Pagan literature is a vast universe. Some books are written by scholars or teachers of a certain path who are both knowledgeable, critical, and pedagogical. Other books are not as enlightening. For example, I am not a fan of “spell books” that aim to instruct you in the “how to” of magic without giving any references, context or thoughts on why this is so. I also think that these types of books are detrimental to creative development.
When you seek information, make a commitment to build a solid base of knowledge. This way you will have all the tools you need to craft your own celebrations and rituals. Paganism is a path for the solitary seeker and joyful experimentation with personal expression is a big part of this spiritual experience. To me, the difference between modern paganism and most other religions is the absence of a priesthood and of dogma. Here, we are offered the possibility to create our own solitary practice: to study, experiment and worship in a highly personal way. The core of paganism is the enthusiastic amateur rather than professional authority. Thus, building a practice is done by working with nature, spirit and self, not for someone else.
In The Re-enchantment of the West (2006), religious historian Christopher Partridge describes the New Age community as a “brotherhood of ideas”, as opposed to the hierarchical social organization of a church or a sect. A brotherhood of ideas is a community of free and equal individuals who connect through a desire for knowledge. With such freedom comes responsibility, especially in regards to seeking information. The ground rule is to be critical, analytical, and to not confuse opinions with facts.
In this post, I reflect on the pros’ and con’s of the source books for the wheel of the year that I have consulted in 2020. The books include the pagan classics Ancient Ways and The Wheel of the Year by Pauline Campanelli, and Llewellyn’s Sabbat series consisting of 8 introductory books to the Pagan holidays. I believe that a good source book should exhibit both a scholarly and a literary quality. The text must be well-researched, of course, but it should also be a pleasure to read. The author needs to tell a story, evoke emotions and spark the reader’s imagination. In our digital age of information books are artifacts. Words should be worthy of the paper they are printed on.
In Llewellyn’s Sabbat series, every book covers one of the eight Wiccan holidays that comprise the Wheel of the year. This sounds good in theory, but the problem is that every book has a different author, and the difference in quality between these writers is so enormous that it renders the whole series a very uneven read. I first bought the book Imbolc: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Brigid’s Day, written by Carl F. Neal, and I enjoyed it so much that I continued to purchase the rest of the books from this series. Carl F. Neal is an excellent writer. His book tells the story of a pagan holiday that vividly conveys how important this time of the year was for our ancestors in agrarian society, while also giving an inspiring vision of the great psychological meaning Imbolc that Imbolc can have for us today.
Imbolc came alive for me through Neal’s book, and it kept me engaged. In my opinion, none of the other books in this series comes close to Imbolc. Llewellyn’s books often have a practical focus rather than a scholarly one, and this “how to” approach permeates their Sabbat series. Thus, they way in which these books are composed are reminiscent of technical instruction books, and, to me, this is a bit uninspiring because practicing a religion is not a technical task like building a chair. It is to participate in a story – to live in meaningful myth.
The depth of information covered in the historical lore section varies with the book, but I found the discussion on the medieval scholar Bede, featured in Kerry Connor’s Ostara-book very interesting, as well as the notes about Sir James George Frazer’s pioneering work in religious anthropology, The Golden Bough (1890), in Melanie Marquis’ take on Lugnasadh. The comparison with other holidays, religious and secular, is generally enlightening as it puts the pagan holidays in a broader context. Unfortunately, the books are unevenly edited, and some parts are so badly written that it is hard to read. In this case it is simply not worth buying the book at all. The least you can expect from writers, editors and publishers is that they respect the reader enough to keep the language at a readable standard.
Despite these issues, however, the series contains much helpful and inspiring material for the beginner. Every book offers references for further reading, a list of correspondences including herbs, stones, deities, and the spiritual and magical focus of each Sabbat, as well as a nice crafts and recipes section.
“Intricate and lacy designs etched in frost on the window panes frame a scene rendered in shades of grey, of horses in a snow storm, as the winter sun rises just a bright spot in a lead-colored sky. In the sheep’s pen the sweet smell of hay and grain scent the warmer air of the cozy straw-filled shelter, and on the roost in the chicken coop the hens take turns being in the middle and warmed on both sides by the other hens.
Inside, the fire is kindled early and every minute of daylight is used to advantage. With the gardens resting in the frozen ground beneath the snow, daily activity is turned inward. Creativity flows in the silent snowy days of winter, and ideas for projects to be carried out in times of greater light and warmth begin to take form.“
– Pauline Campanelli, Ancient Ways
The quote above is from the introduction to Imbolc from Pauline Campanelli’s book Ancient Ways: Reclaiming Pagan Traditions. This book, like it’s predecessor, Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life, is literature. These are not instruction books where different information are found under different headlines in a very square and predictable format, but stories about what it means to live with the seasons, told by a pagan couple living in rural New Jersey. Campanelli’s books can be read like novels. I would compare the reading experience to enjoying a cup of tea by the fireplace: calm and happy.
In Ancient Ways and Wheel of the Year, Campanelli’s personal story intertwines with the great narrative of paganism. The author paints a picture of an ancient religion told through the interpretation of folklore and classical mythology. These books provide a short history lesson on almost every pagan subject from plants, trees, rocks, and agriculture to folklore, mythology, and the birth of the new age movement. The reader will also find and abundance of inspiration for crafts and recipes.
Campanelli’s books are decorated with illustrations made by her husband, Dan Campanelli. Thus, this is a work of art, both from a literary and an artistic perspective. The print quality of these black and white illustrations and photos from the 1980’s are a bit hard to digest, as we have become used to flashy, high-resolution digital perfection, but it is a genuine piece of work. The information on mythology is inspiring and put in context. The author knows what she is talking about and writes in a friendly, scholarly manner. The text lacks references but the level of analysis speaks to its credibility. Campanelli is not simply repeating information, she is interpreting and comparing the central themes of different myths, weaving a pattern that creates a sense of wholeness. This type of analysis is a personal preference of mine. I enjoy focusing on the things that unite different cultures and belief systems, the universally common themes that help us relate to each other as humans, rather than on the differences that separates us. Campanelli does precisely that, she discusses American witchcraft and paganism as an eclectic melting pot of beliefs and practices, a mirror image of American society itself.