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Elizabeth Barrette

 

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His Story, Her Story, Our Story The Evolution of
Pagan Fiction and Pagan Literature

by Elizabeth Barrette
 


People often think of culture as a sort of monolithic social construction, something universal and unchanging; but in reality, a healthy culture lives and grows and evolves. This holds true not only over the course of history as new cultures emerge and older ones fade, but also within the "lifespan" of each individual culture. New ideas and concepts spring up, spread, and bear fruit. In fact, when this process ceases, the culture tends to stagnate and then die out.

Modern Pagan culture takes part in this process just like any other, sometimes more consciously than most. Our recent achievements include the formation of Pagan churches, gatherings, and periodicals like this one. In the future we see Pagan burial grounds, as several groups are currently working towards this goal. Right now we are in the process of forming some important cultural material: Pagan Fiction and Pagan Literature.

One of the ways a culture survives, replicates, and identifies itself involves the development and transmission of cultural material. Among other things this includes literature. Emerging cultures and subcultures develop their own unique literature as a means of expressing their distinctive worldview, beliefs, and ideals; exploring their past, present, and future; considering the particular experiences they encounter; and entertaining people. As humans we need ways of looking at ourselves and considering our actions; literature provides one such opportunity.

At first, developing cultures do not have enough cohesion to produce literature with recognizable patterns based in cultural experience. This is especially true of existing cultures suppressed by a dominant culture, once the subcultures start reclaiming their own identity; it takes a while to develop a "voice" of the community. Recently a number of old and new subcultures have emerged to produce their own literature which speaks eloquently of their viewpoints. In college I studied Chicana Literature, Black Literature, and Native American Literature. I also enjoy Jewish, LesBiGay, and Women's Literature. Each of these has something special to offer which differs from "mainstream" literature. As a culture emerges, it finds its "voice" and produces a substantial amount of cultural literature which continues to evolve.

Our modern Pagan culture has grown from a few scattered groups and solitaries to a thriving alternative front made of many diverse traditions and thousands of individuals. Current paths include Australian, Celtic, Native American, Greco-Roman, Slavic, African, Egyptian, Oriental, Hawaiian, and general European ethnic traditions as well as the specific systems Stregheria, Asatru, Voodoo/Santeria, Druidry, Wicca, Kabbalah, Shamanism, and others; plus a huge assortment of Eclectics. Like the other cultures mentioned above, we have "come out of the closet" and claimed our identities. [1] We celebrate our beliefs and traditions. We reach out to each other in many ways, and the connections make us stronger as a community. The pool of our cultural material deepens day by day as we continue to add to it.

Consider the motifs that appear often versus the ones that don't, or the ones we wish would go away. The "mainstream" culture just loves the Wicked Witch archetype. Most Pagans hate it as much as Christians would hate, oh, say, an Inquisition Priest representing their system. Yet both Pagan and non-Pagan folks find appeal in some of the same places, like the whole Sacred King/Hunter/Sacrificed God web of figures which includes everyone from Robin Hood to Herne to King Arthur. We see the Enchantress and Wise Old Man and Young Fool repeatedly in Pagan and non-Pagan stories alike. The Goddess still emerges as Maiden and Mother ... but for the most part both cultures have ignored the various Menstruating and Destroying Goddesses as well as the more gentle God aspects. Those were neither safe nor readily accessible at the beginning of the movement, so they got less attention. They are beginning to emerge now as Pagans seek greater depth and breadth of experience. In our choice of which archetypes and deities we reclaim, you can see the outline of our ethics and values in contrast to those of our ancestors.

Having studied many different types of literature, and having read many Pagan books and periodicals, I began to notice a pattern. First came nonfiction books and articles, along with invocational and ritual material. New songs started to appear. We have a substantial amount of reference material, both "how to" and historical, and some excellent theory and commentary. Over the last ten years or so, Pagan writers and characters have shown up more and more in speculative fiction. We have built up a quite a lot of new material to go with our ancient ballads, myths, and traditions.

