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Demolition job on new age paganism but little to say about our real pagan past
on 1 July 2007
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.