Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Book Review: Thoth: The History of the Ancient Egyptian God of Wisdom

Thoth: The History of the Ancient Egyptian God of Wisdom
Lesley Jackson
Avalonia Books,

Thoth is a god that I’ve worked with from time to time in my spiritual practice, so when the opportunity came to review this book, I was totally thrilled.

When you do Internet research on a god or goddess, what you get is a hodgepodge of information coming from sources that may be questionable, and often comes out as “what [god or goddess] means to me”. Spiritually, that isn’t totally lacking in value, of course, but from a historical perspective it’s a letdown. Secretly, I was hoping that I wouldn’t be disappointed with the book for that reason.

Luckily, that feeling was dispelled about 30 seconds after I opened the book. I was very impressed with the scholarly nature of this work. Jackson does a fantastic job of sourcing and footnoting the heck out of this topic, and includes an awesome bibliography and index to boot.  This author has done her research, and it made you feel confident as you progressed through the work that you had made a good choice. You’re definitely getting your money’s worth here.

While the book is well documented, I found it to be a lot less dry than most history books I have read. Part of it, I think, is that Jackson doesn’t focus on the life of Thoth, but starts from the beginning and breaks up the topics nicely. After the introduction, the first chapter is on “The Names of Thoth”, which I found totally fascinating. You may have heard of “Golden One”, but I must admit that “Counter of the Stars”, “Master of Papyrus”, and “Expert One” were new for me.

Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the god, and while many might sit down and read this cover-to-cover, I definitely skipped around to parts that interested me first and foremost. I started with Chapter 3 on “Symbolism”, which includes a brief introduction to iconography, a topic that may be new to many readers. My next stop, and the place where I lingered the most, was Chapter 11 on relationships. Thoth’s consorts and interactions with the various members of the Egyptian pantheon are detailed here.

If you have a short attention span—in this day and age of the Internet, tablet computers, text messaging and videoconferencing, many of us suffer from it, at least from time to time—you have nothing to worry about. Not only will the book keep your attention, but it has frequent breaks and paragraph titles to remind you of where you are and where you’re going.

In addition to lightening the tone of the book, the other advantage of the breaks is that you can easily find information you are looking for. If I’m doing a spell or ritual, for example, and I want to know how Isis and Thoth interacted, I just look in the index for “Isis”, and there is a list of page numbers.
One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the comparison between Thoth and the Greek god Hermes, who was their god of wisdom. I would have never considered the two equivalents, so that will definitely help me spiritually moving forward as I work with both of them.

The inclusion of “Hymns and Prayers to Thoth” in the appendix was another fantastic find. These are translations and were included from J.L. Foster’s book, Hymns, Prayers, and Songs, which of course I’ll now have to pick up as well. I would strongly urge readers to keep your notepad or computer “wish list” handy when reading through this book; there are a few more books you’ll likely want to buy.

If you are at all interested in Thoth in particular or in the history of ancient Egypt, I’d definitely pick this book up. I highly recommend it. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Deck Review: The Archeon Tarot

The Archeon Tarot

If your dark side is itching to be scratched, then you’ll want to take a long, hard look at the Archeon Tarot deck.  I’m not usually attracted to very dark decks like this one, but it has gained a special place in my tarot collection. It also is one of the decks most beloved by my favorite store owner, Rev. Samantha Harey, and she encouraged me to add it to my ever-growing tarot box.

I wouldn’t recommend this deck for beginners at all. Most of the Rider-Waite imagery is not present. This not to say that the cards are meaningless at all; however, you may find yourself giving readings that are more biased toward negative outcomes. Make sure you’re considering both the dark and the light when this deck comes out to play.  

Many of the Major and Minor Arcana cards have nude figures which are very tastefully portrayed; this is not an erotic tarot deck at all. Sadly, most of the unclad figures are women; you’ll have to go with something a little more racy for male frontal nudity.

