LIving without a canon

I’ve been reading a book by Joanne M. Harris, The Gospel of Loki. Harris is best known to American audiences as the author of Chocolat, which became a charming movie with Alfred Molina, Johnny Depp, and Juliette Binoche. In The Gospel of Loki, Harris undertakes to retell the myths of the Most Interesting God in the World (TM) from his own point of view. Her Loki is witty, sarcastic, devastatingly unimpressed by the Aesir and Vanir, and, of course, the most unreliable narrator in the world.

I think it’s fair to say that without Loki, Northern myths, as story, would be pretty dull. Loki is the shit-stirrer but also the plot-provoker; Loki makes stuff happen. He is the handy antagonist for almost every story you want to tell. This is the guy who got Thor to dress up as Freyja and go to her own wedding–in order to get back the Hammer he wouldn’t have lost except for Loki, but then he wouldn’t have gained the Hammer in the first place if it hadn’t been for Loki’s shenanigans. You can’t always blame Obama, but you can always blame Loki.

At the same time, I’ve been reading two of the devotional anthologies from Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Potnia, for Demeter, and Queen of the Sacred Way, for Persephone. I am foolishly surprised that there are other people who, like myself, think that Persephone was not abducted but went willingly, or at least stayed willingly, and who have issues with how Demeter behaved in her daughter’s absence, punishing humans with starvation because Zeus and Hades went behind her back.

I’m sure there are people who will point to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and say, “Well, that’s not how Homer tells it, so it’s wrong.” Others will say, “OMG she was RAPED how can you dismiss that?” I could, in response, point to the Orphic tradition that alleges Persephone was raped by Zeus and became the mother of Zagreus, well before Hades took an interest in her. There’s also a thread in the tradition that Zeus raped her after her marriage to the lord of the dead, taking the face and form of her husband. And I could mention that the primary meaning of “rape” in English, especially in the literary tradition, is “to carry away, to abduct”; hence the word “raptor”, the creature that seizes and carries away its prey.

What I’d rather do, however, is just point out that the Homeric Hymns say one thing, the Orphic writings say another, and the various writers of Potnia and Queen of the Sacred Way say something else. And none of those sources is canonical.

The notion of canon comes from Christianity and the Bible, but it’s also very prominent in fandom. Canon are the stories that absolutely count, in the versions that are deemed to be definitive. The 79 episodes of the original Star Trek series are the basis of Star Trek canon, for example. Then there are six films featuring the same characters. Are those canon? As a lifelong Trekkie, I would grant that the first four films are canon, but I have grave doubts about the fifth and sixth. (Especially the fifth.) How about the line of tie-in novels that Paramount began to produce in the 1980s, before the Next Generation debuted? I’m certain that most hardcore fans of the Original Series would name some of those novels as canon (if the names Diane Duane and John M. Ford mean anything to you, raise your hand) and some not.

And then there’s the fanfic. Unlicensed, unauthorized, and unloved by the pontificators of literary canon, fanfic flourishes. It celebrates Holmes and Watson, Kirk and Spock, and the stars of the shows that are just about to debut. Trek fanfiction was originally written to keep alive a universe that had only three seasons of episodes, but nowadays you don’t even need three episodes to air before people are writing fanfic. (I’m trying not to look at Sherlock fandom here.) I’ve committed fanfic in over half a dozen fictional universes, myself, to the tune of over three hundred stories of varying lengths.

The strange thing is how closely this all parallels Jewish and Christian conceptions of canonical Scripture. The Bible: What is the Bible? What’s the biblical canon? In fact, you’ll get different answers from Jews and Christians, of course, but also from different kinds of Christians. Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all have slightly different lists of the canonical books. Roman Catholics sprinkle the “deuterocanonical books”, as they call them, into the pages of the Old Testament. Episcopalians call the same books “apocrypha” and corral them between the Old Testament and the New. The Orthodox throw in a few books that no one else does. And there are dozens, at least, of scriptures that were never accepted as canon by anybody, but some of them are inching toward that status now, thanks to archaeological discoveries: the “Gnostic Gospels” of Thomas, Philip, and Mary, for example.

Look closely at the Bible, however, and the notion of canon falls apart. I have six different English translations of the Bible in my possession, four in print, two only on Kindle. The original texts were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, on fragile and often badly preserved materials. The books of the Tanakh exist in the Hebrew Masoretic text, which is the canon for Judaism, in the Greek Septuagint, used by the early Church as well as diasporic Jews in the Roman Empire, and in the versions of the Dead Sea Scrolls–all of which differ from one another. As solid matter breaks down into atoms and atoms into neutrons, electrons, and protons, and those into quarks, so the notion of “canonical scripture”, definitive writings, breaks down into unreliable bits of paper when you look closely enough. Which is why most Christians don’t look, and many who do become unbelievers. If the standard is the book, and the book is unreliable, on what do you rely?

