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Author Archives: Rachel McConnell

About Rachel McConnell

Rachel Christina McConnell is a witch, tarot reader, intuitive astrologer, and writing spider. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University in the City of New York. Her short stories have appeared in Dark Moon Lilith Press and Minerva Rising Press’s The Keeping Room. Links to her publications are available here: https://rachelchristinamcconnell.wordpress.com

The Marie Laveau Voodoo Grimoire, by Denise Alvarado

The Marie Laveau Voodoo Grimoire: Rituals, Recipes, and Spells for Healing, Protection, Beauty, Love, and More, Denise Alvarado
Weiser Books, 1578638135, 240 Pages, February 2024

When I went on a witchy pilgrimage to New Orleans in September 2019, the highlight of my trip was a guided tour through Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 to visit the legendary tomb of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. A heat wave was blazing through the South, and it was in the upper nineties that day. The long walk through the sweltering maze of mausoleums felt like a fever dream, and the marble tombs were blinding white in the blistering sun. Some of the tombs cast merciful shade, and I was relieved to finally arrive at Laveau’s mausoleum towards the end of the tour without having a heat stroke. Rose quartz crystals, pennies, bobby pins, and hair ties were strewn at the base of the tomb as offerings to her spirit. The hair accessories may seem like strange offerings, but they pay homage to her occupation as a hairdresser. The tour guide said that even though this practice is prohibited, and the offerings are swept away daily, people continue to leave them anyway.1

Having had this memorable glimpse into the cult of the Voodoo Queen, I was excited to read The Marie Laveau Voodoo Grimoire by New Orleans native and rootworker Denise Alvarado. She has written over twenty books on Southern folk magic traditions, including The Magic of Marie Laveau (2020), Witch Queens, Voodoo Spirits, and Hoodoo Saints (2022), Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook (2011), and The Voodoo Doll Spellbook (2014). She offers courses on Marie Laveau and New Orleans Voudou at Crossroads University.

In the introduction to The Marie Laveau Voodoo Grimoire, Alvarado gives a brief summary of the origins and permutations of Voodoo, from its roots in West African Vodun to the tourist voodoo of modern day Louisiana, and an intriguing biographical sketch of the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Marie Catherine Laveau (1801-1881) was born a free Creole woman of color in New Orleans on September 10, 1801.2 She is well known for commercializing Voudou and Hoodoo, making these illegal magical folk practices profitable and more palatable for public consumption.

“New Orleans Voudou and Hoodoo are closely related,” Alvarado says. “In Marie Laveau’s day, the two traditions were essentially one and the same…Each tradition is a resistance response to the harsh realities of slavery and the oppression experienced following emancipation.”3 

I first became interested in Hoodoo during a time in my life when I felt forced to conceal my identity as a witch, so I was researching magical practices that could be performed under the guise of Christianity. Even now I still feel a need to be discreet and keep my practices indoors so I don’t attract negative attention from nosy neighbors. I think a lot of people today take for granted religious freedom, but there is still a lot of stigma around practicing any form of magic. Even though Voudou is deeply woven into the fabric of New Orleans culture, Alvarado points out that it was illegal during Marie Laveau’s time and is still illegal today, even though the law against it is rarely enforced.4 She suspects that many practitioners “prefer to stay out of the public eye due to the stigma attached to Voudou and the safety issues that can arise when a person is known to be a Voudouist.”5 Alvarado’s historical reflections deepened my admiration for the resilience and adaptability of the Voudou faith, and Marie Laveau’s courage and audacity in openly practicing and commercializing Voudou.

Her rowdy rituals drew a lot of attention, but Laveau wasn’t just a mysterious Voodoo priestess. Alvarado paints an intriguing and complex portrait of her as a multifaceted human being with snippets of biographical information dispersed throughout the text. “She is most loved and remembered by New Orleanians for her charity work, prison ministry, and services to the community,” Alvarado says. “Nonetheless, she was often targeted and harassed by the police,” but she had enough power and influence to avoid incarceration.6

She was a complicated character, who was both a philanthropist and a blackmailer, who collected gossip about wealthy patrons she overheard in her beauty parlor. Along with biographical notes from the author, each chapter is headed with quotes extracted from witness interviews compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project between 1936 and 1941, in which people who knew her as children shared their fond memories of her.7

Madame Laveau was allegedly illiterate, so this grimoire is Alvarado’s imagining of what the Voodoo Queen’s grimoire may have looked like had she been able to write one. She draws inspiration from authentic recipes and formulas commonly used during Laveau’s lifetime, as well as information passed down through the oral tradition, historical documents, and recipes from her own personal grimoires. “In addition to a strong background in New Orleans Voudou, Hoodoo, and Spiritualism, my Catholic Creole culture of origin helped immensely when writing this book,” Alvarado says. “Marie Laveau was a Louisiana Creole and Catholic also, and her spiritual practices reflect that.”8

Alvarado calls this blending of Catholicism with service to Marie Laveau the “Laveau Voudou tradition,”9 and she uses the spelling “Voudou” in accordance with the nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources that informed her research. “Marie Laveau’s Voudou is a folk religion resulting from her intentional blending of Catholicism and Voudou,” Alvarado says. “She openly practiced both religions without conflict and confusion.”10 It is not necessary to be initiated into this tradition in order to perform the workings presented in this grimoire. They are accessible to anyone and this book also contains “tips and advice for living a magickal, spiritual lifestyle.”11

For readers who may be wary of Voodoo practices due to the negative connotations associated with them, Alvarado provides reassurance:

“This grimoire is designed to only unleash blessings and magickal mysteries, to provide instructions for protection and defense, and to unlock joy and abundance for anyone reading it,” Alvarado says. “There is no danger here.”12

In Chapter 1, titled “Materia Magica,” she shares “the essential tools of the trade to be an effective conjure worker in the Laveau Voudou tradition.”13 “If you are working within a strict budget, the only tools you really need are yourself, a white candle, a glass of water, and the ability to focus your intention and utter words of power,”14 she says. I found the table of “Kitchen witch essentials,”15 which lists the magical properties of herbs and common household supplies, and the table of “Perfumes and colognes and their magical uses”16 to be helpful resources. I was acquainted with popular formulas like Florida Water, Peace Water, Rose Water, and Hoyt’s Cologne, but many of the magical perfumes and scented waters on this list were unfamiliar to me and I’m eager to try them out.

In honor of Marie Laveau’s work as a hairdresser and beautician, Chapter 2 covers “Beauty Formulas,” such as vintage perfumed dusting powders, hair treatments, and skincare. The hair treatments are simple, involving common kitchen ingredients like bananas, eggs, and olive oil. The powders appealed to me the most, and I’m thinking about trying the “Lavender Dust” scented body powder recipe. “Even today, people who serve Marie Laveau offer her beauty-related items such as combs, mirrors, makeup, brushes, and perfumes in hopes that she will grant them favors,” Alvarado says.17 This reminds me of the coins, crystals, and bobby pins littering her tomb, and reveals the magical intention behind leaving them. 

I love to cook, and I was delighted to discover that this book includes Creole recipes! In Chapter 5, titled “Conjure in the Kitchen,” Creole dishes are listed that can be prepared as offerings for Marie Laveau and other Voudou spirits, ancestral spirits, or just enjoyed as delicious and authentic New Orleans meals. I learned that the Holy Trinity of Creole cuisine is onion, bell pepper, and celery, and onions have a variety of magical uses, depending on their color. “Onions are associated with good luck—particularly red onions—while green onions bring good luck in finances, and white onions are a curative,” Alvarado says.18

I’m really into resin incenses lately, so the chapter on crafting incense blends was one of my favorites. It has recipes for several popular formulas, such as “Cleo May”,  “Crown of Success”,  “Fiery Wall of Protection”, and “Louisiana Van Van.”  The recipes only have three or four ingredients, and measurements are not given, so the reader is instructed to use their intuition when creating the incense blends. “Altar Incense,” for example, only requires frankincense, myrrh, and cinnamon, all of which I already had on hand.19

In a section titled “Hoodoo’s Shells and Stones,” Alvarado discusses the magic of natural objects, such as cowry shells, coral, and lodestones. I already work with a pet lodestone that I gave a secret name and regularly feed magnetic sand and whiskey. She currently resides on my bookshelf, attracting more books than I have time to read! I was most interested in brain coral, which I had never heard of before. “Place a piece of brain coral on your altar for Crown of Success and King Solomon Wisdom works,”20 Alvarado says. Being a Mercury-ruled Gemini, this really appealed to me, and I plan on adding a brain coral to my Hermes altar in the future.

Alvarado’s passion for her craft and devotion to Marie Laveau shines through in her writing. This spellbinding grimoire captivated me from cover to cover and has been a real blessing to my personal practice, revitalizing my love of whipping up magical recipes and inspiring me to experiment with new blends and craft my own unique formulas. With lucid prose and simple, yet potent recipes, Alvarado makes Laveau Voudou accessible to anyone, regardless of their level of experience.

The Hermetic Tree of Life, by William R. Mistele

The Hermetic Tree of Life: Elemental Magic and Spiritual Initiation, by William R. Mistele
Destiny Books, 1644117444, 288 pages, January 2024

As a diagram of the macrocosmic body of the Universe, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life is a blueprint for divine embodiment. Each of the ten sephiroth, or divine emanations, depicted as spherical fruits dangling from the branches of the Tree of Life, correspond to the luminaries and planets of our solar system. Through self-initiation into the mysteries of each of the ten spheres, we can activate and harmonize the microcosmic powers within.

The Hermetic Tree of Life: Elemental Magic and Spiritual Initiation is a guide to embodying the Tree of Life and awakening our divine powers so we can transform the world around us. Author William R. Mistele is a spiritual anthropologist and a bardic magician, which means that “he uses the medium of poetry, short stories, novels, and screenplays to present modern fairy tales and mythology.”1 He has studied and meditated with over fifty masters from a variety of traditions, and this book is intended to be a user-friendly manual, condensing the universal wisdom of all the systems he has integrated, using the Kabbalistic Tree of Life as a framework. Each chapter is named after one of the ten sephiroth on the Tree of Life, and includes an initiation section, which “is about embodying the sephirah in yourself.”2

Mistele’s work is influenced by the elemental magic of Czech hermeticist Franz Bardon (1909-1958). The first book he read by Bardon was Initiation into Hermetics (1956), which emphasized mastering the elemental energies within. By integrating the pragmatism and productivity of Earth, the empathy and kindness of Water, the playful curiosity and open-minded nature of Air, and the willpower and personal drive of Fire, the initiate becomes a more well-rounded individual and strengthens their weaknesses. They can also learn how to access elemental realms on the astral plane and commune with nature spirits.

I love how Mistele incorporates the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water with the Tree of Life and gives suggestions for integrating elemental energies one recognizes in nature and in other people. Mistele recounts personal anecdotes about meeting people who reminded him of elemental beings reincarnated as humans, such as embodied gnomes, slyphs, salamanders, and mermaids. In a section called “Recapturing Projection,” he discusses how we can reproduce the elemental energy of other people within ourselves. Recapturing the good things they made us feel and reclaiming their essence as a part of ourselves that was awakened through meeting them can reduce the sense of loss we feel if our relationship with that person ends.3

Mistele works from the ground up, beginning at the base of the Tree of Life with “Rule 10: Malkuth/Earth,” the “Kingdom” of the physical realm. I appreciate this approach because there can be an airy fairy tendency in spirituality to detach from mundane reality and focus on celestial energy, when it is the earth beneath us that sustains and supports us. Just as a tree soaks up nourishment through its roots, we connect with Malkuth through our feet. Malkuth grounds us and aligns us with nature

 “If we are wise, we will first undertake the initiation of Malkuth in which we gain a solid and enduring connection to nature with its sense of inner silence,” Mistele writes. “And we will undergo the initiation of Yesod where we integrate our conscious and subconscious.”4

As a witch, observing lunar cycles and honoring the moon is a significant part of my practice, so the chapter on the sephirah of “Yesod/the Moon” resonated with me the most. Yesod, meaning “Foundation,” is a portal between the astral and physical realms.5 According to Mistele, “the initiation of Yesod is to draw together the powers of the inner self—a sense of happiness, of contentment, self-acceptance; the purity, healing, and innocence of the Water element; the ability to create feelings at will; and the bliss of the dream.”6 Mistele encourages using Yesod for shadow work, connecting with your instinctual nature, and sitting with all of your emotions, giving them your undivided attention. 

