25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Research, a Little Depressing
A fantastic, well-researched guide to the pre-Christian peoples of Britain, from Stone Age to Christian times. This book is especially good for Neo-Pagans, as it addresses many of the theories popular in Neo-Paganism (e.g., that the Green Man is an old Pagan deity, that Margaret Murray's Witch-Cult really existed, etc.) It's a wonderful antidote to much of the...
Published on 31 Dec. 1998
80 of 84 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The twilight deepens
Hutton readdresses the evidence of pagan religious worship in the British Isles in a generally objective and rigorous manner that comes as a breath of fresh air in the incestuous, incense-fumed world of modern pagan scholarship. In particular, he convincingly dispels many of the romantic inventions that have grown up about the 'Celtic' era in the C20th regarding the...
Published on 9 Aug. 2003 by K. Lester
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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Research, a Little Depressing,
By A Customer
A fantastic, well-researched guide to the pre-Christian peoples of Britain, from Stone Age to Christian times. This book is especially good for Neo-Pagans, as it addresses many of the theories popular in Neo-Paganism (e.g., that the Green Man is an old Pagan deity, that Margaret Murray's Witch-Cult really existed, etc.) It's a wonderful antidote to much of the misinformation that gets promulgated in popular writings. The only drawback is that the book gets to be a bit depressing by the end. We know very little about Celtic religion and even less about the faith(s) of their Neolithic forebears. Hutton sticks scrupulously to the evidence, so he frequently ends up saying, "X is possible, but we don't really know for sure." More speculation would have spiced the book up -- but then again, more speculation would have made it a less reliable text, so maybe it's better the way it is!
80 of 84 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The twilight deepens,
Hutton readdresses the evidence of pagan religious worship in the British Isles in a generally objective and rigorous manner that comes as a breath of fresh air in the incestuous, incense-fumed world of modern pagan scholarship. In particular, he convincingly dispels many of the romantic inventions that have grown up about the 'Celtic' era in the C20th regarding the triple-goddess, the 8-spoked wheel of the Celtic year, matrilinear kingships etc.
However, Hutton takes the same approach to the writings of Julius Caesar as many of the Celtic pseudo-scholars that he rightly criticises, namely to go along with his account as long as it accords with his own theory only to disregard him out of hand whenever he diverges from it. For instance, why would Caesar portray the Druids as believers in re-incarnation if that were not the case? He personally knew the druid Divitiacus so was in a good position to know what he was talking about. And if he wanted to convince his Roman audience of the need to conquer them, why portray them as high-minded natural philosophers? Would it not have made more sense for him to describe them as Tacitus did 150 years later as a bunch of barbarian shamans wallowing in human entrails?
However in his zeal to demolish many of the myths that have grown up around Celtic Iron Age culture he has created one or two of his own. For instance he claims that the stories of the Irish Tuatha de Danann and the Welsh Mabiniogion are fabrications of the Christian scribes that recorded them based on the Greek myths. But why would Christian scribes invent stories based on the lives of pagan Greek deities rather than tales that promote a Christian ethos? The Celtic 'pantheon' that they write of is entirely different to that of the Greeks in terms of the characters themselves, their relationship to each other and the stories of their deeds. None of these stories to my knowledge bears any resemblance to any Greek myth and many of them contain numerous excisions and amendments clearly designed to make them more palatable to a Christian audience. Eg, Arianrhod gives birth to Lleu and Dylan through the magic of her uncle Math. Later she refuses to acknowledge Lleu as her son, seeing him as a reminder of her 'shame'. This clearly indicates that the child was conceived by her uncle, but had been cleaned-up by a censorious scribe. There are many incongruities such as this which makes it impossible that the stories themselves were the inventions of Christian monks that wrote them down. Also no story teller worth his salt would invent tales as garbled and dramatically confusing as the stories of the Mabiniogion! Furthermore Arianrhod is the same character as Eithne daughter of Balor from the Tuatha who are clearly survivals from a pre-christian sensibility.
He suggests the White Horse of Uffington chalk figure as being Saxon in origin whereas it has recently been dated to the Bronze Age. This is a reminder that being over skeptical can be just as misleading as being over credulous when examining the evidence. Also his examination of the grail legend makes it clear that he writes from a subjectively Christian viewpoint.
In spite of these reservations I would recommend this book to anybody studying ancient Celtic culture as an invaluable reality check.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars required reading for pagans everywhere,
By A Customer
Whether you have read Triumph of the Moon or not this book is truly a must.
In true Hutton style he continues to explode myths, blast bogus theories, and sifts through the archeological evidence to produce as true a possible picture of paganism in the British Isles, and its conversion to christianity.
