Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner: A Book of Prayer, Devotional Practice, and the Nine Worlds of Spirit by Galina Krasskova and Raven Kaldera is a difficult book to review. One the one hand, the book has excellent content and the author's aims in writing the book were laudable: we really do need more books like this. However, I feel that what it claims to accomplish (and what my expectations might have been, though they aren't precisely fair), what it feels like it is aiming to accomplish, and what it actually accomplishes are three different things.
Claims and Expectations
The title, reminiscent of Cunningham's famous Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, evokes an image that this book is about practicing the Northern Tradition alone, and that this is a very basic book for beginners. Containing things, perhaps, along the lines of ritual outlines, ceremonies throughout the year, solid groundings in the cosmology, or a discussion on topics such as Heathen ethics.
This position is encouraged by the back of the book, which says that the book "features an in-depth exploration of altar work, prayer, prayer beads, ritual work, sacred images, and lore, and a thorough examination of the common cosmology that forms the foundation of belief of Northern Tradition communities." Reading that, one expects a that all of these areas will be covered in enough depth that a beginner could easily find what they are looking for in this book. It also looks like there should be an emphasis on practicing strictly as an individual, which raises its own set of issues independent of group practice.
The back of the book also claims that it is a "look at devotional work in religions from Theodism to Asatru to Norse Paganism, all of which encompass the umbrella of the Northern Tradition." This leads one to expect that these religions will be given more than a superficial treatment, and to see information on a variety of different branches of Germanic Neo/Mesopaganism.
What the Book Aims To Accomplish
The book is divided into nine chapters, plus an introduction and a set of appendices:
Introduction: Solitary Spirit
Chapter 1: Tribe and Tradition
Chapter 2: Defining Devotion: The Evolution of Practice
Chapter 3: Nine Worlds of Spirit: Core Cosmology
Chapter 4: In Reverence: Meditation and Prayer
Chapter 5: Counting on Faith: Prayer Beads
Chapter 6: Footsteps to the Gods: Solitary Rites
Chatper 7: Sacred Images: Altar Work and God-Posts
Chapter 8: Right Action: Doing the Work
Chapter 9: Sacred Inquiry: The Conundrum of Words
The appendices contain an Epilogue, a table of deity altars, offerings, and associations, footnotes, a bibliography, further reading, an index, and a section touching very briefly on the authors. From an initial glance, the topics seem reasonable and hit the major points for a book on spiritual development in a Northern Tradition.
The Introduction helps to clarify the purpose of this book a great deal: this is a book about devotional practice. It talks about how in some branches of Neopaganism books of this nature focus "partly on opersonal ritual, and partly on magic and spellwork." It explains that they will be avoiding the latter topic, not because it isn't valuable, but because they want to "stress that this is a religion, and devotional work is a good place to start in any theistic faith." Excellent, we get a clear picture that this is a work of devotion, not of magic and that this book is talking about devotional practice in the context of that religion. This doesn't contradict the claims and expectations, and reinforces what this is all about.
It further explains some of what is addressed in each of the chapters, mapping some of them loosely to Dale Cannon's Six Ways of Being Religious.
Despite the title of the introduction being "Solitary Spirit" and the title "Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner," the issue of being a solitary Heathen is not really addressed. We get the impression that this is not a book for the solitary practitioner, but for developing one's own spirituality, which is a very different thing from what is implied by the phrase "solitary practitioner." The latter conjures the image of the individual working alone without any firm connections to the surrounding Heathen communities; the former would seem to imply that it is a book about growing oneself and one's relationship with the gods independent of whether you are in a true group.
This impression is reinforced when we look at the chapter on Solitary Rites, where we see devotional rites and rites honoring various deities, but nothing about seasonal rituals, "holidays," celebrations, or things of that nature. At no point that I could find do we really see a discussion on finding or starting a group. This is fine, but it emphasizes that this is a book about developing one's own spirituality, and not about being a "Solitary Practitioner" who has no real tribe, kindred, coven, or similar structure (what "solitary practitioner" meant in Cunningham's work).
