Category Archives: Review

TWH: Review of Star.Ships


My June article for The Wild Hunt was a review of Gordon White’s Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits.


TWH Book Review: The Tao of Craft

tao-of-craft-promo-imageMy column for The Wild Hunt this month is a book review of Benebell Wen’s The Tao of Craft, which is about designing and using Chinese 符 (fú) sigils. My review largely focuses on Wen’s nuanced approach to cultural context (and thus the question of appropriation, which she deals with well), working with spirits, and magic as a craft.

Book Review: Almanac of the Dead

Tucson. Credit: Matthew Schallan.

Tucson, Arizona. Credit: Matthew Schallan.

I have a review of Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Almanac of the Dead published at Gods and Radicals.

Book Review: The Little Stone Lion

thelittlestonelionKim Xiong’s The Little Stone Lion is a children’s picture book narrated from the perspective of a village’s guardian spirit. There’s not much of a plot, but that’s kind of the point: stone has a different perspective than flesh, and the guardian does its job well. Enough said.

Book Review: Boxers & Saints

gly - boxersgly - saints

Gene Luen Yang, a Chinese-American writer and illustrator, recently published two graphic novels telling the stories of two individuals caught up in the events of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The protagonist of Boxers is a young boy who becomes a leader in what Yang translates as the “Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist” (aka the Boxers). Saints is told from the perspective of a female Chinese convert to Catholicism.

In an interview with Wired, Yang said that he deliberately published the project in two separate volumes in order to “to reflect its dual nature.” In the same interview, he shares that he is Catholic, a fact I was unaware of when I read the books–and which reading the books did not lead to me to guess. In other words, I think that Yang did an excellent job of telling both sides of the story.

I think that the traditional gods (such as Tu Di Gong, the local land god) and the phenomenon of spirit/deity possession among the Boxers are treated respectfully. The artwork sample from Boxers accompanying the Wired interview includes one of the scenes depicting deity possession, if you’d like to see for yourself.

I highly recommend these two graphic novels. I read Boxers first, then Saints. While they are designed to be able to be read separately, Saints contains several interesting “twists” to the events in Boxers, so I would suggest reading them in the same order that I did.

Review of a Review: Chinggis Khan and his Biographer

Chinggis Khan Mausoleum, Ordos City, Inner Mongolia. Built 1956.

Chinggis Khan Mausoleum, Ordos City, Inner Mongolia. Built 1956.

British historian and travel writer John Man published Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection in 2004. I’d originally intended to post excerpts from Chapter 15 (“The Making of a Demi-God”)–specifically those passages that deal with the complex interactions between the Mongolians and the Chinese when it comes to veneration of Chinggis Khan–but I was distracted by certain critiques of the book.

Dr. Alicia J. Campi, who holds a PhD in Mongolian Studies and used to work as an adviser for the U.S. State Department, published a review of Man’s book in December 2005/January 2006 issue of the Taiwanese government’s Bi-monthly Journal on Mongolian and Tibetan Current Situation.

I decided to use this blog post to draw attention to Campi’s relatively obscure review instead of quoting from Man’s book, which is is widely available.

Campi’s criticisms of Man’s book are numerous, and range from what she considers annoying hyperbole and “pseudo-psychological comments”  to more serious accusations of factual inaccuracy and presenting other people’s theories without attribution (73).

Regarding historical detail, she points out a few glaring mistakes:

Man mistakenly identifies Jurchen tribes as nomads like the Mongols, and does not explain well the Jurchen (Jin Dynasty) conflicts with the Khitans (Liao Dynasty). He thinks the Great Wall was built in its present form during the pre-Jin period. (72)

I’m not sure where exactly in the book Man suggests that he thinks the Great Wall was fully built before the Mongol invasion, but if so, it is a major error (as the Wall in its current iconic form was a Ming Dynasty project).

