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Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit

Monday, May 22, 2017 - 15:00

OK, so I have to confess that the main reason I own a copy of this book was that I went to a book release party for it at a local bookstore and felt  embarrassed not to buy a copy. So my copy is personally inscribed!

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Conner, Randy P., David Hatfield Sparks, & Mariya Sparks. 1997. Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Lore. Cassell, London. ISBN 0-304-33760-9

Publication summary: 

An encyclopedia of persons, vocabulary, and concepts relevant to queer spirituality.

The is intended to be an encyclopedic work of persons and concepts relating to the scope as stated in the title: “queer myth, symbol, and spirit[uality]”. It begins with a set of overview summaries of attitudes towards gender/sexuality from various religious and spiritual traditions. While the history of religion is not a specialty of mine, my sense of these overviews is that they are fairly simplistic and perhaps overly optimistic regarding positive attitudes towards variant gender and sexuality. There’s also a significant amount of lumping unlike things together in the same discussion (e.g., “Ancient Near Eastern and Western Antiquity” which pretty much combines all of pre-Christian Europe and the Near East in a single discussion). As the book is aimed at modern spiritual experiences, there is perhaps an understandable focus on fairly recent attitudes and philosophies. For example, the discussion of “goddess Reverence” is primarily concerned with later 20th century neo-paganism and related movements.

The bulk of the book is an alphabetic encyclopedia with entries of variable length on persons (both historic and mythic), concepts, and symbols with queer spiritual significance.

The scope of the work is enormous and ambitious, but is weakened somewhat by a lack of references and sources for most material. While this may be of small import for significant cultural figures and concepts, it makes further research and contextualization difficult or impossible for less familiar items. As a random example, there is an entry for “Alfhild (fl. tenth century CE), the daughter of a Gothic king who cross-dressed and participated in Viking raids and fought alongside her shieldmaiden and comrade-lover Groa.” The entry does not point the reader to the literary source (Saxo Grammaticus), is misleading in identifying the cultural context as “Viking,” and simply wrong in identifying the figure as 10th century. All of this together makes it harder to evaluate the context in which she is described as having a female “comrade-lover”. These sorts of flaws make it hard for me to have confidence in the accuracy of the entries for cultures I’m less familiar with. I’m also wary of the encyclopedia’s tendency to describe cultural concepts on non-temporal terms, creating an implication of timelessness rather than identifying a specific historic and cultural context in which they developed.

There is a general bibliography, but the sources listed don’t increase my confidence in the material. (It has long been a basic principle of mine that any piece of research that cites Barbara Walker’s The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets is not to be relied on for factual information.) One useful feature is a thematic index that groups entry names by cultural origins or motif (e.g., “African and African-Diasporic Traditions” or “Alchemy, Divination, Magic”).

Given that the purpose of this Project is to point to useful source material for authors who want historically accurate inspiration for fiction, I hesitate to endorse this work even as a source of inspiration and brainstorming, due to my concerns about the accuracy and lack of context, especially for marginalized cultures. If, for example, one wanted to write a queer story set in the 18th century involving Native American spirituality, I have little confidence that this book would be a good resource.