Librarian’s Nook #2: Magical familiars and magical plants

by Anna Urbanek

In this episode we go on deep dives into my favorite topics: occult and plants. And we’re being very critical of what we read. I don’t know why, but I happen to apply higher standard to occult books, maybe because it’s so easy for them to go into ‘woo’ territory if the authors don’t pay enough attention.

The Witch’s Familiar: Spiritual Partnerships for Successful Magic

by Raven Grimassi

This is a weird book. I’m very glad I’ve decided to not write reviews, because I honestly don’t know how to review it.

I’ve picked it up, as the idea of familiars and ally spirits has always appealed to me. With the name of the author, it all wraps up into a personalized package very much resembling my Shadowrun Raven-mentored witch and her ally spirit. You know, sounded like totally my thing.

It is… Weird. First of all, this is actually going to be a very useful book in a small familiar-adjacent project I have in mind. The book introduces the idea and history of familiar spirits, as well as their distorted version introduced to the public during witch hunts (all the blood-sucking imps). What many worldbuilders might find useful, it discusses the different types of familiars: physical (usually animals, but also plants), astral (‘though-forms’ or spirits), and artificial (created by the magician, like spirit-imbued items, homunculi, golems, etc.). It also introduces various uses of familiars as messengers, healers, diviners, deliverers of spells, protectors, and many more.

In general: a very useful book, covering many aspects of working with a familiar: how to find it (or be found by it), how to summon it, send it on errands, hot to release it back to the astral space, how to sever the bond completely, how to protect yourself from familiars of other magicians… All kinds of things, complete with designs of seals and rituals.

The trouble lies in details. Grimassi mentions multiple times that the relationship between a witch and a familiar is not one of servitude, that it’s a mutually beneficial and agreed-upon set-up. AND THEN he proceeds to provide all kinds of methods to ensure obedience, to bind a familiar, to force it into compliance, to ‘straighten it’ if it ‘starts to have a mind of their own’. I really shouldn’t have to explain that forced servitude is slavery, and it makes the author’s methods immediately suspect. As much as I don’t mind him dwelling on the need to counterattack when one is in danger (he doesn’t have a high opinion about Wiccan Rede), this hypocrisy on the matter crucial to the whole idea of working with a familiar spirit makes me cautious about everything else in this book.

Which sucks, because there’s obviously a lot of research done for this book, and it contains a bunch of curious ideas that I know would be great for a book or a game. I can see the roots of some of the rituals the author is performing (like the shamanic journey though the cave of the Underworld to meet the familiar for the first time) and I can see the effort put into creating the seals (which check out, for the negotiable value of ‘check out’ one assigns to the occult lore). But the mix of slavery and constant mentions of sexual stimulation (to energize the blood and breath to enhance the power of the rituals; in practice using the secretions to create a magical bond with, for example, your cat) make me deeply uncomfortable.

One concept is quite interesting, tough: the concept of magical personality, a thought-form in the outer auric band. It is supposed to grant the user significant magical abilities for protection, banishing, and dissolving magic. You need to mentally establish this personality through meditation on power, compassion, and wisdom. It is the power available for ‘higher self’ (one’s consciousness and connection to the divine), and must be balanced with wisdom and compassion. You need a new magical ring or an amulet for it, and a meaningful name for the magical personality, distinct from the ‘mundane’. After prolonged, thorough meditations on each of the topics, there is a short ritual to be performed in which you end up creating a silvery, hooded silhouette, subsequently bound to the ring or amulet and ready to be used when necessary. I need to do more research and try to find this technique described by another author.

As with many book, the most useful material for worldbuilding is in the appendix: notes on the lore and correspondences of various types of animal familiars (e.g., coyote – wisdom, cleverness, trickery; rooster – guardianship, vigilance, protection; dragonfly – metamorphosis, new perspectives, changes), including some really interesting discussion on the cultural (Western European, mostly) significance of witchcraft-adjacent animals (real and fantastical). Also, a handy list of names for familiars taken from historical sources. Lots of primary and secondary sources quoted and referenced too, and bibliography is always a good thing. I’m definitely going to get back to this book (well, the appendices) if/when I start writing the book on real-world magical animals.

