Book Review: Embracing Willendorf

If you’re not familiar with Byron Ballard’s writing, you really should check out her blog over at My Village Witch. As the official village witch of Asheville, NC, Byron has spent many years studying and teaching the traditional mountain magic of her ancestors. She’s also an absolutely amazing person who always seems able to conjure up early morning coffee, even if you’re watching the sun rise in front of a tent in the woods with her.

Embracing Willendorf, by Byron Ballard

Her newest book, Embracing Willendorf: A Witch’s Way of Loving Your Body to Health & Fitness, is one that I can’t even begin to say enough good things about. It chronicles her journey to a healthier lifestyle – and to loving her own body – by making spiritually conscious and empowering choices. It’s a practical and no-bullshit guide to self-transformation, of both the physical and the emotional varieties.

Don’t for one minute think, though, that you’re going to be sold a bunch of snake-oil products or empty promises. In fact, Byron leads in with this sharp piece of straightforward advice: “Changing your body from fat to fit is not easy, and I don’t care who tells you it is… if you think it is, you will fail again. You will be another fat American at the mall, grateful that they now make clothes in your size.”

Byron suggests starting small – in fact, with just one body part. Whatever it may be – your butt, your nose, your dainty ankles – find that one part that’s amazing and glorious, and love it. Embrace it, show it off, treat it right… and then find more parts you love. Eventually, you’ll learn to love the sum total of all of those various and sundry parts.

As if all of that doesn’t sound challenging enough, there’s more! What about the idea of self-care? Get radical, follow Byron’s advice, and learn how to take care of yourself first by meeting your own needs. You’ll be much happier for it, once you learn how to shift from being overwhelmed by the needs of others, into a mindset that allows you to treat yourself with the respect and love that you deserve.

One of my favorite sections in Embracing Willendorf is Chapter 15: Do I Have to Uncoil My Kundalini? This is a frank and honest approach to looking and feeling sexy, no matter what your size. As a curvy woman myself, I have learned that sexy is more mental than anything – if you feel like you’re sexy, you’re gonna act like you are, and other people will pick up on that.

Byron approaches pleasure and sex as sacred, which they indeed should be. She says, “In modern Paganism, we have this beautiful liturgical piece called the Charge of the Goddess, originally written by Doreen Valiente. One of the lines is All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals. Pleasure as prayer is something so shocking to the Western mind that you may have recoiled from that line. But in this uncoiling chapter, we can touch on another aspect of loving your body and that is allowing yourself the thought of using pleasure as a sacred act, as prayer.”

We are powerful and amazing, and Byron never lets us forget it. Pick up a copy of Embracing Willendorf and get started on loving your earthy, strong, badass, magical self.

I totally give this one five broomsticks out of five! Order Embracing Willendorf directly from Sky Bridge Publishing, here: Embracing Willendorf

Review: Byron Ballard’s Staubs & Ditchwater

This is a review which originally appeared on my About Paganism site – the content has recently gone away (because book reviews generally don’t garner a ton of page views) but since I’ve been delving deeper into Appalachian folk magic recently, this is a good time to re-share it.

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Book Review:

Staubs and Ditchwater: A Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo, by Byron Ballard.

I first met Byron Ballard in March 2012, when I visited Asheville, North Carolina, to cover the story of the Buncombe County School District and their religious materials policy. She’s one of those people who makes everyone feel comfy and welcomed, with her earth-mother vibe and say-what-you-mean-mean-what-you-say personality. When I heard she was writing a book about mountain magic, I was thrilled. As someone whose ancestry is deeply rooted in the hills of western Kentucky, I’ve always been fascinated by the concepts of magic as found in Appalachia, borrowing much of its roots from the folk magic of the British Isles and other far flung places.

Staubs and Ditchwater: A Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo is a perfect primer for those practitioners who are interested in looking at magic from a practical and traditional standpoint. The book is divided into six chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of mountain magic, and accompanied by brilliant essays detailing Ballard’s own experiences, both as a practitioner of magic and as an Appalachian woman.

She makes the important distinction, early on, that the witches in her own family never saw witchcraft as a religion – it was a practice, and a skill set to be cherished.

Chapter One delves into the tools of the trade – tools which include imagination, intuition, and the ability to read and interpret the signs that the natural world is sending you. Chapter Two takes things a step further and looks at the material tools that some folks like to use – a basket of herbs, upcycled Mason jars, and poppets, to name a few. Here’s where the chapter really grabbed me, though – the mention of working with Allies.

By Allies, Ballard is referring to assistance from both the spirit world and the mundane. Whether it’s your ancestors, the spirits of the land, or other people in your community who practice folk magic, it’s good to have some backup on hand. I’ve always thought of this as a sort of magical wolfpack – if you’ve got allies, as Ballard points out, you’re never really alone. She points out the importance of teamwork: You are there to share what you know, to compare notes, to learn in a way that is humble and respectful… Don’t be a jerk.

In Chapter Three, the notion of stockpiling supplies is addressed. If you have the land and the wherewithal, grow your own herbs, and store grease and oils and other bits of useful material. Learn how to use them in a way that is practical and reasonable, and you can’t go wrong. In the absence of the opportunity to grow your own, Ballard encourages you to barter or buy from other practitioners – after all, if you need a particular candle, and the only place that has it is the local Spanish marketa where the brujas shop, then hie thee to the marketa. This chapter also includes a valuable compendium of different types of water and its magical uses. Did you know that stump water holds the magical essence of the tree in which it steeped? Me either!

Chapter Four explores divination and omen-reading – and points out the difference between the two. An omen, specifically, is something natural that you’ve observed – a trio of crows sitting in your tree, perhaps, or a swarm of insects landing on your window. Divination, on the other hand, is the art of looking at the future to see what’s around the corner – and there are a number of different methods. Ballard reminds us that if you’re going to read omens, it’s crucial that you learn about the natural world where you live. Because snakes in the driveway in April might be perfectly normal in your neck of the woods, but a very odd occurrence indeed three states away.

Ballard shares some of her own home-grown recipes and goodies in Chapter Five – be sure to read this part, because she takes time to explain the symbolism behind the methods. In other words, not just “do this,” but “if you do this, here’s WHY.” Good stuff indeed.

Chapter Six wraps things all up, in Ballard’s folksy, come-sit-by-the-fire-and-have-some-tea way of storytelling. Staubs and Ditchwater: A Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo is more than just a book on magic – it’s a conversation with a wise old friend, like chatting with someone you’ve known all your life. Well worth reading, and more importantly, worth reading again.

Visit Byron online at My Village Witch.