[review] Goth Craft: The magickal side of dark culture by Raven Digitalis

Goth-Craft-Digitalis-Raven-9780738711041Title: Goth Craft: The magickal side of dark culture
Authorship: Raven Digitalis
Publisher: Llewellyn International
Year Published: 2007, First Edition
ISBN-10: 0738711047
ISBN-13: 978-0738711041

This book is pretty much a mixed bag and while I kinda get why some things are said the way they are in this book, my experiences won’t really let me sit on my hands about a few of its problems, which would likely seem relatively minor if I were some-one without my experiences.

First off, this book starts off with a chapter introducing people to the Goth subculture –for those who are very new, those who know some stuff but not a lot, and for nerds like me who fact-check everything like an annoying pedant (by the way –that line is foreshadowing the review: I will be an annoying pedant, for the most part, but I am an annoying pedant because I care). There’s a bit of a history which is mostly correct; I have a feeling that I could nit-pick Digitalis’ etymology lesson (he seems to just gloss over the rich literary “chapter” of the etymology, and subsequent cultural influence of the term “gothic”) and his stylistic choices in the differentiation between the Germanic tribes known as Goths and the current Gothic subculture here or there, but he goes into a fair amount of detail and frankly, he doesn’t just seem to make shit up in this chapter on a factor of “truthiness” or “feels”, like a pretty blatant etymological error in Kaldera & Schwartzstein’s Urban Primitive, which still annoys me that it even got a pass.

While the facts about the etymology and origins of the goth subculture are generally correct, he also falls victim to a LOT of sugar-coating on some of the “ideals” touted by goths for about three decades now (more-or-less) when juxtaposed alongside the reality of the situation. He says about as much as there being no such thing as goths who are sexist, racist, queerphobic, and so on, and let me tell you, Internet: I have been in and out of the goth subculture for nearly twenty years (granted, I could make the argument that I’ve been interested in Mod subculture aspects and tropes for longer, like one of my favourite bands as a small child was The Who, but it’s safe to say I’ve had an active role in both subcultures for literally decades), there are relatively few, still puttering around here and there, who are more “elder” than myself (most of whom, like myself, are no longer limiting themselves to the label of “goth”, except when it seems suiting), and while certain attitudes are prominently frowned upon by many, especially the artists who are often credited with building the subculture (or at least giving it its foundation), there is also no shortage of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and so on within the Gothic subculture. Hell, most of the fashions necessitate either a bourgeoisie income if one lacks some hell of DIY skills. I’ve seen just as many goths (though, to be fair, usually young ‘uns) throw around “The Big N” in Los Angeles as I did in Virginia, a friend of mine who’s a Goth/Industrial DJ semi-recently cross-posted a blog entry from Coilhouse lamenting how the average Industrial music show, and specifically naming Combichrist and their fans as some of the biggest offenders, as little more than a bunch of dudebros in black clobber objectifying women and crying “No homo!” as they smear on marketed-as “guyliner” —after all, can’t use anything with the same debossing on the pencil as your girlfriend uses, lest someone think you’re queer! (as an aside, Digitalis, factually, points out that Industrial is a genre of dark alternative music that evolved alongside and often crossing-over with Gothic rock –something I see very few “purists” who favour deathrock or gothic rock ever acknowledging, though I think it’s more plain ignorance than revisionism — it was certainly a degree of ignorance when I was a dumb kid who insisted that “Industrial and Gothic/deathrock never had anything to do with each-other until some time in the 1990s”), there was once a YouTube account by some relatively popular Denver-area goth-industrial guy who –while his videos were pretty well-made little short films– were steeped in thinly-veiled homophobic commentary, especially his anti-Emokid series in three parts which seriously went so far as to “jokingly” advocate curb-stomping “those fags in Death Cab shirts riding Vespas”, (I don’t know if the account still exists or if the videos are still up anymore, and frankly, I found it so disgusting at the time that I have no interest in looking it up again). If you’ve been reading this shit I write here for forever, then you’re probably aware that when I came out as FTM, every friend I lost was from the Goth scene, and no, not all of them were in or from Michigan, when you have a relative “big name” NYC goth/deathrock DJ telling you “can it, Lady” after you explain in a LiveJournal comment to please use male pronouns, and an ex-friend from an LA band that’s existed in several forms since 1987 is sending you several MySpace nastygrams to tell you that you’re basically garbage over this, and you hear from the grapevine that yes, there’s a certain Midwesterner who decided to try and add that to their smear campaign against you (which few people ever took seriously, but still…), then you start to realise that the goth/industrial/deathrock scenes are NOT wholly anti- all these assorted “-isms” that it’s ideally supposed to be. Hell, I recently found a Tumblr dedicated to calling out shitty behaviour, it’s far from perfect (and arguably “ableist”, seeing as how much of that blog is in text-images that are impossible for someone with computer equipment for the blind and low-vision to read —cos we all know there are never goths with visual impairments, am I right? [coughs]), so clearly I’m not the only ass-hole who recognises this problem.

Frankly, I know the gothic subculture to have some pretty widespread problems that while, ideally, would not go unchecked by anyone in the scene, and would certainly become a big black mark on someone who seemingly has gained such “cred” as to have a recognisable name within the scene, and when I worked my way through that chapter, I couldn’t help but think that Raven Digitalis, as well-meaning as I understand this was intended to be, was just sugar-coating it all for the sake of appearances (like I said, I’ve been into this since the early-mid 1990s, I remember the Columbine shooting [which yes, in reality had nothing to do with Goths, but we sure as hell felt the weight of the world in its aftermath], and Fairuza Balk’s character in The Craft, and I’m conscious enough of current media to acknowledge that the relatively “positive” or at least sympathetic media portrayals of the Gothic subculture from the last twenty years can be counted on one hand, and the negative portrayals still outnumber by several times as many) and thus giving the bad behaviours in the scene a pass to go on as usual, since only maybe a handful of overzealous SJW kids on Tumblr want to even address these problems, and I’ve never seen a single one of them address it in a manner that will actually make the more reasonable people reflect on not just their own potential for bad behaviour, but that which they might’ve let slide for fear of rocking the boat or hoping that some-one else would call it out (don’t confuse this with a “tone argument”; there are seriously ways to say things, even without clear anger, that will absolutely shut down any reasonable discourse with people –like, any “reductio ad Hitlerum” comparison that more often than not paints the speaker as histrionic and simply failing to understand the nuances of human experience). I mean, I guess it’s nice that, as a white, cisgender guy in the goth scene, especially as a relatively prominent DJ and photographer in one of the “flyover states”, he has been the ideal person he expects the scene to be, and presumably to the best of his knowledge, so have others in the scene that he knows, and it’s nice that he’s writing this in hopes of explaining this ideal to people who may be relative nubs, but I dunno, I’m just a little bothered by what I see as a failure to address the fact that there ARE these problems in the scene that need to be called out rather than given a “No true Scotsman” sort of pass that absolves people of the responsibility to calling it out: After all, if Jacob von Eldritch throws around “The Big N” and says that trans people aren’t the gender/s we say we are, then he’s not really a goth, so true goths have no responsibility to call out his bad behaviour —cos that’s how that fallacy is often applied, when you bring up the genocides and conversion by sword commited in the name of Christianity, there are always way more vocal Christians going “oh, well, see, no true Christian would do that sort of thing, so I don’t have to address it!”. We all know that’s BULLSHIT.