Campi further criticizes Man’s seeming lack of knowledge about present-day Mongolia:

Man’s limited knowledge of contemporary Mongolia is very evident. For example, he writes that one-half of the population of Ulaanbaatar lives in gers on the outskirts of the city (pg. 365), when by all credible calculations this percentage is closer to 10-15%. (77)

She is also annoyed at the book’s inconsistency in transliterating Mongolian and Chinese words into the Latin alphabet, which she attributes to Man’s lack of familiarity with those languages:

Man’s text includes a mish mash of transliteration of names and spelling, which is not unusual for a person unfamiliar with Mongolian and Chinese. However, one wonders why he did not give the text to Mongolists such as Charles Bawden and Igor de Rachewiltz, whom he thanks in his ‘Acknowledgements,’ to assist him with standardization. […]

The lack of a book editor who is familiar with Chinese and Mongolian languages is evident by the example of Man transliterating Ejen Khoroo as ‘Edsen’ Khoroo and moving back and forth haphazardly from Wade Giles to Pinyin transcription systems. (66-7)

Campi is highly skeptical of one of Man’s central theses, namely that the veneration of Chinggis Khan is a “religion in the making” (Man 370):

I am not certain that most Mongolists and Sinologists would interpret the rites to Chinggis that are practiced at the shrine in Ejen Khoroo as real religious worship. Man does not explain how such rites are different from traditional Chinese ancestor ‘worship’, if in fact they are.

Since Man’s credentials as a Chinese historian are weak, it may be that his lack of experience with traditional Chinese and Asian respect or veneration for dead spirits leads him to false conclusions. Or, it may be that he has captured a special different quality about the rites to Chinggis that are in fact more religious (68)

While I disagree with Campi’s assertion that traditional ancestor veneration is not “real religious worship,” she is right to draw attention to Man’s seeming lack of understanding of Asian religion:

In trying to explain the rites the author falls into all sorts of pecular [a]llusions to other religious practices which in fact not only do not explain the Chinggis rituals but insult them. His prejudicial comparisons are often made to various Christian customs. […] Banners inside the main temple are compared to “rather tatty Christmas decorations.” (pg. 305)

The weirdest analogy is Man’s claim that at Ejen Khoroo the ceremonies to Chinggis represented “a sort of Mongolian Trinity, with God the Father, Son and Holy [Spirit] mirrored by Blue Heaven, Genghis and [yak-tailed] Standard.” (pg. 314) ( 69-70)

Campi concludes that Man should have severely limited the scope of his book:

Man should have stuck with what he does best – write travel books. His foray into biographical writing sows confusion and distortion. Yet because he includes some very interesting travel accounts in the text, his book cannot be completely dismissed by serious Mongolian researchers. (78)

In that spirit, however, I’d like to present some of Man’s travel writing, in particular his retelling of stories he heard from Mongolians about the power of Genghis Khan’s spirit:

The Darkhat Guriljab recalled in 1993: “All those who offended against Genghis Khan and were activists in damaging the Mausoleum during the Cultural Revolution are now dead. They were all about my age. I saw them die one after another. They all died abnormal deaths.

One suffered a kind of stroke. He couldn’t move for eight or ten years before his death. Another one, his head swelled up three times the size of his normal head, and he died. Yes, this is retribution.

Our former banner magistrate, he was the leader of this rebel team. Later he was accused of being a member of the Inner Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, and he was beaten and killed by a long nail being driven into his head. His wife and daughter died, and his son has gone mad. Another one…he fell into a manure pit and drowned.

Everyone has their own stories proving Genghis’s power. A group of soldiers break a taboo by killing two snakes in the Mausoleum; their car crashes, killing six. A young man gets drunk at a liquor ceremony, and urinates against a wall; that night his wife dies. A ceremony was omitted in error after the Cultural Revolution; sheep fall ill and die. Such stories carry a message: Have respect! Take care! Genghis is as powerful in death as in life! (316-7)

Those are definitely some cool stories!