The cards are a combination of drawings and photographs, and despite the lack of RWS tarot imagery, I am impressed with the composition of each card.  The Chariot, for example, has a nude woman as its central figure, standing between a blue horse and a red horse. The full moon is behind her, and the artist did keep the image of the stars (which on the Rider-Waite appear in the blue canopy of the Chariot) as symbols of constellations in the background of the cards. These constellations and the moon also appear on several other cards, like The Star.  The Devil depicts a nearly naked man (the darkness hides much of him) with a very seductive look on his face, an almost impish grin. He will definitely remind you of Pan. And the one Major Arcana card that is supposed to give you a little nervous rush, the Tower, really fails to do so; I must admit that disappointed me a little bit.

The court cards all seem very serious; it is hard to see these cards as happy people at all. The Queen of Swords, for example, looks much more unhappy than her Rider-Waite counterpart, while her sister, the Queen of Wands, can’t even manage a smile.

 My favorite card in this deck is The World, which has one of the brightest images in the entire deck. It depicts a huge tree with bright orange leaves that takes up almost the entire card beneath a starry sky. It exudes a sense of calm completion.

This deck is not for everyone, but if you’re doing introspective work or readings for yourself (during the dark moon, ideally!), you may find it rather useful. I have found that many clients who are experiencing adversity in their lives tend to gravitate toward it. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Saturn vs. Neptune: Unhappy Returns

Dear Neptune,

I have read with consternation John’s recent blog posts, and to be honest, I’m concerned that he’s become less affected by my influence overall.

There aren’t that many “Saturnian” activities that he’s involved in these days. Most of them involve planets that are much less important in his astrological chart than I am, or so I thought.  He’s doing a lot of creative work with you; he just finished a rough draft of a novel, for example. I’m not sure I see the point of that; it is FICTION, after all, which is fine if people want to enjoy themselves but isn’t truly serious.

Let’s talk about that for a moment. I was disappointed that I was seen as an interloper! It was all Jupiter, a planet who, by his own admission, is around for a good time. John didn’t take ME along on vacation. He had the occasional Saturn-ruled event, like that diligent, hardworking security guard that was helping John understand the rules in the hypermarket. It’s almost like John resented what the man was trying to do, which I just don’t understand.  

I was gratified when he got back to his routine life. We always like things that are comfortable, and once John settled back into his home life I was happier. It was so much more predictable. Now in France, John had a list of things he wanted to see, but there was no ORDER to it. If he felt like doing something, he did it. He didn’t plan it out so he knew exactly what he’d be visiting on a given day.  It would have been a lot more efficient for him to plan it perfectly to make the most of the time there. But no…it was Jupiter, Jupiter, Jupiter! I’m sick of seeing that planet’s name all over John’s blog, dammit! And don’t even get me started on the fact that John didn’t even FINISH the whole list!

And you didn’t really help, either. John made a couple of visits to a tiki bar, and had wine while he was there, too. During his last trip to Nantes, he almost never drank. I’m not sure if you can really call that an “enhancement”. John’s also doing a lot of work with pictures and video from his recent trip, and he’s producing a trailer for his film about his recent trip to France. That’s clearly your domain.
Now that I think about it, there is only one planet that really didn’t have much of a role during this trip, and it was ME. After 41+ years of conservatively guiding him forward, he’s rejecting me, and that’s very painful.

He’s going to need me when he starts editing his nonfiction tarot book; you can be sure of that. But I must admit that I’m not feeling very diligent about helping him out.

I’m feeling uncomfortable enough right now that asking you for help seems like the right thing to do. I don’t suppose you have any suggestions, Great Deceiver?

Yours Truly,


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Deck Review: The Universal Fantasy Tarot

The Universal Fantasy Tarot

I received this Lo Scarabeo deck as a Yule gift several years ago and couldn’t wait to get home to try it out. As an unrepentant Dungeons and Dragons player—I started playing when I was 10 and still play to this day—I had high expectations for this deck, that it would be something different.

Turns out that I wasn’t disappointed. The artwork on the cards is gorgeous. Even if you bought this deck just for the images and weren’t planning to use it for divination, I found the pictures on each card fascinating and unique. It is unlike any other deck I have seen before. I did find, however, that the images had an edge to them. This deck is darker than many of the decks I normally use, and as such could work well for someone who is exploring that side of themselves.