Maybe these problems I’ve described are a result of Goth getting kind of mainstreamed in the mid-to-late 1990s, maybe theses walking partial-term abortions really are a relative minority in the scene and I’ve just been that unlucky enough to have run into a lot more of them than most other people, but gods below, he doesn’t even bring up the impact and influence of Neofolk music (which, contrary to popular assumption, is NOT the sole domain of Boyd Rice fanboys and other cryptofascist couchfucks —Tony Wakeford’s claims of past ignorance of the NF, aside, Johnny Indovina of Human Drama considers much of his work to be Neofolk, I’ve seen Leonard Cohen’s early music and that of Velvet Underground and Sam Rosenthall’s black tape for a blue girl labelled “Neofolk”, a lot of musos who are popular among pagan goths, including TWH faves Faun, and also QNTAL, Faith & the Muse, and others have been variously described as “gothic folk”, “neo-Mediaeval” and, yes kiddies, “Neofolk”, and don’t even get me started on the subgenre of Martial Industrial — and I could certainly continue), and that subset of the dark alternative scene has had plenty of drama, involving accusations of all manner of nefarious -isms (some real, some just perceived by those with limited exposure to the neofolk scene), and it’s easily argued, if you want to take Leonard Cohen and Velvet Underground as “prototypes” for the Neofolk sound, to be the oldest of the “dark alternative” genres of music, so yeah, it really stands out to me that he seems to completely ignore Neofolk (especially while listing Combichrist and their sexism TWICE in “recommended music” lists).

I would’ve been at least slightly happier if he was willing to say something like “unfortunately, there is a tiny minority of people who are in the goth/Darksider music and fashion scenes [I do like how he uses ‘darksider’ as a catchall term for the several scenes often referred to as ‘goth’], but not truly immersed in the ideals that the subculture should stand for both in and outside the clubs, and thus often display behaviours and say things that are clearly racist, sexist, queerphobic, etc…,” but he didn’t and so because my experience tells me that these people DO, indeed, exist, I’m pretty discontent with his idealised vision of the Goth scene that does not hold up with reality. I guess I can understand the argument that an introductory chapter explaining mainly the history and ideals of the Gothic subculture isn’t the proper place to air that subculture’s dirty laundry, but some acknowledgement of the fact that the scene is NOT always a safe haven for the downtrodden souls of Western culture would have been far more honest, considering my own experiences.

I did, though, appreciate the last portion of the chapter that pretty much explains some of the more popular “sub-types” of Goth, and I liked that Digitalis was careful to preface this section by explaining that most Goths don’t stick to any one “look” or associated music selection too strictly —apparently I’m “Vintage Goth”, cos I wear a lot of dark colours in vintage or 60s/early 80s-inspired clothing, and I listen to a lot of Rowland S Howard, Leonard Cohen and Amy Winehouse. Eh, I prefer “Swampie” —which seems to be basically the same thing, judging from my own (albeit limited) research. I could take a moment to express surprise and generally complain that, for someone as apparently far Left as Digitalis is, in his page about “Glam Goth”, he didn’t include London After Midnight in his recommended music —I mean, come the crap on, I’ve seen people recoil in shock and horror over the fact that, after they decided to check out more of Sean Brennan’s music than club hit “Kiss”, only to realise how political he was; they’re kind of like a West Coast, spooky-glam version of Warrior Soul with a transgender1keyboardist, in terms of how political London After Midnight’s music is, for fuck’s sake (and I do genuinely mean this complimentary); how an apparently leftwing Goth about my age missed that, I haven’t a clue.

I could also complain a tad about his inclusion of “NotGoths” or “Mall Goths”, cos really now, in my experiences, this is usually teenagers, and do they even listen to Marilyn Manson, anymore? Even in the mid-1990s, Marilyn Manson was pretty much training wheels for young goths; while he factually points out that MM plays an Industrial-influenced version of heavy metal music, for some reason MM fans are “Not Goths”, but “Metal Goths” are a thing that is Goth (and curiously, Metal Goths are allowed to like MM)? Maybe I’m just being nit-picky, but c’mon, dude, you’re like my age. Even when this book was written, I was over this petty compartmentalising of people based on shit like this. Yeah, I’d still say that there’s some ineffable quality that either makes one a part of a subculture of not, but your taste in music is not it —and you don’t need to dedicate two whole pages to it (when most “goth types” got only one) in your chapter of Goth 101. Maybe I don’t get it, as I was never a Mansonite or NINnie (I certainly listened to Portrait of an American Family and The Broken EP in high school, but I got into Gothic music via my brother-in-law, who gave me some Siouxsie Sioux while I was into Marc Bolan, and anyway, as a kid who grew up with an ex-groupie and longtime Frank Zappa fan for a mum, I thought White Zombie / Rob Zombie was the superior choice for a musical heir to Alice Cooper), and I’m not necessarily assuming that Digitalis ever was, but I dunno, the amount of time he spends explaining how MM and NIN fans are “not goths”, when compared to everything else in this chapter, just seems to carry some genuine issues with it.

His next chapter is a rough primer to paganism, or is it witchcraft and magic? The back cover uses the word “Paganism”, but the pages within give a regular conflation of paganism with witchcraft and magic, using the terms, for all practical purposes, interchangeably. I honestly cannot remember the last time I read a book that made this persistent conflation as much as this one does. At one point, he says “pagans or witches”, but it’s hard for me to tell if he means “pagans or witches, as they are two different things” or “pagans, who are also known as witches”; seriously, even in context with the rest of the paragraph, it is that hard to tell which way he means “pagans or witches”. At least Urban Primitive had a chapter dedicated to explaining that one’s practises, especially if one is of the sort of Wiccanate Neopagan that was the book’s primary audience, are not necessarily the same as everyone else’s, and some, like traditional polytheists, will take great offense if you do things like move a shrine or cast circles in spaces the person did not explicitly give you permission to do so in (even though it gave much of that explanation much later in the book), and generally made it clear that not all pagans are witches. This Raven, on the other hand, seems to treat the two words synonymously, which even some of the most pinheaded “Paganism 101” sites written by overzealous thirteen-year-olds know not to do.

Then there’s this little oddity:

In the short list of various “magical paths”, he includes Heathenry. Now, as you can probably tell from this blog’s primary subject matter (Hellenism, Eros worship, and Classical Hedonism and Pluralism), I’m no Heathen — but I know enough about that community from friends who are dual-trad or from just stumbling upon blogs and such out of curiosity that I have a few quibbles with some stuff from his bit on Heathenry in this book. For starters, I’m of the understanding that Heathenry is no more a “magical path” than Hellenismos —in other words, if one is using the broad definition of “magic” that includes prayer, devotional ritual, ritual dance during festivals, and so on, then yeah, sure, it’s “magical”, but so is Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, Quakers, Judaism, Islam, hell, in terms that broad, ANY religion is “magical”, and while the line between “magic” and “religious practise” can sometimes be thin, most religions, including traditional polytheism (like Heathenry) make a clear distinction between normal religious practises that may arguably be “magical” (including apotropaic magic), the “magic” that is best reserved for specialists (like going to a Kirkean priestess to relieve a curse, or having a priest baptise your child), and the “magic” that is ostensibly taboo because it’s either hubristic in intent (in that it seeks to bind the gods and “use” them to one’s own will) or seeks to harm others who may be undeserving. He also made the really weird choice to describe the “system of magic” in Heathenry to be “Asatru”. Er…. I thought “Asatru” was simply a neologism based on old Icelandic and meaning “veneration of the Aesir” and was a term that some Heathens used as the word for their religion? And then there are those dedicated to the Vanir who describe their religion as “Vanatru”? I thought the system of magic associated with Heathenry was seidhr (or however it’s spelled), but I guess this book says that’s actually “green witchcraft” or rather “Norse green witchcraft”? (Another friend also tells me that there are at least two other schools of Heathen “magic”, or at least two other names for it, but I don’t know what those are, and he says he’s forgotten.) Needless to say, I found myself wondering if he even knew any Heathens at all during the time he wrote this book, or if he even bothered to find any of the perfectly adequate “Heathenry 101” sites that certainly existed in 2005/06.

