Top critical review
One person found this helpful
The Great Pagan Pretenders
on 21 December 2015
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 was instrumental in reviving interest in the writings of Classical Greece and Rome. It fueled the development of secular humanism and its critique of the Roman Catholic Church, emphasising the dignity of man rather than the medieval ideal of subservience to institutionalised religion. It encouraged a search for human wisdom and removed barriers to free thought. In Britain, early eighteenth century attacks on organised religion led to the development of an interest in pre-Christian religions and the foundation of a pagan movement which pretended to have direct links with ancient religions where none existed. It was claimed Druidic teaching could be found in Irish and Welsh folklore and festivals but this was nothing but myth masquerading as history. In practice, Druidism was present mainly in Scotland which drew its inspiration from France. English opinion of the Druids was initially favourable but quickly dissipated when scholars read the ancient Roman texts. This did not prevent some from arguing that the Druids were the heirs of Abraham (at the expense of the Jews). However, as Hutton points out, ' the British have tended to.....draw upon the ancient images of Druids and emphasise their benevolent and malevolent qualities according to taste and to political or religious purpose.'
Ronald Hutton was raised as a pagan by his mother and has challenged two falsehoods which pervaded the pagan movement. The first was that there was an organised pagan religion in Britain in opposition to Christianity during the Middle Ages. The Neo-Druids who claimed there was did so without knowing 'the nature of the religious beliefs and rites of the prehistoric British'. They saw things that did not exist to support their own suppositions. The other falsehood was Margaret Murray's theories of pan-European mother goddess religion. Both these theorists relied on speculation rather than confronting the limitations of the evidence. That evidence shows how little, rather than how much, we know. Necrophilia rather than necessity is the mother of the invention of Druidism. This did not stop Murray's ludicrous claims from providing the base for the foundation of Wicca which combines witchcraft with magic and delusion. Hutton attempts to merge his knowledge of paganism with a tolerance which over-rides his objectivity.
Hutton provides extensive detail and discussion on the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages. Regrettably he provides far too much discussion, making reading painful for the general reader and summarising rather than challenging the academic observer. Throughout, he takes pleasure in describing the historical development of the subject, using critiques as a method of demonstrating the limitations of previous interpretations. For example, the labeling of Britain during the Iron Age as Celtic (a reflection of nineteenth century nationalism) was revised in the 1990s with scholars arguing that Celtic migrations to Britain (if they occurred at all) did not lead to cultural changes. Hutton's discussion of the Romans and their gods (which they knew to be myths) stresses ' the intractable nature of much of the evidence and the diversity of conclusions that can be drawn from it.' It is probable that pre-Roman Britons worshiped several gods and goddesses they believed had power over the natural world and a concern for humanity. In many ways Hutton is like a pagan agnostic wanting to believe the pagan way (which justifies his academic post) but recognising the subject is incapable of proof. In this context, it is reasonable to ask why so much public money is being wasted on such a subjective area of study which should properly be viewed as a private passion.
Whereas ancient gods were mythical inventions, Christianity is firmly based on the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. As such the early Roman response was hostile. Even though Christianity did not present a threat to Rome, the Romans could not assimilate it because of its rejection of other religions. When Constantine began to favour the Christian faith Christianity became socially and politically acceptable which attracted many who were more interested in personal advancement than spiritual concerns. Indeed, Constantine's behaviour as Emperor was nothing like that envisaged by the founder of the Christian faith. Similarly the Christian establishment was a contradiction of the concept of 'Love they Neighbour'. Pagans still existed and the Emperor Julius attempted to restore the largely suppressed pagan religions. He failed. Whether Julius's attempt to restore paganism had any affect on Britain is open to doubt despite the martyrdom of three Christian bishops by pagans. What is likely is that disputes between different religions coincided with economic decline.
The absence of contemporary writings about pagan Britain means most of the evidence is derived from interpreting archaeological findings. So far almost 1200 pagan Anglo-Saxon cemeteries have been discovered and just under 26000 graves excavated. These reveal that cremation was the preferred method of disposing of the dead, although there is some evidence that burial with goods ready for the next world also existed. Pagan gods were often created as political arrangements in support of ruling elites. Between 597 and 686 England was converted to Christianity through the work of missionaries, especially those from Ireland. Such evangelism was helped by the fact it was aimed at the king 'who would then place the full force of his authority and patronage at the service of his new religion'. The native English pagans were not forced into adopting Christianity and often slipped back into paganism when the original royal convert died. As ever, the English liked their religion but not too much of it. Pagan kings were not averse to allowing Christians to exist in their communities and there are no instances of missionaries being put to death for their faith. This absence of conflict ceased when the pagan Vikings invaded Britain, an invasion which severely reduced Christian practice until the Vikings themselves became Christianised.
This tome has a limited audience restricted to those interested in the subject. They appear to be few in number if currently fashionable. Three stars.