Some people feel that the modern Pagan movement began with books not really intended to start a major spiritual awakening, such as The White Goddess and When God Was A Woman. [2] Others prefer to begin their count with those works written specifically for a Pagan audience, such as The Spiral Dance by Starhawk, Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler, Magick by Aleister Crowley, or The Rebirth of Witchcraft by Doreen Valiente. [3] Some years after the first few books appeared, more titles emerged and the movement began to diversify. People discovered, rediscovered, or simply explored more openly a class of systems which seemed uniquely suited to meeting needs long ignored by the "mainstream" society. Now you can find books on dozens of ancient and modern traditions and practices, a majority of them aimed at beginners. [4] Relatively little advanced material exists, in comparison; some debate centers around whether this stems from a lack of qualified writers or the fact that advanced-level material does not lend itself to writing down! Still, an abiding hunger for knowledge drives us to explore ever further.

All along, writers respond to the community, becoming a kind of transmission system for group consciousness (as is true of all cultures and their written material). For instance, as more Pagans choose to raise children, family life emerges as a key point of interest. We see books on Pagan child-rearing and family ritual appearing, which demonstrates our concern about passing on our traditions. [5] In general, I agree with something Ravencraft said in commenting on my ideas for this article: "What we write and publish is a direct reflection of who we are, what we want, and where we are in our respective stage of development as a culture." [6] This means that a growing mass of literary output indicates a growing culture.

Emerging societies typically go through the same stages. In the beginning they must take care to avoid reprisals from the dominant society, which often perceives them (however incorrectly) as a threat. Leaflets, newsletters, and magazines appear along with a few books. Things simmer for a while, boil over a few times, and then gradually the movement starts to win some acceptance. More books and periodicals emerge, and the quality improves significantly. As the movement links with the larger society, it strengthens its own identity and crops up in such places as college classrooms.

A maturing culture includes a diversity of nonfiction and fiction in both book and periodical form, along with specialty publishing houses, supply shops, and strong readership among members who already recognize some "classics" among earlier works. Look at the emergence of Queer bookstores, "women's space" in coffee houses, and Black Literature classes and you can see the effects in a variety of cultures. They had to fight to gain recognition and freedom of expression, but they continue to make progress just as we do.

We already have what I will call Pagan Fiction, as in Science Fiction, which deals with Pagan motifs in a speculative setting along with other elements of Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Horror. This also includes some Alternative History and Historical Fantasy. This type of fiction introduces many people to the idea of Pagan religions and characters in a positive light. It also allows us to explore the trials and triumphs of Pagans in the past, the future, and other worlds. We have a history; we have a future. For some excellent examples of Pagan Fiction, see the sidebar.

Some question arises here regarding the validity of Pagan Fiction written by non-Pagan authors. Yes, it works -- if they do their research. Plenty of offensive, laughably inaccurate, and otherwise off-the-mark examples exist. Some Pagan Fiction, though, does come from Pagan writers. They may draw from personal experience or make things up wholesale, but they have an advantage in believability since they write what they know. Both have merit, but in comparison, which offers us more -- what we say about ourselves, or what others say about us? I leave that question for the community to consider at length as the volume of relevant material increases.

Some people dismiss speculative fiction as an unfit source of inspiration in cultural development. I happen to disagree. Speculative fiction allows us to consider many possible options, and if we see something that works, why shouldn't we incorporate it? In fact, the science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land gave rise to one of the oldest and most influential organizations in the modern Pagan movement: the Church of All Worlds. [7] Long ago, Otter (now Oberon) and Morning Glory Zell recognized something worthwhile in fiction and worked to manifest it in this reality. In so doing they brought us one of the first "official" Pagan churches and the magazine Green Egg. With that kind of success record, I think we should apply to the written word the same rule Eclectics apply to spiritual practices: incorporate what works, avoid what doesn't.