From the neolithic, running through briton, celt, roman, saxon, christianity and viking to neo-paganism he charts the course of belief and practice with his usual acerbic style, presenting fact before fiction, and debating such things as fugu's, hillforts, henges ,ley lines, rituals and sacrifice. Declining to proffer his own personal theories, he manages to make it readable, interesting to pagans and historians alike, with a plethora of sources, but dont take my word for it, like triumph of the Moon it is required reading for neo-pagans looking for their real roots and not a quaint myth to follow.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent synopsis of ancient religions,
Ronald Hutton's book is a masterly a survey of what we know, and more importantly what we don't know, and perhaps never will know about the pre-Christian religions of the British Isles. Standing as the book does at the beginning of Hutton's series on religion and ritual from antiquity to the present day, it is by the very nature of its subject (prehistory for the most part) the most generalised. Hutton, however, steadfastly resists the errors made by many populist writings on paganism and limits himself to what we know. Unfortunately we know very little indeed about what our pagan ancestors got up to. We can make some guesses, but as Hutton scrupulously points out -- guesswork is all it is for the most part. Yet as he says, he would never want that to stop any modern pagans from doing the guesswork and reconstructing a working pagan religion. Well worth reading first, and then going on to the others in the series -- 'Merrie England', 'Stations of the Sun' and his latest 'The Triumph of the Moon'.
5.0 out of 5 stars How The History provides context for The Mystery ~,
Remarkable amount of research has gone into this tome. At times the book seems an almost random and endless list of unrelated items linked only by the authors suppositions that we cannot draw any meaningful connections between varied aspects, which whilst perhaps literally true I found to neglect the implied spirit of the thing and that's his point, that nothing is implied and that all is only deduced by incontrovertible evidence. At other times the author seemed to hold an almost ambivalent attitude against the new Pagans uptake and intermingling of the 'Old Religion(s)' but he does this with such good humor and charming acknowledgement of their own very beautiful or innovative if not actually historically true basis that it would be hard to object to his observations. For myself I would hazard that the very evidence referred to does specifically portray that ancient religious traditions in the British Isles did draw from earlier traditions and by necessity did incorporate, or become subsumed by newer traditions that arrived on these shores, yet that something of the former always informed the latter across the ages.
Certainly not a page turner unless you are an avid archaeologist, but still highly recommended as a wonderful source of the material progression of evidence over the centuries and how this may have some bearing on the current Pagan Renaissance.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent resource for research into British paganism,
By A Customer
This book takes everything we thought we knew about British paganism and says 'it may not be so.' The great part about this book is that Hutton has covered the vast realm of paganism and shows that the evidence doesn't always point the the conclusions which we have often taken as fact. The book leaves the reader knowing less about British paganism, because Hutton's thesis is that most of what we've taken for fact has been fabricated. (Note: Hutton's book is not an attempt to discount the validity of neo-paganism and would probably be enjoyed by those who practice modern paganism.) This is an excellent resource for research into British paganism.
25 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Staunch skepticism delightfully delivered,
It's easy to envision Hutton tucked away in his Bristol University office wondering if anyone is still reading this book. Published just as the Internet was gaining wide-spread acceptance, it might have forestalled rash of neo-Druidism, Wiccan and other "pagan" cults the Web has fostered. For example, a search in these pages on "wicca", "pagan" and "druid" returns over 1 400 hits. The "wicca" books may be discounted immediately. Assessing reliable material on "pagan" and "druid" requires close investigation of references - which is the motivation for this book. Hutton insists on reliance on good sources and firm evidence. Modern "pagan" cults have no basis in historical or archaeological data. This work thus becomes a fine discourse on evidence from valid sources and what it can tell us about the people living in ancient Britain. Hutton carefully presents the evidence available from many millennia, declaring, among other things, that local customs far outweighed commonalty of customs.
Hutton's effort can only be called "sweeping" in scope. Using a chronological structure, he takes us from post-glacial British Isles through the invasion and conquest of the archipelago by Christianity. Early evidence lies in graves and their contents. Hutton shows the diversity of structures, body placement, location and other elements indicates that each community followed its own rules. Most, but not all, were adult males. Body orientation and "grave goods" varied with time and place. Even after Christianization local practices were retained for centuries. How far these practices reached into the past remains unproved in Hutton's view. Many "traditional" or "ancient" habits of recent decades likely originated in the 17th or 18th Centuries.
While building his picture of data reliability, he's scathingly critical of those "reading in" the evidence to create false images. The most flagrant of these is the recent "Mother-" or "Earth-Goddess" contrived by Marija Gimbutas and her adherents. Gimbutas finds "divinity" in nearly every artefact - "Venus" statuettes, painted images, carvings on bone. Hutton is more discerning, arguing that we might view the Venus figurines as dolls or invocation to household spirits. They are not, he contends, justifiably viewed as representing a single deity, nor even necessarily a deity at all. He applies this skeptical view to a number of other widely-held suppositions, asserting that what is claimed must be proven. That Gimbutas' unfounded claims for divinities have spread widely, even into university curricula, is sad testimony to the lack of attention Hutton's work has received.