I enjoyed the exercises for Yesod that engage the senses and emphasize remembering to be present in the physical body. For example, in the “zoning” exercise, the reader is instructed to “focus on physical sensations”7, by meditating on the feet or any other body part. “The body and consciousness transform each other,” Mistele says.8 I was reading this chapter during the Full Moon in Cancer and I thought it would be fitting to focus on the sensations in my uterus, the lunar temple within my body and the seat of my feminine creative power. I also used aromatherapy to help me connect with lunar energy by wearing a lunar perfume oil called The Moon, created by an Etsy seller named Andromeda’s Curse. The fragrance is a heady floral bouquet, blooming with voluptuous notes of white gardenia, honeysuckle, and water lily.

While meditating on my uterus, I observed the strange bloated sense of fullness in my abdomen, juxtaposed with the occasional pain of cramping. I relaxed into these uncomfortable sensations instead of trying to ignore them. I noticed that focusing on my womb gave me a sense of safety and security. I had a vision of white moonlight pouring over me and it felt like rippling threads of spider’s silk, forming an ethereal cocoon around me. I became aware of the night sky as a huge, furry black spider, spinning silk from the orb of the moon. Even though I envisioned this cosmic arachnid trapping me like a fly, her cocoon felt strangely protective, not frightening, like the linen wrappings of a mummy. It reminded me that sleep is a form of death. Our bodies become paralyzed and mummified in moonlight, and the trance and enchanted dream visions of sleep are like a spell cast upon us by the dark, mysterious forces of night. 

I’ve been fascinated by spiders ever since I read Charlotte’s Web as a child, and I consider the spider to be my shadow totem. I used to be more afraid of them, but over the past decade or so I have made a conscious effort to overcome that fear and embrace them as spirit guides and emissaries of the dark goddess. I even developed feelings of tenderness towards them because I recognize that they are often more afraid of us than we are of them. This vision inspired me to do some research on ways spiders use their silk, because I wondered why I didn’t feel any fear of the spider, or being caught in her web. I learned that, while spiders may use their silk to trap prey, they also use it to create nests or cocoons to protect their children. I certainly felt a maternal energy radiating from the spider in my vision.9 

There are times when I feel restricted by circumstances beyond my control. Instead of feeling trapped in her web of fate, I have to accept that Grandmother Spider knows what’s best for me. She is either keeping me safe or counseling patience as she prepares me for something better. 

By connecting with spider consciousness, I was certainly tapping into both the shadow side of myself and the shadow nature of Yesod. “The mystery of Yesod is that, while supporting our individual ability to feel, the astral plane contains a vast range of emotional life that is as yet unknown to the human race,”10 Mistele says. Just as I was able to connect with spider consciousness, Yesod can help us imagine and feel alien realms of experience not accessible to us in our human bodies. 

After spending some time with Yesod, I climbed further up the tree, proceeding to the next two sephiroth, Hod/Mercury and Netzach/Venus, which balance each other, bringing equilibrium to the mind and heart. In the sphere of Hod/Mercury, we develop mental clarity, discernment, and eloquent speech. Mistele assigns vivacity as the common virtue of Hod, which is characterized by a liveliness and quicksilver adaptability to the ever-changing present moment. The airy nature of Mercury brings a sparkling effervescence, like bubbly sea foam, to the lunar waters of Yesod. 

Netzach/Venus integrates body (Malkuth/Earth), mind (Hod/Mercury), and soul (Yesod/Moon). According to Mistele, its virtue is “a beauty that draws together and harmonizes all aspects of oneself.”11 He describes it as a “magnetic fluid” derived from the watery realm of Yesod.12 This boundless stream of loving, healing, feminine magnetism draws us in and embraces us with the mysterious pull of an emerald sea. “One of the initiations or mysteries of Venus is to find such love in yourself,” Mistele says.13

The initiation of Netzach is “personality integration,” and the divine virtue is “purity of motives.”14 If you’re dishonest with yourself, which is a vice of Hod/Mercury, then you can’t attain Netzach’s divine virtue of pure motives. You would have to refer back to the sphere of Hod and cultivate the virtue of honesty. Sometimes people deny their true feelings and intentions with their words, but practicing the art of active listening can help us discern the truth of other people’s motives and assist us in bringing own words and feelings into alignment. According to Mistele, active listening “involves noticing incongruities—the differences between what a person is saying and the feelings expressed through body language—facial expression, gestures, intonation, or even word choice.”15

I appreciate Mistele’s emphasis on the element of Water when working with Yesod/Moon, Hod/Mercury, and Netzach/Venus because I associate them with the watery realm of emotion and how we relate to others. The Moon, which rules the tides, has the most obvious connection to water. The Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, was born from the foaming sea, and the watery association of her star, the planet Venus, is still preserved today in the Virgin Mary’s epithet Stella Maris, meaning “Star of the Sea.” (I personally believe that Aphrodite Urania, or Heavenly Aphrodite, also known as Venus, the Mother of Rome, is still being worshiped today by Catholics under the guise of the Virgin Mary.) Associating Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun, with the element of water may seem strange to some Westerners, but in the Chinese elemental system, quicksilver Mercury is known as the “water star.”16

When Mars entered Capricorn, the sign of its exaltation, I began reading the chapter on “Rule 5: Gevurah/Mars: Self-Mastery.”17 In the fires of Gevurah, we alchemically transmute our weaknesses into strengths.

“The mystery of Gevurah is that when harmoniously integrated, the four elements become one energy field combining two opposite polarities of masculine/electric and feminine/magnetic,” Mistele says.18

Mistele notes the societal imbalance of masculine and feminine energies, made manifest in how “our entire civilization is fiery and electrical,”19 and praises science, industry, and rational thinking, while the more elusive, intangible feminine qualities of receptivity, empathy, nurturing, and intuition tend to be devalued. He believes this imbalance can be corrected through inversion. Instead of surrounding women with “masculine technology and institutions,” Mistele says we should aspire for a “magical androgyny,” in which “the feminine encircles and encloses the masculine within itself.”20

For me, this brought to mind how the metal of Venus is copper, and copper wire is used to conduct electricity (masculine energy). Mistele gives examples of this in nature, such as how the earth’s mantle insulates its molten outer core, which generates the earth’s magnetic field and is as hot as the surface of the sun. The inner core is made of solid iron, the metal traditionally associated with Mars, and it is the size of Pluto, which is an interesting comparison, considering that Pluto, the God of the Underworld, is the higher octave of Mars in modern astrology.

Mistele often uses mermaid women, who embody unconditional love, as an example of idealized divine feminine energy. “Unlike human women who embody all five elements, incarnated mermaids embody the one element of Water in their auras,” Mistele says.21 Mistele refers to himself as a “mermaid greeter,” which means that he identifies and assists “mermaid spirits who have incarnated in human bodies at birth and have grown up usually thinking that they are human.”22 He says that mermaid women “are totally in the moment, totally receptive, completely giving of themselves. There is no ego weighing them down, no guilt, no loss of innocence, and no insecurity that might awaken jealousy or bitterness.”23 Since they don’t have the emotional needs of a human, they never feel neglected, because they are complete themselves.

When describing mermaid women, I feel that Mistele romanticizes the selfless, unconditional love of the divine feminine a bit too much, and I think that he should have touched on the importance of women protecting themselves from potential harm by maintaining healthy boundaries, because it can be very dangerous for any woman, whether she is fully human or has the soul of a mermaid, to go around wearing her heart on her sleeve and pouring out unconditional love on emotionally unavailable or cruel people in an attempt “to create love where love does not exist.”24

He vaguely acknowledges this by mentioning that incarnated mermaid women have to conceal their identities to protect themselves from stalking and violence, but I would have liked the importance of healthy boundaries to have been emphasized. His anecdotes about various mermaid women he has encountered fascinated me and I’d like to learn more, so I’m looking forward to his forthcoming book, titled Encounters with Mermaids: Lessons from the Realm of the Water Elementals, (Release date: August 13, 2024) which is a new edition of his previous work Undines: Lessons from the Realm of the Water Spirits (2010).

“We all have mermaids and mermen inside of ourselves,” Mistele says. “The whole point of the ten rules and ten sephiroth of the Tree of Life is that the greater universe is reflected inside of us.”25

The Hermetic Tree of Life is an immersive guide for those who are seeking divine embodiment by internalizing the Tree. The exercises contained within its leaves will help readers recognize and harmonize the elemental qualities within. Mistele’s elemental approach will likely appeal to witches, magicians, and pagans. My personal foundational text on the subject was The Witches’ Qabala by Ellen Cannon Reed, which explores the Tree from a pagan perspective, and I found that background to be compatible with Mistele’s elemental focus. This book is accessible to those who have little previous knowledge of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, but I do think it is helpful to have some basic foundation to build upon, because Mistele doesn’t supply any background information on the Tree. Surprisingly, there is no diagram of the Tree itself in this book, but readers can easily find an image online for reference. Regardless of your current relationship with the Tree, The Hermetic Tree of Life will assist you in the lifelong spiritual quest to become your best self.

Cats, by John A. Rush

Cats: Keepers of the Spirit World, by John A. Rush
Destiny Books, 1644117460, 208 pages, October 2023

Cats are polarizing creatures. People tend to either love them or hate them, and while many cultures, most notably the ancient Egyptians, revered cats, their Christian associations with witchcraft and the Devil made them the target of persecution in medieval Europe. In the thirteenth century, Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) even issued a papal bull condemning cats as agents of Satan.1 Superstitions about cats, especially black ones, being unlucky or demonic, persist to this day, and humans who spend too much time around felines are often ridiculed for being crazy cat people.

In Cats: Keepers of the Spirit World, author John A. Rush, Ph.D., N.D., explores humanity’s complex relationship with cats as both pets and spirit animals, which goes back in time over thirty million years.

“This book is about origins, human and cat, for it is by looking at our ancient past that we can identify our deep connection to cats and our eventual attachment of spiritual characteristics to them,” Rush says.2

Rush is a retired anthropology professor and naturopathic doctor with an impressive oeuvre of published works on a variety of topics, from Witchcraft and Sorcery: An Anthropological Perspective of the Occult (1974) to Biological Anthropology: A New Synthesis (2023). He and his wife manage a colony of about fifteen or more feral cats, and over the past thirty-five years he has gained deeper insights into feline behavior through observation. 

“Cats are apex predators and our ancient ancestors, emerging in the Oligocene (thirty-four to twenty-three million years ago) and Miocene (twenty-three to six million years ago), were prey animals for millions of years,” Rush says.3

The anxiety and fear cats produced in our primitive ancestors influenced human evolution by altering our genetic coding. The rise of bipedalism in the late Miocene may have evolved as a response to these predators, so hominids could appear larger and avoid predation.

Over time, the relationship between cats and hominids became more symbiotic. Following the example of feline predators, our ancestors learned to supplement their diet of nuts and berries by scavenging the carcasses left behind by cats, using stone tools like teeth and claws to rend flesh from bone. “Not only are the cats eating our ancestors,” Rush says, “but they are also leaving us food in our time of need.” [19] He suggests that this gruesome exchange may be the origin of the concept of human and animal sacrifice. As the saying goes, you are what you eat, and some prehistoric cave paintings depicted humans with animal traits in order to create a spiritual link between hunter and hunted through sympathetic magic

The development of weapons and other primitive technology by Neanderthals and early modern humans flipped the script, and our ancestors became apex predators. A simple stick may have been the weapon of choice for millions of years, and Rush notes that his own cats are wary when they see him wielding a broom or a rake, which cannot be a learned behavior, since he doesn’t “whack” his cats.4 He sees their wariness as evidence that they have an instinctive aversion to sticks preserved in their genes.

