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Book Review: “Travels Through Middle Earth” by Alaric Albertsson

October 14, 2009

Travels Through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan
Alaric Albertsson
2009, Llewellyn Publications
8 out of 10

I am not a Saxon Pagan. I am not a Pagan at all (though some people like to apply the title to me, and pretty well any other non-traditional religious person). Still, I have an active interest in various forms of religion as they have appeared in the past, and as they continue to arise, and most especially those forms of religious expression which connect with me somewhere in my ancestry. I picked up a copy of Albertsson’s book because I wanted to learn more about Germanic paganisms outside of the strictly Norse tradition most commonly found and, being a native English-speaker, the Anglo-Saxon traditions seemed to be a good place to look. Also, while there are other books on the topic, Alaric Albertsson lives right in my back yard; I met him a couple of times a few years ago and, though we didn’t really get on well personally (probably mostly my fault, as I was quite a jerk back then), I’ve always respected him for his expert-level knowledge of his own religion and its cultural background.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Travels Through Middle Earth. It was entertaining and informative, and the information was all immediately applicable for somebody interested in entering a modern Angl0-Saxon religious practice as an individual or in the context of a small group. I would unhesitatingly suggest Travels to anybody wanting a grounding in those traditions.

You’ll note that I use the phrase “modern Anglo-Saxon religious practice”; Albertsson is also intelligent and honest enough to let the reader know that what is being discussed is not the religion as it was practiced many centuries ago, but rather his own vision of how the religion might be practiced today, had the Anglo-Saxon culture survived unChristianized into the present. Though hardly an expert on the Anglo-Saxons myself, I believe that the author has done a great job of it. As an example, Albertsson points out that the Christmas tree is not the “ancient pre-Christian tradition” that many Neopagans try to make out; in fact, it can only be traced back a couple of centuries at most. That does not, however, make it inappropriate for Pagan Yule celebrations. A Pagan is free to adapt the traditions of other religions and cultures for their own religion, as long as they do so in a manner which respects both the source of the traditions and the gods of one’s own home. In other words, an evergreen tree decorated in a manner appropriate to the season can easily be adapted to many different European Pagan religious traditions, but you wouldn’t want a crucifix to represent Woden even if he and Christ share some common interests.

Albertsson’s approach to the adaptation of his religion to a modern context as illustrated above is an admirable example of modern Pagan innovation. It has become altogether too common among Neopagans, New Agers, and occultists of all kinds to just grab anything that looks interesting and try to shove it uncritically into the unframed lack-of-context of their spiritual practice. Albertsson and his ilk in groups like the ADF (of which he is himself a member) first generate context by way of history, linguistics, folklore and archaeology, and then reconstruct and borrow as necessary to fill in the gaps of theology, practice and liturgy. Once you have an overall context in place, the borrowings from elsewhere may be fitted in whole, or reshaped a bit to fit the mold of necessity.

For as much as I enjoyed Travels, I have only one complaint, though it is a big one: the book was not nearly as detailed or as complete as I would have liked. Though Albertsson did cover a multitude of topics, there is very little depth to any one. A short blurb of each of the major gods and goddesses, a little bit about elves and dwarves, a small chapter on magic, and so on for each topic. I think that the book could easily have been another 100 pages longer; the book sits at 240 pages (including contents, bibliography and glossary), so a 340 page book would not be intimidating to most interested beginners, and a lot more important details could have been included.

Even with that complaint, the book is very good. Even if you do have some knowledge and experience concerning Saxon Paganism, Albertsson’s perspective is itself valuable. Travels Through Middle Earth stands as among the better introductions I’ve read to various forms of modern Paganism in practice.

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Music Review: “Grave Blessings” by Unto Ashes

October 12, 2009
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Grave Blessings
Unto Ashes
2005, Projekt
9 out of 10

I’ll admit that I haven’t heard anything else by Unto Ashes. This album blew me away, though. I picked it up a couple of years ago at a used record store, primarily for the cover art which looks very “old-world witch”, and aesthetic that’s always done it for me. When it got in the care and popped it in, I was very pleasantly surprised! This is an album that I ought to have payed full price for.

Morose without being lugubrious, dark without being sinister, this album is everything I look for in goth music. For me, the best goth is ethereal, dreamlike, yet somehow hyper-real. It should take me somewhere, or else plant me so firmly where I am that I feel there is no escape.

