Review: Welcome to Night Vale

Full disclaimer: I don’t like podcasts.

I’m a very visual person, and I find without visual stimulation, it’s more difficult for me to pay attention to purely auditory media like podcasts, plus I get the overwhelming urge to multitask while listening, and that doesn’t work because I can’t really pay attention to the podcast and do something else without missing a huge chunk of the information.

I tried writing an academic paper while listening to an audiobook once, it didn’t end well.

Anyways, basically the only reason I decided to listen to this was because tumblr was blowing up about it, and, as you know, I like jumping on bandwagons, so I decided to give it a go.

For the two of you who haven’t heard of this show, Welcome to Night Vale takes place in the fictional desert town of Night Vale. It is a dystopian society where the City Council is godlike and strange phenomena and the occasional visit by eldritch horrors are commonplace. The show takes the format of a radio show hosted by one Cecil, who covers typical “small town” events (PTA meetings, gossip, government notices) and assorted unusual events (which are, again, commonplace) such as government-controlled pestilences, odd screams coming from the post office, and the fact that the Night Vale Public Library has a fatality rate that is much higher than the national average for libraries, all of it delivered in Cecil’s deadpan voice. It’s a delightful mixture of horror and comedy that reminds me of Fallen London if it were set in a small town in the U.S. (both are very obviously influenced by Lovecraft’s work).

Although Cecil’s has, so far, been the only voice on the show, Night Vale is populated by a colourful cast of characters, including Old Woman Josie, whose home serves as a shelter for local angels (which do not exist according to the City Council) and Carlos, a scientist who comes into town to study seismic activity and ends up investigating strange happenings around town (he also has perfect hair and is perfect). Another character of note is the Apache Tracker, a man of Slavic descent who wears a “huge and cartoonishly inaccurate and offensive Native American headdress” who makes the whole town look “ignorant and racist”. He is rightly called out on his racism every time he makes an appearance in a news story, with Cecil constantly referring to him as an asshole.

Oh, yeah, I don’t think I mentioned this before, but in case it isn’t obvious, Cecil is queer and Carlos is obviously meant to be his love interest.

Carlos is also a POC (Cecil mentions that he has “dark” skin and since his name is Carlos, one can reasonably assume that he is probably Latino). I should also note that one of the angels is black, but the City Council doesn’t acknowledge the existence of angels in general.

I should note that although it is pretty significant that the listener sees Night Vale through the eyes of a queer man, Cecil’s sexuality is not the focus of the show (apart from the expected sighing over his love interest) and no one in town really seems to care.

Negative points are minor and reflect my own personal pet peeves. First of all, I should say that this is as much a horror show as it is a comedy, Cecil isn’t too gruesome when it comes to describing some of the phenomena in the town, but some may find the content a little disturbing at times (or, at least, darkly funny). I’ve also found that sometimes Cecil likes to ramble a bit, which is fine as he has a very nice voice, but does get a little annoying at times. I also don’t particularly care for the weather segments, where they play a song by an indie artist (although I recognize that it probably brings in revenue not only for the show, but the artists as well). I do find that the songs tend to go on a bit too long though.

Anyways, all that aside, Welcome to Night Vale is awesome, and if you are at all interested in horror/comedy mashups or small town living juxtaposed with Lovecraftian horror with a queer narrator/main character, give it a listen. Even if you don’t like podcasts.

You can give it a listen here:

New episodes are on the 1st and 15th of every month.

Review: Neolithic Shamanism: Spirit Work in the Norse Tradition

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.

This is Completely Unrelated to Anything, But….

Some nice folks on tumblr were kind enough to link me to an etsy shop that’s selling (NSFW) Roman brothel tokens (and there’s also coins and stuff).

Nobody I know offline would appreciate this find, so I’m passing it on to you.

In other news, I’ve totally jumped on the Welcome to Night Vale bandwagon. I don’t like podcasts in general, but this one is awesome. It’s a mixture of horror and comedy that kind of reminds me of Fallen London only in a modern small town setting.