Even though we are now at the top of the food chain, the primal fear of cats is still hardwired into our genetic coding. Rush proposes that humanity’s atavistic fear of being devoured by wild cats has been preserved in the myths of cannibalistic monsters like the baby-killing demoness Lilith, who could shapeshift into a cat, which brings to mind the myth of cats sucking the breath out of sleeping infants, a superstition that persists today.

Cats still see us as a form of food, and they certainly have a way of bewitching us into caring for them. With the rise of agriculture, domestication of cats may have occurred because cats were drawn to the rodents raiding our grain stores and humans valued their companionship and talent for pest control.

Rush dispels the popular belief that cats were worshiped in ancient Egypt, and emphasizes that their otherworldly characteristics were associated with gods, while the cats themselves were not deified. From Rush’s anthropological perspective, worship entails demeaning subservience to a deity.

“In my opinion, there is nothing divine or spiritual in worshipping a god to whom you are enslaved (Yahweh, God the Father, or Allah),” he writes. “Identification with various animals is what brings out our spiritual nature.”5

The concept of animal worship was used by cultures that claimed to be more civilized in an attempt to denigrate the Egyptians as foolish and primitive. Rush emphasizes that Egyptian deities depicted with cat heads, such as Bast and Sekhmet, were not deified cats, but goddesses with feline characteristics.

Rush devotes most of this book to providing a wide survey of cat folklore and mythology throughout the world. In “Issues of Cat Identity and Behavior in Spirituality” which is the longest and most captivating chapter, he demonstrates that the cat is, cross-culturally, a potent dualistic symbol, imbued with great power, for good or ill.

The physical power of cats was both admired and feared by our ancestors. The muscular legs of domestic cats and leopards enable them to climb trees and leap from branches, and Rush says that South African leopards “could snatch one of our Australopithecine cousins and drag him or her up a tree.”6 Trees often grew out of cave openings, and the chewed up bones of our bipedal ancestors have been discovered in the ancient lairs of leopards.   

Cats, as symbols of prowess and power, are often the guardians of thresholds:

“Along with the ability to see in the dark and their acute hearing, the cat’s tendency to seek out secluded, dark, protected places to hide and sleep connects the cat to role of guardian of the Underworld,” Rush says.7

He shares a cute anecdote about his own cats guarding the entrance to his bathroom “like the Sphinx on the Giza Plateau,”8 and any cat person can certainly relate, since most cats like to follow their owners to the bathroom. Almost every time I leave mine, all three of my cats are waiting for me outside the door. I have a long-haired black cat who was a stray I adopted four years ago, as well as two orange tabbies I adopted a little over a year ago from my next door neighbor, who oversees a cat colony. As a fellow cat lover, I was touched by the heart-warming personal anecdotes Rush shares about his own cats to elucidate his points about cat behavior, which he presents with the emotional detachment of scientific observation.

The sections of this book that interested me the most explored shamanistic beliefs involving humans shapeshifting into cats and the transmigration of souls:

“From Burma and other areas of Southeast Asia we hear that cats are keepers of souls,” Rush says. “In Laos, for example, souls are souls and they can migrate, and it doesn’t make any difference what animal they go into—they become part of that animal’s life force. I call this soul-shifting, somewhat like organ transplants.”9

Since souls can shift shape, a shaman can replace the soul of a sick body part with that of an animal. “Let’s say the soul of your legs leaves you, and you have trouble walking,” Rush says. “In Laos, the Hmong shaman can replace it with that of a cow or even a chicken.”10 Coming back to cats, Rush then shares a soul-shifting story he heard about a Hmong tribesman who died and his soul entered the pet leopard cat of the shaman who was trying to heal him. The shaman later left Laos and brought the cat with him to the United States in 1975, where it continues to haunt the streets to this day, exacting vengeance on anyone who harms Hmong people.

This urban legend demonstrates how, in modern times, mythological cats have persisted in the field of cryptozoology, and sightings of strange cat monsters still occur today. One of the weirdest examples Rush shares comes from the Pueblo and Navajo Indians of the southwestern United States, who claim that cacti-shaped cats with knives for paws get drunk off of cactus juice and cause trouble.11

Cats: Keepers of the Spirit World is a compelling exploration of the biological and spiritual evolution of humanity’s relationship with cats. Rush eloquently demonstrates how the mutual struggle to survive shaped the evolution of both of our species in profound ways, and even though we know very little about our primitive ancestors, his academic background as an anthropology professor lends an air of authority to this work. Cat lovers and armchair anthropologists alike will enjoy journeying with Rush into the mists of prehistory, and will no doubt learn something new from his comprehensive survey of cross-cultural cat folklore.

Entering Hekate’s Cave, by Cyndi Brannen, Ph.D.

Entering Hekate’s Cave: The Journey Through Darkness to Wholeness, by Cyndi Brannen, Ph.D.
Weiser Books, 1578637910, 256 pages, January 2023

From the artificial lights in our homes to the hypnotic glares of our televisions and smartphones, all the bright, glowing baubles of consumerism keep us overstimulated and distracted, diverting our attention away from the true healing power of closing our eyes, turning within, and facing our inner darkness. Even for those of us who are avidly seeking enlightenment, the false teachings of “love and light” spirituality can be perilous, reinforcing our collective denial of the shadow. When we focus on “positive vibes only,” we are operating from a place of fear, because we have become afraid that we will manifest our fears if we acknowledge them. The truth is that turning a blind eye to our darkness only further disempowers us, because the buried shadow content of our psyches has a magnetic quality, and we are more likely to manifest the things we don’t want in our lives if we continue to repress and deny them. 

In Entering Hekate’s Cave: The Journey Through Darkness to Wholeness, author and Hekatean witch Cyndi Brannen, Ph.D., is a psychopomp and healer, wielding her shamanic training and extensive experience as a professional psychologist like a blazing torch that guides readers through the labyrinthine tunnels of the Underworld to find the goddess within.

“Only by healing the shadow will we ever become whole,” Dr. Brannen says. “That is work accomplished in Hekate’s cave,”1 which is “a place of sacred darkness, a place where we awaken to our own souls.”2

Dr. Brannen is a leading authority on contemporary Hekatean witchcraft, and her previous works include Keeping Her Keys: An Introduction to Hekate’s Modern Witchcraft (2019) and Entering Hekate’s Garden: The Magick, Medicine & Mystery of Plant Spirit Witchcraft (2020). She also founded the Covina Institute, a Mystery School and Coven of Hekate, in which she is the executive director and lead instructor.

“Our journey is that of Persephone,” Dr. Brannen says, and “the journey of the cave is one of self-acceptance.”3 This resonated to my core because, when I first initiated myself, I devoted myself to Persephone, but it was Hekate who appeared to me in dreams, and in the first initiatory dream, she named me Persephone. I was already living my own unique version of Persephone’s myth in waking life, and through self-initiation, I was consciously acknowledging my archetypal identification with her. 

Based on my personal experiences and what Dr. Brannen writes, I believe that Persephone is the archetype of the witch who is initiated by Hekate and called into her service. Like Persephone, the witch has the shamanistic ability to move between the realms of the living and the dead, and communicate with spirits. She becomes queen of the liminal spaces, like Hekate.

There are fifteen chapters in this book, each one bearing an epithet of Hekate, accompanied by a unique sigil. I love working with her plethora of names because it’s like having a whole pantheon of Hekatean spirits who are each unique emanations of her multifaceted energetic current. The World Soul that is Hekate fragments like moonlight passing through a prism, bending into a rainbow of vibrant deific masks.

Dr. Brannen recommends gemstones for working with each epithet, such as “fluorite for learning and expanding awareness”4 when connecting with Hekate Triformis, the triple goddess of transformation. She also enlists one of my favorite stones, amethyst, “for awakening the soul,” “encouraging meditation,”5 and connecting with Drakaina, the ancient dragoness, or snake goddess, who “teaches us that we can shed our false skin.”6 I plan on focusing on the Drakaina epithet this year, since 2024 is the Year of the Dragon in Chinese astrology.

I have always felt an affinity with stones, and I have been fond of collecting them since childhood, but it had been a while since I meditated with them, so this was a great reminder to reincorporate them into my daily spiritual practice. I have a heart-shaped green and purple rainbow fluorite that I decided to use to connect with Hekate Triformis. In numerology, my life path number is three, and I deeply resonate with the imagery of the triple goddess. The sigil also spoke to me, and came alive, like an opening eye, as I gazed upon it.

Working with Triformis, I imagined a trio of voices, saying, “We are Hekate.” This triple-voiced Hekate reminds me to think of myself as my past, present, and future selves, and what it feels like to be all three at once, living in the present moment. Through this conscious alignment, I am a multidimensional being, present in all three realms at once, seeing my past, present, and future simultaneously. The fluorite amplified my self-awareness and surprised me with memory flashbacks. I am going to continue working with fluorite to connect with Triformis and enhance my clairvoyance.

The stones are powerful allies on Persephone’s journey, because Entering Hekate’s Cave initiates a heart-wrenching Underworld descent. Maybe it’s the sigils, or the magical power of the epithets themselves, but just reading this book is shadow work, and it triggered cathartic emotional reactions within me.

“This book is also part memoir,” Dr. Brannen says, “recounting my own journey through a difficult upbringing, sexual trauma, addiction, disease, and more.”7

Brannen’s raw vulnerability and transparency is part of the healing magic. By being open and confiding with her audience, she creates a safe space for readers to do the same, and I felt prompted to journal about my own experiences. The goddess Hekate walks through fire with us. She knows our darkest secrets and feels our hidden pain. 

I read this book during Mercury retrograde in Capricorn, which, in my natal chart, is the Underworld of my 8th House, and it was an intense experience. The most poignant insight I had was that I still suffer from a childhood abandonment wound that I never fully processed because I didn’t give myself permission to grieve.

When I was eleven years old, my mother left me and my father for a man ten years her junior. I’m now almost 40 years old, and in the dark womb of Hekate’s cave, I realized that I still haven’t healed from this wound because I have refused to acknowledge it. When my mother left, I was glad she was gone. My dad and I decided we were “better off,” and he acted like he was celebrating. He stumbled through life drunk, partying and blasting music. Both of us were in denial about how painful the abandonment had been. Soon after, he moved another woman into our house and proposed to her, but they didn’t stay together long because she couldn’t tolerate his alcoholism. That was left for me to deal with alone.

I was supposed to embrace the narrative of being better off, and side with my alcoholic father (it was us against her). Yet on some level, he probably resented me for looking like her, and he was abandoning me too. He was never present because of his addiction, and through his example, I learned to escape my own problems through alcohol. I never grieved when my mother left, because acknowledging how deeply it hurt would have conflicted with the affirmation that I was “better off without her.” I now realize that, as an adult, this abandonment wound has had a long-term negative impact on my self-esteem, my romantic relationships, and my attachment style.

Societal conditioning doesn’t permit us to properly grieve and process our wounds. We are discouraged from dwelling on our pain and validating our emotions by experiencing them. We are taught to bury our pain and pretend to let things go, to forgive and forget. The very thing we need to do to heal, we are denied, because of our own shame for being wounded, and because seeing our pain inconveniences others.

Up until she left, my mother had indoctrinated me with Christian values. I was taught to love my parents unconditionally, to turn the other cheek when people wronged me, and forgive them for their trespasses. If I showed any sign of anger or defiance, she condemned me for being resentful, and told me that I should forgive her, for my own sake. But it was really for hers.