With a combination of folk, “world music” and electronic elements, Unto Ashes really follow through. “Winter Born” is a simple and melodic evocation of a Pagan celebration in a stark white snowscape, while “Tortured by Rose Thorns” is a delicious, gurgling exclamation of raw and bleeding pain. Track 8, “The Drowning Man”, provides a beautiful anthem for desperation. “Four Loom Weaver” is the band’s gothic take on an old Irish folk song of crushing poverty, and “Way of the World” is a desolate, straight-faced proclamation of the reality of death, pure and simple.

These are not all of the tracks, but a rough sampling of very different songs cutting a swathe through the style of Unto Ashes. For those who like a bit of darkness in their folk music, and who don’t mind flavorful use of electronic elements, Grave Blessings is a wonderful album for the dark half of the year.

Book Review: “Disciple’s Guide to Ritual Magick” by Frater Barrabbas

October 12, 2009

Disciple’s Guide to Ritual Magick: A Beginner’s Introduction to the High Art
Frater Barrabbas
2007, Megalithica Books
10 out of 10

Frater Barrabbas is a friend of mine. He had a lot of materials for publication when I first met him a few years ago, including a rather massive volume on intermediate-level ritual magic which had, up to then, been nigh unpublishable due to the occult and Neopagan community’s general desire for more and more and more books for the absolute beginner. More advanced books are still often hard to come by, and generally do not appear in your average book store, nor do they sell well when they do. This fact was lamented all over the Internet, at Pagan festivals, and in discussion groups around the country: there isn’t enough intermediate-to-advanced material on magic out there, and it certainly isn’t widely available. Thus, the time seemed ripe for something more, something accessible yet credible, to feed the folks who were hungry for it.

Barrabbas decided to pave his own way: begin at the beginning, as it were, and present a solid introduction to the principles of ritual magic as he has learned and practiced it over several decades so that he might have a ready-made audience for his intermediate-level work after he had rewritten it for publication. And so arose Disciple’s Guide.

Disciple’s Guide to Ritual Magick is a dense read, as far as beginner’s books go, but not for any difficulty of language; the book is absolutely packed with information from page 1. Beginning with the basic ideas which undergird his system, Frater Barrabbas provides a thorough grounding in ideology and technique useful to any budding magician. The real meat, however, comes in the form of rituals. Barrabbas’s rituals are classic in structure, based firmly in the Golden Dawn and Aurum Solis traditions of Hellenic-Egyptian and Judeo-Christian occult philosophy and the Neopagan traditions of British Traditional Wicca.

Something which makes the rituals of Disciple’s Guide really stand apart from the crowd of other books on the so-called Western esoteric tradition are their use of Arthurian heroes, goddesses and symbolism. The wealth of power in these figures, and the cultural force of romance, adventure, power, prestige and pathos which surrounds them makes these rituals live and breathe like few other ritual systems really can. Even reading through them systematically can be a power-filled experience, as you visualize the proceedings step by step and imagine yourself within them. And this from somebody who doesn’t even care much for the Arthurian legends! I can only imagine how intense these rituals would be for somebody who was very much grounded in those particular myths. I imagine that these rituals alone could be made to constitute a rather complete liturgical system as well, if a person were so inclined.

One of the real beauties of Barrabbas’s “beginner’s manual” is that, while definitely suited to beginners, it has much to offer even the intermediate practitioner. Old ideas are examined from new angles, and ritual structures are used in novel ways. A beginner on the path of ritual magic will find this book a true blessing. I imagine that the book will take a dedicated student about a year and a half to work through, but could easily be the effort of half a decade of diligent, deep practice and study. Any good training system should be so; an author who promises you instant spiritual or magical gratification is playing to your ego, not to your real sense of purpose.

I must admit that my rituals are very little like Barrabbas’s rituals, though he has served as a major influence upon me. I have trained primarily through the works of Franz Bardon, Draja Mickaharic, and the Unknown Friend of Meditations on the Tarot. Still, if anybody, Christian or Pagan, comes to me asking how to learn ritual magic, Disciple’s Guide will be at the top of the list. Take it home; study it; put the rituals to the test. You will not be disappointed.

Book Review: “Pocket Guide to the Bible” by Jason Boyett

September 11, 2009

Pocket Guide to the Bible: A Little Book About the Big Book
Jason Boyett
2006, RELEVANT Books
8 out of 10

I haven’t read any of Jason Boyett’s previous work, but he seems to be somewhat infamous among certain elements of “the faithful”. The blurb-quote on the top of the back cover is from Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind novels, and says: “Boyett has done it again! Can’t somebody stop him?” From anybody else, I’d take that as a sarcastic, “Man, this guy is good!” From Jenkins, though, I can’t help but imagining it as an earnest request: Stop Boyett and all of his blasphemy!

