Book Reviews

Book Review: Indo-European Studies — A History of Pagan Europe

Jones, Prudence and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1995.

But for the authors’ suggestion that paganism continued in practice over the last three millenium through folklore and even open belief, A History of Pagan Europe might well be called The Rise and Fall of Pagan Europe. Although the book does provide a detailed, thorough survey of European pagan cultures, the authors’ reduction of Neopagan belief to a duotheist/Wiccan outlook, their tendency to define pagan religions in relationship to Christianity, and their unconvincing attempts to tease out an unbroken pagan tradition left me dissatisfied with the book as a whole. That said, however, I do feel that this book taught me a lot about European mesopagan practices: its strength is in the details rather than in the overarching themes.

The book opens with an introduction that outlines the differences between historic pagan practices and contemporary Neopaganism, saying,

Modern thought is represented in these two basic divinities [a Great Goddess and her consort] whose influence is complementary rather than hierarchical or antagonistic. Present-day Pagans tend to see all gods and goddesses as personifications of these two, in contrast to the situation in antiquity, when the many gods and goddesses of the time were usually thought of as truly independent entities. In its mostly widely publicised form, neo-Paganism is a theology of polarity, rather than the polytheism of ancient European culture (3).

The authors also suggest the basis of Neopaganism is “a search for a religion which venerated the Goddess and so gave women as well as men the dignity of beings who bear the ‘lineaments of divinity’” (3). The authors perpetuate that search, in a subtle fashion, throughout the book, where the so-called Great Goddess pops up as the Cretan Great Mother (5), Isis (57), the Aestii mother of the gods (118, 165), Freya (144), and Bendis (189). The authors even demonstrate that Polish historian Lasicius “patriarchally” neglected to include goddesses in his writings on many Baltic cultures (177): this statement seems to support the authors’ leanings toward a continuous historical goddess-worship.

That aspect of the book is minor, however, and could easily be missed in the meat of the book, which delves into pagan cultures individually and pinpoints areas of overlap. The authors discuss Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, and even Russian paganism one by one, providing basic details on deities, standards of worship, temples, and magical practices. In doing so, they highlight cross-cultural beliefs and practices, such as: worship at outdoor sacred sites that frequently include a sacred pillar or tree (121); the “Pagan view of nature as theophany, a showing-forth of divine essence, [which lead] naturally to a belief in magic and foreknowledge” (152), and the subsequent use of divination; the importance of bards, poets, and “boasting” to perpetuate one’s reputation (167); and the practice of cremation to release the soul (180-81)—and this list names only a few the similarities between pagan cultures that the authors highlight. To me, this is the strongest aspect of the book, and one that helped me see the similarity of Indo-European cultures. It also shows the differences of non-Indo-European religions, as demonstrated by the discussion of Russian and Slovakian paganism, which has “imagery of light and darkness… a stark contrast [that] is generally foreign to Pagan pantheons, which see all forces as having their place in the natural order” (187).

Although the book does an excellent job of making such comparisons between pagan cultures, I feel that the authors rely too heavily on the invasions of the Roman Empire and the influence of Christianity to define the pre-Christian cultures: if this book were an art project, the writers focused too much on the “negative space” around the cultures in question. For example, the Celtic chapters rely heavily on Roman and Christian writers, and the authors state that, “Celtic deities often remain obscure to us, since the Romans did not comment on them in any detail but preferred to assimilate them to the Roman ones” (95). While I realize we have few primary-source texts for Celtic religions, it would have been nice to see more archaeological findings examined as evidence. I did, however, enjoy the discussions of how Christianity assimilated Pagan practices, such as: St. Augustine’s suggestion that the church ‘christened’ “Pagan objects as well as… Pagan people, to convert them to Christian use” (75), the construction of churches on important Pagan sacred sites (121), and the canonization of Brigid as St. Bridget (101). The adoption of pagan rites as Christian holidays, illustrated throughout the book, demonstrated the power of folk culture over the common imagination, even if it did not convince me of a continuous historical pagan practice into the modern era.

The book’s concluding section, “Paganism Reaffirmed,” could have been better developed, I think, but the focus of the book was, after all, on the history of Pagan Europe. Rather than influencing an understanding of the contemporary pagan movements, this book will shape Neopaganism by helping us to define our practice. I learned a great deal about the Indo-European religious traditions, and I will apply some of what I have learned into my own daily practice. The Roman veneration of the local and household deities (35) and the Baltic reverence for the Earth herself (177) in particular spoke to my heart . While I don’t agree with part of the authors’ argument, I do believe that most Neopagan students should learn the development of pagan religion the book provides. Without knowledge of our roots, we cannot shape the direction our branches will grow.

