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

Book Review: Wicca, Plain & Simple

I periodically open my mailbox and find copies of nifty stuff from publishers asking me to review new and upcoming titles. A lot of times I don’t get a chance to do it, because I’m writing my own stuff, and I have a personal policy of never reviewing someone else’s material when I’m working my own. However, right now I’m in the middle of a very brief lull, and so I thought I’d share a few reviews with you over the next couple of weeks. I’m going to begin with Wicca, Plain and Simple by Leanna Greenaway, because I really like it.

Wicca, Plain and Simple, from Red Wheel/Weiser, is just what the title implies: it’s a bare-bones primer on the basics of modern Wicca, with very little fluff and no bullshit. It’s a good starting point for any beginner who’s interested in magical practice.

Like many of us in the Pagan community, Greenaway associates the word Wicca with the evolving, fluid version of Wiccan spirituality today, rather than the specific, orthopraxic original meaning as founded by Gerald Gardner – and although this is a small distinction, it’s one that’s important to keep in mind as you’re reading Wicca, Plain and Simple.

Greenaway starts off with a brief overview of witches and magic – who are witches, what do they do, etc., and then launches into some of the core concepts of Wiccan belief and practice. She doesn’t waste time arguing about terminology, but gets straight to the meat of things.

After a brief summary of magical tools – many of which will seem familiar if you’ve read any other books on Wicca or Paganism – there are sections on the magic of the moon, the garden, animals, and the Tarot. Honestly, I wish these chapters had been longer and more detailed, because this is where Greenaway really shines.

A few tidbits:

Page 30, Lunar Magic: "There are many theories about the Moon and how it affects us. One theory posits that the Moon and its phases influence our internal chemistry, pulling on the gravitational forces of our physical bodies. Another concept states the gravitational field of a full Moon changes energy particles that reach the Earth, influencing the way we think and feel by changing the functions of our brain."

Page 16, Wicca and Positive Thought: "Always make sure you are in the right frame of mind before you begin spell casting. If you are feeling ill, angry, or emotional in any way, your spell may be thwarted, so you should wait until you have settled down."

Page 106, Spells for Health, Wealth, and Prosperity: "The basic life issues we all confront relate to our security and well-being, and when life issues are compromised, we are stressed - we need to learn to find resolution and peace through these hardships so we can move on in our spiritual development."

She knows her stuff, and communicates it in a way that makes sense for beginners without dumbing it down for veteran practitioners. Finally, she wraps the whole thing up with spellwork, for love, money, and happy families.

While you definitely won’t need to learn everything you need to know from just this one book – or any one book, really – it’s a good primer on the basics, with solid information provided in an easy-to-use format. Greenaway did a great job, and my only complaint really is that, as I mentioned above, I’d have loved for some of the sections to be expanded upon.

Overall, I give it four broomsticks out of five!

 

 

 

Wicca, Plain and Simple on Amazon:

Disclaimer: A review copy of this title was provided by the publisher.

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Review: Tarot of the Pirates

I’m a huge fan of pirates — even wrote a kids’ alphabet book about them — so when I saw that there was a pirate Tarot coming out a few years back, I had to have it. Tarot of the Pirates is just plain fun.

Yarr, mateys!

What do I like the most? Frankly, the artwork in this deck is really nifty, and not what you typically see in Tarot artwork. It’s sassy and brash, dark and dangerous, and the imagery is nicely matched to the Tarot card meanings.

The Pirate Tarot deck is one I use a lot when reading for male clients, or for women who are empowered, independent and strong. It’s got a lot of strong masculine energy to it. The artwork takes on a pirate theme that’s a bit campy but still clever and fun — suits are divided into Coins, Oars, Chalices and Swords. The pirates in this deck are not always sanitized or pretty, but down-and-dirty swashbucklers, male and female alike. Images of the moon, sea monsters, sharks, hidden coves and buried treasure abound.

Keep in mind that if you’re looking for historical accuracy, this isn’t the place you’re going to find it. Although most of the pirates are fairly grungy, they’re still representative of a fairly romanticized version of piracy on the high seas. Remember, real pirates were criminals and violent people who did a lot of horrible things to other people.

One thing I’d recommend is just not even bothering with the little white booklet that accompanies the deck. Some of the card meanings seemed sketchy at best, and it almost seemed as though the creators were deliberately trying to take even the more positive, upbeat cards and give them a negative slant, just to keep with the theme of piracy. Honestly, there’s no need for this – the artwork speaks for itself, and a reader will be able to tell from looking at the cards exactly what meaning is before them.

Another thing I really enjoyed about this deck is the level of activity. Characters don’t just sit around waiting for things to happen to them — no, they go out and get what they want, swing from the yardarms, dig up their own treasures, and stage rebellions when needed. It’s a very active rather than a passive sort of deck. In particular, the female characters depicted have a good deal of agency of their own – they’re sexual and sensual, but they’re also in complete control of their own destinies in most of the artwork. It’s a good reliable deck to use for strong, independent people of either gender.

A quick note: if you’re bothered by the sight of bare breasts in your Tarot, you may want to pass on this deck, because there is some mild nudity – not a lot, but some.

Also, keep in mind that with the Tarot of the Pirates, some of the artwork doesn’t translate exactly the way you might expect if you’re used to using Rider-Waite as your default set of meanings. With this deck, you’re probably going to get a better result, and a more accurate reading, if you read intuitively rather than based upon written interpretations.

My main complaint with this deck is that some of the cards are far too similar in appearance to other cards in the deck. You should be able to tell what card you’re looking at simply by looking at the image. If you have to check to make sure it’s This and Not That, that’s definitely a disadvantage to the deck. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you which cards are far too close in appearance, but if you’re a savvy reader, you’ll pick up on a couple of them, particularly in the Major Arcana.

