Archive for the ‘Books and Reading’ Category

Once in a while on Tumblr, where I indulge mostly my fannish interests and my love of birds, I post what I call a “Who’s your daddy?” list, where I ramble about who are the definitive actors in certain iconic roles. For example, Jeremy Brett is my Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Nimoy is my Spock of Vulcan, and Spock is canonically a descendant of Sherlock Holmes because he said so in Star Trek VI.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the gods and about the influences that have formed my conceptions of them. To do that, I have to look back to my childhood and think about the books I read.

I was a voracious reader as a child and a precocious one. I was always interested in myths and gods and religion, and I read and re-read a lot of books, both children’s collections of stories and adult books on archaeology, history, and world religions. The truth is, most of the children’s books on mythology I can’t remember, except for the ones with my favorite illustrations.

You know the books I mean. You read them, too, I’m sure. Many of them are still in print, a fact which gladdens my heart.

I somehow skipped over the D’Aulaires’ book on Greek myths. I cannot remember whether my neighborhood library owned it or not. But I don’t know how many times I borrowed their Norse myths book.


That’s Thor. That’s always going to be what Thor looks like, in my head. A big man with red hair and red beard, tall, muscular, a hint of beer belly. The sort of guy who loses his temper quickly, shouts and crashes around, cools down and apologizes ten minutes later. A guy who’ll always lend you his ladder or help you move something heavy. Not Chris Hemsworth; more like Ray Winstone.

Anthony Hopkins made a pretty awesome Odin for Marvel, but in my head, Odin still looks like this:


The D’Aulaires weren’t the only book on Norse myths I read, however. More influential in terms of the text than the illustrations was The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum, illustrated by Willy Pogany. Colum included the story of Sigurd the Volsung, which may be why I mutter darkly when I hear Wagner’s Ring operas–“Sigurd, not Siegfried!” It was Pogany, however, who gave me my images of Loki, in graceful Art Nouveau lines:


Yes, Sif’s lovely naked breasts appeared in a children’s book. We weren’t quite so sensitive in those days. And my personal favorite Loki illustration:


The determination and malice in Loki’s face as he eats the heart of Gullveig, knowing that he does not know what the consequences will be and not caring. Colum and Pogany sanitized the stories less than the D’Aulaires, I think. For all the delicacy of Pogany’s drawings, they carry a menace in them, a seriousness.

I think children’s books about the Greek gods influenced me less than photographs of the abundant statues and vase paintings that portray the gods. I even had a coloring book of Greek art that reproduced some of the most famous vase pieces. Likewise Egyptian art, which I liked very much as a child, was full of depictions of the gods in their human and animal forms. (For a long time I only drew human figures as the Egyptians did, in profile, with the eye looking out from the side.) Perhaps because I absorbed the idea so early, it didn’t seem odd to me that a god of writing should have the head of a bird, or a goddess of war and violence the head of a lioness, or that Zeus should become a bull, a swan, a shower of light.

People wonder if children can tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t, if they’ll confuse the stories in books and on television with accounts of real life. I’m not sure if I can say definitively, I thought the gods were real, or I thought the gods weren’t real, or I thought Jesus was real but not Hermes and Odin and Thoth. In a sense all the gods, and Jesus, and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, Captain America, even, are all equally real to me because they are all stories. There are real stories and then there are not-real stories. If a writer creates a story which mentions an important book that doesn’t exist, is that book real? Is the Necronomicon real? Whose Necronomicon is real? Which is the “real” Bible–the latest translation, or the Authorised Version, or the crumbling manuscripts the translators used? Which is the real book of Isaiah, the Masoretic Hebrew, or the Septuagint, or the version from the Dead Sea Scrolls?

What is fictional is real to me. What is mythical is real to me. “News” is not real in my universe. Propaganda is not real. Facebook is not real. Yet I don’t want to pray to Captain America, I only want to write stories about him. I did not encounter Antinous in my childhood reading about the gods of the world; I only heard him referenced, later, as the lover of a Roman emperor, a beautiful youth who died young. But having discovered him as a god, I pray to him, and he responds.