Many of the cards do look alike at first glance but Lo Scarabeo has made it easier to identify what is what with their numbering system. At the top center of each card, a yellow Roman numeral (for the Major Arcana) or Arabic number (for the pips) is clearly visible. However, there is no designation for the Court cards. In addition, like almost all of Lo Scarabeo’s offerings, the titles of each card is given in many languages; in this case, the titles are in English, Spanish, Italian, French at the top, and German and Dutch at the bottom. I’m a big fan of multi-lingual decks.

The Rider-Waite imagery is present, at least partially, on many of the cards. The 9 of Cups, for example, shows a table set in a forest with eight of the nine Cups suspended in the trees with lit candles in them. The ninth lit candle sits in a Cup on the table itself. A lizard (dinosaur?) dressed in what appears to be Renaissance garb is standing before the table. So the image of pleasure is there with the table, but if you’re expecting the lizard to be smiling with satisfaction…well, let’s put it this way: He MAY be smiling but it’s not obvious. And Smokey the Bear is definitely NOT smiling; doesn’t that lizard know he can start a fire with candles in the trees? :)

The 8 of Pentacles card shows a man at the bottom of a tree spiraling upward into a starry sky. He looks upward, and to his right is a ladder sitting against the tree next to his toolbox. The pride in work image of the cards is clearly here, and evidently he does need to pay attention to the details to get all the way up to the top for that last pentacle. Incidentally, the suit is called Pentacles but in this deck they are more like golden disks with blue centers. The only true pentacle I saw in the deck was that on the Magician, but I may have missed others.

The Devil card is very interesting. In the background looms a large purple winged monster that looks like something like Frodo and company faced under the mountain. In the foreground are not two chained people, but two chained stone cat statues. If the cats are actually alive—and given the nature of this deck, anything is possible—there is no room for them to slip out of the chains. I think this is probably the first devil card that I have seen that has a cat on it. The image was chilling until I got to the cats; no offense to felines intended, but it lost its punch right then and there. The fact that the cats appear to be standing stock still and unconcerned about their situation just took something away for me.

My favorite card on this deck was Justice. This card is truly stunning. Lady Justice has an interesting sword in her right hand; the magenta handle is almost is long as the blade itself. The scales in her left hand are truly original and she holds them almost delicately; they hang down almost the entire length of her torso and truly must be seen to be believed. Like many modern images of Justice, she has her breasts bared (Author’s note: There is some female skin to be seen in this deck but very little male nudity. My apologies, ladies!) but wears a long flowing blue dress. She is not blindfolded but has her head turned dispassionately to the left, looking at the scales. 

The bottom line is that you really do have to know what you’re getting into with this deck. Because of the fantastical nature of the images, those who prefer something more conventional are not going to like it at all. But if you’re into fantasy or sci-fi, and have progressed in your studies of the tarot to the point where the card images do not need to be totally traditional, then you will be very pleased. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

In Search of Lost Time: Leaving Nantes

I woke up early the next morning. That was a good thing, too, because my 5:00am wake-up call never came. But then I had the sad realization that it was time to leave Nantes.

The hotel’s breakfast doesn’t even begin until 6:00am and I was ready to head to the train station, so I took off. It took only 10 minutes to walk there.

I found a place to sit in the train station, and I was alone. There were very few people around. I always arrive early when I’m traveling (in this case 90 minutes early), but French people generally don’t, especially for trains. They show up five minutes prior and go.
The station is unlocked at night, of course, but everything in it is closed. So there was nothing open for breakfast. Luckily, I still had some LU cookies—of course, I had to have le petit écolier during my visit even though I can get them in the States!—and a diet Coke (Coca Light in French) to get me through. I got settled onto a bench before the show began.

I know that “train station” and “party” are not synonymous for many of you, but apparently, when you’re out partying all night in Nantes and you want to stay warm, you cut through the train station. And let’s be clear: It’s not THAT warm at all. It’s not outside, but it’s not warm enough for you to be truly comfortable.