In Chapter 9, Dr. Brannen illuminates the cathartic powers of Borborophorba, an epithet that comes from the Greek Magical Papyri and means “Filth Eater.”8 This is one of my favorite epithets because it reminds me of earthworms, the tiny chthonic serpents that eat decaying organic matter and animal waste and transform it into nutrient-rich soil. “The Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl also ate the waste of humans, then defecated it as flowers, symbolizing the transformative power of the goddess to turn filth into gold,”9 Dr. Brannen says. Borborophorba assists us in the process of eliminating the spiritual toxins that burden us and finding the hidden treasures buried within them.

In the myth of Persephone’s abduction, picking a narcissus flower initiated her kidnapping and Underworld descent. “Narcissism is yet another pitfall for some Persephone women,”10 Brannen writes. Both the personality disorder of narcissism and the flower were named after Narcissus, “who was fated to stare longingly at his own reflection but never see his own interior depths.”11 Women who embody the Persephone archetype often worry over their image and have people-pleasing tendencies, because they want to be liked and their sense of self is based on what others think of them. They may also be more vulnerable to narcissistic abuse. 

I grew up with a poor sense of boundaries due to the toxic enmeshment of my narcissistic mother. When I was little, I was sheltered and overprotected by her, so the abandonment was a relief in the sense that it gave me the breathing room I needed in order to individuate. Being abandoned by my mortal mother was also a blessing in disguise because it led me to my divine mother, Hekate, the goddess of witches. Up until that point, my strict Christian upbringing had been stifling, and in her absence, I was free to explore other spiritual paths. Ironically, after my mother left, she decided she was a witch too, and stole the thunder of my spiritual rebellion, but it was only a passing phase for her, and she ended up returning to monotheism.

When I was a teenager, my mother used to tell me how funny it was that I’m a Gemini, because “we’re just like twin sisters!” (I have a Gemini Sun and Moon and she is a Scorpio Sun with a Gemini Moon). She told me we looked alike, and that our lives mirrored each other’s. Since she saw me as her “twin sister” and best friend, she confided in me about all of her problems and traumatic experiences, and the combination of over-identification and trauma-dumping created a toxic empathic bond, which Dr. Brannen identifies as “secondary traumatic stress.”12

Now I realize that she was a narcissist who saw me as an extension of herself, and she didn’t want me to have a separate identity of my own. If I got angry at her for her behavior, she would gaslight me and say that I was the one doing whatever it was that she was doing. This confused me and conditioned me to question my perception of reality, to blame myself for any problems I encountered in relationships, and to tolerate boundary violations made by romantic partners. 

My mother abandoned me and my father to be with her “true love” because she was a selfish narcissist. Even when she was around, she wasn’t present, mentally or emotionally. When I reached adulthood, she continued to abandon me by obsessing over that “true love” who in turn had cheated on her and abandoned her. Throughout my life, we went through cycles of her smothering and abandoning me, which gave me an anxious-avoidant attachment style.

Shadow work involves deep soul searching and self-reflection, which is sometimes shamed in our society as narcissistic navel-gazing, but this is a healthy form of narcissism that dives deep into the well of the soul, bringing us into alignment with our true selves.

The irony of narcissistic abuse is that the narcissist manipulates their victim into believing that they are the selfish one. Any attempt made by the victim to break free and assert their independence is perceived as narcissistic by the narcissist. Persephone’s narcissism is actually a natural part of her individuation process and represents her quest for personal autonomy. The narcissus flower symbolizes her blossoming self-awareness, but because her identity is still so wrapped up in her mother’s, it becomes an Underworld journey expressed through her forced marriage. It’s like she traded one narcissist for another. Or at least, that’s how it manifested in my life, because I found myself in relationships with narcissistic, abusive partners who reminded me of my mother.

Chapter 7, titled “Chthonia: The Descent,”13 focuses on protecting your boundaries and honoring the sacredness of your personal space. This chapter was the most triggering for me because of my personal struggles. I grew up with a poor sense of boundaries as a result of the toxic enmeshment of my narcissistic mother, as well as bullying I experienced at school, and the cumulative abuse groomed me for intimate partner violence. 

While reading this chapter, I felt a lot of repressed rage surfacing as I reflected on the multiple instances of betrayal, abuse, and trauma I have experienced throughout my life. I felt enraged by the initial bullying and abuse that crippled my sense of personal boundaries and made me vulnerable to repetitive boundary violations. I found myself yelling and cursing all the people who have disrespected me and violated my boundaries in the past (I was alone in my home at the time), and it was a primal scream, like the roar of triple-voiced Hekate. I felt an immense sense of cathartic relief afterwards.

Beneath all the rage is the heartbreak of giving someone unconditional love and forgiveness and being punished for it with repeated disrespect and gaslighting until you are forced to cut them off for good. The last time I saw my mother, which was a few years ago, I had a vision of her as a zombie, grabbing me by the ankle and trying to drag me down to hell with her. That’s when I knew I had to make a choice: it was either her or me. I’ve been catering to her emotional needs and ignoring my own for most of my life. I felt toxic levels of empathy for her personal pain and traumas while neglecting my own. It’s time to choose me.

“As you move deeper into Hekate’s cave, your ability to discern between truly toxic people and those who are nourishing you amplifies,” Brannen says. “This may result in a cutting away of relationships with those who offer nothing but a steady diet of toxicity.”14

I have realized that, deep down, I’m terrified that if I love myself, it will make me a narcissist. I’m scared people will think I’m selfish and mean, because any time I have tried to set boundaries or stand up for myself, I’ve been accused of that, or the person offending me lashed out in anger and I felt that my physical safety was threatened. I’ve always identified as an empath, and concerned myself with the feelings of others, while disregarding my own. I was selfless, meaning I had no sense of self, because other people’s feelings were more important. I always tried to be caring and considerate of others, and I too easily forgave people who mistreated or disrespected me. 

I was leading an inauthentic life. The harder I worked, the more impoverished I became. The more I tried to please people, the more they shamed and abused me. I reached a breaking point in 2019, and completely withdrew from society. I became a ghost, hiding in the shadows. I have been in Hekate’s cave ever since, feeling like I’ve completely lost my mind, despairing over my inability to function like a normal person, and only receiving the repeated message from my oracles that I need to heal. I hated myself for no longer being able to find a place in society. This passage revealed to me the reason why I’ve had such a lengthy stay in my personal Underworld: 

“In the tales of Persephone, there is little told of the time between her entry into the Underworld and her ascension. We can imagine that Hekate pulled her into the cave so that she could adapt to her calling. During this period, she transformed from the naïve maiden to the sovereign queen.”15

Like Persephone, I need to remove the societal mask I have outgrown and embrace my soul’s true essence. I need to shed the false skin of familial and societal expectations that were projected upon me so I can be my authentic self. Just as flowers return from the Underworld in the spring, I will be able to step back into the light when I am ready to blossom into the wholeness of my personal sovereignty. 

I can’t praise Entering Hekate’s Cave enough. This book came to me because I needed it. It also validated some of my personal revelations about the relationship between Persephone and Hekate, and blessed me with new insights as well. Dr. Brannen is a gifted healer and her work is a boon for all of those who have been called to serve Hekate and illuminate the darkness.

Sacramental Theurgy for Witches, by Frater Barrabbas

Sacramental Theurgy for Witches: Advanced Liturgy Revealed, by Frater Barrabbas
Crossed Crow Books, 1959883267, 250 pages, February 2024

In the Digital Age, witchcraft has become more popular and accessible to the public than ever before. Social media is a hot conduit for witches to spread information and personal gnosis through posts and video shorts, leading to the rise of practitioners who are sometimes referred to by the derogatory term “Tiktok witches,” because the quality and validity of this bite-sized content is often questionable. These days, it seems that witchcraft can be whatever a person who identifies as a witch believes it to be. A lot of witches, perhaps due to religious trauma from monotheism, are squeamish about applying the word religion to their craft, and many focus on self-deification, with a tendency to see spirits as archetypal forces they can activate within their psyches rather than as real, conscious entities with personal agendas of their own. If every person who identifies as a witch gets to make up their own definition of what witchcraft is, claim godhood by their own right, and discard the foundational teachings just for the sake of rebellion, then I feel there is a risk of clashing egos compromising the structural integrity of witchcraft as a spiritual path.

In this era of self-serving pop culture witchcraft, it’s refreshing to come across a book that both grounds readers with the religious roots of modern witchcraft and advances them to the next level. In Sacramental Theurgy for Witches: Advanced Liturgy Revealed, author Frater Barrabbas, who has over forty years of experience as a practicing ritual magician and is “an elder and lineage holder in the Alexandrian tradition of Witchcraft,”1 offers a solid foundation, taking readers back to basics while still leaving plenty of wiggle room for creativity, personal gnosis, and experimentation.

His lore blends the theurgical practices of pagan magicians and Neoplatonic philosophers with the magical rites of Catholicism, which feels deliciously blasphemous, and brings to mind the myth of witches attending Black Mass, even though no sacraments are stolen from the Church or defiled. Frater Barrabbas claims that he has “appropriated what is no longer sanctioned or used by the Catholic church,” such as the Tridentine Mass, “and resurrected and transformed them to the service of Witchcraft liturgy and magic.”2 He proposes “that Witches and Pagans can repurpose the tools and beliefs that were once an important part of the Catholic faith from a completely modern Pagan magical perspective.”3

I love Frater Barrabbas’s incorporation of Catholic elements because I see the vast pantheon of saints as thinly veiled paganism, and I occasionally work with saints that I believe were originally pagan deities appropriated by the Church. I also take mischievous delight in rewording phrases from Christian prayers in blasphemous ways. For example, I might bless a ritual implement on my altar with the menstrual blood of Lilith instead of the blood of Jesus. I feel that a little bit of inversion and blasphemy in one’s witchcraft can be a wonderful way to break the chains of traumatic religious programming from childhood.

I was raised by a charismatic Christian, and have found that incorporating Judeo-Christian elements into my practice has helped heal my own religious trauma. By disowning monotheism, it became a part of my shadow self, so to deny that aspect of my spiritual heritage did not bring me to a place of wholeness. Initially, I wanted nothing to do with anything even remotely Christian and focused only on working with pagan spirits. But over the years (and it has taken many years of conscious effort to work through my religious trauma), I have gradually welcomed a few angels, saints, and even the Devil into my practice.

I was initially drawn to Sacramental Theurgy for Witches because I prefer a traditional approach to witchcraft. While I don’t strictly follow any specific tradition, my current practice is more strongly influenced by Robert Cochrane’s Traditional Witchcraft than Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca, and I love that Frater Barrabbas incorporates the use of traditional ritual tools, such as the besom of spirit flight and the stang, a forked staff that is iron-shod like a steed for Otherworld travels, which is an implement derived specifically from Cochrane’s craft.

Theurgy is a crucial element of this book, which Frater Barrabbas defines as “a magical operation that induces the Deity to perform a paranormal operation to benefit an individual or a group or to refrain or block an occurrence that would cause harm.”4

“Witchcraft Theurgy consists of two distinct categories,” Frater Barrabbas says, which are “sacramental magic and magical Mystery rites,” and the book is divided into two parts to cover these practices.5

Sacramental magic encompasses workings that bring the witch into union with a chosen deity, such as rites of transubstantiation, statue animation, and godhead personification. Magical mystery rites align the witch with the cycles of nature through the observation of lunar phases and seasonal rituals. In the chapter on “Lunar Mystery and Moon Magic,”6 I appreciate that Frater Barrabbas emphasizes the uniqueness of each Full Moon from an astrological perspective. There is also a chapter on establishing a sacred grove outside, if one is blessed with a private outdoor space that can be dedicated to the gods. The theme of honoring divinity made manifest in nature is complemented by beautiful illustrations, many of which depict the various guises of the Horned God as naked men with horned animal heads.

