What Scientology Tells Us About How Religions Begin

Lawrence Wright’s recent book on the history of Scientology is an immensely important document for studying how religions begin. While much of it fills the reader with the amusement or horror of a colossal fraud—and a fraud which consciously sought out the money and influence of celebrities—Wright is also honest enough to include sections like the following, where he summarizes […]

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Understanding Religion

I’d been interested in religion and mythology long before 2004, when I first read this opening page of Mircea Eliade’s History of Religious Ideas. But from that day until now I have still not come across so brief and powerful a statement about why the study of religion is important, whether for scholars or believers, or for those who are […]

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A Twelfth Century Love Letter: Heloise Remembers Abelard

An amazing passage from a letter of Heloise to Abelard, those twelfth-century lovers who ended up in a nunnery and a monastery after their affair was discovered. Strip away the contemporary details (their religiosity and its attendant guilt, etc.), and Heloise might be writing a blog today: In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too […]

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The Great Myths #39: Arrow Boy (Cheyenne)

After the Cheyenne had received their corn, and while they were still in the north, a young man and woman of the tribe were married. The woman became pregnant and carried her child in the womb for four years. The people watched with great interest to see what would happen, and when the woman gave birth to a beautiful boy […]

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The Great Myths #17: A Sacrifice for the Feast (Greek)

The cow came in from the field, and the companions of great-hearted Telemachos came from beside their fast black ship, and the smith came, holding in his hands the tools for forging bronze, his handicraft’s symbols, the anvil and the sledgehammer and the well-wrought pincers with which he used to work the gold, and Athene also came to be at […]

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The Great Myths #15: The Horse Sacrifice (Hindu)

Rig Veda 1:162 – The Sacrifice of the Horse Mitra, Varuṇa, Aryaman the Active, Indra the ruler of the Ṛbhus, and the Maruts – let them not fail to heed us when we proclaim in the assembly the heroic deeds of the racehorse who was born of the gods. When they lead the firmly grasped offering a in front of […]

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The Great Myths #12: The Corn Mother (Penobscot)

When Kloskurbeh, the All-maker, lived on earth, there were no people yet. But one day when the sun was high, a youth appeared and called him “Uncle, brother of my mother.” This young man was born from the foam of the waves, foam quickened by the wind and warmed by the sun. It was the motion of the wind, the […]

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The Great Myths #7: The Tree of Souls (Jewish)

God has a tree of flowering souls in Paradise. The angel who sits beneath it is the Guardian of Paradise, and the tree is surrounded by the four winds of the world. From this tree blossom forth all souls, as it is said, “I am like a cypress tree in bloom; your fruit issues forth from Me.” (Hos. 14:9). And […]

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The Great Myths #5: A Ghost Story (Icelandic)

After Thorolf died, a good many people found it more and more unpleasant to stay out of doors once the sun had begun to go down. As the summer wore on, it became clear that Thorolf wasn’t quiet, for after sunset no one out of doors was left in peace. There was another thing, too: the oxen which had been […]

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Tao Te Ching #68 “This is the virtue of nonaggression”

Good warriors do not arm, good fighters don’t get mad, good winners don’t contend, good employers serve their workers. This is called the virtue of noncontention; this is called mating with the supremely natural and pristine. – Thomas Cleary   In ancient times the perfect officer wasn’t armed the perfect warrior wasn’t angry the perfect victor wasn’t hostile the perfect […]

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Tao Te Ching #64: “The most massive tree grows from a sprout, the highest building rises from a pile of earth, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a step”

What is at rest is easy to hold. What has not shown up is easy to take into account. What is frail is easy to break. What is vague is easy to dispel. Do it before it exists; govern it before there’s disorder. The most massive tree grows from a sprout; the highest building rises from a pile of earth; […]

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Tao Te Ching #63: “Do nondoing, strive for nonstriving, savor the flavorless, regard the small as important, make much of little, repay enmity with virtue”

Do nondoing, strive for nonstriving, savor the flavorless, regard the small as important, make much of little, repay enmity with virtue; plan for difficulty when it is still easy, do the great while it is still small. The most difficult things in the world must be done while they are easy; the greatest things in the world must be done […]