Truth be told, I can’t imagine a better introduction and overview of the Bible than this. Whether you’re a Christian, or just an interested reader, Pocket Guide is an informative place to begin. Even if you’ve read through the whole Bible multiple times, PG is still a great book to read because of Boyett’s honesty about the whole thing. I imagine that he’s a Christian, based on the language he uses in the book, but he isn’t afraid to point out some of the creepier things in the Bible with wit, humor and straight talk.

Take, for example, a footnote on page 35 referring to the story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac only to have God call him off just in time: “As a father, the Pocket Guide‘s author gets serious heebie-jeebies from this story and would just as soon not talk about it too much.” Most religious authors discuss this story in terms of a glorious test of Abraham’s faith, but Boyett is willing to say, “Look, this is just mean. I don’t understand it. It creeps me out. Let’s move on.” The Bible is a challenging collection of tales for just this reason, and too many commentators, pastors and other Christian subtypes are altogether too willing to gloss over the most challenging portions with flowery language or faith-talk bluster.

In the rundown of personalities from the biblical narrative (chapters 2 and 3: Cast of Characters A to J, and Cast of Characters K to Z), the author gives us the following entry:

FORTUNATUS
Key Passage: 1 Corinthians 16:17
High Point: Apparently the only Bible character whose name begins with F.
Low Point: Hands-down the lamest person in this chapter.

Boyett moves deftly from serious commentary to humorous observation. And why not? In a book as varied as the Bible, there’s ample opportunity for head, heart and humor to have their shots.

One thing that this book is not, however, is deep. That isn’t to say that Boyett doesn’t know his stuff, nor that he avoids making important and intriguing points. But nobody should read this book expecting a thorough grounding in modern biblical scholarship (though the author does provide a chapter analyzing the more popular Bible translations, which was very helpful for me when I first read this book about a year and a half ago), nor a theologically heavy commentary on each Gospel.

Christian or not, this is an informative and amusing book that will answer a lot of questions and bring up some new ones. Read it for knowledge, or read it for comedy. Either way, you’ll come out with both.

Book Review: “Spiritual Cleansing” by Draja Mickaharic

September 11, 2009
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Spiritual Cleansing: A Handbook of Psychic Self-Protection
Draja Mickaharic
2003 (Expanded Edition) 1982 (Original Edition), Weiser Books
10 out of 10

Draja Mickaharic is among the best living occult authors, and is one of the last remaining genuine professional magicians. He keeps things simple, without bogging his books down in a ton of theory. His work is all written with the assumption that the reader has access to a spiritual worker or a teacher who can answer such questions one-on-one. Even so, his material is useful right out of the gate.

He moved to the US from Bosnia in 1939 and has spent much of his life working as a magician (though he calls himself a “witchdoctor”), collecting the lore of natural magic from around the world, and writing it down in manuals like Spiritual Cleansing, and collections of notes and short essays like Magical Techniques.

The present book, Spiritual Cleansing, is the single best book I’ve seen on the topic of practical psychic self-defense. Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense is, of course, an unrivaled classic, but it is mostly a collection of anecdotes and theories with only a handful of immediately applicable techniques. Mickaharic, on the other hand, provides what may be described as a companion volume to Fortune full of baths, spells and herbal treatments suitable for the cleansing of oneself, one’s friends and family, and one’s home. Included also are programs for “basic maintenance” which anyone can implement to improve their own spiritual, mental and emotional lives.

Mickaharic himself admits that his book is more of a “first aid” manual than anything, and is not intended to take the place of either one’s regular spiritual and religious practice, nor of professional magicians and spiritual workers who can go into much greater depth than an untrained individual could do for him- or herself. Still, first aid and basic hygiene are as important spiritually and psychically as they are physically and this is the perfect manual for it.

There is still a lot of useful material in Spiritual Cleansing for even the experienced magician. It can be extremely useful, for example, to have a pre-mixed herbal preparation to quickly and simply accomplish the same goals one would normally leave for a complex cleansing ritual. Such tools also make it very much simpler to prescribe “treatments” to your friends, family and coreligionists when they ask for help with a specific problem. Instead of having them to teach them a ritual, all that is required is to give them a pouch of a bath mixture and send them on their way. Above all this, the “recommended treatment” program given at the end of the book is very good, and will serve even the most practiced of magicians well in their daily lives.

All in all, I cannot recommend this book enough to just about everybody. Magician and layman alike will find a lot of use in these pages for their own general psycho-spiritual wellbeing.