Frater Barrabbas analyzes the theurgic practice of godhead assumption in witchcraft, in which a priestess or priest becomes a vessel, or medium, for a deity. The most well-known example of this practice is the classic rite of Drawing Down the Moon. One of the potential risks of godhead assumption is ego inflation, in which the vessel over-identifies with the deity beyond the scope of the rite, and Frater Barrabbas suggests that this can be prevented by working with a specific deity with a very distinct personality rather than being vague and calling upon an amorphous archetypal figure. He refers to the vessel as a medium, emphasizing the fact that they are channeling a specific spirit, not an aspect of themselves. I appreciate him addressing this hazard of divine possession because I’ve noticed there is a tendency to obsess over personal power and self-deification in the occult community, which I consider to be dangerously delusional. I have the traditional perspective that a witch’s power comes from spirit allies, not the ego. I feel like this attitude keeps me grounded and protects my sanity.

In one’s personal practice, godhead assumption can be used to work magic by channeling the power of the deity through oneself. For example, when the witch temporarily becomes the embodiment of a deity during a ritual, they become a mouthpiece for that deity, granting the witch greater authority, because it is not the witch speaking the spells, but the higher power of the channeled deity speaking through them. In Chapter Six, titled “Art and Ordeal of Deity Personification,” Frater Barrabbas instructs the reader on how to proceed with the “Witch’s Ordeal of Godhead Union.”7 Godhead assumption requires intense dedication and an intimate relationship with a specific deity. The devotional practices of sacramental theurgy create alchemical transformations within the witch that lead to “union with the One,”8 a choice of words reminiscent of the language people use when talking about coming into union with their true love, soul mate, twin flame, or whatever term of endearment they have for their ideal romantic partner.

“This ordeal is a magical love spell that you are going to cast on your God, and it will powerfully affect both you and your deity,”9 Frater Barrabbas says.

Self-love is an important part of this process. Just as one would take good care of themselves to attract a mate, the witch is instructed to become an object of desire for their deity by bathing often and beautifying themselves with fine clothes, jewelry, makeup, and sweet perfumes.
I love this approach to godhead assumption because I’m fascinated with the biblical story of the Watchers descending from heaven and mating with mortal women, which can be interpreted as symbolizing the Holy Guardian Angel uniting with the witch as a divine lover. This also brings to mind the ancient concept of having a God Spouse, in which a priest or priestess becomes symbolically wedded to the god they serve. One of my favorite examples of this comes from Greek mythology, in which the Cretan princess Ariadne, the Lady of the Labyrinth and half-sister of the Minotaur, marries the bull-headed god Dionysos. After helping the hero Theseus slay the Minotaur, Ariadne flees Crete with him, but he abandons her on the island of Naxos, where she is rescued by the god Dionysos and made immortal through her union with him.

I personally believe that the New Age concept of going on a Twin Flame journey, which entails seeking union with one’s Divine Masculine or Divine Feminine counterpart embodied in an unavailable human partner, is a corruption of the idea of a God Spouse. Before Ariadne married Dionysos, she was heartbroken and left deserted on an island by the hero Theseus, and heartbreak can be a major catalyst for inner transformation and seeking a higher love with a divine counterpart.

Frater Barrabbas explores the possibility of “a sexual encounter with an embodied deity”10 in rituals of sacred sexuality, such as the Great Rite, which “is used to confer upon an initiate the third degree of a consecrated priest or priestess,”11 which is the highest degree in British Traditional Witchcraft. He also conscientiously addresses the importance of taking precautions regarding the safety and well-being of those practicing sacred sexuality, which must always honor mutual consent.

I appreciated the occasional personal anecdotes Frater Barrabbas shares that humanize the experience of being a witch. For example, before revealing a ritual titled “Erotic Mass of the Fourfold Goddess,”12 he tells the story behind it, and it really impacted me emotionally. He relates how this rite was revealed to him by deceptive coven leaders who claimed it was an ancient secret ritual. “What I found out later was that this beautiful and supposedly ancient ritual had been completely made up by the leaders of my group and passed off as legitimate lore to the members,” he says. “Since those times, these same leaders left the Craft in the early 80s and became ardent fundamentalist Christians who targeted Witches and Pagans, telling the public that we were merely dupes of Satan.”13 He shares this ritual with readers because he doesn’t feel oath-bound to keep it secret, considering its true origins.

I’m a solitary practitioner and I’ve never been in a coven, so the group rituals he shares in the book are beautifully written and inspiring, but will not be of practical use for me. One reason why I’ve never been in a coven is that most of the people I’ve met who have shown an interest in witchcraft lack commitment and sincerity. It’s a passing phase to them, and they can easily turn back to monotheism. It’s even more astounding to me, that in the author’s experience, these traitors were elders in his tradition.

I really resonated with this passage because it reminded me of times in my life when I felt betrayed by romantic partners, friends, and family, who either pretended to be accepting of my practice, or once identified as witches themselves, and then went back to Christianity and completely turned on me, condemning me as a devil worshiper and calling my gods demons. It hurt me deeply, but I think these experiences can be blessings in disguise, because tests of faith can deepen commitment.

In an initiatory vision I received well over a decade ago, I had a sexual encounter with the Horned God in the guise of Cernunnos. I remember vividly that it happened on a Winter Solstice. That night, I felt a strong calling from the spirit world to cast a circle and go into a trance, though I didn’t know why. During this impromptu ritual, I had a vivid vision of being in a vibrant green forest drenched in sunlight, and an erect Cernunnos approached me. I was so surprised by what was happening that it shocked me out of trance, and I immediately became afraid that the Christians were right, and witches really do have sex with the Devil. I identified as Wiccan at the time and up until that point I had denied the existence of the Devil, as did most, if not all Wiccans, probably due to the Satanic Panic, but this experience shifted my perspective and caused me to reevaluate my entire belief system. I had reached a dead end with Wicca, and my spirit allies were guiding me to Traditional Witchcraft. It took me several years to unravel the
religious conditioning of my childhood and I gradually understood that this experience was an initiation into the mysteries of the Horned God as the folkloric Devil, who is a shapeshifting spirit of nature, and not the personification of absolute evil. Embracing the title of devil worshipper helped me to do necessary shadow work for my personal and spiritual growth.

Sacramental Theurgy for Witches is not for the faint of heart or those who think of witchcraft as a passing phase. It’s for serious devotees who have established their own consistent practice over the course of many years and wish to deepen their relationship with the divine by not only becoming a medium for their chosen deity, but by elevating their relationship with their god to a sacred romance, and love is the greatest mystery of all. By weaving together the seemingly disparate threads of multiple traditions, and integrating their wisdom into his own lore, Frater Barrabbas promotes a sense of wholeness, rather than separation, in witchcraft. This book will be a wonderful resource for those looking to reconcile Christianity and other traditions with their practice.

Theurgy: Theory & Practice, by P.D. Newman

Theurgy: Theory & Practice: The Mysteries of the Ascent to the Divine, by P.D. Newman
Inner Tradition, 164411836X, 224 pages, December 2023

Theurgy is a Neoplatonic form of ritual magic in which the practitioner seeks mystical union with a divine being. The term theurgy, which means “to work with deity”1 in Greek, was first coined in the Chaldæan Oracles, a fragmented collection of dactylic hexameter verses, written in Homeric Greek, that were believed to have been channeled directly from the gods by either Julian the Chaldæan, or his son, Julian the Theurgist, during the late second century CE.

In Theurgy: Theory & Practice: The Mysteries of the Ascent to the Divine, author P.D. Newman, who has practiced theurgy for over two decades and is also a member of both the Masonic Fraternity and the Society of Rosicrucians, supplies a solid scholarly background on the development of theurgical practices. Even though the Chaldæan Oracles are the fundamental text on theurgy, he argues that the practice itself can be traced all the way back to Homeric times. 

In Part I, he demonstrates how the ancient Greek version of shamans, called iatromanteia (“healer-seers”), and the Presocratic philosophers laid the foundation for theurgical practices.

“Theurgy,” Newman explains, “is a process of anabasis or magical ascent whereby practitioners, such as the Neoplatonists…achieved henosis or mystical union with a deity, the Demiurge or the One,” while katabasis is “a dreamy descent to the domain of the dead and to the dark goddess who rules over that realm.”2

Plato and his followers aspired to ascend through the planetary spheres and unite with the One, the paternal Monad, using theurgical practices, while their predecessors, the iatromanteia (“healer-seers”) and Presocratic philosophers, sought Underworld descent, or katabasis, and union with the terrifying goddess that ruled there.

“For the Platonists, katabasis was understood as the descent of the soul into a body upon incarnation,” Newman says. “Hades, additionally, was allegorized and viewed as the very world that we, as embodied beings, inhabit.”3

In Plato’s teachings, the body (soma) is a grave (sema), and a prison for the soul. Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave” in the Republic demonstrates how the focus of theurgical practices shifted from the Underworld to the heavens. “The goal of the theurgist is not unlike that of the prisoner in the cave—to escape the sensible world of duality and penetrate the realm of ultimate, unitive reality above,” Newman says.4

I was fascinated to learn that the Sicilian stratovolcano Mount Etna was believed to be an entrance to Hades, and sacrifices to the goddess of the Underworld were thrown into the mouth of this fiery cauldron. According to legend, the iatromantis (healer-seer) Empedocles threw himself into the volcano to prove his divinity, and it erupted, vomiting out a single bronze sandal. Through self-immolation, Empedocles achieved henosis (mystical union) with the goddess Hecate. A single bronze sandal is one of her attributes as the Lady of Tartaros in the Papyri Graecae Magicae, and the Greeks associated bronze with the Underworld. This was a profound insight for me because I didn’t know that Hecate was associated with volcanoes, and this explains her fiery epithets. 

Part II explores possible theurgic elements in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. In Chapter 6, titled “Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs,” Newman demonstrates how philosophers often saw Odysseus as a spiritual hero, on a path of return to his celestial abode. For example, he says the Pythagoreans interpreted the song of the sirens to be the music of the celestial spheres, which is so beautiful it has the power to “lift the soul in its theurgic ascent to the Good,”5 and the Neopythagorean philosopher Numenius of Apamea saw “Odysseus as escaping genesis, the realm of ‘becoming,’ symbolized by the waters of Poseidon.”6

I loved this chapter, and the passages about Witch Queen Circe really blew my mind. According to the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry of Tyre, Circe symbolizes the cycle of metensomatosis, or reincarnation, in which eternal souls change bodies like clothes. Aiaia, the island over which she rules, is part of the land of the dead. Bewitched by the pleasures of the flesh, Odysseus’s men drink the witch’s brew and are reborn as beasts. Only Odysseus himself, who is on a path of ascension, is immune to her powers. Now that my perspective has been shifted to view the Odyssey as the tale of a hero’s apotheosis, I will never read it the same way again. 

Part III, titled “Theurgic Telestikē,” analyzes the practice of animating cult statues. This section was the most relevant for me because I have written my own rituals to awaken my deity statues in the past and I am looking to incorporate more traditional methods of doing so in order to infuse my rituals with historical authenticity. I also recently wrote a ritual to enliven a scrying mirror for Lilith, because in Jewish folklore she was believed to inhabit mirrors. One passage in particular really resonated with my intention, in which Newman quotes Plotinus, who compared the consecrated cult statue to “a mirror able to catch some image of it.”7 

In order to animate the statue, a sympathetic link is created with “theurgic talismans called synthēmata (tokens) and symbola (symbols),”8 which are similar to the planetary correspondences assigned to plants, animals, and minerals in natural magic. However, there is more to statue vivification than simply following a list of correspondences recognized by the intellect. Rather, the tokens and symbols help the theurgist align with the deity by making their divine essence become conscious, or awakened, within themselves, especially if they have psychoactive properties that alter one’s consciousness. For example, in fragment 224 of the Chaldæan Oracles, the goddess Hecate instructs the theurgist to animate her statue with wild rue, or Syrian rue, an entheogenic plant that the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder associated with vision, which is still burned today in the Middle East to repel the evil eye.

