BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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On Dictionaries, Encyclopedias, and Other Excellent Resources

So … the "God Graveyard." Yeah, it's been all over the Pagan blogosphere. I admit to being ambivalent in my reaction. Anger, annoyance, frustration, and exasperation all mingle alongside "the stupid! it burns!" 

Only after I took a really close look at some of the very fuzzy, rather crummy photos of the "graveyard" did I hit upon a response appropriate to BookMusings.* "Furrina?" I squinted at the photograph. "Who the heck is that?" I wondered -- and pulled out my battered copy of Goddesses in World Mythology by Martha Ann and Dorothy Myers Imel. I picked up Ann and Imel's book many many years ago, and it has never let me down; though the entry on Furrina** was brief, it was enough to pique my interest -- and the extensive bibliography offered plenty more venues of research.

Wikipedia may be the default resource for many people (myself included), but not everything is online. There is still a lot of information -- a LOT -- that has not been digitized. So, here are a few of my favorite, go-to print dictionaries, encyclopedias and other resources about the Gods, ancient religions, mythology, and modern Paganism/polytheism.

An Anthology of Sacred Texts By and About Women edited by Serinity Young was a grad school find. I stumbled across it at the campus bookstore and splurged; food could wait; I needed that book. After a lengthy Introduction, which examines such cross-cultural themes as menstruation taboos and dualities, Young divides the book along religious/regional lines. I'm pretty sure this is where I first read about Matilda Joslyn Gage.

The Atlas of Sacred Places: Meeting Points of Heaven and Earth by James Harpur is richly-detailed, filled with photographs, charts, maps, and timelines. Best of all, it treats all sites that are considered sacred -- whether Delphi, Jerusalem, or Ulurru -- as equal, regardless of tradition. 

Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths and Legends of the Sun, Moon, Stars and Planets by EC Krupp is a tour de force of world cultures, and their varied understandings of the sky and its wonders. Lots of black-and-white illustrations, with chapters dedicated to individual celestial bodies and groups such as "Over the Rainbow," "Through the Zodiac", and "By the Light of the Morning Star." Organizing the book in this way allows for some interesting cross-cultural comparisons; the chapter on the Seven Sisters is one of my favorites, as it examines different myths about the stars, whether a given culture sees six or seven stars, their gender (predominantly female), and their place in modern cultures (e.g., the Subaru logo).

One of the first books I bought on Goddesses, way back in high school I think, was The Book of Goddesses and Heroines by Patricia Monaghan. She has since rewritten and updated that original text with The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines and the forth-coming Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines. I have no idea how the two newer volumes compare to the original, but it is an invaluable resource to anyone interested in Goddesses and Goddess Spirituality. (More on Furrina here!)

Classical Mythology by Mark Morford and Robert Lenardon is the standard college text on the subject; this is one of few college books I actually kept, and I still refer to it on a regular basis. Lots of analysis, lots of primary sources, and plenty of black-and-white and color illustrations.

A Dictionary of Creation Myths by David Leeming and Margaret Adams Leeming is an alphabetical listing of creation tales by culture, along with figures from those tales; for instance, the entry "Altaic Creation" includes links to the entries "creation from chaos," "Earth-Diver Creation", "creation from clay," and others. There are a few black-and-white illustrations and photographs, but I prize this particular dictionary because the authors do such a great job of interlinking related themes within and across cultures.

Dictionary of Northern Mythology by Rudolf Simek is considered by many Heathens to be the book on the subject. I finally picked up a copy after hearing about it repeatedly on Heathen discussion boards and email lists. Organized alphabetically, Simek draws upon every primary source available in his lengthy entries on everything from Fenris to Odin to Saga.

Sadly out of print, The Encyclopedia of Gods by Michael Jordan is a quick, straightforward alphabetical reference. In my research into unfamiliar Gods and Goddesses, I often start here, then move onto more pantheon-specific texts.  

Arthur Cotterell is the author of dozens of books on world mythology. For me, the best is The Encyclopedia of Mythology: Classical, Celtic, and Norse; not because of the text, but because of all the gorgeous artwork. Terrific color photographs of paintings, illustrations from children's books, and much more. 

Essential Visual History of World Mythology from National Geographic is definitely one of the most colorful books in my collection; lots and lots of photos of statues, reliefs, mosaics, vases, paintings, buildings, and much more. Divided into twelve sections (it even separates out Greek and Roman mythologies), and weighing in at nearly five hundred pages, the Essential Visual History of Wold Mythology covers everything from the Seven Gods of Luck to Cuchulainn to the divinized Virtues of ancient Rome.

God: Myths of the Male Divine and Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine by David Leeming take a monistic view of Divinity; the assumption that all Deities are an aspect or expression of a single Ultimate Divine is sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit. Nonetheless, I love Leeming's retellings of these Deities' stories; Dumuzi and Eurynome are two favorites.

Goddesses: A World of Myth and Magic by Burleigh Muten and Rebecca Guay is technically a children's book, but I highly recommend it to adults, too. The entries are poetic and informative, and the artwork is gorgeous.

The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion edited by Jonathan Z Smith, and Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Religion are both excellent general references. Though they pay more attention to the dominant living traditions, the entries are extensive and detailed; there is also a lot of information on sub-topics within each tradition, such as the experiences of women in Islam, the ordination of women in Catholicism, and so forth. Also, maps and pronunciation guides! 

If I were stranded on a deserted island and could take only one set of books with me, it would probably be Mythologies, edited by Yves Bonnefoy and translated by Wendy Doniger. Thorough and insightful.

The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion by Simon Price is one of my go-to resources when I am writing poetry. If I need some quick inspiration, I flip it open to a random page (and, too often, I just keep reading). 

Women of Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary by Robert Bell is my other poetry go-to reference. Bell has a great conversational style; he makes even the most minor figures come to life, tying together women across mythical cycles that I had never realized were connected.

The Woman's Companion to Mythology edited by Carolyne Larrington features dozens of essays by female scholars, covering mythological/spiritual systems from around the globe. Of particular interest to these authors are the social nature of myths, and how they can used to both reinforce -- and subvert -- the dominant social models; see, for instance, Artemis' independent nature.

So, there you have them: a few of the best reference materials out there on Gods, Goddesses, mythology, ancient religions, and modern Pagansim/polytheism. Many are readily available as used copies online, or at your local library. Check them out, and let me know if I missed any of your favorites.

*Over at From the Oak, Melia Brokaw is digging into the history and mythology of each God in the graveyard, beginning with Shezmu.

** For the record, Furrina (or Furina) is a Roman Goddess of springs, darkness and thieves. Sounds like an interesting lady.

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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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