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The Shamanic Handbook of Sacred Tools and Ceremonies

by Barbara Meiklejohn-Free & Flavia Kate Peters
Moon Books, Winchester, UK & Washington, US, 2015
£9.99 (UK) $16.95 (US)
146 pages
ShamanicHandbookThere may be those who feel the following review is a case of, as the old adage goes, “the pot calling the kettle black.” I disagree, but then I would, wouldn't I?
Knowing how much work goes into producing a book, and, as a writer myself, aware of how much bad reviews can sting, I really, seriously dislike writing negative ones. Hence I've sat on this review for several weeks, arguing with myself and others over whether to publish it or not. However, having been given the book to review by the publisher, I feel obliged to offer an opinion, and, of course, it has to be an honest one or what's the point?
The authors of The Shamanic Handbook both seem to live in England, yet refer to the “British Celtic Lands” with no acknowledgement that England, for better or worse the dominant British nation, has a culture that is predominantly Romanised, Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman, not Celtic. To call these islands “British Celtic” is, therefore, to ignore the last 2,000 years of their history. Perhaps they mean the term to apply only to Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and perhaps Cornwall and Ireland? If so, it would be good to know that and not simply have the contentious term, 'Celtic' bandied about without explanation. Despite many references to these “Celtic lands,” most of the Old World traditions referenced in the book are either Graeco-Roman or Egyptian. This gives the impression that the writers are following in the footsteps of numerous New Age authors and simply using 'Celtic' as a popular buzz-word. On her website, BarbaraM-FBarbara Meiklejohn-Free claims to have been born in Scotland. The book, however, has no mention of this in the short chapter on ancestors, which ends in a very non-Celtic way with the Lakota phrase, mitakuye oyasin, usually translated as “all my (or our) relations.”
The term, 'shaman' is used with equal abandon, though with a little more explanation, albeit not until page 130, when it is acknowledged that the word “most likely” originates with the Evenk people of Siberia. On the same page, the authors admit that “There have been many heated debates about using the name 'Shaman.'” They conclude that “This is an individual and personal choice, which carries a great personal responsibility, for words have power and names have meanings.” Words also make up languages, and languages are a vital component of the cultures in which they develop and are used. Personally, my choice is informed by sensitivity towards the people amongst whom spiritual traditions originated, who have guarded and transmitted them for untold generations, and who see them as vital to the survival of their cultures and peoples. Few of my friends who follow paths that might be described as shamanistic call themselves 'shamans.' Most, like me, either use terms specific to their own cultures or non-culturally-specific terms such as 'spirit worker.'
Another aspect of the book I find problematic is that Native American concepts, terminology and ceremonies feature prominently throughout it, with no attempt whatsoever to address the question of cultural appropriation. A gathering of the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota peoples more than twenty years ago declared war on non-Native New Agers who 'steal' Native American spirituality and sell it for profit, and many other Native Americans equally strongly oppose what they see as the ultimate act of theft committed against their people. Hence my unease that so much of the spiritual language in this book is couched in Native American, specifically Lakota, terms, and that several exercises given in it are derived from Lakota sacred ceremonies. We are given no indication as to why, or by what right, two British women are offering these things to us. Without such background information, this smacks of 'Wannabee Indian Syndrome.' A Native American friend, TC (short for Thundercloud), once asked me to convey a message to people in Europe. He said “Tell 'em not to put us Indians on pedestals; we're liable to fall off.” Based on the contents of this book, it seems that its authors have not got this message.
The path I was drawn to is Druidry, in large part because, so far as we can know, it originated here in Britain, where I was born, where I still live, and where my ancestors lived as far back as it is possible to trace. My ancestry combines Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon blood lines, so while my spirituality is rooted in Druidry and its antecedents, I also honour Anglo-Saxon deities. This makes sense to me, genetically and geographically. Like the authors of this book, I sometimes travel to other parts of the world. I have taken part in drum circles with Quileute and Makah folk of the Pacific Northwest. In doing so, I follow the beats and, so far as I am able, the words, of the chants and songs, but do so as a British Druid, not as a Wannabee Indian. Like the authors, I gain great inspiration from interactions with indigenous peoples, but that inspiration helps me to renew, refresh or restore long-lost parts of my own native heritage.