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It has been a few years since I went looking for books on the Rule of St. Benedict and Benedictine spirituality. While Esther De Waal’s classic Seeking God is still in print (and I am currently re-reading it), I think Dennis Okholm’s Monk Habits for Everyday People has become my new first recommendation, the book I would offer someone who knows nothing about St. Benedict or why laypeople, especially Protestant laypeople, would want to hang out with monks. It’s clear; it covers the essential themes of Benedict’s teaching in a fresh and accessible way; it is directed to a specifically Protestant and even Evangelical audience, with an extensive appendix on the Reformers’ critiques of monasticism in their day; and it has an excellent recommended reading list that includes De Waal’s book and many others, both popular and more scholarly. I recommend it very highly.

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Books completed in October 2012:

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. The Sword by Jean Johnson
  3. Poor Caroline by Elizabeth Mansfield
  4. The Squire’s Tale by Gerald Morris
  5. Bending the Willow: Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes by David Stuart Davies
  6. The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2010 by Marge Piercy
  7. Dracula by Bram Stoker (reading/listening)
  8. All Shall Be Well: Daily Readings with Julian of Norwich translated and edited by Sheila Upjohn
  9. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’m not sure whether to count myself a fan of the BBC’s 21st-century Sherlock, but watching it has had a number of delightful consequences: Discovering actor Benedict Cumberbatch and pursuing his other work; spending rather a lot of time mooning over drawings, paintings, and photographs of Mr. Cumberbatch, and listening to his interviews; rewatching some episodes of the excellent Sherlock Holmes series of the 1980s-90s starring Jeremy Brett; reading about Brett’s work on the show; and finally, and not least important, actually reading the Sherlock Holmes canon for the first time. I have always been mostly indifferent to mysteries, with a couple of exceptions, but I find I am reading (and watching) less and less science fiction and fantasy, more and more mysteries. Stay tuned for further developments.

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Recently read:

  1. Magical Knowledge Book I: Foundations by Josephine McCarthy
  2. An Encounter with Venus by Elizabeth Mansfield
  3. Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner, V. 2: From Witch Cult to Wicca by Philip Heselton
  4. The Witches’ Sabbats by Mike Nichols
  5. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Currently Reading:

  • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Theodyssies and Paradoxologies, collected poems of Aidan Kelly
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker (have not tried reading it since I was a teenager; like it better now than I did then)
  • an inordinate amount of Sherlock fanfiction

Currently watching:

  • the first five episodes of series seven of Doctor Who (verdict: Good so far, but I’m gonna miss the Ponds!)
  • series five of Merlin (verdict after one episode: Pretty, stupid, lovable as ever)

Recent events of note:

  • My dear stepdaughter got married, with vast quantities of High Anglican ceremony and the performance of the Time Warp at the reception.
  • A dear friend came down with a serious infection and spent a good deal of her recuperation in our back bedroom.

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  1. The Spirit Cord by R.J. Stewart
  2. Goddess Murder by Aidan Kelly
  3. Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner, V. 1: Into the Witch Cult by Philip Heselton
  4. Drawing Down the Spirits by Raven Kaldera & Kenaz Filan
  5. Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology by Raven Kaldera
  6. OakWyse Utters an Ogham Charm by Walter William Melnyk

I’m still reading volume two of Witchfather and Stalking the Goddess. I’m also reading Merlin’s Mirror by Andre Norton, a noted children’s/young adult author whose work I somehow missed as a child. I got this title for free on Kindle and am enjoying it very much.

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I hate to admit it, but I suck at writing book reviews. Whenever I finish a religion- or magic-related  book, I make enthusiastic resolutions to review it… just as soon as I think it over. And then I think about it for six or eight months, and the review never gets written.

So I’m going to try a different approach here. I’m going to give you progress reports on some books of interest that I’m still reading. I offer this disclaimer: I haven’t finished reading any of these books, but I’m not at all the sort of person who feels obliged to finish a book just because they started it. If I’m mentioning a book at all, chances are very good that a) I will finish it eventually and b) I will have positive things to say about it.

Here we go!

I’m on the second volume of Philip Heselton‘s Witchfather, a biography of Gerald Brosseau Gardner. Heselton’s book is written in a chatty, informal style, but it is extensively researched and annotated, with lots of references to primary sources such as Gardner’s correspondence with friends and the author’s correspondence to people who knew Gardner. I don’t think I ever really grasped before that Gardner’s whole involvement in what he initially called “the witch-cult” began after his retirement, when he was in his fifties. He spent much of his childhood abroad because he was asthmatic and sickly and warmer climes were considered the only cure; he spent most of his adult working life abroad because he had no resistance to English weather. He continued to winter abroad for the rest of his life. He becomes a typical eccentric Englishman by spending very little time actually living in England.  In addition, his peripatetic childhood deprived him of any kind of formal schooling. I don’t think one needs to speculate that Gardner was dyslexic to explain his bad spelling; I consider it sufficiently explained by his never having had a teacher who insisted on good spelling.

