Friday, January 18, 2013

Review of ten Neopagan books

Jewish date:  7 Shevaṭ 5733 (Parashath Bo’).

Today’s holidays:  Friday of the First Week of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Martin Luther (Church of the SubGenius).


I am finally getting around to posting something on a whole slew of Neopagan (mostly Wiccan) books, finishing up what I have for Wicca in print.  These are not ideal reviews, but this post has been put off too long so far.  After this I get to worry about pre-Neopagan magic, such modern magic as The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know?, Discordianism, the Church of the SubGenius, and various other surprises.

The reviews follow below

Peace and Shabbath shalom.


The Sorceress (La Sorcière) by Jules Michelet (Michelet):

This pseudo-historical book, originally published in French in 1862. draws upon accounts of witch trials.  All the clichés found in the work of Margaret Murray, Charles Leland, and Gerald Gardner are present in abundance and luridly to the extent that any movie made of this book would have to have at least an “R” rating.  The Christian clergy and nobility are presented as being irredeemably corrupt.  This is emphasized for the priesthood, dwelling extensively on sexual abuse of nuns.  The peasants are downtrodden to the point where they are totally miserable, are rarely able to get married, and frequently resort to abusive incest.  The peasants, in their desperation, also resort to Satanic witchcraft, likewise depicted scandalously.  This book is useful as an example for how witchcraft was depicted back around the time Gardner was putting together his Book of Shadows.  As a representation of what actually happened, it comes off as if Michelet committed the logical fallacy of cherry-picking:  choosing the material which suited him—in this case, anything and everything smacking of sexual impropriety—and ignoring everything else.  Since all the characters are evil, desperate, or crazy, the book comes off as unbelievable.

Drawing Down the Moon:  Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today by Margot Adler (Adler):

Anyone who wants to know about Neopaganism needs to read this book.  This is a genuine academic work, looking at what Neopagans actually believe.  Ms. Adler not only took a survey of the views of Neopagans, she did it twice.  Your humble blogger has the revised and expanded edition.  And what she turns up in the interviews, over and over again, is the real key to understanding Neopaganism.

Abrahamic religions put an emphasis on truth.  For example, Christianity hinges on the question of whether Jesus is the Messiah.  Thus the New Testament, especially the Gospels, spend a good deal of verbiage arguing that Jesus is the Messiah.  If he is not, then there is no point in being a Christian.  

Neopaganism, to the best of your humble blogger’s knowledge, never works like this.  There has been a good deal of arguing over whether there is any truth in the historical claims of Robert Graves, James Frazer, Margaret Alice Murray, and Charles Leland, but one will look in vain in the Neopagan works your humble blogger has read for any rational reason to believe in the Triple Goddess and the Horned God.  What one finds in abundance throughout Adler’s book, on the other hand, are emotional reasons.  People who convert to Neopaganism do so because it resonates with them.  They have had deep emotional experiences in response to paganism and have decided to adopt it as a lifestyle.  Some come to paganism through study.  Others have visions of various gods and goddesses.  And almost incredibly, some people play-act paganism for one reason or another and have such a powerful emotional experience that they become pagans.

How participants feel affects every aspect of Neopaganism.  They believe what resonates with them, even if the “belief” is what they act as if is true rather than what they actually think is true.  If polytheism resonates with them, then they are polytheists.  If duotheism, they are duotheists.  If belief in just a single goddess resonates with them, then they believe in just a single goddess.  Likewise, they do what resonates with them for rituals and magic.  If they enjoy Gardnerian rituals, then they perform Gardnerian rituals.  If they prefer rituals practiced by historical pagans, they do that.  And if they prefer to make up their own rituals, they do that, since whatever gives them a spiritual high is important.  The religious stories (“myths”) they tell are what resonate with them, be it genuine historical pagan religious stories, the pseudo-histories already discussed in this series, or brand-new stories which fit their tastes, or science-fiction.  Their moral/ethical behavior is also what resonates with them, which can be liberal or conservative, egalitarian, female supremacist, focusing on men, ecologically oriented, politically active, politically neutral, or just about anything else one can imagine.  So they end up creating such unusual-sounding groups and ideologies as the Church of All Worlds, the Reformed Druids of North America, Feraferia, Ásatrú, and Discordianism, and they go off in all sorts of unforeseen directions.  And since how one feels is all they consider important, many Neopagans indulge in whatever misconceptions they like without critical thinking, even if outside of religion they are fairly rational people.

