Slate posted up a pre-college reading list this week. It’s a list probably more driven by marketing PR than anything else. So instead what should the fine young Pagan be reading as she heads off to college these days? I am assuming that our young Pagans have read some good introductory texts on the branches of Paganism they are interested in, and that it is time to continue into a wider and deeper exploration of their particular path and the world of the spirit in general. Here are my picks in chronological order:
Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth (24th – 20th Century BCE) What better way to start your collegiate journey than with an ancient Sumerian drinking song:
Enki and Inanna drank beer together.
They drank more beer together.
They drank more and more beer together.
With their bronze vessels filled to overflowing,
With the vessels of Urash, Mother of the Earth,
They toasted each other, they challenged each other.
In fact, you can sing a lot of Wolkstein’s version of these myths. I strongly recommend doing so.
The I Ching (5th-3rd Centuries BCE) The I Ching is a beautiful magical system based upon eight elements (Earth, Thunder, Mountain, Fire, Water, Lake, Wind and Heaven) depicted as trigrams (which will be instantly familiar if you watched Lost on TV). The I Ching can be used a divinatory system, but mostly its a systemic cosmology (like Astrology or the Tarot or the Kabbalah) of the forces that influence humanity. Al Huang’s book is by far the best available currently on the topic. He’s the only source I’ve found that has a thorough explanation of how to cast the I Ching using the traditional yarrow sticks and why it doing so might give different results (in terms of the probability distribution – I am, among other things, a professional statistician) than using coins. He also brings your attention to the images within the original pictograms used to name each hexagram as well as providing a thorough gloss of each translation of traditional texts of the Zhous.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead (8th Century CE) You might think that this masterpiece of Tibetan Buddhism would be largely irrelevant to the study of Western spiritual traditions, that the cultural trappings might make this book impenetrable to the Lady Gaga generation, or that it is merely a manual for a post-mortem spiritual process that is otherwise unrelated to, you know, living. However, once you crack it open, you’ll find that the philosophical and phenomenological issues of spirituality versus materialism were thoroughly investigated and understood when this book was written in ways that mesh quite well with what you might get in a modern Philosophy 101. Furthermore, anyone who has cast a circle by addressing the cardinal points will find that the nested, almost fractal, cosmology of peaceful and wrathful Deities (all engaged in making sweet, sweet love while they propagate this universe of ours – seriously, check out the illustrations) of the Book of the Dead match strikingly with what we do as Pagans. I thoroughly recommend this most recent translation.
Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) Yes, just what every Witch needs: a book full of Biblical citations and exegesis refuting the fact that witchcraft exists by a staunchly skeptical intellectual ancestor of the Dawkinses of our day. You know that whole Modern paradigm we are surrounded by that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? It pretty much began here with this lawyer, Reginald Scot, (as well as other natural philosophers of his era). However, if you ever wish to find the ammunition to fire back at Christian proof-texters, every Biblical scripture which has been translated as “witch” gets examined in this book and shown to mean something significantly different from the historical image of “a witch” and significantly different in most ways from how we see ourselves as modern witches. It also contains the first manual of how to perform stage magic, and an absolutely charming demonology.
The Golden Dawn (1888-1921) Ah, Mathers, you incorrigible syncretist you. Yeah, it’s Ceremonial. Yeah, it covers things like Tatwas and Enochian which are not particularly in vogue in Circles these days. Yeah, there are interminable rituals that are unabashedly hierarchical. Yeah, the whole tradition was founded on a dubious connection to spiritual masters who probably never existed. Yeah, Regardie broke his vows to publish this material. And yet: Mathers was brilliant. He brought together disparate occult lore and integrated them in ways that influence much we do as magicians today. If nothing else, the book can serve you as an encyclopedia of the occult and the first place you might check to refresh your memory about astrological signs or houses, the interpretation of Tarot cards or the paths of the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life. The two real dangers of this approach to magic are that its complexity can seem utterly overwhelming, and, more subtly, that magic is nothing more than an internal study of correspondences as oppose to a way of living and acting within the world. And so it might be a good idea to schedule some volunteer time at a favorite cause to balance things out if you take a deep dive into this material.
The Portable Jung (1912-1958) The mythologist Joseph Campbell selected this subset of Jung’s writings, and so it is an obvious place to start. If you are coming from the scientific/modernist side of our culture, Jung can be a gateway to the occult (he was for me). If you have ever been appalled at the fluffiness and lack of intellectual rigor to be found in the occult or New Age section of your libraries and bookstores, Jung provides an approach the material which is fairly universal and intellectually uncompromising. The material includes the primary sources for key ideas like synchronicity and the collective unconscious. Jung’s writing will not bring you to an ecstatic Pagan apotheasis (for that you’ve got to step into the Circle and join the fun); however, he might well provide you one way to reconcile scientific and Pagan paradigms.
Drawing Down the Moon (1979) This book was the first investigation into the history of modern Paganism, and still serves as the primary document of the history of how Paganism in the US got its start. The idea that the broad range of traditions that comprise Paganism can be coherently talked about as a single thing began with Adler in this book. The material in this book is useful for understanding where we all came from, and, to a certain extent, that which we share.
Spiral Dance (1979) This book is the first articulation of the crunchy-granola Left-coast version of Paganism (of which I’m definitely an example). Auntie Starhawk’s focus is on Feminism, Ecology and Justice. Paganism has probably grown a bit beyond this book at this point. Paganism is not all consciousness raising, Goddess Worshipping, consensus processing, and radical activism now. But lest you think I am dismissing this book entirely, let me say that I think that Auntie Starhawk’s distillation of the history of the faith as it was understood at the time and her leveraging and adaptation of her Feri training remains superb. (Though I still wish, as my teacher pointed out it, that Auntie Starhawk’s version of the milk ritual did not potentially kill the plant – so unnecessary). The influence of this book remains huge and deservedly so.
Godel, Escher, Bach (1980) The question that this book addresses is simple: is artificial intelligence even feasible at all? The answer that the book provides is, perhaps, disappointing: “probably?” That being said it’s a prodigious intellectual tour de force through topics like recursion, the philosophy of mathematics, polyphonic music, visual illusion, Zen koans, genetics, and programming. And how all that relates to consciousness. Which is why all good Technopagans should work their way through it at an age where they still have the brain-cells to have a chance to do so.
Triumph of the Moon (1999) Hutton is the first academic to investigate the claims of Wicca’s being a continuous survival of Pre-Christian Paganism (as originally proposed most popularly by Margaret Murray in 1933). He fairly conclusively shows that there was no continuous worship of Pagan deities by secret covens of witches and that Gardner created most of Wicca. Hutton proposes other cultural influences like 19th Century Romantic poetry as the source for much of what became Paganism. One of the things I most admire about us Pagans was that the reaction to Hutton’s work was largely, “Huh. Cool. Well, back to Circle.” What could have been an existential crisis for most religions was instead embraced as part of our journey.
A few additional resources which should be read during your college years are freely available on the web:
Tao De Ching (3rd or 4th Century BCE) Having read dozen or so translations, I scandalously prefer Feng’s. However, Legge’s was considered good enough for decades.
Aradia, Gospel of the Witches (1888) Leland’s scholarship was horrific: he basically got what he was looking for by telling everyone what he was looking for and then finding someone who was willing to tell him what he wanted to hear and then paying them to do so. Nevertheless, this book clearly influenced Gardner and Valiente’s Charge of the Goddess, and there are many beautiful passages. (I adore Chapter III.)
Principia Discordia (1965) It’s hard not to laugh, but the Principia is as challenging and deep as anything in the above list of major works. Hail Eris!