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One of the most interesting aspects of Paganism for me is that it stretches back to the very beginnings of human spirituality, so far as we can tell. The Axial religions of monotheism, Buddhism, and Hinduism connected to sacred texts all to one degree or another marked a break with that past. In the case of the monotheists the break was violently enforced, and I have recently learned that Tibetan Buddhism was not so innocent as I once thought.
What this means is that Paganism’s roots are in shamanism, broadly defined. It developed in different ways, depending on the cultures and environments people encountered, but the starting point was remarkably similar. To this end I recommend two books I have read, and one I am in the midst of reading.
E. R. Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational is a sharp completely secular historian’s analysis of ancient Greece’s “irrational” side, meaning its shamanic and shamanic derived side. Read with Pagan eyes the book is an eye-opener. Modern philosophy honors Socrates but rarely acknowledges that he admitted to be guided on important decisions by a spirit, or that in the Phaedrus he enters into trance with a spirit. Every bit as important, in neither case wre those around him all that surprised by it.
I am now immersed in I. P. Couliano’s Out of this World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein. The first part did not grab me all that much but the chapter “Greek Medicine Men” is wonderful. I am impatient to finish it, but want to share my excitement because who knows when I’ll be able to write about this subject much.
But for those interested in shamanism and Paganism, there is a third book I found very useful: Robert Torrance’s The Spiritual Quest: Transcendence in Myth, Religion, and Science. What sticks with me as particularly important there, and not only there, is the tension between the personal encounter of shamanic practices and the attempt to bring those encounters under institutional control by people with institutional authority. My own Paganism is 100% rooted in shamanic and mystical kinds of experience, and is why I am so unexcited by “Pagan clergy” even though I know it is likely inevitable and in some ways useful.
But for those who like me are interested in the personally transformative dimensions of direct contact with different dimensions of Spirit, these are three books that offer much food for thought as to who we are, where we are coming from, and the challenges to preserving the greatest power within the spiritual core of modern Paganism.