There’s a relatively minor quibble I have with his short section on Satanism –the actual Satanic definition of Witch, as given by Anton LaVey in The Satanic Witch, is basically a woman who uses a combination of her best features, especially her physical features, to manipulate those around them, not “an outsider of society”, as Digitalis says Satanists define “witch” —of course, to avoid this error, he could’ve easily read the first chapter of The Satanic Witch, or maybe even just the back cover, not even the whole thing. Compared to the definitions he gives of Asatru and seidhr, it’s not that weird. No, the WEIRD part is that he describes the LaVeyan image of Satan to be “the Celtic god Pan” —yes, you saw correctly, “the CELTIC god PAN” Not Cernunos, PAN, of the CELTS. Hopefully he just got his notes mixed up or jotted that down on a writing bender way past his bedtime, and just continued to miss it in proofreading (I understand how that can happen, and the typos all over my novels show it).

To speak more generally, it’s clear that when it’s a religion that he’s more familiar with, possibly from hands-on experience (like Chaos Magic or Wicca), he seems to know not to make big weird mistakes like he made about Satanism and Heathenry. (As an aside, unfortunately, I don’t know enough about voodoo to say whether or not his description was generally accurate, as I’m not that close with anyone who practises it, yet I’ve known enough people who have been in the some of the other religions he describes to have a fair idea.)

And you know, for some-one who is clearly pretty far Left and digs on social justice, I mean, I know this was written in 2006, but why can’t he just say “spirit worker” instead of “shaman”? I mean, I personally understand things like loan words and linguistic drift and anthropological jargon means that the word “shaman” is an English word merely rooted in the Tungusic samén, but the fact remains that casual use of the word “shaman” by white people really seems to infuriate a lot of people, not just SJWs on Tumblr, so you’d think that a bit of sensitivity might be lent to this one? I dunno, maybe it was an editorial decision.

Aside from the fact that his short list of “magical paths” only included Alexandrian and Gardnarian Wicca, Quaballah, Heathenry, Feri, Chaos magic, Thelema, Satanism (which he even states isn’t exactly a pagan religion but he’s still including it cos… I dunno???), Green witchcraft, “Shamanism”, and Voodoo (remember, kids, this was trendy among white people between 2002 and 2007), thus making me feel really left out, and the fact that he uses “witchcraft”, “the craft”, and “paganism” pretty interchangeably throughout the whole book, and the really eyebrow-raising choices he made in describing Heathenry, again, a lot of the chapter is generally correct, but you’re really better off reading essays and books about each religion he describes that were written by people who actually practise those religions, cos if it’s not Western witchcraft or ceremonial magic with a dash of pop-Dharmic what-not thrown in for flavour, he apparently can’t keep his notes in order.

By the end of the second chapter, I was applauding his use of very general facts, even if a lot were pretty broad and not universally applicable, but totally acknowledging that when he’s wrong, he is WRONG. These are not short chapters, either. I think the shortest chapter in here is still a good twenty-eight pages long. Still, even the best-read and most analytical among us get some really weird ideas, on occasion —hell, I myself briefly questioned the moon landing, based on the idea that a flag on a 90° pole shouldn’t “wave” when it’s being unfurled in a vacuum, and then I saw a demonstration that proved it actually flaps around more in a vacuum, because there’s less resistance from the air (because there is no air in a vacuum). So, basically, I can forgive some of the really odd things he says, as there is easily a lot of information on the Internet and other easy-to-find books and other sources that can correct him, as long as he generally remains rather factual.

Chapter three is on the “Philosophy of the Dark Pagan”, a term he uses to define those who address and “work with” both “light” and “dark” energies, spirits, deities, and so on. The first half of the chapter is largely observational of the general outlook of those who overlap in the Goth subculture and Pagan/witchcraft communities. Unfortunately, this first half can be harder to follow than the other chapters if you, like myself, are attention-deficit and tend to read in shifts rather than sitting down with one book for stretches of several hours at a time (I swear, I used to be able to read a novella a day, when i was ten, then I dunno, I guess it was neuro-chemical, cos it’s a feat for me to finish a two-hundred page book in a week, in the twenty years since). The second half is mainly concerned with one’s emotional state, why one should be aware of it, and why a balanced emotional life is most beneficial to one’s spirituality. Unfortunately, by the time he starts addressing the topics of depression and suicide, he makes some pretty audacious statements that lead me to believe he’s had a pretty cushy life with very little in the way of actual hardship –by the time he says, and I quote:

We decide our fate every day of our lives —every minute and every second. Each thought we have, each action we undertake, affects the rest of our lives. We are in control of everything that happens to us —everything. This is not to be taken lightly [nor] brushed aside as New Age fluffiness.

Those are very heavy words for a primer like this, and without the necessary in-depth philosophical lessons to give it substance, it’s just dense words that come brutally close to blaming the victim. Without the context of a real, fully cohesive philosophy, there is practically nothing that separates this allegedly “ancient truth” from Libertarian bootstrap-fetishism. You can’t tell some kid at St Jude’s who’s literally dying from an inoperable and rapidly spreading Stage 4 cancer and remaining as “positive” as humanely possible that they’re choosing to die; one of my best friends is brutally bipolar, and you can’t tell me, or her, or anyone, that she decided that fate; I don’t know a single person who both was raped and actually chose that, by thought or by deed —nobody decides that, and the decisions they may have to deal with it are often limited by other external circumstances that one (often) has no real control over. If we truly decided our fate, I’d be married to Rufus Wainwright and have a cock as big as my forearm by now, thankyouverymuch, and I think most other people would be happy and successful, and not struggling with physical or mental health issues or the inhumanity of others, as well, and I doubt anyone actually benefits from a few tired lines of almost Ayn Randian motivational speech without the valuable context of a fully cohesive philosophy that simply isn’t given here, if only because he simply doesn’t have the space for it (for all I know, he was given a rough word-count limit and decided something could be sacrificed here —hell if I know). I understand the point he’s trying to make, I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I’ve had enough conversations with people who say the same things to know it’s not always necessarily as bad as it sounds, but without the context of real philosophy lessons, I can’t possibly know if he means this in the arguably “positive” ways that can actually be helpful to people who are not already coming from upper-middle to high socio-economic class backgrounds, or if he’s just another shallow boostrapist who “made his own way” on the sweat and toil of those under him. I can infer from other bits he’s said in the book and bits of bio on not only the back cover, but also his website, that it’s probably the former, in which case, it would be nice to have a bit of a reading list to expand on these ideas of his, as he’s clearly taking some stuff for granted, and assuming others will read it the way he intends without further context to give it weight beyond the appearance of “fluff”.

The fourth chapter, “The Dark Arts” is about body art, including hair and make-up. He includes photos of various eye make-up techniques, the names he’s given them, and the magical / ritual properties he associates with them. I have a few notes in the margins on this, like how he could’ve probably stood to give a safety warning about using only “glitter” that’s actually formulated as eye make-up and not craft glitter, as the latter is often actually tiny pieces of metal (usually aluminium, I believe), and can actually be very dangerous to use as eye make-up (think about why that may be) —or how he goes on about Pan being a “solar deity” in his paragraph-and-a-half about “Sunburst” eye make-up, and i can’t find a damned thing in ancient source to corroborate any solar associations with Pan, but then he also says “…or any manifestation of the God”, which suggests an inherently pan- or panentheistic (or rather “classical atheistic”) interpretation of the Divine powers, so why bother keeping his notes straight, I guess? I mean, I’m pretty sure that in actual (pre-Wiccan) Celtic traditions, the Sun is seen as a vibrant and beautiful golden woman, but whatevs, right? In all, the clear lesson is to make proper associations between one’s make-up and the mythological or significant aspects of the ritual, but it would’ve been nice to see a bit more knowledge displayed in this lesson.

He gives a similar treatment to some of the more popular hair styles in the goth scene, only without photos and without the need for much in the way of safety precautions, and both sections generally give a feeling of “if you (or your religion) associate X-qualities with something, do Y-hair/make-up for your ritual”.

