I have been a self-directed learner for a long time. The way I pushed myself through school was via convincing myself that everything would eventually be relevant to my creative writing. In 2019, after listening to the grades episode of The Happiness Lab podcast, I processed a lot of feelings (anger, regret, sorrow) about my relationship with grades and realized that learning was not fun for me until I had been out of school for three or four years. Earlier this summer, I learned that self-directed learning is apparently in my natal chart (??); I’ve never been into astrology, but that bit made me laugh uneasily.
Being self-directed does not mean having no direction. It means establishing some sense of control over one’s life and having the drive to push one’s limits, and it also means finding a balance between the noise of what is external to oneself and the serendipity that externals bring — the latter being good, the former harmful. There are still people to learn from, be they experts/teachers or co-learners, but it’s a given that the vast majority of this will be asynchronous, that the exams will be nonexistent, and that the only grade one is fighting for is the certainty and pride of accomplishment in one’s own heart — and when it comes to confidence, the confidence that one knows how to handle intellectual uncertainty is still confidence. It’s usually the handling uncertainty part that I have issues with because not understanding something at first encounter makes me flustered and frustrated, and pushing through that often leaves me feeling unmoored, foolish, and like I lack the cognitive ability to persist. None of those feelings ever pan out; I’m like a cat who sees something unfamiliar, runs away, and comes back to investigate and find out that it wasn’t actually anything to be afraid of. It’s possible for most people — and I am fairly average — to learn anything with the appropriate preparation and intrinsic motivation.
With that in mind as a preface, I’d like to highlight some resources — many of which I have mentioned on Twitter over the past year or two — for other self-directed learners. In this post, the focus is not on academic articles or large books like Burkert’s Greek Religion; it’s on worship, theology, and philosophy. Other bloggers may have compiled lists of books that can meet your needs better if you are looking for other topics.
Worshipping the Hellenic Gods
- Hellenic Household Worship by LABRYS
- God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch
- Baring the Aegis’ blog post categories on miasma & purification and sacrifice & libations
- Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored by Sarah Kate Istra Winter, a book that has been out for a while and that has gone through many editions
- The posts I’ve highlighted on my blog on the “New to Polytheism?” page
I haven’t read the 101-level books that have come out in recent years, as they would displace other things in my reading plan that are more important for me to finish right now. However, if you Google polytheism introduction “book review” (with the quotes around “book review”), you will find many titles. You can narrow that by adding the word Hellenic, assuming you are looking for books about HeSP, another syncretic practice, or Hellenic polytheisms.
Most of the books in the Google results will be worth reading, although it’s good to know an author’s perspective before you jump into ler work. Specifically, whenever an author discusses ler perspective on a topic that le acknowledges has divergent opinions, it’s useful to know where le is coming from. No human teacher or thought leader is wholly perfect, and it’s crucial to avoid putting people on pedestals even if it’s someone you deeply respect. The only ones worthy of pedestals are the Gods and the lovely intermediaries that surround them.
Theology and Philosophy with (Ultimately) a (Neo-)Platonic Focus
One of the things from the Yoga Sūtras that I really like is the emphasis on reading divine accounts (well, in that case, scripture) and devotion to a God. Whatever we read about the Gods — myths, philosophical commentaries on Plato, theological works, prayers, poems, hymns — is an opportunity to draw closer to the Gods. Filling oneself with good things is important to prioritize.
While I could just recommend Platonic commentaries because I love all of the ones that I have read, I want this section to be broadly useful, so my suggestions are far broader.
- The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology by Jordan D. Paper, which I recall reading in my early 20s; I was so excited that theology was being discussed in polytheism that I remember going into Amazon every month to breathlessly check if any new polytheistic theology books would come out, I was so hungry for it; every time there was something, it was like I’d found a jewel in sand
- A Million and One Gods by Page duBois, which I found due to my breathless and compulsive checks for polytheistic theological content on Amazon
- Plato’s dialogues, especially the Iamblichean order (First Alcibiades, Gorgias, Phaedo, Cratylus, Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman, Phaedrus, Symposium, Philebus, Timaeus, Parmenides — although I would put the Republic before the Timaeus personally)
- Jumping off of what I said earlier, it occurs to me that the actual reason I read the Symposium when I was in my early 20s after having had bad experiences with Plato in school is that someone on (I think?) the Kyklos Apollon listserv said that polytheistic theology is available to anyone with a Plato anthology; I was so intrigued and surprised because I had no idea that Plato had anything to do with polytheistic theology at all; whoever that was Did Not Disappoint
- Tim Addey’s The Unfolding Wings: The Way of Perfection in the Platonic Tradition; note that I’m sending you to the place to buy it in the USA that is not Amazon
- Edward Butler’s essays on Polytheist·com (note: if you use this URL, I’ve forced the page to display in ascending post order using a URL string, but it still says “older posts” at the bottom; clicking it will actually take you to newer ones) and his piece in Witches & Pagans called “Polycentric Polytheism”
- Ascendant, a compilation of essays from various polytheists on polytheist theology
- Sallust’s On the Gods and the Cosmos/World, which is pretty basic and good
- Proclus: An Introduction by Radek Chlup, which has some amazing diagrams; I used one of the diagrams to create a hand signal mnemonic for remembering the order of the hypostases so now whenever I’m reading Proclus and not writing in the margins my left hand is basically dancing in the air like a conductor lol
On Building a Learning Routine
A few days before my birthday, I made a Google Drive document to get a handle on what was in my learning plan for my 33rd year of life — mostly Platonic commentaries and adjacent texts to read, plus some more science writing, poetry, and craft-of-poetry — and what I would do to accomplish it. Here is a Google search that points to resources for developing one.
At a basic level, though, a learning plan involves 4 elements:
- Deciding what in your life to sacrifice or streamline, as we each only have 24 hours in the day. Do not sacrifice sleep. Streamline routine tasks like cooking and cleaning to free up time. Scale back on social media.
- Preparing a list of goals you want to achieve, with a realistic sense of the minutes/hours you have saved from (1), along with your motivation(s) for achieving them.
- Charting out your actual plan.
- Building in time to assess how well the plan is working so you can triage any issues that come up — like energy levels, life disruptions, and so on.
If you desire to read up and some mild things are holding you back like feeling fatigued after work or a busy schedule, I’ve found that doing some exercise as a reset in the early evening is good for bouncing back unless something has left me very upset. Quickly journaling through things weighing heavily on one’s mind or gnawing through one’s heart or doing a mindfulness meditation with noting techniques have worked for me there. Sometimes, I vent to a friend. What tends to not work is venting on social media, as then you may have to deal with replies/likes many hours after you’ve moved on. While it can feel good in the moment, in the long term, it can be emotionally draining. If your emotional support network is social media-based, try to limit who can view your venting to a set of trusted friends and/or family members if the site allows that option.
For reading itself, what works for me is to set up my apartment so books are easier to grasp hold of than my phone or computer — the Internet has almost no signal in my bedroom, for example, and I put books next to where my cat sits on me in my living room so I can still read when she’s asleep on my lap. I have also drastically cut back on social media. To offer some contrast, my midsis has two young kids, so her learning opportunities are more constrained; what seems to work for her (as far as I know living a few states away) is identifying YouTube channels to watch in bursts while she cooks and to prioritize ebooks that she can read on her phone.
There are so many informational resources coming out in a variety of formats, so it’s becoming increasingly easy to do what one can.