Review: The Once and Future Witches

The Once and Future WitchesIn 1921, an anthropologist named Margaret Murray published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, in which she hypothesised that the women who were tried and sentenced as witches between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries were all followers of a suppressed pagan cult built around the Satanic figure of a Horned God. Although Murray’s work on this so-called witch cult has been thoroughly discredited, it had a massive influence on the development of Wicca, whose practitioners often claimed to be the inheritors of those long-dead witches’ secret knowledge. “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn” is still a sentiment you see floating around witchy Tumblr – although I think most Wiccans are a little less literal about it nowadays.

Alix E. Harrow channels a very similar sentiment in her latest novel The Once and Future Witches. Her three protagonists are the Eastwood sisters, James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth and Beatrice Belladonna, in an alternative 1893 in which witchcraft, once a real and vital force, has been all but destroyed by the Church and the patriarchy, surviving only as petty household cantrips and nursery rhymes passed down mother to daughter. James, Agnes and Beatrice, survivors of an abusive childhood that has driven a series of wedges between them, are nevertheless reunited when a magical tower appears in the sky above the town of New Salem, promising the return of real power for women in a world where universal suffrage is still a distant dream. The sisters unite to restore witchcraft to the world, but face resistance from the men of New Salem – in particular a slimy, fundamentalist Christian politician named Gideon Hill – as well as the middle- and upper-class suffragettes who see witchcraft as backward and vulgar.

Witchcraft is an immensely potent metaphor for women’s work, female power and the ways that both have been historically devalued and suppressed; that’s undoubtedly why Murray’s theories have lasted in the popular consciousness to this day. It’s not a new metaphor even in fiction: you can see it at work in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which feature witches who are both feared and respected for their prowess at traditionally female, domestic activities like attending to the sick and caring for animals.

What Harrow adds, conceptually – what makes The Once and Future Witches really sing – is intersectionality. The Eastwood sisters are poor working-class women: Agnes works in a factory; Beatrice is a librarian’s assistant; James is unemployed thanks to her youth. Their allies include a Black gay woman (and the Black women’s association she’s a part of), a trans woman, Eastern European women and even a couple of men who learn magic for the Eastwoods’ sake. It’s a specifically pluralistic definition of what women’s power looks like and who it benefits (everyone), and Harrow has some good points to make about how different communities are differently affected by misogyny, and how different forms of oppression (racism, sexism, classism, transphobia) interact.

What this intersectional approach to the witchcraft metaphor does, against the alt-historical backdrop of the fight for women’s suffrage, is provide a sort of alternative origin story for feminism – a story in which feminism is inclusive and welcoming right off the bat, in which it brings everyone along at once, without losing any of its anger or incisive power. The Once and Future Witches contains much that is bleak: there is torture, abuse, incarceration, death. But its message, ultimately, is a hopeful, joyful one. It’s a lovely book, one of the best of 2020, and I hope there’s plenty more coming from Harrow.

2020 Roundup

Happy New Year to everyone using the Gregorian calendar! 2020 was a weird year: I read loads, much more than I have in any year since I started recording my reading in 2014, thanks to a lack of commute and social obligations; and although I read lots of thought-provoking, ambitious books, I’m not sure any of them were truly standout. Here’s my top ten from 2020 (read, not necessarily published, last year); and, afterwards, some stats from my spreadsheet.

