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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

Dance of the Sun Goddess, by Kenneth Johnson

Dance of the Sun Goddess: Pagan Folkways of the Baltic Coast, by Kenneth Johnson
Crossed Crow Books, 1959883240, 220 pages, March 2024

The eastern shores of the Baltic Sea glitter with amber, the golden tears of petrified resin shed by prehistoric pines. Nicknamed the Amber Coast, this magical region was the last part of Europe to be converted to Christianity, and forgotten pagan traditions, preserved in the lullabies of folk songs, rock its gilded cradle.

In Dance of the Sun Goddess: Pagan Folkways of the Baltic Coast, author Kenneth Johnson introduces readers to a vivacious pantheon of Baltic deities whose powers can be invoked with sacred trees and beautiful sigils that may be painted or carved on wood. Johnson draws pagan lore from Baltic folk songs to reconstruct the pre-Christian beliefs of the Latvians and Lithuanians. 

Johnson is a professional astrologer who has a B.A. in Comparative Religions and an M.A. in Eastern Studies, and he has written several books paganism, astrology, and magic, including Jaguar Wisdom: An Introduction to the Mayan Calendar, Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey, and Flight of the Firebird: Slavic Magical Wisdom and Lore.

While Johnson is not of Baltic descent, he is passionate about sharing the mythology and folk practices of the Amber Coast with the world because of what they reveal to us about authentic European paganism. In the “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book, he explains that the Lithuanian language is the closest living relative to the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. 

“This original language had its own religion, and this vanished faith has been the origin of all our Pagan mythologies—Greek, Latin, Norse, Celtic, Slavic, and Baltic,”1 Johnson says. Like a prehistoric insect fossilized in an amber coffin, these root pagan beliefs have been preserved in the living language and active folk practices of the Baltic lands, giving us a rare glimpse into the past. 

In “Part I: The World Tree,” Johnson introduces readers to the Baltic vision of the cosmos. Heathen readers will be delighted to learn that Baltic paganism bears many striking similarities to Norse mythology, beginning with the Latvian World Tree, called the “Tree of Dawn,” which resembles the Nordic Yggdrasil.2 The Tree of Dawn is invisible to mortal eyes. It is a bridge between heaven and earth, and only the gods and Baltic shamans can see it. In a Latvian folk song Johnson shares, the Tree of Dawn is poetically described as an iridescent rose that lifts one to heaven upon its ascending petals. This multi-colored rose may remind readers of Bifröst, the shimmering Rainbow Bridge that leads to Asgard, the realm of the gods, in Norse mythology.

Parts II and III introduce readers to the Baltic pantheon of deities, nature spirits, and folk heroes. As indicated by the book’s title, Dance of the Sun Goddess, the Baltic deity of the sun is the life-giving goddess named Saulė, while Mėnuo is the god of the moon. Saulė is one of the most important deities in the Baltic pantheon, since she sustains all life on this planet. The magical amber that sparkles on the Baltic shores is a gift of the sun goddess, and in the Bronze Age, it was the Baltic equivalent of gold, bringing prosperity through trade. Other prominent deities include Dievas, the Sky Father; Perkūnas, the god of thunder, who resembles the Norse god Thor; Velnias, the Lord of the Underworld; Žemyna, the earth goddess; and Laima, the goddess of Fate. 

In the Baltic worldview, the gods are intimately associated with trees.

“Too often, we walk past a magnificent tree without even looking up from our cell phones, unaware that we are in the presence of Laima, whose sacred tree is a linden, or Perkūnas, whose tree is the stately oak,” says Johnson.3

Throughout the book, Johnson includes several magical workings that help keep readers mindful of the divinity in nature. For example, as a magical working for honoring Milda, the goddess of love and indolence, in the month of May, Johnson suggests readers “take a vacation from work and relax among the flowers and the trees as her contemporary devotees do.”4

An appendix at the end of the book provides nineteen Baltic sigils and guidance on how to use them to invoke the blessings of the gods. One of these beautiful sigils is Perkūnas’s “Cross of Thunder,”5 which protects one’s home and family, and may be carved or painted on the door of a house or barn.

Most of these deities were unfamiliar to me, so it was a real treat to learn a new pantheon. One of my favorite Baltic goddesses is now Medeina, a beautiful forest maiden with green hair who is the Lithuanian version of Artemis/Diana. Like her Greco-Roman counterpart, she is a chaste huntress who haunts the wilderness, accompanied by an entourage of hares and wolves, her most sacred animals. Even though she is a huntress, it is the animals she protects, not human hunters, and sometimes she shapeshifts into a wolf to defend her pack. Her Latvian name is Meža Māte,”the Mother of the Forest.”6

I have a preference for chthonic deities, so I found the Baltic Underworld to be particularly fascinating. It is ruled by the Lithuanian deity Velnias, whose name is etymologically derived from the word vele, meaning “the dead,”7 and “his world is the world which lies in the tangled roots of the great tree, the world of darkness and the dead.”8 According to Johnson, the Underworld mirrors our realm. “It even has its own World Mountain, Mt. Anapils, and this is where Velnias dwells, just as Dievas dwells upon Sky Mountain in the world above the great tree,”9 Johnson says.

Although the Christians associated Velnias with the Devil, his role in Baltic mythology was far more complex. “Velnias is a world maker,”10 Johnson says. The creation of the world was a joint effort by the Sky Father Dievas and the Underworld Lord Velnias, “the two opposite polarities of life and death working together.”11 However, Dievas plays a passive role, and his will is carried out by his son Perkūnas, the temperamental Thunder God, who sometimes lashes out at Velnias when they don’t see eye to eye. Velnias escapes the wrath of Perkūnas by slinking in the shadows and hiding beneath stones or in the hollows of trees.

Being a shapeshifter, Velnias is a master of beasts, and since humans may reincarnate as animals, he is also lord of the dead who have been reborn in bestial form. I was particularly fascinated by this aspect of his character because it reminds me of the Devil card in tarot, and the bestial nature of both the Devil and Adam and Eve, who are depicted with tails. I was aware that shapeshifting can be a metaphor for dying in fairy tales, but it didn’t occur to me to link the Devil with humans reincarnating as beasts until I read about Velnias.

Ragana, the goddess of witches, is the Baltic Baba Yaga. Just as Velnias diametrically opposes the Sky Father, the winter goddess Ragana is the counterbalance to the celestial fire of Saulė, who must be banished on the summer solstice so that her life-giving powers do not overwhelm the earth with greenery and sweltering heat. Likewise, Saulė must regain her strength to break the dark spell of winter that binds the earth in chains of ice. At the winter solstice, Velnias leads an army of the dead and conquers the forces of darkness so that Saulė can return to thaw the frozen land. This divine tug of war between the forces of light and darkness spins the wheel of the year.

In the chapter on “Nature Spirits,” one of the most intriguing Lithuanian fairies is the aitvaras, a house spirit that looks like a rooster with a fiery tail when it is inside the house, and takes the form of a dragon or a meteorite when it streaks the countryside, stealing grain and gold for its master.12 While the aitvaras is a source of prosperity for the household, it can also bring misfortune if the theft is exposed. 

In “Part IV: The Wheel of Life,” Johnson guides readers through the Baltic wheel of the year, the seasonal festivals, and the Old Prussian zodiac. I was fascinated to learn that Cancer, the sign of the Crab in Western astrology, is called Azē, meaning “The Goat” in Prussian, and takes on the qualities of Capricorn, the Sea-goat, the opposite sign of Cancer, because “this is the time when Saulė has reached her fullness and is turned back upon her course by Ragana the Witch Goddess.”13

According to Lithuanian folklore, every person has a star in the heavens that appears when they are born and watches over them like a guardian angel. When they die, that star guides them through the Otherworld. In other star lore, the Big Dipper is “The Wagon of Perkūnas”14 and Polaris is his goat.

The deities and spirits I have shared here are just a sampling of the rich and vibrant pantheon of the Amber Coast, and any lover of mythology will relish in the pages of this book. The detailed descriptions of festivals and sigils will also enable readers to incorporate Baltic traditions and magical workings into their personal pagan practices as they celebrate the eternal Dance of the Sun Goddess.

The Way of the Will, by David Shoemaker

The Way of the Will: Thelema in Action, by David Shoemaker
Weiser Books, 1578638267, 240 pages, May 2024

The vicissitudes of life can strip away everything that grants mortals an illusory sense of identity and stability, but hidden within the core of every human being is a microcosmic star, an immortal spark of divinity, which is the immutable true self. The mystical tradition of Thelema, founded by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), is a philosophical path for magicians seeking to discover their true selves and align with their life purpose, or True Will, through the alchemical Great Work of personal transformation. (Thelema is a Greek word meaning “will,” specifically the will of a divine being.1) In The Way of the Will: Thelema in Action, author Dr. David Shoemaker provides Thelemic exercises for spiritual growth, utilizing Qabalistic psychology, the Tree of Life, astrology, and excerpts from Crowley’s writings.

Dr. Shoemaker is a Jungian clinical psychologist, magician, musician, and composer. He is the chancellor and prolocutor of the Temple of the Silver Star, and has been a member of O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis, which is Latin for the Order of Oriental Templars, or Order of the Temple of the East) and A∴A∴ (Astreum Argenteum, or Silver Star) for over thirty years. He is also the author of The Winds of Wisdom: Visions from the Thirty Enochian Aethyrs (2016) and Living Thelema: A Practical Guide to Attainment in Aleister Crowley’s System of Magick (2022), which is a companion text to this present work.

