[review] The Urban Primitive by Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein

Title: The Urban Primitive: Paganism in the Concrete Jungle

Authorship: Raven Kaldera & Tanin Schwartzstein
Publisher: Llewellyn International
Year Published: 2002, First Edition
ISBN: 0738702595

I first want to say that I scrapped my first draft of this review because, as odd as this may sound, I thought it was unintentionally mean, well beyond anything this book, which is full of problems, deserves. I also got really self-conscious that some might interpret it as a personal attack against one of its authors, Raven Kaldera, who I honestly want to like (he’s one of the few people amongst the FTM spectrum on FetLife who is seriously realistic about TS/TG issues, even if some of the things he’s written for the public about the TS/TG community and his own transition may seem problematic, especially out of context or if one is making a habit of projecting), and so I really wanted to like one of the few books published (only three, ever, that I’m aware of) about urban pagan and polytheist spirituality —as odd as I find it that some-one who proudly runs a rural homestead would get involved in a book about urban spirituality, I was optimistic, at first, and still believe that even the most awful parts were included with the best intentions.

Tanin Schwartzstein’s introduction is wonderful and very welcoming to those whose spirituality is urban-centred —dare I say, I even saw bits of my own experiences in the recollection and lamentation of a pagan community that dismisses the city as “cold” and spiritually “dead”, especially as one whose experiences are of anything but. I’m also convinced that she’s responsible for some of the best parts of the book that follows (though I assign equal blame for the worst parts, cos if either of them knew better, one of them should have caught it and revised).

I love that this book is written for those with limited income in mind, and offers detailed suggestions on the arts of dumpster diving, thrift store combing, and frugal resources that are not only kind to one’s wallet, but also the environment. There are several helpful lists in this book for herbs, incenses, stones, even colours, and their uses in different purposes. One of the best parts is even an entire chapter dedicated to common plants found in most cities in North America, and their purposes and meanings. Another list is even specifically for suggestions on budget-minded substitutions for scented oils, and suggestions on budget-conscious or scavenged items to use in rituals, like a piece of broken glass for rituals that need a blade and you don’t have a blade, or using stumps of candles rather than tea lights in travel kits for altars or shrines. Let me tell you, after years of looking through “pagan 101″ books in the mid-1990s that made it seem like one needs a middle-class income to even start out as a Pop Wicca nub, it’s refreshing to see that, barely more than a year into the Twenty-First Century, there was finally a book that made it indisputably clear that ritual tools could be scavenged or otherwise obtained with little or no expense, and one needn’t be financially comfortable to practise pagan religions —sure, nothing beats what the ritual recommends, nobody is arguing that, but if you think burning herbs is “too expensive”, it’s really only cos you don’t know enough about where you live, and this book offers an adequate primer for that knowledge.

It’s also nice that this book is written for not just those who thrive in cities, but for those who live in the city out of necessity. I may not personally understand the appeal of rural life, but I understand the necessity on a fundamental level, and I at least understand that, for some reason barbaros to myself, there are those who prefer a pastoral lifestyle and may only be living in the city’s walls for the work, or school, or family obligations, so adequate coping mechanisms seem like a fair inclusion.

On the other hand, most of the lists are too similar to other lists I’ve seen in “Pop Wicca 101″ sorts of books. While it’s nice that Kaldera has added bits to this book to make it seem useful to those whose spirituality is rural-centred but who live in urban lands due to necessity, a lot of this really does come off as a bias, making urban spirituality seem dangerous to the soul, and the city an inferior place to live; it’s really hard to get through a chapter without somehow getting a potentially subtle or downright blatant guilt-trip for living in the city, or some kind of nonsense “warning” about dangers only vaguely alluded to, with practically nothing to back up most claims about the alleged physical risks (aside from crime rates, which is easily searchable on-line) and some of the more obvious pollution risks, and let me tell you, not even the developed countryside is without its pollution and risks to the environment —do a search on The Dust Bowl, kids, it wasn’t a gridiron game, and over eighty years later, it’s still affecting the central United States. While the introduction is wonderful, even describing experiences similar to my own, the book that follows it flip-flops between celebrating the Urban Divine and blaming all cities everywhere for everything wrong with the world.