So what are we missing? We need what I call Pagan Literature, in the sense of purely cultural literature like the Native American Literature or LesBiGay Literature I mentioned earlier. Pagan Literature encompasses a wide range of stories dealing with the experiences of being Pagan in this time, this place -- how we deal with "mainstream" culture, the unique challenges we face, the insights which our worldviews give us. These stories provide us with a valuable forum in which to explore ourselves and our developing culture, not just as it was in the distant past or might be in the far future, but as we experience it here and now, in our own lives. We have a present, too.

In a broader sense, Pagan Literature can include any literature written by Pagans, just as a Black Literature shelf includes literature written by Black people, whether or not any Black characters appear in it. By the time a culture has grown strong enough to produce its own recognizable literature, it tends to impart a certain tone to its members. Although writers from a particular culture may vary widely in individual style, one can still read their literature collectively and find common threads based on the values and attitudes of their culture. The experience of living as a Pagan in today's world tends to color one's perceptions, just like living as a woman or a Native American does. The changing experiences over time both reflect and feed cultural evolution.

Because we live in the present, we very much need to see our own reflections in this setting. We need to know that the problems we face here and now are not just our own individual problems; many of them are cultural problems. Just as Black people face racism, women face sexism, and Chicanas struggle against both -- Pagans face religious intolerance and discrimination. We also need to celebrate our successes. Just as Native Americans have recently won the right to practice their traditional religious ceremonies, other Pagan systems have won similar rights. We have some of our own churches now, and ways of keeping in touch. We also benefit from seeing how characters solve their problems; sometimes stories can give us ideas that may help us solve our own problems. We benefit from reading good things about Pagans, too, and celebrating our achievements. We learn more about who we are in this time, in this place. These experiences, high and low, give us a great deal to write about.

Because it springs from a common pool of experience, cultural literature quickly produces a selection of archetypes, stereotypes, plot motifs, and other story elements which recur in the work of many different writers. What dark-skinned person in this society has never encountered racism? What Pagan remains blissfully unaware of religious intolerance? Where do we find our heroes and heras? Look around, folks: today's frustrations are tomorrow's fiction. We take our literature from our lives.

This means we get to invent a whole new genre, Pagan Literature. As far as I know, nobody has ever done this consciously before. New genres have just burst out of the cultural subconscious when the time grew ripe, first in a trickle, then in a flood. This time, we can see it coming. I wonder what difference that will make. A few years ago, I noticed this; nobody I talked to really grasped what I meant. I kept trying. All of sudden, several months ago I found several people who got it -- and who got very excited. One of them, Ravencraft, decided to make this magazine the first paying market for the ground-breaking new genre of Pagan Literature. Success!

What shall we make of it, our new genre? It can take us anywhere we want to go. We even have Pagan Fiction to explore other times and places. What elements of our experience do we want to immortalize? Who gets to mint the first classics? (The first several examples of anything are pretty much default classics, as first attempts.) Personally, I like fish-out-of-water stories in which someone has to deal with an unfamiliar culture; I also like clue-by-four stories in which characters learn something new and thereby become better people. I'll probably write some of those, with particularly Pagan elements.

Early cultural literature tends to come straight out of the news. I expect to see some of these become popular Pagan Literature motifs: Pagan teen struggles against devout Christian parents, Pagan gets beaten/murdered/robbed etc. for being Pagan, Pagan suffers loss of job/home/status etc. when his or her religion is publicly revealed, estranged Pagan seeks to mend relationship with family, nonPagan spouse uses Pagan spouse's religion as grounds for denying custody/visitation rights in a messy divorce, two (or more) Pagans fall in love at a gathering, Pagan child of Pagan parents explains Pagan beliefs to schoolmates, adult Pagan explains beliefs to local newspaper, prison inmate discovers Paganism which causes a major lifestyle change, person discovers Paganism which solves or causes personal problems, Pagan seeks freedom of religious expression at work, local Pagan group fights unfair zoning laws, Pagan group or individual helps nonPagan(s) in need, and so forth. Endless inspiration for stories fills the news sections of Pagan periodicals. [8]

