Posted tagged ‘book review’

Blog Post 208 – Book Review: Six Ways – Approaches and Entries for Practical Magic by Aidian Wachter

June 19, 2018

Aidan Wachter is well-known among a subset of the magical community for his gorgeous talismanic creations, forged from silver and bearing arcane markings of his own design or derived from richly sorcerous sources. This year, he has also embarked upon a career as an author of magical texts, building upon his years of experience and bringing the same level of creativity and depth to his writing that he has long done with his jewelry. With Six Ways: Approaches and Entries for Practical Magic, Wachter seeks to open up pathways into practice for those who, like him, are “dirt sorcerors,” practitioners who may have some cosmological interests but who are far more interested in applying magic to the world around them in inventive, operational ways. At the end of Chapter Eight of his self-published work, he says, “The first and most important enchantment is the enchantment of the world, which by its very nature is also the enchantment of us, its perceiver. A large amount of the work of magic and sorcery as I have come to know it has to do with this concept” (44). Wachter’s stated aim, reenchantment, has been on the minds of the magically-inclined since Keith Thomas’ summative text on the decline of magic in the modern world, and if many hands make light work then Six Ways shoulders a goodly portion of that burden.

The book’s thirty-three chapters all come in digestible chunks of a few pages, but in most of those bite-size portions the flavor runs deep (except in his rejection of red onions, an opinion in which he is clearly wrong). He begins by introducing himself and his purpose: to add “approaches and entries” to the Field of magic (I capitalize that term here because Wachter does, explaining that the Field is the “totality of manifest and unmanifest reality. Sorcery is the art of effective inter-being with the Field”) (10). The emphasis here is in the practice, the application, the dirt-under-your-fingernails approach to getting things done in ways that most people can’t or won’t. By Chapter Two, Wachter is already handing out homework and pushing the reader to put the book down (a hard task at times) and go do the stuff. Exercises within the text are wide-ranging and pull from a variety of systems including some Ceremonial and chaos magic, hoodoo, and Traditional Witchcraft, although seldom in any way that feels disrespectful or disharmonious. In Chapter Nine, he leads the reader into silence as a way of understanding meditation, then segues into trance in Chapter Ten. He relates the practice of offerings (in a general animistic sense) to a more specific chapter on working with the Dead and follows the deeper relationship-building practices into a chapter on “the stacking of skulls” as a way of understanding altar construction. Of course, one of his standout sections comes in the form of chapters on sigil work and talisman creation, where his expertise is evident.

Wachter’s book is remarkable in that it feels very much like having tea with a friend—a friend who knows a great deal about practical, action-oriented, behavioral occultism. The conversational tone he strikes may actually deter some readers because he speaks from his own experience and the lessons he’s learned but does not do so in a prescriptive way beyond providing potential tasks for a developing magician to try. Put another way, the book is a bit like an afternoon break with a mad scientist in his workshop, where he allows you to tinker a bit with his Tesla coils and bottles of bubbling concoctions as you walk and talk. It is a strange book in some ways, and at times I found myself a bit astray from his path (I do not particularly follow some of his meditative methods), but he always drew me back in again. His arguments about making contracts with spirits responsibly, seeing animism in its most relationship-oriented form, and making magic a thing you do in the world, rather than something that happens to you all resonated with my own sense of folk magic as a continuum of praxis.

One of my favorite moments in the book is Wachter’s description of the feeling when magic works: “This is magic, and if done with intention, and devotion, it should feel a bit like falling in love…Magic is the art of falling in love with the Field and its inhabitants” (120). Those inhabitants include us, of course, and falling in love with ourselves, the world around us, and all the beautiful threads that weave us together is a bit of magic itself. It is a reenchantment of the world, and this book makes that task a little easier.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

*In the interest of full disclosure, I received a review copy of the book from the author.

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Blog Post 193 – Book Review: Strange Experience, by Lee R. Gandee

February 10, 2015


Strange Experience: The Autobiography of a Hexenmeister—Personal Encounters with Hauntings, Magic and Mysticism (Prentice-Hall: New Jersey, 1971). 355pp. Illustrations.

