BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

A lively discussion of ancient and modern Pagan literature -- including children's books, graphic novels, science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries -- along with interviews, author highlights, and profiles of Pagan publishers.

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On Modern Pagan Poetry

The ancient world was rich in poetry. The ancient authors who most readily spring to mind were either poets themselves (Hesiod, Virgil, Sappho) or recorders of/commentaters upon others' poetry (Snorri Sturulson). Plus, all those anonymous works of poetic genius (see Beowulf).

The modern Pagan movement is just as rich in poetry. I can't remember when I first began reading and collecting modern Pagan poetry. It was well after I came home to/converted to/embraced Hellenismos. I had plenty of the old authors at hand; everyone from the aforementioned Hesiod, Virgil and Sappho to Bacchylides, Callimachus, Catullus, and an assortment of anthologies. It was with great surprise and delight, then, that I found their modern descendants.

There are poems for feast days, poems for holy days, poems to commemorate special occasions, poems in honor of nature, poems for children, poems for the dead, poems for the Gods. Some of these poems appear in fairly mainstream publications (see Parabola), others appear in highly specialized publications (Mythic Delirium), and still others are self-published on websites or in print and ebook collections.* Some are written by openly Pagan authors for a Pagan audience, while others are written with no particular audience in mind but which do (nonetheless) find a home on Pagan bookshelves.

For an excellent sampling of modern Pagan poetry, featuring authors writing from a dozen different traditions and none at all, I highly recommend two anthologies from Scarlet Imprint.** Edited by Ruby Sara, Datura: An Anthology of Esoteric Poesis and Mandragora: Further Explorations in Esoteric Poesis are beautifully constructed volumes filled with poems about Gods, spirits, possession, lust, fear, awe, and death. Heck, Datura is worth the price for Erynn Rowan Laurie's essay alone.

If it is nature poetry with a spiritual bent that interests you, there are two great  books that I highly recommend. In Mother Earth, Father Sky: Poems of Our Planet, Jane Yolen collects a wide variety of works, from CS Lewis to Christina Rossetti; Jennifer Hewitson's organic, vibrant wood block-style illustrations perfectly match the text. For nature poetry geared more towards adults -- especially activist adults -- check out Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems by John Felstiner. After reading this, it will be impossible to get the awesomeness of nature out of your mind.

If the magical, macabre and mysterious are more your thing, look for two collections by Catherynne M Valente: A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects and Oracles: A Pilgrimage. In the latter, oracles can be found all over modern America, from a rundown factory to Detroit to a Manhattan diner at 3:00 am. In the former, poems inspired by other literary works alternate with original compositions and (fictional) anthropological reports of folktales and fables. With it's particular emphasis on women, their place in these tales, and the reactions brought out in the reader by these characters, this is a must for any women's literature or women's studies class (see especially "The Woman Who Married the Land" and "Helen in the Underworld" and "Sedna, Submerged").

Speaking of women's literature: Sarah Kennedy's A Witch's Dictionary, also discussed in a previous post. Pair this with, say, Valente's Guide to Folktales and Mary Daly's Webster's First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language -- and stand back as myths are overturned and folktales stood on their heads. 

Speaking of witches, two all-ages books which I reviewed in a previous postWitch Poems and Fairy Poems. Edited by Daisy Wallace, with fantastic illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman, these short anthologies include a wide assortment of poems, from the frightening to the sublime to the hysterical.

Collections of Goddess-oriented poetry are also readily available; most are multi-author anthologies, such as the excellent Her Words: An Anthology of Poetry About the Great Goddess, edited by Burleigh Muten; and She Rises Like the Sun: Invocations of the Goddess by Contemporary American Women Poets, edited by Janine Canan. The former includes both ancient, early modern, and modern works, loosely divided by type (Invocation, Salutations, The Ground of Our Being); some of the poems allude to "The Goddess" while others praise specific Deities, such as Hera, Isis, and Kali. Canan's collection, on the other hand, with its delightful illustrations by Mayumi Oda, focuses explicitly on the United States in the 20th century; Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Marge Piercy, and May Sarton are just a few of the authors whose works are featured. (Personal favorites: Harjo's "The Book of Myths" and Levertov's "The Postcards: A Triptych.")  

And, of course, there is Humming the Blues, Cass Dalglish's modern, jazzy reimagining/retranslation of Enheduanna's famous poem for Inanna.

While poetry is flourishing throughout the Pagan community, some authors focus on specific traditions. If you are Heathen, consider tracking down Shadow Gods and Black Fire by Andrew Gyll; Day Star and Whirling Wheel: A Devotional for Sunna Goddess of the Sun and Mani God of the Moon, edited by Galina Krasskova; and Skalded Apples: A Devotional Anthology for Idunna and Bragi, also edited by Krasskova. Gyll's book contains some of the most powerful, penetrating poems I have ever read in honor of Hel; I started his book and couldn't put it down. Krasskova's two anthologies (full disclosure: I have a couple of poems in each) contain mostly verse pieces, with a few works of prose and ritual; these are perfect books to have while planning for a sumbel or blot.  

If you follow a Hellenic path, consider reading Hymns From the Temple: A Hellenic Book of Prayer by Lykeia; To the Gods of Hellas: Lyrics of the Greek Games at Barnard College, edited by Helen Erskine; and Strange Spirits by H Jeremiah Lewis. Lykeia's collection includes poems and prayers in honor not only the "big" Gods, but also lesser-known Deities such as Nyx, Leto, Hypnos and Adonis. Erskine's collection, originally published in 1930, grew out of a freshman/sophomore rivalry which evolved into formal athletic, poetry, and dance competitions. Each year, the games centered around a different Greek myth, with the best of the poems eventually collected and published by Erskine; there are some real lost treasures here. Lewis' Strange Spirits is my latest acquisition and -- wow! -- is there some powerful imagery here. For instance:

This is my world: / burying a bull's head in the backyard, / running in the woods possessed by dead kings, / dancing with depressed spiders and headless saints, / Bacchanalias with bee-nymphs on Skinner's Butte, / loving Dionysus, / loving his maenad, / telling fortunes at the crossroads on Fridays with Hermes. / It's a good life. / You are what you do.

As a devotee of Dionysus, most of Lewis' poems focus on that God. There are also poems in honor of Deities, spirits, and heroes related to Dionysus, such as Ariadne, Marc Antony, Serapis, and various nymphs.

(If you enjoy Strange Spirits, I also recommend Lewis' anthology Echoes of Alexandria: Poems and Stories. This is a particularly appropriate collection for those who follow a syncretic Greco-Egyptian path, or who have interests in both pantheons.)

Finally, one more all-ages picture-and-poetry book. Sacred Places, illustrated by David Shannon, features a dozen of Jane Yolen's original verses. Here, author and artist pay tribute to holy sites around the world, such as Delphi, Itsukushima, Mecca, Stonehenge, and the Wailing Wall. I love the image of the sybil at Delphi.

There are, of course, many, many, many more modern Pagan poetry books than those featured here. I hope to return to this topic with more recommendations in a few months. So, if I missed an Pagan poets and their works that you think the rest of Pagandom needs to know about, ping me or post a note below.


 *I have not had the chance yet to read Shards and Spirals: Pagan Poetry From the Back of the Heart, edited by Raven Kaldera, or Pagan Portals: Pathworking Through Poetry by Fiona Tinker. Has anyone else?

**Full disclosure: I was privileged to be included in both of these anthologies. I would recommend them regardless. Sara did an amazing job of collecting some of the best Pagan poetry available at the time.





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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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