Also in this book are some ideological discussions, a disdain for Christianity, rationalization that polytheism is somehow inherently more moral or otherwise better than monotheism, some talk of the predominant Neopagan theology of pantheism (belief that everything that exists is divine), and trying to subsume all Neopaganism (and sometimes even more) into a single, unified ideological framework.

The Witch’s Bible by Gavin and Yvonne Frost (Frost and Frost The Witchs Bible), The Prophet’s Bible by Gavin and Yvonne Frost (Frost and Frost The Prophet’s Bible) and The Magic Power of White Witchcraft by Gavin and Yvonne Frost (Frost and Frost The Magic Power of White Witchcraft:  Revised for the Millennium):

The Witch’s Bible happens to have been briefly reviewed by your humble blogger before this blog was founded (Adelman).  Unfortunately, his evaluation of it has not improved.

The Frosts are the founders of the Church and School of Wicca.  The School of Wicca runs a correspondence course, and thus naturally much of the material in these books instructs the reader how to practice magic and this version of Wicca.

The Church of Wicca is theologically unusual, to the point where some wish that it would not be labeled as Wicca at all.  Its doctrine is that there really is only one god, but in its rituals participants pretend there are two.  There is also a lot of theological emphasis on “the Other Side”, which is inhabited by the dead, who are progressing in their spiritual development and occasionally contact the living.

While Neopagans commonly practice ritual magic—which does get its fair share of discussion—these books push magical and irrational thinking to unusual levels and in a new direction; they are largely about how one can develop one’s psychic powers, and they are full of pseudoscience.  These books also deal extensively with magic as a form of self-improvement; one can read in them about how to use magic to increase one’s income, get what one wants, and rearrange one’s life for the better.  Intermixed with this is more traditional financial and career-development advice.  As such, these books come off as less spiritual or religious than many other Neopagan materials discussed in this series.

While Neopagans seem to be in general more sexually permissive than traditional Christians, the Church of Wicca actually mandates sex magic and regular swapping marriage partners.

Like Neopagans in general, the Frosts seem rather annoyed by Christianity and continue the tradition of botching Hebrew and Qabbalah.

A Witches Bible Compleat (Eight Sabbats for Witches and The Witches Way) by Janet and Stewart Farrar (Farrar and Farrar):

This is an extremely serious ritual manual and series of essays on Wiccan magic and theology.  The Farrars practice Alexandrian Wicca, one of the early offshoots of Gardnerian Wicca, and they worked with Doreen Valiente, one of Gardner’s high priestesses, to research the textual history of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows.  (Valiente actually wrote parts of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows.)  This is thus a useful book for anyone wanting to know about the origins of the Book of Shadows; it was not handed down intact, but rather was compiled from a number of different sources, and parts were written from scratch.  

The Farrars are not even vaguely rational people.  Their “rationale” for Wicca is philosophical, without the least bit of evidence to back it up.  They mix together anything from older religions which suits their tastes, factual or fictional, whether or not the combination actually makes sense.  They are also no more accurate in general than the Neopagan authors whose works are reviewed in this series.  They buy into Gardner’s doubtful pseudo-history of witchcraft and matriarchy, and like Gardener they love bashing Christianity over (real or imagined) crimes.  Like Gardner and the Frosts, the Farrars buy into pseudoscience constantly, unable to distinguish that which is supported by evidence from flimflam.  What separates them from the Frosts is the lack of financial and self-help advice, and a tone that many will find downright creepy.

This book should prove very useful for anyone wishing to study the practice of Wicca.  It may also prove useful for those looking for a peek into the minds of serious Wiccans.

A Wiccan Bible:  Exploring the Mysteries of the Craft from Birth to Summerland by A.J. Drew (Drew):

Mr. Drew does not appear to be a major figure in Wicca.  You humble blogger acquired his book only because he is aware of a large number of “Bibles” other than the Jewish and Christian ones, and he is collecting them for the Divine Misconceptions project.  Mr. Drew presents his own system of theology and ritual for Wicca, and much of what he writes can be found in other sources.  However, he goes into depth presenting a creation story, unlike other writers, and he takes a truly unique approach.

