was announced less than a year ago, an attempt was made to derail editor Ruth Barrett’s fundraising for the book through Indiegogo, thereby guaranteeing that I would order an advance copy and review the book. Barrett is a well-known Dianic priestess who has received a great deal of criticism, harassment, and no-platforming for her defense of born-women-only space.

I was impressed with the thickness of the book in this age of slim cost-conscious publishing. I read some feminist theory, and I have followed this issue closely for the past five years, so I had already read many of the excerpts in the volume. Still there were a lot of new articles here.

I think the crux of the issue of transgender rights clashing with the rights of females is described in the article by attorney Maya Dillard Smith, “Federal Court’s Denial of Obama’s Transgender Bathroom Directive A Win for Everyone.” Obama’s directive on transgender rights was made without the customary public input period for Federal rules, forcing agencies and citizens to comply without debate or comment. Dillard Smith is discussing this from a US Federal legal perspective, of course, but her insights apply to a variety of religous, social, educational, and legal situations. “Trans women are women; end of discussion,” transgender advocates have decreed in exactly those words, demanding public adoption of this belief with no examination of what it implies. The contributors to this anthology have disobeyed this injunction by exploring some uncomfortable implications of transgender advocacy for the rights of biological females.

Some of the issues covered in the book are transitioning of gay children, lesbian rights, reproductive issues, prisons, girls’ athletics, racial perspectives, and feminist political organizing. I found Carol Downer’s explanation of the philosophical underpinnings of transgender “queer” theory helpful, though dense and difficult as all queer theory tends to be. Many will be interested in Barrett’s “The Attack on Female Sovereign Space in Pagan Community.” Too many people think they understand this issue through oversimplified slogans about “inclusivity.” Barrett and many other writers here take the trouble to explain the history and background behind feminist positions.

Other contributors are lawyers, feminist theorists, journalists, medical professionals, activists, parents, and detransitioned adults. For people who think transgender issues are only about bathrooms, this book is required reading.

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The Goddess in America is Out!

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The long-awaited Moon Books anthology, The Goddess in America, was released in the past week. I wrote the lead article for this volume, about the contributions of Native Americans to the Goddess Movement. There are also articles in the first section exploring Cherokee, Hopi, and Mayan perspective on female deity.

I was expecting something similar to Naming the Goddess here, but I was pleasantly surprised to see articles exploring the impact of The Goddess in a number of areas rather than a regional version of that anthology. Articles explore The Goddess in shamanistic, Christian, healing, archetypal, and Craft contexts. I was pleased to see an in-depth article on Voodoo and an article on Hebrew goddesses. Jhena Telyndru does justice to the issue of cultural appropriation by acknowledging the “rock and a hard place” that Americans without indigenous heritage face in pursuing a Goddess spiritual path, with some arguing that immigrants have already taken too much from Native peoples and others objecting to the idea of transplanting the worship of European deities from their sacred locale. I was prepared to take exception to Phoenix Love’s article on The Goddess and pop culture, but instead found a provocative exploration of how popular culture furthers as well as hinders a meaningful relationship with Goddess energy.

This anthology gives a lot in terms of variety, breadth, and surprising food for thought. There’s a lot of meat here, and if you think you already know the American Goddess Movement this book may surprise you.

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Review: The Morrigan by Morgan Daimler

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Following up on my post last month about Celtic raven goddesses, I wanted to review this book about the goddess Morrigan, who was mentioned in that post.

The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens by Morgan Daimler is another installment of the Moon Books Pagan Portals series. It is a short book, under a hundred pages, but contains in-depth material nonetheless. It discusses the Irish triple goddess from early Irish literary and historical sources. Other Irish goddesses associated with or mentioned in conjunction with the Morrigan are also explored. If you are looking for a way through the baffling and contradictory literature about these goddesses your hopes are dashed. Daimler mostly confirms that the sources really are that confused and confusing. Needless to say, this is not a book for the casual reader. Still, those who worship Irish goddesses and are drawn to Irish Paganism will find it worthwhile. There are invocations, meditations, and personal recollections that break up the text, as well as short essays on general topics related to the Morrigan such as “dark goddesses.”

The Morrigan is written from a Pagan Reconstructionist perspective, with the limitations and prejudices this implies. It hints at the tensions between fundamentalists and reformationists in modern practice, which I find interesting rather than off-putting. Usually this “discussion” consists of Reconstructionists sniping at non-Reconstructionists and non-Reconstructionists rolling their eyes and ignoring Reconstructionists. I’ve decided that the time has come for some pushback from the other team and will be unleashing some well overdue criticism against Reconstructionism in an article I am writing for an upcoming anthology. I will eviscerate the Reconstructionists with incisive commentary worthy of the old Irish satirists. Morrigan has spoken: the war is on.

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In With the New

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The year begins in an auspicious way with the publication of the Moon Books anthology Pagan Planet: Being, Believing, and Belonging in the 21st Century. This is a book about how Pagans in the Millennium are living their religion: some through activism, some through family, some through community involvement, all through conscious practice. This is an inspirational and varied collection of writings, one that looks beyond theory to real world practice. Yours truly has an essay included here, about practice in a wilderness environment.

I have three longer essays that I expect will be published this year in various anthologies. One is a feminist look at the self-help industry and another is about Native American roots of the Goddess Movement. I am finishing up a piece on witchcraft with the scorpion.

And of course I am working on another book. This one will move deeper into animal magic with a focus on divination. This is where I am devoting the bulk of my energies right now.

Here’s to a productive and enjoyable year!

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Recording for Book Event (Mago Solstice Program)

Here is the recording for the program highlighting Goddess/Female Divine Books for 2015.