Top Ten Books of 2020

  1. This Is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (2019). OK, when I said there were no standout books this year, that was a lie. This Is How You Lose the Time War is intricate, queer and devastatingly triumphant; its tale of mortal enemies attempting to build a space in which they can be together is both timely and timeless. I read it twice – once for pleasure, once for review – and cried both times.
  2. Speak Easy – Catherynne M. Valente (2015). A Prohibition-inspired retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, Speak Easy is everything I hoped it would be: a gem of a book full to bursting of Valente’s baroque, euphonious prose, a whole glittering, glamorous world conjured in its 142 pages.
  3. AuroraKim Stanley Robinson (2015). What surprised me most about Robinson’s take on the generation ship story was how this very science-focused novel gave me a new perspective on my own flavour of neopaganism: it’s all about the complexity of the feedback systems that keep us alive on this rock spinning through space, and the idea that everything affects everything else is a core neopagan tenet. It helped me reframe how science intersects with my own religion; in other words, how I understand the world at a fundamental level. And what more can we ask of our reading than that?
  4. Gideon the NinthTamsyn Muir (2019). This is here because it was so damn fun to read, its Gothic Gormenghast-esque space setting punctured by Gideon’s sarcastic, memeified voice: it’s a very now read, a novel aimed at a very specific subset of SFF-loving internet denizens. Plus: space lesbians!
  5. The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold (2001). I was quite dismissive of The Curse of Chalion while I was reading it, focusing more on the resistance I tend to experience when reading fantasy novels than its formal qualities. I think that’s because it’s best looked at as a whole, when its cathartic structure becomes visible and thus Bujold’s thesis on the intersection of free will and faith emerges fully. It’s a brilliant work of fantastic theology, and it manages to depict the mysteries of faith in a way that very few contemporary novels do.
  6. The People in the Trees – Hanya Yanigahara (2013). This is at times an extremely uncomfortable read: content warnings apply for child sexual abuse and quite graphic scenes of animal experimentation. It’s here for its combination of a Nabokovian unreliable narrator with themes of Western entitlement, colonialism and habitat destruction. Above all, it’s an extremely powerful portrait of a white man who believes himself superior to everyone else and thus beyond reproach, leaving him completely blind to his own selfishness and monstrosity.
  7. LentJo Walton (2019). Another religiously-focused work, Lent is a cleverly structured meditation on sin and redemption. Because it’s so immersed in its 15th century Italian setting, it gave me a lot to think about with regards to medieval Christianity and how it was practiced, and thus some ideas for my own religious practice too.
  8. The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay (1995). I read a bunch of Kay’s work in 2020, mainly because that was what we had in the house, so The Lions of Al-Rassan stands here for a few of his novels. I like this one in particular for the clarity with which his three protagonists stand for three of the main political forces in his fictionalised Europe, making their friendship always already tenuous, verging on the impossible.
  9. Circe – Madeleine Miller (2018). Feminist rereadings of Greek myth and witchcraft are not new at this point, and so the trajectory that Circe’s story takes is perhaps not surprising; but I still enjoyed Miller’s complication of her portrayal as a tempting and dangerous seductress. The novel is both true to the original myths (albeit following one of the less familiar plotlines) and surprisingly satisfying in the end, as Circe manages to find some measure of peace and freedom.
  10. Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (2020). Piranesi‘s slow reveal of the truth about the strange world it’s set in gives it a sick kind of propulsiveness, as we come to realise that its generous-minded protagonist is being manipulated by people who believe themselves above reproach; in that sense it has some striking similarities with The People in the Trees. It’s also very gentle to those who its villains have harmed, rejecting narrative satisfaction to some degree in favour of recognising that such damage cannot necessarily be entirely undone.

Stats from my reading spreadsheet!

  • I read a huge 121 books in 2020; that’s 22 more than in 2019.
  • The longest book I read was Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind at a bloated 662 pages; Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach and Shaenon K. Garrity’s The Astonishing Excursions of Helen Narbon & Co., neither of them very compelling, are tied for shortest at 100 pages each. Overall, I read 41,837 pages in 2020, unsurprisingly considerably up from 2019’s 35,803.
  • The oldest book I read was E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, which was first published in 1820. The average age of the books I read in 2020 was just 12, down again from 14 in 2019.
  • Genre: 45% of the books I read in 2020 were fantasy, up from 31% in 2019; 26% were SF, unchanged from 2019. 12% were non-fiction, down from 2019’s 19%; just 8% were litfic, down from 15% in 2019 (although my personal definition of “litfic” changes from year to year so this figure is a bit finger-in-the-air). The other 9% consists of two comedy novels, two crime, three historical and two horror.
  • Surprisingly, just 9% of the books I read in 2020 were re-reads, down from 2019’s 11%. I would have thought this figure would be higher, given my lack of access to the library and other sources of new books during the pandemic.
  • 60% of the books I read in 2020 were by women and non-binary people, quite a lot up from 48% in 2019 (note: I read no non-binary authors in 2019, as far as I’m aware); I’m happy about this and also surprised – I expected my lack of library access to make my reading less diverse, not more.
  • On the other hand, I shouldn’t congratulate myself too soon: just 18% of the books I read in 2020 were by people of colour, down from 24% last year. I did expect this: I’m careful when borrowing books from the library to choose works by people of colour, but long periods of being forced to choose from the books I actually have on my bookshelves have revealed that those books are still very white. Going forward I’m committing to making sure that I’m buying books by people of colour in the same proportion as borrowing them from the library.
  • 15% of the books I read in 2020 were by queer authors, up from 5% in 2019. This is pretty good too, I think.