On the whole, though, I do enjoy this deck, particularly because I’m a fan of the comic book style of artwork that’s used. While I definitely wouldn’t suggest it for a novice, if you’ve got some degree of experience in reading Tarot (and, of course, if you enjoy pirate lore), it’s definitely worth picking up and playing around with.

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.

StaubsCover

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.

Review: Mrs. B’s Guide to Household Witchery

This article originally appeared on my About.com site, but since book reviews tend to show an underwhelming long-term performance there, I’m going to be gradually migrating some of them over here instead. I thought I’d kick things off with one of my favorite reviews, of a book by one of my favorite people, Kris Bradley, also known as Mrs. B.

You really need Mrs. B's Guide to Household Witchery
You really need Mrs. B’s Guide to Household Witchery

If you were familiar with Kris’ blog, Confessions of a Pagan Soccer Mom, that she ran up until 2013, you know that she spent a lot of time encouraging readers to find the magical in the mundane, and to look for the spiritual in everyday things around the house. By bringing magic and the divine into your home, you can find a brand new way to look at your practice – and that, in turn, translates into so much potential for witchery around the house!

Mrs. B launches right in, and the first chapter of Mrs B’s Guide to Household Witchery focuses on making the mundane magical, by taking a quick room-by-room tour of your home, starting with your very own front door. Ever think about hanging a protection bag over your stoop? How about sprinkling salt across the windowsills? The living room, laundry room, and especially the kitchen can all be magical places, and Kris offers tips on how to specialize the magic in each of these areas. Bonus area? Adult bedrooms can be a place of all kinds of sexy magical shenanigans!

The second chapter addresses the four classical elements of earth, air, fire and water, and how they can be applied in a domestic setting. Balance in the home is important, and it’s useful to figure out what sort of energy a room has in it already, in addition to what sort of energy you’d like to have there. By using household items such as houseplants and modeling clay, windchimes and ceiling fans, lava lamps and hot plates, or coffee pots and fish tanks, you can incorporate the elements and their energies into any room.

One of my favorite chapters, by far, is the one on Household Guardian Spirits. While I realize that not every practicing Pagan incorporates household guardians, for those of us who do, this section comes in very handy. There’s a review of some of the many domestic spirits found in a variety of cultures, including many you’ve probably never heard of.

The next section focuses on magical recipes – and anyone who’s hung out over on About Paganism for any length of time knows I’m a big fan of mixing up some kitchen magic! With a combination of herbal blends, incense and oil mixes, and even a house wash, there’ s a little bit of something for every domestic goddess (or god) in this part of the book. The witches’ herbal is useful as well, as a basic primer for those who are just beginning to delve into the use of herbal magic.

Finally, Kris wraps things up with some simple sabbat celebrations for those of us who are just plain busy. Got just a few minutes to spare? Celebrate five minutes alone, or a small group ritual for SamhainYule or the other Pagan holidays.

Mrs B’s Guide to Household Witchery is a very back-to-basics approach to modern domestic witchcraft. Kris shows that you can drop all the trappings, forget about the fancy commercially-bought tools and gizmos you have, and just do as our ancestors once did – use what’s handy and use it wisely. Take advantage of the natural magical energies of your home, and celebrate the space you’re living in.

Things I’d like to see in a follow up book? More household craft projects, and more in-depth ideas about incorporating magic into day-to-day practices like cooking, cleaning, and organizing the home. On the whole, Mrs B’s Guide to Household Witchery is a great book for those who are just beginning to explore their domestic witchery options, and a good refresher for those of us who have been doing it for a while and needed a bit of a reminder on how to turn the mundane into magic. I’ll give it 9.5 broomsticks out of ten!

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Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher. 

Review: The Witches’ Almanac Coloring Book

Color All the Things!
Color All the Things!

I love to color, and as much as I hate to sound like that annoying hipster barista at your favorite coffee shop, I was actually coloring a lot before it became a trend. It’s therapeutic and keeps me from throwing rocks at people or eating my feelings.

One of the best things about coloring becoming popular, though, is that now, instead of being stuck with Dora the Explorer and Ninja Turtles, there are a floppity-million coloring books out there for grownups. No matter what your interest – I have Outlander and Game of Thrones – there’s something for you to color in.

Which is why, gentle reader, when the nice folks at Red Wheel Weiser sent me their newest foray into the world of coloring, I may have squee’d just a little bit. The Witches Almanac Coloring Book is FUN, y’all!

It’s divided into seven sections – Woodcuts, Constellations,

So Pretty!
So Pretty!

the Planets, Creatures, Egyptian, Americas (unfortunately short), and Tarot. It’s a neat collection of artwork to color in, and I’m seriously enjoying it.

The best part: I really love the Tarot section. The images are from the Rider Waite Smith deck that we’re all so familiar with, and includes all of the Major Arcana. If you’ve ever felt like the traditional RWS colors didn’t resonate with you, now’s your chance to change that. Make the sky purple any time you like.

These pages WANT you to color them!
These pages WANT you to color them!

Also, I loved seeing the woodcut artwork, many of which were featured in days gone by as illustrations for anti-witch treatises – you know, the ones where we’re all Satan’s whores? A lot of the woodcuts will look familiar to regular readers of the Witches Almanac publications; they’ve been used by Weiser regularly, and for the most part, these are fantastic.

Just Hangin' Around Coloring
Just Hangin’ Around Coloring

My one complaint? A few of the images – not many, but a few – appear so stretched that they appear pixelated and blurred, which makes them less than appealing to color. For the most part, though, the lines are nice and crisp. The book is a good quality – especially for the $12.00 price tag – and there’s a nice mix of different styles in there. In all, the good definitely outweighs the not-as-good. I’d give it eight broomsticks out of ten!

 

Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.