Monday, 29 February 2016

Hopman, Ellen Evert - Secret Medicines from Your Garden: Plants for Healing, Spirituality and Magic

Book Title: Secret Medicines from Your Garden: Plants for Healing, Spirituality and Magic
Author: Ellen Evert Hopman
Publication Date: February 2016
ISBN: 9781620555576
Reviewers knowledge before reading: novice/enthusiast/expert

Books on herbalism are common in the pagan community. Many pagans I know, including myself, have picked up Beyerl's The Master Book of Herbalism or Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs or Culpeper's Herbal and been wide-eyed with excitement over all the wonderful medical and magical uses of herbs. This book is very much in that same vein with wondrous and varied recipes for both physical and spiritual health woven into Hopman's journey through learning the names and uses of plants.

The flaw with books about herbs and health and magic is a flaw that runs through many books and articles and is reflective of many pagans' greatest desire, to live in a close relationship with nature on a small farm or homestead. However, that's not how most pagans live. Most pagans are city dwellers, so many of the plants that we read about in these herbal works are not in our lived experience. We can commune with plants we find on the edges of parks and green spaces, in herb shops or natural grocery stores. We can build relationships with plants we grow in pots in our windows or on our patios or in our tiny dirt spaces, if we are in a position to have them. We can identify and gather plants we need when we are camping or at a festival. But no matter how many books we peruse or how hard we try, we are often disappointed by the bright picture painted in books on herbalism and the stark reality.

The reason that I would recommend this book, over so many others of its kind, is that Hopman acknowledges that reality. She addresses that flaw. She doesn't state the flaw and explain that she is addressing it outright, but she does many different things to show she realizes the reality. She mentions where to find plants out in the world that are not dependent on being on your property. She tells us how to gather those plants with respect and a eye toward conservation.  She adds warnings about pesticides and pollutates.She has a section on herbs that you can use in your kitchen. And Hopman acknowledges all the ways her journey, her time and place, have influenced her work. She doesn't assume we can all replicate her work or her relationships. This isn't a "how to". This is a "you could,with what you have, where you are."

One thing that most herbal books lack are discussions of herbalism across the Unitied States. I live in a very different climate, with many different plants than the Northeastern US, where Hopman does her work and has learned her inspiring lessons. However, Hopman has addressed this too, by her brilliant explanation of the doctrine of signatures, and how the look of plants, how they grow and where, will give the herbalist the clues they need to use the plants properly. That was an invaluable piece I have not seen before laid out so clearly.

Hopman's section on bees and honey, as well as her section on animal magic and herbal correspondences is both well-researched and reflective of her experience with credit to her sources. Her section on trees is interesting enough for me to go out and buy her book Tree Magic. And there are no blocks of unreadable text, she has interspersed recipes for tasty and healthy foods and medicines throughout.

If you are looking for a book on herbalism that is relevant, interesting and beautiful, this is the book. Even if you don't live in the region that is primarily discussed, it has enough scholarship, interesting anecedotes and broad identifying tips that you could use anywhere to deepen your relationship with plants, our most visible and oldest partners in our relationship to the earth.

Piper Perry is the Author Spotlights editor at PWC. She has been a Norse worldview pagan for over 25 years. She is a member of ADF (Ár nDraíocht Féin) and a seidkona. You can find her on Facebook

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Patterson, Rachel - Pagan Portals: Kitchen Witchcraft

Book Title: Pagan Portals: Kitchen Witchcraft 
Author: Rachel Patterson 
Publication Date (month and year): February 2013 
ISBN (if known): 1780998430 
Reviewer knowledge before reading: novice / enthusiast / expert