Review: Aurora

I’ve been seeing neopagan themes in a fair amount of my reading this year, but a generation ship novel by hard SF author Kim Stanley Robinson is the last place I expected to find them. Published in 2015, Aurora tells the tale of a spaceship 160 years into its journey to an Earthlike planet in the Tau Ceti system, carrying around two thousand people in 24 realistic biomes, complete with an array of animals and plants. This far into the voyage, it’s becoming harder and harder for the ship’s chief engineer Devi to reclaim vital minerals from its closed system, population genetics are going badly wrong and people are chafing under a regime that’s necessarily relentlessly authoritarian and intrusive. And that’s before they reach Tau Ceti, where they find the planet they’ve named for humanity’s new dawn may not be so welcoming after all.

Aurora’s been described as a bleak novel, but despite its utter rejection of the generation ship as a useful concept and the increasingly desperate decisions its ship-bound characters make in their attempts to survive, that description doesn’t seem quite right. Like all of Robinson’s novels, Aurora has a headlong, rushing energy occasioned by a prose style that’s inclined towards breathless run-on sentences:

Gravity drags within the solar system, caused by close approaches to the sun and planets: each of these would have a negligible effect, but if there were enough of them, sequenced…this becomes a question of orbital mechanics, navigational finesse, and the remaining fuel that would be needed for maneuvering, and the strength of decelerative forces while near gravitational bodies.

A large part of the novel is narrated by the ship itself, which suits Robinson’s tendency towards top-down narratives that dramatise the progress of societies rather than individuals, while also giving space to musings on what makes an entity sentient, intelligent, worthy of personhood. Coupled with that exuberant prose style, Ship’s analysis of its population’s problems and the many variables that influence them showcase an exuberance for scientific knowledge, or more specifically in the complexity that knowledge makes visible in the universe around us, that informs one of the novel’s central themes, the one I’m most interested in for its neopagan resonances: that of humanity’s relationship to the environment we evolved in.

Specifically, Aurora‘s central contention is that the dream of leaving Earth is folly, that the fragile and astonishingly complex feedback loops and systems that sustain us here are impossible to replicate aboard a generation ship or upon a distant planet; and that, therefore, we should be directing our attention to protecting and replenishing those systems rather than assuming we can make a fresh start somewhere else. The only other SF-adjacent novel I’ve read that approaches such themes is Charlie Jane Anders‘ All the Birds in the Sky, which I found unsatisfying on a number of levels, but particularly its obfuscating insistence on nature’s resilience and hidden power. What’s refreshing about Robinson’s novel is that its environmentalist message is couched in unequivocally scientific terms, that it so plainly delights in science, so that the problem of replicating an Earthlike environment is presented as not one of theoretical comprehensibility but one of complexity. That is, in theory every process can be analysed and understood, but the relationships between them are so many and so various that it’s extremely difficult to predict ahead of time what will happen if you change any particular variable. This complexity, this interrelatedness, is more wonderful and I think ultimately truer than a handwaved insistence on the power of nature; the first deepens our understanding of, and thus our relationship with, the planet that sustains us; the second actively hinders it.

It’s this sense of, and delight in, complexity that I respond to in Robinson’s novels, I think; the sense that more knowledge is what will save us, the understanding of the world as a series of interlocking systems that can be hacked (as the householder’s union does in New York 2140) or bolstered if only we’re willing to do the work to understand them. And Aurora is Robinson at his best, taking on a venerable SF trope to examine how the genre and wider culture understands the greatest threat humanity faces. It’s sensawunda SF that also feels realistic, science fiction that’s relevant to neopaganism, hard SF with an interest in people and deep characterisation: like the universe it depicts, it contains multitudes.

