I Read, I Write . . Book Reviews

A few months ago a friend of mine posted a few pictures from Llewellyn’s Steampunk Tarot. Much to his surprise those pictures set off a firestorm as people felt the need to comment on them. Many of the remarks were negative, somewhere along the line of “how dare anyone mess with the sanctity of tarot!” Of course if you know anything about the real history of tarot cards you know that the images on the cards were in flux for centuries with many decks having different numbers of both major and minor arcana cards. If you’ve never seen the Llewellyn Steampunk Deck (conceived by Barbara Moore and illustrated by Aly Fell) you should give them a look. The images are absolutely gorgeous and stir the imagination, which is what good tarot cards should do.

When I first ran into the Moore and Fell deck I knew that a Steampunk Pagan Book would probably be close behind it, and low and behold it showed up last February. When I took my first look at Gypsey Elaine Teague’s Steampunk Magic (Red Wheel/Weiser) I did a little bit of scoffing, but then I had to correct myself. Ritual is a lot like tarot, it should stir the imagination, and even more importantly it should probably be fun. If you aren’t enjoying ritual you are probably doing it wrong, and the rituals (and magic) in Steampunk Magic are full of fun. I’m sure there are some people out there who think weaving fantasy elements into ritual is offensive or blasphemous but I’m not one of them. (Teague also does a nice job of avoiding such controversies by keeping “religion” out of SPM, there are no sabbat rituals here or devotions to deity.)

I’m not a Steampunk aficionado so some of this book was lost on me, but I found a lot to enjoy. The prose in Teague’s rituals is effective and often eloquent, and I tend to be picky with how rituals are worded. In addition to the rituals there are some solid and imaginative spells. For the Steampunk novice there are also a lot of pictures and illustrations so everything makes a degree of sense. I will admit that Teague’s inclusion of an absinthe ritual (basically using it as ale in Cakes and Ale) helped sell me on this book. I’m easy that way.

While I thought this book was a lot of fun, I do have a few quibbles. While not using the terms “Priestess” and “Priest” was probably a conscious decision, if I were to use Teague’s rituals in a public setting I’d probably refrain from calling myself “Captain” or “Commander.” I’ll admit to the lexicon making me giggle a bit, but that could be because I’m an outsider.

I also felt as if there was a lot of “dead space” in Steampunk Magic. In the print version there are some huge margins (the bottom of each page has about one and a half to two inches of nothing) and I initially thought the review copy I was given was an early proof and not the “for sale” version. Whoever laid this book out for Red Wheel had to do some serious work to get the page count up to 213. Perhaps instead of stretching the page count out, an editor could have noticed the misattribution of the book The War of the Worlds to Jules Verne instead of H.G. Wells. All in all though, I had a good time with it, and I certainly recommend it for anyone interested in Steampunk or imaginative 19th Century-inspired magick work.

Last March the Patheos Book Club featured T. Thorn Coyle’s Make Magic of Your Life (Red Wheel/Weiser). A lot of the writers here at Patheos Pagan really enjoyed Make Magic; Crystal Blanton, John Beckett, and P. Sufenas Virius Lupus all had good things to say about it. Their positive reactions caused me to sit on my review for the last two months because I just didn’t feel as strongly about it as they did.

For the record I absolutely love T. Thorn Coyle. She’s an amazing teacher and her rituals at public gatherings sizzle with power and energy. Evolutionary Witchcraft, Thorn’s first book, is great and should be included on any comprehensive “101″ type of list. All of those feelings (along with the glowing reviews from my respected colleagues here) made this book hard for me to review.

I think some of my problems with Make Magic are due to my current circumstances. The last year or so I’ve been absolutely glowing. My life is great and full of magick; I know where I want to go, and have a pretty good plan on how to get there. Make Magic of Your Life is about getting to a more positive place and finding the things that are going to make one fulfilled. There are certainly readers out there who need the kind of positive guidance provided by Thorn in this book, I just didn’t feel like I was one of them.

Coyle says a lot of practical things in her latest book, but her best insights always feel as if they are surrounded by a lot of superfluous prose. Yes people need to listen more than they do, but I don’t need to be hit over the head with the idea over and over again. If the ideas in Make Magic were pancakes I’d say they all came with way too much syrup and butter. There are also quotes from famous people sprinkled throughout the text along with some reflections from a collection of authors and activists referred to as “The Wise Council.” Both of those things came across as padding to me and I felt as if they detracted from the book.