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Tao Te Ching #57: “the people simplify themselves”

Use straightforwardness for civil government, use surprise for military operations; use noninvolvement to take the world. How do I know this? The more taboos there are in the world, the poorer the populace is; the more crafts the people have, the more exotic things are produced; the more laws are promulgated, the greater the number of thieves. Therefore the sage […]

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Tao Te Ching #51: “this is called Dark Virtue”

The Way gives birth, virtue nurtures, things form, momentum completes. Therefore all beings honor the Way and value its Virtue. The honor of the Way and the value of Virtue are not granted by anyone, but are always naturally so. So the Way gives birth and nurtures, makes grow and develops, completes and matures, builds up and breaks down. It […]

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Tao Te Ching #45: “Clear stillness is right for the world”

Great completeness seems incomplete; its use is never exhausted. Great fullness seems empty; its use is never ended. Great directness seems restrained, great skill seems inept, great eloquence seems inarticulate. Movement overcomes cold, stillness overcomes heat. Clear stillness is right for the world. – Thomas Cleary   Perfectly complete it seems deficient yet it never wears out perfectly full it […]

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Tao Te Ching #39: “Attaining unity”

When unity was attained of old, heaven became clear by attaining unity, earth became steady by attaining unity, spirit was quickened by attaining unity, valley streams quickened by attaining unity, all beings were born filled by attaining unity; and by attaining unity lords acted rightly for the sake of the world. What brought this about was unity: without means of […]

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Tao Te Ching #36: “Flexibility and yielding overcome adamant coerciveness”

Should you want to contain something, you must deliberately let it expand. Should you want to weaken something, you must deliberately let it grow strong. Should you want to eliminate something, you must deliberately allow it to flourish. Should you want to take something away, you must deliberately grant it. This is called subtle illumination. Flexibility and yielding overcome adamant […]

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Tao Te Ching #33: “Those who know others are wise; those who know themselves are enlightened.”

Those who know others are wise; those who know themselves are enlightened. Those who overcome others are powerful; those who overcome themselves are strong. Those who are contented are rich; those who act strongly have will. Those who do not lose their place endure; those who die without perishing live long. – Thomas Cleary   Those who know others are […]

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Tao Te Ching #32: “The Way is essentially nameless”

The Way is essentially nameless. Though simplicity is small, the world cannot subordinate it. If lords and monarchs can keep to it, all beings will naturally resort to them. Heaven and earth combine, thus showering sweet dew. No humans command it; it is even by nature. Start fashioning, and there are names; once names also exist, you should know when […]

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Tao Te Ching #29: “Should you want to take this world”

Should you want to take this world, and contrive to do so, I see you won’t manage to finish. The most sublime instrument in the world cannot be contrived. Those who contrive spoil it; those who cling lose it. So creatures sometimes go and sometimes follow, sometimes puff and sometimes blow, are sometimes strong and sometimes weak, begin sometime and […]

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Tao Te Ching #28: “Know the male, keep the female”

Know the male, keep the female; be humble toward the world. But humble to the world, and eternal power never leaves, returning again to innocence. Knowing the white, keep the black; be an exemplar for the world. Be an exemplar for the world, and eternal power never goes awry, returning again to infinity. Knowing the glorious, keep the ignominious; be […]

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Tao Te Ching #27: “Good works are trackless”

“Good works are trackless” Good works are trackless, good words are flawless, good planning isn’t calculating. What is well closed has no bolt locking it, but cannot be opened. What is well bound has no rope confining it, but cannot be untied. Therefore sages always consider it good to save people, so that there are no wasted humans; they always […]

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Tao Te Ching #26: “Gravity is the root of lightness”

Gravity is the root of lightness; calm is the master of excitement. Thereby do exemplary people travel all day without leaving their equipment. Though they have a look of prosperity, their resting place is transcendent. What can be done about heads of state who take the world lightly in their own self-interest? Lack of gravity loses servants of state; instability […]

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Tao Te Ching #24: “Those on tiptoe don’t stand up”