This book also suffers from its constant use of vague claims, and almost never giving much, if anything, in the way of specifics to make for ease of fact-checking. The index is present, but not quite as comprehensive as I usually hope for a book of this length, and a proper bibliography of sources is practically nonexistent, so aside from the rare mention of other books and references in the text, there’s no real way to check whatever sources may have been utilised. Sorry, kids, but a “Recommended Reading” list (largely of books from the same publisher —curious, non?) is not the same as a Bibliography. Some quotes also seem like they might have been taken from an e-mail list or Usenet group or something, something I’ve discerned from the fact that the quoted person is unsearchable in a pagan context, and there’s a mention of an Internet group in the book acknowledgements, so confirming the backgrounds of the people quoted isn’t easy, sometimes even impossible —sometimes, that’s important, but to be fair, gven the context of many quotes in the book that fall in this potential category, it’s really not necessary. When it is necessary, on the other hand it’s something that really bothers me, and appears to be a trait of Llewellyn books that seems far too common, contributing to the negative reputation of the publisher amongst religious reconstructionists and academic pagans. And speaking of, I had hoped, knowing Kaldera’s background and that he’s also collaborated with Kenaz Filan, who I completely respect, that this wouldn’t be much of a problem, but I guess that’s what I get for hoping. That said, one of the best and most quoted people in the book is credited as “Beth Harper, Nashville witch”; I was incredibly disappointed to find her practically impossible to find on the Internet.

And this book makes a lot of really dumb factual errors that could have been avoided with a modicum of research. The one that really stands out for me, to the point that it just seems like a prime example of “making shit up in hopes of sounding smart” is conflating the Horai (Goddesses of time and seasons) and the Khorea (or “Hora”; a group of traditional circular dances from the Mediterranean and Near East) and attempting to link both to “sacred [prostitution]” (they use the word “harlots”), and explaining that it’s an etymology of “whore” and thus strip tease and erotic dance, as a profession, is directly descended from goddess worship (Chapter 5, page 50). Trying to decide where to begin on how much is wrong with that little “etymology lesson” kind of gives me a headache, because there is just so much wrong with it. Just to give you a taste of how wrong that claim is, there is no clear or even muddy etymological link between the Horai, or even Khorea, and “whore” —the word “whore” is descended from the Old Norse hora, meaning “adulteress”; considering that Kaldera is best known amongst pagan circles for his “Northern tradition”, I’m just floored at the fact that his understanding of his traditions’ languages is so sparse that he either didn’t catch that preposterous fallacy or, may the gods forbid, he desired to include it.

Of course, whether some Hellenists utilising religious reconstruction care to admit it or not, not only was there magic practised in ancient Hellas, but a lot of the “spells” and other rituals mentioned in this book bare a similarity to ancient Hellenic practises that are somehow “not magic” by the circular logic employed by some Hellenic circles, and can be easily adjusted to fit the standard ritual script of Hellenic practise. In the chapter on Protection Spells, the recommendation of drawing eyes, with oil, on windows and over the threshold of doors, even on the stairs, is not a far cry from the ancient Greeks putting apotropaic eyes on drinking vessels and heads of Gorgons at the threshold, this is just a modern, and argueably stealth adaptation of an ancient practise. Granted, you really need a good background in Hellenic practises to catch that sort of thing, but if this is your first time hearing of such a thing, don’t take my word for it, go check out apotropaic eyes in ancient Greece, and it’s clear that this simple little protection ritual is adaptable to Hellenic practises.

