Friday, October 21, 2011

Three Books for the Dead

Recent Books Reviewed

Here in this Season of the Veil, the good news is that the Pagan and magical movement is beginning to pay some attention to the spirits of the Ancestors and the Dead. A combination of European lore with African diaspora and indigenous North American lore is seeping into both the actual practices of self-described Witches and Pagans. Our Druidry has been at the forefront of this gradual change. We began including the honoring of the Ancestors in every major rite some 20 years ago. However it is fair to say that more detailed work with the Dead is much more recent and we too are being influenced by current trends in ritual and devotion.

Here are three books that both reflect and contribute to the growing interest in spiritual work with the Dead. One is very Neopagan, though it is this year’s Neopaganism. One is of a more reconstructionist bent, though still quite eclectic in its way. The third is a more in-depth study of a living animist and polytheist tradition.

The Witch’s Book of the Dead
Christian Day
Weiser Books, 2011
If you’re a modern Neopagan who has never approached the idea of a cult of the Dead, or of directly honoring your ancestors, or if you teach folks like that, this book could be the place to start. It presents a simple background and introductory set of techniques that could help anyone begin their practice. However those good bits are rather smothered in a lot of additional text.

I’ll admit to not caring a great deal for autobiographical material in occult writing. I prefer an emphasis on ideas, not anecdote, and don’t feel a need to know that an author is impressive in order to be impressed by their magical work. So the Witch’s Book of the Dead had a lot of dead pages for me, as the author tells tales. Christian Day is a well-known entrepreneur and showman from Salem, Mass. He’s the fellow who ‘cursed’ Charlie Sheen over his ‘warlock’ comments, but only a little of that comes through here. He has plenty of tales to tell, about organizing and about practical sorcery, as well as a whole chapter on ‘ghost-hunting’ and paranormal work. Some of this was engaging, but there was rather a lot of it, compared to actual instruction.

The actual material on the Dead in Pagan ways and how to begin a practice is well-presented and concise. Day does a pretty good job of summarizing material from scholastic sources on the Dead in classical Witchcraft, usually presenting lore in snippets mixed in with the practical instructions. The book includes basics for establishing a shrine or altar for the Dead and assembling a set of tools. Proper attention is given to cleansings and dealing with difficult spirits, and classic methods of speaking with spirits, such as the pendulum and a chapter on mediumship. These amount to good, basic introductions.

Being a user of trance and spirit-vision myself, I was pleased to see attention given to the formal process of inducing trance for spirit work. I thought the methods given for inducing an oracular state were a trifle sketchy. More attention could have been paid to learning the basics of altering consciousness. (I *do* know the problem of deciding how much space to give to those methods in a book that isn’t primarily about trance.) However the actual rites and techniques that he provides are well-written and interesting examples of classical tropes like mirror vision and the skull-ally. Hopefully students will have some additional trance training to make them work.

I can recommend this book for those learning or teaching the basics of working with the Ancestors and the Dead, and who don’t mind a bit of bluster with their instruction. It is almost completely free of cultural or traditional baggage, drawing on African and western methods free of specific mythic content. While that may rob it of a bit of depth it also makes it easy to apply to whatever Pagan system one is working.

Weaving Memory
Laura Patsouris
Asphodel Press, 2010

This small book is an excellent introduction to building an ancestral practice. The author is a Northern Heathen, interested in Scandinavian and Germanic heritage, and has family connections with Afro-Cuban tradition as well. This provides a perspective that seems quite useful to those of us rebuilding a northern European Paganism.

Weaving Memory is heavily focused on family lineage, and the spirits of the generations immediately before our own. The first section addresses the lines of the mother and father in individual chapters, gives the basics of setting up an ancestral altar and beginning simple devotional practice. There is a good chapter on ‘Toxic Ancestors’, a topic frequently discussed in Druidry as we begin to work with family spirits. Later the author teaches a method of aiding and ‘rectifying’ a toxic ancestor, a thing I had never seen before.

The second section deals with the details of work with the Dead, including building the sacrificial relationship and learning the strengths of the specific allies made. There are chapters on working with the Dead for spellcraft or intentions, and some speculation on what Ancestral cults may mean about the ‘afterlife’ and reincarnation. Nice chapters on accessing ancient knowledge and the notion of community dead round it out.

Throughout, the author focuses on knowing the real spirits of individual ancestors and dealing with them through love and devotion. Few ritual forms are given, most of the work being framed as advice, leaving students to construct their own practices. The entire book is a modest 105 pages, so most chapters are short essays conveying pithy ideas in both warm and direct ways.

The final section offers guest essays, including a good piece on transgender and intersex Ancestors by Raven Kaldera. The entire book is focused on a message that the west has forgotten the Dead, and one thing that Paganism can do to restore the balance of the world is to restore our relationship with our Ancestors. I recommend Weaving Memory as a fine introduction to the work of building the ways of the dead in our Paganism today.