Book Review: Modern Paganism — Drawing Down the Moon

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

I absolutely could not put this book down. It was a revelation, the first book about modern Paganism I read that approached the subject from a journalistic, even academic viewpoint, and it absolutely captivated me. Margot Adler’s seminal volume Drawing Down the Moon is unquestionably the high-water mark of Neopagan practices in twentieth-century America. Adler covers the development of the many Neopagans practiced today from their roots in Wicca without falling prey to the romantic trap of describing religions descended from a mythical, peaceful society of Goddess- and nature-worshipers.

Adler opens the book with a general description of Neopaganism and some basic definitions necessary for understanding the assorted religions and engaging in a dialog with their beliefs, including those definition-resistant, ‘hot-button’ terms like “magic” and “pagan.” Because this book was my first taste of this world, I devoured these definitions, and one of her descriptions of how paganism looks at the world struck a chord with me:

…Neo Paganism returns to the ancient idea that there is no distinction between spiritual and material, sacred and secular. We generally think of spiritual concerns as apart from mundane concerns. This idea is entirely opposed to the Pagan perception. A group of women in a feminist Witchcraft coven once told me that, to them, spiritual meant, “the power within oneself to create artistically and change one’s life.” These women saw no contradiction between their concern for political and social change and their concern for “things of the spirit,” which they equated with a need for beauty or with that spark that creates a poem or dance. Mirth and reverence coexist as they do in many indigenous cultures (11).

To me, this quote sums up both the most beautiful aspect of Paganism (the integration of the spiritual into the mundane) and the troublesome blending of politics and social issues with an individual’s spirituality. The book—now more than thirty years old—remains descriptive of the twentieth century. Despite Adler’s revisions of the book in 1986 and most recently in 2006, the interviews included and the sentiments portrayed in the book continue to reflect a 1970s, reactionary Neopagan movement, without tempering that portrayal with a modern, more balanced and varied portrait of contemporary nature-based religions. Many of the descriptions of religions and interviews with figures such as Z Budapest create a focus on feminism and sexuality that many “new guard” pagan religions—including, arguably, ADF—do not center upon.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself, though. From Adler’s “Background” in Part I, she moves on to a history of Neopaganism told through the development of the various “sects,” from contemporary Paganism’s origins in Gardnerian Witchcraft into the newer religions, including several forms of Druidry. I particularly appreciated Adler’s thorough debunking of “the myth of Wicca”, the idea of a prehistoric, universal religion that worshipped “the god of the hunt and the goddess of fertility” (43). Adler tracks not only the development of the myth itself, but also the subsequent controversy over its dismissal (64-65). Adler manages to walk the journalistic line of neutrality perfectly, giving equal weight to the debunkers as she does to those who believe in an historical, hereditary witchcraft, and, by doing so, I think she gives one of the most thorough histories of modern Paganism available today.

After establishing a history of Wiccan/Witchcraft religions, Adler discusses the rise of other, varied Neopagan religions, offering a “survey” course in Neo-Paganism. While the scope of the work makes this book a perfect introduction to modern Paganism, I believe Adler’s treatment of the various religions is not as balanced as her earlier discussion of Wicca. She covers in one short 20-page breath, “Religions of Paradox and Play,” including RDNA, ADF—which she does describe as part of a “stunning renewal” of “contemporary Druidism” (341)—and Erisians, and does not seem to give enough weight to the latest incarnations of those groups, which take their religions with (almost) complete seriousness. Many of her distinctions seem far too subjective, including the designation of ADF as a religion of play and observations that Pagan Way or New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn rituals are among the most poetic and beautiful performed.

That said, the subjective tone of the book is part of what makes it special. Adler shares her own introduction to Paganism and actually attended many of the rituals she describes: she is not just a neutral observer, but an active participant in Neopagan practices. Her analysis is more subtle, thoughtful, and nuanced because she is aware of what matters to actual practicing Neopagans. To that end, Adler discusses in the section called, “Living on the Earth,” the practices of the groups she discusses and provides some topical analysis of how Neopagans live in the world, such as how they regard technology, politics, persecution, and how they approach clergy, gatherings, and education in their own tradition.