Sadly, the Kindle edition of the book is very clumsily formatted. Instead of compiling all the citations into one list with links in the text, as most e-books have, the little blocks of footnotes appear on their own separate pages within the run of the text, so that you “turn the page” on your Kindle and find, instead of the rest of the sentence you were just reading, three or four footnotes, and you have to “turn” again to pick up the thread of the text. There was also a section from which semicolons were entirely absent, and I’m pretty sure Heselton had been using them correctly for a whole volume, so I attribute their disappearance to the editor rather than the author. Notwithstanding, Witchfather is a very entertaining book, which I recommend to anyone interested in the history of 20th-century witchcraft.

Closely connected with Witchfather is Mark Carter’s Stalking the Goddess. Other biographies of Gerald Gardner have been published, and other histories of Wicca, but I don’t think anyone else has attempted what Carter does in this book. He takes one of the crucial texts of 20th-century witchcraft and paganism, The White Goddess by Robert Graves, and slowly, carefully, takes it apart–so slowly and carefully that his analysis is almost as tough a read as its subject.

I’m only about a third of the way into Stalking, but I’m determined to read the whole thing. The White Goddess is, I think, as important to 20th-century Druidry as it is to 20-century Craft, if only because of its extensive use of the Ogham alphabet and of certain poems associated with the legendary (and also historical) Welsh bard Taliesin. While more Reconstructionist pagans tend to dismiss Graves for his treatment of Celtic topics, Aidan Kelly recommends that anyone who takes the Craft seriously ought to read Graves as theology, and I would tend to agree. Carter looks carefully at what Graves’s argument is, what he says about the origins of his own book, and what are his (mostly not specified) sources for his facts. He wrote a guest post on his work for the Wild Hunt recently–check it out.

And now, two titles from Raven Kaldera. The first, which I purchased as a PDF from Lulu.com, is Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology. I have actually skimmed this once and am now re-reading it with greater attention. I wish devoutly (pun intended) that I had had this book to refer to when I first began to make contacts with deities (and yes, I did promise to write about them and have not done so yet). Kaldera is one of the clearest, most straightforward writers in Pagan publishing; he writes clean prose, pulls no punches, and never muddies the distinctions between his experience, shared experience, and scholarly opinion. Best of all, this is not just clear thinking but, indeed, practical thinking: Given that we have this theology about multiple deities, now what do we do with it? Just to have it spelled out that one’s relationship with the gods may range from a novice who’s just learning about them, through being a regular devotee or even clergy, to being a god-slave, a horse for spirit-possession, or an actual embodiment of a deity–and that it’s not necessary to try for a gold medal in God-Botheredness, it’s okay just to be a worshipper–is immensely helpful to me, and probably to a lot of other readers.

Kaldera’s collaboration with blogger Kenaz Filan, Drawing Down the Spirits, is sort of the graduate-level text, whereas Dealing with Deities is the 101 book (or even the remedial textbook). Drawing Down the Spirits is about possession, carrying deities or spirits in one’s body, being a “horse” for their presence in the world. While this is not something I think I am called to do, beyond maybe “assumption of god-forms” in the Hermetic sense, the book is fascinating and makes me want to read other books by Filan and to anticipate the authors’ forthcoming collaboration, Talking to the Spirits: Personal Gnosis in Pagan Religion.

I’m coming to terms with what should be a very simple idea: That just because I call myself a Druid, and think of my path as Druidry and Druidry as my path, does not mean I am not going to be interested in other paths, other religions. I can be interested in just about any religion if someone writes a book that grabs me. Frankly, I can be interested in just about any topic if I pick up the right book. So there’s my progress report.

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Recently Read:

Current Reading:

Current Listening

Current Viewing:

(including movies I’ve seen this summer)

  • The Avengers
  • Iron Man
  • Iron Man 2
  • Men in Black 3
  • Farscape
  • Life on Mars, the British series with John Simm about a police detective who wakes up thirty years into his own past after being hit by a car

Current Obsessions:

  • The BBC’s Sherlock and its lead actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman
  • the writing of Aidan Kelly
  • ice cream, lots of ice cream
  • the two red-eared slider turtles we’re housesitting this summer, Beatrix and Matilda, the Shell Sisters


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