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On The Books That Made Me Pagan

Over the last few weeks, some of the bloggers at the Pagan Channel on Patheos have been posting short explanations as to how and why they became Pagan. I'll tackle that question, too, but in a manner more appropriate to this column: as a life-long bibliophile, books have had a huge influence on my spiritual development. The genres, target audience, and quality of those books have varied widely; the majority were not even aimed specifically at Pagans. Nonetheless, during my formative years (say, childhood through mid-adolesence), these books contributed to thoroughly corrupting me.

Augustus Caesar's World by Genevieve Foster, for instance, which I first found at the public library as a child, lost track of, then rediscovered in the tiny children's section in my college library. I adore the artwork, and I love how Foster interweaves the personal histories of ordinary people with those of major personages and important events. It was this book which first made me a fan of Cleopatra, and led me to further explore women's history and the religions of the ancient world.

Everyone should have at least one copy of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm on their shelves. At least one. I need to explain why? Magic, derring do, adventure, magic, powerful women, brave princesses, magic, villains, talking animals, and so on and so forth. Grimm collections, along with Perrault, Andersen, Lang, and others, inspire awe and curiosity. They keep alive in us a vital sense of wonder and awe without which we are blind to the mysteries and beauties of the world. 

Like those collections of fairy tales, d'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths and The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus by Aliki captured my imagination early on. I poured over the artwork, the origin stories of the Goddesses and Gods, the grand adventures of heroes, the tragic fate of monsters hideous and noble. I was inspired to run through the woods with Artemis, imagine Athena as my best book buddy, and offer greetings to the sun and moon and dawn.

I first encountered The Trojan War by Olivia Coolidge in my middle school library, then (sadly) lost track of it as I moved on to high school. Coolidge's tale pays particular attention to the women of Troy: their fears, loves, hatreds, faith, and ultimate fates. It was this book which not only made me a firm supporter of the Trojans over the Greeks, but also really drove home the central role of women in mythology. Yeah, Zeus and Apollo and Perseus and Agamemnon and so forth get most of the (positive) press; probably because they represented values and roles admired by primarily male authors. But Coolidge brought the women to the fore, and it was a lesson I never forgot.  

In addition to Cleopatra, one of my favorite women of old is Hatshepsut. Pharaoh in her own right, it was Dorothy Sharp Carter's His Majesty, Queen Hatshepsut which first turned me on to this remarkable woman. I read and reread this book all through  my adolescence, often wondering how history would have been effected if Hatshepsut's daughter had lived and succeeded her mother to the throne. 

Unlike Carter's book, Mara Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw features a cruel Hatshepsut as the villain of the piece. Ah, well. Despite turning a woman I admire into a narcissistic shrew, I read this book over and over again all through adolescence. It was like The Scarlet Pimpernal but set in ancient Egypt. Too cool!  

By the time I entered high school, that early interest in Cleopatra and Hatshepsut had grown into a fascination with women's history as a whole. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the Goddesses, artists, authors, queens, explorers, and activists of yore. As such, The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pisan was a logical and much-loved purchase. Born in 1364, married at fifteen, widowed at twenty-five, de Pisan turned to writing to support her family. Witty, sharp-tongued, and erudite, de Pisan took on the misogyny and immorality of The Romance of the Rose (a bestseller in its day) and other publications with her own works which celebrated the accomplishments and wisdom of women. (Okay, granted, the devoutly Catholic de Pisan presents ancient Goddesses as euhemerized queens, but still, she helped to keep alive the memories of these Goddesses and powerful women.) 

When my nose wasn't buried in textbooks, I was reading books like the Chicks in Chainmail series edited by Esther Friesner and the Sword and Sorceress anthologies edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley. They continued the lesson I had learned from Coolidge. Collections such as these showed me that women were not only writing and publishing, but -- neat! -- writing about Goddesses and witches and shamans and warriors, and writing about them in such a way that they seemed real, alive, relevant. 

And it was that realization -- the relevance of the old Goddesses and Gods, the importance of those fantasies and fables and myths -- which finally led me to Merlin Stone's seminal work, When God Was a Woman

And so my answer to how and why I became Pagan: I blame books.

 

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.

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