Book Review: Year of Living Biblically

A.J. Jacob’s The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible is an entertaining read. Jacobs, who is a typically secular Esquire editor of Jewish descent, spends a year obeying as many of the seven hundred plus rules and commands he identified within the Bible as possible, which leads to some pretty interesting changes in his personality and lifestyle. There may be some familiar moments for polytheists who have used reconstructionist methods in their practice, though of course there are some big differences as well.

While seemingly strange taboos and commandments (such as avoiding bodily contact with women for a week after menstruation and men for a day after emission of semen) comprise perhaps some of the most entertaining and interesting portions of the book, The Year of Living Biblically also describes a process of spiritual growth.

Jacobs is fairly agnostic, but he intentionally spends time praying every day. He describes his prayers as an act of cognitive dissonance: “If I act like I’m faithful and God loving for several months, then maybe I’ll become faithful and God loving. If I pray every day, then maybe I’ll start to believe in the Being to whom I’m praying” (21). Or, in other words, he hoped that his attempts at orthopraxy would lead to a better understanding of Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy. AKA, “fake it ’til you make it.”

Jacobs doesn’t quite give Canaanite polytheism enough acknowledgment for its shaping of Israelite culture, and he speaks irreverently of the Hellenic theoi at times, but I didn’t really expect otherwise given the religious tradition he was trying to connect with. He seems to have quite some difficulty intellectually accepting polytheism though.

At one point, he does cite Karen Armstrong’s A History of God regarding the polytheism of the ancient Israelites (which inadvertently reveals itself in the line “you shall have no other Gods before me,” implying the existence of “others”) but wonders to himself, “Could I ever hope to get into the skull of an ancient Israelite who believed in several gods? Do I want to?” (183)

One little detail that stood out to me was how fastidiously he followed Exodus 23:13, “make no mention of the name of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth.” He started referring to days of the week by number, rather than by their names, which are derived from Anglo-Saxon deities.

The only idol he smashed was a “faux Oscar statuette that my wife bought as a party favor once. I got out some of my hostility toward celebrity culture. But frankly, it didn’t feel like it merited a chapter” (337). Personally, I’m glad that he picked a target for his iconoclasm that I approve of. A lot of other choices would have been much more controversial and offensive.

He mentions “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18) in passing, in the context of commandments that are “federally outlawed” (8). So it seems like he opted to follow secular over religious law in that case.

Hilariously, he gets an unpaid intern at one point, whom he takes on with the condition that he could refer to the intern as his “slave.” There is also a funny passage where an old guy in the park starts a fight with him and proudly admits to being an adulterer. Jacobs throws a few pebbles at the man, thus fulfilling the letter of the law, if not the spirit. This is the approach he takes to some of the more objectionable passages in the Bible.

On the other hand, he does genuinely try to get into the mindset of the ancient Israelites. For instance, he comes to certain realizations about the concept of intergenerational punishment:

[The] ancient Israelites didn’t have the clearly formed concept of immortality of the soul, as we do now. You achieved immortality through your children and children’s children, who were physical extensions of you. The basic building block of society was the family, not the individual.

With no afterlife, God dispensed justice to a family—a person’s actions reverberate through his descendents lives. The most extreme example: When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit of knowledge, the family of humanity has been paying ever since.

I can’t say why for sure—maybe the Bible has seeped into my brain, maybe there’s an inevitable mental shift that accompanies parenthood—but I’ve edged away from extreme individualism. My worldview is more interconnected, more tribal (145-6).

In his notes, he points out that this tribal view was later diluted, even in the Torah: “Later parts of the Bible seem to reject the notion of intergenerational punishment. Most notably, Ezekiel 18:20: ‘The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son’” (338).

Later in the book, though, he returns to the question of individualism:

My quest is a paradoxical one. I’m trying to fly solo on a route that was specifically designed for a crowd. As one of my spiritual advisers […] told me: “The people of the Bible were ‘groupies.’ You did what the group did, you observed the customs of your group. Only the crazy Europeans came up with the idea of individualism. So what you’re doing is a modern phenomenon.”

