Book Report: Indo-European Studies

A History of Pagan Europe. Image from Goodreads.

A History of Pagan Europe. Image from Goodreads.

Jones, P. and Pennick, N., A History of Pagan Europe. Routlegde, 1997.

A History of Pagan Europe is an introduction to the religions and cultures of pre-Christian Europe, ranging from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Celtic, Germanic and Baltic peoples. Morten Warmind, of the University of Copenhagen, described it as “a promising first attempt at an unbiased view of the whole of European religious history”.

The introduction sets out a manifesto for the book: to “describe the hidden history of Europe [and] the persistence of its native religion in various forms from ancient times right up to the present day”. One of the key themes Jones and Pennick return to throughout the book is the idea that Pagan practices and beliefs survived Christianisation by transforming into “dual faith” or folk traditions. This is not to say that Neopaganism has an unbroken lineage with the past; indeed the final chapter of the book, “Paganism Reaffirmed”, deals with the re-invention of Paganism in the modern age, but the authors do suggest that contemporary Pagan religions have deep roots.

The vast range of cultures and time-frames the book covers means that it cannot go into great detail on any one in particular, but its strength is in giving an overview of European Paganism and drawing comparisons between cultures. As ADF is a pan-Indo-European organisation, this broad overview provides an excellent introduction to several different, but interconnected, “hearth cultures”. Many examples of similar practices, such as holy trees and wells, sacrifices, oaths and home shrines, occur with startling regularity everywhere from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia. Many of these same practices are central in modern Paganism and particularly ADF, revealing a commonality between modern and ancient forms of Paganism.

Fittingly, the book begins with a discussion of the word Pagan itself. Originally meaning “rustic” (paganus) it became a pejorative term used by Christians to denote “non-combatants” in the army of Christ, and later took on the meaning of “anyone who worshipped the spirit of a given locality or pagus“. For a culture to be Pagan, the authors assert it should exhibit several core characteristics including polytheism, nature-veneration, and inclusivity of female deities. In some of their descriptions of Pagan beliefs, one can detect a Wiccan influence: the book speaks of “the female divine principle, called the Goddess”, whereas ancient Pagan cultures were more generally truly polytheistic, with a plurality of individual goddesses.

Despite this gloss, Jones and Pennick are clearly knowledgeable about ancient archaeology, textual analysis and linguistics, and they bring these skills to bear on their description of European Paganisms. Rather than proceeding strictly chronologically, the book looks at different tribes or cultures, divided according to geographical boundaries (sometimes arbitrarily as with Caesar’s distinction between “Celts” and “Germans”) and follows their progress from the ancient past to the often enforced adoption of Christianity. Each chapter looks at the social, political and religious foundations of a particular culture’s practices, beliefs and gods.

The ancient Pagan world was not monolithic, nor was there a clear “progression” from animistic worship of local spirits to institutional polytheistic religion to monotheistic Christianity. As cultures invaded, traded and merged, so too did beliefs, practices and gods. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the interpretatio Romani, which equated local gods of conquered tribes with those of the Roman pantheon, leading to mixed figures such as Sulis Minerva at Bath, England, or the (more absurd) equation of Odin with Apollo and Thor with Jupiter. Gods developed with their cultures, and often took on new names, attributes and roles in the process. This suggests a certain fluidity and liminality to the Pagan deities, by contrast to modernist, separatist “hard polytheism”.

One particularly interesting feature is the book’s focus on the processes of Christianisation in Europe. Many cultures were forcibly converted by invading armies or zealous clergy, while in others (such as Britain, Ireland and some Northern countries) Christianity spread by political intrigue, bribery and legalism. Scandinavian countries held out as officially Pagan until the 11th century, and some Eastern European cultures remained so even later. There even seems to have been some cases of Christian countries reverting to Paganism, as when the Saxons came to Britain, or of kings flipping between the two religions as pragmatism allowed, supporting whomever was currently “winning”.

Even after official Christianisation, the authors suggest that Pagan practices remained. Sacred wells and trees were still revered, and old gods took on the names of new saints. An intriguing corollary of this is that by studying folk customs, especially in rural areas, we might be able to recover some trace of ancient indigenous Paganism.

Coming to this book with very little knowledge of Pagan history, it provided an accessible and thought-provoking introduction to over a thousand years of European Pagan religions and cultures, and was an excellent first book to read for the Dedicant Path. It is essential to understand true Pagan history, as opposed to popular misconceptions, in order to cultivate a living Pagan tradition today. As Our Own Druidry states, “Ar n’Draiocht Fein was founded on the principle of respect for the actual old ways of Europe. We believe that by starting with the foundational remains of Iron Age Paganism we can build a modern system that will serve modern needs and be true to ancestral spirit”.

References:

ADF, Our Own Druidry. ADF Publishing, 2009

Michael J. Dangler, The ADF Dedicant Path through the Wheel of the Year. Garanus, 2010

Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe. Routledge, 1997

Martin Lund Warmind, “Review of A History of Pagan Europe“. Journal of Religion, 76 (4). 1996, pp.628-9 [Online: retrieved from http://www.academicroom.com/bookreview/history-pagan-europe-0 07/06/2015]

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