The phrase 'Kitchen Witchcraft' conjures up brewing potions and hanging herbs, and while this of course can be the case, the experienced witch knows the kitchen can be the beating heart of their home, where the material and the mystical meld to create magic.
Rachel approaches this topic with just such a theory in mind, and makes no assumptions about the level of skill or experience of the reader. It's important to bear in mind that as part of the Pagan Portals series, this book is intended as a brief introduction to Kitchen Witchcraft. Having said that, for such a slim volume, Rachel manages to pack in a great deal of info.
She starts by introducing the idea behind kitchen witchcraft, and giving an overview of things that may be needed: tools, ingredients and attitude. Even for the experienced, this is a good reminder and also interesting to gain an insight into what another experienced witch has in their own cupboards, physical and otherwise.
The eight big seasonal pagan festivals are discussed with particular focus on what kitchen crafts can be used to celebrate them. In here are correspondences, incenses and many more hands on ways to get your worship on. She also talks about how the differing phases of the moon can affect one's workings, and while this section is a little simplistic for those experienced in moon magic, again, it is a great point of reference and a good reminder of the roots of many more complex types of moon magic. She looks at working with energy, and how to utilize candle magic, from the very simple to the more convoluted spells that can be worked.
One of my favourite sections of the book is the meditations in the final chapter. Each one is a different journey for a different purpose, and while each is written as a detailed journey, there is plenty of scope to make the journey your own. Unlike the narrative style which is direct and almost chatty, these written meditations have a wonderful dream like quality which is just perfect for getting you in the right frame of mind for approaching this type of working.
Rachel's style is very accessible and conversational. Despite being almost a reference book at times, this short volume is a complete page turner as it is a real pleasure to read. It is as if she is in the room with you, talking you through the ideas that she is obviously passionate about. This is a very modern way of writing about a subject as old as the hills, and will make the subject easy to absorb even for the complete novice. Yet she manages this while making it a perfect refresher for the experienced witch, by including lists, correspondences and ideas from many paths.
This could be my favourite point of the book, that Rachel does not assume that you are Wiccan, or indeed of any particular religion at all. Most of the practical tasks in the book could be completed by someone of no religious beliefs at all, as the main focus is on a connection to nature, the world, and one's self.
There is no limit to who would enjoy this volume. The only downside is that it is so short, however as an introductory piece, as it is intended, it is absolutely ideal. I will definitely be getting a hold of her larger volume, Grimoire of a Kitchen Witch, to see if the style and themes are expanded upon. Highly enjoyable, and it has inspired me to get back in the kitchen- not something I say every day!

Mabh is the author of A Modern Celt exploring the relevance of Celtic culture in modern Paganism and spirituality. She also writes a regular blog covering Paganism, politics and the turn of the seasons. A singer and musician too, she gigs and does spoken word at venues across the UK. She has two crazy cats, an even crazier three year old boy and a very patient other half! You can find her on Facebook.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Perry, Laura - Ariadne's Thread: Awakening the Wonders of the Ancient Minoans in our Modern Lives

Book Title: Ariadne's Thread: Awakening the Wonders of the Ancient Minoans in our Modern Lives
Author: Laura Perry
Publication Date: August 2013
ISBN: 1782791108
Reviewer knowledge before reading: novice / enthusiast / expert

The myths of ancient Crete, her people, and their gods twine through our minds like the snakes around the priestess's arms in those ancient temples. They call to us across the millennia, asking us to remember. In answer to that call, Ariadne’s Thread provides a window into the spirituality, culture and daily life of the Minoan people, and commemorates the richness of a world in which women and men worked and worshiped as equals. In these pages, the glory of Crete once again springs to life; the history, the culture, and most of all, the intense spirituality of these fascinating people and their gods can inspire and transform our modern ways of thinking, worshiping and being. The ruined temples and mansions of ancient Crete may crumble along the coastline of this tiny island, but Ariadne’s thread still leads us into the labyrinth and safely back out again.

The tagline on the Moon Books site is: The Minoan world comes alive through seasonal rituals and rites of passage, honoring Ariadne and her Labyrinth. This immediately resonates with me as I am fascinated with the impact ancient culture has on modern people, in ways both large and small.

From the outset I am thrilled by the passion Laura shows for her subject. Clearly the Minoans have inspired her from an early age, and it's wonderful to see that fascination nurtured and blooming into the magical relationship she describes.

Crete comes alive for me; Laura's description of the island belies the fact that all this information comes from research rather than first-hand experience. Laura covers all the pertinent studies relating to the Minoans and while presenting all the possible facts, is keen to stress the most likely ones as her picture of how the Minoans lived and the key points in their society. This is an intelligent and open minded approach which sits well with me. As does the focus on the everyday Minoan and not just the priest/priestess; after all, ultimately we are the 'common folk', so reaching back through time we may find more links to our ancestors by focusing on everyday life: the mundane as well as the magical.

The magical though does play a huge part in this book. We hear about the Minoan pantheon; some are familiar but certainly for me, there is a great deal to learn and Laura keeps me turning the pages to do just that. I was astonished at the range of gods and goddesses included here! There are also the meanings of symbols, animals and how Minoan ceremony works within the Wheel of the Year. In the ritual work section, she is careful to explain the whys and wherefores of using certain symbols or not; the approach is inclusive with a hefty dose of common sense.

