Modern Paganism Title: Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler
This text covers Paganism from a (to us) historical view. Originally published in 1979, it collects the journalistic – and participatory – efforts of Margot Adler to learn more about Pagans and Paganism. It leads off with a general introduction to the modern Pagan perspective (notably, a chapter title is based on the idea that Pagans “come home” rather than convert). It continues with a section on variousWitch revivals that occupies much of the bulk of the book (including a section on feminist spirituality). Later reconstructionists, the Church of All Worlds, playful religionists, and gay men’s spirituality all get their due space. Updated in 1997 (and again in 2006, though I read the 1997 version), the updates are largely found at the ends of sections and a special chapter at the end. Though the book is more of a historical and anthropological narrative, there is some information on general Neo-pagan practice.
I think this book was selected because of its historical value, though I have not examined the 2006 edition in depth. The beginnings of what would become ADF are covered in the original; my edition actually mentions ADF, but in a much more embryonic version than what exists today. Many movers and shakers responsible for Paganism (mostly American) are discussed. The groups presented are filtered through Margot’s viewpoint; this sometimes leads to great insights regarding groups held together more by charisma than as a long-term religion, as it is easy to see the charm a leader produced in a group that never grew any larger. Another obvious useful aspect is the wide range displayed here; with ADF increasingly having members with little to no other Pagan experience, Drawing Down the Moon covers a wide breadth of groups. Even with some of these groups being small, acquaintance with a range of difference can help ADF members know how wide a range modern Paganism is, and where ADF fits in to the modern Pagan movement.
To me, this book was significant because of its presentation of the past. It is interesting to compare the text space spent on groups with their current status. After reading about the Sabeans, for instance, I decided to try to learn more about them, to see how they’d grown. I was surprised to discover they didn’t seem to have gotten any bigger. As a contrast, ADF, seemingly just getting underway in the update on the Reform Druids, has grown significantly. Also, Adler’s personal commentaries made many Pagans I’d merely heard extraordinary things about seem human. At the same time, the handling of Norse reconstructionism came off downright offensively; speaking as someone who feels that ethnicity has little to do with the right religion, it seems to me that Adler found an aspect she disliked that slanted her tone for the rest of the discussion.
I would recommend this book to others in terms of gaining a greater understanding of the history of modern Paganism, particularly in the United States. Though thick, it read quickly and came in nicely-sized chunks. Its contribution to those who read it is less about direct ADF practice than acquaintance with the history and culture of modern Paganism. It is worthwhile to point out that the book makes no pretenses of being unbiased; when Adler is impressed by something, like the Sabean feast (Adler 260-263), it comes across impressively. When she is dismayed by something, like the Feriferia effective cult-of-personality (250-252), her tone changes. While this can make for difficult reading when one disagrees, it does make it easier to detect her particular viewpoint.
Indo-European Studies Title: A History of Pagan Europe, Prudence Jones and
This book outlines the historical aspects of Pagan Europe; though religion places a very important role in the book, it’s important to remember the key word here is history. Chapters within the book typically focus on a geographic region and the historical religions practiced there and the transition to Christianity. The book opens with Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, then moves to Rome and the Roman empire for two chapters. After two chapters on the Celts, two more are devoted to the Germanic peoples before touching upon the Baltics, Russia, and the Balkans.
I believe this book was placed on the Indo-European Studies list because of its comparative accessibility and ease of acquisition. Jones & Pennick’s approach is oriented toward modern Pagans, if with a Wiccan view, and so the text contains many descriptions that could inform an ADF member’s practices. Though it is a historical text, and my copy is printed in a somewhat small font, I found it easy to read. It is also inexpensive, compared to other Indo- European studies titles. The copious inclusion of drawings in the text also made the book more accessible than one with a specific plate section.
I read A History Of Pagan Europe first because I was worried other books would be too over my head. After reading it, I suppose I probably would have been fine without it as a base. The history was useful in patching in some gaps; I had no idea some areas toggled between their original practices and Christianity for a bit, for example; my assumption had been that it was a single change in each area converted, barring invasion by outside polytheists. Still, I found the references to other cultures to be, effectively, forward and backward references within the text; I would have preferred a more chronological overview, and suspect the book needs a good timeline in an appendix to help make sense of it.
