Phoenix From the Flame
By Vivianne Crowley
London: Thorsons (1994)
Reviewed by Erica Friedman

This book begins with a completely gagifying introduction that assumes quite a lot. For one thing, it assumes that the reader has not only an interest in paganism, but already understands the extremely personal nature of the beast. Crowley reminisces about her childhood in a way that make me cringe, but will, I’m sure, resonate with many other pagans. (In fact, not two days after I presented this review at a meeting of the GOG Dedicants, our Senior Druid received an email that cited this book as a major influence!)

The book commences with definitions and discussions of some of the aspects of paganism. While the information is solid, the author tends towards the prosaic and, at times, the preachy. Crowley also falls prey to a deadly sin in writing, assuming her point of view is universal. She makes a few seemingly random statements, then offers no support for them. The first of these was an assertion that, since Adam’s and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden represented an important step in humanity’s evolution, so we must therefore return to the elder gods. This assertion simply makes no sense to me whatsoever.
Crowley’s short discourses on pagan group organization and dogma were quite excellent. She points out the inherent difficulty with this kind of overview right off the top, taking care to always express that each group (or individual) may well have completely different needs. Nonetheless she insists that there are some defining characteristics of pagan “religion” and beliefs, something I don’t really agree with. Crowley also has a tendency to conclude sections of text with over-arcing pedantic, almost dogmatic statements, in the “we must do this or else” tone of voice. This little habit really lessens the impact of her more objective commentary.

Each chapter and subsection is filled with many quotes from a variety of sources, all of which are footnoted. However, quotes are inconsistently attributed directly in the text, which is confusing and weights some quotes more heavily, since they are given sources, where others appear to have floated into the discourse from the ether. Eventually, Crowley confronts the reader with her second disturbing assertion—that paganism in its ancient form was more about a larger scale, pan-human, resource-sharing attitude than its monotheistic brethren. I can’t agree with that. Paganism, as it is portrayed in every myth or story I’ve encountered encapsulates the “us versus them” worldview…I am at a loss to understand why so few modern pagans understand (or admit to) this innate tribal structure. Pan-globalism is, as far as I can tell, a completely 20-21st century concept.
Section Two begins with a quotation—from the author’s own poetry. This part of the book left me completely confused—are these the author’s opinions, or not? Since she so randomly inserts herself, I’m finding myself left wondering if this book is really more about how she sees her own personal paganism. From this point on, the scholarship in the book deteriorates considerably as well. (The section where a Norse priestess rants against Akhnaten’s denial of the feminine principle of deity was just bizarre.) This oddity was followed by a belated mention of the tribalism of original pagans, which contradicts her original statement about a universal resource-sharing worldview among ancient pagans. In what might otherwise be a fascinating delineation of early Christianity’s strictures against pagan worship practices, Crowley quotes names, places and dates—with no scholarly support—not a single footnote. Her discussion of meso-pagan revival is slightly better than the rest of the book in many ways. She appears to find (as most modern pagans do) 18th and 19th century romanticism amusing.

The section of “pagan traditions” vacillates wildly between actual traditional practices (with an assumed pagan history) and recreated pagan belief systems. Much of these culturally focused essays focus not on tradition at all, but on mythology—with a very clear bias towards goddesses. Crowley also emphasizes the position of women within the religious hierarchy—crowing with delight that women were seen as having major influence, usually as seers. That religious influence did not carry at all over to temporal or economic power, or even independence, doesn’t seem to be a point she cares to admit. Where understanding of god/desses is less well known, as in the Baltic region, she brings up rather random folk traditions and ties them together using vague generalities and assumed connections.

Following this comes what, to me, is the strangest of all discussions so far…that of rites of passage. Crowley’s understanding of rites of passages reeks of pop psychology and her own personal views (which I felt were conservative and gender-bound, even as she says that pagans are *not* locked into these roles). Rites are supplied, but no context for them is given—was this a ritual that she herself created or experienced? Or was it taken from a specific source? Who are the people she is quoting? Why are they to be considered opinion leaders?

The rest of the book continues in the same vein, with discussions of paganism and modern society, pagan rites, pagan views of sex and sexuality, good and evil and other broad concepts. The opinions expressed are clearly personal, but attributed to “pagans” generally. Quotes are variably attributed and examples rarely offered. Nowhere is there a discussion of actual specific pagan groups and their practices, but neither is her personal view differentiated from her voice as “pagan” spokesperson.

Crowley’s bias is clearly towards convincing the audience of the need for Goddess worship—but exactly who is her audience? I can only imagine that there are women who are seeking validation in their pursuit of a goddess-oriented worship, and looking for empiric sources upon which to base their understanding and validation. In that case, this book will be more than adequate.
It is, however, my sincere opinion that the only reason this book is on the ADF reading list is that we are mentioned in the resource guide at the end of the book. There is nothing like scholarship anywhere in this book and I humbly suggest that it be removed from the ADF reading list and added to the list of speculative and spurious “scholarly” works. While reading this book will not likely cause any great harm to the reader, ultimately there are many better resources for this kind of information.