Many religions have long and storied literary traditions, but for both quantity and quality, it would be hard to beat the Pagan traditions of Europe and the Middle East (which overlapped in antiquity, and continue to do so today). This may seem counterintuitive, since Pagans, famously not adherents of any given religious book, have always laid more emphasis on personal interactions with the Divine than prescribed religious texts. But it's probably this rather freewheeling aspect that has given Pagan literature its extraordinary richness and variety; while Pagans' free speech has not always been absolute (think Socrates), there's never been any Pagan equivalent of theIndex Liborum Prohibatorum (the Roman Catholic list of books banned for heresy). Then, too, Pagans have been at this writing business longer than anybody else: early Pagan texts (such as, say, the priestess Enheduanna's hymns to the goddess Inanna) pre-date the texts of any other religious faith. Finally, it has to do with the fact that, for the past two thousand years, the writing of prayers to Pagan deities isn't an activity that's been confined to just practicing Pagans. In fact, a very large body of poems and other literary works written in honor of Pagan deities started to be produced in Europe shortly after the West officially converted to Christianity, and continued (eventually spreading to the Americas and Oceania) through the twentieth century. A few of these authors were obviously Pagans—eighteenth-century Englishman Thomas Taylor is one example—but many of the authors of these works were practicing Christians or Jews or Deists. They may have seen themselves as simply continuing a literary tradition begun by Homer, or they may have been interested in exploring their own cultural pasts, but their writings are often bona fide expressions of praise or supplication to Pagan gods, quite as reverent and joyful as the works of practicing Pagan. Consider American poet e e cummings' prayer to Aphrodite, "O thou to whom belong/the hearts of lovers!—I beseech thee bless/thy suppliant singer and his wandering word," or Renaissance playwright John Fletcher hymn to Pan, "He is great, and he is just/He is ever good, and must/Thus be honoured.
Nor should practicing Pagans feel that they need to avoid the literary outputs of non-Pagans—after all, the whole point of Paganism is that we don't have to get hung up on things like dogma and purity of belief. If a Christian is suddenly moved to write a hymn to Aphrodite or Dionysus, well, the gods can speak to and through them as well as anyone else, can't they? Plus, this extraordinary literary continuity (which has no counterpart in other parts of the world that were converted by the "bookish" faiths) means that, as Paganism begins to re-emerge as a practicing religion, it's in a remarkably strong position for a faith that was officially banned some 1,700 years ago. Modern Pagans don't have to make stuff up as we go along (although we can if we want to!). We have four thousand years of literature at our backs, some of it written by the greatest writers of their times: Sappho, Catullus, Socrates, William Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Arthur Rimbaud, Victor Hugo, Ivan Turgenev (as well as modern Pagan writers like Annie Finch and Gwydion Pendderewen, also featured in my book, A Year of Pagan Prayer). It's time we claimed what is ours: a long and enduring written tradition, out of which grew all the modern literatures of the Western world.
So, Paganism has got the literary goods. But what to do with all this fabulous verbiage? Well, in A Year of Pagan Prayer, I tried to gather some of the best pieces into a format that could guide any Pagan through an entire year, with as many Greek, Roman, Celtic, Norse, and Egyptian holidays as I could find material for. However, this is only meant as a suggestion; while many modern Pagans are quite eclectic, not everyone wants to do every holiday. The real point of the book is to organize the material so that it's relatively easy for the modern Pagan to find whatever they're looking for. Need to pass an exam? Check out the section on the Mercuralia or the Panathenaia—a prayer to Mercury, Thoth, or Athena should have you covered. Looking for love? The Aphrodisia, the July festival in honor of Aphrodite, has plenty to honor the goddess of romance, while the two Faunalia festivals have a plethora of hymns in honor of Pan and his Roman counterpart, Faunus. Need to invoke Brigit, the great pan-Celtic goddess, or Lugh of the Long Arm? Head on over to the Imbolc and Lughnasa sections. Isis, Thor, Artemis, Persephone, Mithras—they've all got celebrations and prayers.
Here are some tips to help you make the most of Pagan literature:
And, above all, enjoy the power and beauty of millenia of Pagan thought, the words of hundreds of women and men, known and unknown, who have been joined together through the aeons and across continents by a common love for our first gods.
Barbara Nolan (Philadelphia, PA & Mohawk Valley, NY) has been a practicing Pagan since she was nine years old. She studied Latin, ancient Greek, and Near Eastern archaeology at Bryn Mawr and Irish Gaelic at the ...