One of the complaints about this book that I see a lot from people on Amazon is the “Urban Triple Deities”. Now, obviously, I don’t acknowledge these “deities” in my practise, and I am sort of sceptical that something so basic as what’s described here is even a whole deity, and honestly, I really hate the illustrations for these six epithets, but who’s to say that these aspects don’t exist in existing deities? Knowing that Kaldera is a polytheist, I’m sure there’s intention that these simplistic figures can be aspects of existing deities, and knowing that Schwartzstein describes her religion on Teh FarceBorg as simply “pagan spiritualist”, there’s room to regard these as complete deities, if one so chooses. I can easily see traits of Hestia in Squat, “goddess of Parking Spaces”, whether it be your car or your bed, Skor, the scavenger goddess, strikes me as an epithet of Demetre or possible Tykhe, and Skram, Who warns you away from potential dangers, is a clear face of Hekate; Slick, the silver-tongued, works as an aspect of Hermes (something the book even suggests), Screw seems a simplistic, Neizchean aspect of Dionysos, and Sarge seems a sort of superficial Zeus or perhaps Ares. I also don’t see how most of these aspects of deity are specifically urban; having gone to high school in a rural area, I can assure you, rural people are no stranger to needing spaces, needing motivation, an anonymous lay, being in danger (I’m sure “Skram” might’ve been just as useful in Laramie, Wyoming, which has a smaller population than Adrian, MI, the latter being indisputably rural), or even scavenging (hello? gleaning, anybody?), but if this is a device that can open some-one’s eyes to these aspects and relevance to the city, then awesome.

In the previous chapter, though, ancient deities are addressed. Again, I have mixed feelings about this. I understand the space constraints the authors were working with, and to their credit, they acknowledged that the deities mentioned were described in overly simplistic manners and further research is best. On the other hand, there is no shortage of statements made that even a casual, but genuine relationship with a deity could easily prove false. I’m sick of people assuming Apollon only digs classical music, and saying “[He's] not interested in rock or rap or hip hop … [play] classical music, or He’ll frown” just after suggesting propitiating Him in a record store (Chapter 5, page 49), is more than a bit contradictory —seriously, people, if He’s the God of music, why limit music for Him to a single genre? In my experiences, Apollon really loves Nick Cave. I doubt that Thoth is simply “the Egyptian god of writing” (in fact, Wikipedia suggests I’m right about that). Zeus and Odin? Not the same deity. I really have to argue against the notion that Athene is the primary Hellenic goddess associated with science museums —not only is the name of the Moisai in the word “museum”, Ourania is specifically associated with astronomy, and Kleio’s domain of “history” can logically extend to natural history and evolutionary sciences. Saturn has nothing to do with “karma”, and I had to raise an eyebrow at the suggested association with the IRS —at the very least, an explanation of the logic employed would have been nifty.

One of the other problems with this book is the regular language that seems awfully Americentric, as if the whole world of Llewellyn Worldwide begins and ends with the United States. Not only is this book available at regionally domestic pricing in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, my own copy came from a UK seller via eBay (but it’s also a US copy), and Schwartzstein’s FaceBook profile states that it’s been translated into Russian. I wonder how well the suggestion that those who live along “the West Coast” fault line should worship Poseidon as a bringer of earthquakes translates to readers from Moscow? Or in Australia, where it’s the North Coast that gets more earthquakes?

Why can’t we see his hands? Gods above, why can’t we see Morrissey’s hands??

What’s so wrong with simply saying “anyone in a city near a fault line should supplicate Poseidon”, especially considering that those along the North American West Coast tend to get a higher ratio of reminders of their fault line than most other people? Why force the rest of the Worldwide readers to have to mentally adjust what they’re reading? In the immortal words of a Double-Double fucker named Steve1, “America is not the world”.

