BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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On My Personal Pagan Theoilogy

Over on The Wild Hunt, Teo Bishop has made an interesting proposition: he would like to crowdsource Pagan theology in anticipation of an upcoming conference presentation. People are encouraged to post their personal Pagan theology in the comments section, on their blogs, and on Twitter. 

When I have to use any kind of terminology at all, I define my personal theoilogy (not theology, thank you) as polytheistic panentheism. Translation: I acknowledge the existence of a multitude of autonomous Powers which are simultaneously inherent/manifest within creation and transcendent/beyond creation. Some Powers are intimately interwoven with creation -- for instance, the dryad who lives and dies with her tree. Other Powers manifest within but are not as tightly bound to creation -- Athena, for instance, with Her ties to olive trees and owls and serpents, is also connected to "higher" qualities such as wisdom and creativity. And I do mean multitude; how many Powers have existed since before the beginning or been born in the interim I dare not even guess.

There is no one book which completely and perfectly explicates my personal theoilogy. (I am sure the same is true for many people.) There are, however, quite a few books which have informed my theoilogy, supplying bits and pieces here and there, clarifying points of confusion, helping me to develop it over the years. 

The comic book/graphic novel series Artesia by Mark Smylie is a excellent example of how a fictitious polytheism can inform real-world spirituality. Smylie's world-building and mythology are richly-realized and deeply moving. I found myself digging through the footnotes (and even the role-playing guidebook) for every little tidbit of information about the Gods, Goddesses, myths and rituals of Artesia's world. And, yes, I totally photocopied some panels as devotional artwork.

The Balance of the Two Lands: Writings on Greco-Egyptian Polytheism by H Jeremiah Lewis (aka Sannion) is an articulate, heartfelt, sometimes sarcastic, never boring collection of essays centered around my ancient spiritual home, Alexandria*. In my heart, I carry around an idealized vision of Alexandria: it is a city of soaring stone temples, beautifully painted, rich with incense and song and praise, while the streets echo with a hundred different tongues, neighbors honoring each others' right to worship the God/s/ess/es of their choice. While Lewis never glosses over the flaws of the real Alexandria, his love of that city reflects my own, giving me hope that -- someday -- something like it may exist again. 

In contrast to Lewis' book, A Chronicle of the Last Pagans by Pierre Chuvin fills me with sadness and anger. It reminds me that polytheistic traditions have an deep, rich history; that too much has been lost; that it could all be lost again if we are not vigilant; and that we have a responsibility to recover and revitalize those traditions to the fullest extent of our ability.

Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth by Graham Harvey was one of the first books on modern (neo)Paganism that I purchased; most of my library to that point was comprised of mythology and history texts. I was so enamored of Harvey's book that I showed it off to all my classmates. This book made clear to me not only that modern Paganism is an incredibility diverse community -- thus leading me to learn about as many paths as I could -- but also that not everyone desires to join or identifies with the "Pagan" community.

The other early purchase was the updated edition of Margot Adler's Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America. Originally published in 1979, with the most recent version released in 2006, Adler's book built on what I had learned from Harvey: Paganism is not just a big tent, but a community of tents; even if we disagree with out neighbors, common courtesy and self-interest alike compel us to respect (or at least tolerate) our neighbors' beliefs and practices when they do not adversely affect us. 

Oddly enough, despite the fact that I am Hellenic in my devotions, Karl Kerenyi's seminal The Gods of the Greeks was a relatively late purchase. Kerenyi's text is accessible, but he does not talk down to his audience. He refuses to smooth out the rough edges of the Gods and their myths, presenting them as complex, willful beings. He makes it abundantly clear that, while the Gods are indeed powerful and wise, they most definitely are not to be screwed with.

When Hellenistic Religions: The Age of Syncretism by Frederick C Grant was mentioned off-hand on a discussion list, I was able to track down a relatively inexpensive used copy. This is a must for anyone interested in the Hellenistic era or ancient Alexandria, with its web of mutually-influential spiritual traditions and vibrant Gods. The primary sources are inspirational, and the brief accompanying analytical text fascinating. 

While Grant's text contains mostly primary sources, in Her Share of the Blessings: Women's Religions Among Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Greco-Roman World author Ross Shepard Kraemer examines those surviving literary and archaeological sources to get a clearer picture of the place and function of women's spirituality at that time. The answer is ... not entirely comforting. In many cases, religion served as a release valve for women: like the Bacchantes featured on the cover, religious festivals, women-only events and even monastic communities allowed women to escape the restrictions of their patriarchal societies. Kraemer's conclusions are paradoxically disheartening and invigorating; on the one hand, it makes clear that just because a society honors Goddesses, it does not mean that society also recognizes the equality and worth of women; on the other hand, while we honor the same Deities as the ancients, we are under no obligation to follow in their footsteps in other areas. Their spirituality and festivals and practices are sources of inspiration, not commandments carved in stone.  

Ginette Paris' Pagan Grace: Dionysus, Hermes and Mother Memory and Pagan Meditations: Aphrodite, Hestia, Artemis examine the Gods from a psychological perspective. A Jungian analyst, not a Pagan herself, Paris focuses on what the myths and personalities of the Gods and Goddesses reveal about us. For example, was does it mean to describe Artemis as a virgin? What does that term mean to use as a society as a whole, to women as a group, to women as individuals? What does it say about our attitude towards women's sexuality and physical bodies? And so on.  

Finally, there is John Michael Greer's A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry Into Polytheism which I urge every Pagan to add to his/her library. This is an erudite defense and articulation of the logic of polytheism. This is a good book to hand out to friends and relatives when their response to your faith is "hunh?"

There are many other books which I am sure have influenced my personal theoilogy, some directly, some more subtly. The Grimm Brothers, for instance, and the fantasy worlds of Mercedes Lackey and Diane Duane, and history books too numerous to count.  The books listed above, however, are among the most memorable and important, and well worth tracking down.


*For an excellent history of Alexandria, and an examination of its lasting influence on history and science, check out Justin Pollard and Howard Reid's The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World.

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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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