 

Let me begin by saying I have wanted to review this book for a long time. Primarily, that is because I have wanted to read this book for a long time, at least in something beyond excerpted form, which is the best I’d been able to do. The book itself seems to be out-of-print, and runs upwards of seventy-five dollars on the second-hand market, and I have always just told myself that when I find a copy for less than fifty, I’ll grab it then. Thankfully, my friend Atticus Hob did a sort of book exchange with me, and let me borrow his copy, and so I have finally been able to dive fully inot Gandee’s text and join him on his meandering journey through his mystically charged coming-of-age tale of sexual awakening, spirit contact, and magic.

I knew of this book for a long time before I read it, largely because one of the people whom I consider a teacher and friend, Jack Montgomery, studied with Gandee during the seventies. Jack included stories of his experiences in his own work, American Shamans, which has already been mentioned before (and we interviewed Montgomery in an earlier episode, too). What I knew the most about was Gandee as an adult, living a hexenmeister’s life and dispensing his perspective for an eager grad student. Strange Experience lives up to its title, showing that Gandee’s youth and development—both magically and personally—were extremely unusual, yet not at all unfamiliar to anyone who has struggled with identity at some point in his or her life.

The book is broken into nineteen chapters and an introduction, with titles such as “A Dead Man’s Treasure” and “The Strangest Prayers are Painted.” Each chapter is introduced with a hex sign—a Pennsylvania German art design frequently seen on barns in Lancaster and Berks Counties. Some of the signs are essentially reproductions of old barn signs, but a number of them are Gandee originals, and all have short explanations about their significance and attributed powers (such as “perpetual watchful protection and guidance” or “man’s power to create through mental and spiritual action”) (pp. 27, 115). He begins with his childhood, which launched on a turbulent evening and never seems to have settled down much. He regularly saw his mother in his tender years, but was largely raised by other relatives, mostly his grandmother. The book explains that Lee’s childhood was full of demons, ghosts, hauntings, and apparitions, but that most people he knew simply accepted those as part of the world in which they lived.

Gandee quickly shifts gears into a bit of a sweet if emotionally confounded romance with a boy named Stud, whom Gandee clearly regards as the love of his life, although he goes to great lengths to account for this love as something other than homosexual. The struggle for sexual identity dominates the book, at least as much as any aspect of magic or regional culture, and Gandee eventually recounts a past life in which he was a sort of sacred prostitute named Zaida, and Stud was a sailor with whom she fell in love. The romance was doomed by jealousy in the past, and in their reincarnated state the two boys don’t fare much better.

Much of the book recounts the simply mind-boggling spiritual world of Gandee, which ranges from the native hexenmeister-craft he practices (including the aforementioned chapter on painting prayers through hex signs) to working with Christian Science methods and encountering ferocious ghosts in Mexico (in the chapter “Ni; Uari! Go!; Die!”). Gandee runs a group of spiritual mediums in college, helps find lost things, manifest desires for his friends and neighbors through art, and studies the powers of animal magnetism and hypnosis along the way. He generally tries to rationalize what he experiences in a blithe, worldly tone, although in many spots he is clearly as swept away by circumstances and wonder as any reader might be.

The information on hexerei and Pennsylvania Dutch magic is incredibly interesting, and shows a tremendously syncretic, vibrant faith-based practice. A student of the pow-wow/braucherei culture would gain a great deal from a close study of the many charms and stories shared by the author, and a student of folk magic generally might see some of the potential inner workings of well-known spells in the book, too. When reading Strange Experience, however, any reader would do well to remember that the experiences are only those of Gandee, and do not speak for a larger culture generally. Gandee was certainly a distinct individual, and the things he writes about are connected to very old practices and traditions, but he quite openly acknowledges the changes he has made over time as well.

Because of the paucity of good, first-hand accounts of this sort of folk magic, Gandee’s book stands out in its field. It hardly reads as a dissection of Pennsylvania German religious or magical culture, and Gandee himself is hard to pin down at times (which is largely the point of his text). I feel that the questions about magical ethics, regional distinction, and social dynamics for sorcerors and their communities all make for good intellectual fodder, even if Lee’s conclusions about such things seem, well, strange. I do hope that others will read this book as well and that Gandee’s place in the pantheon of American magicians might receive a restoration of sorts. What he manages to accomplish in this book is far different than any magical how-to manual, because Strange Experience highlights the humanity of a man with feet in two worlds, belonging to none.