My devotion to Hecate inspired me to learn more about theurgy because of her exalted status in the Chaldæan Oracles, in which she is referred to as the World Soul, or at least she is according to my copy, translated by Ruth Majercik. Before reading this book, I wasn’t aware that there is conflicting scholarship about whether or not this epithet applies to her, and I was surprised to find that Newman presents the argument that Hecate is not herself the anima mundi, or World Soul, because her position in the Chaldæan hierarchy is too elevated.

“Indeed…in the Oracles, Hecate is said to be the cause of soul—but not soul itself, “Newman says. “Rather, Hecate is acknowledged as a goddess of liminality who exists in the space between two realms, such as she served when acting in the role of psychopomp for Persephone in the Eleusinian mysteries.”9

In an initiatory dream I received over a decade ago, Hecate stabbed me in my right side with her dagger and pomegranate juice flowed from the wound. “You are Persephone,” she said. Several years later, the dream made more sense to me when I read Fragment 51 of The Chaldean Oracles: “Around the hollow of her right flank a great stream of the primordially-generated Soul gushes forth in abundance, totally ensouling light, fire, ether, worlds.”10 If Hecate is so elevated that she transcends the epithet of World Soul, then I wonder if perhaps her lowest aspect, the maiden Persephone, should in fact hold that title.

Theurgy: Theory & Practice is an astounding work that combines shamanism, various schools of Greek philosophy, and theurgical praxis that can be integrated by modern occultists. The many branches of Greek philosophy can be an overwhelming topic to explore, but Newman does an excellent job of diluting the common theurgical elements, and a wealth of information is condensed into under 200 pages. Both modern theurgists and devotees of Hecate will appreciate this work, especially if they are interested in learning more about her significance in the Chaldæan Oracles.

Soul Journey through the Tarot, by John Sandbach

Soul Journey through the Tarot: Key to a Complete Spiritual Practice, by John Sandbach
Destiny Books, 1644117096, 384 pages, November 2023

I’ve been studying tarot for almost 27 years, but these magical cards contain so much wisdom that there is always something new to learn, and I often feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Most tarot books on the market tend to be geared towards beginners, rehashing the same sets of keywords and interpretations, so I get excited when I find a text that delves deeper into the esoteric teachings of the cards.

In Soul Journey through the Tarot: Key to a Complete Spiritual Practice, author John Sandbach shares his own unique magical system, co-created with his spirit guides and inspired by over 50 years of studying tarot. Sandbach first channeled these oracles in 1976, and wrote this updated edition with the intention that it will be used as “a tool for vibrational healing.”1

He has named the Major Arcana cards depicted in this book the Azoth Deck, and the illustrations were created by South Korean artist Daehee Son.

“Azoth,” Sandbach says, “refers to the spirit and energy of the planet Mercury, who in Egypt was the god Thoth, who was the inventor of the alphabet—the tarot being an alphabet of spiritual forces.”2

Sandbach has changed some of the traditional names of the Major Arcana. For example, as a departure from the final reckoning of Christianity, Sandbach calls the Judgment card “The Awakening,” a title that he feels more accurately captures the core meaning of Arcanum XX. The Devil, Arcanum XV, has been renamed “The Musician,” to avoid the negative connotations of the original title and shift the focus of the card to the inner harmony or discord of the seeker.

The book’s cover claims that this text integrates “numerology, astrology, Kabbalah, and the contemplative life.”3 I wanted to read this book to get a better grasp of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life and Hebrew letters in relation to tarot, as well as deepen my understanding of the astrological tarot correspondences. However, I was surprised to find that many of Sandbach’s astrological and elemental associations are completely different from the Golden Dawn attributions I currently use, which I learned from The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic (1984) by Israel Regardie (1907-1985).

Sandbach associates The High Priestess, titled “The Guardian of the Gate (Veiled Isis)”, with Virgo instead of the Moon; The Hermit, titled “The Seeker (The Sage)”, with Aquarius instead of Virgo; The Star, “The Light”, with Gemini instead of Aquarius; and so on.4 The Suit of Coins is assigned the element of Air instead of Earth, and Swords are Earth instead of Air.5 Even though most of these associations don’t resonate with me, I decided to keep an open mind and shift my perspective to include them, at least for the duration of time it took me to read this book.

Sandbach justifies the association of Coins with Air by explaining that exchanging currency for goods is an abstract concept created by the mind, and “the air element resonates with concepts and systems formed through the mental activity of humans.”6 Swords, on the other hand, are practical instruments made of metal, which penetrate the density of matter. These elemental associations have Vedic origins, and relate to the Hindu tattwa system. He borrowed his elemental and astrological associations from The Sacred Tarot by astrologer and occultist C.C. Zain (1882-1951), a work that was a major influence on his approach to tarot.7 Sandbach acknowledges that these are less popular tarot associations, and advises the reader to use whatever correspondences make the most sense to them, because all systems are valid.

“Ultimately,” he says, “we must realize that the four physical elements are not four distinctly different things, but the same thing in different states.”8

This is an excellent point, and it made me more receptive to his alternative elemental associations. 

While I had a hard time connecting with many of these correspondences, the Virgo association with The High Priestess, titled “The Guardian of the Gate (Veiled Isis)” was compelling to me, particularly in how it influenced Sandbach’s interpretation of the card. Virgo rules the digestive system, and the message of the High Priestess is to “be watchful of what you ‘eat,’ whether it be food, thoughts, emotions, concepts, or vibrations.”9 I personally associate The High Priestess with Persephone, whose fast was broken by pomegranate seeds while she was in the Underworld, so the digestion message really spoke to me. The Moon, which is usually the planetary association for this card, is considered to be the ruler of Virgo in esoteric astrology, and knowing this reinforces the validity of Virgo as an alternative astrological association for the High Priestess.

The most unique tarot associations Sandbach gives are spirit names in the intergalactic Language of Space. “This universal constructed language, known as aUI,” Sandbach says, “was originally received from extraterrestrial beings by psychologist and linguist Dr. John Weilgart (1913-1981) in the early 1950s.”10 aUI (pronounced “ah-OO-ee”) is a sound-based language, and the aliens who transmitted it to Dr. Weilgart told him that it had been spoken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.11

Sandbach gives a spirit name in aUI for each major arcana card and supplies the correct pronunciations for the reader. For example, the spirit name for the High Priestess (Veiled Isis) is ytlUkU (pronounced “yit-LOO-koo”).12 Sandbach says these spirit names were channeled by him and belong to entities associated with the cards.

“The letters of aUI and their sounds can be used for contemplation and to make up your own magical words,” Sandbach says.13

What a fascinating concept! Even if a reader doesn’t agree with Sandbach’s tarot associations, the chapter on the Language of Space is intriguing.

I draw a daily tarot card for myself almost every morning, and I decided to apply Sandbach’s interpretations while reading his book. One of the cards I drew was Strength from The Bones Arcana.

Sandbach calls Strength “Arcanum XI: The Maiden (The Enchantress)” and associates her with the planet Neptune. I love the title “The Enchantress,” which brings to mind the Greek witch goddess Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios, who was accompanied by lions in the Odyssey and transformed Odysseus’s crew into pigs. I tend to prefer numbering this card 8 instead of 11 because I associate it with Leo, and the eighth month of August. Sandbach’s Neptune association aligns with the belief of some modern astrologers that Neptune is exalted in Leo.

Sandbach says of “The Enchantress” that “she has gained ascendancy over one of nature’s most powerful creatures, and she has accomplished this through the actualization of her psychic power, as well as through her love.”14 Sandbach’s description of Strength as “the arcanum of psychic power,”15 reminded me again of Witch Queen Circe. In the Odyssey, she was a loner who lived on the uncharted island of Aeaea. She was a master of illusion magic, involving shapeshifting and crafting potions, and she revealed the bestial natures of those who invaded her privacy by transforming them into animals.

All of these skills have a very Neptunian quality to them. Neptune is the hypnotic and bewitching planet of dreams, fantasies, glamor, illusions, mysticism, and drugs (or potions, in Circe’s case). Circe was the daughter of the sun god Helios, and Sandbach says the Sun is the root ruler of this card, while Neptune is the “therapeutic agent.”16 After exploring the Circe connection I made to the Strength card, I appreciate Sandbach’s Neptune association much more. 

Sandbach’s system is a radical departure from what most tarot students are probably familiar with, and this reminds me of the differences between tropical (Western) astrology and sidereal (Vedic) astrology. Western astrology is more popular, but both systems are equally valid. Tarot readers influenced by occultist C.C. Zain will likely resonate with Sandbach’s system, while those who have memorized the Golden Dawn’s tarot associations may find these correspondences a bit more difficult to integrate.

Sandbach claims that the system he uses, which is modeled after Zain’s work, “is a therapeutic or healing system,” while the more common associations, which he says are based on the Kabbalistic text titled the Sepher Yetzirah (the “Book of Formation,” or  the “Book of Creation”), encompass “the root, or actual system.”17 Approaching his associations as a complementary healing system may help readers blend Sandbach’s method with the one they currently use.

Initially I was resistant to the teachings in this book because I was hoping to expand my understanding of the Golden Dawn associations, not learn a completely new system. However, being receptive to correspondences I didn’t agree with and exploring them with open-minded curiosity helped me glean new insights about the cards. I think any experienced tarot reader will benefit from questioning and reevaluating the associations they have memorized by being open to alternative ones or intuitively assigning their own. After all, when used as a tool for spiritual growth, tarot expands consciousness and opens our minds to new possibilities, so the archetypal images have infinite layers of interpretation. In this light, Soul Journey through the Tarot can help seasoned readers rediscover tarot and tap into new ways of relating to the cards.

Healing Pluto Problems, by Donna Cunningham

Healing Pluto Problems: An Astrological Guide (Weiser Classics Series), by Donna Cunningham
Weiser Books, 1578638151, 256 pages, December 2023

Ever since Pluto was first discovered in 1930, our perception of this celestial body has been growing and evolving. While Pluto was initially recognized as the ninth planet in our solar system, it was demoted to dwarf planet in 2006, and a lot of people who grew up knowing Pluto as a planet are still bitter about this demotion (myself included!). Despite astronomers minimizing its significance, modern astrologers acknowledge the Underworld power of Pluto by assigning it as the modern ruler of Scorpio and the Eighth House.

Native Scorpio Suns pride themselves on being Plutonians, and they can be quite possessive of that identity (all Scorpios believe they were born under the best sign in the zodiac!), but they don’t own Pluto. Everyone has Pluto somewhere in their natal chart, and significant Pluto transits can have profound and lasting effects on our lives.

In Healing Pluto Problems: An Astrological Guide, astrologer Donna Cunningham (1942-2017) explores the immense impact Pluto has on the soul’s evolution. Originally published in 1986, this Weiser Classics edition includes a foreword written by astrologer Lisa Stardust. This book has been on my wish list for a while now, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review it.

Cunningham defines a Pluto person as anyone who has Scorpio placements in their natal chart or a prominent Pluto connected to their Sun, Moon, Ascendant, or Midheaven.1 According to her definition, I’m a Plutonian, despite my Gemini Rising and Gemini stellium (Sun, Moon, and Venus in Gemini), because my natal Mars and Saturn are cozied up together in my Scorpio Sixth House. I was very close to having Pluto in Scorpio as well, but right before I was born, Pluto backpedaled into Libra due to retrograde motion, so I’m a member of the Pluto in Libra generation.

In Healing Pluto Problems, Cunningham addresses a wide range of taboo emotions and traumatic experiences Plutonians may experience with compassion and sensitivity, such as grief, resentment, alcoholism, domestic violence, incest, abuse, and suicidal thoughts. She gives guidance on how Plutonians can process the intense and complex emotions that arise from their life challenges, and she also coaches professional astrologers on how to counsel the Plutonian people who confide in them.

