Category Archives: Reviews
This bibliography was posted this week at Return to Mago
“I have compiled a list of six well-sourced books written by women that I believe will help Witches, Pagans, and Goddessians in their quest to understand ancient Egyptian thought….”
The eagerly awaited anthology She Rises: Why Goddess Feminism, Activism and Spirituality?, edited by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang and Kaalii Cargill, was released this past Solstice (Summer or Winter, depending on your perspective) and I don’t exactly know what to say about it, except WOW. It certainly does not disappoint.
This is a hefty anthology of almost 500 pages. It has scholarly essays, stories of personal experience, poetry, and short inspirational paragraphs. The artwork–oh my Goddess the artwork. Get this one even if you don’t like to read books, just for the artwork. It’s deep and beautiful and transformative.
There are many contributors with names you may be familiar with, such as Carol Christ, Starhawk, Barbara Daughter, Vicki Noble, Max Dashu. Other excellent contributors will be new to you, but you may find yourself looking for more of their work. I feel honored to be included in such illustrious company. The articles are short, so they can be read over a long time period….though you might find it hard to put the book down. I was touched by how often the names Mary Daly, Merlin Stone, Marija Gimbutas, and Monica Sjoo appeared in this volume, and it seemed to me that these early pioneers were also contributing through other women.
This project grew out of a Facebook discussion. Someone–I think it was Helen Hwang–asked people to share why Goddess spirituality was important to them, and some amazing dialogue started, some of which was eventually posted on Return to Mago blog. Out of these and other contributions a whole anthology was put together by a team of volunteers.
From the book:
Coming from a culture where the divine has been described as a Caucasian male and anything opposite of that being evil, the need to see the divine in me offered a sense of empowerment and reclamation of who I am as an African Woman. To then research further and realize that the first divinity known on the planet looked like me, a black woman, brought this idea home full circle…..
–Iyanifa Ayele Kumari
The womb is infinitely more than a reproductive organ; it is a replica of the Cosmic Womb or Mago. From that profound pool of infinite silent knowledge, women can access the solutions so urgently needed to recover the equilibrium the world with its God spirituality has lost….
–Marie de Kock
…feminism without the Goddess does not reach far enough to change the root of our oppression, which is the control of women globally by our various faith traditions.
For me, Goddess is completely different from God. Goddess means acceptance of the sacred WITHIN the physical instead of transcending the physical; acceptance of death and life as equally sacred; and the holiness of changing cycles…
A study published earlier this year out of the State University of New York – Buffalo, finding that men are more narcissistic than women, was met with jokes and derision for being yet another academic examination of the obvious, but author Emily Grijalva responded eloquently that it is precisely those things that “everybody knows” that need to be examined. Not simply because they might not be true, although (obviously) there is a chance that they are false: establishing a fundamental fact (the what) allows us to move on to questions of why or how.
I thought of Grijalva’s words when I saw the promotion for Breaking the Mother Goose Code, about Mother Goose as a surviving form of the Mother Goddess. I believe I may have heard this idea from Z Budapest in the mid-1980s, but I don’t believe she made any claim to have researched this herself. I began showing my own students a picture of Aphrodite on her goose and calling her an early form of Mother Goose, and I don’t think it occurred to me or to anyone to examine the assumption.
In Breaking the Mother Goose Code Jeri Studebaker chronicles her effort to pin down the source of the nursery character, and on the journey with Mother Goose finds a long history of suppression of the Mother Goddess. Without delving exhaustively into the patriarchal takeover of Europe and the Christian takeover of religion, Studebaker provides the background for understanding why Mother Goose is such a powerful figure and how Christianity changed her. Studebaker gives a history of the fairytale and a synopsis of the prevalent theories for how European fairytales developed. There is a more detailed examination of the German goddess Holda than most women will be familiar with, along with some discussion about the goddesses Baba Yaga, Mari, Brigid and Aphrodite. There is some examination of theater history related to the Harlequin that appears in one of the rhymes. In addition to a history of their publication, Studebaker goes through the nursery rhymes line by line and attempts to decipher them. This involves a great deal of conjecture, but apparently this author is intrepid.
