Pagan sacred texts

The status of sacred texts in Paganism is complicated and disputed. A friend on the UK Unitarians Facebook group asked me if there are any Wiccan texts that are universally accepted. My response was:

No, absolutely not. Some people have started referring to “the” Book of Shadows as if it was a single text, but there should be an unique Book of Shadows for every Wiccan, as it is meant to be a record of rituals performed (this is possibly the reason for the name ‘Book of Shadows’, as the text is but a shadow of the actual ritual). There are “standard” features of the initiation ritual, so that initiations can be seen as valid if you move to another coven, but apart from that, there is some variation between groups and lineages. Text is not primary.

There are many texts that people hold in high esteem, but they are not doctrinal statements or anything. One such text is The Charge of the Goddess written by Doreen Valiente. The phrase “all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals” (spoken by the Goddess) has been used to support the inclusion of LGBT, kinky and polyamorous people in Wicca, however. And quite right too!

In other Pagan traditions, sacred texts are part of the tradition, but not held to provide dogma or doctrine (there is no dogma or doctrine in Pagan traditions, though there is near-consensus on many issues, such as the immanence of the Divine and/or deities). There is no single text for each tradition that holds the same status as the holy books of the three Abrahamic religions, the “People of the Book”.

In Heathenry, the Eddas, the Hávamál and the sagas provide important sources for the (re-)construction of rituals, practices, and beliefs, but personal gnosis is also important. It was within the Heathen and polytheist community that the ideas of substantiated and unsubstantiated personal gnosis first arose. A personal spiritual gnosis or experience can be verified by referring it to the experience of others, or to an ancient textual source. For instance, if I have an insight that Óðinn is the deity of blogging, this would be a UPG until I had either cross-referenced it with an ancient textual source, or with someone else’s personal gnosis.

The concepts of SPG and UPG are useful because they mean that we can differentiate different types of knowledge. Just as C G Jung distinguished between different levels of symbol, from personal symbols, to cultural symbols, to universal symbols or archetypes, so we can have different levels of theological knowledge, from the personal to the universal. That is why theology can never be complete; it is open-ended and poetic, personal and contextual.

Other reconstructionist polytheisms also have texts that are important, but no single canonical sacred text. In Hellenic reconstructionism, the Odyssey, the Homeric hymns, the Orphic hymns, Hesiod’s Theogony, and so on, are all important, but not regarded as revealed truth. In Religio Romana, Roman writings from antiquity are important, along with the calendar of ancient Roman festivals.

In Druidry, there is likewise no single sacred text, though the Triads are held in high esteem, and so is the Mabinogion.

In Wicca, different initiatory lineages have slightly different versions of the core rituals. Gerald Gardner gave out three different Books of Shadows to three different priestesses, each of whom went on to found a lineage. In America, different lineages are not interchangeable, so if you are initiated into one lineage and then want to transfer to another, you have to be re-initiated into the new tradition, and you then receive its version of “the” Book of Shadows. In Britain, once you are initiated into one lineage, that initiation is valid for all other lineages, and different covens and lineages will add their own rituals to their Book of Shadows (which is increasingly likely to be in electronic form, rather than copied out by hand). The structure for setting up the ritual (calling the quarters etc) is very similar from one group to another and has certain words that get repeated, but these vary. I experience these as ways in to a ritual state of mind – familiar tracks that run into the unconscious.

All these texts are used in an interactive way, however. Readers are in dialogue with these texts, relating them to their own experiences of the numinous, and working out what to keep and what to discard as we navigate through the contemporary world. Experience is more important than text for most Pagans.

Once, John Male said to me that if all the Pagan books were destroyed, and all the Pagans too (Gods forbid), then Paganism would still survive, because it is written in the land. It is natural for human beings to relate to the land around us, and the plants, animals, and birds. As Elinor Prędota writes over at A Sense of Placethe land is made of stories. Many Pagans have enthusiastically picked up on the idea of the Book of Nature, “a religious and philosophical concept originating in the Latin Middle Ages which views Nature as a book to be read for knowledge and understanding”. Natural philosophers (early scientists) used this idea as a justification for scientific investigation, arguing that God wanted humans to understand Nature. Many Pagans view Nature as a “book” wherein we can read the sources of our ethics and our mythology.