When he gets to piercings, cutting, and scarifications, like in the chapter on “Magical Paths”, he says some really weird things –like how he suggests at the end of the section on scarification that branding has only very recently entered the realm of Western body mods, when in reality, branding has been in modern Western practise as an intentional body modification (rather than as a disfigurement for slaves and criminals) since about the early 1970s(?), when the practise became common among members of African-American fraternities and sororities on university campuses in the States, especially at historically Black colleges (a practise that I’ve been aware of since the early 1990s, when I noticed a scar on one of the day camp councillors at The Catholic Club and asked her about it).

He also talks a lot about the practises of various tribes in the underdeveloped world. Maybe I’ve been on Tumblr too long, but I know this can make some people really uneasy, as it may seem hard to discern why he’s bringing all this up in the first place. Now, he does bring up tribal practises in a very brief context of why these modifications are significant to the tribe’s culture, and occasionally he (very briefly) describes the kind of rites of passage and mythological significances he mentions these practises having to a tribe. I’m going to hazard a guess here, but I’m going to assume the best and suggest that he’s bringing this up because he thinks people who are spiritual should think about why they are getting these piercings, or tattoos, or brands, or otherwise making these generally permanent changes to their bodies. I see no reason to believe that he’s advocating misappropriating other people’s cultures cos “it’s teh kewliez” or vaguely “spiritually significant”, but instead stressing not only that this shit is forever, and more often than not marks us as someone who belongs to an outsider culture, but also that a lot of these markings have origins in spirituality, and he’s making an awkward plea to return to that because the physical affects the spiritual. This said, I’ve known more people in the body modification community who do give these markings a spiritual significance than not, even people i’ve only read about or maybe met only once and very briefly, including incredibly famous people (relatively speaking) like “The Vampire Woman“, Lizard Man, the late Stalking Cat, and (the incredibly underrated and under-noticed) Lincoln Theo [2], [3] will often at least vaguely allude to spiritual or philosophical motivations behind doing it.

I could nit-pick some of the associations he makes, especially on piercings (I wouldn’t recommend a navel piercing as a “fertility” charm, especially not on a cis woman, simply because well, say it works? You’re going to have to remove it before that baby is halfway done —I’d recommend it to commemorate one’s motherhood after she’s decided she’s done having babies, or to honour sexual freedom in one who has decided not to have any, but as a fertility charm, is it really worth the cost and potential risk for physical complications?). I could also point out that his list of piercings and their spiritual associations is almost identical to the same sort of list in Kaldera & Schwarzstein’s Urban Primitive, but the lists in each book are so basic that I would hesitate to call it plagiarised. For the most part, though, he does a good job on this section of the chapter.

“The Dark Arts” is by far my favourite chapter; it’s not without its issues, but I think I’ve addressed the most obvious, and really, I do believe he did have the best of intentions in regularly bringing up tribal cultures. After all, the physical and spiritual planes are not 100% separate; these are realms that, even within ourselves, constantly interact and influence each-other. (I’d like to believe that, as a trans person, I have some especial insight into how this works, as I think it should be obvious to just about anybody, but considering the nastygrams I got from other TS/TG individuals on Tumblr over saying that TS/TG people have an obligation to address their realities on a spiritual level, and [factually] stating that there is no such thing as a trans person who has a truly 100% uncomplicated relationship with their gender, I know better than to assume all trans people have an innate understanding of how the spiritual and physical interact and affect each-other.) When you put a tattoo on your shoulder, or a steel bar through your nipple, you’re altering not only the physical, but the spiritual, so when you do so, you ought to make a decision for the best reasons, not only aesthetically, but spiritually.

The next chapter, “Sex, Drugs & Rock n’ Roll” is, well, about music, drugs, and sex (in that order, not the chapter title’s order), mainly as ways of achieving states of altered consciousness to “make magic” —again, this is a very broadly-spread definition of “magic” that I see more from Pagans than I do from the Polytheist community. This is possibly the longest chapter, by both pages and word count (having fewer photos and illustrations than other long chapters in this book), and in all honesty, it should’ve either been broken up into three different ones, or had its three sections arranged better, cos the first part on music is given in something like five distinct parts, before just moving along to drugs….

The first section is on music and dance, the pros and cons of working either into ritual, how best to work it in, and some Gothically-inclined music he recommends based on Elemental alignments. For the most part, he does this very well, and the advice needs very little adjustment to be applicable to traditional polytheist rituals and festivals –after all, if Projekt Records can release three full-length compilation albums and two EPs of Christmas-themed music for Goths, there’s no need to restrict music for, say, Eros or Hekate to a couple hymns recorded by Daemonia Nymphe any more than it’s necessary to only play Johnny Mathis when you decorate the evergreen in December.

While I do generally like the music portions of this chapter, there’s also one (or two, depending on how you count the other one) of those weird and explicitly inaccurate “facts” he spouts that I just can’t let slide:

In the context of discussing the tradition of using music in mysticism, he brings up Pythagoras –OK, fair enough, one might say. After all, given Pythagoras’ musical theories (and being among the first to conclude that music is basically a field of maths), and his reputation for mysticism, it’s hard not to bring up the topic of music and mysticism in any educated fashion without bringing up Pythagoras. But Digitalis describes Pythagoras as an “early Hermetic magician”, which just isn’t in any way true. Hermeticism was a school that came about later, much later in antiquity, about 500 years after Pythagoras shuffled off his mortal coil, and during a later period of the Pythagorean school —during a period of the Pythagorean school that continued long after Pythagoras himself was dead and that was enjoying one of its periodic bursts of revived interest. It should be glaringly obvious that one cannot be a Hermetic if one didn’t live long enough to see the emergence of Hermeticism! I’m pretty sure that Pythagoras’ teachings were influential in the development of Hermeticism (after all, Pythagoras managed to influence such disparate schools of philosophy as those of Empedocles AND Plato —it would be rather odd indeed if Pythagoras’ surviving school did not have any kind of influence on the Hermetic school, given the incredibly broad range of his influence), especially during the later reconstruction of Hermeticism, but to describe Pythagoras himself as a “Hermetic magician” when even watching The History Channel will (by some fluke or another) actually give enough accurate information to say otherwise is to demonstrate an ignorance of the religious movements of Classical Antiquity. To say Pythagoras was even an “early” Hermetic would be like saying that Leonard Cohen was a founding member of The Sisters of Mercy, when all the evidence not only says he wasn’t, but that at best, Andrew Eldritch was only really influenced by Cohen’s lyrics (for those unaware, their music sounds nothing alike, and I’d say Eldritch’s lyrics pale in comparison to Cohen’s, but Eldritch has stated several times in interview that the name of the band was taken from the title of a Cohen song, and their “best of” compilation, Some Girls Wander By Mistake, was titled after a line from Cohen’s “Teachers“).

Like I said, I don’t doubt Digitalis’ skills with magic, and a lot of what he says about correlations of Goth music to certain emotional and spiritual properties shows a great intuition, and where he does have good knowledge, it really shows —but where he lacks knowledge, it also shows. To his credit, by this point, most of the time he’s lacking in factual accuracy, he doesn’t seem to be just making up whatever “feels right”, it’s like he either remembered wrong or got his notes mixed up or something –he’s not pulling shit completely out of left field, but a good percentage of the facts he spouts are still striking out.

As for my other quibble on the music section, he inserts this piece of prose in the middle of his discussion on music and mysticism and dance in ritual; I’ve seen otherwise nonfiction books do this sort of thing before, for various reasons, and I’m guessing he was trying to capture the feeling of a well-executed Goth/Industrial club night and its spiritual charge. Fair enough. I have no problem with the piece itself (unlike most prose by Goths that I’ve read, he shies away from making it too “Anne Rice-Krispie”, as a friend of mine used to say about especially clumsy purple prose); it does the job well except for one line:

You wear the same boots you’ve worn for a week —no worries, the footwear isn’t nearly as important as the makeup.