Part One of The Way of the Will focuses on working with the Qabalistic Tree of Life and how the sephiroth relate to the various initiatory grades of Thelema. The exercise provided in Chapter 1 helps the reader balance their internal Tree of Life by identifying how each sephirah is manifesting in their daily life and consciousness. For example, if one is being swept away by a tsunami of chaotic emotions and behaving irrationally, then Netzach may be out of whack, and that emotional energy needs to be sublimated in more constructive ways.

In Chapter 2, titled “Qabalistic Psychology in the New Aeon,” Dr. Shoemaker explains how parts of the soul correspond to the Tree of Life. Malkuth, the earthly sphere, is related to guph, the “physical body.”2 Nephesh, the “animal soul,”3 which is the seat of our primal instincts and procreative drive, corresponds to the lunar sphere of Yesod. Dr. Shoemaker likens the nephesh to one’s inner child, which must be guided by the parental figure of ruach, the “breath”4 soul and conscious mind.

“The ruach needs to parent the nephesh in a compassionate and nonjudgmental way—a way that clearly conveys to the nephesh that its instincts, its drives, its sexuality, its life force, are all divine and perfect,”5 says Dr. Shoemaker.

Part of Thelemic initiation involves cleansing the nephesh of the shame, guilt, and body negativity of the Old Aeon, which Dr. Shoemaker compares to “child abuse”6 perpetuated by oppressive aspects of Christian ideology. In the New Aeon, the inner child, or nephesh, must learn to trust in the wisdom of the inner parent, the ruach, instead of seeking external validation from a spiritual savior or someone else’s ruach.

The ruach encompasses several sephiroth on the Tree of Life, including Yesod (intuition) and the five spheres of Jungian ego: Chesed (memory), Geburah (will), Tiphareth (the spiritual hub of consciousness), Netzach (emotion), and Hod (intellect).

The neshamah is the transpersonal aspect of the soul, or superconsciousness, and corresponds to the supernal triad of Kether, Chokmah, and Binah, with an emphasis on Binah in particular. “This supernal consciousness transcends our everyday egoic strivings, wants, and desires and contains archetypes, spiritual ideals, and symbolic material in its highest forms,” writes Dr. Shoemaker. [40] It is through contact with neshamah (superconsciousness) that the ruach (ego/conscious mind) discerns one’s True Will, and aligns with the immortal true self, which resides in the khabs, or star-self aspect of the soul in the center of our being. 

In terms of human evolution, humanity learned during the Old Aeon that we could transcend our animal drives (nephesh) and temper them by developing and identifying with our egoic higher consciousness (ruach). The downside of this process was the tendency to reject the animal aspect of the soul and feel ashamed of our bodies and primal urges, but the mind-body connection can be healed by recognizing the innate sacredness of both. As we transition into the New Aeon, human consciousness is evolving to transcend our over-identification with the ego and align with the superconsciousness (neshamah).

Reading this chapter was an incredible spiritual download for me and enhanced my personal relationship with the Tree of Life. Lately, I find myself drawn to working with the lunar sphere of Yesod in particular, and learning from this book that Yesod is associated with nepesh, the animal soul, aligns with my conscious spiritual work to heal the mind/body disconnect by honoring the sacredness of the animal kingdom and rewilding myself. Over the past few years, my personal healing work has involved nourishing my animal soul by caring for cats, growing more of my own food, and raising chickens for eggs. I daydream about working with goats and bees in the future.

I think Dr. Shoemaker’s parent/child analogy for ruach/nepesh is easily adaptable to humanity’s relationship with animals as their caretakers. I’m deeply disturbed by humanity’s disconnect from nature and the decline of traditional animal husbandry in favor of the unceremonious and inhumane slaughtering practices of industrial farming. We don’t value animal life or see animals as sacred, and that’s clear in how we treat them. We also shame our own animal souls, our physical bodies, and seek to transcend them, either through repressing and denying them via unbalanced spirituality or by trying to control or alter natural biological processes through pharmaceutical and medical interventions.

In Chapter 4, “Saturn and Jupiter in the Life of a Thelemite,” Dr. Shoemaker explores the magician’s juggling act of balancing the universal energies of expansion and contraction, represented by Jupiter and Saturn in astrology. The life challenges and constraints imposed by Saturn can sometimes serve as redirections that steer us back on the path of True Will rather than egoic will. I appreciate Dr. Shoemaker’s approach to the astrological taskmaster Saturn, as he encourages readers “to think inside the box, consciously striving to accept and learn from the restrictions that appear to bind us.”7

Saturn is associated with Binah on the Tree of Life, the archetypal womb of the Great Mother, and the Grail, or cup of Babalon. Dr. Shoemaker explains that the Saturnian Grail gives shape and form to creative energy in the same way that a chalice contains and restricts the flow of liquid. For an artist, limitations can stimulate creativity. By adhering to a certain structure or form, creative breakthroughs can occur.

Embracing the fated restraints of Saturn brings us into ecstatic union with the Great Mother. In Thelema, the Egyptian sky goddess Nuit, whose infinite body is spangled with stars, is “the goddess of all possibilities and realities.”8 One way to worship her is through acceptance of our current circumstances and surrendering to all of our experiences, regardless of how unpleasant they may be, rather than resisting, repressing, or denying them, which is an ego-based response. Dr. Shoemaker compares this to softening and surrendering to the sensation of physical pain, such as stubbing a toe, rather than clenching the muscles in resistance. Surrender as an act of worship enhances our intuitive receptivity to the superconscious wisdom of neshamah, which can help us navigate life’s challenges more effectively.

One devotional practice of surrender he suggests involves mindful and radical acceptance of everything one encounters by taking “regular walks through both attractive and unattractive surroundings,” and accepting “all of these things as perfect manifestations of Nuit.”9 This holistic approach should also be applied inward, through radical acceptance of one’s strengths and weaknesses and recognizing that all aspects of the soul are in service to one’s True Will. 

Reading about radical acceptance was synchronous for me because lately I’ve been thinking about how certain negative experiences aligned with my soul purpose but were painful and traumatic for my ego to endure, yet I had no choice but to surrender to them, and seek a higher purpose through them. I personally believe that the Western concept of free will is more ego-based and illusory, while the Thelemic concept of True Will aligns with the Divine and the mysterious workings of fate.

“Part Two: Thelemic Practice in Detail” provides exercises for shifting from ego-centered consciousness to cosmic consciousness, as well as advice on how to craft potent invocations and achieve “a ‘talismanic’ state of consciousness”10 for divine embodiment in ecstatic ritual. This section also devotes chapters to exploring the magical symbolism of Crowley’s Gnostic Mass and the influence of the Golden Dawn on Thelema, as well as giving guidance on seeking out a Thelemic teacher or organization to join, if one so desires.

Part Two opens with a chapter on “Advanced Thelemic Meditations” that assist with “disidentification with the ego and its thoughts.”11 For example, one exercise from Crowley’s Liber Iod involves breathing through the nose while imagining sending breath to the Ajna chakra (the third eye, or brow chakra, in the center of the forehead) instead of the lungs. With practice, other sensations, such as pain, can also be transferred to Ajna.

Attainment of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel is the ultimate magical invocation, which involves the integration of one’s Holy Guardian Angel, or HGA, who is the angelic personification of their True Will, with their consciousness. The final chapter of this book is Dr. Shoemaker’s memoir of his personal epiphany of his Holy Guardian Angel, which he experienced in December 2004. This chapter is one of the most valuable in the book because so few magicians talk about this experience, and it will be inspiring for readers considering attempting the ritual because it gives them an idea of what to expect.

Dr. Shoemaker reveals that all the unique life experiences of the magician, both good and bad, are utilized by the HGA to make them a proper vessel for enacting their True Will, and the HGA will unite with the magician at the right kairos (the Greek concept of sacred time).

“Everything you think of as yourself has been there to enable you to be a better talisman of your HGA—an attractor and vessel for the indwelling force of the HGA,”12 Dr. Shoemaker says.

I love that he likens the cleansing and refinement of the initiate’s soul to the consecration of a “talisman,”13 which empowers the initiate to live in accordance with their True Will. It’s such a beautiful analogy that emphasizes the sacredness of all aspects of the soul.

In my personal exploration of the Tree of Life, I’ve been working from the ground up, and after spending a lot of time contemplating the lunar sphere of Yesod, I feel like I’m about ready to enter the solar sphere of Tiphareth. When working with Yesod, I often have visions of a spider, which I think of as my shadow totem, and I recently learned that Crowley considered the spider to be sacred to Tiphareth, which is a startling confirmation of the significance of my spider spirit in relation to the Tree of Life. The sephiroth surrounding Tiphareth do visually resemble a spider’s web, and Yesod and Malkuth could be imagined as a spider descending upon a silk thread. I believe the spider of Tiphareth corresponds to the Native American Grandmother Spider, who carries the sun on her back, and I imagine she could also be a symbol of Nuit, whose starry body is the night sky, bearing infinite suns.

In Dr. Shoemaker’s memoir, he shares an insight regarding Tiphareth that makes me excited to move forward with that sephirah:

“The way I think of it, the HGA ‘lives’ in Kether, but you first encounter it with full conscious awareness in Tiphareth. This is your point of contact—the marriage bed where the balanced and awakened human ruach is joined with the descending power of the path of Gimel from Kether.”14

The Way of the Will offers a holistic approach to spiritual development, which embraces all aspects of the soul, from the lower animal self to the divine star-self. As someone who is not initiated into Thelema and has limited knowledge of Crowley’s teachings, I found this work to be accessible and enlightening, and it’s been a wonderful complement to my own personal exploration of the Qabalistic Tree of Life.