As a polytheist, what I rely on is not Homer’s writing or anyone else’s, but direct experience of the gods. The Homeric and Orphic hymns, the corpus of Greek and Roman writings on the gods, Egyptian texts, archaeological discoveries, and the latest blog post from the Aedicula, all of these are sources, not canon. They are sources of wisdom and understanding, but they are no substitute for the direct experience gained in worship. There is no canon; there cannot be. There are historical and archaeological sources that are more accurate, more reliable, more suggestive than others, but there is no first, best, authentic source for any myth. There is no definitive version. It is not impossible that in some distant future, The Gospel of Loki might take its place with the Eddas as a source of Lore. Diana L. Paxson’s Children of Odin novels might be as important to Heathens as the Nibelungenlied and the Volsunga Saga. And C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces might be cherished as a version of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

When I sit down to write for the gods, I am prepared for myth to come out of my fingers. I am the poet, the maker. If you’re a writer and you speak of the gods, you are a mythmaker, too.

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10 thoughts on “LIving without a canon

  1. (Religious) life without canon has some very complex, and often subtle, implications for the way we relate to sources of information related to a faith tradition. Even the idea that polytheist canon, such as it is, isn’t necessarily a teaching tool the way that the sacred stories of Christianity (for instance) are is a concept that passes many people by entirely. To grow into my own person as a pagan and a polytheist has required me to rely on my own experiences as doctrine – for lack of a better word. I’ve had to become my own authority, my own teacher, and my own spiritual master. I’m not always very good at paying attention to the lessons taught by my own experiences, but I do try to show up to class on a regular basis.

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    1. Yes, I think I’ve only scratched the surface of the topic here. I’ve been thinking for a while about Helio’s excellent post “My religion has no moral doctrine”, and the way that Protestant Christianity, at least in the U.S., has taught us to read sacred stories as mere rulebooks and to regard morality as something external to human nature, handed down by a supreme deity. Which leads to the horrifying conclusion that “goodness” means “whatever the god has commanded”, even if that includes raping your wife or beating your “disobedient” child to death.

      There are richer and more nuanced ways of reading sacred stories in Christian tradition that I think we might want to borrow and try out, as long as we remember that a) there is no canon and b) experience, including our own, precedes story.

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  2. Yea, I’ve always wondered about the stories of tomorrow so to speak. While I know they have to (or should) rise spontaneously I don’t know if people can let it happen you know? I personally take all the stories as they are. For instance, even though it’s not a story, per se, the Orphic Hymn to Chthonic Hermes speaks of him as being the son of Dionysos and Aphrodite. Some folks might cringe at that cause there isn’t much else about that (that I know of) and it goes against the usual parentage of Zeus and Maia. Me, though, I don’t really get all ‘hot and bothered’ over it. Doesn’t seem to affect who Hermes is although, maybe, I could see how it could color someone’s perception which still doesn’t necessarily change a deity. And…I’m getting ‘ranty’. Blessings.

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    1. I think having no canon means that all the stories are true. All variations are equally valuable. Hermes is indeed the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite, and also of Zeus and Maia. He’s also Mercury and Thoth and Anubis and possibly Lugus, but that’s going off into syncretism. Any story that comes out of genuine encounter/relationship with the deity has the potential to become a lasting myth. Joanne Harris doesn’t worship Loki, but Diana Paxson worships Odin and also writes fiction about him.

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      1. I totally agree and, like I said, take all stories for what they are. I don’t place more validity over certain stories for whatever reason the way I’ve seen folks do with, say, the Eddas, in Heathen circles, etc. or they that only the 12 Olympians are or should be the main focus of Hellenists. Basically, it’s to each their own no?

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  3. Indeed, this is something I try to keep in mind all the time with what I write about Antinous devotionally. Between different poems I’ve written, fictions, and so forth, one can find about five different versions of several episodes of his life, much less his deification and death and divine life. And, that’s the way I plan to continue.

    While I do love consistency in certain areas (e.g. personal standards and ethics), consistency in narrative choice, voice, and episode is not really very necessary or fun, nor equipped to deal with the reality which is Deities that are not dependent upon cause-and-effect temporality.

    Or, something like that. 😉

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  4. I like how Steven Posch put it (he’s a Pagan elder in my area) “Jews, Christians and Muslims are known as the People of the Book. Pagans have long realized that one book is not enough. Pagans are the People of the Library.” I would add Unitarian Universalists to that as well…everyone just determines the contents of their own!

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  5. As my process of discernment with seminary continues, a post like this is most helpful. I have a tendency to rely on direct experience rather than on scripture, even in my Christian practice. Inevitably, there are those who question if my practice is truly Christian if I place direct experience over the Bible. Such persons are, to my mind, more idolatrous than I could ever be in my Pagan practice.

    — Antinoë Magdalene

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