Science fiction, fantasy, and other literature has also been inspirational for many Pagans, particularly Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett (who has been jokingly referred to as a Pagan theologian, although he is not a Pagan). Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is also very popular. However, none of these works would be seen as canonical texts; they are sources of inspiration, not dogma.

I think this fluid and interactive relationship with texts is an important feature of contemporary Pagan traditions. In the Jewish tradition, every verse of the Torah is said to have seventy different meanings; in Islam, every verse of the Qu’ran is said to have seven thousand layers of meaning. Both these sayings point to the importance of interpreting texts in the context of history, culture, and experience, and not taking them literally. Liberal Christians have long regarded the Bible as a record of humanity’s relationship with the Divine, not a text dictated by God and intended to be taken literally.

We have all seen the dangers of people taking texts literally – let’s hope Pagans don’t slide down the same slippery slope. We currently pride ourselves on not having a single holy book, but rather having many sources of inspiration, including the Book of Nature. We also interpret our texts and our traditions in the light of our own experience, deriving different theologies and symbolism from them. This diversity is a source of strength.

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15 thoughts on “Pagan sacred texts

  1. > Once, John Male said to me that if all the Pagan books were destroyed, and all the Pagans too (Gods forbid), then Paganism would still survive, because it is written in the land.

    That is just beautiful.


  2. The Book of Nature reminded me of the foundational texts of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE): “the living human documents”, both those we encounter in ministry and — eventually I realized — ourselves. I suggest these, too, are Pagan source material.


  3. Being that I teach Religious Studies at a few different colleges, I think it’s also important to remember that there is a further monotheistic religion in the world with a holy book: the Sikhs have the Shri Guru Adi Granth Sahib, and unlike the other monotheistic “people of the book” religions, the Shri Guru Adi Granth Sahib is seen as an actual guru and a guiding entity within the religion. Their relationship to their holy book is on an entirely different level than that of the Jews, Christians, or Muslims–no matter how high a regard they have for their holy books (though some Jewish groups hold actual Torah scrolls in very high regard indeed), none of them attribute a kind of sentience to the book itself…

    I do like the phrase that “Pagans aren’t people of the book, they’re people of the library.” My own practice includes several literally holy books (as in the copy of a text that I have serves as an altar and a shrine of a god’s presence), but I’ve had to revise what is in that one so often thus far that it’s ended up becoming at least two different books at this stage, and will likely be more in the future…!

    Also, one other small point: while Mabinogion is the popular term for the text due to Lady Charlotte Guest’s (very badly bowdlerized) translation of it, it is more properly called the Mabinogi, as only one rather anomalous manuscript of the Four Branches has the form mabinogion in it. It’s one of the most under-rated medieval texts, I think; I always get a great deal out of it when I come to study it again, and reading it aloud is a lot of fun, too!


    • > none of them attribute a kind of sentience to the book itself…

      An undergraduate professor of mine referred to the evangelical and fundamentalist approaches to the Bible as “bibliolatry.” It was the first time I’d seen clearly that overreliance on a text could amount to the worship of a book.

      It’s interesting to contrast the folk magic use of scripture, like in Pennsylvania German powwow, where bits of scripture are spoken or written on pieces of paper (in imitation of Jewish practices?), then used for specific magical intents. In that case, the text is thought to have inherent power, but it’s still distinctly a tool and a way to invoke divine presence, not a divine presence in and of itself.

      Jews are tremendously sensitive to substituting objects for God, but if you’ve ever seen the Torah paraded around the room during a service, it’s awfully hard not to think of the similar use of statuary in various ancient religions (and in modern Catholicism and Hinduism).