Organic Gardening Beginner’s Manual

by Julie Turner

An absolutely basic, short book, introducing the core concepts of organic gardening. I will, this time, let the ‘organic’ go, because it’s not a hill that I have time for currently. I’ve read this book while doing research for the ‘Gardening and cultivation’ chapter of Herbalist’s Primer, trying to figure out how others are structuring their Gardening 101 material. It’s not a bad book, and it fulfills its role quite well: simple language, actionable advice, useful tables of growing periods for various vegetables (with the author living in Australia, we actually get the tables for both Northern and Southern hemispheres, which is cool).

If you need absolute basics for some gardener speech, want to know what’s up with the soil acidity or wonder whether you can compost bones or use blood as an organic fertilizer (yes), this is a quick, condensed read, which won’t take you a lot of time, but will leave you with well structured, basic knowledge. I don’t know if it’s the best book in its niche (statistically unlikely), but it’ll do pretty well as a starting point for future research. I don’t consider my time wasted here.

The Witch’s Guide to Wands: A Complete Botanical, Magical, and Elemental Guide to Making, Choosing, and Using the Right Wand

by Gypsey Elaine Teague, Orion Foxwood (Foreword)

I think the ‘complete’ in the title is false advertising. This is mostly a guide to correspondences of trees, with extra musings and mentions on the religious, magical, spiritual, and industrial use of various trees and their wood. The author has two decades of experience in woodworking and lot in wandmaking, and her insights on how to work with each type of wood are probably the one aspect of this book that sets it apart from others. Shame those parts are usually just a sentence or two.

In general, a pretty good book on the magical nature of trees, with a strong Wicca vibe and general ‘Pagan’ array of deities. Gives me a good idea of what I’d like to do if I ever wrote a book on magic trees: a lot of supplemental material about woodworking, carpentry, drying and seasoning wood, wandmaking, creation of bows, arrows, and other wooden weapons, sculpting wood, maybe even making magical musical instruments? All the COOL things, not just giving people hardness scores and suggesting using sandpaper instead of lathe.

I have some problems with this book, because the author jumps between being ridiculously gatekeeping (‘you need to be an Elder Pagan and have at least a decade of woodworking experience to apply for an apprenticeship with me’), and in other places, she’s annoyingly handwavy, making claims without quoting sources and presenting things as ‘facts’ but ‘you decide if it’s true’. And I don’t mean ‘occult facts’; I mean science.

“Crushed apple seeds have a trace amount of hydrogen cyanide, an extremely poisonous liquid. Eating apple seeds casually from time to time should not affect you too severely; however, there have been reports of people dying from eating the seeds over years and decades and building up a toxic level in their system. Whether these stories are true or not would depend on how brave, or foolish, you feel when eating apple seeds.”

No. Simply: no. If you put something like that in your book, it is your freaking freaking responsibility to do your research. You don’t get to threaten people with death and then let them ‘choose’ whether what you say is true.

  1. Apple seeds do not have hydrogen cyanide; they have amygdalin, which is a cyanogenic glycoside. Amygdalin only metabolizes into hydrogen cyanide in the digestive tract.
  2. An adult would need to eat between 150 to several thousands of crushed/finely chewed apple seeds in one seating to cause an acute poisoning.
  3. Human body can progress hydrogen cyanide in small doses (like the ones delivered while eating an apple or five), mostly by turning it to thiocyanate, safely and quickly excreted in the urine. Some is also excreted with the sweat, saliva, of simply breathed out (it’s a liquid of a boiling point of 25.6 degree centigrade, it’s basically a gas in this case).
  4. Chronic poisoning with cyanide (which happens much more often with improperly processed cassava roots than with apples) results in weakness, paralysis, nervous lesions, hypothyroidism, miscarriages, and mild liver and kidney damage.

