[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.

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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.

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

urban-primitive-kaldera-schwartzsteinTitle: 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??

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”.

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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.