By Dale Pendell, published by Mercury House at $21.95. 294pp. ISBN: 1-56279-125-7
When Pendell published his first book, Pharmako/Poeia, in 1996 he promised a quick follow up volume dealing with the plants traditionally and most commonly associated with witchcraft, ie mandrake, the nightshades and daturas, henbane, aconite and so on. However that work has been postponed and we have this for the time being instead.
Pendell is a member of a group of West Coast occultists following magick's Poison Path, the systematic exploration of chemognosis. There are all sorts of substances which you can use to get out of your head for one purpose or another, and virtually any substance you use to shift your consciousness, magickally or mundanely, will do so by poisoning you to some degree or other. Dale Pendell seems to have tried most of them - organic and inorganic alike, which means that he and his writing are very short on the usual moralistic warnings and platitudes. It's nice to be treated as a grown up, eh?
In this book, the second therefore of a three volume set, Pendell considers a number of plants which were once exotic but which have over the years become familiar and everyday beverages such as tea, coffee, and cocoa, others used as stimulants by various cultures such as kola, betel, qat and ephedra, and a number of plants and substances which have become familiar and everyday parts of our drug culture including MDMA and cocaine.
This is not your average pagan herbal. In fact it's not your average herbal of any description. At the core of the book is the relationship between the seeker and the teacher or ally. This has been a curiously difficult book to review. Pendell's style is strangely hypnotic, intangible, poetic and philosophical and at times it has been difficult to decide whether it is he who writes or whether it is the teacher or ally speaking to the reader directly, from the green depths within the plant state. Or perhaps it is like a narrator telling a long and involved story but being constantly interrupted by his multiple personalities or onlookers who stick their oars in with sarcastic comments, witty asides, poetic musings and promptings. His writing has a dreamlike quality which dances on the page and which glitters with both promise and warning.
As with his previous offering, this book is packed with solidly researched botany, biochemistry, history, mythology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, politics, poetry and literature to present a profound appreciation of each of the substances under discussion, from the importance of tea to Buddhist and Confucian culture and religion and the role of the East India Company in the opium wars to the role of cacao in the cultures and civilisations of Central America and northern South America and from the impact of the popularisation of tea, coffee and chocolate drinking in western cultures on the need for sugar which fuelled the Atlantic slave trade to the struggle between the drugs cartels of South America and western governments over the production and trafficking of cocaine.
In short this is not a book for anyone wanting the usual list of correspondences in order to make incenses or plonk herbs in the bath. It is, however, an indispensable and thought provoking addition to the shelves of grown up magicians everywhere and remarkably difficult to put down once you've picked it up.
And I'm still waiting for the book I've been waiting for since I reviewed Pharmako/Poeia in 1999. Will somebody please kick Pendell's arse?