Now, maybe my relationship with Apollon places too much importance on the aesthetic arts, or maybe I’ve been hanging out with Mods and drag queens for too long —people who will often ultimately praise or destroy your outfit because of, yes, your shoe choice— but the notion that shoes aren’t nearly as important as any other element of the outfit just seems preposterous, to me.

Your shoes really can make or break an outfit, more often than not. Your shoes need not be the focal point of your outfit (in fact, very few people can ever make that sort of thing work; most of the time when people try that, it just says “LOOK AT MAH SHOOOOOESS!!!”), but your shoes are what make the difference between a Fred Perry and Levis being “street casual” (Chuck Taylors) or “business casual” (loafers or Oxfords); shoes are what makes an overbust corset and knee-length crinoline skirt either “club wear” (New Rock boots) or “prom wear” (sequined heels) —though far be it from me to discourage people from subverting the standards of “prom wear”. Not only are your shoes important to the overall appearance you’re presenting, based on everything Digitalis has said in previous chapters, shoes are necessary for the “magick” one wants to make, be it a glamour or channeling some spirit or element or whatever else one is dressing oneself for “magical intent” to do. I could also make the argument that shoes might be important for certain kinds of grounding magic, or at least I could if I had a better knowledge of that sort of thing. To say “shoes aren’t as important” as any other element of the ensemble just appalls me, considering everything else he’s said up to this point. Shoes are just as important as make-up; if you’re going to have a closet full of clothes and only one, two, or three pairs of shoes, those better be DAMNED GOOD shoes, or it just logically follows that everything he’s advised about using one’s appearance to do magic is going to go out the window.

I may not practise “magic” outside of the broadest definitions that make it indistinguishable from any other religious practises, but I have enough respect for the art of magic, especially the “physical” sort, like a glamour (after all, I was a LaVeyan Satanist), and I have enough reverence for the aesthetic arts (and can certainly see the magical qualities in said arts) to understand that if you’re going to half-ass it, DON’T DO IT. If you think that your shoes are any less important to the magical or spiritual aspects of your appearance, then you’re doing something wrong. You can’t create an image with spiritual intent by neglecting something as important to that image as your shoes.

Other than that, I have very little issue with the music section of this chapter, and so I move on to drugs. Yay! Drugs!

Like the previous section, this is broken up into pieces. He spends the first section of this on “shamanic” drug use, and generally dedicates a lot of attention to talking about practises indigenous to the Americas, specifically ayahuasca and peyote, and then relatively lesser time on wild tobacco. As with his tendencies to talk about various tribal practises in the chapter on body art, I really want to see this with the best intentions, but by this point in the book, I’m getting kind of annoyed that he hasn’t made his intentions for *why* he regularly refers back to tribal and indigenous cultures. He gives very little to discern what his intentions are for going on like this, and I really want to believe that it’s not because he’s bought into the casually racist notions of the “noble savage” that every Native/First Nations North American and Aboriginal Australian I’ve known is getting pretty damned sick of. Furthermore, National Geographic has brought out anthropologists to say condemning things about upper-middle class white kids who go on an Amazon drug safari under the mistaken assumption that taking ayahuasca, without the cultural context and respect for it that the natives have, is going to give them some sort of spiritual enlightenment, when in reality they usually just end up sick and wishing they never did it. He doesn’t give a whole lot of context for people to understand his intentions in bringing these practises up, so it can be easy for a novice to assume he’s advocating that “fast-food spirituality” where all one needs to do is believe, rather than put in the years to build up a true cultural respect for these practises.

After his talk about shamanic drug use, he briefly discusses drug use in modern pagan practises but then sort of jumps ship and into several paragraphs stressing moderation and warning against misuse and addiction. He wraps up the drug section with a bit about drug use in the goth subculture, wherein he says, and I quote:

Hard-drug addictions have absolutely no place in the Craft; I also feel strongly that they have no place in the[sic?] dark culture because of their devastating, not healing, effects.

Again, I’m having a problem with his candy-coated presentation of the Gothic subculture. Seriously. Would he be so bold as to assert that Ian Curtis (heroin user; lead singer of Joy Division), Rozz Williams (heroin addict; founding member of Christian Death and Shadow Project), Don Bolles (former speed addict; most-consistent drummer for The Germs, founding member with then-girlfriend Dinah Cancer, of 45 Grave), Rufus Wainwright (who’s been very public about formerly abusing crystal meth), Nick Cave (former heroin addict), and others who’ve not only battled drug addictions, but have been relatively open about it, have no place in dark culture? I only suggest this because when bringing up drug ADDICTION, it’s all too hard for Western people to separate the addiction from the addict. Possibly due to the taboos of drug use in modern society, people are almost trained to see the addiction as an inherent part of the addict’s psyche, and without the proper context to know if Digitalis can separate the two, I really have to stress that such sweeping statements as that one pretty much exclude a LOT of the music and art and literature that dark culture has been built on; while EA Poe himself, in reality (not Griswold’s fiction passed off as “biography”), was not a drug addict but an alcoholic (which, in biological terms, is essentially the same thing), and then Bela Lugosi sure was a morphine addict, and I can give you a laundry list of literally dozens of other influential and foundational musos, writers, and artists who were into all kinds of heroin, cocaine, and other drugs; Jim Morrison drank himself to death (as did many others), and so on, and so on…. Is drug addiction one of the aspects of Goth culture that should be celebrated and romanticised as too many dumb kids who put Rozz Williams on a pedestal too often do? (I mean, for fuck’s sake, in 1994 alone, the man released four different records under different project names, each having at least one track, most with a minimum of two, totaling at least seven songs just off the top of my head, that were about heroin.) Absolutely not, but it’s there, it exists, and even if only for a tiny fraction of the overall population of the subculture, it is a part of the subculture and it should be addressed and dealt with, not brushed off with words saying “there’s no place for it here”, when clearly it’s an elephant that has set itself up in a corner of the room literally decades ago.

Also, in the “drugs” portion, he includes a brief few lines about absinthe, and a photo of some guy he’s identified as “Erasmus” who is (allegedly) pouring out a glass of absinthe —and he’s doing it wrong. As an absintheur, I can give you a run-down of literally everything wrong with this picture: For starters, the “absinthe spoon” looks more like a slotted pie spade (minute, but very telling differences between the two tools) and he appears to be pouring a full wine glass of some substance, allegedly absinthe (though I have my doubts) over a sugar cube placed on the pie spade —which you never want to do. As an absintheur, a proper dose is about three-quarters of an ounce (should not exceed a full ounce; especially if you’re drinking “homemade” stuff by steeping “wormwood and a combination of other herbs” [which he fails to mention are green anise and sweet fennel –you know, the two of the three core herbs in absinthe that both contribute most-significantly to its flavour and *aren’t toxic* –a fact that he fails to mention in even the vaguest suggestion] in vodka [I would never use, as Digitalis suggests, Everclear —the alcoholic content is WAY too high, so combine that with the fact that most people who try to make it at home have no idea what they’re doing, you’ll end up risking more damage to your body than renal failure –but hey, who needs their kidneys! He doesn’t even really say that wormwood can be danged toxic in sufficient dosage, and he only barely covers his arse by beginning this section with a very brief note claiming he doesn’t actually condone illicit drug use, which doesn’t technically cover wormwood. I probably shouldn’t even pretend that “the homemade stuff” is in any way real absinthe, it’s like the difference between a fine Greek coffee and instant Sanka or worse, but I’ll be diplomatic and entertain the play-actors for a mo’), if you have a proper absinthe glass, the dosage should be marked at the bottom of the glass itself, and you fill the rest of the glass with ice-cold distilled water —this creates a cloudy effect and turns the liquid from green to almost pure white due to the chemical reaction of anise when cold water is added –properly mixed, it should glow under blacklight. I mean, seriously, if you’re going to mime this stuff for photos, do some proper research; I learned this shit at the age of 14 (long story, and I don’t even remember all of it), a proper French style absinthe ritual is NOT HARD (the other way it’s often served is called “Czech ritual”, which involves pouring the liquor over the sugar first, and lighting the sugar on fire, and then adding water –I never got the hang on the right timing for all that), and some-one my age can certainly learn the right way to do it for staging a photo for his book if only because I know as far back as 1998 (much less the peak of the absinthe revival, during which this book was being written), there have been websites that accurately describe proper French and Czhech style absinthe ritual. If he can research the names of famous absintheurs (though oddly missing possibly arguably the most famous –Henri Toulouse-Lautrec), he can surely have stumbled upon one of the dozens of web pages with a proper absinthe ritual.

