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Monday, 29 August 2016

Book Review -- The Oracle Travels Light

It's no secret that I've been influenced by Camelia Elias's first book, Marseille Tarot: Towards the Art of Reading, which has garnered mixed reactions; some tarot readers love it and some write that they as much as pitched it directly into the trash bin. Her second book, The Oracle Travels Light: Principles of Magic with Cards seems to be as much a spoonful of Marmite to its readers as that first one. Those who love it tend to write things like this:

'This is a book for those who would risk a finger at the loom of the Weavers...This book is a stick of dynamite disguised as a cigar waiting to be lit with three matches from the hand of a dead man.' Aiden Watcher

'With this butterfly in my gun, I feel I might never again miss my mark.' Atticus Hob

'For those who don't mind walking into the forest of the mind and striking a match, this fire will keep you warm for your whole life long.' Caitlin Matthews

This resorting to metaphoric language goes a long way to showing you what the book is like. The following reviewer, who gave the book 5 stars, begins to touch upon one of my problems with it: 

'This one feels scholarly, yes, but, also muddy and sticky, like the shaman as she imparts the secret knowledge as she is rising from the swamp. The book itself is a potent spell well crafted.' Charles Webb

Even this guy, in trying to explain what it's like wading through the prose style and content of The Oracle Travels Light, has to use metaphoric language.

One confused reviewer says: 'Not sure if the book could use some better organisation, or if the less linear structure is part of the intended delivery. But there's gold in them wandering pathways.' Joe Crow (Another metaphor!)

Not everyone has been caught by its Marmite charms, though, such as these reviewers:

'One of the most self-obsessed and myopic books on magic I've ever read.'  James Kennedy

'Don't waste your money on this one. Had a look at it and threw it in the bin.' Wordery

I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to say about this book and how to say it. That's because there is some good material here that deserves to be considered, and because Elias demonstrates how seamlessly and organically the cards and magic can (and ought to) be integrated into daily life. Those are the good points. But also, there's no escaping the fact that this book is written in a dense, highly frustrating, stilted prose style, and there is a relentless subtextual thread which might reflect a personal war with a religious milieu, in frequent mentions of defying 'cultural dictations' and rather defiant see-how-naughty-I-am-because-I-practice-magic references to the Devil and the Devil card. These start to distract and annoy early on and they don't let up.

So let's just start with what I didn't liked

1. The prose style. It is dense and unlovely. Occasionally unintelligible.

2. All this banging on about being outside cultural norms and expectations. Anyone practicing magic already knows damn well they're outside the box. Why the gloating? This contempt for the 'norm' glares in a sample reading near the end of the book. It is for a man who wants to know if his friend has 'gone too conservative after marriage' to 'the prototype of the Danish woman, for whom everything is a project, including husband, children, the job, the house and the dog.' Elias writes: 'Yack. While listening to more uncomfortable notions about the dangers of life based on the status quo ideals... I laid down three cards, and the horror, the horror.' A good unbiased start, then.  Elias next details the reading which confirms both her and her client's contempt for conventional life, and ends with the client's feedback that his friend had phoned to tell him that he is happy. Elias isn't buying it: 'We could ask Freud what he would make of this demonstrative act of enunciation that discloses the poverty in inauthentic living: if you have to say you are (happy, rich, content, powerful) you aren't.' She then mentions how useful it is to be neutral in a reading and caps the story with this puzzler: 'As it is fantasy that rules the mytho-poetic act, our magic gets strengthened by the flow of speaking creatures, instructing us in the art of graceful deliverance.' Believe me, that sentence is no easier to interpret in the context of the entire chapter than it is here in isolation in this review. (See point 1).

3. Outright dismissal of the right hand path. In a chapter called 'The Paths of Magic,' Elias declares that only those who follow a left hand path live an authentic life, while right handers conform to what is acceptable to the masses. She confirms this for herself in a reading. For the left hand path, she draws The Pope, Justice and The Devil. For the right hand path, Lovers, Magician and Judgement. She gives the following reading, which I give in its entirety, because I found it so thoroughly offensive to light workers:
Here it becomes crucial to understand what the sorceress wants to begin with: To be in cahoots with the Devil, and do what there is to be done in terms of pacts and bonds, or to mediate relations between the ambivalent subject (herself included) and the public?
Whereas the Devil invites us to the underworld, asking us to start with confronting our own demons, the Angel says "all rise, let us now hear the news."
Whereas in the first example we clearly have a situation that requires a complete cut (Justice) with the dogma of the mainstream church (Pope), and entering into formal submission to the Lord of Darkness (Justice + Devil), the second example demonstrates a need to rise above the very idea of choice (Lovers) by tricking oneself (Magician) into believing that the sharing of higher learning is possible (Judgement). 
Whereas in the first example, describing the lefthand path, we are asked to consider giving up a pound of our own flesh and blood in exchange for magical knowledge (Justice cuts and weighs), the second example, for the right hand path, shows us that we are dependent upon the community to acknowledge our magic. Moreover here, as the Magician is looking at the options on his table, we are meant to understand that he may not be aware of how much of that doubting of himself he ends up carrying into the new world.  
Whereas the first example may involve working with necromancy, the ancestors, or the spirit of the telluric forces, the last example emphasises working with celestial forces as received by the larger group. If the first example shows us the transmission of personal gnosis, the price being going down, the second example shows us the transmission of group mentality, the price being having to listen up.