These are the facts, and none of them are dependent on how brave you feel eating apple seeds.

You see, I believe that if you decide to write a book on the occult AND mix it with science, you owe it you your readers – nay, you have a duty to do your research correctly instead of just tossing throwaway lines like that and adding a disclaimer: ‘but what do I know, do your own research’.

She also makes some weird claims about linden being ‘the symbol of Germany as a country and of it’s most notorious leaders,’ but quotes no sources, and I can’t confirm it with my research, which casts a shadow of the doubt at other entries.

As far as botanical side goes, it’s also wonky in places. ‘Wild cherry’ entry lists Amygdaloideae as the genus (and even the Latin form clearly shows it’s not one, as it’s plural) and prunus (lowercase) as the species, then proceeds to say that “The species Prunus also includes the almond, apricot, peach, and plum varieties.” In reality, Prunus (uppercase) is the genus, the plant she’s trying to talk about is a species called Prunus avium, and almonds, apricot, and plums belong to the same genus and comprise many distinct species and their hybrids. Amygdaloideae is a subfamily within the family Rosaceae. While talking about chestnut (specifically, American chestnut, Castanea dentata), she fails to mention that it’s a critically endangered species and most of the wood available for purchase is reclaimed from old barns and other buildings or harvested from trees that fell to the fungal diseases or parasites, which must have a magical significance. Instead, she treats all chestnuts as a single species, while assigning the qualities to the one that should not be exploited, but actively revitalized (which is already a thing since 1980, so an experienced woodworked must’ve known about it). And she’s conflating purpleheart (the tree, Peltogyne spp), sometimes called amaranth due to its color, with actual amaranth (the crop, Amaranthus spp.), mixing up the lore and legends. And she assigns the story about Apollo and Daphne to cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) instead of the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), where it belongs. There are more of things like that, and they irk me.

The author gets even back to cyanogenic glycosides and the Prunus genus in the peach entry, and she writes about them correctly there! In general, this book gets better as you read it; there are much fewer mistakes like that in later entries. If I were to guess, the author was working on the book in alphabetical order and learned a lot of things as she progressed – which is perfectly fine and exactly the same thing I did. I just wish she returned to those first entries and gave them a reread.

On a positive note, her listings of plants, correspondences, and pantheons reach outside North America, Europe, and Mediterranean shores, so that’s cool. I don’t have enough knowledge on the subject to confirm the accuracy, though. She also isn’t shy of including ‘negative’ magical uses, like causing harm to people or objects. Not very Wicca of her, but good for RPG material. Also, the author goes (in much less detail) over wands made of metal, so if you’re interested in magical properties of gold, brass, or tin, it’s a decent starting point.

The author has also written a book on steampunk magic and another called “Practical Chainmail in the Current Middle Ages” (which, according to Goodreads, is ‘the most comprehensive how to knit chainmail book ever written. Over 190 photos and illustrations that cover basic patterns of European armor and the more decorative Oriental mail patterns’), so I don’t think this is the last time we see her work.

36 Healing Herbs: The World’s Best Medicinal Plants

by Rebecca L. Johnson

This is a National Geographic Short. It’s accurate – and short. Exactly what it says on the cover and not much beyond that. Science checks out, the described plants have a tiny bit of ethnobotanical descriptions + more complete notes on their active compounds. The author mentions research studies and tests, sadly without actual names or searchable terms, and doesn’t usually quote her sources. She provides the standard dosage of various preparations, though, which is a plus. Considering the depth of the information, you’re probably better off checking out the Wikipedia articles, as they come with links to the studies mentioned.

One Comment on “Librarian’s Nook #2: Magical familiars and magical plants

  1. Pingback: Librarian's Nook: City Magick by Christopher Penczak - Double Proficiency

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