Then there’s his section about sex.

The first part of this section is about sex magic, its ethics, its purposes, and some of his beliefs about what sex magic and sex in ritual is all about. Unfortunately, he leans too heavily on a lot of the “Pop Dharmic” side of things, which I’m usually really leery of. He also makes a bizarre and non-factual connection between the base chakra, the caduceus, and the latter symbol’s erroneous placement as a symbol of medicine. I mean, in general, the section isn’t that bad, but even if you’re not as leery of the pop-Dharmic stuff as I am, as I said before: When he’s wrong, he is WRONG.

He also devotes a couple paragraphs in this first part to very briefly discuss polyamoury, and points out that it’s fairly common in the pagan community, and then recommends Raven Kaldera’s book Pagan Polyamoury, which he then follows with the statement “Kaldera himself is actuially a female-to-male transsexual and highly active in the transgendered and intersexed communities”, cos we all know that the history of Kaldera’s genitals is incredibly relevant to polyamoury! I mean, yeah, it’s true that he’s TG and also one of the handful of TG people who also have a legitimate claim to being IS (if I had a nickel for every TS/TG person who *seriously admitted* that they only were claiming to be IS cos they thought other people would think it was more “legitimate”, I could put my Etsy shop on vacation for a week –just think how long I could extend that if I decided to include all the other TS/TG people who falsely claim to be IS and *don’t* admit it?) but what does that have to do with polyamoury? As I flip ahead, yeah, Digitalis addresses TS/TG people and the IS community, so why not bring that up there? It’s not like being TS/TG has anything to do with polyamoury –in fact, most of the TS/TG people I know aren’t, and tend to distrust those who are, because for all the talk that polyamorous people give to themselves and others they want to convert about boundaries and trust and honesty, for some reason precious few of them have any respect for boundaries that are not one’s own. Think about why a trans person might be protective of certain personal boundaries, look up the annual “Lists of Our Dead” for the Transgender Day of Rememberance and think long and hard about why trans people tend to value personal boundaries above all else, and the implicit privacy that goes with that; seriously, Kaldera is, in my experiences, an exception –and even if he wasn’t, his trans status has nothing to do with his polyamoury.

Then for some reason, the next part of the Sex section is on BDSM and “kink culture”. I say “for some reason”, because other than pointing out that the media likes to hype BDSM as “goth sex”, he says nothing in the six paragraphs about BDSM that relates back to paganism until the very end, wherein he recommends further reading in Kink Magic by Taylor Ellwood and Lupa, and Dark Moon Rising by Raven Kaldera. Well, OK, he *does* mention the etymology of the word “fetish” as an inanimate object believed to have certain spiritual qualities, but then in the same paragraph, he goes right back to paraphilias. I had to read this section again just to make sure that he said pretty much nothing useful about how BDSM can relate back to pagan religious practises; he gives a general description about how it’s mostly about sensory stimuli and control and pushing one’s own personal boundaries —which can very generally relate back to pagan spirituality and ritual practises, but so can what we eat, where we shop, and how we vote. Giving people a reading list isn’t the same thing as describing how a practise can be utilised in ritual, even if he’d rather leave the meat of that discussion to people more experienced; he has no problem giving relatively detailed descriptions of ayahuasca use among South American tribes, so why he’s decided to shy away from even statements of how arguably BDSM elements crop up in mythologies from all over the world and just plainly stating that with careful application, this can be incorporated into ritual, and maybe likening it to how folk Christian / “Christopagan” practises in the Philippines include people re-enacting the crucifixion over Easter weekend as an act of dedication…. For the page and some he decided to dedicate to BDSM, I really think it could’ve been done a little better.

Then there’s his GBLTs section, or rather “GLBTI”, and the T and I get their own sections, as well. It starts out just this side of ill-informed: He defines the word “queer” as practically any GLB person, implicitly removing the radical socio-political connotations the word has built up since at least Derek Jarman was still alive (see his book At Your Own Risk). As best as I can tell, though, he’s no GBLT, so I guess it’s easy enough to forgive.

He then goes on to state that neither Goth nor Neopagan cultures negatively judge people based on sexual orientation –not only does he need to keep up with the Coilhouse blog or at least rewatch Penelope Spheris’ Suburbia (cited by some from the old deathrock.com forum archives as right up there with Return of the Living Dead as films that accurately represent deathrockers, and the film begins with one of the lead characters helping his friend run away from home cos “his dad is a faggot –can you believe that?” NO JUDGEMENT HERE!), there is seriously no shortage of people who’ve criticised Gardner and other early writers of Wicca for arguably homophobic passages. While true that the cultural influence of these works on the Neopagan community is arguably waning, it’s still easy for me to find homophobia amongst Neopagans, and it’s even easier to find it when we expand our search to Heathens, which Digitalis himself includes as Neopagans, and other polytheist reconstructionists. At this point, I found myself questioning whether or not this was intentional sugar-coating, or if he really was that sheltered –at the approximate time that this book was written, I’d already encountered enough homo- and transphobic sorts in the Hellenic community and on MysticWicks alone that I really gotta wonder about this guy’s experiences, sometimes.

Again, the history part of this section is generally correct –but if Tumblr has taught me nothing else, it’s that his statement that GBLTs embody associations of both genders is going to piss off someone who believes that religion should never challenge oneself nor one’s ideas about oneself. Well, he’s “generally correct” if you can forgive how he kind of just glosses over everything that was actually far more particular than he makes it seem (like how he mentions the warrior-lovers that composed the Sacred Band of Thebes, but speaks of it so vaguely that if one didn’t know better, it would be easy to assume this was an especially widespread practise throughout not only Hellas, but the entire Græco-Roman world! Seriously, he makes no distinction between Hellas or Rome, it’s always “the Greco-Romans”) –like I said, this is supposed to be a bit of a primer, so while it bugs me, considering all the stupid I’ve put up with in this chapter, so far, in general this glossing-over of facts that really need more detailed information (like specifying that the practice of warrior-lovers was particular to the Sacred Band of Thebes, in Boiotia –just thirteen more words, just a fraction of a sentence more) is kind of a petty annoyance. Then there’s the fact that he constantly parses this in watered-down Pop Wicca terms and describes the deities as merely “personifications” of facets of this amorphous “Spirit” that “non-theistic pagans” keep going on about, and pretty early on in the section he paints an inaccurate and idealised picture of sexuality in India —you know, one of those places where there are still active sodomy laws that make homosexuality a criminal offence, where homophobia is allegedly pretty damned prevalent, and where some gurus claim to be able to “cure” homosexuality through yoga –but hey, I get it: OH, YOU NOBLE BROWN SAVAGES, WHO ARE SO MUCH WISER THAN US WHITE DEVILS, TEACH US MISLED WESTERNERS HOW TO TREAT OUR GIBLTs!!!! This chapter has kind of become my breaking point with this stuff, especially as someone who has the plain sense to at least acknowledge that colonialism still impacts daily life in India in some of the most terrible ways, this inaccurate picture of attitudes towards homosexuality in India is kind of infuriating, and from where I stand, in this instance, it serves no other purpose than that “noble savage” nonsense, which is really little more than a “kinder, gentler” racial stereotyping –and remember kids, even the so-called “positive stereotypes” aren’t good.