Studebaker’s intuition is on track in the avenues she explores, even when she admits that her evidence is tenuous. In some cases she seems to be unaware of information that would bolster her arguments further. I do disagree with her argument about classic fairytales created as an underground Pagan resistance movement. If anything, I think these fairytales were created as allegories against rival Christian institutions. I was going to expound on this, but it’s a rather esoteric point.
There is some great supplemental material in the appendices: a glossary, a list of fairytale codewords, a synopsis of the stories in Tales of Mother Goose, two timelines, and the full text of a Holda fairytale. The author did not neglect to provide references, a bibliography, and an index, which in this case were essential.One regrettable omission: there are no pictures. Studebaker admits that an examination of artwork was essential to her research, and she refers to this artwork frequently. Priestesses in the Goddess Movement have become accustomed to relying on pictures to enhance their understanding, and I think the Internet has fueled the demand for illustrations even more. She says that the decision to omit pictures was made to accommodate e-book requirements, but many e-books do have illustrations. In fact, e-books should be making it easier and cheaper to produce books with pictures, as well as expanding other creative borders. I am aware that the variety of e-book readers on the market makes it challenging to format manuscripts, but even in the early days of the printing press, books had illustrations. There are a lot of e-book readers out there that are marketed to consumers with features that do about everything except wash your clothes, but at the same time they are limiting the ability of authors to produce creative content. It’s not right, and authors, publishers, and consumers should not be standing for it.
All in all I really liked this book (except for the pictures – did I mention that?). I hope the author will return to the subject of nursery rhymes, including Mother Goose. While the book is a respectable 300 pages there is still a lot of gold to mine here.
Okay, I’ve been promising to say something about Naming the Goddess for some time, so here it is. I lent the book to someone who refused to give it back, but thankfully I bought several copies. Naming the Goddess, edited by Trevor Greenfield, is an anthology by Moon Books on the subject of Goddess worship. It has a section on more general issues related to the Goddess of about eighty pages and a longer section of about 250 pages on various individual goddesses. I have been reading the book as I imagine most people will, by flipping back and forth between different sections in no particular order. Since the sections on individual goddesses are short, this is a book that you can carry around with you and read during brief moments of down time. In terms of sales, this is already one of the best-selling anthologies that Moon Books has put out, so by that measure it is an unqualified success.
I’ve been following the reviews on this book, and they have been positive. One reviewer said she thought the whole book should have been devoted to more general essays like those in the first section of the anthology. The essays in the first section are very good. Selene Fox’s short history on the goddess of liberty, Libertas, is fascinating. Robin Herne’s provocative piece asks us to consider how certain aspects of myth may be continuing to validate rape culture. My own essay is a response to the anti-Goddess backlash currently trending in the more trendy Pagan circles. Many women have come forward to thank me for writing this piece, although I have a feeling others will scratch their heads and wonder what I’m talking about. If you read my essay and have no idea where it came from, good for you. Hopefully you never will.
A criticism I have also heard is that there are already many books of this type on the market, meaning that there are a lot of encyclopedic compilations on various goddesses available. However, I think this second part of the book does fill a slightly different niche. The “goddesses of the world” texts are generally better researched, putting worship in historical and cultural context and alerting the reader to the process of syncretism, yet they lack the immediacy of an exposition penned by devotees with a true relationship with each goddess. A lot of anthologies discuss personal relationships to the Goddess, but they are more narrow in focus. There are so many entries to this section – over seventy – that while it is not comprehensive, it covers some serious ground. Also, there is a longer description of more obscure deities, such as Aine or Eris, than are generally found in encyclopedic texts. I don’t think this book duplicates anything that’s out there.
