2017 Sacer Epic Reading Journey

Dec 29, 2016 | 4 minutes read

Tags: reading lists, books

(Note: This post was rescued from Medium, where it first appeared. It is here for archival purposes.)

In November of 2016, among my Facebook friends, I sketched out an idea for a reading list for 2017 based around a monthly selection of ancient epics and extant traditional/sacred texts, thinking to focus on age-old ideas. Looking through the possibilities, it became apparent that there was no way to mark in any clear way a distinction between the sacred and the profane, as a handful of the works belong to currently active lived traditions, while the rest were treated with similar reverence during their times as lived traditions. In all cases, they are stories handed down, the legacy of preceding generations of people attempting to come to grips with the same things we face today, often preceding the advent of writing. The fact that we have not been able to resolve their original questions speaks to their timelessness, their steadiness in the face of a world always in flux, and their role as a vehicle for the voices of the ancients. We do well to seek their counsel, and that is what this reading journey is all about.

As the year closes, I have readied my list and collected resources that will supplement them and provide context and analysis for what, at times, can be opaque language, especially when translations necessitate different comparative semantic densities from their originals. At the beginning of each month, I will post on Medium and link in this post a brief introduction for each work, and over the month, I will follow up with periodic observations, notes, and quotes I found of interest and/or utility. Any who are interested are welcome to join in.

The List

Each entry includes space for a link to the introduction page (updated monthly as I post them) and a link to the edition I will be reading in case you want to follow along.

January: Shahnameh



February: The Epic of Gilgamesh

He who saw the Deep: The Epic of Gilgamesh


March: Beowulf

Beowulf: Introduction


April: The Iliad

Sing the Rage: The Iliad


May: The Odyssey

Sing the Rage 2: The Odyssey


June and July: The Aeneid

Sorrow, Unspeakable Sorrow


Edit 2017–12–11: From August, my project sort of ran off the rails. Not only did I never bother to create landing pages for the remaining items, some of them I skipped entirely. These remaining items will feature in my end of year post for my reading for the year.

August: Metamorphoses

There is no landing page for this because I never created it. I bought Metamorphoses and began reading it more or less on time, but I quickly ran into a sort of modernist despair at the character of the stories. Many of them are fine stories, no doubt, but there is a strong undercurrent of rapaciousness among the Greek and Roman gods that is hard to ignore. I understand, of course, that this was how the people who passed these stories around understood their gods to act, but that doesn't mean we have to retrace all of their steps. Perhaps I will return to Ovid at a later date, or perhaps I will merely keep Metamorphoses on my shelf as a reminder that there are better stories out there to read. In any case, Ovid isn't to blame; he's merely the messenger. But given the choice between fantastic tales that include gratuitous rape and equally fantastic tales that don't, I know which I prefer.


September: The Mabinogion

Through a confluence of badly timed events, I never actually got around to this book. It will, I suppose, continue to sit on my shelf, only partially read, as it has done for some two decades.

Amazon (note: same translator, different publisher):

October: The Prose Edda

This is where my reading thread for the year resumed. I read and greatly enjoyed this work. My favorite part was where I saw how Tolkien had lifted names from it wholesale to populate his own works. It's perhaps too late to create a landing page for it, or maybe instead I will create a common landing page for the rest of the works.


November: The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason's Tale

I'm actually still reading this. It's really good.


December: Mahabharata (abridged, C. Rajagopalachari)

I'm also reading this and very much enjoying it.