Furthermore, every time he refers to either Hellenic or Roman practises, he says “Greco-Roman”, or “the Greco-Romans”, as if they were just one big happy culture, and not a collection of thirty-odd tribes, or fifty-odd+ when you factor in the Italic peninsula, that were loosely “united” by a megalomaniac Makedonian, and then colonised and enslaved by another culture –nope, just one big happy culture and what was done in Thebes was done in Rome and the realities of Sicily were the reality of Cyrene… I just kind of gave up here and decided to skim for when it gets less stupid.

By the way, I really hate how he says “nonstraight” rather than “non-heterosexual” –even though he never actually admits that “straight”, as a sexual identity, means “normal”, his habit of saying “nonstraight” just kind of highlights the implications of “normal” with “straightness”, and this seems unwittingly highlighted in his statement that “many Goths are effeminate but identify as straight” –why would they need to do that unless “straight” meant “normal”? Effeminacy is not something that goes hand-in-hand with non-heterosexuality, it’s a choice of presentation, a loose collection of roles, and arguably ingrained personality traits that have become associated with “acting feminine” –if being “straight” is about sexual orientation, then wouldn’t it be obvious when someone consistently dates people who are of the opposite gender? Of course it would, but when a man is effeminate, it’s not apparent that he is “straight”, because “straightness” is less about being heterosexual than it is about being a “normal” heterosexual –and so when an effeminate heterosexual man asserts he is “straight”, he is asserting that he is “normal” simply because he is heterosexual. Thus by identifying GBLTs as “nonstraight”, Digitalis is unwittingly asserting that non-heterosexuality is implicitly abnormal, in spite of everything else he’s so far claimed in this section.

That said, most of this part of the chapter seems to very generally explain that the idea of a fixed sexual orientation is rather fallacious and that many ancient societies regarded those who preferred homosexuality as relatively normal, at least when compared to the very clear homophobia of the Christian era. He follows this up with a list of “queer-friendly” deities, which he credits Chris Penzack with assisting him on, in addition to recommending Penzack’s book Gay Witchcraft. The list seems fine, at least from what I know about the Hellenic deities mentioned.

When he gets to the Transgender section of the Sex part of this chapter, he pretty much jumps right into making cultural/spiritual analogues to Native Americans, India’s hijra caste, and a vague reference to Southeast Asian kathoey, which he inaccurately likens to Indian hijra (in practise, and as best as my research has determined over the last several years, “kathoey” is a word used not only in Thailand but also in Laos and possibly other countries in the region, and is typically a pejorative slur with some level of reclaiming, and is applied very broadly to not only anyone on the MTF spectrum, including drag queens, but also to effeminate gay men). While it’s understandable that he wants to play up the spiritual roles that some indigenous American tribal people give to “two-spirits”, even Wikipedia describes the historical social roles of two-spirits in certain tribes as far more varied. As I’ve said before, I get that this is a primer, most of the info contained within isn’t supposed to be in-depth, but you know, so is Wikipedia a primer, and a far more basic one than a book like this is supposed to be. He also fails to explicitly state that not only is the recognition and acceptability (after all, even in tribes where two-spirit folk are acceptable, not all of them are revered) contained to only some tribes, but a handful of tribes have issues with both homophobia and transphobia — poet and non-fiction writer, Max Wolf Valerio, who is of the Kainai (Blackfoot) nation and also FTM has described his experiences with both, extensively, and in a basic search of “native Americans” and “transgender”, he’s pretty easy to find.

While Digitalis’ brief summary of the hijra caste seems generally correct in the way that it’s generally correct to say that a tomato is produce (though if you want to get specific, botanically it’s a berry, not just a fruit), as he wraps up, he notes that many hijra are “forced to beg or embrace the role of a religious prostitute”; I take issue with his usage here of “or embrace”, as the French root for “embrace” implies “to fold into the arms, covet”, which in the common parlance would imply that this would be a welcomed role, when in fact, it is not —at least according to Human Rights Watch. Furthermore, the best sources I can find on temple prostitution in India states that not only has it been criminalised, but the role of devadasi is one reserved for cisgender girls AND only really transitioned from a role that seems more-comparable to actual Japanese geisha or Hellenic hetaera (in other words, not common brothel prostitutes, but high-status entertainers and companion women; in ancient Hellas, pornai/em>, or common brothel prostitutes were slaves, whereas hetaerai [though often formerly slaves] were the only caste of women who were essentially “free citizens” in most, if not all Hellenic city-states, as evidenced by the fact that they were required to pay taxes and allowed access to almost all places where, typically, only men were permitted [the most prominent exception I can think of being the men’s gymnasia]) during British colonisation, when the temples were stripped of their power in the communities, this drove many, and eventually all temples that employed them to force the devadasi into prostitution as it was often the only means to keep many temples afloat. While I can certainly find plenty of resources on hijra prostitution, and on the history (the REAL history) of temple prostitution in India, I can find no real link to hijra and temple prostitution, in specific. Again this was a pretty easy find while checking Mr. Digitalis’ facts for him, and by this point, I’m pretty annoyed by how frequently he aims for “truthiness” to uphold this pre-conceived picture he has made of non-Western cultures, and if not for the fact that I’m almost done with this chapter, I’d just give up and move on to the next one.

That said, after he finishes polishing up his “noble savage” picture of, well, “all kinds of Indian” (sorry… it was such a cheap joke I felt I had to; apologies all around, it shan’t happen again), he does wind up this portion with a pretty adequate summary of gender and the Gothic subculture and how some people summarise Goth as being a “transgender subculture” (and I can say I’ve seen the same thing said), in that it’s relatively acceptable to blur and tear down gendered boundaries but, he notes, it’s actually less a broadly “transgender” subculture than it is an effeminate subculture, as the most common form of this is the embrace of all manner of femininity in men and women (and everyone else), even though most goths are generally cisgender. He then makes a mildly tacky comment about how all the (his word) “trannies” he knows seem virtually indistinguishable from the gender they identify as, but honestly, he clearly means this in a positive spirit, so I personally don’t mind this anywhere near as much as I do his continued reliance on the “noble savage” archetype that he seems prone to fall back on every single time; it certainly would’ve been nice to see at least a vague reference to Emperor Elagabalus, and especially the Kybelian galli, or Ovid’s version of Caeneus (who is sometimes told as a FTM story, being magically transformed to a man by Poseidon/Neptune), or at least a reference to Dionysian ritual transvestitism or the myth of Hermaphroditos, much less the legendary Theban prophet of Apollon and advisor to legendary king Kadmos, Tiresias, who was said to have lived seven years as a woman by will of Hera (if only I should be so lucky to see that in a Llewellyn book!)— hell, apparently African pantheons are full of transgender mythos, too, but I guess the whole “noble savage” trope in reference to India and Indigenous Americans was far too important to devote any space to anything else.

His next section is “Intersex and Middlesex”, which is seriously less than a page long, and focuses one paragraph on a heavily simplified biology and then on the idea of non-binary gender, which isn’t really at all related. I’m really disappointed that he completely ignores another opportunity to give a brief run-down of Intersex / Non-Binary-Gendered mythology; while he acknowledges that being IS or non-binary isn’t the same thing as being TS/TG, and it is kind of a disappointment that more TS/TG people completely eschew any semblance of having even the tiniest bit of complication in relationship with their gender, I think it would’ve served things a little better for the flow of the book to just consolidate this with the TS/TG portion. He supplements this portion with a page giving a couple common examples of gender-neutral pronouns, but as a TS/TG person, myself, I see enough other *binary-identified* TS/TG people advocating this concept (even if not these specific pronouns) that breaking this off like he did just feels a mite unnecessary.