While I certainly don’t disapprove of tipping strippers and offering small gifts to streetwalkers as a devotional act to Aphrodite (or Eros; also, it’s specifically noted that it’s in one’s best interest to avoid gift money to streetwalkers —for reasons that should be glaringly obvious), I can’t help but think that while one’s heart is certainly in the right place to do such a thing (one of my fourth grade classmates said she gave hot cocoa to the hookers outsider her building on Christmas —of course, her mother explained their profession to her in “child-friendly” terms as “they work as dates for lonely men”), I certainly do not believe, as this book suggests (p51) that these women (and, in some cities, men as well) are “the Goddess’ unwitting servants”. In a world where Republicans are telling women that rape-babies are “a gift from [the god of Abraham]“, I find the precedent one might unwittingly set by equating the violent world of street pimping with the pornai of certain temples of Corinth to be appalling. On the other hand, I like the idea of associating Prometheus with Labour Unions and civil rights organisations, though I had previously only thought of those sorts of places as the domain of Hephaestos and Athene, respectively.

Something else that REALLY bothers me is in the chapter about ritual symbolism in clothing and body modifications, is minor, but, again, is one of those things that makes me wonder what the hell was up with the proofreading and editorial process of this book. This is generally a decent chapter, and in a list attempts to describe the most common symbolisms of various piercings and on occasion their history. The first thing that really makes me go “BUH???” is Schwartzstein’s constant reference to a nostril piercing as a “side nose piercing”. Not even the BME Wiki has a redirect for that term, and searching for it gives you practically nothing useful to the piercing Schwartzstein is talking about, and the BME Wiki will seriously redirect you for all half dozen or so regional colloquial names for a beauty mark piercing (a.k.a. “Monroe”, “Madonna”, “Crawford”, “Marilyn”, “Chrome Crawford”, “Steel Crawford” and “crayfish” —last time I checked). Seriously, woman, it’s a nostril piercing. She also commits the common fallacy (and at one point, I was guilty of this) of calling only a specific type of piercing a “labret”; a labret is any piercing on the lower lip, and she also incorrectly claims that the classic labret, typically referring to a piercing in the dip between the lower lip and the chin, was specific to high-ranking women in Pacific NW tribes, but the most basic fact-checking on that tells me that while the piercing itself was associated with status, depending on time or specific location, it would be a men’s piercing, a women’s piercing, or an unisex piercing, the only constant is that it’s associated with social status. Again, all things considered, these are relatively minor, and the labret thing, well, she was technically half-correct. Seriously, though, “side-nose” piercing??? “Side-nose” piercing?!?! It’s almost tied with earlobes for most common piercing in the entire world, and you don’t even know it’s called a nostril piercing? Oi theoi…. It’s a good chapter, and with some discernment, the advice is easily transferrable to polytheism, as opposed to Wiccanate neopaganism, but like a lot of other things in this book, I just don’t know where some of these curios statements come from.

I really dislike the illustrations in the chapter about the “Urban Triple Deities”, and I absolutely loathe the illustrations in the chapter on “urban spirit animals”. I mean, I guess it’s cute, in a way, that the pictures in this chapter were obviously done by amateurs (or I hope they were, anyway; I’d hate to think that someone is doing this shit professionally), but a few of these are the reason that “amateur” illustrators and artists kind of have an undeserved bad name — “amateur”, in many circles, has become synonymous with “crappy and child-like”, whereas the word “amateur” itself is based on the root “amor”, and so it technically means “one who does it for out of love”. I’d like to think that people who love to draw make every effort to do it well, and improve their skills, especially if one is pagan and performing a task presumably for a spiritual reverence, but apparently not. I also really dislike the use of the word “totem” in a generic neopagan fashion, but at the same time, I gotta admit that cultures don’t develop in a vacuum, and I probably wouldn’t be worshipping at least half the deities I do if Boitoans hadn’t “appropriated” customs of Minyans and Thessalians and other people whose names might be lost to time and the brittle nature of papyrus, so no, I’m not going to scream bloody murder over “ignorant white people raping the integrity of red people”, cos the practise of spirit animals, and animal guides and so on is kind of a worldwide animistic phenomenon, and the word “totem” is just an English interpretation of the Ojibwe “ototman“, so yeah, whatever. And well, I generalise in saying that “spirit animals” is kind of a worldwide phenomenon; maybe I just forgot some reading, but I don’t recall anything clearly similar to the North American traditions that has a root in Hellas, but certainly many deities had specific animal associations, and the descriptions of many animals common to North American cities can give a decent outline for associating local animals with deities —and associating local culture with one’s deities is certainly in line with ancient interpretatio. Again, as long as you have a good background and the basic cognitive abilities necessary to transfer the advice from Pop Wicca to polytheism, this can be fairly useful.

