Perils of Scripturalisation

I read a lot of blogs from a variety of religious perspectives (and a lot that don’t touch on religious subjects at all), as I’ve mentioned. And one of the things I saw recently was talking about prophets, and continuing revelation, and what does it mean for a thing to be scripture.

(It means trouble. With a capital T, and that rhymes with … oh, someone else finish this filk for me, I have systematic theological analysis to write.)

I tend towards the opinion that one of the things that separates pagan religious experience from a lot of mainstream religious experience is this lack of scripture, and everything that comes with it. (Though of course this is one of those places that people get stuck on when converting, because there is no Holy Book to look to for immediate guidance.)

We have ancient texts, but these are not scripture. They are poetry, they are drama, they are magical works, they are written-down oral tradition, and this is an entirely different beast. They are not presented as Words From On High, “god-breathed” – even when those texts are said to be derived from the work of a god, as is the case of some magical texts in Egypt. We have the surviving pieces of the tales people told about themselves and about the Powers and about the cosmos, the surviving evidence for how people interacted with it in practice, and this is not scripture. This is story.

There are times that I have a lot of sympathy for the ancient Celtic belief that writing down the sacred tales and the sacred rites would kill them – that it would pin them in place like a sort of spiritual lepidoptery and let the form overwhelm the function.

I think about that whenever I see someone take the Negative Confessions list from the Papyrus of Ani as some sort of codified, universal scriptural code of behaviour, demonstrating not only unfamiliarity with the Papyrus of Nu and other surviving lists, but of the range and variety of ways in which those lists were personalised, the way they evolved over time, the way that that was a book explicitly and specifically written for an individual who may or may not have said “Just give me the standard text, bub” when ordering their copy at the scribe. (And I still greatly regret not having been able to attend the lecture I heard about – or being able to see the research notes of the lecturer – where the sheer variety of confession lists in those scrolls was discussed. Because I’m pretty sure that someone would eventually try to universalise the one that had something like “I didn’t fail to build my neighbour’s house to code and thus cause the death of his child when the wall fell in” on it.)

I think about it whenever I see someone ask “Which creation myth do you actually believe“, or talk about the Heliopolitan creation myth as if it is canonical, universal, and the only way of imagining the transition from before there were two things to the time of millions of things. Or when I see people noting that ancient threads managed, at some level, to reconcile the Heliopolitan, the Hermepolitan, and the Memphite myths, as if those are the only ones we have. (Honestly, I would love to have more that I could roll around in, but I may be odd like that. The little bits of Nit’s creation story that I’ve found delight me.)

I think about it when I see people want to turn a recommended reading list into a This Is Your Bible list. And then get bogged down in which translator is the holiest one, or which modern writer is truly inspired, truly in possession of the spark of the divine, because clearly a religion needs holy books, that’s what we learned from the Abrahamic revolution, right?

And I understand that it’s hard. That I grew up, too, in a culture of the sacred book, the scriptural thing, the place where people can say “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” and not have that come across as some excessively ungrounded mystic system but actually having reference to a Text With Authority.

But I worry about people finding new texts to set up in place of the Powers.

I worry about people closing themselves off to experience of the divine – and the world – as it is, because it has to be brought into accord with texts which were never intended to be exclusive, but rather part of the vast realm of exploration of what the world might look like.

I worry about the death of poetry, because if there is scriptural poetry, particularly special holy poetry that is true and perfected and better, then who will write the new hymns? Who will tell the stories of the gods in new lands? (And one of my first devotional works was a short poem titled “Seth beyond the borders of Egypt”, which was, in part, an exploration of the rending of Wesir in a context in which there is seasonal rain, not the flood. If this is not a part of the corpus of work dealing with and exploring the nature of the gods, then the gods are closed off to me in a fundamental way: Set is not in my thunderstorms, and Osiris is not in my rain.)

I worry that this notion that there must be a holy book is even more exclusionary than the limitation of magical texts to the literate in a population that mostly could not read: because it creates a form of separation between the true magic of language and the power of spoken words, and the language that you can I can use. Because it re-establishes the Fall, in pagan terms, without ever admitting that it is a claim that now is a sinful and degenerate time, incapable of the truest forms of devotion.


7 thoughts on “Perils of Scripturalisation

  1. G. B. Marian says:

    You’re totally right that there is such a strong tendency among people today to latch on to any sort of mythology as “scripture.” This is especially a problem in polytheistic traditions, which have always had a different way of relating to our Gods and myths. I for one don’t think of the death of Osiris as an event that literally happened exactly as it’s described in the stories and that only happened at a specific point in history. I see it as an event that recurs cyclically on many different levels of reality, including rain and thunderstorms. It’s hard for people to understand this today, but hopefully with posts like yours, more people will learn not to think about this subject so literally or dogmatically.

    • kiya_nicoll says:

      I do hope so. (It’s one of those things that kicks around in my head and a confluence of events led to me being coherent enough to rant about it.)

  2. Reblogged this on Child of the Ram and commented:
    This has been something that has been bothering me for a while, and Kiya has said better than I ever could.

  3. Sage says:

    Great post! Would you mind explaining a bit more about how this sets up the Fall in Pagan terms?

    • kiya_nicoll says:

      If you look at the idea of the Fall in Western Christian interpretations of that myth, it comes with the idea that 1) there was a paradise with true communion with the divine and that 2) people have become corrupted since then and can’t do that right, more or less, yeah?

      So: if mythology is a closed book, if there are no new stories about the gods, then, well, there was a time in which people had real experience of the divine (not the Garden/Paradise, but ancient times in the relevant culture) and people right now are in some way unable to achieve that (not necessarily by sinfulness – though honestly to see some people talk it sure looks like that – but by some sort of uncorrectable defect in ourselves, our cultures, our societies).

      Basically, it once again frames people as intrinsically set up to fail at proper devotion to the gods, as cut off from some human golden age where mythologies were living, evolving things, and we can only wistfully pine over What Was.

  4. Neteruhemta says:

    I really enjoyed this post, and it has helped with some of the mulling about I’ve been having issues with in regards to a lesson proposal I’m working on to be done through a local store.

    I feel there is so much of a focus on the myths as literal fantastical stories without a relation to the historical political/social context. With how cyclically turbulent and expansive the ancient Egyptian empire’s history was, it makes sense how equally expansive and turbulent the their myths were.

    I like to view each discovered piece we have left as a thread in a tapestry. It’s a tool, but what we do with it makes the final product. It’s not the final product itself.

  5. Yewtree says:

    I’ve always thought that the multiplicity of different creation myths was one of the things that meant Pagans & polytheists were very unlikely to take them literally, either now or in the past. Obviously there’s always someone who will try to take stuff literally.

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