Thanks for reading,
-Cory

Blog Post 191 – Book Review: The Voodoo Doll Spellbook, by Denise Alvarado

September 30, 2014

[Author’s disclaimer: I received this book as a review copy from Red Wheel/Weiser Books. They have neither paid nor coerced me in any way to write this review, and the opinions stated herein are my own, and do not reflect the position of the publisher.]

 

I am absolutely certain that a number of people will see the title of Denise Alvarado’s latest title from Red Wheel/Weiser Books and simply ignore its existence. That is a downright shame, because the book proves to be a personal and anthropological tour through an area of magic that can be very easy to misunderstand, work with dolls and effigies. Alvarado confronts the issue of the ‘Voodoo doll’ early in her text, laying its negative cultural cache at the feet of “Hollywood and the media” and noting that despite its origins as a “fusion of folk-lore with science fiction…the image of the pin-stuck doll is so embedded in the collective psyche of the general public that the thought of using a Voodoo doll any differently seems to defy all logic” (p. 2). Alvarado’s book is a repository of doll magic, some of it very interesting and useful, some merely edifying or even occasionally confusing, but it certainly deserves consideration beyond its titular associations.

The book is broken up into twenty-one chapters, generally grouping spells by expected outcome, not much different than other spellbooks in the genre, really. There are chapters on “Money Spells,” “Spells for Good Luck, Success, & Gambling,” and of course, “Spells for Love & Romance.” Alvarado really sets herself apart with the amount of space she devotes to the less savory workings of doll magic, with chapters like “Bend-Over Spells,” “Binding Spells,” “Break Up Spells,” and most especially an extensive chapter on “Curses, Hexes & Spells for Revenge.” Her work draws upon myriad traditions, not solely Vodoun, hoodoo, or Southern Conjure—the fields she clearly connects with best, at least personally. She also brings in chapters on doll magic from the Ancient world, such as dream dolls drawn from Greco-Egyptian magical papyri. One of the truly standout chapters is a section called “Japanese Voodoo Spells,” which actually looks at two types of effigy magic found in Japanese practice, even connecting them to the popular youth culture there: “Aggressive marketing campaigns advertising Ushi no Koku Mairi [Japanese cursing dolls] kits that contain a straw doll, a hammer, a couple of candles, and fifteen-centimeter-long nails are targeted to the young Japanese demographic” and she notes an increasing presence of these dolls in “anime episodes, online games, and videos that promote cyber cursing” on sites like YouTube (p. 172). Alvarado brings in Goetic spells involving dolls, and influences from Christian magical practice via Catholic and Psalm workings. She even includes a doll spell to prevent pets from getting lost.

Sources for The Voodoo Doll Spellbook range from the scholarly to the questionable (ghost hunting websites and a book on Mexican magic which tenuously reframes Hispanic folk ceremonies in a Wiccan context, for example), but generally speaking, Alvarado speaks authoritatively and presents her material well. Several spells are guest-contributed by conjure worker Carolina Dean, which prove to be some of the high points in the text. In some cases, the reason for lumping some spells into separate chapters is unclear, as in the “Binding Spells” section, of which a reprint of Psalm 94 takes up a full twenty percent of the pages. Still, when she is on-target, as with her two Mississippi cursing dolls (pp. 36-38), the quality of the work is apparent, and the spells make a useful compendium of doll magic.

The relatively few other doll-baby work books available (Starr Casas’ slim-but-potent one comes to mind, which seems to be out of print, sadly) mean that Alvarado’s book fills a major niche in practical magical writing. In many ways, what she accomplishes with The Voodoo Doll Spellbook is quite similar to work done by Judika Illes in her books—this is the notebook of a collector of spells. What plagues the text the most is its title, which seems to relegate it to a very specific subcategory of magical work, and which undermines its authority in the minds of educated readers. The material contained within is useful, if occasionally uneven (I’m currently working with one of her money doll spells, for example—I’ll let you know how that goes). While I could consider this book neither a definitive text nor a weak entry in the field, I can certainly point to its utility and some of its unusual offerings as a recommendation to read it and be satisfied.

