Posts Tagged ‘book review’

This book review is part of the requirements for the reading list for the Dedicant Path. It intends to fulfill the requirement for the Modern Paganism title.

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America. 3rd Ed. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. Nook file.

The stated goal of the Modern Paganism book is to understand where Neo-Paganism has been, and Drawing Down the Moon fills this role very nicely. Adler sets out to catalog the history of American Neo-Paganism, from the first offshoots of reconstructionist religions in the 30’s all the way up to the (then) current events of 2006. Her main thesis is an interesting one, but appropriate given the subject matter – that “the spiritual world is like the natural world – only diversity will save it” (8), and Neo-Paganism is nothing if not diverse.

From that stance she sets out to describe the main movements in American Neo-Paganism, from basic definitions and word usage, through the Witchcraft revival, through all the other flavors of Neo-Pagan movements, and into the relationship all these movements have with American society. She devotes an entire section of the book to the rebirth of Neo-Pagan witchcraft, but given the sheer numbers of men and women who have identified with various facets of modern witchcraft, in its many derivations, this isn’t all that surprising. As someone who comes to Druidry through traditional-flavored Wicca (with some time spent as a solitary), I think my situation is not unique – while some Druids obviously come to ADF as their first foray into Paganism, many people will come through the more public, more obvious, and more populous traditions that are so readily available via the internet, bookstores, new-age and spiritual stores, and 101 classes.

One of the most interesting things about this book is the overarching deductions that Adler is able to make, via her years of research and through use of surveys and interviews, about Neo-Paganism as a whole – things like sensing an “aliveness and ‘presence’ in nature”, a penchant for polytheism, animism, and pantheism, a gravitation toward “ancient symbols and ancient myths” (21) and the ability to have escaped certain forms of enculturation (54). However, as with any part of the Neo-Pagan movement, she can only ever use the words “most” and “usually”. Pagans are, as always, a religion of exceptions. This is true both of the movement as a whole and of the divisions within it. Even within a fairly well-defined path like the Dedicant Path, a prescribed subset of study and experience specific to ADF style Druidry, there is great variation. The Dedicant’s list is full of conflicting opinions, and the work itself is frequently about deciding how each particular Dedicant will experience things within a larger Druidic context – not about learning a set of beliefs by rote. While many of the Neo-Paganisms that Adler studies are similarly orthopraxic (as opposed to orthodoxic), not all fit that bill, of course, reinforcing the sheer diversity of the movement.

Adler spends a good deal of time talking about the various divisions and practices of modern, Neo-Pagan Witchcraft, and takes from this a very interesting attitude toward myth that I really found myself drawn to. Rather than be as worried about the actual, factual basis that many Witches began from (of which, as with so many things that happened even 50 years ago, the full story can never be known), she focuses on the more modern take, which is to accept the spirit of the myth for what it is – an inspiration – and let the actual craft work itself out, regardless of how old (or new) it is. “The realization has come around to everyone that it doesn’t matter whether your tradition is forty thousand years old or whether it was created last week” (Ed Fitch qtd. in Adler 97).

This attitude is important for ADF to remember, since we are both a Neo-Pagan religion and (at times) a reconstructionist one. The balance has to be there; a balance between what is ancient and what actually works in the modern day is crucial.

Of particular interest to me were, of course, the section on Norse Paganism and the section on Druidry, from it’s earliest start in the RDNA through the creation of ADF in the early 80’s (329). One thing I did find was that I’m more drawn to a practice of Druidry within a Norse hearth culture than I am to the practice of true Norse reconstructionism (at least for now). I am, at heart, a modern Neo-Pagan, and while I can learn a lot from Asatru and its offshoots, I like the balance of ADF. I thought it curious to have modern Druidry in the same section with the Discordians. I think perhaps this is more true of the earlier Druidic movements – the RDNA certainly seems to have more in common with the people who worship Eris than modern ADF does (at least to this solitary practitioner), especially given that Isaac Bonewits is quoted as saying that ADF would “keep nonsense, silliness, and romanticism down to a dull roar” (334).

I wish there had been more information about ADF in particular, but we are a much smaller group in the larger Pagan world. I also think the section on ADF could have been updated more recently. Still, I liked Adler’s final take on what became Druidry, that “when one combines a process of inquiry with content of beauty and antiquity, when, even as a lark, one opens the flow of archetypal images contained in the history and legends of people long neglected by this culture, many who confront these images are going to take to them and begin a journey unimagined by those who started the process” (336).

Overall I found this book to be a fascinating look into both the big picture of Neo-Paganism and the small snapshots of individual practicing Pagans. While I don’t see it becoming much of a reference, I truly appreciated the discussions about the definition of magic and ritual, and I look forward to participating in whatever the future holds for Neo-Paganism.

Read Full Post »

This book review is part of the requirements for the reading list for the Dedicant Path. It intends to fulfill the requirement for the Hearth Culture title.

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. Print.

Davidson sets out, in Gods and Myths, to bring together the various poems, sagas, epics, and tales that make up the myths of Northern Europe – specifically those of Germany, Denmark, Scandinavia, and Anglo-Saxon England. After a brief introduction, where she elaborates on some of the developments in archaeology and the study of the Norse cultures, she sets off to build the world of the gods as it was envisioned by various peoples across the northern landscape. She begins with Snorri’s Prose Edda and uses it to set up the basic world view, from Yggdrasill to Asgard, and then addresses the stories of the Gods.

This first section provides a solid overview of the main northern myths, and from there she delves into the assorted myths of each “category” of god myths: Odin, Thor, Freyr and Freyja, Njord, the gods of the dead, and the individual myths and stories that stand out in the sagas, like Mimir, the divine twins, and Heimdall. I found the most traction with the gods of the Vanir – Freyr and Freyja and their father Njord – the gods and goddesses of fertility, peace and plenty. Though these gods had different names in different places, there are threads of similar worship throughout, like being brought around in a wagon and the symbols of horse, boar, and ship.

Davidson ends this well-documented overview by examining the creation and destruction of the world, the great tree of Yggdrasill, the final battle of Ragnarok and the downfall of Asgard as it is presented by Snorri. Here in this last section is the myth of Ymir, the giant whose slain body becomes the world, followed by the great destruction of the world. Davidson argues that there is not a lot of Christian overlay in this description of Ragnarok, despite being recorded by monks, as the fears match up with folk beliefs, with other Indo-European beliefs about the end of the world, and with the geographical and natural perils of the north (203-4).

I was not overly familiar with the Norse myths before reading this book, and I’m glad to have read it. Davidson writes in a very approachable voice, and though at times the constant referencing of various sources can be a little overwhelming without prior knowledge of those sources, I appreciated the cross-referencing to the original tales. After reading this, though, I want to read some of the original sources for myself, especially the Prose Edda (which I already have a copy of). Davidson does a good job of organizing an otherwise disparate and somewhat scattered number of myths into coherent groups, though occasionally she does skip around a bit between them. As an overview of the myths, this is an excellent book, and this book is well placed on the reading list. I was pleasantly surprised at Davidson’s balance between keeping the gods as separate entities while still recognizing that they were clearly influenced by each other, and may or may not have originally been from the same source.

Unfortunately I didn’t feel like this book gave a lot of depth to my personal practice, but I think my lack of familiarity with these myths made that worse. I was absorbed in learning the myths more than I could really think about applying them to my practice. I did definitely feel drawn to the Vanir though, and I will be exploring that connection further to see if I can’t deepen those understandings. I definitely intend to keep this book as a reference.

Read Full Post »