Jottings: On the sacredness of text
Back in December, I ran into a friend who asked me what I was occupying myself with, and I told him that – amongst other things – I was struggling with my series on the Saundaryalahari and that my original estimation of how long it would to take me to write a commentary on its verses had become mired in difficulties – because, as one might appreciate, it was opening up questions – and avenues – that I hadn’t expected to have to deal with or traverse. He was sympathetic, but asserted “Well, Pagans don’t have sacred texts”. Looking around us – we were having this conversation in one of London’s largest esoteric bookshops – I pointed past him to the shelves and replied – “no, Pagans have an abundance of texts”.
It’s one of the defining features of contemporary Paganism – the assertion that there are no “sacred texts” (in the sense of single sources of authority) being often twinned with the assertion that what counts is “personal experience” rather than a reliance on external authorities. But if Paganism is not “a religion of “the book” as it were, I think its fair to say that it is a religion of many books. And whilst such books are not considered universally “authoritative” it seems to me that some books – and some themes in books – are sometimes treated as sacrosant, or at least self-evident to the point that they turn up with (weary) regularity. And if, as it is often said – that what counts is personal experience (and personal revelation) then how do books become “authoritative” in the first place? Christine Hoff Kraemer, in a recent essay examining the heated debate over Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon and attitudes to Pagan Scholarship makes a salient point:
Pagans sometimes grant far too much authority to scholarship and will defend it (or attack it) as if it were scripture with prescriptive impact. In some ways, it seems, particular pieces of scholarship actually serve the Pagan community in the same role as scripture does in other religions. Biblical archaeologists, for example, experience some of the same paradoxes as Pagan scholars do in their communities. Archeologists who publish data that appears to contradict the Bible may be attacked by believers as attempting to undermine the Christian faith, while on the other side of the coin, biblical archeologists whose research affirms the historicalaccuracy of the Bible may find themselves being written off by the scholarly community as uncritical advocates. Debates — and fears — about whether such scholarship undermines or supports the Christian faith, and the political purposes that it might be put to, muddy the scholarly waters and can complicate the process of funding studies and publishing data.
In both Christian and Pagan communities, there are texts that are treated as sacrosanct, and so they become sites where conflicts over authority are centered.
I think she’s got a point – and whilst Kraemer is writing specifically about scholarly texts – I think it is worth extending to other types of text, and thinking about how texts become prescriptive or viewed as sources of authority; which themes and tropes recurr, and why. How does one decide that a particular text is relevant to one’s practice? What makes a particular narrative compelling? How do we choose one particular presentation of history to another? Are “facts” important? In short, how do books “work for us?”
If “personal experience” is all that really matters, why should I take any other person’s presentation of information seriously at all? I read a book last year – of the “beginner’s introduction to Paganism” genre where the author made it very explicit that what one believed, as a Pagan, how one practiced, and in particular, how one organised one’s practice (in terms of schemas such as the Tree of Life, Correspondences and Chakras) was very much, for the most part, down to individual preference and practice – yet the bulk of the text was still devoted to lengthy (and familiar) expositions of the Tree of Life, Tables of Correspondences, and yes, the seven Chakras. it sometimes seems to me there’s a kind of tension between prioritising “personal experience” and retaining familiar patterns and themes (see this post for some earlier reflections on the problematic aspects of prioritising “personal experience”).
Although it’s an improvement on the kind of books I encountered in the 1970s and early 1980s, which were very much of the kind that thundered to the reader that magic followed strict laws and was about hard facts that were universal truths (regardless of course, of whether or non non-initiates regarded them as such) and one had to accept them and follow them to the letter. There certainly wasn’t much wiggle-room for reflexivity, personal reflection, or making do with a bush rather than a tree, devising your own correspondences, or not bothering with Chakras at all. I recall an incident when I was at an ‘occult study group’ in Norwich. The topic under discussion for the evening was scrying, and the guy leading the session was going to take us through the basics. He had this little book by Leo Vinci and literally treated it like ‘holy writ’ … “the book says this… the book says that”. When I had the temerity to ask a question about other methods he fixed me with a hard stare and said “that isn’t in the book”. It was a bit like one of those Planet of the Apes films where the last survivors of humanity are worshipping a kid’s book and stone people to death for daring to go against it. That’s hopefully less likely to happen now.
But back to thinking about books. In religious traditions where there are “big books” – whether singular scriptural heavyweights such as the Bible, or multiple “sacred texts” such as the Bhagavad-Gita, Mahabharata, Ramayana etc. in India (to say nothing of the multiple texts associated with Sri Vidya) – there has evolved a commentorial tradition, or hermeneutics of one kind of another. of course one might say that Paganism does not need these modes of critical enquiry. I’m not so sure. A Pagan Hermeneutics might well be useful addition
I’ve no answers, but these are issues worthy of reflection.
Christine Hoff Kraemer, Perceptions of Scholarship in Contemporary Paganism (American Academy of Religion Conference, November 2011)