Book Review: Spells for Change

Before I begin, I want to say that I appreciate how much energy (emotional and physical) goes into writing a book. I’m not trying to tear apart the author in making this review. I do think that they do some lovely things in their book and I’m so glad to see how modern books are really trying to unpack what previous generations did in terms of appropriation and overall white supremacy

That said, I believe that we need to be holding our books to a higher level of accountability. If we are going to do this work, we also need to stop continuously churning the same information and the same misinformation to new practitioners because it perpetuates harm. I’m not necessarily calling for standard academic rigor – I recognize this might not be attainable in a field where much of what we do is personal gnosis. To demand this might smack of an elitism that puts power back into the hands of a bunch of dead white dudes. I am, however, making a call for more informed, nuanced writing; for finding reputable sources on the materials you’re using and referencing, and working them into your texts and modeling what good practices are for new practitioners. In other words, don’t just regurgitate lists of herbs and crystals, spells and practices, question their origins and model that process to incoming community members. 

I’m making a call for authors to give new practitioners the tools to think analytically about the information they’re receiving by modeling analytical thinking and practice in application. 

The Grocery List of Correspondences

Nowhere is this more clear to me in this (and SO MANY other texts) than sections on crystals & plants. The author of this book lists associations, for example quartz is associated with cancer and leo, but doesn’t help readers to unpack why these are the links being made. I appreciate that many new practitioners are just looking for a quick list of items to work with to start, but I think our occult books need to be doing better in this regard. Talk about the Doctrine of Signatures, talk about meditating with a crystal or plant to pick up their energy, look at the chemical composition of a plant and the nature of a stone: give some examples as to WHY this crystal or plant is associated with these things. I think new practitioners would be better served by having 1-3 well drawn out examples, with tips about how to build their own magical associations and where to go to find pre-established indexes, than be given overly simplified lists of correspondences. I recognize however, that I might not be the norm based on the abundance of this approach in occult books. I really wish that publishers would stop including these lists in modern occult literature. I suspect that authors are often being asked to include them because they appeal to sell.

Tracing the Origins of a Practice

Their method of using numerology in sigil work is well explained and an interesting format. They use numerology as the base and then apply it to a 9 point wheel. The numerology system they’re using is Kabbalistic. 1-9 in that particular placement of numbers, is drawn from Zohar, and is Hebrew in origin. One could argue that the Chaldeans invented “western” numerology, but the numbering system they’re using isn’t Chaldean. Given the ubiquitousness of Kabbalistic informed numerology, it would have been useful that a book that spends a great deal of time establishing political witchy allyship ensures that new practitioners know the roots that are influencing their practice, particularly if it wants practitioners to be doing better in their practice. We cannot be better practitioners if books keep repeating the same information without educating people who are starting out. I don’t know that we can completely extract appropriation from western occultism. I have very mixed thoughts about it because some of the practices are so deeply embedded. But I do think that people should have the knowledge and ability to see how they have benefitted from the traditions that are often victims of white supremacy. And I do appreciate that the author is trying to make people mindful. I just also happen to see that some of their arguments aren’t borne out in practice in this book.

Fetishization of Baneful/Boundary Magic 

Disclaimer: I was provided a free digital copy of this book for an honest review (which I’m really putting to the test)!

There is a trend in modern witch books to lead with spells focused on boundaries, banishing, and binding and I think this book falls into that category. It’s not wrong – but it’s also not the approach I would take. I think that there are places for this type of work – I’m not opposed to doing it. I just don’t think it’s where newer practitioners need to start. Moreover, their claim that domination magic is an absolute necessity for beginners is one that I find unethical. I would argue that unless there is an absolute necessity for it, this is magic that should be learned later, when the practitioner has a good grasp of their craft and knows how to craft a spell that won’t backfire on them. Bluntly put, to say otherwise is, in my opinion, irresponsible. On a more positive note, I appreciated how evocative the use of the child “I’m rubber you’re glue” incantation is because it really drives home that magic is often hidden in plain sight. 

Problematic Allyship & Misrepresentation

While overall, I appreciate what the author is doing in this book related to allyship, I do think, albeit unintentionally, it perpetuates a problematic approach to white allyship and reveals how deeply embedded and unconscious white supremacy is in occultism. The author writes “in the words of my indigenous friend, Owen, the problem with cultural appropriation is as follows…” (106). Why do I have concerns over this approach to cultural knowledge and validation? The author is going to the people and source culture, right? No. It reads like tokenism. It reads like, well my one black friend says… And by claiming knowledge and authority based on one person, who isn’t fully identified or established based on nationhood (I appreciate that maybe he wanted to be anonymous – but claims to nationhood are important in terms of providing context and not making pan-native claims – what applies in my territory might be vastly different from teachings in your territory), they counter the efforts made to decolonize and share information because they fall into a significant white allyship pitfall: tokenism.

Which leads me to the next area of concern I have: comparing White Sage, a sacred medicine, to spiritual “bleach” (106). First, it’s completely wrong information and second, it is disrespectful to the medicine and teachings. A quick google search – which yes, can be flawed – reveals that White Sage is used to settle the mind, release negative thoughts, and prepare for ritual. It can, and is, done as a daily practice by some community members as part of a daily rebalancing and devotion, though it is, more often, done before ceremony and ritual.*

Let’s try this another way: If someone were to liken casting a circle, doing the LBRP, or meditation to spiritual bleach, I would venture a guess that some might find that problematic at best, offensive at worst. Obviously not all would feel this way. But if someone told me that my process of grounding, centering and establishing the right mind-frame for practice was spiritual bleach, I’d be, politely put, pissed. Layered on top of years of spiritual and cultural appropriation, I’d be enraged. All of which boils down to being a reminder of how words have power and misuse of terminology can do harm, even if the intention was well meaning.

I appreciate the attempt to educate newer practitioners and draw attention to an issue within our community that is incredibly problematic: spiritual appropriation. And quite frankly, it’s one that many members of our community want to ignore. So kudos to the author for the work they’re doing; for using their platform to do this work; and linking to valuable resources. But I would encourage them to find ways to acknowledge this misstep and use it as another way to further that education through taking ownership of it. We do better by communities, nations, and individuals who are oppressed by white supremacy when we do.

Overall, would I recommend this book to new practitioners? Parts of it, yes; others, no. More specifically, if one of my mentees asked to read it together, I would extract portions of the text and use them for starting discussion points. 

*Yes, I acknowledge that I am somewhat falling into the trap I identified above about claiming authority – but I can and will state that I have this knowledge from multiple community members in the region I inhabit: Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe territory, and that while my knowledge is flawed, I can substantiate said claims as these teachings have been shared with me as part of ritual, ceremony, and in private conversations. I have participated, repeatedly, in Indigenous led smudging ceremonies and worked closely with community members as part of reconciliation processes in my institution. I cannot teach these teachings – particularly the more nuanced inner teachings – but I can step up and correct what I know is misrepresentative in a broad general sense.

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