My (Preliminary) Review of Nolan’s A YEAR OF PAGAN PRAYER

This morning while doing solstice offerings, I opened up Barbara Nolan’s A Year of Pagan Prayer: A Sourcebook of Poems, Hymns, and Invocations from Four Thousand Years of Pagan History, turned to December, and found a beautiful prayer for Sunna sandwiched between a traditional Welsh folk song and a Wassail poem from the early 17th century. December is a hubbub of holidays in this book: Poems related to the Faunalia, Country Dionysia, Yule and the Solstice, Saturnalia, Mithras’ Day, among others.

Book cover of A Year of Pagan Prayer by Barbara Nolan

The selections come from many cultures — and four thousand years is a gradient, with selections from many centuries leading up to the present day. In addition to the month-by-month framing, there are sections at the back for things like lunar prayers, weddings, funerals, and so on. I was excited to see Ben Jonson’s “Queen and Huntress” in the lunar prayers section. It’s a favorite of mine, as I grew up listening to Mike Oldfield (my mom has been in his fan club network since the IRC days), and it’s on his album Incantations, Part 4, about 13 minutes in. There is an appendix of selections by deity. It isn’t the most user-friendly, as it lacks page numbers, but the index solves this, as you can look up the page numbers for the various excerpts (often in the F section, as excerpts usually start with “from” — Llewellyn’s indexing is not the best) and full hymn or poem titles there. You can also wayfind by going to specific months if you are sensitive to when things happen during the year.

Nolan’s Year of Pagan Prayer was published in October 2021. I purchased it soon after because the book algorithms found me, and they knew what I was interested in. I have had a very dissatisfying history with eclectic, all-purpose hymn collections. 365 Goddess prompted my blog post about needing to know what one is getting into before one makes vague prayers to a deity; Ceisiwr Serith’s A Pagan Ritual Prayer Book lacks a deity index, rendering the print volume of it almost completely unusable because it is impossible to find anything in a timely fashion. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Nolan. Considering that I am investing time and effort into posting on this blog when my book reviews seldom leave my Goodreads profile, rest assured that this book was a pleasant surprise in both its usability and its framing. I highly recommend buying it. Many of the prayers are good for daily use if you want to pray to a God, not only for following an annual rhythm.

Nolan frames the book with an introduction arguing that in Christianized places — focusing on Europe — the symbols, metaphors, and mental conceptions of the world are often rooted in local pre-Christian beliefs and the cultural reception of polytheistic literature and ideas from Greece, Rome, and so on — not in Christian symbols. Part of her reason for putting so many works in conversation with one another is celebrating that continuity and cross-cultural reception. You will find excerpts and translations from many locations (Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Egypt, South Asia, Northern Europe …) placed alongside translations of recent poems and current polytheists’ compositions. From my standpoint as a reader, the discussion of cultural reception could have been stronger. I found it extremely exciting to see a book that told the story of cross-cultural reception into the Anglosphere, which is a much healthier way of relating to the Gods we worship than to indulge in escapist fantasies about actually being the ancients of whatever area the Gods we focus on in our practice come from. A book like this allows one to be forward-looking and additive in our practice. It is no accident that many translations of ancient works and Renaissance-to-nowadays poems or prayers are focused on the Greek and Roman pantheons, as we have had significant cross-cultural transmission of those Gods into the Anglosphere.

While I highly recommend this book, I also have some constructive feedback. Llewellyn’s insistence on putting everything in a “pagan” framing is definitely done for SEO, but it is awkward and insensitive for a book like this. “Pagan” is a contentious term, especially internationally where it has been used as a pejorative during Christianization and the stigmatization of revivalist practitioners around the world; many people react very badly to it. (It is more accepted as a term in the United States and Britain.) In addition, I doubt the ancient cultures would have embraced this term with enthusiasm given its connotations.

The book could also improve in the diversity of what it chooses to highlight from the recent past to now. The recent compositions in A Year of Pagan Prayer cover non-English languages, too, with some selections translated from things composed by members of the daughter cultures of the local polytheism, others from what must be widely-known compositions in a non-English language. A future volume (will there be one??? 😁) has an opportunity to provide a more accurate look at the cultural reception of the Gods. There are almost definitely more contemporary poets or devotees in the daughter cultures of these ancient sources whose works could be integrated into a future volume, too. There is significant effort in the Latine community, for example, to look closely at Classical reception, and I am almost positive that there are many good poems and hymns written in Portuguese or Spanish. The same can be said for any language and any cultural context that has experienced a reception (daughter-culture or cross-culturally) of these ancient, pious works. Even if we stick to the Anglosphere (and I’m speaking as an American), many anthologies like this focus on white authors due to problematic assumptions about and a lack of engagement with nonwhite poets and devotees. A future volume that uses a cultural reception/continuity framing could benefit from two or three additional editors who have complementary expertise to ensure a book like this provides a firmly holistic look at the rich history of how the Gods have been encountered in the literary and devotional traditions by all of us in contemporary times, painting a beautiful and diverse portrait of piety and praise.

In closing: Yes, I recommend this book, with a few caveats. I’m excited to continue exploring its contents in 2022.

📖

One thought on “My (Preliminary) Review of Nolan’s A YEAR OF PAGAN PRAYER

  1. Thanks for this review! I’m embarking on a year-long exploration of my own spiritual practices (a Yule-to-Yule endeavor) and this sounds like it could be a valuable companion along the way.

    Liked by 1 person

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