I’ve been reading a lot lately (but then, when am I not?). I’ve also managed to catch a couple of great movies as well. So I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on them with you! The excerpts below are the slightly abridged versions of the full reviews found over at Pagan Bookworm, so head over there if you want the full report.
1) The Book of English Magic – by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate (Overlook, 2010)
If you have spent much time studying occult literature, you know that Great Britain is rife with magical lore: fairies, Arthurian legends, druidry, cunning folk, etc. In The Book of English Magic, Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate make the not-too-audacious claim that Britain’s magical history is one of the richest—perhaps the richest—in the world. They approach their subject by examining a mix of history, folklore, and modern practices to attempt to piece together a portrait of Britain as an enchanted isle. While I think that they succeed in presenting a magical portrait of a magical land, I also think that the authors are by turns too broad and too narrow. They do a wonderful job looking into subjects like English alchemy and dowsing, providing a number of excellent resources to discover more about each topic. They also dwell overlong on the concept of druidry (not surprising considering it is one of Carr-Gomm’s chief fields of interest—he is also the author of Druid Mysteries, the Druid Plant Oracle, and the Druid Animal Oracle). The paucity of sources supporting some of their research means that while some chapters seem tight and focused, others seem only loosely woven together. They hardly plumb the depths of what is called Traditional Witchcraft, and the concept of cunning folk is given surprisingly short shrift considering how close to contemporary some of that material is. The inclusion of practical exercises gives a slightly ‘workbook’ feel at times, which deflates the momentum of the book in some places, but really does seem to serve the overall work.That being said, if one were looking for a good coffee-table introduction to the myriad magical traditions available to the student of British history, this would be an excellent starting point.
2) The Voodoo-Hoodoo Spellbook – by Denise Alvarado (Weiser, 2011)
This book is about what author Denise Alvarado calls “Voodoo-Hoodoo,” a term which irks some as the continuing inaccurate jumble of two terms which should remain distinct (Voodoo being a religion and hoodoo being a folk magical practice). However, if one takes the time to read Alvarado’s passionate book on the topic, the Voodoo-Hoodoo Spellbook, one can see that she is merely sticking to the terminology most people are familiar with and that the dog of diction has no teeth to bite when it comes to New Orleans-style magic. Instead, Alvarado presents a tradition which blends elements of Haitian Vodoun, folk Catholicism, Southern root work and hoodoo, and a touch of New Age spirituality to create a vibrant, current practice. She uses a number of good resources, often primary ones, to support her understanding of a practice she has lived with her whole life (according to her). She also frequently slips away from the facts and into personal experience, but does so in a non-authoritarian way. Her history of Mardi Gras and the magical folklore associated with them is captivating, as is her heartfelt look at the Seven African Powers. When she does slip off of the scholarly or personal track the book can get a bit messy. Her correspondence tables are not a strength, and her inclusion of New Age style tumbled gemstones in her work almost undermines her traditionalism (as it seems fairly obvious that slaves doing similar work in the 19th century would not have had polished rose quartz to work with). She is flexible and fluid towards Christianity, though here it should be pointed out that she neither says one must work with Christianity nor one must work with African Traditional spirituality. People are looking for spells, and this book definitely has those. There are spells for love, luck, money, protection, and half-a-dozen other needs. Hundreds of spells and workings are contained in this book, as well as recipes for conjure oils and powders, instructions for candle working, and a discussion of poppets and dolls in magical work. Some of them seem totally reasonable within the context of her presented practice, and some seem a little forced. This book fits nicely on the shelf next to other “hoodoo 101” texts, while offering a few doors to open for a reader looking to go deeper.
3) Old World Witchcraft – by Raven Grimassi (Weiser 2011)
Don’t buy this book. I’m not even bothering providing a link to it. I’ve done a full review at Pagan Bookworm, but let me just say this text is badly researched, mis-cites or fails to cite sources, argues with scholars without presenting their actual point of view/argument, claims that graveyard dirt is just the powdered ash of tree leaves gathered in a cemetery, and says that you can become deeply knowledgable about a plant by studying its sigil. It’s bad history, bad herbalism, and bad witchcraft. All in all, this is a book which suffers from broken clock syndrome (as in, “a broken clock is right twice a day”). He occasionally hits on interesting ideas or brings up worthwhile concepts, but mostly he seems to be posing an elaborate fantasy as a pseudo-historical reality, with very little scholarly backbone to support his claims. When someone prods the gear works, the whole contraption just seems to fall apart.
4) American Mystic, directed by Alex Mar (Empire 8 Productions, 2010)
Director Mar turns the camera on three different but spiritually similar people: Kublai, an African American man who belongs to the Spiritualist Church; Chuck, a Lakota Sioux sun dancer; and Morpheus, a pagan witch and Feri tradition priestess. The director captures the challenges of these faiths, including both internal and external struggles. While there is an element of novelty to the practices of each film subject, the director never lets curiosity turn into spectacle. The Sun Dance, which can be grueling for participants, is not simply a show of blood and muscle, but rather connects Chuck to his family in a powerful way. Kublai seems to struggle with just how much he believes in his own spiritual gifts. And Morpheus senses her displacement in the modern world, while at the same time she does not shy away from the society of other people. The film does have its flaws, but keeps a sensitive and intelligent lens focused on these subjects and their deeply-felt spiritualism. This is a rare and lovely documentary on mysticism as seen at the ground level. Available on Netflix.
5) All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, directed by Tim Rutili (IndiePix Films, 2010)
In this outstanding independent film from director (and bit player/musician) Tim Rutili, a lonely fortune-teller and magical worker named Zel (played by the radiant Angela Bettis) lives in an old country house inhabited by a wide range of unusual ghosts that only she can see. There are dead flappers, priests, blind musicians, and a strange, child-like woman named Nyla (Molly Wade) who cannot speak. Zel is not merely a medium, she is also a deeply talented magical worker. She smartly lays down a salt line in front of her bedroom door every night to keep her ghost-friends out. The director cleverly bookends each section of the film with bits of folk magic, title cards with things like “A wish made while burning onions will come true,” which lends to the overall enchantment of the piece. This is such a lovely and exceptional film that I easily overlooked its flaws in favor of being bespelled by these characters. I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Go, watch it now! Available on Netflix.
Whew! So that’s been my reading and watch list (at least, that all the ones I could write reviews about lately). What have you been getting into?
Thanks for reading!