Do Your Research! Pagan History and Lore

Back in January, I said I would do a book series, and I made a post about the different kinds of books a Pagan should read. In the meantime, I’ve realized that there is an ableist assumption in focusing so much on books and reading. Really, there’s an ableist assumption in demanding people learn through one specific medium. I am somewhat hard of hearing, and I’m not an auditory learner, so reading has always been my strong suit. That’s not the case for everyone.

This series has therefore morphed from just a book series to a media series. Of course, the problem is that most primary resources – and most scholarship – are, of course, written down. I plan to write more articles about how to find good sources through various media types, but that will take time.

For now, I want to talk about the most difficult type of book to find in alternate media forms: history and lore. But it’s also important to note that not all translations are equal and that an unwarranted stigma of academic books keeps people away from them.

What to do When a Book is Boring

First, I want to talk about reading academic books, particularly history books. If you dread the prospect to reading academic works, take a minute to reconsider.

But I get it. Textbooks are boring. You hated every year of history you were forced to take, and you don’t want to read painfully boring academic books now. My advice is: approach the book with a certain mindset and actively look for the gems.

Remember when you’re looking at these books:

  • You don’t need to read the whole thing.
  • You don’t need to read it in order by chapter.
  • You don’t have to read it with a deadline in mind.
  • It is not a novel, and you’re not in a class. Take what you want from the book, and feel free to ignore whole chapters that don’t seem useful to you.

For instance, I’ve read J.P. Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans. ADFers dread this book, and joke that “friends don’t let friends read Mallory.” It is a very dry text. But you can skip the two chapters that I consider the densest portion of the book. These chapters summarize the linguistic history of every Indo-European culture in Europe and Asia. Those specifics aren’t necessarily useful for most Pagans.

Jump to one of the more interesting chapters on tracing the gods across Eurasia or prehistoric burial practices. No one talks about how the Proto-Indo-Europeans covered bodies and graves in ochre, and I think it’s cool! I want a Neo-Pagan burial practice that uses ochre, or even the color red.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Which leads me to point two: there are interesting gems in these books. As a Pagan, you will find stuff that you like, even if they’re only anecdotes. And I’ll bet you find more than just anecdotal gems. If you come to an academic work with an open mind, and the hope in finding something interesting, you will have a better time overall.

So! Don’t be afraid of scholarly works. Pick them up at the library (or request your library purchase them), and you may be surprised. Again, I say “scholarly” and I mean it: don’t buy some Pagan-themed book about the lore by some random Pagan just because it seems easier. These can still be good resources, and I’ll be writing about these types of books too, but they cannot compare to reading good primary and secondary material.

In an effort to keep this short, I’ll write more about academic books later. But for now, you can see my book lists on WorldCat. They were originally made for ADF study programs, but scroll through them for books relevant to you.

Lore Books: Not all Translations are Equal

Here’s the thing. You can’t pick up just any translation of a lore book on Amazon or at Barnes and Noble. First, some translations may unashamedly be biased to the author’s own views. These translations may be written by very Christian authors, trying to alter polytheist lore, or perhaps racist authors, trying to fit polytheist lore with anachronistic BS.

Second, even without intentional bias, there is skill involved in translations. A word can have many meanings, or may even be untranslatable in another language. Think of the German word Zeitgeist. It isn’t translated into English because we don’t have an equivalent word. The Japanese word yokai has often been mis-translated in English as “goblin,” when it really refers to land spirits. So a translator needs a strong grasp of the language and culture that they’re translating from.

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Third, the styles of the translation can vary widely. Some translations focus on the meter or rhyme of an epic, or perhaps the spirit of the text. Others focus on the literal word-for-word meanings. Both styles of translation are perfectly fine – but they read differently and you will learn different things from them. If you want to learn more about how to compare stylistic differences in translation, see this cool article about Beowulf. (LINK?!)