This makes the book slightly more advanced than the initial impression would indicate, and a careful reading of the back of the book doesn't give any indication that it is for a "Solitary" beyond the title.
It seems that this was an intentional design decision, and we as Heathens (or just Neopagans in general) definitely need books on developing our spirituality. Books on the practice of centering prayer and developing our own spirituality are an extremely welcome addition, even if it isn't quite the same thing--in my mind--as what the title or some of the chapter headings would indicate.
What the Book Accomplishes, A Review on Content
Having established that this is a book about spiritual development, the rest of this review will be on how it accomplishes that goal. Overall it does well and the content is well laid out and informative, and all of the basics are covered. Getting into more detail by chapter:
Chapter 1: Tribe and Tradition, The Northern Tradition Landscape
This chapter is the only place in the book that we get a glimpse of the various traditions that form what can be loosely described as the "Northern Tradition Religions." They get into the difference between Reconstructionist and Reconstructionist-derived religions and describe a few of the major paths:
Asatru, with a brief reference to Vanatru, Odinism, and Rokkatru.
Culturally-based denominations, such as the Urglaawe
Northern Tradition Paganism
They get heavily into terminology here, and use the definition of "Heathen" to be "Reconstructionist" but include quotes indicating that not everyone sees it this way. Beyond that, the coverage of the various religions is fairly superficial. Forn Siðr--which forms the largest Danish pagan society--gets a single mention inside of a quote which doesn't reveal much about it. Most of the others receive between one sentence and one paragraph describing them, with a lot more text discussing terminology about the difference between Reconstructionist and Reconstructionist-derived, Pagan vs. Heathen, and the difference between Tribalist, Folkish, and Universalist.
This is all good content, and we need to be having a discussion about these differences, but it doesn't quite fit what I expected given that the book purports to "look at ... religions from Theodism to Asatru to Norse Paganism." I wanted more meat talking about what each of these religions is, what it means, and what someone who is looking at each religion in turn would find in the various Northern Tradition paths. That said, what is presented tends to be presented fairly, and while the author's have biases they refrain from "bashing" those who disagree. It at no point indicates that any path is inferior, and does a good job of "stepping back" to look at the different approaches reasonably and rationally.
Chapter 2: Defining Devotion, the Evolution of Practice
This chapter talks about how there is a growing movement toward devotional practice among modern German Neopagans. More than any other, this chapter talks about being a solitary vs. being in a group. It also talks about how devotional practice works in these settings. It talks in a great deal of depth about the reactions to devotional practice, and how the Path of Devotion. All-in-all excellent stuff.
Chapter 3: Nine Worlds of Spirit, Core Cosmology
This chapter would be difficult to write for a book of this nature in the best of circumstances, and shows where the stress of finding a good "level" for this book comes in. The readers of this book likely range from people just of the door and who are somewhat lost, to people who have read everything from The Saga of Grettir the Strong and several translations of the The Poetic Edda, to The Road to Hel.
In order to narrow this, the authors chose to focus on just the cosmology and the nine worlds. It talks about how the cosmology involves three key components: the gods, the nine worlds, and wyrd. It then goes on to present a creation myth with some analysis, a prayer to the elements, and how ultimately the nine worlds were created.
It then goes on to talk about the three "tribes" of gods:
It gives a brief explanation about each of these, and talks about how each of them tend to be viewed by Northern Tradition religions. It at no point says that you must "worship Rokkr," which is some of the propaganda I've seen about those who follow certain NT paths.
It also talks about the nature of Wyrd, giving one of the clearer examples I've seen for this.
This chapter definitely hits its mark: it doesn't get bogged down in mythology, while presenting a clear overview of the Nine Worlds.
Chapter 4: In Reverence, Meditation and Prayer
The chapter starts off with the elegant Sigdrifa's Prayer, which is one of my favorite prayers in any tradition. It then goes on to talk about the nature of prayer and the question of "why we pray." It talks about a few basic prayers that are nearly universal in nature:
I love you
I am sorry
This reminded me of something a Christian minister once told me: That the two most authentic, most heartfelt, and most common prayers were:
Help me Help me Help me!
