On Reading

Speaking especially for those of us working within the Celtic word view, because that is my world, we need better books. We need books that are honest, pluralistic, anti-imperial, and open to mistakes and revision. We need books that are not rehashing of what has been written, but ones that plumb the depths of philosophy – theology, ontology, axiology, ethics, epistemology; ones that cover histories from pre-modern times to honest histories of our own new movements; and ones that look forward and create new heights for us to ascend. Before we can create these, however, we need to honestly look at our own books right now, particularly where we find our deepest roots and our mythologies.

This critique is not meant as an evisceration of our current libraries of texts. The ideology of purity is one that should absolutely be avoided. Just because there is a problem with a text – or a writer – does not mean that the text or writer should be avoided, not read, or shamed. It simply means that when you write your book, you can avoid that particular problem because you know to look for it. I have seen a lot of purity in our movement, especially online, and it is an attitude that, at best, will lose people and knowledge as those deemed “impure” leave.

This instead is a discussion about philosophical problems that regularly occur in books recommended by individuals and organizations. In particular, I want to address how we find and read our mythologies and pre-modern histories because I see many books recommended and very little discussion about problems with how they are written. (And there are entire websites devoted to issues with modern writers and I have no intention of jumping into that ring.)

Many of our mythologies, particularly in the Celtic world but also with the Norse, Germanic, and Classical words, are sourced from a much different time and written by people who were not writing for a religious text. In the Irish world in particular, many of our texts are written from an outsider perspective during a time when Ireland was still a rebellious (and impoverished) colony. As religious and spiritual readers, we must dig out and critique the social and philosophical problems that a book may be purporting. We are not a people of THE book, we are a people of MANY books. And all of those books have been authored by flawed people, influenced by their own religion, time, culture, and politics – most of which we, as modern religious readers, do not share.

I am not sorry to say that, after spending much time and money to procure a copy of E Estyn Evans’ Irish Folkways (this was back when it was out of print), I have never finished reading it. I had to put it away when I first bought it because I just couldn’t read it. I pulled it off the shelf again last year and I realized exactly why I couldn’t read it. It’s a classic colonial text. I can and will write a comparison of passages from a well known colonial text, such as De Las Casas, because it holds its own. That is a post of its own.

I can firmly say, without reservation, that I cannot and will not learn successfully about real Irish culture, in a way that embraces Irish history and the Irish people much less the Irish gods, when I try to learn from a colonizer. It’s a joke in Irish-American culture that all of our folk songs are about killing the English or how much you love your mother, but there are very real cultural reasons for that. Ireland was robbed of its place in the world, its people oppressed, and land stolen when the Anglo-Normans took it as a colony. It’s not honoring them to continue to support the colonizer.

If you aren’t working in a cosmology with that history, this post is still for you. If you are embracing a feminist, eco-oriented cosmology, what does it mean that the books, where you find your inspiration and your gods, are written by men, by people who robbed tombs, by people who didn’t respect what they’re writing about? What does it mean when the ideologies of our authors clashes, in almost every way, with our ideologies?

The answer is not to throw out Bulfinch and Graves and Campbell and Hamilton (and Evans). There is much to be learned from them. They walk before us and helped, in one way or another, make that information accessible to us today. If they had not recorded, translated, and interpreted what they did, we almost certainly would not stand here today as we are.

We must, as individuals and as a community, critique them. We must be clear about what separates us from them. We must recognize that, as flawed individuals, they are also flawed writers. With our distance and difference, we must identify those issues and learn how they influence the text and, thus, influence us, in our beliefs and in our actions.

We must learn to engage with texts critically, not to throw them out in the name of purity and idealism, but to learn more from them. We can, if we apply theory and work hard, learn even more about our gods, our paths, and our history than we do now, even with the texts we already have. By engaging critically with these flawed books and flawed writer, we can even learn more about ourselves today.

And then, at last, we must write new books, with our own unique flaws of person and place and time, so that new generations can do the same for us.

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