I too would like to see Moon Books come out with an anthology with longer essays such as those found in the first section of this one. These articles suggest that there is time and talent for another groundbreaking book such as Carl Olson’s 1989 anthology The Book of the Goddess Past and Present. But we’ll have to wait on that one. In the meantime, I recommend you peruse Naming the Goddess as a potential resource to add to your collection.
Magical herbology is an area every witch needs to develop competency in, whatever her eventual area of focus. The challenge is to gain more than an abstract knowledge of herbs, to find opportunities for hands-on learning. A Kitchen Witch’s World includes tips on ways to work herbs into your daily life and your magical routine. Over 150 common herbs are covered, which for most witches includes all that will ever be needed. Most of the herbs are easily obtained, although one important herb – mandrake – is hard to find in the United States. (Occult stores will try to sell you mayapple as “American Mandrake” instead.) The entries for each herb are fairly short, but contain a brief description of the plant or its growing habitat, which I believe is important because most beginning witches first encounter these herbs in a package.I think what I like most about this book is that it doesn’t indulge in a plethora of correspondences. The tendency to go overboard with correspondences, to the point where it begins to inhibit learning rather than adding to it, is the bane of beginners – yet correspondences do have an important, necessary role in herb magic. I think this book sets the right balance to a thorny issue.If you already work a good deal with magical herbs, to the point where you have begun growing your own, this book is probably not for you, and if you decide to make this your area of expertise you will outgrow this book in a few years. This is not an encyclopedia, and I think we’ve come to expect the encyclopedic approach to herbs, whether for magic or healing. If you would like to use magical herbs a bit more than you do at present, this would be a good resource to have.A Kitchen Witch’s World of Magical Plants and Herbs is due out this fall and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.
This anthology, published today, is a look at the major branches of witchcraft that have emerged since the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today 60 years ago. The branches examined in this book have been heavily influenced by Gardner, reflecting to varying degrees not only the practices of the coven he was initiated into, but Gardner’s own reflections and innovations.The first section of the book explains many of the most popular traditions, while the second section is a collection of personal reflections by practicing witches. There is also a brief biography of Gerald Gardner and a discussion of the climate from which his groundbreaking book emerged. You do not need to have read any of Gardner’s work to follow the articles. This book aims to give an overview of what “witchcraft today” has become and how it has matured.I have written the chapter on Dianic Witchcraft for this anthology. It is not surprising that the Dianic tradition is included here – we usually are mentioned in any overview of Paganism and Witchcraft – but this is the first time to my knowledge that the section on Dianic Witchcraft in an overview has been written by a Dianic priestess. There has been so much misinformation propagated by those outside the Dianic tradition over the years that I think it is an important read not only for women who may be considering finding a Dianic coven, but for all witches. I think this background on Dianic Witchcraft is also important for all feminists, even those who do not consider themselves spiritual. Like it or not, a large part of the battle for women’s rights is occurring within religious institutions and frameworks.Witchcraft Today: 60 Years On is edited by Trevor Greenfield and published by Moon Books. It can be purchased in bookstores or on Amazon.