    • I agree with the statement on the Mabinogi(on). The Mabinogi is Welsh, written in Welsh about Welsh mythology. I am (originally) from North Wales, and I speak fluent Welsh. I don’t understand the purpose of adding the -on to the word. I also agree that it is highly underrated. It is a systematic piece of Celtic lore, and basically the epic of Wales (Arthurian legend was originally Welsh, but the English sort of ‘stole’ it). As a Pagan living in American now, it saddens me that people use Welsh mythology without knowing it’s from Wales and without knowing the truth about it, and especially that people read it from the perspective of a modern American Wiccan over reading an original source.


  4. you have no idea how much I love that you included Pratchett here! I would also list Tamora Pierce’s Tortal books as one of my fictional Pagan influences. The Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small books were my first encounter with the concept of Goddess-centric religion. It offered a very vivid, if fictional alternative to the patriarchal spirituality I had been raised in. The more I learned about real world Pagan traditions, the more I realized that that was not just something that existed in fantasy.

    I also have to mention Charles DeLint, who describes his beliefs as animist. His novels and short stories are absolutely beautiful and full of themes like consensual reality, inner transformation, and other worlds that reflect the unconscious mind of his characters. I would highly recommend his novel The Onion Girl.


    • Fiction has definitely played a major role in the development of some contemporary Pagan traditions! I wrote about the impact of Stranger in a Strange Land on the Church of All Worlds and Paganism in general here (excerpt).

      I have yet to read de Lint, but so many people have recommended him to me — I am clearly missing out.

      I’d like to think we’re cultivating an approach to sacred stories that doesn’t involve our being attached to their literal truth. Unfortunately, I think some Pagans have set up the work of archeologists and anthropologists (like Gimbutas and Murray) as substitutes for scripture. That’s a divisive and ultimately unhelpful path, IMO.


      • Lois Bujold’s Quintarian novels (*The Curse of Chalion*, *Paladin of Souls*, *The Hallowed Hunt*) also deserve serious attention as inspirational sources for Pagan theology – Bujold sets them in an explicitly polytheistic (but relatively low-magic) world, and has some very interesting thoughts on the relationship between Gods and humans in the area of free will and divine action.


  5. Yes, my research on Pagans and science indicated that Pagans do love a good science fiction book!

    I have read one of Charles de Lint’s books, it was awesome.

    I like the idea of people as books, that’s lovely. And Pagans as people of the library (that reminds me of the thing about Heathenry being “the religion with homework”).

    I will definitely check out Tamora Pierce and Lois Bujold. I may update and repost my article about science fiction and Paganism at some point, though I did link to it from this post. Ursula le Guin is probably my biggest personal influence.


  6. It should be noted that although Wicca does not have a central text, it’s roots can be found in nearly all biblical and ancient civilization sacred texts. Much of which that is practiced today by mainstream religions and non-mainstream religions or paths are obviously inspired and influenced by Pagan culture. There has been mass cover-ups ever since to deliberately eliminate the evidence for these parallels. So in essence, any sacred script can be thought of as being such.


  7. Many wiccans do not know that theirs is a modern religion invented in the 20th century by ceremonial magicians in occult orders such as the golden dawn, oto and masonry. Many are neopagans and witches and not wiccans, however influenced by the old ways. There are not alot of àncient`texts therefore yet foundational wiccan texts could include Margret Murray`s work, work of gardner, buckland, robert graves and james fraser…even Doreen Valiente.


    • Most Wiccans in the UK know that now. It’s very rare to find a British Wiccan who believes in all that stuff about an unbroken line of tradition from the dawn of time, blah blah blah. Apparently there are still people in other countries who are opposed to the views and scholarship of Ronald Hutton.


  8. I really appreciate your thought about the terminology “Book of Shadows” meaning that the text is a shadow of the ritual. I was reading a book called “Stonehenge” (fiction) in which they stated that the temple they were building was a “temple of shadows” and I’ve been wondering if that had any bearing on the terminology “Book of Shadows.” I’ve wanted to explore the deeper meaning to that and appreciate input from others with the same question.


  9. All Pagan religions draw on multiple texts for inspiration – but it’s the idea of a single, canonical, infallible text that is inimical to most Pagans.


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