Anyway, these two drunk guys stumbled in out of the cold. They had a loud conversation and then one decided he’s going to do something. I don’t know exactly what was being planned, but the other guy tries to stop him. They wrestled over it, threw a few punches, and then staggered down the platform toward the trains. Not long afterward, three women found their way in. They appeared to be pretty well trashed, and they collapsed down onto a bench next to each other and fell asleep.

Eventually, I walked around a little to ensure no open shops had escaped my notice, but my clothes were attracting attention. 21 years ago, a lot fewer people in France wore jeans and athletic footwear. So I was afraid my clothes would scream MILKSHAKE-SWILLING YANKEE. Luckily that didn’t happen. But I had forgotten that I was wearing my FCN scarf and cap. And remember the colors? Bright yellow and bright green.

Nantes soccer supporters usually chant ALLEZ NANTES! at their games, and it’s been their motto for time out of mind. Simple and powerful—GO NANTES! I mean, who can argue with that?  So I’m walking back up to my chair and this group of people sees me and shouts ALLEZ NANTES! Of course, I have to shout it back, even though it's not even 7:00am. Years ago, this might never have happened; people in France usually ignore strangers. 

A little further on down the hall, someone shouts ALLEZ LES CANARIS! (GO CANARIES!). FCN apparently also calls their team “the canaries” because of the bright yellow uniforms. And I shouted it back. I was totally thrilled. No, I’ve never seen a game live, and I don’t follow the team, but I’m going to start. With the Internet it shouldn’t be that hard. And I’ve technically been a fan for 21 years.

(Incidentally, there was a toaster in the FCN shop that would toast ALLEZ NANTES onto your piece of bread. No, I’m not kidding. And no, I didn’t buy it. Maybe on my next trip…but they also do online ordering. Hmmm…)

After the most interesting time I’ve ever had waiting for a train, the track for the TGV to Paris is posted. I took one last look around, and then wheeled my suitcase down the hall heading for the train platform. This time, I had spent the extra $10 for a 1st class seat; when I first arrived, I was planning to do that, but if you buy the tickets the day you leave, the 1st class price is double the 2nd class price, so I ended up in 2nd class. Saturn could not allow Jupiter to be talked into THAT excess. At least he was nice about it. 

I found my seat and settled in, and then I honor my first journey to Nantes with a tradition I started the last time I left. 

I played a song by Jacques Brel, a Francophone singer who is beloved in France even though he is actually Belgian, as the train is leaving the Gare de Nantes (the “train station” and NOT the “war”, for those of you playing at home!). He was an Aries man who took passion to the extreme; he put so much into his performances that after his concerts, he would routinely pass out for 30-45 minutes.

The song is called Ne me quitte pas (Don’t Leave Me), and it’s a terribly maudlin song about a man begging a woman...well, not to leave him. The words are totally amazing; I’ve provided a translation of some of the lyrics:

I will make a kingdom/Where love will be king/Where love will be the law/And you will be queen/But don’t leave me/Don’t leave me/Don’t leave me/Don’t leave me

Let me become/The shadow of your shadow/The shadow of your hand/The shadow of your dog/But don’t leave me/Don’t leave me/Don’t leave me/Don’t leave me

In an unsurprising “French movies never have happy endings” twist, the song was written by Brel after he refused to acknowledge that he was the father of his mistress’ baby. She threw him out of her life and then had an abortion. OUCH! 

According to an unverified Wikipedia source, Brel wrote the song to highlight the cowardice of men. Ummm…how about the cowardice of ONE MAN, Monsieur Brel? Surprising for an Aries man, to be sure; they usually have courage in spades. It just goes to prove that astrology never tells the whole story.

I started this tradition with a yellow Sony Walkman—Google it if you want a picture, because I’m sure there are plenty of them—listening to this song on cassette. This time, I had an iPod classic and 500X as much music as was on a cassette, give or take.

As soon as the train started rolling, I put it on. And it made me feel exactly how it did the last time: Melancholy. I mean, let’s face it; you saw some of the lyrics, so you’re not surprised. But this time there was a difference. The last time, I had no idea when I would be coming back. I knew I would come back, but it took 21 fucking years. This time, I know I’ll be back, and it won’t take more than five years until my next visit, I hope.