It turns out that humans are highly anthropocentric in how we conceive of vision. The measures that we use tend to be areas where problems in human vision arise: focusing at distant and close range, seeing at night, depth perception, field of vision, and colorblindness. We don’t factor in things that most humans can do easily, such as recognize patterns, and we also don’t think about things we can’t do at all, such as recognize the source of diffuse light.Here is a list of factors that vision entails (which may not be complete):
Ability to detect light (this is the core function of vision)Ability to locate the source of diffuse light (polarization)Ability to see in low lightAbility to see in bright lightSensitivity to changes in contrastAbility to see colorsRange of color visionAbility to distinguish hues within a narrow band of colorDepth perceptionDetection of movementAbility to see stationary objectsField of vision (including ability to see up and down as well as on a 360 degree plane)Focusing ability (including speed of focus on near and far objects)Ability to detect images at great distancesClarity of vision at far and close range (accommodation)Ability to detect shapes, both solid and outlineAbility to recognize patternsRapidity of image formation (analogous to frames per second in a camera)Clarity of underwater visionAbility to detect images below the surface of the water from above (and vice versa)Ability to compensate for idiosyncrasies in refraction (closely related to the factor above)Ability to compensate for movement (self locomotion as well as movement in the environment)Formation of a single image versus split visionCapacity for visual organs to withstand environmental challenges such as cold, pressure, and debris
I have not been able to find information comparing abilities to see and interpret auras. So which animal has the best vision? I was a few chapters into this book before I realized what a silly question this is. Each animal has a type of vision perfectly adapted to its environmental niche. No eye or set of eyes can function in all areas extraordinarily well, because there are a few areas that are mutually exclusive and so it’s a choice between specialization or compromise. If I did have to pick the animal with the best vision, however, it would be any member of the ape family, including humans. No doubt many will not believe me and will dismiss this as more anthropocentricism. I say this because while there are animals who outperform us in every area of vision, except perhaps pattern recognition, our eyes function competently in a wide range of environments and circumstances. Our eyes do little that is spectacular but almost everything well. This is probably the main reason we have adapted to so many environments around the globe.SourceSinclair, Sandra. How Animals See: Other Visions of Our World. New York: Facts on File, 1985.Photo credits: Eagle–Vtornet; Chimpanzee–Thomas Lersch
Most of us intuitively understand that other animals do not see the world the way we humans do, and we like to imagine how things look from their point of view. It turns out that the ways of seeing are more intricate and varied than we realize.I am returning this week to a favorite topic of mine: vision. Over the next several weeks I will be sharing insights gleaned from my perusal of an out-of-print book, How Animals See: Other Visions of Our World, by Sandra Sinclair. This book examines eyesight in a wide range of creatures, from insects to mammals, sea dwellers to migrating birds.I did not realize when I picked up this book how unique it is, really one-of-a-kind. Since it was published in 1985 the other books on the subject have been children’s books, which is par for the course. Books on the really interesting topics seem to be written for kids, not grownups. Lack of interest may not be the primary factor here, however. The subject matter is difficult, so much so that biologists and others who study in this area use words and concepts that most people have only a fuzzy understanding of. Sinclair spent years researching her material under the mentorship of Dr. Dean Yeager of The State University of New York College of Optometry, and Dr. Yaeger writes in his foreword that even he was forced to read outside his areas of expertise in order to assist with the project. This seems to be the kind of book that only a very bright journalist with generous assistance from experts could make comprehensible to the lay reader. Even so, I do not think I would have been able to understand this material had I not already read some basic books about human eyesight such as Relearning to See by Thomas Quackenbush, which I wrote about last year.I have tried unsuccessfully to find a more up to date version of Sinclair’s work. I have found only two books that are close: a 2012 book called How Animals See the World: Comparative Behavior, Biology, and Evolution of Vision by Olga F. Lazareva et al and Animal Eyes by Michael F. Land and Dan-Eric Nilsson. The blurb at Goodreads boasts that How Animals See the World “…contains 26 chapters written by world-leading experts” and calls it “An exhaustive work in range and depth, … a valuable resource for advanced students and researchers in areas of cognitive psychology, perception and cognitive neuroscience, as well as researchers in the visual sciences.” Animal Eyes is billed by the publisher as “…a comparative account of all known types of eye in the animal kingdom, outlining their structure and function with an emphasis on the nature of the optical systems and the physical principles involved in image formation.” Both rather dense sounding texts assume a solid knowledge base in the visual sciences, which makes me appreciate Sinclair’s work all the more. I have to say, however, that I found even this book a stretch.Over the next few months, look forward to juicy bits of trivia about some very weird ways of seeing.SourceSinclair, Sandra. How Anmals See: Other Visions of Our World. New York: Facts on File, 1985.
