What is remembered lives : historical research and Pagan practice

Learning: Quill pen on deep blue circle

Welcome to the notes (and slides) from my 2017 presentation, “What is remembered lives : historical research and Pagan practice” at Paganicon in Minnesota. I welcome questions about it – just send me a note via the contact form.


Why might we as Pagans might be interested in historical research?
For those with practices rooted in specific historical cultures like reconstructionists, the answer is pretty obvious, but there’s a lot of relevance even for much more modern traditions. We might be interested in learning more about:

  • Specific people (Ancestors, artists and creators, central figures…)
  • Cultural practices (Traditions, celebrations, foods, seasonal activities, folk magic…)
  • Individual events or larger movements (Patterns, how events lead to other events, acts and consequences…)
  • Interrelationships between different communities (Immigration, emigration, assimilation, non-assimilation, conquest, colonisation…)
  • Religious implications of memory. (As long as someone is remembered, that person will never truly die…)

A word about my background:

I’m a librarian, and while I’ve previously worked at a high school and a university, my current job is in a special library attached to a larger organization. My job involves a number of things, but about a third of it is answering questions about my institution and people associated with it and helping researchers with their own projects. I get to see a fairly wide range of approaches to research (and end goals) as a result. Some of the people I help are firmly in academia, others are dedicated amateurs. Some have decades of experience and others are just getting started studying history.

Ancestor work (in a fairly low-key but long-term way) is a part of my religious tradition, and I do periodic research about things that mattered to my blood ancestors, but also honour Hypatia of Alexandria as an ancestor of profession.

I’m also interested in the history of ideas and how information and knowledge develop (and change) over time. My good friend, Kiya Nicoll, has been doing a lot of research about this recently as it relates to the soup that makes up the Pagan socio-cultural movement, and you can read more on her website and here’s a graphic that gives an idea how complicated some of the relationships are (you’ll want to zoom in) and one more specifically about religious witchcraft. (Note that this is very much a work in progress, so things are still being edited.)

I think this combo is pretty typical of a lot of Pagans I know: some personal interest, some religious practice interest, some wanting to understand where what we do comes from and why that might be relevant.

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Historical Research

I’d apologise for the earworm, only not , but the thing that’s been playing in my head as I write this presentation has been the final song of the musical Hamilton “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” (audio here via YouTube and genius annotations over here.)

Why? In many ways, history is all about stories. Take a look at the historical uses of the word… (selection below)

  • ἱστορία (Ancient Greek): inquiry, knowledge from inquiry, or sometimes judge or witness (legal sense)
  • historia (Latin) : investigation, inquiry, research, account, description, written account of past events, recorded knowledge of past events, story, narrative.
  • staer (Old English) :  history, narrative, story
  • istorie, estoire, historie (early French) : accounts or narratives of events.
  • history (Middle English) : story
  • Modern German, French, many related languages: history and story are the same word. (Other languages: English, Chinese, etc. have different words for the two concepts.)
  • Modern meaning: ‘branch of knowledge that deals with past events, formal record or study of past events, especially human affairs’ dates from the mid 1400s.

Why do we investigate those stories?

  • Curiousity and interest
  • Context and connections
  • Patterns and cycles
  • Answering practical questions

What kinds of materials and approaches might we use?

  • Academic books, papers, presentations, and other materials…
  • Popular non-fiction, microhistories, podcasts, documentaries…
  • Art, fiction, music, dance, sculpture, many other art forms…
  • Museum, displays, touring exhibits, information…
  • Walking tours, historic sites, and public history events…
  • Museum, displays, touring exhibits, information…
  • Walking tours, historic sites, and public history events…
  • Re-creation and reenactment organisations…
  • Historical cooking, clothing, crafts…
  • Rituals, meditations, trancework, etc…
  • History as a background for other projects (religious practices, etc.)
  • Family and community stories, customs, and memories.

Research is really a conversation with the world and with time. There often are some fixed points (when things happened that we can reliably document) but there’s also a lot of personal opinion, perspective, different view points, and much more.

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One way of talking about sources is to talk about how history is about what is written, what is said, and what is physically preserved. Of course, modern technology is giving us some other tools (some of which are about physically preserved objects): genetic studies, bone analysis, geology and methods for view altered earth, CT and X-ray and other scanning technologies, and much more.

And then there are computer-aided projects, what are sometimes called the “digital humanities” which take historical data and recreate it or manipulate it digitally. One of my favourite examples of this was a group project that took known information about Pudding Lane (where the Great Fire of London in 1666 began) and recreated it using a gaming engine, allowing the user to walk through the streets. A great explanation of distant reading (computer-aided textual analysis) is a video from the people behind PHD Comics. 