Pagan Fiction and Pagan Literature comprise an important part of our cultural material, but there are many others. Poetry also plays a role, whether invocational, devotional, or observational. Music old and new helps define our space. Different cultures use very different instruments, and you may have noticed the prevalence of music at Pagan gatherings. You rarely hear street musicians playing in the mainstream cities anymore, but you sure do at Pagan gatherings! We also have new lyricists to give us songs that tell our stories, which make a fine setup for plots in Pagan Literature the same way that old ballads inspired many stories. Composers and musicians may choose traditional instruments such as harp and drum or new ones like synthesizers to express themselves. Pagan art spans a wide range of styles, from representational to shamanistic, but featuring recognizable divine and mythic figures as well as modern celebrations of Pagan life. We even have a variety of lovely Pagan calendars which mark our holy days and festivals. [9]

All of this material provides not just entertainment and self-expression but a delightful means of transmitting our special values, beliefs, and customs. The music, literature, and artwork of every culture form part of the core material that identifies that culture, and these media also allow the continuance of their parent cultures. We use them to teach ourselves, our children, and others about who we are and what we do. We can show both our friends and our enemies that we mean them no harm, that our spiritual paths mean as much to us as theirs do to them, that we too can create breathtaking beauty from human experience.

Finally, while Pagans do not proselytize, we do welcome spiritual seekers to explore our paths; and many people first realize an interest in the Old Ways upon encountering our stories, hearing our music, or seeing our pictures. Once again our cultural material serves to identify us, this time to those just discovering their curiosity about our ways. Our stories become their stories, our music speaks to them, our artwork captures images they find deeply meaningful. We reach out to those about to join us, and welcome them with the fruits of our creative spirit. After all, if we are made in the image of the limitless Creator(s), how could we not be limitless co-creators ourselves?

Although the modern mainstream society does not place as much emphasis on the creative arts as it has in the past, many Pagans still honor and respect our "inspired ones" just as many traditional cultures did. Today they perform valuable services for the community, some different, some the same. Indeed, you can see this respect in the increasing selection of Pagan music, books, and artwork available on the market -- people pay for it. Moonbeams is the second paying Pagan periodical that I know of, the first being SageWoman. I have heard of but not yet seen Pagan art shows, too. Support Pagan creativity, and you support Pagan culture.

As the current manifestation of Paganism matures, we see more and more people joining this movement because it offers them benefits they have not found elsewhere. They find in Pagan systems an intimate connection with the divine, a sense of self-worth, an acknowledgment of the material world as sacred rather than profane, and a fertile environment for personal growth. We also see a "second generation" of Pagans, born to Pagan parents and raised in Pagan households, reaching a point where they can marry and start new families of their own. Now more Pagans have children, too, so we see an increase in material aimed at children or discussing the issues surrounding them. We have Pagan lullabies and tales to share with our children. As they grow, we need more advanced literature for them and for us.

At this point in time, new people feel drawn to Paganism just as more practiced Pagans reach a sense of maturity in their faith. Together with more public exposure, these forces help shape the growing trend towards cohesion and condensation. We see the formation of Pagan churches, communities, and other organizations as a reflection of this. The Church of All Worlds, the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, and the Covenant of the Goddess are well-known Pagan churches. We have places like Circle Sanctuary in Wisconsin and Ozark Avalon in Missouri where we can gather together. The Wiccan-Pagan Press Alliance, Witches' Anti-Defamation Lobby, and Lady Liberty League help us connect and support each other inside the Pagan community; and we established the Yemaya Fund to support religious freedom for others -- in this case African-American churches. We have enough people and communication to make these things happen now. Thus, as an expression of our increasingly shared experiences, now is the time for Pagan Literature to emerge.