Book Review: “The One Year Manual” by Israel Regardie

September 11, 2009
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The One Year Manual by Dr. Israel Regardie
Originally Twelve Steps to Spiritual Enlightenment
1981, Weiser Books (1976; originally 1969)
10 out of 10

God bless brevity. There is an awful tendency in occult literature to go on and on for hundreds of pages without saying much of anything of use. Most of Regardie’s books are relatively short, and the ones that are not spare no space for filler but are densely packed with information in the truest sense.

The One Year Manual is the ideal “beginner’s guide”. It is short (the editions in my possession going to 70 pages, plus preface and suggested reading list), by design, and wastes not a single word on nonessentials. With a stated mission to avoid convolutions of theory in favor of simple, effective practice, Regardie provided the would-be magician and/or mystic with a complete kit for at least a year’s worth of training.

The book starts off with Crowley’s four solar adorations, which amount to simple, poetic prayers for the four “stations” of the Sun throughout the day. The goal is simple: the Sun, as a symbol of the Unknown God, is “adored” throughout the day to keep the student’s awareness focused on the Divine, while at the same time giving a sense of connection to the macrocosmic universe and its great movements and cycles.

Body awareness follows as the first “step” of the work; this is practiced at a set time each day, as well as throughout the day during normal routines. The benefits are manifold and include a greater degree of self-awareness, Zen-like mindfulness, and the gradual relaxation of physical tension.

The second step concerns a method of very deep physical relaxation. In addition to deepending relaxation and body awareness, the student also learns to use this technique for healing simple physical ailments and complementing medical treatments for more intense illnesses. It is worth nothing that these two exercises also tend to produce a meditative state, which stands the student in good stead for more advanced training systems.

The third step, breath control, depeens the meditative state and further enhances physical and emotional relaxation. Just as importantly, we learn through breath to deepen our relationship with the vital energy which exists and moves around and through us.

What is generally the first step in contemplative and meditative practices, mental awareness, is the subject of step four. This is quite simply quietly and nonjudgmentally observing the flow of your own thoughts. Here, the student becomes very deeply acquainted with herself, as well as gradually relaxing her thinking-mind’s tensions.

Expanding on the previous step, step five introduces the student to mental concentration, and deeper meditation, by way of mantra repetition.

The second, more active, portion of the year is opened in step six with the training and strengthening of the will. Do to the discipline and concentration developed over the past few months, this exercise will likely come easily. Still, it is the first time in this programme that the student exerts any active volition as opposed to more or less passively experiencing herself.

Step seven changes the nature of the work dramatically by introducing the daily practice of the Rose Cross Ritual. This ritual is, in my opinion, one of the finest techniques to come out of the Golden Dawn’s corpus. While Regardie does not state it implicitly, this ritual has some profound effects for the careful student. It banishes negativity, makes one astra-mentally invisible (as opposed to most banishing rituals, like the LBRP, which tend to “light one up” on the inner planes), and tends to induce a deep sense of divine peace. This ritual acts as a very intense prayer, and can really exalt and humble the student.

Step eight, as is the trend, expands upon the previous work by intensifying the student’s awareness of Divine Presence and energy by way of the Middle Pillar Ritual, another gem from the Golden Dawn.

The remaining four exercises are more or less abstract magico-mystical practices entitled, in order, “Symbol of Devotion”, “Practice of the Presence of God”, “Unity—All is God”, and “Invoke Often! Inflame Thyself with Prayer”. While profoundly different on the surface, these final steps are the perfect culmination to the training year in that they entail finding and employing personalized, emotionally and intellectually engaging methods of prayer and meditation.

These final chapters also include words of immense wisdom and beauty as well as encouragement. They are alone worth the cost of the book even to the most advanced student. I return to them periodically as “inspirational reading” and find them to be ever refreshing.

While definitely based in the Hermetic and Kabbalistic systems and traditions, there is nothing in this book which cannot be easily adapted for training a new student in nearly any magic-mystical system. I myself simply handed The One Year Manual over to my own student and said, “Here. This will be your course of training for now. If you can make it through, you’ll be ready for anything else you choose to study.” For the budding Hermetic, I can imagine no better first year of training than this book with, perhaps, The Kybalion and Regardie’s The Tree of Life to provide theoretical foundation.

Change of Format

September 11, 2009

I’ve decided to move my book and media reviews over to here, starting now. I plan on doing quite a lot of them, and I feel that they’ll get a bit cumbersome over at The Magical Messiah.