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Broad types of sources

Primary sources: “The raw materials of history” (Library of Congress)

  • Literary or cultural sources:
    novels, plays, poems, television shows, movies, videos, paintings, photographs…
  • Accounts that describe events, people, and ideas:
    newspapers, chronicles, essays, speeches, memoirs, diaries, letters, treatises…
  • Information about people:
    census records, obituaries, newspaper articles, biographies…
  • Information about organizations:
    archives, historical societies, institutions…
  • Places:
    maps, atlases, census information, statistics, photographs, directories, local info…

Secondary sources: Analyse, discuss, expand, compare material from primary sources.

  • Scholarly journal articles
  • Textbooks
  • Academic books (monographs) about a topic
  • Commentaries
  • Popular non-fiction

Often include parts of primary source as quotes, illustrations, graphics, etc.

Tertiary Sources: Summary of widely agreed on material.

  • Encyclopedias
  • Wikipedia and other similar sites.
  • Some biographical dictionaries.

Tertiary sources may quote primary or secondary sources briefly, or have illustrating graphics or other images. Use tertiary sources to help you find great primary and secondary sources


New discoveries:

  • Video of teleporting cats : Primary source
  • “My new discovery about teleporting cats is…” : Primary (using other sources)
  • “This article analyses the current research on teleporting cats.” : Secondary

Views at a particular time:

  • Hypatia of Alexandria exchanges some letters in 400CE : Primary source. (Some replies to her survive) 
  • A 1975 book on history of women in science : Secondary source
  • In 2017, someone writes an article on views of women in science in the 1970s : The previous book is a primary source for this article.
  • Wikipedia article citing the book, the article, and Hypatia’s letters: Tertiary source (and quite possibly very helpful at pointing you at any of the previous sources you didn’t know about.) 

Where to find sources

Types of sources

  • Physical (books and articles, photographs, artifacts, archaeology, etc.)
  • Digital (books and articles, digitized collections, born digital collections)
  • Literature reviews, encyclopedias, library guides, summaries (pointers to core works in the field, tools, specific collections)
  • Focused collections and their staff (unique items or information, expertise in the topic, connections)
  • Other people interested in your topic (filtering through useful sources, sometimes unique collections or info)

There are a number of online resources that provide access to primary source materials. Different kinds of institutions and projects can collect these resources. Here are some different types with some examples. (Note that many of these projects rely on grants to exist or expand.)

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Missing pieces: Most potential sources didn’t survive for us to study. Some cultures didn’t write much down or sources didn’t survive. Some kinds of material require too much time or too many resources to use. (What gets funded is often determined by other needs than doing great history.)

Example: The Etruscans didn’t leave much written material. They have some gorgeous art, but we have to guess about what some (a lot of it…) of what it means.

Biases: All people – and all sources – have biases. Some are obvious. Many aren’t. They’re still there. Biases are often present in multiple layers of history. They affect what was recorded, when, what was preserved, what gets studied.

Example: Myths being written down after an area had become Christianised: some things may get left out or changed to fit the preferences of the majority culture. Someone studying those writings may also bring their own biases about how to translate words or ideas, or what they mean. Religious topics are perhaps particularly vulnerable to this.

No ‘right’ answer: Good research is often more about the questions than the answers. It’s also about remembering what we don’t know and can’t find out. It can be very easy to think there’s a right or wrong answer, and it’s usually not that simple. 

Example: Some of history is facts (the dates of events we can document in multiple sources), but the why and details are often a lot more about interpretation.

Different priorities: How we do history has changed over time. Previous scholars may have ignored important things or inserted biases. We have new tools, new science, and less destructive methods of investigation.

Example 1: The excavation of Troy was done in a way that we’d never do now (hopefully!) but it destroyed the probable layer during what came down through myth as the Trojan War. 

Example 2: Hildegard von Bingen was a 12th century abbess and nun. She wrote some amazing works of science (and is one of the earliest authors to describe both migraines and female orgasm.) For a long time her music was ignored because it wasn’t like what other people were doing. (Here’s Sequentia singing O Virga Ac Diadema)

Practical limits: Time and money are not in infinite supply! Access, funding, tools available for analysis all depend on a lot of factors researchers may not be able to control. New tech tools are great, but have costs or a learning curve. Some places are heavily affected by war and civil unrest. Confidential information may exist, but not be usable. 

Example: There’s a classic core work of astronomy from the 10th century that was only translated into English in the past five years – no one had put together the langauge skills and interest in the topic to that degree before. The work is known as the Book of the Fixed Stars in English, and you can now read a translation for free thanks to the work of Ihsan Hafez. 