For example, I make drums with one of my sons. Some aspects of the process derive from videos posted online by Native American drum-makers, others were inspired by Central Asian, Norwegian, Siberian and Irish drum-making practices. I believe that frame drums of a similar type were once made in Britain, though I know of no specific evidence. Being organic and quite thin, frame drums rarely leave any archaeological trace. We use locally sourced materials. Barbara Meiklejohn-Free has drums made in the USA and imported to the UK to sell. They are mentioned many times in the book and described in detail. I'm sure they're very good drums, but the trees from which the hoops are made, and the animals whose hides form the drum-skins, lived in a land thousands of miles away, separated by the vast Atlantic Ocean. When there are many fine drum-makers here in Britain, why import drums from such a distant land? Apart from anything else, what about the carbon footprint from having them flown all that way?
MugwortThe same goes for Californian Sage, also referenced repeatedly in the book, which she also imports and sells. Again, why? Clearly because it's used by Native Americans. However, we have our own British tradition of cleansing and purifying with smoke, commonly known by the Scottish term, 'saining.' We have our own native herbs that can be used for this, including Mugwort (left), St. John's Wort, Yarrow, Meadowsweet and others. None are mentioned here. Instead, the section on herbs is basically one long advert for the imported Sage bundles that Barbara sells. This seems doubly strange since she claims to have been taught “the Old Ways” by a Scottish seer from the age of twelve. Perhaps saining was not one of the old ways he introduced her to.
In curious contrast, the authors refer to “dire consequences” resulting when hallucinogenic plants, or “plant medicines” as they call them, are used away from their native geographical and cultural context. Here I am in agreement with them, but this simply makes their failure to apply the same principle to other sacred herbs and tools all the more baffling.
The sheer quantity of product placement in the book means that at times it reads more like a sales catalogue than a guide to a spiritual tradition. While I am the first to acknowledge that spirit workers have a right to be paid for what we do just as much as any other profession, I am uncomfortable with the amount of overt advertising here, where we are continually told of products available at the back of the book. Ironically, on turning to the back, there is no information about the products.
This calls attention to other technical problems with the book, including many typographical errors, the seemingly random ordering of information, and the frequent repetition of the same information in slightly different forms. I'm not sure what went wrong here, as Moon Books are usually good on proof-reading.
The book is clearly pitched at people interested in the Michael Harner, Californian school of New Age global shamanism. Although there is no shortage of advice for them, and some of it is good, it is a shame that it is wrapped up in so much that is contentious, poorly explained or entirely unexplained.
My advice to those seeking spiritual sustenance is to first look to the traditions of your own land and ancestry. If you live elsewhere in the world but your ancestors are European, look to your ancestral traditions first. For other combinations, use your common sense. Begin with those traditions with which your ancestry gives you a natural affinity. Engage with them as fully and deeply as you can, immerse yourself if them, allow them to become your key to engaging with the spirits around you. Then, when you are fully and firmly grounded in your own native tradition, you can engage on an equal footing with practitioners of other traditions wherever you go, with mutual respect and without accusations of cultural theft.
DruidShamanBooks offering sound, practical introductions to native British traditions have been available since the early 1990s and there are many to choose from. For those seeking an overtly shamanistic approach to those traditions that is well-written, inspiring, practical, and culturally coherent, I recommend 'The Druid Shaman,' by Danu Forest (Moon Books, 2014). OK, it does have that problematic word, 'shaman,' right there in the title, but the author is aware of the problem and uses it in its broad anthropological sense as a shorthand to alert potential readers to the style of Druidry found within it. As a title, 'The Druid Shaman' is considerably less ungainly than 'a Druid way of engaging with spirits of plants and animals, land, sea, sky, gods and ancestors for the purposes of bringing about healing or divining hidden knowledge for the benefit of one's community.' I still look forward to the day when we no longer need to use 'shaman' as a shorthand because people understand Druidry as an indigenous tradition without the need to qualify it as 'shamanistic.' One day...
Greywolf (Philip Shallcrass)
October 9th, 2015