Rarely have I read a book that goes into so much detail about the spirituality and mythology surrounding one particular culture. The explanations of the symbolism of the Labyrinth are surprising and enlightening. Laura also looks at the similarities and differences between Ariadne and her 'equivalents' in other cultures, including mainstream religion. This book is truly comprehensive but what is more impressive is that it's also fascinating and entertaining. If you are interested in ancient culture at all, you will adore this. If not, you would still get a kick out of the beautiful descriptive paragraphs and analytical style.

Ariadne's Thread is a permanent addition to my 'regular reads' library and a triumph in what I consider the most necessary task of Pagan books: making it relevant. Highly recommended. The thread Laura spins weaves all the way through time and is never broken. We can follow it either way, each page a new spool to turn.

Reviewer Mabh Savage is the author of A Modern Celt exploring the relevance of Celtic culture in modern Paganism and spirituality. She also writes a regular blog covering Paganism, politics and the turn of the seasons. A singer and musician too, she gigs and does spoken word at venues across the UK. She has two crazy cats, an even crazier three year old boy and a very patient other half! You can find her on her on Facebook.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Brown, Nimue - Spirituality Without Structure: The Power of Finding Your Own Path

Book Title: Spirituality Without Structure: The Power of Finding Your Own Path
Author: Nimue Brown
Publication Date: November 2013
ISBN: 1782792805
Reviewer knowledge before reading: novice / enthusiast / expert

Nimue Brown is a druid author and fiction writer living in Gloucestershire. Whilst Spirituality Without Structure is rooted in her experience of pagan Druidry it is written from an existentialist perspective. Directed at anybody who has given up on formal religions it holds relevance for theists and atheists alike. As an anarchic bard and polytheist who has avoided formal courses in Druidry I was deeply curious about what Nimue had to say.

Firstly, this is not a book about how to converse with God, the gods or nature. There are plenty of other books that do that. It is about discovering a spiritual path on your own terms: 

This is not a structure. It’s not a map. This is a method for making your own map, building your own compass and ascertaining your direction.

The style is conversational and engaging. It’s pitched at a level whereby the general public, students and academics alike could all understand it and gain fresh insights. I would have been inspired by it whilst studying philosophy and religion at college.

The core argument is that spirituality without structure is rooted in discovering what moves and inspires us in the real world- the spark of the numinous in nature and the treasure troves of myth and story- and honouring it by right action. Experience of the numinous has real effects, influencing us to change our lives and the world around us. I think many people would find this view enlivening and empowering.

Nimue deals with existential crisis in admirable manner. Admitting doubt goes hand in hand with the quest for personal truth, she shows that doubt and the act of questioning constitute the essence of the spiritual journey. They provoke us to create our own meaning day by day, living life to the full with no other authority than the questioning self. This kind of affirmation requires a lot of courage and isn’t something I can relate to fully as I put a certain amount of trust in the land and my gods.

On a critical level I thought the importance of the real world was stressed at the expense of non-cognitive/imaginal perception, leaving the possibilities of other realities unexplored. Also, positing the self and its desires as the central source of meaning seemed limiting. I would have liked to see more discussion of the potential of finding and developing meaning through interaction with others outside of formal structures. However I feel these criticisms stem from a difference in standpoint.

Overall Spirituality Without Structure is a resonant rewarding book with much to teach about the art of questioning and authentic living. It’s led me to consider how living one’s own path from an existential perspective contrasts with my polytheism. I think it would be of value to anybody interested in learning more about how to do spirituality their own way.

Reviewer Lorna Smithers lives in Penwortham in Lancashire and writes poetry inspired by the Bardic Tradition. In 2012 she won the Preston Guild Poetry Competition with a poem written in the voice of Belisama, goddess of the river Ribble. Her work has been published in The Dawntreader, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Myths Inscribed, Penwortham Magazine and Preston Poets Society Newsletter. She is currently Bardic Co-ordinator for The Druid Network. You can find her blog online.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Shields, N. Starcat - Starcat’s Corner: Essays on Pagan Living

Book Title: Starcat’s Corner: Essays on Pagan Living
Author: N. Starcat Shields
Publication Date: December 2012
ISBN: 9781780995540
Reviewer knowledge before reading: novice / enthusiast / expert


This is a fascinating look at the 10 year span of a Pagan Witch's life in Main, USA. Originally a column about her life as a Pagan, where N. Starcat Shields wrote about her life as a solitary witch, these have now been collated as a series of essays on Pagan Living.

Starcraft gathers her thoughts into the Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year and so we see her life and learning shift and change as she shares her thoughts, feelings and practice with us beginning with Samahin and moving as the wheel,turns through Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lammas and ending at Mabon.

An interesting and insightful read for all Pagans, witches or not, and one I would definitely recommend.