Program is also available at the following link:

Solstice Program Book Event

Access all Mago Academy Solstice videos at

Mago Nine Day Solstice Celebration

Have a beautiful solstice and other holidays you are celebrating. Next post will be following the New Year.

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Book Review Program Coming Next Week

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The online review of women’s spirituality books published in 2015 will be this Wednesday December 16th at 3:00 pm Eastern Standard Time. You can access the program meeting room starting at 2:45 pm with this link:

2015 Goddess/Feminine Divine Books

Type your name and enter as a guest; no password or registration required. You may be asked to download an “add-in” from Adobe Software to configure your device for the meeting room.

There will also be an interview with poet Elizabeth Hardy. This program is offered in conjunction with the Mago Academy Nine Day Solstice Program.

A more detailed description of the program was given in last week’s post.

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Here is the Program: Day 3 Mago Solstice, 2015 Books

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Stay in touch with emerging concepts in Goddess spirituality. Join us for a review of spiritually oriented books published in 2015. The program will be live at 3:00 pm EST on December 16th. There will be a mixture of essays, nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.

To access program live on the day of the broadcast use this link:
https://hearthmoonrising.adobeconnect.com/solsticebooks2015/

Type your name and enter as a guest: no registration needed. Program can be accessed by desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile phone. You may be asked to download an add-in by Adobe Software if your device is not configured for the meeting room. Go ahead and click okay; it’s safe and fast.

A link to the recording will be available the day following the program on this blog.

The program will include a live interview with Elizabeth Hardy, author of Female Sperm Whale … and other [feminist] poems

The following books will also be featured:

Healing Your Feminine Essence: A Transformative Journey Within for Women Who Wish to Be Free by Marie de Kock

Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots and Restoring Earth Community by Pegi Eyers

Locust Girl: A Lovesong by Merlinda Bobis

The Mago Way: Re-Discovering Mago, the Great Goddess from East Asia (vol i) by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang

She Rises: Why Goddess Feminism, Activism, and Spirituality? edited by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang and Kaalii Cargill

More on the Mago Nine Day Solstice Program here.

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More on the Book Discussion for Nine Day Solstice Celebration

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On December 16th, as part of the Mago Nine Day Solstice Celebration, I will be hosting a program on Goddess/Feminine Divine books published in 2015. This will be online, and you can join through a link the way you may have participated in online meetings. The link will be posted here and probably a few other places as well. I will have slides of these books and I will read a brief description of the books and authors. There will also be a few interviews.

The program will be live at 3:00 Eastern Standard Time on December 16. I will be recording the event and the recording will be available for nine days.

I still am looking for submissions. Anything of a feminist spirituality slant is acceptable; it doesn’t have to be about goddesses. The book can be non-fiction, fiction or poetry. Also, you don’t have to be interviewed to have your book included. More details about submitting your work here.

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The Mago Way: Rediscovering Mago, the Great Goddess from East Asia (Review)

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When I began my own Goddess studies, I devoured the “Great Goddess,” “Gods and Goddesses of the World,” and “World Mythology” compilations that were available and noticed the complete absence of information about Korean goddesses. In some ways this is reflective of the nature of these anthologies, which attempt to move beyond Euro-centrism while avoiding the production of a huge, unwieldy, and costly volume. Paradoxically, this world overview approach creates or reinforces a chauvinism of its own. What becomes distilled for comparative study reflects the amount of material available. In the 1980s there didn’t seem to be anything in English for a casual reader about Korean goddesses. I can’t say that with authority, because finding Korean goddesses wasn’t exactly a mission of mine; only an absence that registered without my thinking too deeply about it. Helen Hye-Sook Hwang’s The Mago Way: Rediscovering Mago, the Great Goddess from East Asia, is a welcome and much-needed addition to Goddess studies that begins to fill this void.

Although The Mago Way mentions Korean goddesses, it is not about goddesses per se but about a Korean way of conceptualizing the Great Goddess. Except this conceptualization is not just Korean, but an understanding of Goddess cosmology that crosses national, ethnic, and geographic borders, using an ancient Korean manuscript as a foundational text. This manuscript, The Budoji, is an origin story believed to have been written in the 5th century.

The Budoji tells of the self-creation of the Great Goddess, called Mago, as a primordial sound emanating from a wave of light. Mago gives birth parthenogenically to daughters, two of them, who in turn each give birth to four daughters. Mago’s eight granddaughters create music attuned with Mago and move the “eight planets” in harmony with Mago’s vibration. The granddaughters are proto-humans, establishing four races. They in turn give birth to male and female humans, establishing the sexes.

Mago with Deer. Painting Seokgyeong, 14th Century.

Mago with Deer. Painting Seokgyeong, 14th Century.

Hwang traces Mago through folktales, other goddesses, and place names throughout East Asia. She describes how Taoism, Buddhism, and Confusionism are derivative of the ancient Mago Goddess religion, shedding more light on these philosophies. She finds parallels with Magoism in the Greek Muses and Hindu Matrikas. She says “Mago’s affinity to other Goddesses becomes ever evident when we examine how the triad and parthenogenesis, the two paramount themes of the Magoist Myth, are in ancient gynocentric cultures and religions around the world.” Hwang demonstrates a strong background in radical feminist thealogy and shows how Mago fits within this framework.

The Mago Way is fairly short and readable, with illustrations. It is introductory, rather than comprehensive, and Hwang promises to go into the mythology in more depth in future volumes. I am not in any way qualified to assess Hwang’s scholarship; still, I sense this is an important book. I would not consider this volume esoteric or specialized in any way, but a valuable addition to overall Goddess studies.

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