However, this is not an introductory text, as it assumes that the reader has some basic knowledge of Qabalah and other Thelemic concepts. Throughout the book, Dr. Shoemaker recommends that the reader refer back to his previous work, Living Thelema, which I haven’t had the opportunity to read yet, but I managed to follow along without much difficulty. I’m grateful that Dr. Shoemaker is making his insights available to the public, and I’m adding Living Thelema to my reading list so I can reference the two works together in the future.

The Secret Language of Color Cards, by Inna Segal

The Secret Language of Color Cards, by Inna Segal
Blue Angel Publishing, 0980740606, 45 cards, January 2010

Color is all around us, spilling from the overturned bowl of the lazuline sky, bleeding rich green chlorophyll stains from the emerald grass crushed beneath our feet, and rustling in the rust and gold of autumn leaves, but we often take for granted the power of nature’s vibrant palette to affect our moods and energy levels. The Secret Language of Color Cards is a prismatic oracle for helping readers consciously integrate the healing power of color into their daily lives. 

This deck was created by Inna Segal, the author of The Secret Language of Your Body: The Essential Guide to Health and Wellness. She is an intuitive healer with an inspirational story. As a teenager, Segal suffered from chronic back pain that was so intense, she could barely walk by the time she reached her early twenties, despite seeking the medical intervention of doctors and chiropractors. Through meditation, she awakened the ability to miraculously heal herself and release the pain, and she discovered that she could also perceive illnesses and energetic blockages in other people and assist them in the process of self-healing. Using her intuitive gifts, she has infused each card with a healing vibration.

There are only seven colors in the rainbow, but there are 45 cards in The Secret Language of Color oracle, which delves into the nuances of various shades, and the box includes an 84-page guidebook. When I opened the box, I was surprised by how ginormous the cards are. Their dimensions are approximately 3.8 inches wide by 5.5 inches long and they are roughly the size of my hand. Some readers may find them to be cumbersome while shuffling, but I don’t mind because I have another oracle deck with similar dimensions and I think the larger size is excellent for scrying or meditating with the images. 

The cards are glossy, with rainbow splashes of color on the back, and vivid photographs of flowers, fruits, and trees on the front. Some of the images have mouthwatering depictions of food and refreshments, such as a tantalizing stream of liquid Chocolate for a nourishing shade of brown, succulent citrus segments on the spontaneous Tangerine card, and an elegant glass of wine for passionate Burgundy. 

What I love most about these cards is that they speak to me on so many levels. Some of them have the names of fruits, such as Watermelon, Cherry, Peach, Orange, Apricot, Tangerine, and Lemon, so they inspire a gustatory response. Others are named after gemstones, such as Pearl, Emerald, Jade, Turquoise, Ruby, and Sapphire, which broadens the interpretations to include the healing properties of minerals. Gazing at the cards helps me tap into my intuition and creativity by triggering memories associated with each color, fruit, or crystal. 

In the introduction of the guidebook, Segal briefly discusses the power of color to influence our energy levels and moods and gives creative suggestions for how to use the cards to incorporate more color therapy into your life. For example, you can draw a card for guidance and invite the healing power of that color into your energy field by wearing it, drinking out of a colored glass, or consuming a food or beverage with that pigment. She also says that the cards can be placed on the body to ease tension or clear the chakras

I’ve been interested in color therapy since I was a teenager, when I first learned about the power of color while meditating on my chakras. I still put a lot of thought into my color choices when decorating and buying new clothes, and when I wear makeup I like experimenting with vibrant eye shadow palettes and lipstick shades, but I’m still guilty of wearing a lot of black, which Segal says can “create stagnation and drain energy.”1 I realized when I read this passage that I do often feel fatigued, but I blame it on caffeine withdrawals or chronic depression.

Segal suggests asking the cards, “What color do I need now?”2 I drew Apricot, the color of joy. The primary message of this card is to “Rejoice & Laugh.”3 According to the guidebook:

“Apricot lightens any heavy or burdensome energy you may be carrying to bring enormous vitality, joy, and zest into your life. Apricot also releases irrational fears and anxieties; it is a color of creativity, fun, and intuition. Meditate on the color Apricot to bring more joy and lightness into your life.”4

The image featured on the Apricot card is not the fruit, as one might expect, but instead looks like a close-up of a pale orange chrysanthemum. As I gazed at the flower on the card, I realized that my mind was making all sorts of surprising connections to the word apricot. It reminded me that I used that word as a color descriptor in a short story I’m currently revising, and I’m realizing how that particular color is characterizing the person it describes. The character is a grieving person trying to recapture their childlike sense of wonder, which fits well with the healing properties of the color apricot.

This insight is inspiring me to consciously work on incorporating more color therapy into my creative writing. I also remembered that my favorite skin care product when I was younger was St. Ives Apricot Scrub, which I haven’t used in several years, so I’m taking this as a cue to start using it again. Lately I’ve been nostalgic for a lot of things from my youth (must have something to do with turning forty). I’ve been trying to eat more fruit lately, so I’m thinking about incorporating apricots into my diet as well. Finally, connecting to the joy aspect of the card, I have two whimsical orange cats with apricot-colored toe pads, and kitty cat toe beans are one of the cutest things in the world! My pets are powerhouses of joy for me. 

I decided to dig deeper and googled the etymology of the word apricot, and I learned that it shares the same root as the word precocious, which is derived from the Latin praecocia, meaning “early ripening,” because apricots ripen before their peach cousins. Considering the etymological connections, I feel that this color could be stimulating intellectually, giving one the curiosity and wonder of a precocious child, and inspire a joy for learning new things. [https://www.bonappetit.com/test-kitchen/ingredients/article/on-the-etymology-of-the-word-apricot]

In a second reading, I asked what color(s) can help me to achieve my career aspirations. Three cards jumped out of the deck while I was shuffling, and I think this message is good advice for anyone chasing rainbows. The cards I drew were Lilac (Strengthen Your Faith) + Green (Revitalize Your Nervous System) + Cherry (Live an Extraordinary Life). Basically, the overall message is that I need to have faith in myself (Lilac), release the anxiety I feel about achieving my goals (Green), and have the courage and self-confidence to manifest my extraordinary dreams (Cherry).

The Secret Language of Color is such a beautiful and soul-nourishing oracle that I plan on working with it on a regular basis. It has already stimulated my creativity so much and encouraged me to be more conscious of how color can be used for personal empowerment and revitalizing my energy levels. This is a wonderful deck for healers and anyone interested in color therapy.

Seiðr Magic, by Dean Kirkland, Ph.D.

Seiðr Magic: The Norse Tradition of Divination and Trance, by Dean Kirkland, Ph.D.
Destiny Books, 1644119447, 256 pages, April 2024

Seiðr (pronounced “SAY-ther”) is a form of tribal shamanism unique to medieval Norse culture. Since there is very little historical documentation of this ancient practice, it’s not clear exactly what was involved, and in the modern revival of Germanic heathenry, seiðr is often inaccurately glossed over as a type of Norse witchcraft and used as an umbrella term for contemporary witchery, such as spellcasting and reading runes and tarot cards.

In his debut work, Seiðr Magic: The Norse Tradition of Divination and Trance, heathen reconstructionist and woodland conservationist Dean Kirkland, who holds a Ph.D. in ecology, argues that there is indeed enough archeological evidence to revitalize the practice of seiðr, using literature, artifacts, and the unverified personal gnosis of modern practitioners. The primary literary source Kirkland refers to is Eirik the Red’s Saga, which vividly depicts the ritual garb and practice of a völva and prophetess named Thorbjorg (völva means “staff-bearer” and is a female seiðr-worker1). He supplies a pronunciation guide for Old Norse words at the beginning of the book, and a glossary of terms in the back, which makes the foreign terminology easier to comprehend and digest.

By comparing the ancient tools of seiðr-workers to those used by Indigenous shamans, Kirkland believes we can make educated guesses about Norse shamanism based on similarities. He has devoted several years to researching and engaging in shamanic practices, and has studied Andean shamanism with an indigenous paco. He currently resides in Lincolnshire, UK, where he is dedicated to woodland conservation and restoration.

Since seiðr was considered a form of magic, it was not a common practice among Norse heathens. Seiðr-workers were viewed with suspicion by the general populace and lived on the fringes of society. Contrary to modern neo-pagan faiths like Wicca, which integrates witchcraft with religious rites, there was a social stigma surrounding practicing magic among ancient heathens. Perhaps with good reason, because Kirkland warns that seiðr can be perilous for both the practitioner and their community, since it involves contact with mighty and potentially very dangerous wights, or spirits. However, he assures readers that the introductory exercises presented in this book are designed to make the practice as safe as possible for beginners. That being said, seiðr is not for everyone; it is a shamanic path of service to both the spirits and humanity as a whole, destined for a chosen few.

“Seiðr-workers are chosen by Wyrd, which is to say fate or destiny, and made by the gods,”2 Kirkland says.

Seiðr-workers are mediums for wights, the spiritual beings they serve, and the greater community at large. The wights that are friendly towards humans are interested in collective spiritual growth and advancement, not individual progress. According to Kirkland, “the effect of shamanic work must be shared with others—if you focus solely on yourself and your own spiritual development, you are coming at this from an ego-based approach, and ego is the implacable enemy of all shamans.”3

Attempting to practice seiðr for selfish gain and to satisfy an egoic craving for increased personal power is disrespectful to the wights and may incur their wrath. Furthermore, one should not assume the role of seiðr-worker unless they are recognized as such by the community. “Titles should never be taken for oneself, but only bestowed by others,”4 Kirkland says. He sees community validation as a sign of authenticity. I found this to be an interesting perspective, because this line of thinking could be used to insinuate that an accused witch, whether they personally identify as one or not, is serving that role for the community because it has been projected upon them. 