If you’ve read this book, or have others to recommend on the topic of doll magic, I’d love to hear them!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 178 – Book Reviews

August 7, 2013

This seems to be a great time to work with American folk magic. Not only have a number of people begun working with the systems that have evolved here (like hoodoo, pow-wow, and all the other flavors of North American magic you probably come to this site to investigate), but the vast amount of information on the various branches has become legion. Thanks very much to author-teachers like Cat Yronwode, Conjureman Ali, and Denise Alvarado, the opportunity to learn folk magic has expanded beyond a few internet sites and hard-to-find instructors to entire shelves of books and even folk magic festivals where students can gather together and learn from a bevy of the brightest minds in practical magic today.

Keeping up with the tremendous reading list available to someone interested in folk magic is no easy task. My current pace is roughly a book a week to a book every two weeks, and that includes the books I review for the Journal of American Folklore, texts on folk magic, books on literature and criticism, science writing, etc. Occasionally I manage to squeeze one in for fun, too!

That’s not to say that my ‘required’ reading list can’t be fun, too, of course. Two recent entries into the pile of texts on folk magic that have been absolute pleasures to read are The Black Folder, compiled by Cat Yronwode and The Conjure Workbook, v. 1: Working the Root, by Starr Casas.

The Black Folder is the assembly of a number of workshop handouts from a variety of events and educational opportunities presented by Yronwode’s Lucky Mojo Curio Company and Missionary Independent Spiritual Church over the past decade or so. Many of the entries, particularly the early ones, are by Yronwode herself. Her section on working hoodoo based on items you can pick up at the grocery store or pull from your pantry is first-rate, and doesn’t simply focus on the spice rack but includes work with onions and other produce as well. Other top-notch contributors include Conjureman Ali, Sindy Todo, Robin York, Dr. E, Starr Casas, and many others. Topics range from the oft-covered bottle spells and honey jars to very detailed and unique pieces on foot-washing, the use of skulls in magic, and even some Swedish troll-magic courtesy of Dr. Johannes Gardback. The design of the book really looks like a collection of newsletters that have been bound up in a black cover (it is, however, a trade paperback version of the original Black Folder, which Yronwode used to keep up with all the informational pamphlets used by teachers in Lucky Mojo’s courses). Reading through this book provides a bit of a biography of Lucky Mojo as well, as the evolution of the company and its teaching role can be seen in the more-or-less chronological progression of the pamphlets.  The work provided varies in quality according to the author, with some authors giving standout spells and methods, and some which focus more on theory than technique. I found a few entries that seemed more conjectural and less based on inherited practices or research, but for the most part the book is an absolute treasure-trove of information. While it does not replace the opportunity to learn from these folks in person, it certainly does a phenomenal job of feeling like field notes from working magicians. It is published by Lucky Mojo, so you can buy it directly from them or through Amazon and other booksellers.  Because of the difficult layout work that must be required to piece together all those pamphlets, it seems like the kind of text that will not likely ever appear in eBook format, so a physical copy is the only way to go, but highly worth the purchase price.

