Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pagan Literature

I have a confession to make. I have become a Pagan snob. Well, let me narrow that a bit to be more specific: I have become a Pagan literary snob. I have become one of the adherents to the notion that most of the Pagan-oriented literature out there is hopelessly sophomoric in its execution and hopelessly moronic in its expectations of its intended audience. I was not always this jaded and snobby. Once upon a time I would become downright giddy and all trembly in the excitement of a new book about Wicca, Witchcraft or Paganism in whatever form. Books about urban Paganism or suburban Paganism, power animals, herbalism and all things Celtic would send me into a rapturous emotional state because I had really “made a great find”.
Back in the eighties, there were very few books on the subject. There was Spiral Dance, which I still love to pieces. There was Buckland’s Big Blue Book, which, when I was still in high school, I would sneak peeks at at a bookstore in a local mall, but never would have dared to purchase at the time. That book even has its gems of basic knowledge. There were a few others I did not dare to touch that I saw on shelves in Salt Lake when I first went to college, but which, now, I stare down my nose at, even though I own them. I have lived through a period where, not only have I seen a gigantic explosion of books and ideas about Paganism in general to a dizzying diversity, but I also have refined my tastes in those books and what they have to offer, and in general nowadays, I am like an old lunker fish that refuses to take the bait. Everytime I go into a Barnes and Noble, a Borders or even a local Pagan shop, I give the Pagan book sections a thorough scan, pull a few tantilizing titles off the shelf for a quick scan and then end up buying books that relate to my path and path interests in sections other than Pagan or Occult. Everything looks so basic, so beginner, so Pagan or Wicca 101! Where are the books for people who have been involved in the movement for a while, people who thirst for something deeper?
It can be said that from a traditional viewpoint, that the deeper stuff I look for is supposed to be served in the kinds of learning and training that come from the teacher/student relationship or initiatory coven settings. I don’t deny that this route is an important one in modern Paganism of all sorts, particularly in Witchcraft and other cellular group practices. Even nowadays in the growing milieux of our diverse communities, however, not all Pagans are a good fit for such kinds of training. Therefore, I wonder, where are the books that teach the provenance of historical, folkloric and mythological sources from which modern Paganism gathers its ideas? Where are we challenged to juxtapose our beliefs with historical and literary sources, rather than just accept them from a Wicca 101 source? How do we test the idea that our beliefs or tradition come from clear back in the days of ice age mammoth hunters, or Irish Druids, or sailing Vikings or from eighteenth century occultist? The only ways to do that now is to branch out on our own into *gasp!* reading the myths and histories for ourselves. Where history is vague, we have to depend upon archaeology and anthropology to ferret out the clues. But why aren’t the mainstream of Pagan authors starting to do this and present those ideas to us instead of putting out primers? How many books can an author put out that presents the same, dedicant-level material in slightly different ways? I really don’t want an answer to that question, by the way. I would not want certain authors to pull any muscles shifting word processed text and doing minor revisions in order to pump out more of the same to answer the question; for them I would ask them to look up the notion of the rhetorical question.
I find these kinds of books, as I said before, as a primer. However, when can one move on to more challenging material for the general reader if it is never presented? It seems a great leap between the Wicca 101 books and deeper reading into myth and folklore and history, without a step in that direction from the beloved authors of Pagandom to lead those readers in their audience who want “more”. I am finding that very few modern Pagans are even making the attempt, which places our movement in an interesting position. Whole great swaths of Modern Pagans will look to those who do make the leap into these other areas to interpret folklore, history and mythology for them, creating a Priest-class that is anathema to our ideals of personal connection with our Gods and our past. Perhaps this is just a moment in modern Paganism where this is supposed to happen. Perhaps I have an antiquated and idealistic notion that one thing that sets modern Paganism apart from other contemporary religious feeling is a drive for that deep link with our Gods and our connection to history and prehistory if there really is one. I personally believe that a rise in a Priest-class is the prelude to large-congregation Paganism, and with it a kind of Pagan evangelism which revolves around money and a professional caste who make their bread and butter by being intermediaries between their congregations and the Gods. This kind of priesthood would, by necessity, maintain their position by discouraging deeper research by their congregants into their faith and its origins and ideas. Can you say Catholicism, anyone? This kind of future of Paganism is distasteful to me, but may just end up happening as our movement unfolds upon the American landscape.
What I have to be concerned about is my own snobbish attitude about these books. I need to remember the value their very presence, let alone their ideas, once had to inspire me to think and experiment and seek deeper. I need to quit having some kind of superior attitude within myself when I find people who gush about these books as the end-all-be-all of Pagan literature. I need to recognize those books as a threshold, and to me a threshold is a place of choices, futures and power. I need to encourage those in this phase of their introduction to Paganism to delve deeper into myth, history and folklore—even archaeology and anthropology. Not everyone will make the jump, but I can still try to entice and motivate. Still, contemporary Pagan authors probably have a huge, intermediate market of people who want introduction to mythological interpretation and the interpretation of historical, folkloric and other scientific sources from a Pagan perspective. I would hope that those interpretations be as broad as possible and invite the reader to check out the necessary texts for themselves. I think Pagan publishers also need to begin to think about the evolution of their readers into new niches instead of keeping them at a beginner’s level. Publishers can go a long way into enriching the lives of their audience and deepening the Pagan experience for many of their readers. I also hope that snobs like me will bend a little bit in the wind, like the willow, and guide seekers to a different level of ideas and experience.


Aisling the Bard said...

I have three things to say to your remarkably cogent ideas here:

An Fianna
Irish Traditional Witchcraft
Capall Ban Publishing

Other than that, the thought comes to mind that the best way to discover the works of depth and philosophical analysis which might be of interest to Pagani who have gone beyond the 101 level might be to sit down and write them!

K. J. Sokol said...

Check out
Great book recommendations.