Hutton is, in one sense, far too gentle in his approach in discounting the works of those misreading or inventing evidence. He asks for validation of claims where he could be directly contending with claimants. He has far too much respect for those who don't deserve it. He acknowledges, for example, that Robert Graves' "Triple Goddess" was an invention - as did Graves - but neither has quelled the ensuing adoration of the idea by a credulous public. Hutton also suffers from production cost woes. The illustrations in this book are nearly all line drawings of carvings, implements and figurines. While they illustrate his points, they are devoid of environment, leaving you wondering what else might be brought into the interpretation. There are some reproductions of paintings which strive for accuracy, but they are mostly indistinct. These illustrations are designed to convey the most likely cultural scenarios, but don't contribute to Hutton's presentation significantly. They can all be generally ignored, leaving the reader to concentrate on Hutton's presentation, which is admirable. If his efforts produce more excavations and research where these are lacking, then perhaps this book will have accomplished its aim. His writing is clear even where the evidence is not. Perhaps some of those taking this up will carry on the work to clarify what is missing. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars EXCELLENT, INCISIVE, FASCINATING,
By A Customer
This is a subject that is new to me, and I discovered the book while browsing. What persuaded me to buy it was obvious intelligence, good sense, and high scholarship of the author--comfirming from the first pages that he is a worthy guide. Yes, Hutton is a thinker and no, he is not a believer; but does this disqualify him from studying and passing judgement on monuments and describing ancient ways of life? I would say certainly not. Where he disagrees with other scholars or believers, he disagrees respectfully but firmly, as is appropriate. His writing is lucid, well organized, and a pleasure to read. It's a joy to encounter a true scholar that can confront or explore the past--and the present.
29 of 40 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Demolition job on new age paganism but little to say about our real pagan past,
I bought this book hoping I would learn something about `the pagan religions of the ancient British Isles'. I did not, other than a few crumbs here or there because at Hutton states on page 341 (the last page) we cannot know anything about them as 'they perished along time ago and absolutely'. 'They are lost to us forever'. So there we are, 341 pages saying we cannot know anything - and we - or at least Hutton, does not.
I found this a very irritating book. Hutton appears to enjoy nothing more than demolishing the work of others. His principle target is the neo paganism that has sprung up in the last century, which in his view has no sound basis or lineage. He may be correct but the relish with which he goes about this task is not terribly attractive. He is a demolisher not a builder, which is the weakness of the book. Where he manages to provide content himself, it is mostly in the form of lists of things - like every ancient monument in the UK, or Roman gods. What he does not do is draw any insights from these lists that might shed some light on the answer the title of the book sets out to address. If Tescos can build a world class business by analysing customers shopping lists, I feel a decent scholar ought to be able to achieve a little more than Hutton does with the wealth of material available.
Where he does come across evidence of the persistence of pagan customs he typically rejects it as being unlikely to have survived so long and therefore assumes it to be a recent creation. My recollection is that the Iliad was supposedly passed down by oral tradition for a thousand years, and the Vedas for even longer. Why then is it implausible that we Brits cannot remember through our tales and traditions customs dating back 1500 years?
Hutton makes a distinction between magic - which he does agree has persisted, and religion, which in his view has not, however frankly the difference was lost on me, and comes across as about as useful a piece of academic hair splitting as debating how many angels you can get on a pin head. This does not of course mean that the particular example is not a pagan custom still in use, just that Hutton has not found anything in writing from the pagan past, complete with a date stamp to provide authentication. With such a high requirement of standard of evidence, nothing gets through his filters, and in fact he asserts that the Irish legends are little more than Christian stories as they were originally written down by Christian monks - with that conclusion there is clearly no need to study them further. In a similar vein, all British myths and customs are written off as little more than Greco-roman remnants - therefore again no value no further study. The Norse legends or similarly dispatched. My own recollection of the ancient stories that I have read is that this is not such an obvious conclusion. Nowhere does he provide any detailed arguments for these sweeping generalizations, nor does he go in for the kind of deep forensic analysis and cross referencing from multiple sources that is needed to start to unravel our Pagan past. We are, I assume, supposed to agree with his conclusions because as he frequently points out he is an `academic' as opposed to the mere amateurs that have dominated the field to date. One is therefore left unsatisfied by this rather shallow book. He does a successful demolition job on a lot of new age nonsense, but does not come up with anything better to replace it. Regrettably I bought two books by him from Amazon - I hope the second is better.
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The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy by Ronald Hutton (Hardcover - 22 Aug. 1991)
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