In The Conjure Workbook, Casas—who contributed to The Black Folder as well, noted above—also does a tremendous amount of assembly, piecing together essentially an entire lifetime of conjure knowledge in a little under 300 pages. Casas has been teaching and writing for several years, and has formerly produced texts on doll baby work, money magic, basic Southern conjure, and Blackhawk independently. For this endeavor, however, she has joined up with Pendraig Publishing (Peter Paddon’s company). At the very outset, I will say the biggest problem with the book has nothing to do with the work presented, but rather the frequent typos, spelling errors, and odd edits that plague the text. Hopefully future volumes and editions will corret those issues, though, because this book is highly valuable and informative. Starr’s workbook reads like a master class with a highly skilled and practiced conjure worker. She makes no bones about the type of work she does, which she labels as specifically Southern conjure and ties to working with the Bible (please note, she does not say one must be a Christian to do this work, but that one must be comfortable with the Bible as a source of spellwork and power—this point frequently gets misunderstood in her writing). She has been practicing within a Catholic strain of the work for many years, so the Saints make a strong entry into this book. She doesn’t shy away from the darker side of saints like St. Lucy and St. Ramon, and includes work with Mary and several of the prophets, too—which are spirits that receive relatively little attention in other works on Biblically-framed folk magic despite their powerful natures. Casas puts the work first in this book, and if you’re looking for actual spells to do, this is certainly the kind of text to keep handy. She also does not regurgitate anyone else’s spellwork (at least as far as I can see) and gives the reader a piece of her own history and philosophy in between the spells. More than anything, this book reads like a conversation with her, and provides loads of new conjure projects to an aspiring worker, including doll babies made with shrunken apple heads, medicine bottle spells, and even a good reason to invest in getting a box of chalk from the dollar store to keep handy. Starr has put together a book that, despite its proofreading issues, manages to be absolutely invaluable to anyone who likes to get their hands a little dirty in folk magic.

Both of these books are born from years of practical experience, and they both have more of a classroom feel than most titles on folk magic do, which may make them more accessible than other texts on similar subjects. It is highly likely both books will be the initial entries into multi-volume series as well, which hopefully means that classes will continue, so to speak, for a long time to come.

Yronwode and Lucky Mojo have also begun producing a number of smaller books, like The Art of Hoodoo Candle Magic in Rootwork (by Ms. Cat) and Hoodoo Honey & Sugar Spells (by Deacon Millet), but I’ve yet to read most of those. Casas also has released a small book on reading “conjure cards,” and she’s put out a deck and a special deluxe set that includes the cards, book, and blessing oil through Pendraig. They look absolutely stellar, though I’ve not laid hands on a set yet, only seen the online previews. I mention these because both Pendraig and Lucky Mojo seem to be strong contenders in terms of putting out useful texts on folk magic now, and I’m very happy to see them expanding their offerings. Hopefully that means an ever-growing source of knowledge and spellwork for all of us.

There are plenty of other texts I’d love to explore (including one that I’ll try to get to with a bit of fanfare soon, called Fifty-Four Devils, by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, who seems a rather promising fellow, if a bit silly at times), but for now I hope you’ll check out The Black Folder and Working the Root and let me know what you think.

Wishing you all the best, and happy reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 168 – New World Witchery Cartulary No. 2

November 29, 2012

Today we’re rounding up another group of links that readers of this blog might find interesting or enjoyable and sending them out into the world. I’ve not had as much time to write for the blog or record for the show as I’m knee-deep in the process of thesis-writing and researching places for PhD research, but I do continually find myself reading new posts, articles, and information that pertain to the various branches of folk lore, folk magic, and folk belief. Here’s a brief list that will hopefully give you some things to peruse while you’re waiting upon tenterhooks for the next riveting New World Witchery post or show.

I’ll start today in the realm of Pennsylvania-Dutch magic. There’s a brand new edition of the pow-wow classic The Long Lost Friend available from Llewellyn, edited and annotated by Daniel Harms.  Hohman’s text is presented here in several formats, including the original 1820 edition (with the German language version) and in an expanded 1856 English translation. Many of the spells are pulled from a third edition, the 1837 “Skippacksville” version. It’s a surprisingly stuffed text with a tremendous amount of folkloric value, and if you have any interest in American folk magic at all I highly recommend getting it.

In the same vein, if you enjoy braucherei, hexerei, and pow-wow, but want to explore it in a Pagan/Heathen context, I cannot recommend enough that you hurry over to Urglaawe. This is Rob Schreiwer & Co.’s site which helps collect—in English and PA-German—the vast stores of Germanic magic which exist on both sides of the Atlantic (with a heavy emphasis on the beliefs and practices of the Pennsylvania-Dutch in America). Schreiwer will be part of an upcoming episode of the show, and he’s a brilliant mind with a tremendous amount of information in his head, so please take a look at the work he’s doing. If you’re a schuler of things Deitsch, you won’t regret it.