Those on tiptoe don’t stand up, those who take long strides don’t walk; those who see themselves are not perceptive, those who assert themselves are not illustrious; those who glorify themselves have no merit, those who are proud of themselves do not last. On the Way, these are called overconsumption and excess activity. Some people disdain them, so those with […]

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Tao Te Ching #23: “To speak rarely is natural”

To speak rarely is natural. That is why a gusty wind doesn’t last the morning, a downpour of rain doesn’t last the day. Who does this? Heaven and earth. If even heaven and earth cannot go on forever, how much less can human beings! Therefore those who follow the Way assimilate to the Way; the virtuous assimilate to virtue, those […]

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Tao Te Ching #22: “Be tactful and you remain whole”

Be tactful and you remain whole; bend and you remain straight. The hollow is filled, the old is renewed. Economy is gain, excess is confusion. Therefore sages embrace unity as a model for the world. Not seeing themselves, they are therefore clear. Not asserting themselves, they are therefore meritorious. Not taking pride in themselves, they last long. It is just […]

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Tao Te Ching #19: “Eliminate sagacity, abandon knowledge”

Eliminate sagacity, abandon knowledge, and the people benefit a hundredfold. Eliminate humanitarianism, abandon duty, and the people return to familial love. Eliminate craft, abandon profit, and theft will no longer exist. These three become insufficient when used for embellishment causing there to be attachments. See the basic, embrace the unspoiled, lessen selfishness, diminish desire. – Thomas Cleary   Get rid […]

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Tao Te Ching #18: “When the Great Way is deserted”

When the Great Way is deserted, then there is humanitarian duty. When intelligence comes forth, there is great fabrication. When relations are discordant, then there is family love. When the national polity is benighted and confused, then there are loyal ministers. – Thomas Cleary   When the Great Way disappears we meet kindness and justice when reason appears we meet […]

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Tao Te Ching #17: “Very great leaders in their domains”

Very great leaders in their domains are only known to exist. Those next best are beloved and praised. The lesser are feared and despised. Therefore when faith is insufficient and there is disbelief, it is from the high value placed on words. Works are accomplished, tasks are completed, and ordinary folk all say they are acting spontaneously. – Thomas Cleary […]

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Tao Te Ching #16: “Attain the climax of emptiness”

Attain the climax of emptiness, preserve the utmost quiet: as myriad things act in concert, I thereby observe the return. Things flourish, then each returns to its root. Returning to the root is called stillness: stillness is called return to Life, return to Life is called the constant; knowing the constant is called enlightenment. Acts at random, in ignorance of […]

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Tao Te Ching #13: “Favor and disgrace seem alarming”

Favor and disgrace seem alarming; high status greatly afflicts your person. What are favor and disgrace? Favor is the lower: get it and you’re surprised, lose it and you’re startled. This means favor and disgrace are alarming. Why does high status greatly affect your person? The reason we have a lot of trouble is that we have selves. If we […]

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Tao Te Ching #12: “Colors blind people’s eyes”

Colors blind people’s eyes, sounds deafen their ears; flavors spoil people’s palates, the chase and the hunt craze people’s minds; goods hard to obtain make people’s actions harmful. Therefore sages work for the middle and not the eyes, leaving the latter and taking the former. – Thomas Cleary   The five colors make our eyes blind the five tones make […]

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Tao Te Ching #10: “Carrying vitality and consciousness”

Carrying vitality and consciousness, embracing them as one, can you keep them from parting? Concentrating energy, making it supple, can you be like an infant? Purifying hidden perception, can you make it flawless? Loving the people, governing the nation, can you be uncontrived? As the gate of heaven opens and closes, can you be impassive? As understanding reaches everywhere, can […]

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Tao Te Ching #6: “The valley spirit not dying”

The valley spirit not dying is called the mysterious female. The opening of the mysterious female is called the root of heaven and earth. Continuous, on the brink of existence, to put it into practice, don’t try to force it. – Thomas Cleary   The valley spirit that doesn’t die we call the dark womb the dark womb’s mouth we call the source of Heaven and Earth as elusive as gossamer silk and yet it can’t be exhausted – Red Pine   The valley’s daemons never die, The valley called the dark world womb; The portal of the dark world womb They call tree root of sky and land. A hidden yet seeming presence, Use it and stay strong. – Moss Roberts

