Friday, January 25, 2013

The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets

1983, undated but no later than '85 edition, from Harper & Row
Barbara G. Walker
The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets
Bought newish for $19.95
Very worn paperback with broken spine and loose pages

I first read this book the summer of '84, while staying at my aunt's commune.  She hadn't read her copy yet, but I raced through it, fascinated by all the pagan lore, most of it then new to me.  A few months later, I was in a bookstore with my feminist boyfriend and excitedly pointed to the book.  We either bought it together, or I bought it and we both read it.  We/I got other "Goddess" books later, but this was the first.

For awhile after our divorce, he was more into paganism than I was, even contacting some of the writers we'd read.  But due to things like our divorce, I gradually drifted away.  Yet he's now more cynical about religion, of all sorts, than I am.  There are times I still pray to the Goddess, but she's more an aspect of myself, with a dash of the mother I lost at 3.  It's funny to me that Walker, still alive at 82, describes herself as an atheist, considering how she influenced us, and apparently many others.

I tried to separate out what I think of the book this reread, my first in many years.  I think many things actually.
1.  Any encyclopedia, no matter what the topic, is going to be a tough read, particularly at 1100+ pages like this one.  There are, perhaps of necessity, redundancies that make it even harder to get through.
2.  Although she's not as bad as Davis in First Sex, there are times when Walker is inconsistent about her conclusions and/or insulting about men.
3.  While she makes good points about the violence and oppression of Christianity and/or patriarchy, I'm not entirely convinced, just on the evidence of this book, that paganism was all that peaceful or loving.  How can cannibalism, castration, or human sacrifice be justified?  Yes, they're arguably "better" than war and the Inquisition, but is that how low you want to set the bar?
4.  The book got me thinking about the control of information.  Many comments on Amazon (I don't feel like reading them all) argue over her scholarship and research.  I'm not qualified to judge how well she did, although 25 years' investment should count for something, even if her conclusions might be wrong.  As with the books about John Lennon, it sometimes feels like different people's words against each other.  But I do think she makes some good points about how stories (history as well as myths) are affected by who's telling them, and how and how much they're distributed, and to whom.  (Like the centuries of the Bible being available to European peasants only as Latin read to them.)  Maybe Walker got things wrong, but I still can't believe many of the official stories.
5.  I admire the choice of sculptures, paintings, and other artwork included in the book, usually at the beginnning of each letter, or cluster of letters.  There are some absolutely lovely pieces, such as the cover of this edition, with the Minoan snake goddess.
6.  Underneath my cynicism, I still believe in the possibility of a better society, one founded on kindness and wisdom.  I haven't the foggiest how to get there, and I don't think this book provides such a path.  But I think it can at least be a conversation-starter.  And it is fun to read alternate stories for everything from Little Red Riding Hood to Ishtar.  (When Walker wrote that Pazuzu was "the only Babylonian deity to become a movie star," thanks to The Exorcist, she couldn't have imagined what Elaine May would come up with in a few years.)

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