BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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On Theophanies

While I identify as Pagan, and more specifically as Hellenistai, I also fall into the category generally defined as "devotional polytheist." For me, the Gods are at the center of my spiritual practice. I write poetry and short stories and essays in their honor, meditate and go on trance journeys, and endlessly discuss their natures and myths and influence upon the world. As such, theophanies -- manifestations of the Gods, personal encounters with them -- are of particular interest to me. I love to read of others' encounters with Gods and Goddesses and spirits of all sorts, from every tradition, new and old.

Additionally, not all theophanies are ... well ... I have found some passages in works of fiction to be as profoundly moving and insightful as any (nonfiction) work. It leads me to wonder if the authors have either coded their true encounters, changing bits here and there to include them in novels and short stories; or if the authors have some intuitive understanding of the Gods and spirits and the world beyond the mundane.

And then, of course, there is poetry. There are a lot of truths about the natures of the Gods to be found in the inspired works of ancient and modern poets alike.

Here, then, are a few of my favorite works on theophany: nonfiction, fiction, short stories, and poetry. Some are by well-known polytheist authors; otherwise are less well-known; still others are not polytheist (at least not publicly) but I have found their writings to be useful and inspirational. If I missed any of your favorites, please let me know: I am forever on the hunt for new books.

Firstly, works of fiction. If you have not done so already, track down a copy of Artesia by Mark Smylie. This graphic novel follows the adventures -- on and off the battlefield -- of a priestess-warrior in a landscape rich with Deities and spirits. The artwork is stunning, and Artesia's dedication to her spiritual work is inspirational.

I also recommend that you get started on The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Really. Dresden may be a wizard with little use for Gods, but he keeps running into them -- as well as fae of various stripes, ghosts, demons, and assorted other spirits. I was particularly struck by the scene in Summer Knight in which he had to make his way through a murky wood to a tiny cottage, in hopes of gaining advice from the elder Queens of Summer and Winter. That scene had a definite ring of "truth hidden in fiction."

While you're at it, track down copies of The Fairy Queen of Spencer's Butte and Other Tales by Jolene Dawe; the Vows and Honor series by Mercedes Lackey; and The Ruin of Beltany Ring by Ceallaigh S. MacCath. The first is an anthology featuring a variety of urban fantasy tales filled with shifters and spirits and fae of all sorts. The second falls into the sword-and-sorcery category, and the scene in which Tarma meets her Starry-Eyed Goddess still lives in me, even all these years after I first read it. The third is a lyrical collection of short poems and short tales, some bitter, some sweet, some fierce, some kind, all infused with a sense of the divine.  

Next, look for works by Jordan L. Hawk, especially Hainted and the SPECTR series. The first (which I have written about previously) stars two spirit workers, one dedicated to Hekate, the other to Hel. The on-going SPECTR series centers around an unwilling host for a non-human entity and the federal agent assigned to protect him -- or kill him, as necessary. I particularly liked one scene in SPECTR in which Tiffany defends the old ways to a fellow SPECTR agent:

"There's a reason a lot of ritual surrounds any sort of summoning, no matter the culture," Tiffany said. "People, especially the one being possessed, have to be in the right headspace. Ceremonies, trances, rituals, all are a way of making sure the person is calm. On an even keel."

Finally, check out Shaman, Healer, Heretic by M. Terry Green. This urban fantasy series follows the adventures of Olivia Lawson, a techno-shaman who uses her abilities to heal and protect. Her journeys to the World Below, and her encounters with the Gods and spirits who reside there, are fascinating, frightening, and eery.

Moving on to poetry ... well, there are far, far too many titles here than I could ever recommend, so I'll stick with the ones way up on the top of my list. Begin with Datura: An Anthology of Esoteric Poesis and Mandragora: Further Explorations in Esoteric Poesis, both edited by Ruby Sara.* The poems and essays in these two volumes take my breath away. I can only read a few, and then I have to set them aside, mull on what I have read, and let it really sink in before I dare to pick up either book to read again. The same can be said of H. Jeremiah Lewis' Strange Spirits (which focuses on the Hellenic pantheon) and Andrew Gyll's Shadow Gods and Black Fire (which focuses on the Northern Traditions).  

