Heathenism and Abortion
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The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy
by Ronald Hutton
Reviewed by Jordsvin
Here is the first book to attempt to look at and analyze the evidence for pre-Christian religions in the British Isles from the Paleolithic Era until the completion of the process of Christianization in that part of the world. The first chapters go chronologically with no overlap: “The Mysteries Begin (c. 30,000-c. 5000 BC)”, “The Time of the Tombs (c. 5000-c.3200 BC)”, “The Coming of the Circles (c. 3200-c. 2200 BC)”, “Into the Darkness (c. 2200-c.1000 BC), and “The People of the Mist (c. 1000 BC-c. AD 500)”. After that there is some overlap: “The Imperial Synthesis (AD 43-410)”, and “the Clash of Faiths (AD c. 300-c.1000). The final chapter, “Legacy of Shadows” deals with survivals of Paganism into later, even modern times.
The overall tone of the book is to look in detail at what we can deduce from the archeological record. It then concludes that we know and can know relatively very little about these religions of the past. Since of all the Paganisms considered, only Romano-British Paganism has left substantial written records, archeology is really all there is to go on and that is simply not enough to flesh out such things as worldviews, mythologies, and a detailed and coherent survey of religious practices.
However, enough does remain to conclude that much of the scholarship of the past has reached conclusions that are erroneous, and in some cases spectacularly so. The traditional neat divisions of the past and its cultural and religious characteristics are also called into question. For instance, rather than being periods with coherent boundaries separating them from predecessors and successors, both the “Bronze Age” and “Iron Age” had huge changes taking place approximately midway though each period!
The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles is a book sure to evoke strong reactions from contemporary Pagans and Heathens. This can be easily seen by searching www.amazon.com for this title and going through the many reader reviews posted there. This book points out that that such core Neopagan beliefs as the idea of a single “Great Goddess,” the Wiccan Duotheism of “Lord and Lady,” the “Maiden, Mother and Crone” Triple Goddess, covens, skyclad worship, and the fusion of religion and magic are not only unattested from the historical and archeological record but can be shown to be modern innovations. This leads to the author’s conclusion that Neopaganism is just what the “neo” suggests, a “new” religion, or as I personally would put it, a family of new religions. It has borrowed and reinterpreted some elements of the ancient religions, placing these assorted vestiges in a context more suited for contemporary society, but at its core Neopaganism is something new. Some folks don’t take kindly to hearing that.
At least one Heathen has mentioned online that this book was instrumental in opening his eyes to the lack of historical authenticity in Neopaganism as a whole and thus setting him on a path that eventually led to Heathenism. I had a similar experience myself. I was worshipping with a Wiccan group and had taken a Wicca 101 class. What they were doing was presented as being mostly “Celtic.” Imagine my surprise, when after reading some books by Anne Ross and Stuart Piggot; I realized that besides the names of a few festivals and Deities, there was absolutely nothing “Celtic” about the religion that I was being taught. Further reading helped our Gods and Goddesses get through to me and here I am!
The author is especially dismissive of alleged Pagan survivals, including in the realms of architecture and folk festivals. The latter he shows to be mostly of post-medieval, and in many cases quite recent origin. Nevertheless, that may not hold true in all cases. I read recently that the several sets of reindeer antlers used in the Horn Dance at Abbot’s Bromley, England, a rite often seen as a bit of surviving Paganism, were all recently carbon-dated to about 1000 CE! The architectural motifs of Wild Men, Sheela-na-Gig’s, and Green Men he sees as having essentially Christian meanings. However, he does admit the possibility that the case of the Sheelas, in Ireland at least, the motif fused with remaining notions of protective local Goddesses. While admitting their Roman origins, he sees the Green Men, used as a Frey symbol or image by many contemporary Heathens, as being essentially images of lost souls. I’m not so sure about that myself. The two surviving labeled Green Men are identified by their carvers as “Sylvanus” and “Faunus”, both of whom are Roman nature Gods.
He dismisses any survivals of British Heathenism and Paganism, whether in isolated regions or as underground sects. I would not argue with that, but would add that in the case of Heathenism, between Saami worship of Thórr and possibly other Gods, medieval Icelandic manuscripts clearly showing that the Æsir and Vanir were called upon there (howbeit in conjunction with various Christian wights) long after that country’s “conversion”, bits and pieces of other folklore and magic, and the possibility of repeated spontaneous revivals of Heathenism, I would maintain that our Gods and Goddesses have probably never been without worshippers of some sort!
Despite his conclusions on the origins and nature of the contemporary Neopagan movement, Ronald Hutton has engaged in extensive and respectful dialogue with contemporary Pagans and does not condemn Neopagan religions or their adherents in any way. He accepts that for many the movement “works” and is therefore arguably as valid as any other faith. He does, however, insist upon setting the record straight on Neopaganism’s nature and origins so that it can be seen for what it is, not for what many would like for it to be.
For the Germanic Heathen reader, this book is somewhat less problematic. While information on Heathenism in the British Isles, be it of the Anglo-Saxon or the (Viking-introduced) Scandinavian variety, is so scanty that a reasonably accurate reconstruction from those remains alone would not be possible, there is enough left to be able to relate it to the much more extensive and coherent Scandinavian materials.
Nevertheless, some difficult, disturbing, and very possibly unanswerable questions are raised. For me the most important one is the role of Snorri Sturluson in the recording and transmission of Scandinavian Heathen mythology. Many think that he may have substantially altered and edited the lore which survived into his own day in order to turn it into a coherent story proceeding from the beginning of the creation process to the Ragnarök. A few scholars even seem to think that he made most of it up! I personally find that hard to believe considering how much trouble he took to quote from old mythological poems, most but not all of which are still extant today.
Is all that we think we know about Heathenism therefore questionable at best? Hutton certainly seems to think so. I feel considerably more confident. In addition to Snorri’s Prose Edda, we also have those poems I just mentioned, collected together from the Codex Regius and elsewhere as the Poetic Edda. Some of those poems are pre-Christian in date as well as in theme. There is also evidence in various carvings and inscriptions that our Gods and Goddesses were indeed believed in and worshipped by pre-Christian speakers of the Germanic languages, and that at least some of our myths demonstrably precede Snorri Sturluson’s writings.
I think then that the Heathen revival represents a reasonably accurate reconstruction of what our forefathers and foremothers in faith (and in most cases in blood as well) believed and practiced. One contemporary Seiðkona has remarked that if Thorbjorg, the “Little Völva” from Erik the Red’s Saga, were to show up at a contemporary Seiðr working, she would “look at us funny, but still recognize what we were doing as Seiðr.” I think that applies to the rest of our religious and magical work as well!
I enthusiastically recommend this book to any Heathen or Pagan whose religious beliefs and works are in any way based on the pre-Christian religions of the British Isles. Fortunately, despite being originally published in 1991, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles by Ronald Hutton is still in print and readily available both to borrow from academic libraries (via your local public library’s Interlibrary Loan service if need be) and for purchase at amazon.com. The author has also written what may be the definitive history of Neopaganism, The Triumph of the Moon, and I highly recommend that book as well.
last modified 01/13/2004