Saturday, September 15, 2007

Book Review: A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick.

I had been previously accustomed to reading Pagan history from the viewpoint of Christian literature and writers, who unfortunately portray this faith as cruelly despotic, ignorant, irrational, filled with hatred and prone to bouts of fiery persecution. In choosing this book I was seeking a balanced, informative and historically accurate account of Pagan culture from an objective perspective. I began to read with some trepidation as to whether the book could fulfill my criteria, knowing that Prudence Jones is a respected Pagan academic. However, she clearly remained within the stringent ethics of scientific research and enquiry, carefully laying out her extensive 20 year period of dedicated study into this subject.

The first amazing revelation for me was the authors etymological elucidation of the term ‘Pagan’ and its origins, misuse, and applications throughout history. She forwards a correct working definition in combination with the principal characteristics of its use within an animistic religion. As a modern spiritual movement Paganism is a holistic, earth-centered, Goddess orientated, polytheistic, theophanic religion, having as its foundation the values, ethics, culture, reasoning and rituals of ancient, pre-monotheistic societies. My understanding is that the core principals of Paganism are its capacity for inclusivity and pluralism: essentially possessing the capacity to hold or incorporate almost any philosophy, notion or spiritual concept.

Jones manages to assess the entirety of European Paganism, from the pre-classical civilization in Crete (circa 2800 BCE), through to the Greeks, Etruscans, and the Romans up to the fall of the empire; the incorporation of foreign cults from the east such as the worship of the Egyptian Isis, Mithraism and Christianity. She also considers Islam, the Irish and Celtic world, the Germanic peoples, the Baltic, Russia, and the Balkans to Byzantium. From the high Medieval period (950-1350) her story takes the reader through to the renaissance and the reformation, the great witch hunts (1480-1650), the age of reason and science to the principle romantic revival movements of the 19th century; the Druidic revival at Primrose Hill in London in 1792, the romantic notions of Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) and Neo-Paganism in the 20th century typified by the Order of the Golden Dawn, Theosophy, Wicca and Celtic Druidism.

Several observations and accounts of the author improved and enlightened me. The appraisal of the ancient and classical Greek and Roman pagan faiths were contrary to my previously held understandings and gave a more realistic and accurate picture. My perceptions of ancient Greece and Rome were colored by ideas of empirical, domineering and arrogant cultures. I was surprised to learn of their day to day faith, hearth cultures, belief in spirits, numerous deities and complex organization. I found myself truly inspired by Jones account of the actual mechanics of ancient pagan spiritual practice, this not being a subject I had encountered before. I was also struck by the manner in which political allegiances affected the status of paganism as official religion in many countries, that there was an ‘ebb and flow’ of belief and practice (Christianity did not simply replace the old order); groups or individuals reverting back to their prior religious path or even holding a dual faith. Just as amazing for me was to discover that there were Pagan intellectuals, polemicists, and apologists working to defend their faith against Christian incursions.

As I read on to through the historical accounts I realized that as a religion Paganism has never really died out, being practiced in some form, in some way somewhere in the world. As the Catholic Church spread across western Europe it incorporated many Pagan rituals, the reformation preserved the ancient languages and dialects of people through the translation of the Bible. Jones's conclusion is that Paganism is constantly being reaffirmed, repackaged, in constant revision within the context of establishing itself as a movement concerned with balance, harmony and social equality, a spirituality that is complimentary to rather than at odds with mainstream forms of belief. Modern Neo-Pagans are not concerned with hierarchy or dominance, and it is comforting to know that the voice of a relative minority is leading the path with spirituality married to ecology and humanist concern on a global platform.

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