“One reason Plutonians keep their secrets is that so often the people they go to for help wind up making them feel worse—more ashamed, more angry, and more betrayed,”2 Cunningham says.

Being forced to keep their taboo emotions secret in order to avoid negative reactions from others often makes Plutonians feel isolated and alone, as if they are “from another planet.”3 I’ve observed this as spiritual bypassing in religious and New Age communities, in which people are often shamed for feeling angry or resentful about past victimization, and chastised for not being more forgiving of their abusers. Talking about Plutonian emotions can be a healthy way to release the pressure of them, but it can be difficult to find safe spaces with trustworthy people to confide in. For example, Plutonians who have suicidal thoughts must keep quiet about them when talking to a therapist, even if they have no intention of acting upon them, because that therapist may perceive the Plutonian as a danger to themselves and feel legally obligated to have them committed, which would be a traumatizing experience that would compound those negative feelings with more layers of shame and betrayal. 

However, Cunningham points out that there are potential benefits to Plutonian solitude. “Isolation may be a condition which some require in order to develop their abilities to the fullest or to achieve an agreed-upon life purpose,” Cunningham says. “It may be necessary to focus on some singular activity, rather than being immersed in the daily needs of family or other relationships.”4 Isolation can also be therapeutic, especially when one is processing grief or trauma.

“When we do not give ourselves time to regenerate and to process new stages of life,” Cunningham says, “resentment and grief can build up to toxic levels.”5 

Plutonian transits can generate healing crises, during which the Pluto problems seem to intensify, as if resisting one’s efforts to heal them. Repressed emotions are at the core of all Pluto issues, and they will flare up, demanding recognition. “The feelings don’t get worse,” Cunningham says, “you are just more aware of them and of the thought patterns behind them. Heightened awareness is part of the process.”6 The cathartic release of repressed emotions is like an acne breakout after a skin treatment. It seems like things are getting worse because all the dirt and grime that was clogging the pores is coming to the surface, but it’s all a necessary part of the purging and cleansing process. 

Cunningham offers healing methods to assist the process, such as affirmations, chants, flower essences, chakra cleansing visualizations, and color therapy. In the section on healing with color, I was fascinated to learn that purple, my favorite color, assists in “releasing and processing old resentments,”7 and that purple’s popularity increased when Pluto entered Scorpio. For almost a decade, I have preferred purple sheets on my bed, so perhaps my gravitation towards this color has been an unconscious impulse to help myself heal with the higher vibrational energies of purple while I sleep.

Cunningham supplies sample charts of a few famous Plutonians, including Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, and Sigmund Freud. Building upon her examples, I thought I would explore the chart of a prominent celebrity whose Plutonian struggles have attracted a lot of media attention. I read pop star Britney Spears’s memoir The Woman in Me (2023) alongside Healing Pluto Problems, which is quite fitting because Britney has Pluto Rising in Libra [natal chart], and her life struggles illustrate the unfair power dynamics that tend to manifest in the relationships of the Pluto in Libra generation.

Many of Cunningham’s insights about Plutonians apply to Britney. According to Cunningham, Plutonians tend to be the children of alcoholics, and, as a child, Britney was afraid of her alcoholic father, who would go on benders and disappear for days, which she said “was a kindness” because she “preferred it when he wasn’t there.”8 She also reveals in her memoir that her mother started giving her alcohol when she was in eighth grade. “By thirteen,” she says, “I was drinking with my mom and smoking with my friends.”9

As Britney rose to stardom, her Pluto Rising gave her a sexual magnetism that was perceived as threatening by the media, and she was criticized for being a corrupting influence on youth because of the way she dressed. During interviews, she was subjected to a lot of uncomfortable and inappropriate questions about her body and sex life, and she was shamed for her sexuality throughout her career. “I was a teenage girl from the South,” Britney writes in her memoir. “I signed my name with a heart. I liked looking cute. Why did everyone treat me, even when I was a teenager, like I was dangerous?”10

In her memoir, Britney describes herself as empathic and felt that she was absorbing all the negativity that was being projected onto her. She even believed her misfortune was due to bad karma catching up with her. It’s heartbreaking to read, in her own words, how this vivacious, free-spirited, and talented young woman was eviscerated by the media and financially exploited by her own family. After reading Britney’s memoir, I suspect it was ancestral trauma seeking expression and healing through her, not “bad karma” she had personally accrued (this is exactly why I have taken the word karma out of my spiritual vocabulary; it can guilt trip people into taking blame for things beyond their control!) 

“Tragedy runs in my family,” Britney says. “My middle name comes from my father’s mother, Emma Jean Spears, who went by Jean.”11 Britney was the spitting image of her paternal grandmother Jean, who took her own life in 1966, at the age of 31. Jean had lost a baby eight years prior, and shot herself over her infant son’s grave. Jean had also been abused by her husband June, Britney’s grandfather, and he had kept her institutionalized in an asylum where she was given lithium.

The parallels between Britney’s life and Jean’s are chilling. During Britney’s divorce from Keven Federline, the father of her children, she had a very public mental breakdown because she was grieving the loss of her two little boys since Kevin had full custody and would not allow her to see them. The breakdown landed her in a conservatorship, in which all her assets and every aspect of her life was placed under the control of the alcoholic father she had feared so much as a child. During Britney’s abusive conservatorship, her father, who apparently had learned from his own father to send defiant women to asylums, also had Britney institutionalized and put on lithium like her grandmother, in a disturbing reenactment of the Spears family’s intergenerational trauma. 

Pluto is a generational planet, and, after reading these two books together, I believe that the placement of Pluto reveals the intergenerational trauma that one is destined to transform into personal power. In other words, Pluto is your inheritance of unprocessed ancestral trauma. I feel like the Pluto in Libra generation in particular has quite a burden to bear because they are the intergenerational mediators, and the Libran desire to restore harmony may cause them to take on more than their fair share.

As a member of the Pluto in Libra generation, I sympathized with Britney’s relationship struggles and court battles because I also went through a nasty divorce around the same time she did. I’ve noticed that my own relationship issues are also rooted in ancestral trauma. I can only imagine how traumatic it was for her to go through all of that publically, especially compounded with the endless harassment by paparazzi. 

As a Libra Rising, Britney’s chart ruler is Venus, and her natal Venus at 25° Capricorn forms an exact square with her natal Pluto at 25° Libra. This emphasizes that her way of relating to people (Venus) needs to be transformed (Pluto) in this lifetime. Britney Jean’s Pluto is in the first house, and, by bearing her ancestor’s name, the trauma associated with her grandmother Jean’s memory expressed itself through Britney’s public persona. It’s also noteworthy that Britney’s Pluto is conjunct Saturn, the planet of incarceration, and she was locked under the conservatorship for almost the entire duration of Pluto’s transit of Capricorn (ruled by Saturn). Pluto entered Capricorn in 2008, the same year Britney’s conservatorship began. The conservatorship was terminated on November 12th, 2021, when Pluto was at 24° Capricorn, forming an almost exact square to her natal Pluto at 25° Libra.

In Healing Pluto Problems, Cunningham says that the square between Pluto and natal Pluto “is a major chance to heal your Pluto problems” and presents opportunities for “confronting and breaking down barriers.”12 Transiting Pluto squaring Britney’s natal Pluto liberated her from a thirteen year abusive conservatorship, so if anyone who is reading this is afraid of their own Pluto square Pluto transit (which is one of the so-called midlife crisis transits), this is proof positive that it can emancipate you from long-standing Plutonian difficulties. I’m experiencing mine right now and I find this to be quite comforting.

Healing Pluto Problems is an excellent resource that has given me a lot of insight into understanding Pluto’s power in a natal chart, and any student or practitioner of astrology should have it in their library. The therapeutic advice Cunningham provides also helps Plutonians work on reclaiming their personal power through self-healing. This work is indeed a classic, and as Pluto transitions into the sign of Aquarius, the guidance Cunningham gives is just as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1986.

Bogowie, by T.D. Kokoszka

Bogowie: A Study of Eastern Europe’s Ancient Gods, by T.D. Kokoszka
Moon Books, 1803412852, 448 pages, September 2023

Without a doubt, the most famous Slavic deity is the child-eating hag goddess Baba Yaga. Thanks to her memorable mobile home on chicken legs, she has achieved mainstream recognition through children’s books, and she even lends her name as an alias to the eponymous assassin played by Keanu Reeves in the John Wick film series (2014). Aside from everyone’s favorite chicken witch, Slavic mythology has inadequate representation in pop culture and western scholarship. In Bogowie: A Study of Eastern Europe’s Ancient Gods, author T.D. Kokoszka seeks to remedy this deficiency. The book’s title, Bogowie (pronounced “BO-GOV-YEH”), is Polish for “Gods,”1 and in this work, Kokoszka uses “comparative analysis to interpret Slavic folklore”2 and reconstruct Slavic paganism.

It may come as a surprise that the author, who has a Bachelor’s degree in Microbiology from Texas State, would choose to write a book on a topic that digresses so far from his field of expertise. While microbiology may seem unrelated to comparative mythology on the surface, the study of ancient genetics intersects with the reconstruction of ancient Slavic culture. The author recognizes the inherent dangers of investigating the Proto-Indo-European “Aryan” identity, and approaches this topic with sensitivity. As a half Jewish and half Polish-American man, Kokoszka is disturbed by the appropriation of Slavic paganism by far-right nationalist groups, such as Russian and Ukrainian Neo-Nazis, and seeks to reconstruct traditional Slavic faith from a non-biased scholarly perspective.

Kokoszka felt compelled to write this book because the study of pre-Christian Slavic culture and mythology has been neglected by modern scholarship, and he was frustrated and disappointed by the dearth of quality research in this field. However, his target audience is not scholars (he doubts they would take him seriously), but those who are interested in Slavic paganism. Being a Slavic pagan himself, he hopes this work will be a valuable resource for both curious readers and devoted practitioners attempting to reconstruct the pre-Christian Slavic faith.

I fall into the curious camp, and Baba Yaga’s chicken foot hut led me through a dark forest to the unfurling leaves of this book. Earlier this year, I read Baba Yaga’s Book of Witchcraft: Slavic Magic of the Woods by Ukrainian diaspora witch Madame Pamita, which piqued my interest in Slavic mythology, a topic I shamefully knew little to nothing about up until that point. Bogowie proved to be the nitty-gritty, in-depth scholarly analysis I enjoy as a mythology buff.

While the author humbly refers to himself as an “amateur,”3 the depth of his comparative mythology analysis is impressive and reminiscent of the works of Joseph Campbell. Kokoszka explores parallels between the Slavic pantheon and other world mythologies, with an emphasis on major deities such as Mokosh, the goddess of fate and the personification of Mother Earth; Perun, the thunder god; Volos, the god of cattle and Lord of the Underworld; the Zoryas, sea maidens of the dawn; and the solar deity Dazhbog. Several chapters end with a sample tale, including one of my personal favorites, called “Baba Yaga and Vasilissa the Fair.”4 

In Chapter 2, titled “Baba Yaga and Mokosh the Great Mother,” Kokoszka’s exploration of the widespread European folk tradition of saving the last sheaf of grain for a deity is fascinating. In the Ukranian folk tale of “The Snake Wife,” a farmer is advised by a talking serpent in the forest to ask for the last sheaf of corn as payment after he harvests his master’s fields. Then he throws the last sheaf into a fire and a beautiful woman leaps like a spark from the flames. They get married, and his new bride warns him to never call her a serpent, or else she will leave him. Inevitably, he does so anyway, and she turns into a snake. Before she slithers away, he kisses her thrice, and is blessed with knowledge each time. She tells him to go to the Tsar, who will reward him for his wisdom by giving him a princess for a bride.