I’ve loved that crazy European individualism all my life. […] This year I’ve tried to worship alone and find meaning alone. The solitary approach has its advantages—I like trying to figure it out myself. I like reading the holy words unfiltered by layers of interpretation. But going it alone also has limits, and big ones. I miss out on the feeling of belonging, which is a key part of religion. […]

Maybe I have to dail back my fetishizing of individualism. It’d be a good thing to do; the age of radical individualism is on the wane anyway. (213-4)

The paradox he created for himself can be seen as a spectrum between rabbinic Judaism and Protestantism:

In a sense, my project is steeped in Judaism, since I’m spending a lot of time on the Hebrew Scriptures. But in some ways, it’s actually more influenced by the Protestant idea that you can interpret the Bible yourself, without mediation. Sola scriptura, as it’s called. […]

In some ways, going literal is turning out to be easier than rabbinic Judaism. Do I need to wear a yarmulke? No, the Bible doesn’t mandate it. That came from the rabbis. But in some ways, it’s infinitely harder. I’m trying to follow the word. When the Bible says, “an eye for an eye,” I don’t want to soften it to the rabbinically approved “some money for an eye.” (69-70)

Jacobs does try to connect to more traditional practice of Judaism at times. For example, he describes how he felt when he had tefillin, Jewish prayer straps, wrapped around his arm in the traditional Orthodox way: “I feel relief. Not just that I hadn’t totally messed up the ritual. But relief that, after trying to do DIY religion for months, I’d finally done it the approved way. The Vilna Gaon [a famous rabbi who was one of his distant ancestors] would be happy” (199). I definitely recognize this feeling of relief; in fact, I felt it fairly recently.

Jacobs is a bit squeamish about animal sacrifice (which isn’t practiced anymore anyways, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem), though he does admit his hypocrisy: “I know the rotisserie chicken I get at Boston Market did not die of natural causes” (164). He attends a kaparot, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish ritual of killing of a chicken on the night before Yom Kippur (but which isn’t technically a sacrifice), to get a feel for the experience of seeing an animal killed as part of a religious ritual.

Later, he also tries to “Re-create that very first Passover as much as I could” (234). He makes his own matzoh, rather than buying it at the store, by carrying the dough around on his back and letting the sun harden it. He plans to re-enact the painting of lambs’s blood on the doorposts of his apartment but finds out that it is illegal to sell lamb’s blood in the United States, so he resorts to “using the lamb juice from the saucepan, which I figure contains at least a hint of blood” (235).

Now, this attempt to consider a by-product of the cooked meat “blood” is highly questionable in a devotional context, as Saigh rightly denounces on the Dùn Sgàthan Homestead blog, but a kosher lamb is drained of all of its blood at slaughter because of the Biblical taboo on eating blood. So it’s a pretty tenuous attempt at reconstruction, honestly.

As it turns out though, he finds more connection from reading his grandmother’s descriptions of her Passover dinners as a child than in his attempts at re-creating the first Passover anyways:

My Biblical rituals—the door painting and sandal wearing—were interesting on an intellectual leve,l but frankly, I wasn’t as moved as I hoped I might be. I didn’t feel like I had been swept back to the time of the Pharaohs.

But this writing from my grandmother—that did sweep me back. Perhaps to make a ritual resonate, I can’t skip directly from my stain-resistant dinner table in New York to a desert three thousand years ago. I need some links in between. I need my grandmother and her memories of the leviathan-sized carp of Hinsdale Street in Brooklyn. (236)

Personally, I think it’s definitely possible to perform ancient rituals in a meaningful way, but I agree that it isn’t the easiest thing, and that looking to more recent ancestry may be a helpful way to connect to the past. It really depends, though.

One other random detail. I’ve heard of Christian dominionism before, but apparently its most conservative wing is called reconstructionism: “the differences are subtle, but as far as I can tell, dominionism is for the slightly less-extremist extremist” (293). Maybe you knew that already, but I didn’t.

The book is written in an entertaining and engaging voice, and it was a pretty quick read for me. If you’re a fast reader as well, I’d recommend checking it out from your local library and reading it for fun.