This is probably one of the more difficult reviews I have to write, but I told myself I’m not going to spare anyone’s feelings or hold back when it comes to how I feel about this book. I must be like Ice: cold, and like the swords suit in a tarot deck, cold, cutting, never settling for deception when the truth needs to come out.
But first, I should back up a bit, and give you a bit of background before we begin.
I was very excited to read this book. I have read and enjoyed Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner but I wasn’t sure (despite a friend’s recommendation) that it was for me, as I am not really interested in spirit work or being a shaman or any of that stuff.
I ended up asking one of the authors, Galina Krasskova, about the intended audience for the book, and her response was basically that all sorts of people read the book, including people who were “just interested” in the tradition. Well, if that was the case, I surmised, might as well put it on my list.
Unfortunately, due to some internet drama of the past few months, I ended up putting the book aside, I did not feel like I could truly post an objective review with all these feelings going around (and, to be honest, the behaviour of certain parties who shall remain nameless tainted the work somewhat for me). I would suggest to the reader to keep these things in mind as they read this, and, as usual, please do your own research and make your own decisions as to which books to purchase.
In a nutshell, this is a book about working with “lesser” spirits in Northern Tradition Paganism. The book is divided into ten sections, each about a different element or aspect of spirit work, including techniques associated with that element. For instance, the first section Earth (“The Beginning Place”) goes over basic grounding and shielding as well as interactions with the spirits of the Earth (mountains, soil, etc.). The ten sections are: Earth, Sun, Moon, Plants, Animals, Water, Fire, Craft (weaving, brewing, etc. not witchcraft). Air, and Ancestors.
I should note here that this book does not, for the most part, talk about dealing with deities. The exception to this rule are the chapters on Sun and Moon, as it is difficult to talk about the Sun and Moon without talking about Sunna and Mani. For the most part though, this book is about working with and honouring the “smaller” spirits, the wights that live all around us, and interacting with them in a respectful manner. For those of you who are looking to become a spirit-worker or a shaman in this tradition, you will find the basics with which to pursue that calling.
The real strength of this book is that there are a ton of different exercises for a variety of skill levels, including different methods of purifying oneself or objects by element. This is very appreciated because some may not have the means or a particular affinity for an element. For myself, I am not allowed to have any sort of open flame in or around the house, but a bath with particular herbs and such added to it is easy for me to do. Other exercises include such things as building your own sundial and gathering rainwater to making your own shaman’s drum (which requires a week-long retreat) to setting out meals for your ancestors. They range from the very basic to the very advanced, and you will, I suspect, find that some of them are completely beyond your means or goals. For instance, I found the chapters on Earth, Moon, Sun, Plants, Animals, and Water to be most helpful, but Fire and Craft did nothing for me. I did, surprisingly, discover that I was quite attracted to the spirits of Ice and Frost (I still remember the Ice Storm of 1998, and some of my relatives were greatly affected by it) but there were, I’m not ashamed to admit, sections that did absolutely nothing for me, probably because I am neither spirit-worker nor shaman by calling.
Of course, not every book is perfect, and there are a couple eyebrow-raising moments that I had while reading it that I feel obligated to share with you. The authors regularly make use of terms from the Saami people. which some may see as appropriative. In particular, there is this passage in the “Common Questions About the Northern Tradition” section of the book:
Aren’t you ripping off these ancient peoples and their cultures?
Because these are our ancestors, we would say that we have a fairly solid right to do what we’re doing, if you use the argument that one’s ancestral traditions are an inheritance. Frankly, though, we’d do this even if they weren’t our ancestors. Political correctness aside, we do this because that’s what the Gods who own us and the spirits who work with us say that we have to do. If we had been grabbed up by, say, Native American Gods and spirits, we’d be doing that even though neither of us have a drop of that blood, and we’d just have to find a way to pay back the lineage that was not ours by birth, and deal with the opprobrium that would be heaped upon us. (p. 11)
I find this cavalier dismissal of cultural appropriation to be quite disturbing, especially the way “political correctness” in invoked (in my experienced, folks tend to cry “Political correctness!” when they want an excuse to be assholes) and claiming “but my ancestors said I had to do it!” does not absolve you from craptastic behaviour” nor mean that you are not participating in a culture of oppression against minority cultures. Seriously, my dad has First Nations ancestry though his grandmother, and that does NOT give him the right to take from those people.
Anyways, appropriative language aside, there’s also a bit of condescension leveled at “ordinary folks”, as in the section on Well Divination with the Well Spirit:
“If you tried it [Well divination] without first contacting or propitiating the Well Spirit and it worked, it was probably because the spirit decided that it liked you. Instead of hoping blindly, introduce yourself and be a real spirit-worker, not merely a superstitious peasant.” (p. 199)
Bolding is mine. I get what they are trying to say here: that it is good form to introduce yourself to the spirits of place before working with them, but the way it comes out sounds as if you’re treating all those who aren’t spirit-workers in the same way that Medieval nobles treated the peasant class, not only is this kind of classist, it conveniently forgets that those so-called “superstitious peasants” WERE THE ONES RESPONSIBLE FOR KEEPING PAGAN TRADITIONS ALIVE THROUGH FOLK CUSTOMS! For the love of everything, REMEMBER YOUR GODSDAMN ROOTS!
Or, at least, choose your wording carefully.
Possible appropriation and poor word choice aside, the authors do indicate that the text is specific to their own tradition, and this book is a reflection of their own experiences. This is very important, and why I think it is absolutely essential to keep a grain of salt handy as you read. I should also note that (as is typical for this duo’s work) there is a lot of unmarked UPG (in fact, I’d say most of the book is UPG or, more accurately, SPG) and it can be difficult to parse out what is lore and what is not. Then again, if you have read any of either author’s previous works, as I have, then you should be used to this.
Hand in hand with the fact that it is a book that reflects the experiences’ of the authors, you will probably find that some of the exercises in the book are nigh inaccessible. There is a great deal of travel involved in going to connect with the spirits of a particular natural feature (going to the ocean, for instance) which may not be the most practical thing to do in your particular circumstances (then again, as they mention, spirits have a way of arranging impromptu trips). Other exercises assume that you own your own land or have access to land with adequate space and privacy to build a sauna and do a week-long drum retreat. Oh, and regarding safety, I noticed in the one section about breathing in the aromas of certain incenses was there any mention of plants that are toxic when burned (such as yew) even in well-ventilated areas, I found this odd because other sections are careful to mention safety precautions. I would say, in general, please do not inhale fumes from a burning plant unless you’ve done your research and are absolutely certain the plant is safe, and always burn things in places that are well-ventilated.
In closing, if you are interested in learning how to be a spirit-worker or shaman in the Northern Tradition, this would be a good place to start, but I honestly don’t think it has much to offer to those of us who don’t have that particular inclination (although there are some interesting exercises). If you want something a bit more practical and accessible to the average person, I would recommend Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner. If you want a good historical overview of these entities, I would recommend Elves, Wights, and Trolls by Kvedulf Gundarsson, as it is a bit more lore-focused and academic, but still great. If you are already traveling on the path of the spirit-worker, I don’t think this book will help you very much.
Oh, and please excuse any confusion between the comma and the period, my eyes still aren’t in great shape and sometimes it’s harder to tell them apart.
ETA: I’m currently working on getting part of this review posted on Amazon. Please don’t like, swarm it with positive comments or anything like that.