Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book Review : The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, by Ronald Hutton

I can't say enough about how fantastic this book is.  Not for enhancing your practice (it may actually have you tearing down some of it), not for bringing you closer to nature or your inner self; but for its clear, objective, and wonderfully unapologetic look at the past.  It reaches few conclusions, one of the most prominent being that, with the available evidence, we can't draw any conclusions.  What it does is lay out the facts that we have in an accessible way, so that the reader is free to draw their own conclusions (or not).  The facts that Hutton lays out are drawn from archaeological work, historic resources (including how reliable those resources may or may not be) and observations of modern-day tribal cultures.

Though it was discouraging at times to hear how little we know about the actual religious practices of my ancestors, and indeed how little we know historically about many of the commonly honored deities in Neo-Paganism, I find that with this grounding in actual fact, I am more at ease with most of my religious practice, even those elements that have proven to be modern or at least not based in reliable historical sources.  Now that I see how impossible actual reconstruction is, it has given me more freedom to be a bit 'looser' in my own path - for instance, my enduring admiration for Robert Graves' tree calendar doesn't seem so ridiculous in light of the many other elements of my practice that have been made up whole-cloth in the past.

Also, I feel that this book was part of a major connection with my own ancestors.  Knowing more about their day-to-day life, their intensely regional practices, and what the world was like when they were living in it has brought me much closer to these often distant-seeming presences.  I now know much more about the kinds of offerings they thought the spirits needed, and can fulfill their wishes accordingly in my own practice.  I also enjoyed the large section on water hoards; to me, it shows an intense awe for the deep places that lie unseen beneath the surface waters, something I have personally felt many times.

The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles covers a great length of time, from the first arrival of humans on the Isles (back when they were part of the continent!) up to and including the final spread of Christianity.  There is a large section on the Neolithic period, a smaller one on the Iron Age (when the actual un-Romanized Celts largely populated the Isles, a period from which there is scant archaeological or historical evidence), and a great deal of information on the Romanization of Britain.  I found it a fascinating read, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning just how much they don't actually know about ancient Paganism in the British Isles.

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