Finally, he wraps up this long and often very stupid chapter with a refreshingly valid and relevant section about the relationship between the Goth subculture and effeminacy and femininity. In theory, I could nit-pick here or there, but in all honesty, I really recommend that everyone who’s relatively new to Goth, or anyone in the scene who has ever been called out for homo- or transphobia by anyone ever to read this and take the overall message of it to heart —I mean, really, the way that the people who’ve endured this subculture for decades really grok a lot of what he’s saying here (I’ve had discussions about this with people on both sides of the Atlantic, and most of us who’ve been around the bat cave a few times all say essentially what he has here) really does make way for a sort of litmus test to help discern who’s really into it and who’s just a tourist or a kid trying to rebel.

The next chapter is on magic, and guess what? This is where he finally defines “magic” as he’s been using it in this book! Roughly three-quarters of the way though this book, and we finally learn the definition he’s been using this whole time, just in case the nubs might be confused! That said, upon defining it, he basically goes right back to assuming any religion but Christianity is going to use “magic’ the same way he is, in spite of the fact that, at the very least, most of the Heathens I know are essentially like most of the Hellenists i know: There is religious ritual anyone can do (which may include things that Digitalis is including in his ultra-broad definition of ‘magic”, like prayer or apotropaic rit), there is the kind of “magic” best reserved for specialists (and which a lot of “hard-line recons may unnecessarily distrust), and there is the taboo sort of “magic” that is arguably hubristic or otherwise insulting to the gods. He makes no distinction here, which seems to support my argument that he has a very homogenised idea of what “Paganism” is or at least should be, considering that he lists Heathenry among his ‘magical paths”, but then proceeds as if he’s never met a practising Heathen, who is a part of the Heathen community in his life.

As for the specifics he discusses in this chapter, as I’ve said before, my knowledge of magic is very limited, and I’m probably not the best to judge this, even if I can certainly state my grievances with the way he speaks so broadly about “pagans” and “witches” as if the two are one-in-the-same, to the point of erasing large portions of the pagan community. He also demonstates the inability to tell the difference between an altar and a shrine (and not just in this chapter). His concept of ritual fallaciously conflates religion and psychology (or at least really seems to), and given all that, I just gave up, and I’ve decided that if I read the last chapter, which seems largely concerned with the use of blood in ritual, I don’t need to do so for this review, cos… I give up. I just give up, book. You’ve beaten me.

In conclusion, don’t get me wrong: In general, I can see that he does say a lot of good things throughout this book, but overall, it’s a better introduction to the Gothic subculture than it seems to serve as an introduction to paganism and witchcraft (which he seems unaware of, or at least doesn’t care are two different things). He seems to have a very specific view of pagan spirituality that seems heavily based in Chaos Magic, Ceremonial Magic, “disciplined eclecticism” (whatever that is), and enough pop-Dharmic stuff to keep from seeming too Euro-centric, and as I’ve said throughout, he really does seem to have an infatuation with this farkakte “noble savage” archetype that needs to be addressed yesterday (and hopefully, he has addressed it in the last seven years). While I genuinely believe that he has considerable respect for the tribes he constantly references, the way in which he does so could use some revision so as not to seem like he’s advocating that “fast-food spirituality” and misappropriation of other people’s cultures for the sake of looking like a “non-conformist” in the developed world. While he certainly has some great intuitions on how to use one’s hair styles, clothes, make-up, record collection, and dance to enhance one’s spirituality, he needs to organise his notes and improve his fact-checking skills. He also needs to stop this constant treatment of “pagan” and “witch” as virtual synonyms when, even at the time this book was written, a quick perusal of the pagan sites on the Internet at the time would make it clear that the two ideas are quite different. That said, a lot of the information he supplies is very easily applied to just about any religious ritual with minimal effort. It would’ve helped this book a lot to at least make a clear statement of the definition of “magic” he’s employing far earlier in the text, as I can see the casual use of the definition he uses is something he takes for granted, unaware that he may turn off a potential audience by failing to make this clear as early on as he really needed to.

I give this book points as high as I did because, for all its problems, it’s got hell of heart behind it; it’s like watching an Ed Wood film, in a way —granted, Digitalis can write better than Wood could direct, act, produce, and write, combined, but all the flaws kind of sucked me in, similar to how the “flying saucers” of pie tins on fishing line and plywood standee “tombstones” in Plan 9 From Outer Space can suck one in because of the ineffable earnestness apparent behind it: It’s a flawed, and at times painfully stupid book, but it doesn’t talk down to the reader, and there’s not only some decent material in here, he clearly believes in this thing like nobody’s business, and you can tell. He also had this way of unwittingly reminding me of what attracted me to the gothic subculture when I was thirteen and discovering my brother-in-law’s Siouxsie & the Banshees records: There’s a lot of very human emotion, and a lot of beautiful souls into dark culture; it’s all at once quirky and refined and silly and sophisticated and gloomy and fun; save for a handful of arseholes (most of whom seem content to let that flag fly on the Internet) it’s also one of the few subcultures where not only GBLQ and TS/TG/IS folk, but also where male femininity are all accepted and celebrated for what they are, rather than pushed to the side and whispered about and scapegoated and pathologised, as is all too common in the overculture. I’d recommend it to anyone who is already gaining a good foundation in their pagan religion but who is also interested in the gothic subculture and might need some help on how to blend the subculture into one’s practises; you gotta be patient with some things, but it’s not as bad as I expected it to be (I really was prepared to make a scathing 0-star review when I first got this thing) –I have no idea why it got all the praise that it did when it came out in 2007, but it’s an adequate effort that’s probably better revised and edited than laid to rest (and I’d absolutely be willing to help on a second edition).

As it stands, it’s worth maybe grabbing for a dollar or two, if you can find it in such a bin, or checking out from the library, if only for the compelling Ed Wood-like appeal I’ve described –it’s worth a dollar just to see that. But honestly, a lot of the best info in here could’ve been blogged, and it needs some heavy revisions before I’d say it’s worth picking up at list price.

1: I think I met Tamlyn at Bar Sinister when I lived in Hollyweird, but I’m not sure. Either way, I’m pretty sure that they’re somewhere on the TG spectrum.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

2 thoughts on “[review] Goth Craft: The magickal side of dark culture by Raven Digitalis

  1. I agree with most of your critiques of the book; and, I’ve shared some of them with Raven personally, as I do actually know him.
    (Incidentally, he’s at very least bisexual in actuality, so he is actually a GLB.)
    Raven is one of the most genuine, earnest, and good-hearted people I’ve ever met within modern paganism.
    He’s also one of the most poorly-informed individuals I’ve met in the movement who is writing (several) books and giving courses, and who even appeared on some MTV documentary or news-bits in the last seven years. Part of this has to do with his location, as he’s operating out of Missoula, MT, so take that into consideration; part of it is likewise that his main teacher/advisor/HPs is extremely misinformed, but he has taken her at her word (because he’s trusting and good-hearted–and he is!) when he probably shouldn’t have done so. (I had a talk with her at PantheaCon the last time I saw him there, too, which was in ’09 or so, I think, and she didn’t seem to understand that there was a difference between the Scythians and the Scottish–who are, of course, “Celts,” and thus are the same as the Scythians…but, because she has a B.A. from some university or other, why should anyone question her information or authority?)
    But, he’s also very open to discussion, critique, and (perhaps most importantly) correcting, and he does freely admit that he doesn’t know everything, and has been misinformed in many cases. So, there’s hope there.

    • It wouldn’t surprise me at all if everything you said about him was true –he does seem to be genuinely nice, in just about all I’ve seen from him. Like I said, I’m being more forgiving of this book than I would’ve been if I had not sensed some massive heard behind it —which is what makes Ed Wood’s early films (you know, before he got desperate for cash and did a string of no-budget girlie flicks) watchable, in spite of their flaws; Wood believed in what he was doing, and most of the people who worked with him had nothing but nice things to say about him, as a person, even if they realised he was one of the worst writer-directors. I make the comparison as a compliment.

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