Palo Mayombe – The Garden of Blood & Bones
Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold
Scarlet Imprint, 2010

In Palo Mayombe, we have the first authoritative survey of a system of Afro-Caribbean sorcery and spiritism that has been the object of fear and fascination for over 100 years. While there have been shorter works and pamphlets on Palo no other source offers the level of understanding that is available to readers in this book. The author (I’ll refer to him as NdMF) is both an initiate of a Palo system, and brings a scholastic perspective that combine to provide an excellent perspective on the subject.

Palo Mayombe is an initiatory sect built on principles brought to the New World by slaves of Bantu and Kongo ethnicity. In Cuba, and later throughout Latin America, it has remained underground and inwardly-focused but also has provided working magic-users for the Afro-diaspora. Palo sorcerers are respected and feared among those who live in a culture that accepts magical arts. The author often, in fact, refers to Palo as a ‘sorcerer’s sect’ in that to be a working Palero is to have pacts with the spirits, and various magical skills.

Palo traditions are bound by oaths, and so no book can be a how-to of the authentic tradition. The author makes clear that any specific expression of the path – each ‘House’ or initiatory lineage – is unique, and its members work with specific spirits unique to that lineage. However there are cultural universals and vocabulary that allow us to understand the background principles of the system. These principles are presented here in such a way as to be very suggestive indeed to those with some training in Theurgy or western magical arts.

In the first section of Palo Mayombe there is certainly vocabulary to be learned, and a background in Yoruba symbols will be of little help. The Kongo and other African concepts are presented clearly, but the author gives us one or two shots at remembering what an mpungo is before continuing to use the term technically. The first section of the book is quite a serious download of information for those new to the terminology.

Along with a thorough introduction of the Palo order of spirits and beings there is also a fine review of the historical origins of central-African syncretism. I was surprised to be shown (despite knowing all the factoids) that Christian proselytization had begun in Africa, with Roman Catholic symbolism and theologies influencing Kongo culture well before the beginning of the slave trade. Through this intercourse with Mediterranean Europe NdMF suggests that some European magical concepts may have become mixed with African ways, again long before the current New World synthesis.

The second part of the book concerns the reputation and reality of Palo as a cult of necromancy. This reputation rests primarily on the central magical talisman of the system, a cauldron or vessel filled with soil, sticks (‘palos’ in Spanish), symbols and, most notably, a human skull and bones. This is called the Nganga, or the Fundamento. NdMF dives directly into Greek and Roman sources on necromancy, skull-magic and the sacred head to wrap again into the Palo system:
“In the vocabulary of the Kongo, it could be about the relationship between bakulu (ancestor/spirit/ghost), mvumbi (cadaver) and nkisi (spirit) in relation to the idea of ndoki (power, usually with a nightside flavor)”

The creation and maintenance of the Nganga are covered in as much detail as the author’s oaths allow. Every specific Palo lineage is different, but there are also many similarities, and we learn of the meaning of the vessel itself, of the materials that fill it – sacred woods and worked iron. Each Fundamento is made under a specific spirit-power (NdMF seems to avoid the term ‘gods’ in favor of the Kongo term nkisi) and twelve of these are discussed in detail, giving their distinctive sigils and songs (if only we could hear the melodies) and various details and stories. Each of these includes specific methods of dealing with the bones of the dead, incorporating a specific living spirit into the vessel, while connecting it with a specific divine power. Again while oath-bound detail is withheld the magician will find this all quite instructive.

“The Palero is not only one of the walking dead he is also a spiritual warrior” writes NdMF in the third section, in which he describes the ongoing work of the system, initiation, and the concept of the sacred temple, or ‘house’. This section includes a chapter on divination which reveals similarities to other Afro-Caribbean practices.

Finally the book provides an herbarium of Palo lore, including the various woods used in the Nganga and many other herbs and items. At various places throughout are smaller spells, customs and ritual works that attend the greater mysteries of the system.

I should take a few lines to mention the wonderful editions from Scarlet Imprint. SI is one of the leading small occult presses of the decade, and all of their hardback editions are collectible volumes that are simply a delight to hold and read for book-geeks like me. For those who can’t manage the price of those editions SI also offers their works, including this one, in reasonably-priced paperback editions.

In the work of rebuilding polytheism, we Neopagans should make every effort to learn from existing magical and spiritist systems. The African Diaspora offers us a very clear window, when someone like NdMF takes pains to wipe it clean for us. In Palo we don’t see the plain village religion of New World, post-Yoruba practices, but a more esoteric lineage of necromantic sorcery, in which practitioners become empowered by their relationship with the gods, the dead and the spirits of the forest. There’s a great deal to be learned…


Gwydion Raventhorn said...

hey Ian have you considered posting your reviews to with links back to your blog?

Earrach said...


As we all reach for appropriate sentiments for our work at this our chosen time of year for honoring those among our departed loved ones, it is with sadness I have heard of the departure of your father this week. Know that our love and prayers are with you as you walk the road of grief, testimony, and release.

- EARRACH and Diana
of Pittsburgh

JR Prospal said...

"He’s the fellow who ‘cursed’ Martin Sheen over his ‘warlock’ comments, but only a little of that comes through here."

Wasn't that Charlie Sheen?

IanC said...

Why yes, yes it was... corrected.