Kirkland dispels the common misconception that only women and homosexual men can practice seiðr, and provides historical context as to why it has been perceived as a feminine art. In the warrior dominated society of the Vikings, covertly practicing magic on the battlefield instead of confronting an opponent directly would have been viewed as cowardly. The shamanic practice of channeling spirits was also seen as an intimate form of receptivity comparable to sexual penetration. Kirkland argues that, despite these stereotypes, straight men are just as capable of practicing seiðr as a woman or a gay man. It is the spiritual calling to do so that matters, not one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Kirkland clarifies the role of fate in relation to seiðr and I was intrigued by his discussion of hamingja in particular. Hamingja is often simplified as the Norse version of luck, and Kirkland explains that everyone has a limited amount of hamingja allotted to them by the Norns at birth. For those who believe in reincarnation, he suggests that this allotment may be higher for new souls who have less experience in the physical realm, so they can have an easier time adjusting to the material plane, whereas old souls are presented with more challenges in life in order to facilitate spiritual growth. Seiðr-workers would therefore have very little hamingja, forcing them to rely on their supernatural relationships with the wights to get them through life instead of materialism. This makes sense to me, because shamans tend to be initiated by traumatic experiences, which detach their spirits from their physical bodies so they can traverse the unseen realms during trance and communicate with the entities that reside there.

Hamingja is closely intertwined with megin, which means “might” or “honor,”5 and is accrued through doing good deeds for living beings and wights and keeping one’s promises to them, which builds trust with the spirit realm. Helping the Norns apply clay to the roots of the World Tree Yggdrasil during shamanic trance is given as an example of a way to build megin.

Kirkland details the ritual clothing (referred to endearingly as “shaman’s armor”) and the shamanic tools unique to seiðr-workers, the most important one being a seiðstafr, or “seiðr-staff,” which, instead of a drum, is rhythmically tapped to induce a trance.6 Archaeologists have found staves of this nature in the graves of seiðr-workers. Most of them were wooden, but iron ones have also been discovered, buried with an elite few. Kirkland provides instructions on how to obtain, craft, and awaken one’s own sacred seiðstafr. He also includes photos of his personal staff for reference. 

The seiðstafr reminds me of the stang, or forked staff, of traditional witchcraft, which serves as an axis mundi, or World Tree, for traversing the shamanic realms. During trance work, Kirkland emphasizes the importance of having some sort of focal point that exists in the physical plane and functions as an axis mundi, to serve as a gateway through which one can enter and leave the spirit realm. He warns that not having this anchor to the physical world can cause parts of the soul to get lost during shamanic journeys.

Understanding the various components of the soul is a crucial part of practicing seiðr, since it includes spiritual healing techniques that involve the extraction of energetic blockages and the retrieval and reintegration of lost soul parts. Kirkland explains that the Germanic soul complex is composed of four major parts: the lík, or lich, which encompasses the physical body, and is animated by the önd, the “sacred breath”7 of life, bestowed by the Allfather Óðinn; the hamr, meaning “shape” or “skin,”8 which is the etheric body that takes flight during shamanic journeys, and has the ability to shift shape; the fylgja, or “follower,”9 which can take the form of an animal and acts as a psychopomp upon death; and the hugr, or “mind,”10 which continues on in the afterlife.

For protection during rituals and shamanic travels, Kirkland considers casting a magic circle to be ineffective, since the circle is physically present in a fixed location while the shaman’s spirit wanders. The primary means of protection is merging with a spirit ally, in a type of “low-level” possession, in which the practitioner remains in complete control. Seiðr-workers use magical chants called varðlokur, meaning “ward songs” or “guardian songs,”11 to summon spirits and raise protective energies. Coupled with the rhythmic beating of the seiðr staff, these cantillations induce shamanic trance. Kirkland does not provide any of these chants because there are no surviving authentic examples. Besides, the most powerful ones are given to the seiðr-worker by the wights themselves, and he offers shamanic techniques for acquiring them, including a ritual invocation using lyrics from a modern song by the Norwegian folk band Wardruna, which is brilliant, since anyone can listen to the song for the correct pronunciation of the words. In addition, he suggests using galdr, or runic chanting, to raise vibrations, and recommends intoning the runes laguz and algiz to spiritually clear the air. He also supports the use of mugwort as a purification incense, as opposed to the more popular white sage, which is not native to Germanic lands.

This book has been so illuminating for me because it explains the reasoning behind some shamanic practices that I have intuitively discovered through trial and error on my own. I abandoned circle casting several years ago, and I appreciated Kirkland’s explanation of why circles are ineffective for self-protection, because I couldn’t articulate why I stopped; I just felt that I didn’t need to cast them anymore. Now I purify my sacred space with incense and use deity epithets like ward songs. 

I once had a dream in which a hag spirit merged with me. She told me telepathically that she enters my body and sees through my eyes to help me. It wasn’t creepy, or anything at all like a horror movie possession. It felt more like being in the driver’s seat of a car and having a guardian spirit riding shotgun. She was observing through the windshield of my eyes and whispering in my mind, but not interfering or controlling my actions. I’m not sure who she is, but I know she is some sort of guardian spirit and she has appeared to me in multiple dreams as a witchy old woman with long silver hair. She felt so familiar she could be an ancestor or an elderly version of myself, and I’ve felt blessed by every interaction with her.

I’ve always sensed that I have mediumship abilities, but fear of possession has been a barrier to developing them further, and that dream made me realize that merging isn’t invasive and makes spirit communication easier. Learning from Seiðr Magic that wights merge with seiðr-workers really clarified the significance of this dream for me. I identify as a witch, and I don’t feel a calling to be a seiðr-worker, but traditional witchcraft is heavily influenced by Norse practices, and shamanism is universal, so I’m seeing a lot of overlap between both traditions.  

An important class of wights Kirkland writes about is the dísir, or lesser Norns. The dísir are female ancestral spirits that watch over and guide their descendants. According to Kirkland, it’s possible to have a nonhuman dís/lesser Norn. He claims to have met people who have lesser Norns that are elves, dwarves, and even giants! I now suspect that my hag spirit might be my lesser Norn.

Kirkland also discusses the often overlooked wights of place, such as landvættir, or land spirits, and the cofgodas (pronounced “COAF-goadas”), or “household gods,”12 which are the spirits of hearth and home. Although working with these entities falls under the domain of “folk conjuring”13 or trolldómr (“witchcraft”), he believes land spirits and house wights should be part of general heathen practice. He gives instructions on how to communicate with local wights, as well as how to detect whether or not you have cofgodas living in your home, and if not, how to attract them and create a hearth altar and a spirit house for them. 

The multiverse has always been my favorite feature of Norse cosmology, and I was captivated by Kirkland’s detailed exploration of the nine realms on the cosmic World Tree of Yggdrasil. For shamanic journeying, the fiery hellscape of Muspelheim and the icy wastelands of Niflheim are no doubt the least hospitable, but I was surprised to learn that one of the most dangerous realms to traverse in spirit is Midgard, our physical realm. Kirkland claims that this is because Midgard is the crossroads of the nine realms, and entities that do not belong here in Middle Earth sometimes get trapped and lash out at humans. The World Serpent Jörmungandr is the guardian of Midgard, and keeps many entities out, but earthbound spirits may stay trapped within. Kirkland therefore recommends that beginners avoid traversing the middle realms in spirit, which also include Ljósálfheim, the domain of the light elves, and Svartálfheim, the realm of dwarves and dark elves, until they have gained more shamanic experience. 

While it may be dangerous for beginners, guiding earthbound spirits out of Midgard is part of the job description of a seiðr-worker, and Kirkland gives detailed guidance on how to handle the dead. “Unfinished business” is the stereotypical reason why ghosts are believed to linger, and I was surprised that Kirkland says this is “relatively rare,” since it requires a lot of willpower on the part of the deceased.14 More common reasons for a spirit remaining in Midgard are confusion about being dead or addiction to substances only found here in Middle Earth, requiring the hungry ghost to attempt temporary possession of the living in order to get their fix. In haunted pubs, for example, restless spirits may lurk in bathrooms, waiting to hitch rides with drunks relieving themselves in the stalls, which is a creepy thought, especially if one is prone to blackouts. It definitely makes one think twice about engaging in mind-altering substance abuse, for the sake of spiritual hygiene. While entheogens have their place in shamanism, Kirkland does not suggest using them to achieve shamanic states. 

Western society’s denial of death and Christianity’s suppression of spirit workers has exacerbated the problem of earthbound spirits. Since there are few spirit workers, Kirkland warns readers that Midgard is overpopulated with wandering ghosts, and practitioners will be in high demand for the role of psychopomp, guiding trapped spirits to their proper afterlife destination. He gives instructions on how to do so with the assistance of a valkyrie, a female psychopomp who works for Óðinn. In the rare case that a seiðr-worker comes across a draugr (a restless spirit attached to a corpse, which is the Nordic equivalent of a zombie), there are instructions for dealing with that problem as well. 

Seiðr Magic is a wonderful blend of rigorous scholarship and creative heathen reconstruction. Kirkland’s lucid, honest prose always clarifies which practices are based on historical evidence and which insights have come from the unverified personal gnosis of modern practitioners. This book is a boon for those looking to recreate a traditional Norse magical practice that is as authentic as possible given the archaeological evidence currently available to us. Whether one feels a calling to practice seiðr or not, this is a fascinating read for anyone interested in Norse shamanism, spirit work, and heathen spirituality.