Review: Marked

I love a school story. Who doesn’t love a school story? They’re useful to writers because they offer ready-made structure (semesters, lessons, exams); young readers enjoy them because they confirm their sense that their grades and friendships and enmities are the most important things in the world; for older readers they’re an exercise in nostalgia, a return to the comforting framework of the school timetable. Thus P.C. and Kristin Cast’s vampire YA novel Marked, the first in their House of Night series, seemed a good if not unproblematic choice for a mid-pandemic re-read.

Zoey Redbird is just your average regular Mary Sue until she’s Marked by a tracker from the House of Night, the spooky vampire boarding school across town. The Mark indicates that she’s one of the minority of people whose bodies will go through a change that will either turn them into a vampire or kill them. She must now attend schooling at the House of Night, but it’s not just lessons she’ll have to contend with: there’s a mean-girl clique that’s busy doing illicit things with human blood; and her Mark, a filled-in crescent moon instead of an outline like every other young vampire’s, seems to indicate that she’s been selected by the vampire goddess Nyx for some great work.

It’s pretty obvious that some of what’s going on here is to do with puberty, a time when the body changes in unfathomable and alarming ways. The vampire’s always been a figure who has a lot to do with (illicit) sex: blood-drinking has an erotic charge, and vampires generally tend to be presented as stronger, faster and more beautiful than humans. In Marked, when a vampire drinks the blood of a human they gain hypnotic control over that human, as when Zoey accidentally drinks the blood of her human ex-boyfriend: here we see manifested anxieties about consent and control in romantic relationships. Sex appears in non-metaphorical form, too: soon after Zoey arrives at the House of Night, she witnesses queen bee Aphrodite trying to give the requisite hunk, Erik Night, a blow job. Trying: because Erik is both attracted to Aphrodite and not consenting. Later on, we discover that Aphrodite and her clique are busy exerting their power and influence over weaker students to drink their blood as part of illicit religious rituals. So Aphrodite’s menace is tied explicitly to her disregard for consent and her exploitation of abusive power dynamics.

Which; good; it’s important for YA literature to explore issues of consent and abuse. It’s unfortunate, then, that the Casts’ castigation of Aphrodite’s behaviour extends to all sexual behaviour: for instance, Zoey sees blow jobs as degrading and humiliating in themselves for the person performing them, which is not hugely sex-positive. There are other problems of representation too, most notably the novel’s appropriation of Native American spirituality in order to mark Zoey out as a super-special Chosen One. (Incidentally, the vampires’ religion is essentially Wicca, which just goes to show: the link between neopagan religions and cultural appropriation is strong.)

All in all, I think Marked works best as a school story: as an exploration of the emotions and anxieties around sex and puberty in the kind of environment where teens are encountering those emotions, whose supernatural trappings validate young adults’ outsize feelings about the world. It doesn’t really work as a Chosen One narrative, or as a treatment of sex itself (as opposed to the anxieties that sex evokes). I definitely think there are better YA novels out there doing similar work, though, particularly Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Fire, and if I actually knew any teens I’d point them there first.

Review: The Hallowed Hunt

TW: animal death.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt, a prequel of sorts to The Curse of Chalion (the two novels share a universe, but are set in different times and places and have no character overlap), is another example of that too-rare beast, a fantasy novel deeply interested in religion. This isn’t a surprise: Chalion, which I read a couple of months before The Hallowed Hunt, is a deeply-argued look at free will and the nature of sainthood, cathartic and revelatory. The Hallowed Hunt, I would say, is less ecstatically structured and less piercing, but it’s still carefully observed and intellectually engaged.

Lord Ingrey of the Weald is sent to investigate the murder of the king’s son Prince Boleso, seemingly at the hands of Ijada, a lady-in-waiting who Boleso intended to rape. But the murder scene is unsettling: for one thing, a leopard has been hanged from the ceiling; for another, the prince’s body is covered in strange painted symbols. It seems the prince has been dabbling in ancient shamanic practices which were virtually wiped out when the Weald was invaded by the civilisation featured in The Curse of Chalion, who imposed their own five-god system on the Weald’s inhabitants. As a result, Ijada has been possessed by the spirit of the sacrificed leopard. Unbeknownst to almost anybody else, Ingrey also carries an animal spirit within his soul, having been the subject of a similarly botched ritual as a child. Ingrey and Ijada’s immediate concern is to prevent Ijada being executed for murdering Boleso, and, in the longer term, to work out how Boleso learned about the ritual in the first place and why. What emerges is a tragedy about the death of a culture and a love story about trying to redress that loss.

