I’ve felt I was pagan since I was at least three or four years old, but I remember when, during my late teens and early twenties, I really began to study it. That was a period when I knew I wanted to develop whatever natural spiritual gifts I’d been given and maybe even start to share some of them with others.
The first step, I felt, was to obtain as many relevant books as I could afford (or find or borrow) and start reading. And I’ve read a lot of pagan non-fiction in my day - indeed, much more than, in retrospect, I think I should have. And that’s because some - ok, a whole lot - of this stuff is really, truly awful.
But why do so many guides to paganism suck? Well, as I’ve been reading and thinking and talking to others over the twenty-or-so years since I began reading pagan non-fiction, I’ve come to feel there are four - or, I suppose, three-and-a-half - chief reasons (even if they’re not quite the only ones):
- Pagan non-fiction isn’t directly spiritual.
What first set you on your path as a pagan? Chances are that, even if you first read about paganism in a book, the reading wasn’t what turned you on to your spirituality. With most of the pagans I know or know of, it was some contact with nature, some experience of story or some direct interaction with a spirit (such as during a dream or vision).
Generally, pagan non-fiction is secondary and indirect. We don’t usually have spiritual experiences while we’re reading it (as, one could argue, we do when we read or hear a good story); it is merely suggestive of spiritual experience. We can certainly choose to engage in activities or attempt states of consciousness described in these books, but to do so while reading about them would almost always be counterproductive.
And this makes historical sense. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the earliest generations of pagan learned their spirituality from any written corpus of texts - indeed, that wouldn’t have been possible. Moreover, there are many indications (many in the scraps of pagan stories that have been written down) that the original pagans thought in ways that were syncretic, not linear. It’s hard to say, then, if they would even have recognized the purpose of a non-fiction text. But, in every ancient pagan culture I’ve studied, stories (generally, perhaps always, based in natural phenomena) were considered of paramount importance.
Perhaps, given this background, it’s not surprising that, while pagan non-fiction is a relatively recent advent, stories based on pagan themes (whether the paganism is always detected or not) have dominated fictional storytelling for most of the history of the world and formulate or inform some of the most popular tales of our current age.
- Pagan non-fiction is bossy.
Ok, most pagan non-fiction authors do include disclaimers explaining that there are many paths and that you shouldn’t assume that the content they’re offering is for everyone… before proceeding, for hundreds of pages, to tell you exactly how to do things their way. And that’s kind of the point. They’re sharing their worldviews, from their personal paths, with anyone who wants to do things exactly like they do. But who wants to practice paganism just like some other person does? Would that even be possible? I suppose there are covens out there where everyone performs exactly the same rituals, meditations, prayers, and so forth without any individual input, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be part of one. And, let’s face it, I’m not alone: pagans are known for being highly individualistic.
So why don’t we just obtain pagan reference works and stories in order to provide jumping-off points for our explorations? Why do we spend so much time reading how-to manuals about spirituality?
I think we’re not used to thinking for ourselves. How many times have I met a brand-new (or, in some cases, not-so-new) pagan who insisted that they had to have exactly a certain type of crystal and a tarot deck with a particular theme and a candle that must be of only one specific hue before they could consider doing something as basic as casting a shield, raising a circle or even just cleansing themselves? The linearity of the modern world is slowly destroying our ability to create our own magic, so we try (and fail or produce a pale imitation of) someone else’s.
And I think this trend of linearity and rigidity only supports my next point, which is that…
- Pagan non-fiction is almost always commodified.
We live in a magic bullet, quick-fix world. Many people don’t view a pagan how-to manual as the beginning of a long, often arduous (though ultimately fulfilling) spiritual journey. Many people just want to see some cool visuals or feel a little weird or show their society that they’re at least a little non-mainstream. And pagan non-fiction, on the whole, tries to satisfy these types of needs. Many of its audience members are happy to assume that a pagan how-to book is like a similar volume on plumbing or auto repair - that it will lead to reliable, repeatable, standardized results. No wonder so many pagans become frustrated with the varied and nuanced results of the instructions they’re given in much of the pagan non-fiction of our day - assuming they even attempt to apply those instructions in the first place.
When your main goal is to monetize your book (and maybe a subsequent lecture series or a divination website or…), you tend to write for yourself rather than your readers. Oh, you may be good at presenting a this-is-all-about-you front, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Making large sums of money and becoming immensely famous just couldn’t have provided the motivation for many early pagans who lived simply and in balance with their environments and communities. But these things are at the back of almost any modern author’s mind.
And my final main response to the notion that pagan non-fiction sucks is…
- Pagan non-fiction doesn’t really suck that much.
Many of you have probably thought, at some point during the reading of this article, “Well, he’s generally correct - except I just really like [book x] or [author x].” Ok, true enough. I have a few “book x’s” myself. But think about why you connected to that book or writer. Was it because it helped you connect to spirit? Did it offer you a spell or other exercise that really worked with your particular path or energy patterns? Did it help you identify with your chosen path for the first time? Did it help you understand past (or present or future) spiritual experiences?
Because here’s the thing about good pagan non-fiction - about the very pagan non-fiction that you will have noticed this hypocrite is attempting to write. It should - though it will probably do it indirectly and not overtly, of course - tell you what this article is telling you to do right now:
Stop reading. Get up. Go interact in a non-harmful way with nature and spirit. These words are but a point of reference and departure; there are better ways to learn than this.