“Why does the peasant burn the last sheaf of grain to summon the snake wife?”5 Kokoszka asks. He reveals that the last sheaf is associated with an old woman or hag throughout Europe. In Scotland, the last sheaf of grain was dressed as a woman and devoted to the Cailleach, a hag goddess. In German folklore, the last sheaf is called “the corn mother” or “wheat-bride,” and “some Dutch stories portray the Ruggenmoeder (Rye Mother) as an old hag with red eyes and a black nose who carries a whip and pursues children.”6 Meanwhile, in Russia, “sometimes a small patch of rye stalks were left in the corner of the field, and braided for Baba Yaga,” who “feeds the world, but is herself hungry.”7 Perhaps this is why she eats naughty children! “Another tradition which intersects with this is found in Central Europe, where one can find narratives about an old hag getting ground up by a mill and coming out as a maiden, with her youth restored,”8 says Kokoszka.

The last sheaf may also be personified as “The Old Man,”9 and in some parts of Russia, Kokoszka says, “the last sheaf of grain was called ‘The Beard of Volos.’” 10 While it may seem strange to connect an agrarian fertility tradition with the god of death, Kokoszka believes there is evidence that this practice is rooted in ancestral cult worship, as illustrated by the Ukrainian Didukh, another ceremonial last sheaf representing a grandfather spirit. The Didukh was believed to be a spirit house for deceased family members, and was brought into the home for winter festivities.

“The Didukh was given a place of honor during Christmas in many Ukrainian households,” Kokoszka says. “Finally, in early January, it was taken to the field and burned to free the spirits.”11

I found it even more intriguing that the pagan Volos was syncretized with the Christian Saint Nicholas. In some parts of Russia, the “Beard of Volos” was also known as the “Beard of Nicholas,”12 and a bull was sacrificed to him on his feast day on December 6th, an obviously pagan practice that hearkens back to the ancient association of Volos with cattle. Kokoszka says that “the bull to be sacrificed was named mikolets, after the Saint himself.”13

Bogowie is jam-packed with nutritious tidbits like this. I loved following the little bread crumbs about Baba Yaga the most because I have been fascinated with her ever since I first saw an image of her chicken foot hut in a computer game as a child. I was delighted to learn that, in Slavic mythology, there is also a female house spirit with chicken legs called a kikimora who lives behind the stove. In the middle of the night, she will tangle unspun thread or unravel needlework that has not been put away or sained (blessed with the sign of the cross).

Now that I have my own little coven of seven Easter Egger hens I call the Chicken Foot Clan, I like to think of myself as a chicken witch, and I want to be known as Baba Yaga to my grandchildren. I made a feather duster/chicken feather besom for ritual use with a bundle of naturally-shed tail feathers and a branch from the chaste tree growing in my backyard. According to Kokoszka, “witches of Carpatho-Ukrainian folk belief often have chicken feet.”14 I don’t have chicken feet yet, but after the ladies pass away of natural causes, I plan on harvesting theirs, mummifying them, and painting their toenails so they look like little hag hands. In witchcraft, dried chicken feet have protective powers, and it will also be a way for me to memorialize my hens.

Bogowie will be an engrossing read for chicken witches, Slavic pagans, and anyone who enjoys studying comparative mythology. Kokoszka’s thorough investigation of Eastern European folklore is formidable, and this book is destined to be an essential text on Slavic mythology.

Lucid Dreaming, Lucid Living, by Norma Burton and Nisha Burton

Lucid Dreaming, Lucid Living: Your Oracle & Guide to Mastering the Dreamscape, by Norma J. Burton & Nisha Burton
Red Wheel, 1590035380, 200 pages, 44 cards, September 2023

If you have ever had the wild experience of knowing you were dreaming within a dream, and then discovered that you had the ability to manipulate the dream world with your thoughts, then you have tapped into the latent power of lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is a potent therapeutic practice that can reduce stress, improve memory, and assist in shadow integration, healing trauma, and overcoming addiction. Lucidity also enhances personal empowerment by bringing mindfulness and a greater sense of agency to both dreams and waking reality. The average person has three to seven oneiric visions a night, but 95 percent of these experiences are forgotten upon waking.1 Fortunately, dream recall is a skill that can be strengthened with practice, and the Lucid Dreaming, Lucid Living oracle teaches dreamers how to achieve conscious awareness and navigate their dreamscapes with intention.

Lucid Dreaming, Lucid Living: Your Oracle & Guide to Mastering the Dreamscape is a collaborative project created by Norma and Nisha Burton, a mother and daughter dream team.2 Transpersonal psychologist Norma Burton has over thirty years of experience in her personal practice, and her work is informed by Jungian analysis, applied neuroscience, and comparative world religions, with an emphasis on Buddhism. Norma also apprenticed with Mexican Huichol shamans for twenty years, who gave her permission to incorporate their shadow healing tradition into her practice, and she is well versed in the shamanic traditions of other cultures, such as the Japanese Shugendo mountain shamans, the Brazilian Condoble-Espiritu healers, and the North American Cherokee, Hopi, Iroquois, and Navajo healers. Norma’s daughter, Nisha Burton, is a visual artist, graphic designer, and filmmaker, whose unique artistic vision enlivens the surreal dreamscapes pictured on the cards.3

This beautiful oracle consists of 44 gilded cards and a glossy full-color 200 page companion guidebook. In the guidebook, each card has a “Lucid Dreaming Teaching” and a “Lucid Living Message,” which advises the dreamer on how to integrate the lesson in both dreaming and waking life. 

The cards are divided into three categories, recognizable by their black, white, and starry night sky backgrounds. The black cards, numbered 1 through 22, are for “Lucid Dream Journeys”; the white cards, numbered 23 through 33, are for “State Checks, Stabilizing, and Reality-Shifting”; and the starry night cards, numbered 34-44, represent “Guides and Guardians.” [14-15]

The black cards give guidance for navigating various types of dreamscapes. Three of these cards (Card 6, “Nightmare Rewrite,” Card 12, “False Awakening,” and Card 13, “Sleep Paralysis”) advise on how to overcome frightening dream experiences by using your personal power to flip the script of the dream or transform these scenarios into opportunities for greater lucidity and mobility through out-of-body experiences.

One of my favorite cards is number 7, titled “Portals,” which teaches that “in lucid dreams, mirrors are entryways into other realities.”4 The Lucid Living message says, “Use them in waking reality to focus on what you like about yourself rather than your perceived flaws.”5 This card delighted me because I use black mirror scrying in my shadow work, and after reading about this card in the guidebook, I had a vivid dream in which I continued this practice in my sleep.  

The white cards teach various practices, called “state checks,” which can help one become lucid while dreaming. The guidebook defines a state check as “an action you conduct during the day to ‘check’ what ‘state’ or reality you are in—dreaming, awake, or out-of-body.”6 State checks performed in the dream realm can trigger lucidity. For example, card 27, titled “Solid Structures,” advises you to touch objects that should be solid to see if your hand will pass through them.7 Performing this state check throughout the day can help program your mind to do the same while dreaming, and will also heighten your critical thinking skills in waking reality. 

The starry night cards depict archetypal guardians and guides that you may encounter in the dream realms. They often represent subconscious aspects of yourself seeking integration, such as your “Cosmic Self and Inner Child,” and “Animal Guides” whose spiritual powers may benefit you at this time. 

I was eager to dive headfirst into this deck. For my first reading, I drew Card 16, “The Three Worlds” and Card 9, “The Dream World Home Base.” Both of these cards are black cards for lucid dream journeys, and feature locations in the Dreamtime, reminding me of a star map. 

“The Three Worlds” card depicts the three shamanic realms that dreamers can access. In “The Three Worlds” card:

“The dreamer navigates upward through the three worlds—the Underworld, the Middle World, and the Upper World. She has learned how to differentiate and distinguish between these dimensions and has integrated the powerful lessons held in each one.”8

The keywords associated with this card are: “Moving, State of flux, Re-surfacing of old wounds, Power struggles, Survival needs, Internal metamorphoses.”9

Working with “The Three Worlds” card entails me categorizing my dreams according to which shamanic realm they take place in. For example, I’ve noticed that all of my Underworld dreams take place underground, in some sort of catacomb, tomb, cave, or the basement of a large haunted house. According to the “Lucid Living Message” in the guidebook, Underworld dreams “include the resurfacing of psychological wounds that occurred in your childhood. It may be related to ancestral baggage and the need to heal patterns from your lineage.”10

The night before I drew this card I had a vivid Underworld dream. I dreamed I was speaking with my deceased father in a room with earthen walls, which I realized was his grave when I woke up. We were both crying in the dream, and it felt like we were resolving unfinished business between us. 

Middle World dreams are out-of-body experiences and mirror the earth plane. I began experimenting with astral projection when I was around 12 years old. Even though I had lucidity during these experiences, I had difficulty directing where I went and often lost consciousness and fell deeper into sleep. 

My Upper World dreams often involve spirit flights through space. In these vivid dreams, my astral body rockets through the earth’s atmosphere at the speed of thought, visiting the moon and planets both in this solar system and beyond. The most vivid one involved me floating near the rings of Saturn. I had a frightening sense of weightlessness and being suspended in the black void of space without any kind of tether to ground me and guide me back to earth. After reading the guidebook cover to cover, I was amazed to find a card titled “The Void” that describes this experience. I thought it was unique to me but apparently it is common among dreamers to encounter “The Void.” 

Sometimes these Upper World dreams involve me being on earth, but looking up at the sky to see the planets looming larger than life overhead and being drawn down towards me. I have also seen UFOs phasing in and out of the earth plane, revealing themselves to me by flickering like blue holograms. These dreams are frightening, because the veil thins and I become aware that there are alien forces all around us, cloaked so that most people can’t see them. I get the sense that these mysterious vessels are influencing our reality but I can’t discern how or what their intentions are. 

The second card I drew was “Dream World Home Base.” This card advises me to establish a safe and secure home base to ground myself in the ever-shifting dream realms. The guidebook suggests creating a home base through visualization, and locking the entrance so it is only accessible to me. 

This card reminded me of the astral castle I created in my late teens, and still visit on occasion. My favorite space is a reading room in a huge private library, with multiple floors of oak bookshelves and warm sunlight streaming through stained glass windows. There is a cloistered garden outside with a beautiful snow-white peacock that eats out of my hand. I haven’t visited in a while so I’m going to make some improvements and peruse the shelves. 

“If your home base is on another planet,” the guidebook says, “try putting a fingerprint or eye-scanning device on the portal to secure it.”11

The thought had never occurred to me to create my own dream planet as a home base, and I love the idea. Perhaps these cards are telling me that I already have a home base on another world that I may soon discover in my dreams.

I learned so much about dreaming from this comprehensive guidebook. It turns out that many experiences I thought were strange or unique to me are actually common dream experiences that are explored in one of the cards. While I haven’t had a fully lucid dream recently, using this deck has improved my dream recall and motivated me to be more consistent in journaling about my dreams. 

I have noticed that I often achieve a certain degree of lucidity in dreams, even if only for a brief moment of awareness that I am dreaming. For example, if my conscious mind is resistant to what is happening in the dream, I will remind myself to allow the dream’s narrative to unfold organically and witness it, so I can see what message it has for me. I have found that trying too hard to control and shape the dream takes too much psychic energy and exhausts me out of lucidity. I also like the surprises that come through the natural progression of dream sequences. For me, the most important benefit of lucidity is dream recall. I would rather observe the dream with mindful awareness and wake up to write it down rather than try to exert control over what happens and risk losing lucidity. 

The Lucid Dreaming, Lucid Living oracle is a phenomenal tool for mindful dreaming, astral projection, and deepening self-knowledge through shadow work. Both beginning and seasoned lucid dreamers will be inspired by this visually stunning deck and insightful guidebook, which teaches us the value of being present, as we lead double lives in our waking and dreaming realities. 

Are you awake right now? Or are you dreaming?