Academia

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.)

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5 thoughts on “Academia

  1. You’re fortunate that you’re in a tradition that has a little more “popular” material that isn’t crap, hard to read, or what not.

    Kemeticism hasn’t quite reached that point, though it’s moving that direction.

    So most of my books are Egyptological (ie: academic) in nature. That doesn’t mean I don’t do a lot of practical stuff. That just means I have one more step to take: translating the academic to the practical. It’s never been that difficult for me. It’s a matter of reading a book, finding an interesting shiny, then playing with it until I make something functional. But from what I understand, a lot of people have trouble doing that.

    And Odin’s so bad ass he could wear a dress and *still* look manly.

    1. I think where you have the advantage though is that you have written records from the people who practiced your religion, so someone who says something like “I want to worship A/pep! How do I do it like the the ancient Egyptians did?” you can all be like “NO!” because all of the available evidence (including textual evidence) says that you don’t worship something that essentially represents entropy.

      Not that you still don’t argue about things or have your own set of issues, but that there are some things you just don’t argue with, or perhaps you do, the point is that we’re missing a textual component that would be VERY helpful in trying to interpret all this stuff we have.

      I think our Hellenic friends have it made, the Greeks helpfully labeled their vases with the names of the deities they depicted, so unless the artists were really confused, no one’s going to argue with them.

      I wish more stuff would come with labels, it would make things so much simpler. Unfortunately, we would need to go back in time and make whole societies literate, and that would probably screw something up along the road, because time travel is dicey like that.

      Oh, and you could use, you know, vowels, vowels would be helpful! 😛

      1. That’s true. Kemeticism does have a helluva lot of written sources. Those guys wrote down everything. (Or the elite did, at least.) XD And the climate was well-suited to preservation. I imagine that your tradition would have a few more sources if it weren’t for the climate. Oh, and the spread of Christianity.

        In the end, every tradition has its gaps in terms of sources. The Asatru/Heathen/etc traditions have managed to come together long enough to put a few things together to bridge it. That hasn’t happened in Kemeticism yet and I really wish it would. All the bickering over basic things gets old.

        Sometimes I’m jealous of Hellenics. :-p The ancient Hellenes wrote down a whole truckload of stuff, too, but in some ways they were a bit more thorough. I think literacy eventually became a bit more widespread, too, although there were plenty of illiterate country folk. That makes a difference.

        We Kemetics *could* use some vowels, though. We have plenty of ‘e’. Now we need a few more because for some reason, “Djhti” isn’t very pronouncable. Nor is “npw”.

  2. Do you have a suggested reading list somewhere for praxis books? I’m new to the Vanir, but feeling a very strong pull to them, and reading H. R. Ellis Davidson and the Eddas is helpful but not very applicable (at least to my brain so far).

    1. Unfortunately, the one book that is really helpful praxis-wise (Visions of Vanaheim) is unavailable for purchase, which is a shame, because although it does have a lot of unmarked UPG, it’s pretty comprehensive.

      If you’re looking for a good book on trancework/journeying, I’d recommend picking up Diana Psxson’s “Trance-Portation” it starts with the very basics and goes from there, and the exercises aren’t a pain in the ass to do.

      Via the Wayback Machine, there’s also issues of an e-journal in honour of the Vanir: http://web.archive.org/web/20021206214649/homepages.nildram.co.uk/~fealcen/vanicve.htm

      Unfortunately, because Vanatru is so brand shiny new even when compared to modern traditions like Wicca, there’s not a whole lot of Vanatru-specific practical stuff, and the one press that was publishing books of use to Vanic types is now gone (I don’t know if it will be back).

      Although it isn’t really a Vanatru book, the book that helped me out a lot is Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner by Galina Krasskova and Raven Kaldera. I should note, however, it is definitely a “Neo-Pagan” book, there’s unmarked UPG everywhere, and the authors are…a bit controversial (IMHO though, the nasty rumours being spread about them are either completely unfounded or HIGHLY exaggerated).

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