In fact looking at The Hallowed Hunt as a romance, although not necessarily the most immediately obvious approach, turns out to be a productive way of framing it: because this is a novel whose chief characters are wrestling with the question of how to reconcile two different theological systems, two different cultures and systems of thought. (It’s relevant to note here that Ijada is not only a spiritual heir to the people of the Old Weald – thanks to the leopard – but also an heir in the more traditional sense, being the owner of the Wounded Woods, where they fought their last battle.) That’s exactly how romances function: they’re texts that seek to bring together warring ideas or principles in order to restore order and harmony.

I think what makes this different from The Curse of Chalion is partly that the focus is not so much on the personal experience of religion as on the restoration of a nation’s identity and culture through the rejuvenation of its religion – a theme that’s very relevant to post-colonial discourse, although this isn’t a text that’s actively participating in the modern version of that discourse (in the way that novels like, say, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire are). I’m a little anxious, though, about Bujold’s choice to render the religion of the Old Weald as a specifically shamanic one (and a violent one at that): it plays into the racist idea that shamanic religions are primitive, and simultaneously into the appropriative line of thought prevalent in overwhelmingly white neopagan communities that there is a “core” version of shamanism that is culturally non-specific and thus up for grabs by anyone who fancies it. (Bujold’s setting is distinctly European; she’s actually said that the Weald is an alternative version of Germany.) It’s a pity that the novel undermines its anticolonial themes in this way.

With that in mind, it did still work for me (and of course your mileage may vary). Bujold’s religious systems are both elegant and vital – unlike many such systems in fantasy, which tend to be over-codified and lacking in that crucial element of mysticism, of ineffableness, that makes religion meaningful in the first place, they feel like evolving traditions, like something real people could believe in. Bujold, I think, properly understands why we are drawn to religion, and it’s refreshing that she makes that understanding the starting point for her novels rather than the be-all and end-all of them. The Hallowed Hunt is a flawed novel, but it’s tackling themes and ideas that not many SFF novels do; and doing so with attention to detail, careful characterisation and satisfying plotting.

Review: The Paganism Reader

Like many of the books on paganism and related subjects that I’ve reviewed here recently, The Paganism Reader, edited by Chas S. Clifton and Graham Harvey, was a loan from a friend, now returned. I don’t have it here to refer to, in other words, which is a little sad – I’d have liked to pay tribute to its comprehensiveness by being comprehensive and thorough myself.

In any case, The Paganism Reader brings together a selection of texts that have informed various flavours and philosophies of paganism in the last century or so. The works range over a much larger span of time, though, from Apuleius’ Golden Ass (160-170AD) to a couple of remarkably down-to-earth essays by modern Pagans: “Finding your way in the woods: the art of conversation with the Genius Loci” by Barry Patterson and “Entertaining faeries” by Gordon Maclellan were particular favourites. (It seems, however, that Maclellan is a white man calling himself a “shaman”, gah. It’s worth noting, too, that there’s an essay in the book entitled “What happened to Western shamanism?”, although I don’t remember anything about it.)

The book also contains extracts from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – famously the inspiration behind the Church of All Worlds – the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, the entire Book of the Law by Aleister Crowley (which is a trip, let me tell you) and work by Margaret Murray, Doreen Valiente, Robert Graves and Gerald Gardner, among much else. Another of my favourites was “Initiation by ordeal” by Judy Harrow – a look at military service as a modern-day initiation ceremony, a marking of the border between childhood and adulthood, examining the ways it succeeds and fails in this capacity.