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Tao Te Ching #4: “The Way is unimpeded harmony”

The Way is unimpeded harmony; its potential may never be fully exploited. It is as deep as the source of all things: it blunts the edges, resolves the complications, harmonizes the light, assimilates the world. Profoundly still, it seems to be there: I don’t know whose child it is, before the creation of images. – Thomas Cleary   The Tao […]

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Tao Te Ching #3: “Not exalting cleverness”

Not exalting cleverness causes the people not to contend. Not putting high prices on hard-to-get goods causes the people not to steal. Not seeing anything to want causes the mind to be confused. Therefore the government of sages empties the mind and fills the middle, weakens the ambition and strengthens the bones, always keeping the people innocent and passionless. It […]

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Classic Jam Hits

Going through my computer the other day, I found the .pdfs of these classic book sets, and thought to post them here for whoever wants them: Frazer’s The Golden Bough, The Mythology of All Races, and Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Whatever their limitations now, they are still great resources. I can’t remember where I found […]

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Uma Instructs the Gods (Kena Upanishad)

And here’s one of my favorite bits from the Hindu Upanishads, chapters three and four from the Kena Upanishad. From the translation of Swami Nikhilananda: Brahman, according to the story, obtained a victory for the gods; and by that victory of Brahman the gods became elated. They said to themselves: “Verily, this victory is ours; verily, this glory is ours […]

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Young Krishna & the Universe in His Mouth

One of my favorite stories from Hinduism comes from the Bhagavata Purana, on the childhood of Krishna: ….One day when Rama and the other little sons of the cowherds were playing, they reported to his mother, “Krishna has eaten dirt.” Yasoda took Krishna by the hand and scolded him, for his own good, and she said to him, seeing that […]

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Notebook 7: Varieties of Religious Practice & Belief

Notebook 7: Varieties of Religious Practice & Belief (As an appendix to Humility is Endless, the seven-part Notebook is a collection of connected quotations from scripture, interpretation, and history, which further illustrates the destructive nature of fundamentalist belief and religious certainty of any kind. My own commentary is the thread running through them all.) This simple sentence, found in a […]

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Notebook 6: Suffering & Justice

Notebook 6: Suffering & Justice (As an appendix to Humility is Endless, the seven-part Notebook is a collection of connected quotations from scripture, interpretation, and history, which further illustrates the destructive nature of fundamentalist belief and religious certainty of any kind. My own commentary is the thread running through them all.) One of the largest obstacles to belief in a […]

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Notebook 5: All Religions Act This Way

Notebook 5: All Religions Act This Way (As an appendix to Humility is Endless, the seven-part Notebook is a collection of connected quotations from scripture, interpretation, and history, which further illustrates the destructive nature of fundamentalist belief and religious certainty of any kind. My own commentary is the thread running through them all.) For insight into how much suffering is […]

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Notebook 4: Religion Against the World & for the World

Notebook 4: Religion Against the World & for the World (As an appendix to Humility is Endless, the seven-part Notebook is a collection of connected quotations from scripture, interpretation, and history, which further illustrates the destructive nature of fundamentalist belief and religious certainty of any kind. My own commentary is the thread running through them all.) The first way for […]

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Notebook 3: Religion as Mystery, & the Limitations of Knowledge

Notebook 3: Religion as Mystery, & the Limitations of Knowledge (As an appendix to Humility is Endless, the seven-part Notebook is a collection of connected quotations from scripture, interpretation, and history, which further illustrates the destructive nature of fundamentalist belief and religious certainty of any kind. My own commentary is the thread running through them all.) Near the end of […]

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Notebook 2: Religion & Originality

NOTEBOOK 2: RELIGION & ORIGINALITY (As an appendix to Humility is Endless, the seven-part Notebook is a collection of connected quotations from scripture, interpretation, and history, which further illustrates the destructive nature of fundamentalist belief and religious certainty of any kind. My own commentary is the thread running through them all.) One of the ways in which all religions justify […]

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Notebook 1: God’s Will & Interpreting History