Review: Voices of the Goddess: A Chorus of Sibyls

[TW: Ableism, mention of suicide]

I bought this book mostly because I was interested in Sunflower’s article on the solar priestess, but also because it was a penny plus shipping on Amazon. I didn’t start reading this expecting it to be super amazing, and, truth be told, I had already slotted it into the “Sturgeon’s 90% category”.

And it was very wrong of me to do so and I will never do that again.

In brief, Voices of the Goddess: A Chorus of Sibyls, is a collection of writings by women speaking of their lives and what led them to the vocation of priestess. The stories are all very personal–this, I think, ends up being the strongest aspect of the book–as these women take the reader through the ups and downs (sometimes waaaaay down) of their lives.

I noticed an interesting pattern as I read each of the articles. The first few articles are like a downward curve, like a descent into an underworld of loss and grief, culminating in Sjoo’s article, which deals with her grief at the loss of her sons–and then, suddenly there is Sunflower (no, TC members, this isn’t our Sunflower), speaking of solar goddesses and her own work as a solar priestess, and I can’t help but wonder if the placement was deliberate, because the three articles that come after that are nowhere near as raw as Sjoo’s. The flow of the book also mirrors their individual stories, which usually tell of a period of doubt or a similar “descent” into the underworld before returning and taking up the mantle of a priestess.

The story that ended up being the most interesting for me was Diana Paxson’s (and, as an aside, it was odd reading something by her that was not about Asatru) where she manages to make some good points on the role of the priestess and even argues that there is some use for concepts like the  “golden age matriarchy”. In a nutshell, she argues that even if it is ahistorical–and credible scholars indicate that it is–it is still useful because it gives us a framework from which to create peaceful societies. YMMV on that, of course. I also found Sunflower’s article interesting because, let’s face it, you don’t see many books on women’s spirituality talking a whole lot about sun goddesses unless it’s to go “FUCK YEAH SEKHMET!” before going back to talking about the moon. It was also nice to learn a bit more about the Fellowship of Isis, which I don’t know that much about besides that they are a prominent Pagan organization and they have a clergy training program.

This doesn’t mean that I didn’t have some issues with the book, however. The very first article has some ableism (seriously, comparing people with disabilities to people with no spiritual gifts is so not cool) in the very first article, and the entire book is peppered with gender essentialism and golden age matriarchy maiden mother crone stuff that’s pretty much a staple for works of this type. The authors tend to take an archetypal approach to their traditions, and, as far as I know, all of the authors are straight, white, cis women (someone correct me if I’m wrong) so the book fails hard when it comes to diversity. (I should note that it was published in 1990.)

I suppose it might have been better had I gone back and looked at each article individually, but the truth is that what I’ve said above is pretty much true for most of them, with the major differences being that, besides coming from different traditions, some of them ramble a bit more when it comes to discussing their personal lives, which, well, people ramble, but sometimes it seems as if a few of the authors have problems staying on topic.

What it comes down to for me is that although the book is seriously dated, I still came away from it with some interesting insights. I would say this is probably one of those books that you read because it’s relevant to the topic (in this case, priestessing) and not because you expect to get any practical advice out of it, and this is yet another of those books that I’m not sure any of my followers would find terribly useful unless, perhaps, they like this kind of autobiographical stuff. I mean, it’s not that it’s terrible, it’s just kind of dated….and terrible in some ways, but mostly dated.

Updated the Recommended Reading List

This is just a note that I’ve updated the recommended reading list. Well, I haven’t added anything, I just finally got around to removing a couple books from the list.

It was difficult for me to remove these books, because they had a big impact on my spiritual development, but in light of recent…unpleasantness….I’ve chosen to remove them from my list.

I would, as always, encourage you to judge for yourself if any books are worth reading, but as for me, I just can’t really bear to look at certain books anymore.

Thank you for being so understanding.

Deck Review: The Animal Wisdom Tarot

As many of you already know, I have a small collection of tarot decks. The only portion of my collection that I would call a sub collection is my collection of “goddess” decks.

But I definitely have a thing for animal decks, whether mythical or not, I find it much easier to work with animal and natural symbolism than the more conventional Medieval Christian-inspired art, particularly where the court cards are concerned. (I loathe court cards in general) but something about animal imagery fires my imagination.