What can you do to further the development of Pagan Literature and Pagan Fiction along with our other cultural material? Well, you can make your own. Write stories, take photographs, play music, paint pictures -- whatever shape your creativity takes. Get your work out in public; find or create markets for it. Patronize other Pagan writers, artists, composers, etc. Display their work in your home if you can. Especially, let people know about your interest. Write to editors, publishers, bookstore owners, art museums, and record companies. Tell them what you like and want to see more of in the future. Help creators network with producers and distributors. Carry on debates about your favorite issues online or in print. This is your cultural legacy; help spread the word.

In creating a canon of Pagan Literature, we need to maintain our diversity while developing a recognizable voice. I know that sounds contradictory, but consider the Native American example. Beliefs and practices vary radically from tribe to tribe, let alone region to region, yet when you compare them as a group to another group like Oriental or European systems, you can recognize a distinctly "Native American" feel. [10] While we don't have a single set philosophy, most Pagans hold some values, ideals, and concepts in common which you can see in the charters of Pagan churches and organizations as they seek to offer a definition broadly applicable and acceptable to Pagan members. We want to avoid setting up a precedent that could eventually be used to suppress individuality or discriminate against other religions. We need to find a balance, and we can best do that by exploring ideas for this new genre in the public forums of our community. By encouraging dialog from the beginning, we can develop a more flexible canon and attitude reflecting our diverse background.

Consider carefully what you choose to buy with your attention. Pagan Literature and Pagan Fiction give us multiple ways to explore our inner and outer selves; we cannot count their benefits, but if we don't take advantage of the opportunities we will miss every one. It is no accident that early "heresies" in more dogmatic systems were wiped out by destroying their documentation. Nor is it an accident that conquering cultures forbid the language, literature, and belief systems of the conquered. Fortunately, Pagan cultures like Pagan spiritual paths are polygenetic; they spring up from the land and the love of life itself. They live in the world as much as in us, and by sharing in the creative process -- at any step along the way -- we can add to that rich heritage.

Come and play; celebrate! We have accomplished wonders in this age. We can accomplish many more, and make stories fit to live beyond the seventh generation. The world of imagination has no natural boundaries; the possibilities are endless. Be proud to be Pagan. Make your insights available to others who appreciate them. Moonbeams would like to encourage further dialogue and contributions on this topic. If you have something to share, please contact us.

Reference List

[1] To Ride a Silver Broomstick by Silver RavenWolf. Llewellyn Publications, 1993.

[2] The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth by Robert Graves. Noonday Press, 1997 (reprint edition). When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone. Harcourt Brace, 1978.

[3] The Spiral Dance by Starhawk. Harper & Row, 1979. Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler. Beacon Press, 1979. Magick by Aleister Crowley. Routledge and Kagan Paul, 1973. The Rebirth of Witchcraft by Doreen Valiente. Phoenix Publishing, 1989.

[4] Publisher catalogs: Llewellyn, Phoenix Publishing, New Falcon, Inner Traditions, Chronicle Books, Celestial Arts, Eschaton Books.

[5] For example, WiccaCraft for Families by Margie McArthur. Phoenix Publishing, 1994.

[6] From e-mail message, April 15, 1997.

[7] Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. Ace Books, 1995 (reissue edition).

[8] Ideas gleaned from personal experience and from Lady Liberty League reports in Circle Network News.

[9] Llewellyn and SageWoman both produce Pagan calendars.

[10] To conduct this experiment on your own, compare two spiritual texts or two mythology collections. In this instance I used They Dance in the Sky: Native American Star Myths by Jean Guard Monroe and Ray A. Williamson (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987) versus Myths of China and Japan by Donald A. MacKenzie (Gramercy Books, 1994) and American Indian Ceremonies by Medicine Hawk and Grey Cat (Inner Light Publications, 1990) versus To Ride a Silver Broomstick by Silver RavenWolf (Llewellyn Publications, 1993).

 

"His Story, Her Story, Our Story: The Evolution of Pagan Fiction and Pagan Literature" copyright 1997 Elizabeth Barrette, first published in Moonbeams Journal 1 (Spring 1997), revised for web publication July 1998.