Love your library, and other research tips
Several years ago when most pagans seriously interested in ancient religions identified – to one degree or another – as Reconstructionists (at least, in my corner of the internet – I’m not counting eclectics who just borrowed a god or two at whim, but those who really wanted to delve into the source religions), I would have been surprised that I’d one day be making this post. Back then, we were the Religions With Homework and proud of it. We were mostly intellectuals – formally educated or autodidacts, it didn’t really matter – with a love of books, and research, and (to our detriment) endless niggling over the details of obscure historical facts.
Now things have subtly shifted. I’m noticing a lot more people combining an ancient tradition with either another ancient tradition, a modern one, some form of “witchcraft” or “hedgewitchery” and unnumbered other things. People coming to the gods not from grade school mythology lessons or a love of the Classics, but direct contacts and spiritual experiences (which is great, actually) – often when they were already knee-deep in an entirely unrelated path. But nonetheless, these same people are sincere in their interest, and at least theoretically willing to do the groundwork to really understand the deity/ies, their history, source culture, and all the related information required to properly begin worship.
And yet, I have been hearing similar complaints or frustrations over and over again, that honestly baffle me a little. People protesting that they don’t have the money to buy all the books they need to research, or don’t even know where to begin. Or they’ve read the basic texts, but don’t know where to search for more in-depth information. Maybe it’s a generational gap – though gods, I’m only 34 – and the proliferation of the internet (and increasingly shoddy educational system) have hindered new, eager, intelligent minds from learning how to conduct simple research, beyond using Google and Wikipedia (useful as those can be). Whatever the case, I’d like to share a few little “secrets” here that will help you if you want to learn more about ancient Greek festivals, the cult of Sulis in Roman Britain, Saami drum divination, or any number of other topics.
First and most importantly, get to know – and love – your local library. Books don’t always have to be bought (and in fact, it’s usually much wiser to wait until you’ve read them and are sure you’ll need them for future reference before laying down the money). You may be surprised at what your library has on its shelves – and don’t just look up specific titles, go browse the relevant sections and see what you discover (and prepare to get sucked into an all-day rapture if you’re anything like me). If you have any kind of college or university nearby, even just a community college, go check out their library too – they are usually much better for finding the types of books we are all interested in. Many universities extend borrowing privileges to community members who have a public library card – I have used university libraries in Maine, Montana and Oregon this way without ever paying any fees. Again, let yourself browse – maybe start with a specific title, even one you’re already familiar with, and see what’s nearby. [ETA: WorldCat is a great way to check all the public and university libraries nearby for a specific title – just put in your zip code.]
If your public and university libraries are no good (or you eventually exhaust their resources, or need a specific title they don’t carry) try interlibrary loan. I’m consistently amazed by how many people don’t seem to even know about this service. In some places it is free, in others you may pay a small fee (our public library charges $5 per title), but you can get almost any book this way, and the fee is usually worth it when the book is rare or expensive, as many scholarly texts are.
If all else fails, before buying a brand new book, check your local used bookstores, abebooks.com, Amazon.com’s used offerings, book swap websites, or see if any of your friends have a copy they could lend you (might even be worth paying for mail both ways if you know someone online who has it – Media Mail is available at the post office for shipping books, and is pretty inexpensive).
You can also find some texts – especially primary sources – available for free online at Google Books, Internet Sacred Text Archive, Perseus Digital Library, etc. (and Amazon.com will at least give you a preview of many books, so you can get a sense of if they’re worth pursuing). And of course plenty of useful information has been collected and provided freely by the numerous spiritual, religious and mythology websites out there, from the small ones like I run to the likes of Theoi.com.
The bottom line is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money in order to do serious research.
And how do you know what books even exist on the subjects you’re interested in? Well, starter reading lists are readily available for most religious traditions, but once you’ve gone through those, you may be wanting to move deeper on a more specific topic. Obviously, you can do searches online, in library catalogs, bookseller databases, etc. But my biggest tip is to thoroughly peruse the bibliographies (and often footnotes) in all those general books. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find there. Any time I read a well-researched, interesting book, I can’t wait to get to the bibliography and see where it might lead me next. I have found many obscure, highly-detailed books, theses and articles that way. Do this with each book you read and you’ll soon amass an almost endless list of future titles to explore.
A note should also be made here about journal articles. Some of the best writing and juiciest tidbits of information on really specific, often obscure topics can be found in articles submitted to academic journals, which are often available going back to the turn of the century. (To see an example of such topics, see the PDFs I link to on my Resources page.) Sometimes you can find these collected in multiple volumes (bound as regular books) in university libraries – and again, they can be checked out and even ordered through interlibrary loan. You can also access some of these via JSTOR, an immensely useful resource. Unfortunately, you have to be affiliated with an educational or research institution to access most of the articles on JSTOR. However at my university library, even the publicly-available (no ID required) computers are logged in and therefore you can do research right there in the library, saving PDFs to a flash drive for later reading. I’m willing to bet it’s the same at many other libraries.
You may be thinking that all of this work is unnecessary, since we now have the internet. But online resources, for the most part, only summarize what can be found in earlier texts. Wikipedia is fine if you just want a broad overview of a topic, but it usually won’t give you even a fraction of the information available. In fact, even very solid, thorough and scholarly books written in recent decades will often leave out extremely fascinating information that can be found in the tomes pre-dating them. What is considered relevant and interesting to the academic community changes over time like any trend, but doesn’t always correspond to what we polytheists would like to know. (Anyone interested in ancient Hellenic religion, for instance, should really pick up Farnell’s multi-volume Cults of the Greek States and compare that to what’s survived in Burkert, Kerenyi, Larson and the other more recent authors.)
And if you’re really aiming at deep and broad knowledge of a topic, you should familiarize yourself with the whole of scholarly work in that area, to better identify author and era bias, separate fact from theory, etc. (Critical thinking is another area of education our modern system completely fails at, unfortunately, but is crucial when dealing with multiple primary and secondary sources.) Remember that scholars are often wrong or misguided, and archaeological evidence has a way of suddenly upturning conventional knowledge (just follow the development of theories regarding gases at the Delphic oracle for a good example of this).
If anyone has any further suggestions along these lines, I’d be happy to see them in the comments, to better help those who might need some guidance.