I don’t know enough about the field to say with any accuracy how comprehensive or balanced this book is as a look at paganism and its sources, but its list of contributors is certainly impressive, and there’s a lot of texts here I feel grateful to have had ready access to – things like The Book of the Law which I would never have sought out on its own. It’s not really an introductory text: it won’t give you an accessible overview of what paganism looks like now. As a collection of sources, though, it’s wide-ranging, useful and enlightening. I wrote recently about how I’d like pagan authors and their readers to be much more mindful of where their traditions and beliefs are coming from, to avoid appropriating things that aren’t ours to take; having The Paganism Reader on the shelf strikes me as a great place to start.

Review: The Land of the Green Man

Short post today because I don’t have a ton to say about Carolyne Larrington’s The Land of the Green Man, except that it’s delightful. It’s a tour around the folklore of the British Isles, looking at local tales of selkies, black dogs, giants, banshees and more. Many of these tales are tied to specific landmarks: churches, chalk drawings, mountains, stone circles. Larrington’s interested in the stories as ways of explaining the origins of such landscape features, but she also reads them in terms of what they have to say about such universal subjects as sex, death and our relationship to the natural world.

I enjoyed this as a work of comparative folklore that’s very attentive to the specificities of place: it’s even got a handy map in the front showing the locations of the tales it looks at. And as such it can perhaps help us rebuild relationships with the landscapes we live in, in this increasingly urbanised age. A few weeks after I read this I visited the Rollright Stones – one of the closest sites featured in the book to where I actually live – with my family and told them the story of the witch and the king and his knights. It was an immensely powerful experience being up there on the ridge of the world, with those stones that people have honoured for generations, feeling connected to those stories that go back centuries if not millennia. Remembering the places our folklore comes from keeps it alive; and in some way preserves the spirit of those places too.

In short – if you’re interested in storytelling not just about the British landscape in general, but about specific places within Britain, in how British people have connected with their environments since the Middle Ages and earlier, The Land of the Green Man is a good place to start.

Review: Fire in the Head

Can we talk a bit about cultural appropriation in Neopaganism?

Because it’s everywhere, it seems. Take sage smudging, which is ubiquitously recommended across the Neopagan net (including at the generally-reliable Learn Religions) as a way of cleansing or purifying a sacred space such as a ritual circle. Very few of these resources mention that sage smudging is originally a Native American practice, and that at least some Native Americans are not happy about its widespread adoption/appropriation.

I found this out last week. I’ve been reading and thinking about Neopaganism (though, thankfully, not practising sage smudging) for eight months. What else could I be doing that is harmful without knowing it?

Look, Neopaganism is not an established religion. Even reconstructionists are filling in copious blanks with their own personal gnosis, which, yes! do what works! let a hundred flowers bloom! but also, “if it works, it works” is not an excuse for taking traditions we have no right to and stripping them of cultural context. Which is exactly what’s happened to sage smudging, it seems to me. Yes, I personally need to be more careful about researching the history of ubiquitous Neopagan practices; but I think Neopagan writers also need to do better at identifying the cultural contexts for these practices.

Which brings me onto Tom Cowan’s Fire in the Head, subtitled “Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit”. According to his website, Cowan “combines universal core shamanism with traditional European spirit lore”. I don’t want to get into these concepts too much, I am very much not an expert, but “core” shamanism, it appears, was basically invented by Michael Harner, a white American who took some drugs, read some books, wrote down some similarities he saw between Native American spiritual practices and Siberian shamanism and asserted these as universal (and therefore contextless) shamanic principles. I mean, this is pretty much textbook cultural appropriation: stripping minority religious practice of crucial cultural context in order to make it appealing to white wealthy Westerners. (Here are some people talking about Harner’s work from a Native American standpoint.)

Now, for me at least, if Neopaganism is about anything it is about context. Context and specificity: the idea of deity as immanent, present in all aspects of life, however mundane; connection with local landscapes and local ecosystems. I suspect that’s sort of where Cowan is coming from with the Celtic angle, but that’s still a category error, since in fact shamanism isn’t transplantable from the cultures where it was developed. (Incidentally, Cowan’s website says that he studied with Michael Harner.)

In short, I think the shamanism aspects of Fire in the Head are invalid and damaging. I think dressing core shamanism up in Celtic clothing so that Western readers can feel more comfortable because it’s “their” heritage is misleading and appropriative. I do not think you should read, much less buy, this book.

