Writing about Paganism
There are a range of ways in which authors write about Paganism. Each approach has its advantages and limitations, and it pays to know what it is that you want from a book, when trying to figure out what to spend your time and money on. This is also an issue for anyone thinking about writing, because some approaches suit some authors better than others.
There is a great deal to be said about historical Paganism, what we know, and what we can infer. Some authors are more interested in guessing than in facts, but so long as you are really clear about which is which, it’s all fine. A good historical author writes about what’s known, and what might reasonably go in the gaps. Nicholas Mann’s The Avebury Cosmos, for example, talks about what’s known about the skies over ancient Avebury, and what’s known about the construction process of the site, and what we could infer from this about how people might have been living and thinking. The line between certainty and possibility is clear. Taking a somewhat different approach, Laura Perry in Ariadne’s Thread explores what’s known about Minoan religion, and how we can blend that with modern Wicca to make a practice that works – again the lines are clearly drawn.
History can tell us a lot about what ancient people did – although it usually has to rely on physical evidence. It isn’t easy inferring belief from objects, although any surviving imagery (as with the Minoans) can be a great help. For this to be of use to a modern Pagan, rather than just of interest, the author has to handle how the past relates to the present. The value in a historically orientated book can often depend on how well the author deals with issues of relevance.
Books of history written by non-Pagans are different again, because history is not generally written with an eye to modern utility, so what we take from conventional approaches to history is down to us. Ronald Hutton’s books fall into this category, for the greater part. It’s generally easy to tell whether a book assumes you are curious, or intending to work with the content in some way. If there’s an assumption that you’re working with the content, watch out for how that’s being constructed for you.
Some writing exists largely as a survey of modern belief or practice. I’d cite James Nichol’s Contemplative Druidry as an obvious example, or Mark Townsend’s Jesus through Pagan Eyes. Both books include a lot of voices, and give an overview of how certain things are seen, understood and approached. Paganism 101 from Moon Books functions in a similar way, giving snapshots into the values, practices and beliefs of 101 contemporary Pagans.
The strength of this kind of book is its lack of dogmatism – you can see an array of possibilities and no one is held up above another – what you like best is for you to decide. Seeing this array may give you a better sense of where you fit, or may inspire you to explore new avenues. Generally this kind of reporting doesn’t go into the kind of details that would allow you to really develop a personal path off the back of it, but it can be good for opening doors.
In this kind of book, the author writes specifically about first hand experiences. Emma Restall Orr has made this form her own, and Cat Treadwell is following that same tradition. Mark Townsend’s The Gospel of Falling Down is a powerful example of someone writing from personal experience, and it’s something I’ve tended towards in books like When a Pagan Prays, andDruidry and the Ancestors.
When experiential books work, they really work – the immediacy of experience, the intensity of what’s explored, the emotional depth and the detail can make these incredibly rich reads. If the author is not dogmatic and just offers their experience as nothing more than that, such books can open up a vista of possibilities for the reader. If the author insists on the primacy of their experience, I find that annoying, and less than helpful. Not all authors recognise the limitations of their own experiences and that what happens to them may not be universal. With this kind of writing, so much depends on whether you gel with the author as a person, and whether their outlook is resonant for you.
Academic writing may draw on history, psychology, anthropological studies, religious studies, or the experiential and contemporary reporting of other writers, and more. On the whole they are more reliable sources (although I’d make an exception for Dr Anne Ross and her shamelessly circular logic) for people seeking knowledge and insight. The linguistic style is often the deal breaker for readers – either you like the language and tone of academic books, or you don’t, there’s not much room on the fence with this one.
Academic books tend to be amazing for bringing together a lot of information, but weaker in terms of giving you something you might use for personal practice. The exception here is philosophy, which is an inherently thinky and academic sort of subject such that the act of doing it naturally engages you with other people’s thinking and writing. Brendan Myers is without a doubt the go-to academic for all things relating to Pagan philosophy. He’s also a very accessible author who does not alienate his readers with language non-experts might find impenetrable.
There’s quite a diversity in how-to writing. This kind of book is practice orientated, and will give you information you can easily take away and apply to the doing of things. Some books can be very instructional, or actually function as courses. Melusine Draco’s witchcraft titles tend this way, with a reliable stream of exercises as part of each chapter. Some are much looser – Rachel Patterson for example tends to offer an array of things a person might do, and leaves it down to the reader to pick out what they want and how to order it. What works for you depends on whether you respond to structure, or prefer to have an array of materials to work with on your own terms.
Some how-to writing can be really vague, failing to offer enough clear steps to take the reader from where they are to where they want to be. Some can be over prescriptive, failing to recognise that readers are going to be a diverse bunch with a whole array of needs. At its best, the how-to books may be the most useful things you can possibly get your hands on, and it their worst, are useless. How the qualities of the author impact on you as a reader is critically important, and one person’s genius guru can be another person’s source of bemusement. They key is in getting a match for style.
Any kind of book can turn out to be awful. For someone new to Paganism, it can be hard to tell whether the problem is you, or the book, or just that you and the book are not suited to each other. Truly bad books can be damaging because they undermine confidence, put people off, or teach unhelpful things. It can be very hard to tell from the first few books you read whether the facts are solid or spurious. So, here are a few things to watch out for as signs that a book isn’t much good.
The author gives you a sense that they are amazing, but you never feel any closer to knowing how to be more like them. You feel unsafe reading the book. The author is pedalling a ‘one true way’ and does not allow any variations or alternatives. Circular logic is used. Sources are not mentioned. You can’t tell what is fact and what is theory. These are the books to put down and avoid.
If you don’t like the language, disagree with the author’s worldview, don’t like the teaching style, or otherwise feel unsatisfied, this is just a personality clash. We don’t all agree on everything, that’s fine, move on, learn a few things about what you do want and need in a book.
If an author makes total emotional sense to you, and you find them helpful, inspiring, encouraging and useful, keep them, but also keep looking around, because there are always more ideas to explore than any one author can give you.