Oh, you came out from the woods where you were waiting,
said you were making time…
Monical Heldal, “Boy from the North”
In the pagan and polytheist communities, generally and across the board, I’ve observed a strange love/hate relationship with the concepts of sacred texts. Many in our communities express disgust, hatred, or apathy towards the idea of having a sacred text, mostly out of (mis)understanding a strong affiliation of sacred text and scripture often to the point of conflating the both of them. Many pagans express a pride of being liberated from rules, statutes, and stories from sacred books – from things that are the cornerstone of religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, adherents of which have been named “people of the book.”
Simultaneously, many in our communities may feel lost in a world that doesn’t offer a holy text to come home to – something that many converts from religions such as Christianity may find both liberating and confusing. It’s a big change to live, think, and act in a world where everyone’s very different practices and beliefs yield very different sources and resources. (Even people who share the same beliefs may have very different practices and beliefs!). It can get confusing and overwhelming, both at first and well down the road, to practice a religion like this. It may also provide a slit for other religions that may claim the following: that if you don’t have a sacred text backing up your beliefs and your practice, your beliefs and practices are invalid and there is no way you and your faith will be respected.
Nothing can be farther from the truth.
The “Thinking Theologically” series aims to look at theology from a polytheist and pagan perspective. What that means is that the aspects of theology, belief, and practice that define one faith cannot, and will not, define another. This is an important thing to distinguish when doing theology because there is a huge difference between looking at the world polytheistically and being a polytheist but looking at the world with another religion’s structure. If one wants to do theology according to one religious context, it’s crucial to respect that context by working within it. For one religion, a sacred text rendered as scripture can be the most important thing – the defining thing – of its theology and of its practice. For another, sacred text can be important but not crucial. And for yet another, sacred text may be inconsequential or rendered to be understood in a different way; we just have to work a bit harder to understand it from our own.
That being said, I’m pretty sure we don’t have a text or a set of texts that we all agree on as sacred scripture to follow as Law. I’m pretty sure that such an agreement doesn’t have much importance to us – after all, we’re not a “people of the book.”
But I’m also pretty sure that there is a deep-seated sense of recognizing and understanding the sacred when it is written down – when it is physicalized, when it is worked as a living, breathing creature in written word.
We as pagans enjoy a strange conundrum: that of living rich and ancient religions in a contemporary setting. How do we, as pagans, create and recreate tradition? How do we understand tradition as communities and as individuals? How do we understand the concept of tradition, and how do we work (or not work) with that concept? Sacred texts are certainly part of many religious traditions, both old and new; and I think that it can become part of our religions and traditions, too. In fact, I think that it already has.
And I heard your voice
as clear as day
and you told me I should concentrate.
It was all so strange
and so surreal
that a ghost should be so practical
only if for a night…
Florence + The Machine, “Only For A Night”
It was one of my friends, Laine Mardollsdottir (who is a fellow writer here on The Lady’s Quill) who inspired me to think about the role of sacred text and sacred texts in our communities. In several of her Facebook posts, she posts sections of lyrics from Florence + The Machine. However, she would cite them in a very different context. Instead of citing the artist, the song, and the album, she would write the following: “St. Florence of the Machine, Chapter 2, Book of Lungs.”
Now, besides the fact that Florence + The Machine is one of my absolute favorite artists, I took note of what Laine was doing here. She was taking text from a song and rendering it into – recognizing it as – sacred text.
I realized that I have long found myself doing the exact same thing. There would be songs, poems, lines from prose that would sink deeply into me as some sort of revelation. It would put into words my experiences, yes, but it would also heighten my mind and my spirit to meet the Powers and to engage with them more deeply. It vocalized the context of my polytheism; it ingrained the experience of a time and place that was also transcendent; it gave me the words to be able to speak to the Powers in all times and all situation, to understand Them, and to understand myself. To me, these are the “strings” of what constitutes sacred text.
Do you like scars? The scars make the man.
Do you want me wounded and hardened, my head in the sand?
My fists up in defiance – is that what you understand?
Am I too good to be gone? Beginning the ending for too long?
This is my flagship attempt for a second chance.
Do you want me groveling and sober – a brilliant wreckage?
Michael Malarkey, “Scars”
Sacred text can be as small as a letter, as big as a book. It can be a line from a novel, a stanza from a song or from a poem. Literature that is meaningful to me in my practice with Cernunnos becomes sacred text: Robin Hood, Jane Eyre, and Their Eyes Were Watching God are certainly sacred texts in my practice. Something in them reveals to me a divine language, a language that can be used to engage with the divine while also helping me understand my Gods. (One of the quotes from Their Eyes Were Watching God will be part of a devotional tattoo I will be getting for a Matron ceremony with Queen Maeve – although that’s a different post for a different time!)
Sacred text can be word from the human to a Power, or can be words from a Power to a human. It can capture, for a moment seized in eternity, the thoughts and perspectives of a Power. Ever heard a song, or read a poem, and thought to yourself, “This reminds me of Loki in His aspect as Breaker of Worlds?” Songs, both in music and lyric, are vessels of communication, transcendence, connection, and deeper understanding – of ourselves, of those around us, of our Powers, and other things that have a life of their own (such as religious practice).
Sacred text can always be created, too. Many of my offerings to the Powers I serve are in the form of poetry and prose, and I believe the words I’ve written to be sacred, both in their transcendence and their specificity. One can write songs and psalms; one can write about their experience with a Power; one can create a devotional or a grimoire or a collection of a thousand quotes and lyrics. Could not all of these works be considered, too, sacred texts?
With that, I’ll leave you with a few questions to think about.
- What does “sacred text” mean to you?
- Do you find that “sacred text” is or isn’t the right name for this concept? If so, why? If not, why not?
- Does sacred text have an influence on your belief and your practice? If so, how? If not, how not?
- Do you believe that sacred text, for you, should be something that influences your belief and your practice?
- What are your opinions about the concept of sacred text in polytheist/pagan traditions, both ancient and contemporary?
- What are your opinions about the role of sacred text in creating and recreating religious traditions in paganism/polytheism?