So here I am with the Animal Wisdom Tarot, a deck I’ve been lusting after since I fist saw preview images of it. It is authored by Dawn Brunke and the illustrations are by Ola Liola. The entire thing is published by Cico Books.

Read More »

Review: The Ruins of Ambrai (Exiles, Volume 1)

[TW: rapeyness, pedophilia, queerphobia, possibly racism]

(The following review will also contain SPOILERS, LOTS OF SPOILERS!)

I bought this book months ago at a used bookstore and I’ve just gotten around to finishing it now, because, as usual, I keep getting distracted by other books, and video games, and Facebook, and Tumblr, and writing, and Tumblr….

Damn you pagan tag!

Anyways, here are my thoughts on this doorstopper of a book. This review is kind of long and has spoilers and gross stuff, so I’m going to put all of that after a jump.

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The Thirteen Houses Project: Bryony

[TW: the following post contains references to rape and some racism.]

Once a month for the next twelve months, I will be doing a post on the 13th of each month based on one of the Thirteen Houses of the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers from Kushiel’s Legacy.

It’s the 13, so you know what that means, it’s time for another post in the Thirteen Houses Project, and today’s lucky winner is Bryony House.

Bryony House’s motto is “Wealth seeks company,” and it’s canon is avarice and wagering. Bryony adepts are, well, adept at gambling to the point where they rarely lose. When adepts of Bryony House make their marques, they typically go on to staff the Royal Treasury. They are also the only adepts who will wager their own bodies in a bet. Bryony House holds that when Naamah slept with the King of Persis, she “made a good bargain in the exchange.”

But Bryony House also has a dark side, as we learn when it’s discovered that Csavin, one of the Tsingani (or Roma, as we would call them) wagers his cousin Anasztazia and loses, and ends up deceiving his cousin into an assignation with a noble who paid Bryony a lot of money for the chance to be with a Tsingani virgin. Unfortunately, although they should have been tried for heresy (in Terre d’Ange, rape is heresy as well as a secular crime) no one at Bryony is ever held accountable for the deed. This is but one of the many incidents we have which indicates that the Terre d’Ange in general and the Night Court in particular often seem to trumpet the idea of Elua’s Precept while not bothering to follow it.

…And once again I am reminded of how problematic this series can be re: race and stereotyping.

Rather than talk about wagering and gambling and such (because I have no poker face and this would be a short post) I’m going to talk about money, managing money, spending money, trying to save money.

I am so bad at saving money. Yeah yeah, Capricorns are supposed to be ambitious curmudgeons who SAVE ALL THE MONIES! and I am generally okay if money either goes directly into my account or if I’m able to get to the bank right away with a cheque.

But the longer I leave it, the more it calls to me. “Gef, spend me! Spend me!”

Currently, there is a $20 bill lying on my desk where I can’t see it. I have told myself I am saving it, so it is just sitting there, and I’ve so far resisted the temptation to spend it. Ideally, it’s going to sit here until the end of my Thirteen Houses Project, in practice, if I can go a month or two without spending it, I will count that as a rare accomplishment indeed. I have to learn how to save money sometime, might as well make it now.

I’ve already written about the idea of “Pay to Pray” and how, on the one hand, paying a lot of money for things that are traditionally available at no cost or low cost to the average person just feels….wrong. On the other hand, I also don’t understand this assertion that money is inherently evil. Even tarot readers and such need to eat, and why shouldn’t they expect some sort of compensation for those services? It almost seems like the people who whine the loudest about how “we don’t need money” are the ones who most likely haven’t had to experience things like constantly having crappy cheap food to feed your family, or working long hours just to pay the pills, or any of the million other things people on or below the poverty line experience every day.

I could be wrong, but I know my life would be a lot harder without cold hard cash.

Money isn’t inherently the root of all evil, but, as Bryony House itself demonstrates, it can be put to less than lawful or altruistic purposes. It all depends on how it is used.

Image: “White bryony (Bryonia dioica)” by sannse (Wikipedia)

Random money-related fact about me: the only math that I was ever really good at was the kind of math you use when calculating which thing you’re buying is the “better bargain” (unit prices and such). Basically unless it has to do with shopping, I don’t like math, except that trippy philosophical math with multiple correct answers, I aced that class.