Review: Starcat’s Corner: Essays on Pagan Livingby N. Starcat ShieldsMoon Books, 2013.A friend called me on the phone awhile back, excited about some people she had met on an airplane. “They had a little girl who was named – what’s the name of your cat again?”“Samhain?” I said.“Yeah that’s right, Samhain. They had a two-year-old girl who was named the same name as your cat. I never heard that word in my life before I met your cat, and now I’m hearing it a second time.”“Oh, so those people were witches,” I said.“What do you mean, witches?”“You know, witches. You’ve been to ritual with me and you know what a witch is. Samhain is Irish for Halloween, and who’s going to name their kid Halloween besides a witch?”“But no, they couldn’t have been witches,” she replied. “These were normal people.”So I guess I’m not “normal people,” I thought to myself. Leaving aside that troublesome revelation, this conversation illustrates the preconceptions people continue to hold about witches, even people who understand that we are followers of an Earth-based religion, and we don’t worship the devil, and we fly around on airplanes, not brooms. Witches are still surrounded by an aura of differentness, considered more foreign than an inhabitant of the most secluded village on Earth, unless that villager also happens to be a witch. We can be glamorous, or spooky, or impenetrable, but at any rate we are not normal.These stereotypes are silly. A witch has far more in common with her fellow Earth citizens than most people imagine. This is beautifully illustrated in N. Starcat Shields’ book Starcat’s Corner: Essays on Pagan Living. In this collection of short essays spanning ten years we follow Starcat as she confronts the challenges of living, some of which are endemic to American life at the turn of the millennium and others which are timeless. She struggles with being a parent, reacting to a natural disaster, hanging out at the hospital while a loved one receives critical medical care. She searches for meaningful employment, makes important financial decisions, visits the chiropractor, and accepts the loss of a beloved animal companion. Her perspective on all of these things is very different from that of a Methodist or a Mormon, not to mention that of an atheist, but she successfully weathers the crises, complexities and banalities of living with decision-making processes that most would consider unconventional.Starcat says that the genesis of these essays was a question that was posed at Vermont Witch Camp: “How do you live your earth-based spirituality, day in and day out, particularly in a culture that doesn’t share your values?” While the question became the premise for an interesting book, I have to say that I don’t think much of the question itself. To me it evokes too much of the politically correct smugness I have noted in some Pagan circles: the idea that we are the good people with the high values surrounded by a sea of the unenlightened who don’t share those values. If you’ve spent a lot of time in different Pagan communities, you know what I’m talking about.“How could witches be judgmental?” my friend who doesn’t think witches can be normal asks me incredulously. The implication behind the question is that as people near the bottom of the scorn pile, perhaps only a step above criminals, we witches should know better. I could provide a list of reading material showing that in this respect, as well as in any other, witches are completely normal.But Starcat’s Corner is not like that, as she reveals herself to be more interested in helping people than judging them. She is the kind of witch we all want to be. I’ll close this review with a short excerpt from Starcat’s Corner:
The negative, or shadow side, of seeking is that we may become perpetual students. Either we absorb some of the teachings and then move on, never content to delve deeply into a particular source of wisdom, or perhaps we continue to study one area so intently that our life becomes imbalanced. We are so focused on the seeking itself that we never allow ourselves to come to any conclusions about what we believe. In order to avoid being stuck in this mode, you might devote yourself to a particular set of teachings for a year and a day. If you are studying on your own, write an article or research paper that encompasses what you’ve been learning. These actions will help you shift from a mode of constant movement and passive receiving into a place of more depth and active sharing.The positive part of seeking is the innocence of the beginner’s mind. In yoga, we are encouraged to approach each pose, or asana, as if it is the first time we have practiced it. This keeps the mind on the present moment. If we are truly seeking and open to finding wisdom, we are never jaded or cynical. We are able to take in that which we see, fully and with an open mind and heart.