Gods I feel like a jerk for not liking this book, but I just couldn’t get into it. I’m an earthy drink deeply from the cup of life type of Pagan and had a lot of trouble relating to concepts like “God hirself.” I understand the desire to treat deity in a gender-neutral kind of way, but it felt like an attempt to pander to a Non-Pagan more New Agey type of audience. I get the desire to write a book that transcends genres, but in doing so Jason the Pagan was a little bit lost and felt a little bit neglected. There are good thoughts and ideas in Make Magic, and her use of Eliphas Levi is clever, but it just didn’t work for me. Read the other reviews I’ve linked to though, because as I said, I don’t think this book was written for me.

Quick Hits

Every year around Easter I try to read one book about Christianity. This year I ended up reading (devouring might be a better word) The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom by Candida Moss. I’ve long known that much of the martyr mythology embraced by many Christians is nonsense, but Moss lays those truths out with precision and clarity. If you are interested in a more honest history of Christianity in the Second through Fourth Centuries CE you’ll want to pick this book up.

When an academic writes a book for a lay audience tone can often be a problem and it is here. Moss often treats her readers with a bit of contempt. I felt like she was intentionally trying to “dumb things down,” scared that those of us without PHd’s would be unable to keep up if she didn’t. It’s a tone that comes up several times in Myth, and if Moss is going to continue to write for a general audience I hope she overcomes the ivory tower syndrome. Even with the tone problems, there’s a lot of great information here and I whole heartedly recommend Myth for that.

Helena Blavatsky is one of the most interesting and intriguing spiritual/religious figures of the last 200 years, but she’s been relegated mostly to the margins of history. Was she a complete fraud? Delusional? An under-appreciated genius? Perhaps she was a combination of all three?

Gary Lachman’s Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality doesn’t really answer the question, but it’s a good introduction to Blavatsky. Lachman (a former member of Blondie) seems mostly sympathetic to my favorite Russian enigma, which is both good and bad. No matter how one feels about Blavatsky she was a fascinating character and shouldn’t be dismissed lightly, but I would have liked a little bit more skepticism on Lachman’s part. It’s a quick read and recommended for anyone who just wants to know a little bit more about H.P.

That’s it for me, I’ve got more books to read.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Steampunk Tarot looks cool. I have the Necronomicon Tarot (As part of Donald Tyson’s Necronomicon series), and the concept is great. I personally don’t do tarot, but I used to have a habit of collecting occult paraphernalia. I don’t see how a steampunk tarot is any more heretical than an Egyptian one.

    Concerning the Steampunk Magic book, I must confess that I saw it on the shelf and after a cursory skim, decided it was likely quite crap. The Steampunk scene has always seemed to be based in fandom rather than philosophy or spirituality and I question the wisdom of introducing an occult element to that. It is one thing to role play, but another thing to do it in earnest.

  • http://twitter.com/GreenEyedLilo Jayelle

    If a set of Tarot cards doesn’t speak to you right now, in your place, as you are, then what on earth is the point of them? That’s why there are so many different decks being made, and I’m glad there are. If one doesn’t speak to you, get another, that’s all. I know I became somewhat better at Tarot (though never an expert) when I let myself leave the Rider-Waite box.

    Same with ritual–if it doesn’t engage your mind as it is, it isn’t going to work, period. I don’t think I’d try the steampunk approach, but I’ll respect the effort.

    I haven’t read Thorn Coyle’s new book, but I like the pithiness of your sentence: ” If the ideas in Make Magic were pancakes I’d say they all came with way too much syrup and butter.” I do like her on Twitter, a lot. We’ll see. Thanks for all the reviews!

  • myownashram

    I understand where you’re coming from in your review to Thorn’s book. However, if you read (and liked!) her “Evolutionary Witchcraft” then you might recall that her use of God Hirself is not a pandering to New Age woo, but rather a deliberate theological choice. I like that she continues to use it. I think challenging accepted god language is important.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chkraemer13 Christine Hoff Kraemer

      I do appreciate Jason’s point that God Hirself is pretty abstract when separated from the mythology, images, and specific theology from which that term came. (I actually prefer God Herself because I like the way it suggests a multiple-gender rather than a gender-neutral deity — a deliberate use of a masculine term and a feminine term in one name. Unfortunately I’m not sure “God Hirself” comes across as a transgender term to most people, though that could be just as good.)

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Once upon a time ‘god’ was a gender neutral term (meaning “that which is invoked”), and only became masculine-ised with the coming of Christianity.

        (Mind you, ‘man’ was gender neutral, too.)

        • Ywen DragonEye

          I like the term “Godde” (I believe originated by Margaret Starbird) as a gender neutral term for deity.

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