Runes for the Green Witch, by Nicolette Miele

Runes for the Green Witch: An Herbal Grimoire, by Nicolette Miele
Destiny Books, 1644118661, 288 pages, January 2024

Runes embody the cosmic forces that created the universe and their mystical vibrations permeate all of nature. The word rune, derived from the Gothic runa, means “mystery,”1 and in Nicolette Miele’s debut book Runes for the Green Witch: An Herbal Grimoire, the twenty-four Elder Futhark runes become energetic keys that unlock the secrets of herbal medicine and magic.

Miele is a rune worker and herbalist based in Pennsylvania, and she is also the proprietor of Handfuls of Dust Apothecary. In her online shop, she offers rune readings and handmade products, such as rune sets and ritual oils. Her line of Rune Wisdom ritual fragrance oils supplements this book well, as each blend is infused with runic energy and corresponding crystals and herbs.

“Through runes and plants, which complement each other beautifully, we will honor the wild spirit that resides in each and every one of us,” Miele writes.2

Just as the title suggests, Runes for the Green Witch combines runic mysticism with herbal witchcraft. Like most runic reference books, this work is separated into three parts, dedicated to each Aett, or group of eight runes. There are twenty-four chapters, one for each Elder Futhark rune.

Each chapter begins with an introduction to the individual rune, giving its historical and divinatory context, as well as some of the author’s personal insights into its magical uses, followed by a list of herbal correspondences for the rune, along with their magical and medicinal applications. Miele also provides lists of additional correspondences, including tarot cards, zodiac signs, planets, moon phases, crystals, chakras, and cross-cultural deities that she associates with the runes on an archetypal level. 

While I like the idea of having a long list of magical correspondences for each rune, many of the author’s miscellaneous associations did not resonate with me. For example, Miele identifies the zodiac sign of Aries with Uruz, the mighty aurochs, and I feel that Taurus the Bull would be a better fit. I also found the Queen of Swords, traditionally the widow or divorcée in tarot, to be a strange association for Berkana, the mother rune, while the Empress made perfect sense.

The deity associations felt tenuous to me as well. I see gods from different pantheons that share similar characteristics as being part of the same archetypal current, but being unique personalities in their own right, so I am hesitant to conflate them unless there is historical precedence for doing so. In my personal practice, I prefer to just let the runes be runes, whose verdant powers are nourished by the rich soil of their native Norse mythology, without imposing foreign spiritual systems on them or conflating them with tarot, astrology, or chakras. However, I think these correspondences might be useful to someone new to rune work who finds cross-cultural comparisons helpful.

In keeping with the title of this book, the plant correspondences are where Miele’s runic wisdom and wise woman herbalism truly shines. “The subtle communication between humans and plants relies on primal intuition—something many humans today have to work harder to access,” 3 Miele says. She recommends building intimate relationships with individual plant spirits by consuming their essences in teas, soaking in bath water infusions, or burning them as incense, and keeping a journal of the emotional and psychic impressions received. Ansuz, the rune of communication, can help us learn to listen with our hearts to the subtle voices of plants. 

Reading this book encouraged me to incorporate runes into my tea-drinking rituals. Miele associates raspberry leaf with Perthro, the rune of the womb, which reminded me of when I found out I was pregnant with my first child. I drank raspberry leaf tea sweetened with honey to strengthen my womb. Perthro is a rune of mystery and initiation, and giving birth for the first time was an intense rite of passage and an initiation into the mysteries of the mother goddess.

Miele praises raspberry leaf as a nurturing and protective plant ally for women and children. “This lunar herb exudes compassion and seeks to comfort those who are working through traumas, especially traumas from childhood,”4 Miele says.

Inspired by Miele’s insights, I decided to include both raspberry leaf and the rune Perthro in the ritual honoring my most sacred time of the month. I drank raspberry leaf tea as a tonic to relieve menstrual cramps and infused the brew with the spirit of Perthro. With my index finger, I traced the Perthro rune in the air over my steaming cup of raspberry leaf tea and intoned the name of the rune, then imbibed the gentle, soothing potion. 

Rewilding is a common thread that runs throughout Runes for the Green Witch, which Miele defines as “the restoration of land to its natural state.”5] The rune Uruz embodies this concept the most, as it is a rune of instinctual urges and primal energy. Uruz represents the aurochs, a species of wild cattle that was hunted into extinction, and the last aurochs bull died in 1621.

So how can rune workers rewild themselves with the atavistic energy of Uruz? On a psychological level, human rewilding involves unraveling our societal conditioning and reconnecting with the nakedness of our authentic selves. As Miele says, Uruz “takes us back to factory settings.”6 By meditating on Uruz, taking breaks from technology, and spending more time in nature, we can foster a deeper connection with the green realm and reconnect with our primal instincts. Uruz is also a rune of physical strength and healing, and Miele associates it with medicinal herbs like eucalyptus and echinacea, which support the immune system. 

After reading Miele’s chapter on Uruz, I felt guided by this runic spirit to do more research online, and I was astounded to come across an article stating that scientists are working to resurrect the extinct aurochs through rewilding! Since some European cattle breeds are descended from aurochs that were domesticated in ancient times, their genetic coding has survived, and can theoretically be reactivated through back-breeding. By resurrecting the aurochs and other extinct species through rewilding, scientists might be able to restore some of the biodiversity lost through the irresponsible hunting practices that have compromised earth’s precious ecosystems. Rewilding is also less risky than attempting to clone extinct animals, since it involves selective breeding of living populations. 

My practice is very animistic, and I love that Miele treats the runes as living spirits to whom offerings should be made. “Offerings are immensely important within magickal practice as it shows we’re not just in it for the taking,”7 Miele writes. I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, and I noticed that my connection to the spirit world was enhanced when I committed to a consistent practice of providing offerings on a regular basis. In a shadow work ritual involving the torch rune Kenaz, Miele advises the reader to light a candle as an offering, then “call out to the spirit of Kenaz and request its guidance and protection while you journey to the abandoned depths of your soul.”8

Prompted by Miele’s advice regarding offerings, I decided to make offerings to runic spirits when I drew daily runes. The second day of reading this book, I drew Othala reversed, or murkstave, as my daily rune. Reversed, Othala represents “displacement, lack of security, loss of possessions, enduring family trauma, family conflict, or homelessness.”9 Estrangement, poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence have been manifestations of a generational curse that I have experienced, and I asked the spirit of Othala to help me heal my ancestral trauma.

As I lit a candle and made an offering of milk and incense, I felt compelled to sing the rune’s name, which reminded me of the magical Norse practice of galdr, a shamanic form of cantillation. While I meditated on the rune, I felt that the spirit of Othala was telling me not to dwell too much on what has been lost. Instead of concentrating my energy on a legacy of generational trauma, she told me to shift my attention to focusing on breaking ties with that cursed inheritance and creating my own legacy. She asked me, What do you want your legacy to be?

During this meditative conversation, I realized that the spirit of Othala felt distinctly feminine to me. Then I remembered that I was working with an Anglo-Saxon rune set and Othala’s Old English name is Ethel. It dawned on me that Othala is a female spirit named Ethel, which means “ancestral land” and “noble” in Old English. I imagined her to be a noble ancestral spirit, or a faery queen. This may have been a flight of fancy, but I like envisioning Othala as a faery queen named Ethel, and I think I’m going to work with her under that name from now on.

Today, Ethel is a feminine name, but in Old English, it was used as a prefix for both male and female names to indicate noble birth.10] As a spirit of noble ancestry, I felt that she was communicating to me that ancestry transcends bloodline. The earth is our mother, and we are all related. The seemingly isolated family problems we experience are actually human problems that concern a lot of people in the collective. I feel this rune can help you get in touch with your innate nobility, and your divine birthright. We all have a divine spark within, and Othala/Ethel can help you to recognize your nobility and more authentically embody your Divine Self. 

What does it mean to be noble? The Latin word nobilis means “well-known,” so to be noble means you are worthy of being known, recognized and acknowledged for your deeds, and remembered.11 This all ties in with legacy, and being worthy of remembrance is a form of immortality. Reversed, Othala reminds me of a burial mound. It looks like a buried diamond, marked by an X. Othala asks, What do you want to be known for in this life? How do you want to be remembered when you die? 

After meditating on Othala/Ethel and channeling these messages, I finished reading the chapter on Othala in Runes for the Green Witch. Miele associates the following plant allies with Othala: “Avens, Babyberry, Blackberry, Coriander, Vervain, Vetiver, Witch Hazel.”12

“The plants of Othala represent ancestral connection and the energies that we wish to invite into our homes and families,” Miele says. “These plants aid in magickal workings regarding our heritage, protection of home and family, tradition, and the breaking of generational traumas.”13

I planted some berry bushes last year, so I already have blackberries growing in my garden that I can use to work with the spirit of Othala this summer. Witch hazel is an ingredient in one of my face washes, so I’m thinking about possibly incorporating Othala into my skin care routine. 

Runes for the Green Witch: An Herbal Grimoire has enlivened the runes for me in ways I never before imagined, and it will help you deepen your connection with the twenty-four runic spirits and their herbal allies too, if you’re willing to get your hands dirty. With spring just around the corner, this book will be a great inspiration for a runic garden theme! I will definitely be referring back to this herbal grimoire while I’m buying seeds and planting intentions.

Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey, by Kenneth Johnson

Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey, by Kenneth Johnson
Crossed Crow Books, 979-8985628173, 212 pages, January 2023

From accusations of shapeshifting and spirit flight to keeping the company of bestial familiar spirits, the testimonies recorded during the European witch trials bear an uncanny resemblance to ancient and universal shamanistic practices. In his classic work Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey, author Kenneth Johnson posits that European witches were indeed practicing a form of shamanism, “the world’s oldest spiritual path.”1 This view has already been well articulated in Eliade Mircea’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951), and the scholarly works of Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, such as Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1966) and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (1989), but Johnson builds upon historical evidence for the purpose of reconstructing ancient shamanic practices for modern witches.