Thank you Thank you Thank you!
After this it gets in to the topic of meditation. Here it doesn't ever really discuss the how or even the why of meditation, but mostly keeps itself to the what along with some mild diagnostics for common complaints. While it might have been useful to include at least one simple breathing exercise--or at least some more comprehensive references on the subject--I can understand not putting it in there. This does, however, elevate the level of the book to include someone who is already set off down this path, rather than evaluating it.
The final section of the chapter involve some "Prayers for Personal Devotions." It includes a reference to Be Thou My Hearth and Shield: A Northern Tradition Book of Prayer by Elizabeth Vongvisith which, while it looks excellent, isn't out yet and doesn't have an "approximate publish date" listed in this book (though I'll be including a link on this blog as soon as I hear about it being finished). The prayers included are:
In Praise of the Vanadis by Gudrun of Mimirsbrunnr
Vanir Meal Blessing by Sigrún Freyskona
A Parent's Prayer for Patience by Raven Kaldera
A Prayer for Faith by Elizabeth Vongvisith
Prayer of the Lone Worshipper by Elizabeth Vongvisith
Overall I have no serious issue with this list. It is a reasonable selection without distracting from the purpose of the book. It would be nice if there were a morning or an evening prayer of some variety just for the sake of coverage (and devotional work of this nature is found in Chapter 7), but most of the major areas are covered.
Chapter 5: Counting on Faith, Prayer Beads
This chapter talks about the use of prayer beads in the Northern Tradition. It starts by talking about the nature of prayer beads and the "why" of their use, along with some basics of their construction, and then gets in to six different sets of bead prayers covering 24 pages (this is as long as all of Chapter 4, excluding the prayers at the end). These are presented with no real introduction, just one after the other. While the book claims in the previous chapter that "There isn't room in this book for prayers for every Deity and occasion," they seem to take a stab at including bead prayers for as many situations as they could reasonably fit.
Let me say that I like the prayers, and like the nature of bead prayers for devotional practice. That said, I feel that this chapter doesn't really belong: It would have been better to include one bead prayer, a link to a few others online, and to have then merged it with the previous chapter's section on prayer.
Chapter 6: Footsteps to the Gods, Solitary Rites
This is one of the best organized chapters in the book. It has clear section headings for it's various subsections, which break down the subject matter in a clear, logical fashion. The material is well organized and presented, covering benefits and hazards, along with the basic components for constructing a ritual. The selected rites for demonstration provide good coverage, and each one has introductory text talking about the rite, what it means, and how it relates to what has been covered so far. Despite the chapter's title, nothing in here requires a solitary practice, except in the choices of example rites.
This leads me to my one complaint with the chapter: Its choice of rites:
Devotional Ritual for Sigyn
Devotional Ritual for Njord
Solitary Rite for the Ancestors
Rite for the Land-Wight
Rite for Tyr (asking his aid)
All of these rites are good, powerful rites, but it again goes back to the "developing one's personal spiritual independent of being a solitary practitioner." These are rites to be performed alone, not rites for what I think of as a solitary practitioner. The choice of coverage here is also interesting: we lack a devotional rite to Thor, Frey, or Odin: three of the most popular deities both in modern times and historically. There are no seasonal rites, rites of passage, or mention of rites such as ordeals. While this is clearly not supposed to be a "book of rites," it would be nice if there were more comprehensive coverage in this area.
That there is no discussion of seasonal rites at all really feels like a missing component of this book, since there isn't even a calendar, "wheel of the year," or list of holidays. Particularly for a solitary practitioner, but even in a group setting, these can form an important core of practice.
Beyond that, however, this chapter is probably the strongest in the entire book.
Chapter 7: Altar Work and God Posts
This chapter is divided into two major sections: Altars and God Posts.