There’s also a LOT of “Ceremonial Magic” scattered throughout this book. Considering the ages of the authors, I can’t say I’m too surprised, as for a while, CM was virtually impossible to avoid in the Pagan (and Polytheist reconstruction) communities; even Old Stones, New Temples has a clear CM background in its writing, or at least it’s clear if one knows what to look for. To the authors’ credit, they attempt to point this out, but on occasion, even they fail at this. Seriously, not all water, especially in Hellenic ritual, needs to be salted, in fact, there are some Hellenic rituals that are probably best served if you use spring water and keep the salt far away from it.

All things considered, the book is a mixed bag. There’s not a whole lot that is specifically useful to those reconstructing ancient polytheism, but it’s not completely useless, as long as one has a good background of knowledge and some decent skills in discerning what information to take literally, and how to separate the wheat from the chaff, or rather, the energy from the smog. On the other hand, the ideas for useful modern adaptation might become easily lost in the book’s tendency to refer to any ritual as a “spell”, when such language can be off-putting to some reconstructionists who may prefer to use language that discerns apotropaic magic or divination as basic ritual, whereas any ritual that explicitly seeks personal gain or harm to others is suspiciously regarded as “magic” or “spells”. It’s got enough good and bad, and a fair enough cushion of “meh”, that I feel like I have to warn that my 2.5 rating was on the generous end of mediocre; when it’s good, it’s great, but in part cos, I suspect, I’m going in not only as a reconstructionist, but as someone experienced enough to know what to criticise, and how harshly, and I’m trying to think as a person who didn’t realise X-ritual was a way that Y-practise could be adapted to modern realities before reading the book. It’s a fair book, but not indispensable, and I’m certain something better will come along, but for now, it’s worth picking up second-hand after one has a foundation of knowledge in their religious practises —but I guess more intentionally eclectic people, or those into Chaos Magic would have no problem using the book as-is, and taking what they like and leaving behind what they don’t.


1: I have a long-running joke amongst my friends that Morrissey has heard “If Moz would just have a cheeseburger and a good lay, he’d cheer up” for so long that he’s since decided to kill two birds with one stone. Don’t judge me. When you saw that photo, you thought what I thought, too.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for almost a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros most of that time. He also paints, makes music, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival subculture of the early 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.
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6 Responses to [review] The Urban Primitive by Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein

  1. Joy Phillip says:

    I would think, given that a museum’s root word comes from “Muse”, that if you needed to have a Hellenistic deity of the Museum, one of the Muses would be perfect. But that’s also me. Same with Music. But, then I find that a lot of ancient deities work very well in an urban setting, especially since the Parthenon is walking distance from my house, and The God of the Wild Hunt helps me find parking spots all the time.

    • The Library of Alexandria was also a temple of the Moisai (Muses). I think a lot of people who know Athene is a goddess of Wisdom assume that means She’s necessarily concerned with education, which is not to say that She isn’t, but you see Apollon and Artemis a lot as patron and patroness as educators of young children in antiquity, the Moisai as keepers of information and high art, whereas Athene seems more concerned with the wisdom that comes from experiences. She’s a war general and a craftsman, She’s all about experiencing things and learning by doing, cos reading and watching or listening can only give so much.

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