In spite of my complaints, I think this is a great book, and one perfectly suited to serve as an introduction to modern Paganism. It surveys many traditions, discusses practical issues like politics as well as nebulous ones like magic, and provides a detailed snapshot of life as a Neopagan.

Book Review: Hearth Culture — Celtic Heritage

Rees, Alwyn and Brinley Rees. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

Celtic Heritage seeks to outline the well-known, “traditional” myths of Celtic Lands (specifically, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland), and highlight the patterns of those myths within a larger cultural context. Further, the book demonstrates the power of the myths—and the storyteller—to blur the lines between realities: between the Otherworld and real world in the myths themselves, between life and death, and between the world of myth and the world of reality. According to Rees and Rees, “Under the spell of the storyteller’s art, the range of what is possible is transcended: the world of magic becomes a present reality, and the world of every day is deprived of its uniqueness and reality… When the spell is over, the hearer ‘comes back to earth’, but the earth is not quite so solid as it was before, the cadence of its time is less oppressive and its laws have only a relative validity” (342).

Indeed, the book had that effect on me. From the opening chapters, which outline the myths and place them within a cultural context, I was captivated by this book. The chapter, “Branches of the Tradition,” summarizes the common myths of the Irish and Welsh traditions, introducing the primary characters and “invasions,” a format which works well for presenting myths often written in the driest, hard-to-follow prose one can find outside of a mathematics textbook. After my attempts to read the fragments collected in The Celtic Iron Age, I appreciated the summaries presented in Celtic Heritage. This chapter also provides a groundwork for the analytical chapters that follow. “Darkness and Light” was perhaps my favorite chapter, because it discussed myths and folklore simultaneously, putting folk traditions into a mythological context and offering a snapshot of traditional life. The following chapters also attempt to break other aspects of daily life, like the provinces of Ireland and the notion of a sacred center, into thematic, mythologically-explained elements, but without the detailed interest of living folk traditions.

The second half of the book looks at the myths in sections, divided by periods of the hero’s journey, from birth to death, a fitting and ancient organization “from which the storyteller could easily select his stories to fit the different occasions as they arose” (211). CúChulainn, Finn, Lugh, and even Taliesin are compared and analyzed side by side, and the authors work to draw parallels between the mythical life of each hero. Ultimately, the authors argue the heroes’ lives blurred the distinction between reality and “other,” thus embodying the power of the stories to change our understanding of reality. The heroes’ deeds are not to be emulated by mortal men; rather, “as events in ordinary life, they are, as often as not, fantastic, anti-social, immoral, and catastrophic.” However, the authors argue that we mortals derive meaning from symbols (211) and the power of stories is to transform the unreal into the real. Thus, when the authors say of two mythological realms, “Far from being mutually exclusive entities, the natural and supernatural worlds thus intrude upon one another in a variety of ways. They can help and they can harm one another; they can rob and they can enrich one another,” (308), they might be speaking of our realm of reality and the realm of myth. If Cormac can learn about his real world in the Other World (312), we can learn about our own world in the world of myth.

That’s my academic way of saying these stories can teach us as much as they can harm us if we emulate their violent, incestuous ways. I want to quote extensively from the book here—please forgive me—as I believe the following sentences describes not only the hero’s initiation into adulthood and hero-status, but also the Neo-Pagan reader’s initiation through myth into the world of the Divine:

The discovery that the truth of myth belongs to the realm of drama rather than to ordinary life should not, however, be dismissed as a disillusionment in the modern sense of the word. While it brings a liberation from childish fears, it also exalts the noviciate. As an initiate into the mysteries he can now identify himself with supernatural beings and personify them in the rites (258).

While that quote speaks specifically of personifying, I believe that “the truth of myth” will help us to relate to the deities, call them, and praise them in an informed manner. If we can relate to the deities, we can worship them more appropriately.

In short, this book fascinated me, and I will return to its summary of the Celtic myths and analysis of the stories frequently as I continue to practice an Irish hearth culture. While my personal favorite aspect of the book was its inclusion of folklore traditions alongside the myths, such as the practice of a mock-battle to “win” a bride as in the stories (286), I also appreciated the authors’ inclusion of other Indo-European customs and stories with the Celtic tales. The authors include Dumezil’s analysis of castes, and draw in stories from Europe, India, Africa, and China to place the Celtic stories within a larger cultural context and show the worldwide “heritage” of many common myths. These pre-made connections will help me as I go on to study additional Indo-European traditions.

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