Academia has a lot of great things going for it – people with amazing skills, the chance to build great expertise in specific subjects, methods, languages, techiniques, and other tools.

But academia also has lots of quirks.

My biggest advice is to remember that academic authors have their own priorities, and they’re doing work that may or may not fit with your questions. Alternate approaches (or at least a broader view) to doing history may make a lot more sense in some cases, in addition to (or sometimes instead of ) a formal academic approach.

Goals and expectations: Academic research has specific goals and expectations. Some of these are about what you produce and how (publications and presentations relating to hiring, tenure, and job retention expectations) and some are about how you go about it (what topics you research how you present the information, what kind of language you use, what acceptable evidence is in a field.)

Sharing new and exciting information is not always the primary goal of academic publishing. (It probably should be, but reality is a bit different.) People may be focusing on other goals, or taking a more conservative approach to what they do. If you’re interested in new exciting stuff or in kinds of topics  keep an eye out for blog posts, podcasts, lecture talks, presentations, etc. that may have more of this.

Specific focus: Academics know their specific area fairly well (we hope!) but are often much less aware of other fields or even other areas in their field. One other big area is that how fields deal with religion (on more than a purely intellectual level) can be complicated: some fields or areas of fields in academia find the idea of sincere religious belief or mysticism uncomfortable to discuss. This obviously affects the kinds of things that may get published, shared, or researched in the first place. 

(More about this in another article on this site about how academic publishing works.)

Error correction: Academics can and do get things wrong. Even research that is core to a field for decades!  There are also legitimate disagreements. Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for petty ones. 

Example: The witch trials in Europe are a great example here. It turns out that a 19th century author, Etienne Leon de Lamothe-Langon, invented a trial near Toulouse (France). Not only did that affect reporting of trials in that area, but it was used as part of estimates for trials in many other places. You can read a great article from Jenny Gibbons about this here.  (The original article appeared in The Pomegranate, a Pagan studies journal)

A cultural note: Healthy academic cultures encourage error correction as a way to improve, but this can sometimes be really jarring and feel tremendously personal if you’re from a cultural background that avoids conflict. (Also, sometimes it is just legitimately nasty.) If you’re spending time around academic sources, it’s worth learning more about to tell a debate about sources and approaches and academic disagreements from personal dislike.

Questionable sources. Besides the questionable historical sources, there are also questionable modern journals. There are scam and fake academic publishers and conferences out there. Figuring out which are scams can be complicated! Many have names and information that sound valid. Other people falsify research.

Look for multiple independent sources (that don’t rely on each other) to learn more about topics, especially topics that make exceptional claims or seem biased.

Present and future. Academics (at least those who want to stay employed as academics) usually have to think both about the immediate present and about the long term.

Academic publishing (and the demands for it by institutions for hiring, promotion, and tenure, as well as plain renewal of contracts) favour articles of certain lengths, on topics that fit journals (especially respected journals) in the field, and can be peer reviewed. This tends to discourage some kinds of research, whether it’s because it’s using methods not widely accepted in the field yet (new tools) or approaches that are not seen as worthwhile.

Academic authors need to balance articles that can get published now, with long-term goals. Annoying key people in your field can limit your future options a huge amount. Historically, tenure was supposed to help with this, but tenured positions are less and less common. This tends to make the kinds of research that are pursued and published through formal academic sources more conservative (doing variations on things done before, rather than trying things that might fail or be difficult to accept by some of the field.)

First to discuss: Related to this, being the first person to discuss something (or in a particular mode) can be very difficult. The first people to do research in a specific topic will often miss a lot of things – just because time and resources are limited, and because we learn how to talk better about things by talking about it in the first place. This doesn’t mean their research is worthless – just that people will hopefully continue to improve on it through the process of academic dialogue.

One example of this in the Pagan community is Ronald Hutton. He wrote some of the first books about Pagan community history, and he’s pretty clear about both his goals and the limits of his approach and what he could work with within his field. He’s come in for a lot of grief from people who either don’t understand one of those, or who wanted him to write a different book.

A better approach, when it’s possible, is to go look at pieces of that information, and present alternate views, new information (when you can), or other aspects. If you’re not doing that research yourself, keeping the goals and methods of the author for the work they were actually doing (not what you wish they were doing) in mind is a good goal.

Academic publishing: The process of academic publishing is spelled out more in the article elsewhere on the site I linked to above, so I’m going to send you over there.