Johnson is a professional astrologer and the author of several books, including Mythic Astrology (1993), which he co-authored with Arielle Guttman, and Jaguar Wisdom: An Introduction to the Mayan Calendar (1997). Johnson is originally from California, but currently resides in Mexico. He also spent a decade in Guatemala, where “he was initiated into the indigenous Mayan priesthood as an aj q’ij (keeper of days) in November of 2017.”2 Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey is his personal favorite among his published works.

I read a previous edition of this book, published by Llewellyn under the title of North Star Road (1996), and I didn’t realize this was the same book until I started reading it. It was nonetheless a pleasure to revisit this superb work, as it contains a wealth of information and was one of the most influential texts in my transition from mainstream Wicca to the more shamanic practices of Traditional Witchcraft. This new edition, published by Crossed Crow Books, includes spiritual exercises inspired by Johnson’s tutelage under Russian shamans. It also has a foreword written by Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold, author of Craft of the Untamed (2014) and Seven Crossroads at Night (2023), and a preface by Robin Artisson, the author of An Carow Gwyn: Sorcery and the Ancient Fayerie Faith (2018) and several other works on Traditional Witchcraft.

Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey is interspersed with beautifully written fictional vignettes that capture glimpses of shamanic witchcraft practices throughout Europe, such as “Greenland, AD 1000,”3 which features a priestess of the Norse goddess Freya practicing seidr; “Northern Italy, 1600,”4 which dramatizes the spirit flight of an Italian benandante, or “good walker,”5 who protects the harvest by fending off evil spirits with a fennel stalk; and “Scotland, 1662,”6 which glimpses the trial of Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie.

In the introduction, Johnson provides a brief historical survey of the environmental and cultural factors that led to the witchcraft trials, “a holocaust that, we should remember, took place not during the so-called Dark Ages, but during the more ‘enlightened’ age of the Italian Renaissance and the early years of the scientific revolution.”7 In the tumultuous 1300s, the Black Death, crop failures, peasant revolts, and the uprising of radical religious movements, such as the Cathars and Waldensians, contributed to a widespread fear of “an epidemic of witchcraft.”8 Inquisitors believed heretics were members of a diabolical cult, “formed about 1375, which called upon demons who often bore the names and attributes of old pagan divinities, and which met by night in ceremonies called Sabbats.”9

These so-called witches anointed themselves with flying ointments made of hallucinogenic herbs and took flight in spirit, either astride animals or riding broomsticks, riding the night winds to the Sabbat where they danced in orgiastic rites with a horned devil. Johnson suspects that there could have indeed been a witchcraft crisis cult, which arose in response to the drastic decline of medieval society. By returning to traditional shamanic beliefs and blending them with folk Christianity, members of this hypothetical cult may have been attempting to end “aristocratic dominance through magical social revolution.”10 One of the most fascinating theories Johnson presents is that the medieval dancing plague was the shamanic dance of a crisis cult.11

The ancient spiritual practice of shamanism involves the practitioner entering trance states and traversing the spirit realm, from the heavenly heights of the gods to the Underworld of the dead, in order to bring back knowledge and healing wisdom to the benefit of their community. Although the word “shaman” originated in Siberia, Johnson claims that shamanic practices are the spiritual foundation upon which many world religions were built.

In “Part 1: Otherworlds,” Johnson explores the shamanic view of the cosmos.

“According to the cosmovision of the shaman, the North Star is the axis around which all things revolve,” Johnson says.12 “When shamans depart upon their spirit journeys, they often take the road to the North Star.”13

According to the Buryat people of Siberia, the sky is a great tent punctured with stars, and the North Star is the central pole which holds up the heavens. The stars themselves are a herd of galloping horses tethered to the polestar. In various cultures, the axis mundi, or world axis, is envisioned as the central pillar of the cosmos, embodied in the World Mountain, the World Tree, or even the Maypole. Using this axis, the shaman can navigate the three realms of Heaven, Earth, and Underworld. When depicted as a tree, the branches are imagined to reach up to the abode of the Sky Father, and the souls of unborn children roost in the boughs, as well as an eagle, the primary totem of shamans, and the “Bird of Prey Mother,” who lays the eggs from which shamans are born. The roots of the tree burrow deep into the Underworld, where a great serpent dwells.

Through comparative mythology, Johnson provides compelling evidence of similar shamanic beliefs throughout the world, citing examples of several World Trees, such as Yggdrasil, the World Tree of the Vikings; the great ceiba tree of the Mayans, which grew from the back of a crocodile; the Kabbalistic Tree of Life; and the Underworld cypress tree of the Orphic mysteries. The World Tree even appears in the witch trial of Joan of Arc (1412-1431), as she was accused of dancing around a “fairy tree”14 when she was a child, suggesting the survival of ancient shamanic practices in early fifteenth century Europe.

Variations of the World Mountain also appear in many cultures, from megalithic monuments, volcanoes, and Mayan pyramids to the abode of the Greek gods on Mt. Olympus. In the witch trials, the World Mountain appears as the home of the witch goddess. In the early 1500s, an Italian peasant accused of witchcraft named Zuan delle Piatte confessed that Venus had whisked him away to the Sabbath upon black horses, and he had visited Herodias in the mount of Venus. In 1630, a German witch confessed to traveling in spirit to visit the goddess Holda in a mountain called the Venusberg.

“All our images of the Goddess in the Mountain or Tree are ultimately metaphors for the kundalini or ‘serpent power,’ a feminine energy both sexual and spiritual that has its origins at the base of the spine and, during spiritual practice, travels up our own internal World Tree or Mountain to the crown of the head—at which point we experience enlightenment,” Johnson says.15

Just as the shaman’s tent is mobile, so is the center of the universe. The moveable axis mundi, or World Tree, corresponds to the upright spinal column unique to human bipedalism. The skull, which is the spirit house of human consciousness, is elevated to the heavens, and the earth goddess or Fairy Queen slumbering at the base of the spine is the kundalini serpent.16

According to Buryat mythology, the first shaman was born from the union of an eagle and a human woman, “which, symbolically, tells us that shamanism is ‘born’ from the union of the enlightened consciousness which dwells at the top of our own internal World Tree with the feminine potency that sleeps at its base.” 17

“Though one may be born to a shamanic vocation, one attains power and mastery only through initiation,”18 Johnson says. Shamanic initiation may manifest as being called by spirit voices and having a vision of death and dismemberment, followed by a rebirth experienced during a physical illness or a bout of madness, which we would perceive in modern times as a psychotic break. In European mythology, the Norse god Odin is the most obvious shamanic figure, as he was wounded by a spear and sacrificed himself to himself on the World Tree. There are also Welsh legends of Merlin in which he was once a warrior who went mad and lived in the woods like a wild animal after a traumatic experience on the battlefield. The Orphic myth of the death and dismemberment of the Greek god Dionysus is another striking example of shamanic initiation. As a child, the Titans murdered him and cooked him in a cauldron, which echoes the inquisitors’ grotesque fantasies of witches have cannibalistic feasts, involving the boiling of unbaptized babies in cauldrons and the use of their fat in flying ointments. 

“The Old Bone Goddess,”19 with her cauldron of death and rebirth, is the one who resurrects the shaman. She is the “Bird of Prey Mother”20 of the Siberian Yakut shamans. When the shaman’s magical powers have ripened and are ready to be activated through initiation, she dismembers him and feeds his body parts to demons. Then she reassembles his bones and resuscitates him.

I wonder if modern society’s disassociation from traditional shamanic practices can cause such initiations to manifest through traumatic life experiences, rather than just dream visions. After I performed a formal self-initiation ritual, I had initiatory dreams and visions, but my waking life also catastrophically fell apart, and it coincided with my Saturn Return. I lost everything, from material possessions to family members, and experienced frequent psychic attacks by a shadowy demonic entity that appeared to be attached to an abusive boyfriend. When it finally withdrew, several months after I escaped that toxic relationship, I heard it tell me that it was sorry for what it had put me through, and I never felt its presence again. It wasn’t until I read this book that I realized that the ordeals I experienced were part of an initiatory dismemberment and I came to terms with the fact that the Dark Mother to whom I was devoted had allowed those horrors to happen to me as part of the process.

Wicca, with its sugar-coated love and light Mother Goddess, did not adequately prepare me for the brutality of my shamanic witchcraft initiation, and reading the previous edition of this book, North Star Road, revealed the harsh truths of my spiritual path. I share what happened to me as a cautionary tale, because I initiated myself not fully understanding what I was getting myself into. I thought I was adequately prepared after studying Wicca for over a decade, rather than the customary year and a day, but the witch’s path is riddled with rose thorns, and true wisdom comes through suffering.

Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey fills in the gaps of knowledge that are missing in mainstream pop culture witchcraft. Johnson elucidates how ancient shamanic practices infuse the folkloric witchcraft of medieval and Renaissance Europe, and are the backbone of witchcraft today. This is an essential text for any serious practitioner who has been called by the spirits and seeks to reclaim their shamanic roots.

Secrets of Santa Muerte, by Cressida Stone

Secrets of Santa Muerte: A Guide to the Prayers, Spells, Rituals, and Hexes, by Cressida Stone
Weiser Books, 1578637724, 256 pages, August 2022

The inevitability of death haunts the living. Ancient Roman philosophers valued daily contemplation of their mortality as a source of inspiration, a motivation to live with integrity, and an incentive to prioritize what truly matters with the Latin motto memento mori: remember that you must die. Motivational speakers today still use this phrase to inspire their audiences to follow their dreams and lead authentic lives.