Last, the age of the translation matters. That is partly because old translations are more prone to bias and a lack of skill – or care – when translating words. You may find a cheap mythology book in a store and only later realize the work itself was from the 1800s, but published with a nice, new cover. Or you find a translation online, but there’s little information about the translator or when it was translated. Which leaves you to wonder, what are this person’s credentials? Does translator actually know the ancient language?

Generally get translations from scholars or experts. Try to find translations that are either new and updated or else foundational and still acclaimed as one of the best. At the very least, try to find Penguin Classics, Oxford Classics, or other series that focus on solid translation work. IF YOU ARE READING ONLINE: you should be extra careful of who translated the work and where you are getting it. Project Gutenberg is a popular online resource, but they can only use public domain translations. Currently, their second most downloaded version of The Odyssey was translated by Alexander Pope and published in 1725. Because these numbers change on a rolling basis, I took the screenshots below.

Again, why read a free lore translation online (or buy a super cheap book) that was translated by biased people or scholars who do not represent the latest scholarship or knowledge of the language and culture they are translating from? Not all translations are equal.

Some Good Lore Books

Greek lore: Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (1942) is still considered one of the best translations of Greek lore. And Richmond Lattimore’s The Iliad (1951) and The Odyssey (1967) are considered top notch. But recently Emily Wilson’s The Odyssey (2017) has taken the world of classical studies by storm. (See a detailed review about her translation choices here.)

Norse lore: Lee Hollander’s The Poetic Edda (1962) is one of the best translations that focuses on the poetics of the edda. Some like to pair it with Jackson Crawford’s Poetic Edda (2015) because the literal translation is easier to read and understand. The best Prose Edda translation is by Anthony Faulkes (1995).

Celtic lore: Jeffrey Gantz’s Early Irish Myths and Sagas (1982) is considered one of the best. Patrick Ford’s The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales (1977) is a foundational translation of the lore. But Sioned Davies’ Mabinogion (2008) is a more recent translation that is also highly acclaimed.

Alternatives to Reading History and Lore Books

In an effort to find good source material that doesn’t require reading, I have this list. Thankfully, there are audiobook versions of most major lore. However, again, make sure the translator is reputable.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

-Audiobooks on Audible or at bookstores.

-Some ebooks have a text to speech (TTS) function.

Internet Archive has an online database, where you can search by subject and year. When you open a resource, there is also an auto-generated audio option on the menu bar.

-Focus on academic journals instead of books. Articles are usually the foundation that scholars use when preparing for a book, so articles consist of the latest scholarship anyway. Journals are often accessible online and may have audio options or downloadable PDFs.

-When you can find a PDF of a source, you can use Adobe Reader Text to Speech, Speechify, or any other reader app. Some of these are also available for online reading. And good places to access PDFs of good source material are:

JSTOR has a Free Content section, where you can download PDFs of resources. JSTOR also offers for you to read 100 articles a month online for free with a free account. It doesn’t seem that there is an audio function on JSTOR, but (with some luck) that may change in future.

-Your library! Many library systems are moving sources to digital formats, which may be downloadable or temporarily available or ‘checked out’ on an ebook.

WorldCat is an inter-library network that provides services like inter-library loaning and sharing digital sources. It’s also easy to search for audiobooks, cassette tapes, and braille books from among a large network of libraries.

-Online databases via your library often have audio options available online. Often, you’ll be able to access journal articles and parts of published books.

-Listen to talks or presentations by the authors on those topics. I’ve found YouTube videos for universities that are interesting, like this video about reading tarot. (If you want simplified lore or lore for kids, you can always check out Crash Course.) Universities may have conferences or workshops that can be insightful, such as the Conference of Current Pagan Studies (which has a cost), or this free workshop from OSU. Sometimes academic institutions will have recorded events for new books, such as Philip Kiernan’s The Gods at Home, for which The Open University hosted an event. If you search around, you can find this stuff.

-Watch documentaries about the time period. PBS still has fantastic documentaries online, and I’ve even found good documentaries on Amazon and Netflix. The History Channel has a subscription service called History Vault. I think documentaries are an especially good way to learn about archeological sites and physical history.

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