So, I just updated my reading list, and I’ve noticed that, apart from Elves, Wights, and Trolls, I don’t really have any books that are more academic/scholarly in focus. The reason for this is not because I have something against academia (I do have two degrees from accredited institutions), or that I don’t think that academic materials are useful.
It’s just that if push comes to shove, I prefer more practical material.
You see, I could give you some interesting scholarly material on the Vanir (with the caveat that while I might find these articles interesting, your mileage may definitely vary) and I could tell you to go read the Eddas and the sagas and X number of articles on the Vanir.
The things that these texts and articles will be able to teach you are good and useful things, but you know what they probably won’t teach you? Praxis. This is why even the most hardcore of hardcore reconstructionists eventually finds themselves in the position where they need to recommend a (gasp!) practical book that actually teaches you how to do a blot.
You might recall that I’ve quoted professional academics on this blog before that have said the same thing, but in case you’ve missed those posts, here it is again:
Academic articles and monographs aren’t meant to be “how-to” guides for practicing a religion. They are meant to argue a particular position. They are written by academics, for academics.
That is why it always strikes me as kind of funny when I see Heathens talking about academic texts like they’re the equivalent of Holy Writ and arguing endlessly over the definition of, say, seidr, and whether such-and-such is seidr or spae, and whether drums are appropriate tools, because scholar X says that they are, but scholar Y disagrees.
Neither scholar X nor scholar Y are interested in reconstructing a tradition, they’re interested in arguing. Fish swim, birds fly, the Earth goes around the Sun, academics argue, day in and day out. I’ve never been up against a peer review board, but from what I hear, it’s like wading into a shark tank with bloody chunks of meat strapped to one’s ankles.
I think the point that I am trying to make is that you can read all you want. Read a lot, read good books, read bad books (bad books can teach you things too) read widely and read deeply.
But recognize that there are things that academic books can’t teach you, Hel, even the practical books have their limits.
Now, of course, it is possible to combine an academic understanding of a subject and more practical material. Despite what I’ve been saying, this isn’t an either/or thing. I mentioned the awesome Elves, Wights and Trolls, which manages to pull this off awesomely (seriously, go and get this book if you haven’t already, do it now!)
However, there is a world of difference between:
1) Reading an academic account of a ritual
2) Reading a “how-to” guide to doing that ritual in a more practical book
3) Actually doing that ritual
Or, to put it another way, I knew the bare bones basics of Sikhism before I went with my classmates to visit a gurudwara. I knew the significance of the five K’s and the martial aspects of the faith (including the tradition of martyrdom). I also knew something of the tradition’s development, and how it is one of the few traditions that actually incorporates writings from other traditions (Islam and Hinduism, IIRC) into its sacred text. I also knew that said text was treated with the kind of deference you would usually reserve for a living guru.
None of this prepared me for the service I attended, during which I ended up with my ass in the air while trying to do a traditional matha tek (bowing so that your forehead touches the ground, a mark of respect), you technically aren’t supposed to turn your back to the Guru Granth Sahib because you can’t find the friend you were sitting next to either, but everyone seemed willing to forgive a lapse in protocol. My learning also didn’t prepare me for receiving prasad (which is roughly the Sikh equivalent of the Eucharist, only it’s open to everyone and tastes better) or taking part in langar (the communal meal after the fact).
But even then, I still didn’t get as much out of it as I would have if I was a Sikh, because there’s another layer to it if you’re a religious insider, because you understand what things mean on a deeper level (plus you most likely understand Punjabi, so there’s that).
Or, to use yet another example, I’ve read a lot of things on Hinduism, everything from primary sources (in translation) to “here is a step by step guide on how to do puja“, and you know what? I could probably put together something that resembles a puja, but I’d still be missing out on a whole lot that I just can’t get from reading a book.
As Pagans/Heathens/polytheists, we have the added disadvantage of not having the opportunity to talk to people who actually practiced our religions in pre-Christian cultures, when they were living faiths, because our more recent ancestors went and killed them all.
So in the end, what do we have? Books. Piles and piles of books, and we don’t even have books written by the people themselves. We have their things, of course, but do you know how hard it is to interpret a thing?
Is this a goddess, a woman, a representation of some sort of spirit being, a teaching aid, a sex toy, a piece of art, or a very interesting lumpy rock?
Is this Odin in a dress, Frigga, or a priest/ess? BTW, I should mention that even though we DO have writing that supports the “Odin-in-a-dress” thing, I’ve seen people argue most insistently that this absolutely can’t be Odin, because ODIN IS TOO MANLY FOR DRESSES! HURR DURR!” /vikingdudebro
Aww, look! Someone is insecure, that’s so cute!
Actually, no, it’s stupid and sexist.
So, yeah, this is why stuff is useful but not, you don’t need to major in archaeology to know that.
So, tl;dr version….
1) Books are good.
2) Books are very good.
3) Academic books are very useful.
4) Practical books are useful too
5) Books that can combine the two are very, very useful
6) None of these things are a substitute for doing actual work
7) Stuff–it’s open to interpretation!
8) No, asshole, you’re not my “better”, so I’m not listening to you. I don’t make a habit of listening to assholes, crap tends to come out of them.
(Sorry, I had to add that last one in due to recent events.)