While mortality motivation honors death in a philosophical and abstract sense, there are those in the contemporary occult community who personify and worship death as a powerful spiritual ally who blesses them with love, prosperity, and good health. This vibrant and alluring modern day personification of death is Santa Muerte, the Mexican folk saint who takes the form of a female Grim Reaper. Her name means “Holy Death”1 in Spanish, and a vast underground cult is dedicated to her honor. She holds a scythe in her right hand and a globe or the scales of justice in her left, and an owl sits at her feet. Her iconography was no doubt derived from the saturnine skeletal figure of the more popular Grim Reaper, who emerged in fourteenth century Europe during the Black Death, and blended with the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld.

Secrets of Santa Muerte: A Guide to the Prayers, Spells, Rituals, and Hexes by Cressida Stone is a comprehensive guide to working with the skeleton saint. In lucid prose, with simple yet potent rituals and prayers, this work focuses on authentic Mexican praxis, and includes several orisons Stone collected from native practitioners while conducting research in Mexico. A doctor of religious studies and a devotee of Holy Death herself, Stone spent six years in Mexico studying with Santa Muerte curanderos and compiling this work.

Stone had a close encounter with death that initiated her into the mysteries of Santa Muerte:

“I was living in Mexico when one night, on a full moon, I had a near-death experience,” she writes in the preface. “I literally stared death in the face when my car crashed off a ridge. I survived miraculously with zero injuries. As I walked away from the wreck, I realized that my accident had taken place right by a shrine to Santa Muerte.”2 

When Stone entered the chapel, a bruja (witch) approached her, saying that she had been expecting her, as Santa Muerte had foretold her arrival in a dream. The bruja introduced Stone to an underground community of Holy Death devotees across the country. Stone’s informants wanted her to record and share their tradition for posterity and to spread true knowledge of the cult of Death beyond Mexico. Nine months later, on the night of a full moon, Santa Muerte herself visited Stone in a dream and gave her the task of writing a book devoted to her mysteries. Secrets of Santa Muerte is the fruition of Stone’s dedicated research and spiritual devotion.

I have felt drawn to Santa Muerte for years but resisted the call because I am not of Mexican descent, and I was also wary of her due to her reputation for being venerated by drug lords. However, Stone reveals that the cult of Santa Muerte is not a closed tradition, and people from all walks of life honor her.

“Death does not judge, as she comes to us all,”3 Stone writes. “It does not matter your color, your age, your origins, your class status, your sexuality, your lifestyle choices, or your nationality.”4

A few months ago, as I reflected upon my hesitation to work with her, Santa Muerte communicated a similar message to me in spirit, which inspired me to learn more about her by reading this book. I realized that my primary concern was that people might shame me for cultural appropriation if I followed my calling to work with her, and she made it clear to me that race and ethnicity do not matter to her. When her scythe rends our garments of flesh, we are all bare bones underneath. She will strip us clean of our illusions, and reveal the truth of who we really are. Since she was reaching out to me and communicating with me telepathically, I felt I was being given a direct invitation to begin building a relationship with her.

When this book came into my possession, I had a vision of a ghostly female figure floating in the air, dressed in white, and when I asked her who she was, she turned to face me and revealed she had a skull for a face beneath her long white veil. That’s when I realized that the white aspect of Santa Muerte was communicating with me. I picked up the book and flipped through the pages to the following passage: “In her white gown, Santa Muerte is caring and maternal, and she gifts great blessings of health, cleansing, and well-being.”5 In this guise, she “is known as la Niña Blanca (the White Girl).”6

Santa Muerte has three primary manifestations: white, black, and red. “This book instructs you on how to work with all three of these key attributes of Santa Muerte,” Stone says. “It also teaches you how to use other colors, such as amber, yellow, green, silver, gold, bone, brown, pink, and purple; to combine colors; and to use specific Mexican candles to reap financial, spiritual, and intellectual success.”7

Setting up a sacred devotional space dedicated to Santa Muerte is a crucial first step in working with her, and Stone offers detailed guidance on how to create an altar. She tells readers everything they need to know about selecting a statue, and details what all the different colors mean, as well as the symbolism and various postures of the statues. Ideally, the devotee will invest in a statue for Holy Death to embody, but a picture will suffice. For those who can’t afford anything more than a simple candle and a heartfelt prayer, Santa Muerte will understand and one can begin working with her anyway. 

“The folk saint needs to have items representing the four elements on her altar,”8 Stone says. One of the simplest and most important offerings is water, and “daily refreshment allows energies to flow through your shrine.”9 Fire will enliven the altar in the form of candle flames, air is represented by tobacco smoke or incense, and earth is symbolized by flowers, stones, and items made from wood or clay. “She advised me that wooden statues and those made of stone, such as obsidian, are among the most powerful, because although Saint Death is celestial, she also is deeply chthonic,”10 Stone writes.

Another reason I hesitated to work with Santa Muerte is because she enjoys offerings of tobacco, marijuana, and alcohol. I quit drinking and smoking a few years ago, and avoid being around it because of my addictive personality. However, Stone points out that, while Santa Muerte does not judge those who engage in these practices and will party right along with them, she also helps people overcome their bad habits if they so desire. For those who wish to break addictions to tobacco or alcohol, these may be offered up to her as something belonging only to her, and thus off limits to the devotee. By sacrificing your vices to her, she can alchemize them into positive energy.

I love this advice, as I was intuitively guided to do this in my own practice after I quit drinking. Once a few months had passed and my cravings had subsided, I made offerings of my favorite whiskey to the Devil for this very reason. I think this approach is effective because instead of repressing and denying the addiction, which was once used to escape life and avoid dealing with painful emotions, it is made sacred and set apart for Spirit. Substance abuse profanes entheogens that should be held sacred, and victims of soul loss are most likely to abuse them to escape their pain. I know in my case this was certainly the reason, and once I engaged in deep shadow work and addressed the underlying reasons for my substance abuse, I was able to release it. 

Daily devotion is essential when working with the skeleton saint. “Holy Death does not like to be ignored,” Stone says. “You must be willing to stop by and speak to her daily, as well as pray to her frequently, for her to take care of your petitions and miracles.”11 Stone also shares a few cautionary tales, in which devotees are punished for offending the Grim Reaperess. The moral of these tales is quite simple: don’t make a promise to Santa Muerte that you can’t keep. Finally, Stone shares an unbonding ritual to “break up with Death,”12 in the event that one decides this spiritual path is not right for them.

I believe that when we start thinking about a spirit and imagining what it will be like to work with them, we are already bonding with them by sending them that psychic energy. I realized that in my fear of initiating a working relationship with her, I was ignoring the fact that she was already reaching out to me and communicating with me in spirit, so I decided it was time to plunge right in and officially begin my Santa Muerte practice. While I had already acquired a framed picture of Holy Death a few months ago, I had decided to read this book first, and I was reluctant to begin working with her because I didn’t have any free space to devote an altar solely to her (the top of my chest of drawers is cluttered with statuary devoted to several other spirits already).

However, while I was reading, I felt guided to make space for her. My current altar is on a small night stand beside my bed that I cleared for her and it’s very simple, with a framed picture of the skeleton saint and four elemental representations, including a glass for water (and an occasional shot glass of tequila), a candle for fire, a tumbled piece of Mexican crazy lace agate for earth, and a stick of palo santo and copal resin incense for air. 

In the “Ritual to Awaken Your Statues and Cleansing Ritual,” Stone recommends using the “three sisters of cleansing: rosemary, rue, and basil,” which “can be boiled together for cleansing and awakening any statue and for cleansing yourself.”13 Garlic boiled in water is another potent cleanser. While Stone believes homemade herbal waters are the most powerful, devotees may also use store bought flower waters and colognes, such as rose water, orange blossom water, and Florida water. She also recommends bathing statues in moonlight because “Santa Muerte is deeply connected to the moon, which is her planet.”14

I always have fresh garlic cloves on hand, so to consecrate her image, I made a garlic wash and cleansed the black and white framed picture I have, which depicts Santa Muerte as a bride. Then I fumigated the image with white copal incense while reciting one of the prayers given in the book. As the silky veil of smoke wrapped around the frame, her skeletal face appeared to glow with an inner light. I visualized her inhaling the smoke through her nose cavity and being enlivened by it.

I appreciated the sections Stone wrote on divinatory practices with Santa Muerte, which include “Insect and Animal Omens,”15 the meaning of various candle flame movements during spell work, and ceromancy, which is the art of interpreting symbols formed by drippings of candle wax. This inspired me to incorporate Santa Muerte into my tarot practice, and I put a tarot deck called The Bones Arcana on her altar so I can channel messages from her using it. This particular deck has skeletal figures on each card and the color scheme is monochromatic with splashes of red, so it’s perfect because it honors her primary colors of black, white, and red.

The first message I received from her was the King of Wands. She was telling me to take the lead, be confident, have faith in my abilities, and trust my intuition. This message was quite fitting because I delayed beginning a relationship with her due to self-doubt and questioning my worthiness to approach her.

Before beginning spell work with Santa Muerte, Stone advises readers to light a candle and pray to the skeleton saint for nine consecutive days, which is a devotional practice called a novena. Over the course of my novena, I experienced moments of severe depression, and I realized that by asking her to “rid me of my sorrows,”16 as the daily prayer beseeches, she was bringing deep pain to the surface for me to release. One night, about midway through the novena, I couldn’t sleep and sat up in bed crying. I felt her holding me in her bony embrace as tears streamed down my face, as if she was urging me to let it all out. 