While I have no idea as to Catherynne M. Valente's spiritual beliefs and practices, her poetry also has that "hidden truths revealed" aura. I particularly recommend Oracles: A Pilgrimage and A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects. Some of the beings she speaks of in poems I would want to meet. Others ... not so much ....

Finally, nonfiction works which either focus on or include theophanies were once rare, but are becoming increasingly common; perhaps people are becoming more comfortable discussing their encounters publicly; or maybe the Gods are becoming more overtly active in the world as more people seek them out; I don't know. But, if you are curious about real, honest to Gods encounters with real Gods check out Call of the God: An Anthology Exploring the Divine Masculine Within Modern Paganism, edited by Frances Billinghurst.* This collection includes essays and poetry and artwork, from traditions as varied as Luciferianism, Heathenry, Druidry, Kemeticism, and Wicca, and many others. 

Next, check out Dwelling on the Threshold: Reflections of a Spirit-Worker and Devotional Polytheist by Sara Kate Istra Winter, and Talking to the Spirits: Personal Gnosis in Pagan Religion by Raven Kaldera and Kenaz Filan. I actually recommend reading the two books at the same time or one right after the other. They fit well together, offering suggestions on how to engage in spirit work, what to do when the work isn't working, and how to discern whether or not you are really encountering a spirit or just talking to yourself.

Three other books which go well together are Magic of the Norse Goddesses: Mythology, Ritual, Tranceworking by Alice Karlsdottir; The Pathwalker's Guide to the Nine Worlds by Raven Kaldera; and The Whisperings of Woden: Nine Nights of Devotional Practice by Galina Krasskova.** While particularly useful to those who follow the Northern Traditions, I found these books to be adaptable and inspirational. For example, if the techniques for journeywork in a particular tradition have been lost or corrupted, it can be useful to look at a techniques used by surviving or thriving polytheist communities; take what Kaldera does in Pathwalker's Guide, for example, and see how it can be adapted to your tradition.

Finally, there are two series which I also highly recommend. First, the devotional anthologies published by Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Full disclosure: I am the editor-in-chief of BA, but that is not why I am recommending them. Rather, it is because it has been my privilege as EiC to read of dozens and dozens of encounters with Gods and Goddesses and spirits from traditions across the Mediterranean and into western Europe: healing journeys with the Morrigan, descents into the underworld with Ereshkigal, whispered words from 'Athirat, terrifying encounters with Hekate, ecstatic dances alongside Dionysus, and a calming touch from Charon. I can't help but feel awe-struck and humbled.

The other series I recommend is Pagan Portals, published by Moon Books. These short volumes offer personal insights and practices involving individual Deities, types of devotions, magical systems, and polytheist traditions. I particularly recommend Morgan Daimler's Brigid: Meeting the Goddess of Poetry, Forge, and Healing Well; Fairy Witchcraft, also by Daimler; Vivienne Moss' Hekate: A Devotional; and Pathworking Through Poetry: Visions from the Hearts of the Poets by Fiona Tinker. If the last does not convince you to pick up a volume of Yeats, then nothing will.

Let me close with a few questions. As I noted above, I have had some divine encounters, not all of which I have shared. The response has generally been positive and supportive when I have written of these encounters. What about you? Have you ever encountered a Deity or spirit, and written about it? If so, what happened? What was the reaction of those you told about it? What about books you have read on the subject? Do others' encounters with the Gods match your own, or are they radically different? And, if they are so very different ... why?



*Full disclosure: I have a couple of pieces in this volume.

** I also highly recommend Krasskova's Devotional Polytheism

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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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