NOTEBOOK 1: GOD’S WILL & INTERPRETING HISTORY (As an appendix to Humility is Endless, the seven-part Notebook is a collection of connected quotations from scripture, interpretation, and history, which further illustrates the destructive nature of fundamentalist belief and religious certainty of any kind. My own commentary is the thread running through them all.) As an addition to this essay, here are more instances from history where, to our peril, various contemporary events were interpreted as obvious manifestations of divine action. While the superficial justification for anti-Semitism has always been a variation on, “[Because] Jews suffered proved that Jews deserved to suffer,”[1] this is also generally true for everyone at some time or another: it is always assumed there is an obvious, divinely sanctioned correspondence between our religious or political or civic affiliations, and the fates of those religions and nations, even though there rarely is. Even worse, throwing such explanations on the sufferings of others allows us to ignore that suffering entirely, or even grin in assuming that it is deserved. The refrain is this: there is simply no reliable or coherent way to ever interpret material or political events of any kind, and of anyone, as the result of divine pleasure or displeasure. And so there is no basis for judging people of other political or religious persuasions when things go good or ill for them, or for us. Each of the following quotations suggests the folly, and attendant […]

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Viking Jesus

To see the ways in which a religion works, one of the best ways is to observe their missionaries and how they adapt stories created in one historical and geographic area, for people and places wildly different. On this point, nothing beats the ninth-century Saxon saga Heliand, which presents Jesus as a chieftain, prayers as runes, and refers to the […]

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Voluspa

To close out a month of posts, here’s the Voluspa, that great bit of the world turning over, from the Norse Poetic Edda. Somehow these bards, in the voice of the Seeress narrating it all, were able to cram into a few pages everything from creation to the apocalypse, and there is simply nothing like it. The oddities and opaqueness […]

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Egyptian Pyramid Texts

As a companion to yesterday’s excerpts from the Hindu Rig Veda, here are excerpts from religious texts even older than those: the Pyramid Texts from ancient Egypt. Beginning in the late Old Kingdom (c.2375-2181 BC), pharaohs had prayers and spells to assist them in the afterlife carved onto the walls of their pyramids—and as you’ll notice immediately, they are almost […]

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Rig Veda

In another life (appropriately enough), I would have been Hindu; in an additional other life, at the very least I would have started studying Indo-European at a young age. As it happened, whatever brief time I’ve been able to devote to Hinduism has no doubt been saturated with the romanticism of a novice who is very far indeed from any […]

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A Visit to the Underworld

Below are excerpts from three of my favorite Underworld journeys from mythology, which also informed my own Underground scene in To the House of the Sun: Book Six of Virgil’s Aeneid, where Aeneas comes upon the shade of his father, who is amazed to see his son, still alive, visiting the land of the dead; Tablet Seven of Gilgamesh, where […]

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Zen (Favorite Passages)

Along with my excerpts from Ramakrishna and the Desert Fathers, the following favorites from Zen Buddhism constitute just about all the religious wisdom I need. In one way or another, they are all expressions of humility and empathy, and upend the usual fundamentalist (and simple-minded, arrogant, and certain) approaches to scripture, discipline, knowledge, and to diversity of practice or belief. A Word document of […]

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The Desert Fathers (Favorite Passages)

Alongside the sayings of Ramakrishna and the monks of Zen Buddhism, the sayings of the Christian Desert Fathers are about all the wisdom I need, and below are my favorites from four separate collections. It will not appeal to everyone, but what these hermits seem to speak of more often than not is that greatest of virtues: humility. It is […]

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The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (Favorite Passages)

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, written by “M”, translated by Swami Nikhilananda. It is hard to overstate my love for this book. Along with being the first gift my wife gave me soon after we met, it also contains everything I adore about religion, and articulates all that I ever hope to express about the interaction between different religions and the […]

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Cyril Edwards (Interview)

I’ve relied on many translators and scholars in the writing of To the House of the Sun, and over the years I’ve been lucky enough to correspond with a few of them. Their specialties vary widely—Greek religion, Hinduism/Indo-European studies, Egyptology, Arthurian romance, etc.—and it seems that their enthusiasm and love for language, history, and religion are worth sharing. Especially since […]

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