She then caps with this zinger: 'Why is working with the 'Devil' condemned, while working with the 'Angel' is consecrated? Which camp do I want to be in? The winners or the losers?' She calls this a  'transgressive lunch' (your guess is as good as mine!) and says 'good folks have been burned for a lot less than this discussion here.' Tiresome.

But here's what I really liked

1. Magic in the day-to-day. Elias tells many stories about how she sees magic all around, by making connections. On a day when she is thinking about her father and a person she admires, two crows appear and follow her. She names them after the two she is thinking of. Then later, she finds two white eggs in a carton of 12 and feels it's another sign from the pair. She tells a story of a friend who years ago promised her a gift sending her a Tibetan bowl just as she is deliberating over whether or not she should buy a Tibetan bowl. Do these stories prove anything? 'They prove nothing,' she writes. 'But what they do is tell us what we can make of the way in which we interact with the world. By letting ourselves be enchanted with how things come to us, or with what happens when we point our index finger at someone or something, we get a sense of what it means to be alive beyond the blood pulsing through our veins.'

2. Magic in ourselves. In a chapter called 'Necromancy,' Elias tells a wonderful story about a night when she and her sister decide to do some magic to try to 'uncover an annoying family secret'. They draw cards at random based on images seen by her sister in a crystal ball, and try out an array of magical techniques to coax the truth from the ancestors, who toy with them but in the end refuse to reveal anything. It is such a wonderful example of spontaneous, organic use of magical techniques and cards, and also the magical partnership between the sisters. They are playful and good-humoured through the experience, through the chills and rising hair, and finally give up, spill libations and go off to bed. The story is as much about Elias's relationship with her sister and the magical experience itself as it is about magical technique. Actually more so. We don't receive any instruction as to how to do any of this. The idea is just to do it, enjoy it. 'The point of the story here is to emphasise the very pragmatic scope of any magical working beyond its intended function, which, in my case, is the sheer pleasure of enjoying the company of my sister without having to go through the banality of recounting frustrations related to the reality of our 'normal' lives...In our encounters we have found that raving about our achievements, or those of our loved ones, is only interesting for about three seconds. Hence, we have long since realised that the best of ourselves together is found in our letting sacred objects not only mediate between us, but also inform our gatherings. Nothing really compares to the work of blessing our own treading on this planet, and making recourse to unusual practical magical behaviour that enhances our awareness of alternative modes of viewing the world. A community of two can work marvels.' In the margin next to this, I've translated it: 'Magic is more fun than small talk.'

3. Magic in the cards. The cards and your magic practice can be as natural as breathing. Elias tells a story about being anxious about her sister driving on her own through the countryside to Norway. She turns directly to the cards and draws Chariot, Tower, Temperance. She creates an impromptu spell and tells her sister, 'Take the Temperance card from the pack and enchant it with words of power for protection on the road and balanced driving.' Her sister does have an accident but is unhurt. Elias finds out her sister never did take a card or speak words of power over it. However, Elias believes that 'the thought of it counted enough' to allow her sister to arrive unharmed. I find stories like this endlessly fascinating. Our thoughts affect reality. Magic is anything that helps us direct and focus how our thoughts are affecting reality.  I have no doubt on this point. (This draw could also have been read: You are worried about your sister having a car wreck, but don't be. You can trust that it will all come out in the wash. :D )

Despite its frustrations, I believe this book is worth reading. I've read it three times. I've dipped into it many more times than that -- I've been chewing this book over since February. The margins are filled with my outraged or delighted scribblings. We have a love/hate vibe. That in itself makes it pretty magical to me.


  1. Well done Carla! You have brilliantly conveyed the struggle that you've experienced with this book - 'the love/hate vibe' The first book, about the Marseille, didn't really gel with me - but I'm still not hugely experienced with the deck and have put it aside for future reference when I feel more able to appreciate the content :-D <3

    1. Thanks, Alison. Now on to my next book -- Candle Magic by Lucya Starza!