When trying to write a religious text, writers tend to take one of two paths:  either they present their text as something handed down to them, or they present their text as a work of scholarship.  The Wiccan works reviewed for this series tend to take one or some mixture of both these paths.  Mr. Drew takes a third path:  he blatantly claims he made up his own creation story.  While many people try to pass off something fabricated as something meant to be taken seriously, Mr. Drew is honest that he is simply making up his own story.  While this approach can work well when writing parables, Mr. Drew transparently cobbles together his story from the stories of previous religions and genuine history, actually having paragraphs giving the purported original stories.  The effect is to make for tedious reading and no aura of respectability that a (real or purported) transmitted text or a (real or purported) scholarly text might have.  The effect is even worse when one is familiar with any of the sources he draws upon and can recognize that he is fudging.  Since Mr. Drew is blatantly making things up, there is no point in him bringing sources, especially when he cannot be bothered to get them right.

This tedious “cobbled” approach is carried over to discussions of theology and ritual, as if any older religion’s tenets were evidence of Wicca (Mr. Drew’s version or otherwise).  Actually, it gets worse, with long lists of the gods (and purported gods) and holidays of numerous older religions.  How accurate any of this is unclear; for example, Mr. Drew is intent on finding polytheism in Judaism and Islam, in complete disregard of the fundamentals of Judaism and Islam.  Your humble blogger has no trust that Mr. Drew got anyone else’s religion right.

This book is for the Wiccan literature completist and the scholar of Wicca.  Almost everyone else can skip it.

The Wicca Bible by Ann-Marie Gallagher (Gallagher The Wicca Bible:  The Definitive Guide to Magic and the Craft) and The Spells Bible by Ann-Marie Gallagher (Gallagher The Spells Bible):

Like Mr. Drew, Ms. Gallagher does not appear to be a major figure in Wicca either, with her books also acquired for your humble blogger’s “Bible” collection.  While Ms. Gallagher seems to have some sort of academic credentials, they do not show in her books, which read like she is on a spiritual high due to Wicca, untempered by critical or analytical thought.  Practically everything in these books can be found elsewhere, only packaged with a plethora of color photographs and careful typography.  The main reason to read these books is the photographs.  Otherwise they can be safely ignored.

Witches’ Craft:  A Multidenominational Wicca Bible by Bruce K. Wilborn (Wilborn):

There is a bit of the history and theology of Wicca in this book, with the author buying into historically questionable claims of a secret witch cult persecuted by Christians.  There is also a section on how to perform divination and work magic with herbs.  However, the most interesting thing about this book is that it details the rituals of many distinct denominations of Wicca.  As noted above, Neopagans change their rituals in order to get the desired emotional experience, and Wiccans are no exception.  This book lists the variants of each ritual, one after the other, allowing easy comparisons.  This book is probably more useful for scholars of Wicca and Neopaganism than other people.

Adelman, Aaron Solomon. “Beware of the Surprise Narrator.”  (2009).  [].
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon:  Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. 1979. Revised and expanded ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. Print.
Drew, A.J. A Wiccan Bible:  Exploring the Mysteries of the Craft from Birth to Summerland. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2003. Print.
Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. A Witches Bible Compleat. New York: Magickal Childe Publishing, Inc., 1984. Print.
Frost, Gavin, and Yvonne Frost. The Magic Power of White Witchcraft:  Revised for the Millennium. Paramus, NJ: Reward Books/Prentice Hall, 1999. Print.
---. The Prophet’s Bible. York Beach, ME: S. Weiser, 1991. Print.
---. The Witch’s Bible. Los Angeles:  Nash Publishing Corporation, 1972. Berkley Medallion ed. New York: Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1975. Print.
Gallagher, Ann-Marie. The Spells Bible:  The Definitive Guide to Charms and Enchantments. Hampshire, UK:  Godsfield Press Ltd., 2003. Cincinnati, OH: Walking Stick Press, 2003. Print.
---. The Wicca Bible:  The Definitive Guide to Magic and the Craft. London: Godsfield Press, 2005. Print.
Michelet, Jules. The Sorceress (La Sorcière). 1939.  [].
Wilborn, Bruce K. Witches’ Craft:  A Multidenominational Wicca Bible. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2005. Print.