In a final nod to the Germanic cultures of America, I was recently introduced by SilverShadow and Dr. Hob to the fascinating phenomenon of courting candles. These little spiral-shaped candle holders would be lit and adjusted to provide light for suitors to visit their sweethearts. When the candle burned out, the beau had to leave. If a father liked a suitor, he’d adjust the candle to provide more time in the light; if not, he’d move the little key to make the candle burn out more quickly. I’m always fascinated by things like this, as I can see plenty of ways they can be used magically in addition to their more mundane applications.

Speaking of Dr. Hob, he’s been very active on his own website lately, Pennies for the Boneyard, with phenomenal posts on topics ranging from his relationship with Christianity and conjure work to a review of ConjureMan Ali’s Santisma Muerte book to a rather flattering and kindly review of our own cartomancy guide. If you’ve not come across his blog before, give it a visit and tell him we sent you.

You should also check out the fun and informative show he and SilverShadow are doing together, called Lamplighter Blues.

I’m reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil for the first time as part of a book club, and if you haven’t read it, it’s worth the time. The story gives you a wonderful portrait of the strange, beautiful, and eerie city of Savannah, Georgia, as well as a specific murder trial that occurred there in the 1980s. A major portion of the story takes place in cemeteries, and a conjure woman whom the author names “Minerva” becomes somewhat crucial in the narrative. This is essentially a non-fiction book, though, and Minerva is actually Valerie Fennel Boles, widow to one of the Dr. Buzzards of Beaufort, South Carolina. Boles carried on Buzzard’s conjure work until her death in 2009, and the portrayals of her practice in the book—despite the appellate of “voodoo” which author John Berendt uses to describe what she does—are incredibly vivid and authentic.  You can read more about Dr. Buzzard in Jack Montgomery’s American Shamans, too, which we’ve mentioned here before.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Sarah Lawless’ latest venture has gone live. Go take a peek at the Poisoner’s Apothecary, and check out some of the projects she’s working on. I’m particularly excited about the range of pipes she’s carving for smoking rituals.

I think that will just about do it for today. If you enjoy these links, let them know who sent you and let us know what you like best in the comments section. And feel free to share what you’re reading/writing/learning these days, too!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 106 – Book Review

December 7, 2010

The Faeries’ Guide to Green Magick from the Garden by Jamie Wood and Lisa Steinke, illustrations by Lisa Steinke

When I was asked to review this book from the publisher*, I said yes without knowing anything about it. The title intrigued me, so I thought I’d give it a chance. I have to be honest though, anytime I hear anything about “faerie” books, I’m always a bit wary. Some books can be a bit more new agey than I like, and, dare I say it- a little fluffy. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how this book treats the subject of faeries.

To start out, the authors talk about Man and his symbiotic relationship with the earth. Talk is quickly shifted to a “go green” type of message, and how important this is in order to have any relationship with the faeries. It comes off a bit heavy handed, especially since it’s all information that any pagan already knows. However, Wood and Steinke then go on to explain how they view faeries- as the life forces of plants. They explain that plants are living beings, and that each faerie has an individual energy and personality that is a manifestation of that plant energy. They go on to say that Steinke’s lovely illustrations are her own personal interpretation of that faerie energy. I was really happy with this explanation, as it’s pretty close to my own view of faeries and they explain it in a easy to understand way.

There are a few more chapters on magickal** gardening, green gardening, and complimentary medicine. I found these to be a bit extraneous though, because they only touch on the subjects in passing. I’m glad though, because the best part of the book is what’s next- the Herbal Index. I loved this part of the book. The set up is that each herb has it’s own entry, with 33 of the most common herbs represented. Each herb has Steinke’s illustration of the faerie energy of the herb, a description of the plant, how to take care of it, and some magickal way to use the herb- whether that be an ingredient in a recipe, an ingredient in a spell, or perhaps a way to make your own beauty product. The only thing I found myself wishing for in this portion of the book was an actual picture of the plant/herb. However, since they’re so common, a quick google search will pull up plenty of pictures. I really enjoyed this portion of the book, and I think it would be great for someone new to working with herbs (like me).