I realized just how much this city and my time here were so very valuable to me, for so many reasons. And that was the lost time that I sought.

Two hours later, I arrived in one of the world’s greatest cities: Paris.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

In Search of Lost Time: Nantes--Days 4 & 5, part 2

Not far from the second supermarket was the stadium for FCN, the Football Club de Nantes. I had booked my trip BEFORE checking their game schedule, but next time, I will be taking in a game. Nantes’ soccer team was not very good when I was here, but my whole trip I had been hearing about their recent exploits and how they’re probably the French team with the most championships ever. I didn’t see a game when I lived here, but I LOVE soccer and found out from Thibault—who is a born-and-raised nantais and a huge FCN fan—that their pro shop was out here by the stadium. So I walk over there and for the first time in my whole trip, they’re at lunch and I’m stuck waiting for an hour.
Cultural note: Like many places in Europe, the French take lunch very seriously. Many shops—banks, post offices, privately-owned businesses—used to close for at least an hour for lunch during the workday. Then they’d re-open at like 2 and finish out the day. This practice is still around, but not often; most businesses, especially if they’re a chain, will have someone there over lunch. So as much as I could complain about losing an hour of my time, it have me the opportunity to sit and think about everything I had experienced, and that was good, too.

They came back at 2 and I head into the shop. I grabbed a cap, scarf, and a few other knickknacks and headed back for center city. FCN’s colors are bright yellow and bright green, so I knew I’d be noticed. More on that later.

I went back to the hotel and realized that my time in Nantes was quickly slipping away. I had already bought tickets for the first train to Paris in the morning, so I decided to pack some more. 

My last stop in Nantes was the Léfèvre-Utile Company, started here in Nantes in the 1800s. Locally, the company is known as LU, and their logo can be readily found in your local supermarket. My favorite cookies on the planet, Le petit écolier (The Little Schoolboy), are made by LU: a block of chocolate on shortbread. Totally amazing cookies. I haven’t found one LU cookie that I’ve hated. If you haven’t tried them, I highly encourage it…just look for the LU on the package.

Anyway, the factory is long gone, but one of the towers still remains and has tons of pictures of the history of the company.  I took a look around and purchased some more knickknacks—this was my shopping day, after all—and had a drink at their bar. The building is now called Le lieu unique-its initials are LU, of course—and it’s a cool little place that at least honors the history of the company.

My last meal in Nantes was in the hotel, and I wasn’t disappointed. Afterward, I went up to my room and fell asleep that night watching “Miss France”, which is similar to Miss America. Each region of France was represented by a young lady in this pageant—I don’t think it was a scholarship competition—and unfortunately, I didn’t think Miss Pays-de-la-Loire (the region whose capital is Nantes) was going to have a chance, anyway. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

In Search of Lost Time: Nantes--Days 4 & 5, part 1

My most “leisurely” day on this trip was Day 4. I got up, had breakfast, went over to the Cathedral and got some more pix from the inside. Then it was back to the Institute with some bread and cheese from a place called “Monoprix”, a French department store that was a favorite among Americans during my last stay. While I was eating with the students, I had to restrain myself from saying, “Well, back in my day…” all the time. Everything changes in 21 years. The 350 hand-written letters shocked them, I think.

I was back for a second day because the center had some visitors from the US State Department, and I was invited back for the presentation. That was fine, but I enjoyed talking to the students. I think some were scared when they heard me speak French because they might have thought they should be speaking like me after a year in Nantes. As much as I learned in Nantes, I learned so much from studying and teaching French after I got back.

(Seriously, folks…if you want to learn something until it is automatic, teach others. I promise you, I will never be able to forget French irregular verbs or some of the tenses—especially the passé composé and the imparfait—because of the amount of times I’ve had to teach them.  I actually enjoy teaching them…that is the scary part!! Just call it Jupiter’s influence—I have Jupiter in its dignity in Sagittarius. But I digress. )

After the talk was over, I headed back for the hotel for a while to type an email to Jen. Just like my last trip, I took some time—at least an hour a day, in this case—writing to her about my adventures. I also started doing some of the dreaded packing with my purchases. I wore a lot of old clothes to France that I just threw out afterward so space wasn’t a problem.