However – given the fact that I have read the book –

As a study of Celtic myth and motif, it does have some gems, such as the discussion of decapitation (cf. the magical head of Bran the Blessed) and of missing limbs, which it posits as a marker of an encounter with the Otherworld. These connections are occasionally tenuous, but as an ex-literature student I find them useful in showing possible approaches to the mythology, things to look for in constructing readings, Cowan’s bullshit conclusions notwithstanding.

But, seriously. Don’t read this. And don’t neglect your critical thinking skills.

Review: Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism

Isaac Bonewits’ Essential Guide to Druidism is an exceptionally entertaining book and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Bonewits is a major figure in recent Neopaganism: his name’s cropped up in most of the reading lists in the books I’ve read, at least, and he founded the ADF, the largest Neopagan Druid organisation in the US. He is, in other words, An Authority.

The Guide doesn’t really cover the philosophy of Druidism in any great depth; instead, it discusses its history, both ancient and recent, suggests some liturgies and practices, and looks a little at the state of Druidry today.

The first three sections of the book are devoted to history. Bonewits identifies three different eras of paganism: Paleopagan, the “original tribal faiths” that were (or are) practised as “intact belief systems”; Mesopagan, religions based on perceived Paleopagan practices that are also heavily influenced by monotheism and dualism; and Neopagan, new religious movements seeking to distance themselves specifically from monotheistic faiths while drawing on Paleopagan and Mesopagan ideas. Some of this discussion can get a bit dense: the Paleopagan section especially goes deeply into anthropological detail about the roles of people in Indo-European societies and how those roles tie into Paleopagan faiths, none of which I have the knowledge or background to evaluate.

Once out of the Paleopagan weeds, however, Bonewits’ irreverent, down-to-earth approach comes to the fore as he imparts gossip from the recent history of Druidism, rants about the various con artists and cultists operating in Neopagan communities and describes some Druid rituals. Here he is on “Fam-Trad” Druids, people who claim to be descended from Druid families and that such descent has bestowed special magic/religious status upon them:

“…although some supposed “Fam-Trad” Druids may speak a modern Celtic language, not one of them that I’ve met so far has been fluent in Old Irish, able to recite their ancestry for twenty generations, willing to compose alliterative Old Welsh poems on request, prescribe twenty-seven uses for oak bark, oak leaves, and acorns, etc.”

His down-to-earth, sceptical practicality is a refreshing antidote to the vaguely spiritual, unscientific woo that seems to pop up in a lot of Pagan writing. I am reassured by down-to-earth Pagan writers, down-to-earthness being at least nominally a core principle of Paganism.

I mean: probably don’t only read Bonewits if you’re looking for an introduction to Druidism; you want something a little less granular, a little more accessible, as your entry point. But if you’re craving some humour, some scepticism in your Pagan reading, then yes, come here. I also want to seek out his Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca, which I think will be a little more applicable to my own Pagan path. (I would probably enjoy being a Druid, but a) there aren’t any groves nearby and b) I can’t subscribe to the gender binary God/Goddess concept, so, there’s that.)

Review: Paganism: A Very Short Introduction

Part of Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introduction series, Owen Davies’ Paganism: A Very Short Introduction whisks the reader through approximately 12,000 years of religion, beginning with the burial rituals of the Upper Paleolithic and ending with modern Wicca and Neopaganism. It charts the pagan pantheons of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the early inroads of Christianity into Celtic and European paganism, the imperialist dubbing by Westerners of various religions from around the globe as “paganism” and finally the rise of the Neopagan movement in the twentieth century.

It’s a lot of information packed into about 120 pages, and as such is not especially helpful. It feels largely unstructured, thanks to its longish chapters and lack of any organising principle beyond the broadly chronological: I couldn’t find any theoretical or conceptual arc to hang onto through the onslaught of Facts. The use of the word “paganism” has undergone such shifts, and taken on so much baggage over the centuries, that an introduction like this is too short to cover it meaningfully. There are better, longer, more accessible introductory texts out there, although none that cover so much ground, admittedly: I think you’d get more out of reading a couple of those (say Graham Harvey’s Listening People, Speaking Earth and Carl McColman’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism) and getting a firm hold on some of these concepts than reading this and taking away a very shallow understanding of a lot of different things.