Overall, I was pretty happy with The Faeries Guide to Green Magick from the Garden. It is definitely written for those new to gardening, working with faeries, and even to witchcraft in general. Sometimes the tone is almost apologetic for being about “magick”- as if they are writing to the average person who has never even thought about magick or witchcraft before, which is not who is going to be buying this book. I found this to be a bit patronizing at times.

However, the Herbal Index alone makes the book worth it to me. The descriptions, how to care for the plant, a fun way to use that particular herb, and not to mention the wonderful illustrations, all made me think it will be a good book to have in my repertoire. Again, it is for beginners, so if you’re a seasoned herbalist, this book will probably not have enough information for you. But, if you want an easy introduction into working with faeries and working with magickal herbs, then think about checking out this book.

-Laine

*In the interest of full disclosure, the publisher contacted me and asked if I would give an honest review of the book. I haven’t been paid for this review, and I didn’t pay for the book.

**Also, I’d like to note that I don’t usually make the distinction between magic and magick, but the book makes a point of explaining this, so I figured I would stick with that spelling. The same goes with the fairy/faerie spelling.

Blog Post 101 – Book Review

November 10, 2010

(This review is also posted at The Pagan Bookworm, which hosts many great reviews and booklists of interest to magical folk)

Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation by Mitch Horowitz
Bantam Books, 2009 (304 pages)

This popular history of metaphysical thought in the United States has brought mainstream attention to many of the esoteric underpinnings of American culture.  Fueled by films such as National Treasure, the “secret history” trend seems to have greatly informed Horowitz’s Occult America.  In this text, the author traces several key lines of occult thought through the pages of American history, starting primarily in New York and working his way south and west across the landscape.  He spends a good deal of time examining the “Burned Over District” near the Erie Canal, which spawned a number of new religious and spiritual movements during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Mormonism, the Shakers, and even Spiritualism all have roots in this particular region, according to Horowitz, who treats the area as an incubator for esoteric thought.

The author then follows these nascent movements and some of their most visible members as they impact and shape American culture during the formative years of the new republic.  Joseph Smith, Henry Steel Olcott, Jemima Wilkinson (aka the “Publick Universal Friend”), Helena Blavatsky, Andrew Jackson Davis, and Edgar Cayce are just some of the myriad personalities Horowitz examines in his whirlwind tour of historic America’s spiritual scene.   He devotes pages to hoodoo mail order merchants and Voodoo worshipers in New Orleans.  He introduces the phenomenon of correspondence-course religions, such as Paul Foster Case’s Builders of the Adytum, which saw a flurry of popularity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Horowitz also does all of his examining with an infectious enthusiasm which keeps the reader turning pages to see the next dizzying connection between occult America’s disparate streams.

Occult America has its faults, too.  Horowitz so enthusiastically pursues the movements eminating from the Burned Over District that he neglects other key influences on magical and spiritual thought.  For instance, he spends little time looking into the Appalachian Mountains and the many religious and folk magical traditions which stemmed from the Pennsylvania-to-Georgia portion of that range (a subject wich is explored very well in Gerald C. Milne’s Signs, Cures, & Witchery).   He also gives short shrift to the occult legacy of places like Chicago, and devotes a relatively small amont of text to New Orleans—though that may be because it could be a book unto itself.   He focuses more keenly on new philosophical movements and areas which might be classified as “New Age” rather than looking at the on-the-ground practical elements of American occultism.  Even with all of that being said, however, the areas in which his focus is sharpest are often quite marvelous.  His chapter on Manly P. Hall, author of the profoundly world-shaking The Secret Teachings of All Ages, is worth reading and re-reading for any student of esoteric thought.    His chapter on the Ouija board is a delight as well.

Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America makes a good starting point for understanding the wide-ranging influences which have fed American spirituality since before the Declaration of Independence existed.  While its net is broad and therefore sometimes it only shallowly explores major topics, it can easily provide a reader with enough good questions and resources to explore those topics on his or her own.  It is far from comprehensive, but it is accessible and energetic, and will likely whet the intellectual appetite of any curious occultist.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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