Reviewer Yvonne Ryves is a practicing shamanic healer, holistic therapist and trainer. Yvonne lives in West Cork, Ireland, where she runs workshops and courses on a variety of aspects of energy healing and shamanic work. She is currently studying with the OBOD. Yvonne has had numerous articles published in Indie Shaman Magazine, writes a blog for Moon Books and is the author of Web of Life. You can find her on her website.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Ryves, Yvonne - Web of Life: Guidance for Your Life Journey

Book Title: Web of Life: Guidance for Your Life Journey
Author: Yvonne Ryves
Publication Date: March 2013
ISBN: 1780999607
Reviewer knowledge before reading: novice / enthusiast / expert

I just finished reading Web of Life: Guidance for Your Life Journey by Yvonne Ryves. It’s part of a series of volumes called Shaman Pathways. The book is described as providing “information, guidance and exercises to help readers find ways to connect with the web of life and weave their path within it.” It certainly does that, and provides much practical wisdom along the way.

The author begins with an overview of medicine wheels, illustrating how the concept of one’s life fitting within a circle or wheel can be found in many spiritual traditions. She walks the reader through the reasons why creating one’s own personal web of life is useful. Then comes the hands-on part, which was my favorite. The bulk of this slim volume consists of exercises for creating your own wheel, and her explanations are clear and concise.

I found the exercises easy to follow and fun to do. They helped me to clarify my thoughts on the teachers (which doesn’t mean simply people you learn from, but can also be animal totems, plants, seasons, and more) that I choose to work with in my current spiritual practice. Many of the exercises are ones that you can return to again and again, finding new ways to use and update your web as you learn and grow.

Ryves has created a very well-thought-out system with lots of room for personal creativity and flexibility. She emphasizes several times throughout the book that readers should not follow her ideas step by step, but rather adapt them for one’s own situation. Her emphasis is on exploration and experimentation, and on creating the web that is perfect for you. I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in personal spiritual growth.

Reviewer Nikki Starcat Shields is a longtime Pagan priestess and writer who lives in Maine, USA. She is the author of two books on living your earth-based spirituality in everyday life. You can find her online via her website.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Sentier, Elen - Shaman Pathways: The Celtic Chakras

Book Title: Shaman Pathways: The Celtic Chakras
Author: Elen Sentier
Publication Date: January 2013
ISBN: 978-1780995069
Reviewer knowledge before reading: novice / enthusiast / expert

I have to admit, I was skeptical about this book before I began reading it. The title suggests it’s yet another fluffy New Age volume that randomly and superficially connects the spiritual practices from one part of the world with those from another, with no real ‘meat’ to it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Celtic Chakras demonstrates that an amazing amount of information is hidden in the folklore and magical traditions of the West. No, the Celts, their predecessors and neighbors did not use the term 'chakras' but they were intimately familiar with the subtle energy system associated with the human body. This book takes the reader on a journey through this energy system, teaching how to approach and understand it through both explanation and meditative activities.

It is obvious Ms. Sentier practices her subject and is intimately familiar with the workings, and dangers, of the body’s system of energy centers. She gives clear directions and warnings where appropriate, leading even the novice through the guided visualizations and rituals with confidence.

I was fascinated to read about the spiral path through the body's energy centers (chakras). I have intuitively used a spiral path in my work as a Reiki master for a number of years; I must have been hooking into some ancestral knowledge and am gratified to have this practice affirmed.

This book brings together the threads of tradition and symbolism for three goddesses: Elen of the Ways, Arianrhod and Ceridwen and relates them to the body’s energy system in a way that makes sense. If you are familiar with any of these goddesses, or interested in them, you will find a deeper layer of meaning in their mythology after reading Celtic Chakras. Ms. Sentier’s journeys (guided visualizations/meditations) to the realms of the goddesses are inspired and inspiring. And her activities involving the Cauldrons of Poesy are deeply moving. I do wish the section about Brighid had been longer and more thorough, with more deep insights; it seemed to end abruptly compared to the chapters about the other two goddesses. However, I am grateful that Ms. Sentier chose not to pad out that section with repetition and meaningless fluff simply to reach a particular page count.

I heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in delving into the shamanic and energy-working aspects of the goddesses of the British Isles. Every page of this book is packed with real, meaningful information. It is easily approachable for the beginner but also gives the advanced practitioner something solid to chew on. And there’s nothing else like it out there.

Reviewer Laura Perry is an earth-centered writer, editor, mystic and mom. When she’s not composing pagan non-fiction and mystical adventure novels or editing other people’s writing she enjoys giving living history demonstrations of 19th century farm life at local historic sites. You can find her on Facebook and her blog.