Published on Categories 'Shamanism', ReviewsTags , ,
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About Greywolf

I'm Greywolf (aka Philip Shallcrass). My main claim to fame (such as it is) is that I'm chief of the British Druid Order (BDO). I discovered Druidry in 1974, seeing it as a native British 'shamanic' spirituality. An Alexandrian Wiccan coven I joined in 1978 transformed into the Grove of the Badger as Druidry increasingly replaced Wicca in its rites. The end result was the BDO. Emma Restall Orr was joint chief of the Order with me from 1995 to 2002. I live in rural Wiltshire, not far from my spiritual heartland, the area in and around the Avebury henge. I'm a writer, musician, artist, drum-maker, roundhouse-builder and thatcher. I have three sons who share my obsession with music, books and film. Personal obsessions include the work of Britain's greatest bard, Robin Williamson, the comic books of Jack 'King' Kirby (1907-1994) and the speed-freak rock'n'roll of The Screaming Blue Messiahs.

7 thoughts on “The Shamanic Handbook of Sacred Tools and Ceremonies

  1. avatarEbhadh

    Dear Philip,
    I agree with what you have to say, except on the point about Native Americans being generally not in favour of sharing their practices. I say this through my direct experience when attending a lecture by Ed McGaa ‘Eagle Man’ a couple of years ago and speaking to him there, also Barbara was there and they are clearly friends and share much.
    Ed McGaa is a native Sioux who has done much to bring the American Native traditions to a wider audience and actually see that they are not lost – especially Sundance tradition and sweat lodge. He has written about nature and conservation and is deeply involved in Earth Spirituality.
    Philip – I do believe that this is a time for the magical practices and spiritual understandings of peoples from all over the world to be shared and extended to enlarge our mutual effectiveness. The Spiritualist Church in UK originated from the spiritualist practices of the Native Americans, for example. The Druid Animal Oracle was developed by the Carr-Gomms with reference to Eligio Stephen Gallegos work with animal imagery and symbolism which was Native American.

    Many blessings, Ebhadh

    Reply
    1. avatarGreywolf

      Hi Ebhadh,
      Thank you for your comment. Just to clarify, I didn't mean to imply that all Native Americans object to any of their people's spiritual teachings being shared with non-natives, clearly they don't or they wouldn't be writing books or offering workshops. I was just pointing out that many do object, and do so very strongly. The first NA teacher I met, at a Druid camp in the UK 20 years ago, was a guy called John Two-Birds. He was travelling around the world trying to get spirit workers in many cultures to make contact with each other and work together. I wholeheartedly agree with him on that. We should. My point is just that the best way to do it respectfully is from within your own native traditions, not by adopting one from a different culture. Most of the NA and other indigenous teachers I've spoken with over the years seem to agree. Two-birds certainly did, which is why he was contacting Druids and Wiccans here in the UK, those being the two spiritual traditions that originated here.
      Many blessings,
      Greywolf /|\

      Reply
      1. avatarMaureen Cowen

        thanks for your clarification, Greywolf. I had another look at Ed McGaa's book 'Mother Earth Spirituality'. He is one who is in favour of other cultures doing ritual the same way as Native Americans (I would guess he means those who have lost their own Native rituals) and quotes Frank Fools Crow, Oglala holy and ceremonial chief of Teton Sioux, said in reference to the pipe and the sweat lodge, "These ceremonies do not belong to Indians alone. They can be done by all who have the right attitude ... And who are honest and sincere about their beliefs in Wakan Tanka (Great Spirit) and follow the rules." I just wanted to mention this, because - as a fellow Druid - I am aware how important it is to be in accord with other cultures if you 'borrow' from them in any sense in ritual magic. The last thing one wants in any working is to incur the wrath of those in the OtherWorld and see everything go pear shaped as a result! Ed McGaa is saying he and Frank did give their permission, at least, for some adoptions of their own practices.

        Many blessings,
        Ebhadh /|\

        Reply
  2. avatarJamie

    Hello Phil
    Thank you for the insights you have shared about the book ,
    I want to know more about this subject
    Do you think looking at druidry would be good for a guy who is looking for a path that relates to him here in the uk , I'm looking for anything similar to Bryan bates way of the weird ,
    Thanks again
    Jamie

    Reply
    1. avatarGreywolf

      Hi Jamie,
      My own reason for getting involved with Druidry was that it was the earliest native British tradition of which we have any historical record. I got to know Brian Bates because we are both Wolf people. He was so impressed by the similarities between our spiritual paths that he wrote an article for me called 'Wyrd Druidry' that features in the BDO introductory book, Druidry: Rekindling the Sacred Fire. Check out the free samples of our bardic and ovate courses.
      Many blessings,
      Greywolf /|\

      Reply
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