The nine days of devotion got me into the habit of reciting a prayer to her each day, and I think of my daily devotion to Holy Death as a form of memento mori: remember that you must die. Facing the inevitability of my death each time I look at her skeletal visage reminds me that I fear mediocrity. I want my life to be sacred and meaningful, and Holy Death’s ethereal presence is a daily reminder to stay aligned with my soul’s true purpose.

Secrets of Santa Muerte is an excellent guide for those who want to work with the skeleton saint, but don’t know where to start, and experienced devotees may learn something new as well. This book is filled with practical information that can be applied to spirit work in general. Even if the reader doesn’t feel called to devote themselves to the folk saint, all the advice Stone gives on providing regular offerings and keeping the altar clean are good practices to follow when working with any spirit. There are also spells and prayers for pretty much any need or desire you can imagine.

This book is so detailed that one could probably build their whole Santa Muerte practice around it without needing to read any other book. Stone has done a great service to Santa Muerte and her followers, and as a neophyte of Holy Death, I am grateful for all the hard work and dedication she invested in this guide. This is one book I will be keeping on Santa Muerte’s altar for daily reference.

Fortuna, by Nigel Pennick

Fortuna: The Sacred & Profane Faces of Luck, by Nigel Pennick
Destiny Books, 1644116472, 144 pages, January 2024

Luck is a mysterious and capricious supernatural force thought to bring about success or failure by apparently random chance. While belief in luck may be relegated to gamblers and the superstitious, the concept is deeply embedded in Western culture. Luck was personified by the ancient Greeks as Tyche, and the ancient Romans knew her as Fortuna, the fickle and fearsome goddess of fortune and fate. “O Fortuna,” a Latin poem derived from the medieval manuscript Carmina Burana, which laments the vicissitudes of fate, was set to music by German composer Carl Orff in 1936, and the epic cantata has since appeared in several films, television shows, and commercials. Fortuna’s Wheel of Fortune appears in both the tarot and the syndicated game show of the same name, which holds the record as the longest-running game show in the United States.1

While Fortuna’s indiscriminate giving and taking is often perceived as mercurial and even cruel, her lighter and brighter side is known today as Lady Luck, and she is still alive and well in contemporary culture, from the four leaf clover marshmallows in Lucky Charms cereal to Felix Felicis, the alchemical Liquid Luck elixir Harry Potter downed in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Luck can simply mean being in the right place at the right time. But beyond the superficial veneer of pop culture, who is she, really?

In Fortuna: The Sacred & Profane Faces of Luck, Nigel Pennick, the prolific author of over sixty books, including Elemental Magic (2020), Magic in the Landscape (2020), The Ancestral Power of Amulets, Talismans, and Mascots (2021), and Runes and Astrology (2023), explores the origins and evolution of the concept of luck, from divination to gambling. This slim volume is a quick read, with just a little over a hundred pages, but it is packed with fascinating insights.

Contemporary consciousness tends to rationalize changes in fortune as nothing more than random occurrences, but, as Pennick says in the Introduction, “in the ancient worldview nothing happens by chance but is the manifestation of an act of divine will.”2 Feeling subject to the whims of the gods, ancient people sought to discern the divine will by interpreting signs and omens, which led to the rise of divination with various systems, involving objects with numeric values, such as dice and cowrie shells.

In the absence of the concept of mathematical probability, everything was believed to have been preordained by the divine. The belief in predestination was ripe for abuse, as it could be used to validate the unjust actions of people in positions of authority. “Many religions view the Creator in the form of an angry Bronze Age law-making warlord who decides how the natural world must behave and who issues the laws that define those behaviors,”3 Pennick says. The real power behind the scenes, however, was the goddess of fortune and fate.

In Chapter 2, titled “Lady Luck and the Goddess Fortuna,” Pennick explores the history of the Roman goddess Fortuna’s worship. Today, we tend to simplify her as the personification of luck, chance, and good fortune, but Pennick does her honor by fleshing her out as a complex goddess associated with many facets of life. She had a plethora of epithets, such as Fortuna Plebis, “of the People,”4 for she determined the fates of individuals. Many epithets include types of people and social classes, such as Fortuna Muliebris (“Women”), Fortuna Patricia (“Noble”), and Fortuna Equestris (“Horseback Riding”), which brings to mind knights in shining armor astride dashing steeds. The one that struck me as the most interesting was Fortuna Aucupium, meaning “Bird of Prey.”5 Although she was sometimes depicted as blind, this avian title seems to imply keen powers of perception and a shrewd eye for swooping down and snatching good fortune at a crucial moment.

“In Rome, the emperor Trajan (98-117 CE) dedicated a major temple to each aspect of the goddess, and on every January 1, offerings were made at the temples to ensure good luck and success for the coming year,”6 Pennick says. Fortuna’s accoutrements included a cornucopia, or horn of plenty, aligning her with the goddess Abundantia, the Roman goddess of prosperity; a ship’s rudder, which signifies her steering the fates of all mortals; and the vertically spinning wheel of fortune. On occasion, Fortuna appeared with wings, like Nortia, the Etruscan goddess of fate.

There were oracular shrines devoted to Fortuna in ancient Rome, which were located at Antium and Praeneste, in the modern day city of Palestrina. I was most intrigued by the Praenestine oracle of Fortuna, which is believed to have operated underground in a cave called “Antro delle Sorti” in Italian, which means “the Cavern of the Fates.”7 The oracle was thought to have been founded by an Egyptian priestess of the goddess Isis, and incorporated the use of wooden dice inscribed with letters, which may have been derived from Etruscan divinatory practices, and Pennick believes this oracle might have influenced the development of runic divination.

“The cubes were thrown into a silver bowl and drawn out one by one to produce a sequence of letters that were taken as the first letters of words,” Pennick says. “Interpretative skill depended upon determining what the sequence of letters stood for with regard to the question asked or the person asking it.”8 The Praenestine oracle had a revival in nineteenth century France, “when it was claimed that Charles Le Clerc used the oracle to attain prophecies for Napoleon Bonaparte.”9

Pennick then explores the history of dice as a form of divination in ancient Europe, which were originally made from the knuckle bones of sheep. He writes about the practice of gambling in ancient Rome and presents a table depicting the names and measurements of Roman dice. Chapter 4 is devoted to dice divination, complete with a chart of the divinatory meanings of possible throws.

One of my favorite chapters is on “Divinatory Geomancy,” in which Pennick gives a concise explanation of how to perform a geomantic reading and presents different methods for generating geomantic figures. Geomancy, which means “earth divination,” is a binary method of generating four-lined figures using odd or even numbers that traditionally involves making marks in the earth, although modern practitioners of the art may choose to throw dice or coins. There are a total of sixteen possible geomantic figures, and each has a Latin name with an oracular meaning and an astrological association.10

“An East Anglian technique for generating odd and even sequences uses potatoes,”11 Pennick writes. Using root vegetables sounds like the perfect way to perform an earth divination! I personally use a simple homemade deck of geomancy cards I created with blank index cards, on which I drew the geomantic figures with markers, but I love the idea of using potatoes to generate geometric figures.

“Each potato is different, for each has an indeterminate number of eyes, the places from which new growth takes place,” Pennick says. “To generate a geomantic figure, one must take four potatoes at random and count the eyes on each one.”12 A full reading requires sixteen spuds, so this might be a fun method to try if you have a sack of potatoes handy. 

The latter half of the book explores how the sacred art of divination devolved into the profane practice of gambling and became associated with the Devil. “Perhaps the ancient Jewish prohibition of divination, which was taken up wholesale and unthinkingly into the Christian religion when Christianity split off from Judaism, accelerated the desacralization of divination into gambling,”13 Pennick says. He believes that “the association of cards with the Devil is likely to be a cultural leftover from the centuries of religious fulmination against games and the religiously motivated laws that prohibited all forms of play and gambling for so many centuries.”14

I was fascinated to learn that, in medieval England, “Christmas was deemed to be the only time that games were allowed, and playing at other times was forbidden by law.”15 Hearkening back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, “the connection of gambling with misrule is overt in writings about carnivals and mythical lands, such as the Land of Cokaygne.”16

Pennick also reveals how fortune-telling and luck-drawing magic have intersected with gambling superstitions and dice cheat rolls. “Ancient crooked dice” might have been used for gambling cheats, “but they may well have been used at oracular shrines to skew the readings of those who came to ask questions.”17 This may have been a matter of self-preservation, especially when the interpreters of omens “had to deal with ruthless tyrants and a wrong answer might mean torture and death.”18

The stakes are high in illegal gambling as well, and the sacred caves where the ancients once consulted Fortuna for spiritual guidance were traded in for the Underworld gambling dens of organized crime, which were crowded with the lost souls suffering from addiction to these illicit practices. Since such risky behavior is a flirtation with death, it’s no wonder that many gambling charms incorporate images of human skulls to represent luck in the face of adversity.

“When we dice with Death, we can be sure that Death has the dice in a special grip and throws all the shots, and the dice are probably loaded,”19 Pennick writes.

Pennick’s impeccable scholarship and concise historical survey of divination and gambling has transformed my perspective of Lady Fortuna and the relationship between her sacred and profane arts. Whether you are a practitioner of divination and magic or a gambler hoping to boost your luck, Fortuna: The Sacred & Profane Faces of Luck will inspire your practice and be a boon to your personal library. Besides, with St. Patrick’s Day being just around the corner, it’s a great read for the month of March. May the luck of the Irish be with you!

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.