  • Check information in multiple sources. (Look for sources that are independent of each other.)
  • Apply common sense. (Chances of an amazing completely unknown discovery are small.)
  • Check out where the information came from. (Look at references, kinds of sources, how they apply to the topic.)
  • Being published in an academic source does not mean it has been fact-checked. (It might have been, but it might not. Depends on the publisher/publication.)
  • Standards and methods vary across fields. (Some accepted practices lead to weird results when applied to other fields.)


  • Academic sources vary in quality. (Different stages in professional life, different standards of publication)
  • Other sources also vary in quality.  (Some are great! Some are not so great.)
  • Researching, writing, and sharing research are three different skills. (Very common to be good at one of them and not so good at another.)
  • Quality can depend on the goals – ‘entertaining book’ vs. ‘most accurate’ (Nothing wrong with entertaining, as long as it’s not pretending accuracy.)
  • People have their own goals, which are not always ‘good research’  (They may be out for fame and fortune, or scrambling.)


Soli did a presentation at Paganicon in 2017 on research and Paganism, and has a list of great links to open source and otherwise available resources from academic sources. 


A number of different external limits may also affect research.

Privacy laws affect what information is available. These include:

  • Delays in release of census data (In the US, 72 years)
  • HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996). Health information, generally includes historical data.
  • FERPA (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974)Covers educational information, including enrollment, grades, etc.
  • Europe in general has even more stringent privacy laws than the US.
  • Information about stigmatized communities, conditions, backgrounds can have particular privacy issues. 

There’s a great Backstory podcast episode “Keeping Tabs” that goes into some historical issues with data collection and use. (Backstory fully transcribes their episodes.) 

Documentation can be difficult to sort out, especially when it comes to tracking individuals.

  • Name changes for many different reasons. (One of my great-grandfathers changed his name 5 times.)
  • Very common name, especially without other identifying information. (My grandmother on the other side, her maiden name was Smith.)
  • Common for stories to be added to or changed as they’re passed along. (Be cautious of exceptional stories or circumstances.)
  • People may have used a pseudonym. (If you don’t know the pseudonym, you’re going to miss connections)

Cultural choices can affect what kind of sources exist or survive. In many cases, people whose views were not valued may not have made permanent records, or may have destroyed them. 

  • Assimilation
  • Conquest
  • Immigration and emigration
  • Persecution (or perceived persecution) 
  • Concerns about views after their death

Better History:

How do we do better history? Here are some tips that will improve your skills over time.

Be your best self. Research is a skill. No one is born knowing how to do it. Good researchers respect what they don’t know and get help with it, because everyone has big gaping gaps in their knowledge. Think about how you’d like someone to approach learning about what matters to you, if you need a model. 

Take good notes: Notes help you find things later. Track what you find, but also where you found it. (You’ll need that for citations, even informal ones, but also to find similar material efficiently.) Keeping notes on searches (terms, where) helps too. If you keep trying things and nothing works, you can ask a librarian or someone else to help you, and it’s a lot easier if you can talk about what you’ve already tried. 

Osmosis:  Spend time (directly or indirectly) with people who do good history. By that I mean people who understand nuances, talk about their sources, and apply common sense. Podcasts and some popular non-fiction can do this really well.

Some podcasts that do this really well include

For books, there’s a lot of good popular non-fiction out there, but I find microhistories (books about a single topic like salt, or colour or cod, or a specific event or combination of events) often do this really well as an introduction to a topic. Your local librarian can likely help you find things.

Some titles: S.P.Q.R by Mary Beard is a recent book about Roman history – not only what happened, but how our views of Rome and how we do history about Rome – highly recommended if you’re doing anything about places the Roman empire affected.

Microhistories I like (and that have a fair bit of direct applicability to a number of Pagan practices) include Mark Kurlansky’s Salt and Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette and Jewels: A Secret History.

Honesty is a huge part of doing good research. Separate what you’re sure of from theories, hopes, ideas, bridging material. Understand what material you have, and what you’re missing and ideally why it might be missing. Favour sources that are honest about what they’re doing and why. (Be cautious of anyone who says they know things for certain unless there really is concrete sure evidence.) 

Curiousity should also be part of your daily life. Expose yourself to new topics. The world is very interconnected: what you learn today can help a lot tomorrow.
Make connections between topics, think about things in new ways.

I use Longform.org and Metafilter to help me find topics I wouldn’t seek out directly.

This was the end of my presentation: there are some additional notes about the research process in my slides, and you can find a narrative description of that over in its own essay. 


Please email me through the contact form! I’m glad to see if I can help or point you at a possible resource.

Last edited March 15, 2017

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