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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)


  1. Ben
    Posted January 30th 2013 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    Phil encouraged me to transfer some comments from facebook to the blog, so here goes.

    First off, thanks Phil! This is a topic I’ve thought about frequently. Many social scientists who have conducted fieldwork with neo-Pagans have been struck by the regularity (with regional variations of course) with which certain books are prescribed (or proscribed) in different magic(kal) and Pagan circles. In my native South Africa, Raymond Buckland’s ‘big blue book’ was a favourite in the 90s – South Africa was only just coming out of Apartheid sanctions, and the influence of state-sponsored Afrikaans Calvinist conservativism, and Wicca really only emerged as a minority phenomenon in the country in the 90s anyway (I still remember people having to be ‘allowed’ to see occult titles or Tarot cards as a kid in the 90s at local bookstores, since they were not displayed on the shelves, but kept under the counter as it were), so it goes without saying that the ‘book culture’ of Pagans in SA is likely to be different to the United Kingdom, say. Still SA Pagans have tended to follow Euro-American conventions quite closely. Now that esoteric specialist bookstores exist, however, replete with Llewellyn fodder, I have more than once observed occultists complaining out loud to proprietors that they want something more ‘advanced’ or ‘intense’. I have often wondered about what that means. I know for me as a teenager it had at least something to do with novel techniques and perspectives, ones that seemed to be based on ‘serious’ independent investigation, a category that Phil’s own online writings definitely fell into for me. I know I have (and still do!) judge practitioners by whether they share reading-lists and sympathies (another form of Pagan social capitol).

    When I was younger I would also sometimes ascetically curb my book-buying enthusiasm, reasoning that learning/reading more was a cover for apathy, for not pursuing the aforementioned ‘independent’, ‘serious’ inquiry and experimentation, a form of distraction and procrastination. At the same time, just reading and re-reading books, having them next to my bed, seemed/seems to get me ‘in the mood’ for committing to regular magical experimentation. I guess then occult lit might function like porn, in that it can both substitute for, and encourage the seeking of ‘in the flesh’ encounters?

    On another level, it’s interesting to think about the incestuousness of contemporary magical, Pagan scenes and certain forms of ‘canonical literature’, ethnographic and pseudo or para-ethnographic literature in particular. Think Margaret Murray, Gardner’s own ‘ethnography’ of a contemporary coven, or in a slightly different vein, how one Theosophically-favoured text on pranayama and tattvas, or one partial translation of one tract on Kabbalah, helped define right practice and ‘ancient tradition’ in the Golden Dawn. Given my current anthropological work with Tibetan Tantric, non-monastic ritual specialists (in which context textual and oral lineage is an important issue), I think more talk about Pagan ‘lineages’ would be interesting. Wallis and Blain get into some of this in this 2004 article:

    The post also makes me think of Xoanon, as in the Cultus Sabbati/Andrew Chumbley/Daniel Schulke, and their attempts to reinvigorate a grimoiric cult of the book…More to be said here, in terms of contemporary Pagan lineage practice, the issue of syncretism (how this both contributes to ‘authenticity’, and detracts from it – I’m thinking of how the Cultus’ texts have capitol because they are clearly inheritors of ‘traditions’ from Crowley and Spare, but those aesthetic traditions pitched themselves as iconoclastic and idiosyncratic). Considering that Chumbley described his coven’s tradition as a ‘recension’ (a markedly textual term), as opposed to a revival/or simplistic survival a la Murray, it strikes me that these are important questions. The way that Chumbley did academic and ‘magical’ research into the Toad-bone rite of cunning-folk, and then enshrined that investigation in the form of a physical grimoire, which then became Holy Writ in a living tradition (it was made out of a ‘resurrected toad-skin and had a daemon in it, after all!) seems relevant, somehow. Arguments about the appropriateness of open-access for Xoanon’s titles (via the usual economy of scanned occult manuscript pdfs) could come in somehow too.

    Anyway, sorry for a long, disjointed, stream-of-consciousness post. It would be great to hear what others think!

    Oh – this surprisingly old, and acidic piece fits too: The Vagaries of Book-Buyers: Collecting Books on the Occult

    • Phil Hine
      Posted February 8th 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink


      Many points of departure here, so I’m only going to pick up on one or two points for now.

      Many social scientists who have conducted fieldwork with neo-Pagans have been struck by the regularity (with regional variations of course) with which certain books are prescribed (or proscribed) in different magic(kal) and Pagan circles.

      I’ve been interested for a while now in citationary practices (my first stab at this was in Must we love the Golden Bough?) – and how particular authors and themes turn up time and time again in pagan & occult texts – and pondering what role these practices play in reinforcing particular narratives.

      I guess then occult lit might function like porn, in that it can both substitute for, and encourage the seeking of ‘in the flesh’ encounters?

      Interesting (and provocative) comparison! Puts me in mind of reading Francis King’s “Secret Rituals of the OTO” under the bedclothes with a torch when I was a teenager. Since you brought up “social capital” I wonder if there is a tension between the allure of encountering “forbidden, secret knowledge” and the disjuncture that much of this “secret knowledge” is now openly available – in high street bookshops and on the internet?

  2. Sam Webster
    Posted February 1st 2013 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Phil for such an excellent exposition of our current situation regarding text and scripture. You really bring out the immaturity of our Pagan community.

    Aping aspects of Christianity as Pagans do, often unconsciously, we can project some kind of absolutist infallibility upon the printed, now electronic, word. Rather silly, actually. In the world of mainstream religious discourse text, its meaning and its reliance, is seen as quite messy. Who’s speaking? Is this poetry, or history? Is it prophecy or ritual procedures? Do we take literally? Or allegorically? Or with some sense of its place in history? Are we to obey? Or interpret? Or implement what the text is somehow alluding to?

    The Catholic church forbade the study of the Bible because it is a very confusing document, fearing it would lead to divergent opinions. They were right, of course. With the Protestant Reformation, everyone got to read and look at the vast numbers of sects that emerged.

    So, yes, a Pagan Hermeneutics is required, vast and various as that will be, given our polyphonus nature.
    I feel it must begin with a recognition that words are but ‘ink on paper’ and that the living person in their creativity, autonomy and felt experience, as well as their place in community and discourse, must be central to it.
    sam webster

  3. Jonathan
    Posted February 1st 2013 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    My feeling about texts on magic and that, is that it can be inspiring and yet misleading. I think about the time I read through a large book on the Buddhist Darma with commentaries. The text itself-with some added explanation of words from time to time- was great to read. Then the commentary merely seemed to back up some Buddhist angle. I felt it was misleading on many occasions.
    I suppose this is what happens when you don’t have some personal experience with a teacher who can consider you as a person, rather then being given some general “meaning” of what to expect and think. How can this be avoided? I suppose through some relationship with a practitioner that has used it and succeeded with it.
    The problem, as I observe it, is that academic understanding and research of tantras etc. is given a lot of credit, in the absence of actual Gurus, in the occult world that I have observed. A lot of those I meet, at least, give me this impression.
    Still a text with comments can inspire and give ideas and for that it’s pretty useful I think.

  4. Christine Kraemer
    Posted February 2nd 2013 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Phil, for the shout-out! I read here regularly but don’t usually have leisure to comment, so I’m tickled to see that you read my article. 🙂