I headed back out later for dinner and what would be my final trip to Le Tiki Bar. My friend the bartender and I had some more great conversations, and he gave me a taste of one of his “infusions”, a homemade brew. It was tasty. Hooray for Neptune!

On the way back to the hotel, I had a snack at an old sandwich stand I used to hit, and once again, found some more lost time as I approached it in the same location as they were so long ago. They still had the sandwich I used to eat on the menu, a steack américain frites. This is an amazing concoction of steak topped with French fries. I used to get it once a week and sit in the Place de Commerce and eat it, watching the people go by. I decided against the steak this time, but got a great merguez sausage with fries instead and ate it on my way back to my hotel.

Day 5, Saturday, was my last full day in Nantes, and by necessity a shopping day. I went out to the eastern end of Nantes on the tram line, and hit not one but two hypermarkets. The first was fairly disappointing, but I did pick up some Christmas gifts.

The second was more of a pain in the ass. The French now use those scanners; the French word is une scannette and scan their purchases the way we can here. By an incredible coincidence, the French verb to scan is scanner. Go figure.

Anyway, I took a photo of the scanner area since I didn’t know the vocabulary as I walked into the store, and went upon my merry way. In a true Saturn moment,  about 30 seconds later  a security guard stopped me, saying that I “was not authorized” to take pictures here.

He told me to follow him toward the other end of the registers, so I do, whereupon he calls his supervisor to tell him or her what’s going on.

There were no signs telling me I couldn’t take pictures, and if there were they must have been buried in the fine print someplace. The last time I was asked not to take a photo was near the American Embassy in Paris many years ago. That’s something I can get behind, of course. The only thing I could think of was that they didn’t want me doing research for another supermarket chain on what their prices were or to copy their setup.

After repeating to me several times that I was not authorized to take pictures, and having no idea what he was going to do next, I pulled out the camera and turned it on. “This is the photo I took,” I said. “I’m a foreign tourist learning new vocabulary.” He repeated all this to his boss. “I’ll delete it right now.” And I did. Doing so seemed to placate him, and he dismissed me and ended his phone call.

As I headed back toward the children’s books—I had to buy some for my new nephew, Marcus, who will learn French if I have anything to say about it—I just got the sense that this wasn’t over, that I was going to see this security guard—who I named “Monsieur Zèle (Mr. Zeal)”—again before leaving.

My intuition was right. I’m in line to pay behind a woman doing her Christmas shopping so I’m just hanging in line. When my turn comes, I walk through a detector at the end of the cash register to wait for my purchases, and it goes off.

Who shows up but Monsieur Zèle; quelle surprise! He asks me to remove any articles in my bag, and I open it to see the purchases from the LAST hypermarket. They never removed the anti-theft devices.

I pull them out of my bag to show him. He looks through the bag and says, “Do you have a receipt for these purchases from the last store?”, not forgetting to correct my pronunciation of the last store’s name while doing so. I pull out the receipt and show him, and after a careful comparison of my purchases to the receipt, he grudgingly leaves, and I apologize to him for the inconvenience as he turns his back to walk away.  At least the cashier was totally nice to me. And this was one of those many times where I said “I’m so glad I speak French fluently enough to explain myself.”
At this point I decided that it was a good idea to get the fuck out of dodge before Monsieur Zèle decided  to find a reason to stop me again. I get that you don’t want me taking photos or stealing, but this “guilty until proven innocent” thing they had going just sucked. 

This was Jupiter's trip, but was one of the few times that Saturn reared his ugly head, thankfully. French customs officials and police were a lot nicer than this fucking dickhead. But hey…he was doing his job, and clearly this was Saturn’s way of reminding me that he was present, after all.

Don't get me wrong; Saturn's a great planet, and he's a tremendous influence in my life. But vacation isn't the place for him. I'm sure he'll have a thing or two to say about that, but there it is.