Despite some misgivings on my part, I would recommend this book. It was easy to read, and helped give a sense of the historical sweep of Paganism. It also goes to some effort to collect information on different cultures’ ritual calendars. At the same time, it often seems biased to a duotheistic perspective; many times, mention is made of “The Goddess,” beginning early in the text (Jones and Pennick 2). Abrupt leaps from well-founded research into the realm of modern Paganism are made, sometimes shortly following footnoted sections*. In addition, though it is an Indo-European studies title,vit covers only Europe, including Finno-Urguric cultures as well as Indo-European ones. I would suggest that critical thinking be employed while reading it.
Ethnic Study Title: Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, H.R. Ellis Davidson
It is easy to see why this book in particular was placed on the Norse section of the Hearth Culture selections; it outlines Norse religion, drawing on many sources to present an overall outline drawing on both Eddas, various sagas, and even some archaeological speculation. What is, perhaps, more of a question, is whether or not Davidson succeeds in her task.
The book begins with an introduction discussing the Norse, the sources we have to draw on, and discussing why new insights (of the time; the book was first published in 1964) make new review of Northern mythology useful. The first chapter serves as introduction of the topic itself, giving broad strokes of the cosmology that will be discussed further in later chapters. It then continues with a discussion of Gods of Battle. At this point it is useful to note that the book tends to outline more by subject than by name; while Thor does get a chapter to himself, he also has a major section in one other chapter and continues along. The chapter devoted solely Thor is focused on his role as a thunder god. The following chapter is concerned with Gods of Peace and Plenty, mostly Vanic. After focusing on land-oriented gods, a tie to the sea is made, discussing Aegir and Njord. The next section concerns the Dead; an interesting linkage to Thor is made in this section, as he is not a god often thought of relating to the Dead. The final chapter focusing largely on deities is concerned with “enigmatic” gods, which might be considered as those about whom less is known, or who are confusing. Bragi and Idun, Mimir and Hoenir, the Alcis, Forseti, Heimdall, Loki, and Balder all find treatment here. Loki is particularly well-described here, considered by Davidson as Odin’s shadow (Davidson 181) and a net positive force. The beginning and end of the world are covered last, with additional discussion of Yggdrasil. Finally, the passing of the Gods is discussed with particular attention to the upsides and downsides of the old heathen faith.
This book was probably selected by ADF because it covers the Norse hearth culture in an accessible style, drawing on many sources to help fill in gaps. The Prose and Poetic Eddas are wonderful sources, but they are texts originally written by those familiar with the stories within, who do not need every link made explicit. Though they may try to give a complete view (most notably in the Deluding of Gylfi and Voluspa), it can take some time to integrate the many sources. As a scholar, Davidson was fascinated by the old Norse (2), and so undertook this and other explications of their beliefs.
To me, this book served to integrate drips and drabs of knowledge in a way that reading the various Lays hadn’t. I found Davidson’s researches engaging and illuminatory, even when my interpretations of the Eddas did not follow her conclusions. Her book is a regular reference for me when I am working on a new liturgy or examining my own spiritual experiences.
I would recommend this book to anyone seeking an overview of Norse religion. Inexpensive and accessible, even by comparison to Jones and Pennick’s History of Pagan Europe, it helped me form my own framework for understanding the Norse religion and worldview. At the same time, I felt like some topics were given comparative short shrift, such as the discussion of Freyja, compared to other topics (Thor, Odin). To a certain degree, this is due to the source material’s foci. Also, I would caution that the very same thing I see as this book’s greatest benefit – the unification of disparate sources – also means that only one interpretation has been given. For one example, Davidson holds a view of Freyja as gentle (211); other sources such as Thrym’s Lay (Hollander 106), and the version of the recovery of Brisingamen from the Flateyjarbók might incline one to disagree.
*One such that springs to mind is the Samhain cake depicted on p.90 of my copy – there are no references to Samhain cakes in the test otherwise