The section on altars is excellent. The authors talk about the nature of sacred images, what goes on an altar, and how to set up your first altar. A photo of an altar to Hel is presented, along with one to Frey and several daily prayers that can be performed at that altar.
The section on God Posts is informative and interesting, but I do not feel it belongs in anything resembling an introductory book for solitary practitioners. What it takes to pull off a God Post--in terms of skill, time, resources, and land--is fairly nontrivial for most people, especially those who are "solitary practitioners." It isn't the kind of thing you can erect in an apartment building all that effectively, or put up in a public park. While they are very powerful devotional acts, I would have liked it if we had more on devotional altars, and maybe a side note and a few photographs to cover God Posts.
Chapter 8: Right Action, Doing the Work
This is the closest thing we have to a section on ethics. It talks about the various ethical systems, the challenges of ethical systems in reconstructionist religions (e.g., it is no longer acceptable to hang people in sacrifice to Odin), and on the few universal constants in Heathen religions. It talks about the idea of exchange and some very important key principles, and gives some examples of applying those principles.
I like this chapter a lot. One thing that we need is to have a comprehensive discussion of ethics, and this isn't nearly as well summarized in any other book I've seen as it is here.
Chapter 9: Sacred Inquiry, The Conundrum of Words
This chapter is about written lore. Not so much the actual contents of that lore, but how it is approached. It discusses the challenges, the issue of UPG vs. lore.
To someone who has been around the community for a while, there isn't much new in this chapter: it provides a bird's-eye survey of the landscape on how written lore is treated, along with it's use. Still, this coverage is extremely valuable and is presented in a fairly balanced--if somewhat Reconstructionist-derived--view.
Further Notes on Content
There were two issues regarding information presentation that I feel need to be brought up. These points may seem minor, but I feel like they are important because we are starting to see them come up more frequently in instructional books by Pagan authors.
The first is that the authors avoided lists. In numerous cases throughout the book, three or more items are presented in a series of paragraphs, each paragraph covering one option. While this is fine for exposition, I kept thinking back to my training in technical writing: people remember bulleted lists better. They also help break up the mass of words on a page, thus making the entire page easier to read. Instead we see a reference to the Six Ways of Being Religious, followed by eight individual paragraphs about them. I feel that it would have been better to prefix that by listing the "Six Ways" in a bulleted list, and then followed them with the paragraphs explaining them.
In Chapter 4, it lists the prayers "Thank you," "Please," "I Love You," and "I am sorry" and delving in to them, yet at no point are all four listed together, put into a list at all, or attached to a subject. There's nothing to indicate where each one might be, or where it's discussion might really begin or end. You are simply reading along and then come across "The fourth prayer is 'I am Sorry.'"
Another example where this comes up is in the first chapter, where there are no section headings or lists indicating what exactly I am looking at. This all makes finding specific information difficult, and diminishes the book as a reference text after it has been read through.
The second point is something I've noticed about Kaldera's style. He likes to present a point of view, and then provide a set of quotes "of interest" which provide other points of view. This works well in fairly conversational works or works where one's building a shared PCPG, e.g., in Kaldera's Pathwalker's Guide to the Nine Worlds. I don't feel that it worked nearly as well in this book, which is more instructional and informative in nature. It would have been better to integrate these in to the content--with a sentence introducing or explaining it (even as little as a "As X has said..."). The use of back-to-back block quotes or a multi-page quotes with no paragraphs, in particular, with no lead-in or following explanations can be very jarring.
The overall content of the book is excellent, and I recommend it highly. We need more books like this one, which provide a good and up-to-date coverage of the Northern Tradition path itself, rather than the mythology or individual practices associated with such.
The major issue I have is that it is suffers from a lack of good editing, e.g., gap analysis, focusing and clarifying of the scope, and a lack of structure and flow in several of the chapters. There are also smaller issues, such as words being presented both with and without the accent mark (e.g, "Sigrún" on page 96 vs. "Sigrun" on page 122).
The material that is included is excellent and if it could fix these issues, and address how the book is billed in terms of it's name and focus, the material that is there would be worthy of 5 stars.