Book Review: A Pagan Testament by Brendan Myers

A Pagan Testament: The Literary Heritage of the World's Oldest New ReligionA Pagan Testament: The Literary Heritage of the World’s Oldest New Religion by Brendan Cathbad Myers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is a common complaint of seasoned Pagans that there is a dearth of advanced material out there. Wicca 101 books are a dime a dozen, but books that deal with the deeper matters of Pagan faith are rare. This is one of those much-desired books. But it’s also ideal for the student or the journeyman, and for different reasons.

Canadian Pagan author Brendan Myers is a doctor of philosophy who has not crawled up his academic navel. His language is clear and flowing, almost poetry even in his prose, and it engages at a heart level. He teaches you by taking you through his journey and you’re not even aware, at least until the end, that you’re learning something.

Clearly it was Myers’ goal to bring together the written elements that comprise the common Pagan body of literature and mythology, as the synopsis tells you. So what did he include, and why did he include it?

Much of his material was gathered by surveying the Pagan community. What did they consider to be important? Though this is probably the most effective method of determining a common liturgy, this also resulted in one of the book’s weaknesses, which is that much of the contemporary section (which is, don’t get me wrong, both extensive and valuable) feels to me like it has a regional bias. This is inevitable because of the nature of the beast; when you make a public appeal for a response, you are likely to get responses heavily weighted in favour of the people you know. It’s just a matter of course. But I don’t feel that much of the Western North American Pagan literature is represented here, save through Starhawk, as a result. It’s probably a less regional collection than most because Myers lived in both Eastern Canada and the U.K., and has traveled quite a lot, but there are natural limits to what any one person can do.

However, the classical literary section is probably bar none. Here Myers’ long experience in the Pagan community comes together with his classical education, and he has managed to include almost every piece of source material for the common Pagan mythos that I would ever recommend to my students. He begins with an examination of the primordial Mother Goddess and Horned God (and the anthropological theories on them that spawned modern Paganism, even the parts that are currently disproven.) He then includes formative Aboriginal beliefs that influenced the Pagan movement. One might argue that with its European origins an Aboriginal influence seems unlikely, but I would disagree for two reasons: the first is that Ronald Hutton conclusively demonstrated that the woodcraft movement, which is, in essence, a British Colonial interpretation inspired by Aboriginal beliefs, is an essential part of the formative elements of modern Paganism; and secondly, the North American witchcraft movement in the 60s and 70s most certainly embraced and incorporated (limited interpretations) of Aboriginal beliefs. This is perhaps noticed more profoundly here in Canada than elsewhere, since it is often said that Canadian culture is, and always has been, defined by the juxtaposition between English, French, and Aboriginal cultures.

From there he goes into the classical written sources: The Descent of Inanna and Babylonian Hymns to Ishtar. Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece. Celtic tales of the Morrighan the Dagda, and Cuchulain. Selections from the Poetic Eddas in regards to the Norns, the World Tree, and various Gods and Goddesses.

Then he progresses into the lore of the witch: Beliefs about witches from the Malleus Malificarum. Lore of the witchcraft trials that formed the myth of the Burning Times. Selections from Aradia: Gospel of the Witches.

He includes a selection of poetry and music that is part of our common lore. I think this section is really well researched and there’s only a few pieces I would have included that Myers did not. But again, this is one of the “modern literature” sections that would have been impossible to present completely, since the lore is so extensive. It consists primarily of several folk ballads, most of which originate as the English Childe Ballads, and poetry, much of it cribbed from Kipling, Keats, Yeats, Burns, and Wordsworth. I would also have included some of the work of Walt Whitman and Aleister Crowley, but perhaps that’s my regional bias showing, since they likely were more influential on the North American Pagan movement than the European one.

He follows with a section on the Book of Shadows, which includes selections from the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, the work of Doreen Valiente, Margot Adler, the Farrars, and Tamarra James, and some explanatory blurbs on some Wiccan traditions such as the Five Fold Kiss. This section is strictly Pagan material written strictly by Pagan writers for the formative liturgy of Paganism. I don’t think he missed a single thing that I might have included, save perhaps some brief passages from the Book of the Law; but the OTO can be downright stuck up about their copyright, so perhaps he asked but was denied. It also does not include any of the work of the Clan of Tubal Cain, so perhaps that could be considered an oversight or a Gardnerian bias.

The next section is on what he calls “wisdom teachings.” These are the common proverbs and lore that we Pagans share amongst one another. It’s awesome! I’m so glad he thought to include this; I would not have, and that shared oral tradition is so important to what makes us a community and what builds our faith and our movement. He lists the things we say in blurbs and verses presented like a list of Proverbs or the Song of Solomon; and then he presents an explanation at the end for those who, for example, may not know what the “two passwords” are.

The following section is on Circle Songs; chants. This is the section I felt was the most regionally-focused of the lot, but the collection of chants is extensive and valuable, and it displays most of the most important elements of the Pagan liturgies that we teach each other in this way. I only wish the tunes had been included! But I suppose that’s what Google’s for.

Last, Myers offers his own commentary on the Pagan world view, in which he references philosophical authors whose works have influenced our movement. He discusses Schweitzer’s idea of “world view,” the act of Naming, the Vedas and the Upanishads, the Word of Creation and the Song of Life, simple wisdom and Utilitarian theory, Hinduism and Tantra, the often-forgotten but very important influence of Sufi mysticism, and the nature of love and the dwelling-place of Divinity. It’s awesome stuff, and these elements are a wonderful examination of the sources of Paganism.

He breaks this up by discussing the often-overlooked influence of Schopenhauer, which is excellent, primarily through Crowley, as well as Crowley’s own influence. This is one area in which I strongly disagree with Myers’ conclusions, who was dismissive of Crowley’s philosophy as self-serving and shallow (self-serving most certainly, but shallow I would argue with, and probably will in a blog column). He also derided Crowley as a bad poet; which he was, but that doesn’t diminish the influence of Crowley’s writing on Paganism and I think it should at least have been included.

So, this is excellent for the long-term “advanced” Pagan, because it obviously sparks thought and discussion. It’s excellent for the journeyman because it would be a great way to fill in the blanks. By the time you get to that level in your study, you realize that you have some gaps in your knowledge, mostly due to the still largely oral tradition we have and the deterioration of modern classical education, and these are absolutely the things that you should know. And I’m putting on the required reading list for my students, so obviously I think it’s great for the novice too. A highly recommended book that I think every Pagan should read.

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