Friday posts are written by Sage of the blog Sage and Starshine. Every week or so they explore a different aspect of the Otherfaith through the letters of the alphabet.
I feel it’s important to be honest and admit that this week’s essay has been difficult for me to write. Recently there have been interpersonal issues that have called into question the Otherfaith’s stance on what counts as our canon – what ethnic polytheistic or Pagan religions might refer to as their lore – and who gets to make that decision. That this was called into question is not an issue; that it was done in a manner to value one person’s understanding of the gods and degrade another’s was. So I find myself conflicted as I present this topic, which is theologically and practically very important for this religion. I’ve wondered if I’m beating a dead horse and if I’m capable of adding anything to the subject – off course, some anvils need to be dropped – while realizing that this is an important and timely issue for our tiny but growing faith.
Canon as a concept exists in many different contexts and fields of study. Religiously, canon might be used to distinguish between accepted texts and doctrine over those which are not. For example, the accepted Biblical canon differs from denomination to denomination; Presbyterians (PCUSA), Roman Catholics, and members of the LDS Church do not share the same lineup of holy texts. The so-called “Western canon” describtes literature, art, music, and other creations seen as vitally important to understanding “Western culture.” You can find an example list of such works here. In fandom, “canon” was adopted quite some time ago to describes the accepted material in a particular fictional universe. Considering the amount of sequels, prequels, reboots, and reimaginings we see in popular culture, determining what does and doesn’t count as canon can be more than a little difficult.
(As a quick aside, I think it’s important to point out that these sequels, prequels, reboots, and imaginings are certainly not a modern invention and have been part of human storytelling as far back as we can tell. I’m listening right now to Singers and Tales: Oral Tradition and the Roots of Literature and highly recommend it if you’re interested in some ideas on how folktales and mythology work in oral tradition and how that’s impacted our understanding of stories. The idea that there is One Real Version Of This Story is a fairly modern development in human history that, as this lecturer argues, comes from the written word overtaking oral tradition.)
The conversations I’ve had regarding canonicity in the Otherfaith have tended to use fandom terminology as a common tongue for discussing religious ideas and experience, and I think this is true for a few different reasons. For myself, fandom – particularly online fandom – is what I would consider my primary culture. I grew up with Fanfiction.net and LiveJournal, socialized on anonymous prompt memes and roleplaying communities, and learned most of my creative writing skills through fanfiction. And while I realize this is most likely confirmation bias, I have seen a lot of overlap between the geeky nerdy sci-fantasy crowds I hang out with and the Pagan-and-or-polytheist folks who are personal friends. In fact, a huge reason the Otherfaith was so accessible and welcoming to me was because of these parallels with fandom. This religion is one of playfulness and joy, encouraging curiosity and critical analysis of myths and placing value on individual perception of and relationship with these divine characters.
In the Otherfaith, gods, spirits, and myths become canon through the combined processes of personal revelation and communal discussion. It’s important to note that our canon has blurry, rather than well-defined, edges. Otherfaith canon is a continual work in progress, living and breathing just as its people are not static but reacting to the world around them. Our approach to canon is just as subtle; these myths are incredibly important and they are not The One And Only Truth. Or perhaps I should say: the truth that exists in these stories is not a literal truth, and literal truth is not the only kind that matters. We expect – dare I say encourage? – our mythology to be poetic and tangled, with multiple stories told from multiple angles that don’t always make sense to human minds. Of course, this isn’t too different from any other mythology in the world where inconsistencies and fuzzy logic are features, not bugs.
We see this polyvalent approach to stories in pop culture all the time. Take, for example, the numerous works built on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, such as the television shows
Take for example two modern shows based on: Sherlock on BBC and Elementary on CBS. Both reimagine Doyle’s books but in different settings, actors, and approaches to updating the source material. Is either Sherlock or Elementary more like their shared source material, and if so, how do we tell? Does it even matter, and why or why not? How do they stack up against past reimaginings like The Great Mouse Detective or House or the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Data and Geordi essentially LARP as Holmes and Watson? Is “Sherlock Holmes in space” any less a Sherlock Holmes story than “Sherlock Holmes as a talking mouse” or “Sherlock Holmes as a grumpy doctor”? What is the core of this story and how is it preserved even as its trappings change?
These are questions I ask all the time when considering Otherfaith myths, but not questions I answer half as easily. Fandom studies itself is a fascinating field and one that has played a lot into my own comfort in integrating with Otherfaith culture; however, even if you personally have never been involved with fandom, you can still appreciate this religion’s approach to personal gnosis. I’ll put fandom to the side for now and address a different question: how does canon change, and what happens if my beliefs and experiences fall outside currently accepted canon?
For Otherfaith canon to shift, an Other Person needs to bring forth a new idea for consideration. This could be in the form of creating new myths, writing poetry, sharing inspiration, automatic writing, prayer and meditation, or astral travel. I myself am not a mystic so my method of learning about the gods tends to be through, essentially, mythic fanfiction: I learn about the canon as best I can, talk with others who appreciate the canon, write my stories, and get feedback on how they fit into established canon and if they “work” as stories (which are not necessarily the same thing). These personal experiences and ideas are called personal canon or headcanon, another term borrowed from fandom. Headcanon isn’t necessarily at odds with canon, and it doesn’t necessarily need to become canon for it to be valid to the individual who holds it. For example, I have the headcanon that the spirit Dahlia manifests as a Desi woman and that the spirit Epiphany is asexual. If others read what I write and agree with me, or get similar vibes from mystic encounters with these spirits, then we’d be on our way toward making my headcanon accepted canon.
What about ideas that directly contradict canon? Are there any theological ideas that would automatically get you kicked out of the Otherfaith? The answer is no – because belief is such a personal thing, and because we’re dancing in the funhouse mirror realm of polyvalent reality where linear time is a punchline. It may be very well that you, for example, experience the Laetha as a water god rather than a fire god, and if this is the case then please share the train of thoughts that led you to that conclusion. Given how important the myth of the Laetha’s manifestation into the Firebird is to the Otherfaith, it’s unlikely such a divergent belief would be collectively accepted as canon with little difficulty. However, if several people began feeling that the Laetha were a water god rather than a fire one, through journeying or dreams or poetry or fiction, then the community as a whole could decide whether to re-evaluate stated canon. Perhaps in this example the Laetha is not merely a fire god and has a destructive watery aspect as well; perhaps in another timeline, she manifested as the Tidal Serpent rather than the Firebird and drowned, rather than scorched, the West. There’s not often a clear line between “divergent belief” and “personal headcanon” and “personal headcanon that enough people share to become collective canon.” The canonization of myth is a collective process of give and take.
All that said, are there Otherfaith beliefs which are Always and Forever Canon? I would argue yes – though not necessarily theological ones. We very highly value respecting consent and personal autonomy, and that violating either of these is highly unethical. Following from this core principle, we believe that everyone has the ability and the right to determine their own beliefs about our gods and our spirits in their own way, in their own time. We do not value a singular approach to truth and meaning, especially not one that is grafted onto another without their consent. At the same time, we encourage conversation and discernment about theology to determine how it might fit into our lives both individually and communally. Even if I don’t agree with your understanding of the gods, we can still benefit from discussing those beliefs and considering each other’s point of view – so long as we respect each other’s right to hold those points of view without being considered ignorant or wrong.