Tag Archives: Britain

‘Pagan Britain,’ Ronald Hutton, Yale University Press, 2013.

Professor Hutton is, perhaps, one of the most affable and publicly recognisable academics in Britain today and, arguably, its greatest authority on this country’s pagan history and heritage. In this volume, he sets himself the task of surveying the rise and fall of paganism in our island story, from the distant Palaeolithic to the early modern period. However, whereas the matter of the pagan revivalism of the past century is touched upon, it is not treated in any depth in itself, although it is considered in connection with the retro-projection of its beliefs, and practices, into the distant past. He has previously dealt with the subject matter of the history of Wicca in his book, ‘The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft,’ a work that, apparently, caused umbrage amongst certain elements of the contemporary pagan community.  

The primary message that came through in this thorough and engaging treatment of the subject was this: there is much that remains in terms of the material legacy of the pagan past, yet next to nothing with respect to our knowledge of the concrete beliefs and rituals conducted by pagans at various points in the pre-Christian era of our island. Much of what is commonly supposed about the pagan beliefs of the inhabitants of Britain is little more than that: supposition, based upon the most tenuous of textual evidence, and erroneous conjecture arising from the once widespread belief that the uneducated mediaeval populace adhered to a basically pagan set of beliefs beneath a superficial veneer of Christian piety. None the less, it is this very absence of certainty with respect to the beliefs and practices of our pagan past, in which much of this subject’s charm and appeal inheres; it is cloaked in an aura of mysticism.    

Hutton marshals and interprets an impressive array of evidence to provide an outline of developments in ritual practice. From prehistory we by definition have access only to archaeological remains, but this period has bequeathed to us such a rich legacy of different types of ceremonial monument – henges, stone avenues, barrows cursuses, dolmens, etc. – that it is evident, thanks to the development of carbon dating, that beliefs were far from static. From the Mesolithic onwards, there were significant shifts in monumental form, with many sites – the most famous of all being Stonehenge – being refashioned over the centuries and millennia, presumably to keep pace with changing ritual practice and belief. As to the detail of the actual substance of these beliefs – the names of any gods, goddesses and spirits called upon and propitiated, and the mythologies attendant upon them – they will forever remain beyond our grasp. Only with the entry of the island of Britain into the orbit of the ancient literary cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, do we find any indications as to what these beliefs and deities were, and even then, what we are left with is fragmentary and, perhaps, rather tendentious in nature; it does not present us with an objective ethnographic commentary on the beliefs and practices of the ancient Britons. We remain in the historical twilight. 

Rather more is known about the religious beliefs and practices of the Roman conquerors, and cult precincts and associated dedicatory inscriptions reveal that many of their gods and goddesses were revered here, often, as elsewhere in the Empire, in syncretistic form with native deities, with the most famous case being that of Sulis-Minerva at Bath. To what extent the coming of these new deities supplanted those already resident in the imaginations and devotional practices of the island’s inhabitants is unknown, but it could be argued that an eclectic form of fusion and co-existence took place, before Christianity asserted its grip.  

One question that will also forever go unanswered will be the extent to which late-Roman Britain was Christianised. Evidence exists – such as from the Romano-British pagan temple at Brean Down – that non-Christian beliefs were still adhered to in the second part of the fourth century, which would be consonant with Julian the Apostate’s (361-363) attempt to revive Hellenistic paganism. However, by the time that Theodosius – the last Emperor to rule over both the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire – began to vigorously enforce Christianity as the sole state religion from the 380s onwards, Roman Britannia was already in a position of significant material decline and marginalisation, and would be lost to the Empire in 409 or 410.  

The pagans of post-Roman Britain left us no written record of their beliefs and practices, and all we have to go on are a handful of hostile references produced by Christian scholars such as Gildas and Bede. As Hutton emphasises here, we possess only the most tenuous of knowledge relating to the newly arrived deities beyond their names: Woden, Thunor, Tiw and Frigg. Indeed, he calls into question the commonly believed assumption that there was an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre. This appears to possess but the flimsiest of foundations, with Bede’s supposition that Eosturmonuth was named after such a goddess likely to have been a misunderstanding, with the name of the month (equivalent to April), simply meaning ‘the opening month,’ which Hutton suggests could well refer to the unfurling of leaves.  

The material evidence for pagan belief during the fifth to seventh centuries is even more scant than that of earlier eras, for no single pagan temple from this period has been conclusively identified in Britain. What we are presented with, however, are changes in burial practice, that are clearly not Christian, and often include the interment of grave goods alongside the Saxon dead. It seems, however, that once the Anglo-Saxon, British and Pictish elites had adopted Christianity, the new religion readily established itself amongst the mass of the population. What greatly eased this transition, argues Hutton, was Christianity’s ability to present its new followers with an array of saints who functioned in a manner analogous to that of the old gods and goddesses who looked after a particular sphere of life, or a particular place.  

There is much more that Hutton discusses in this book with respect to possible pagan survivals, including mediaeval Welsh and Irish textual sources, as well as folk traditions relating to a parallel supernatural realm populated by fairies, hobgoblins and so on. However, once the pagan Danish settlers had converted to Christianity, it is Hutton’s opinion that paganism ceased to operate as a coherent system of operational belief within the island of Britain. He also dismantles the widely cherished belief in a prehistoric ‘Great Goddess,’ tracing the emergence and development of this concept in modern times, and uses the concept of human sacrifice to show how remains – particularly decapitated ones – can be used both in favour of this theory, and against it. His treatment of these issues, and the subject as a whole, is even-handed, pluralistic and non-prescriptive. He encourages the reader to reflect, and to draw his or her own conclusions with respect to the evidence presented. For anyone interested in this area of our history, this book makes for a rewarding, and essential, read.

 

Book Review: ‘The Stations of the Sun,’ Ronald Hutton, 1996.

Dim and ill-remembered shades of blood-soaked pagan fertility rites suppressed by the Church, sanitised and repackaged for a Christian age; attenuated echoes of a timeless, agrarian traditionalism surviving into the urban and rapidly industrialising present. This was the vision of the folk customs and festivals of the British Isles as refracted through the prism of late Victorian and early twentieth-century folklore and anthropology, disseminated and popularised by writers such as J.G. Frazer and Margaret Murray. It reached its popular apogee in the 1960s and 1970s, finding its ultimate cinematic expression in ‘The Wicker Man’, a film which, rather appropriately, held that Lord Summerisle’s Victorian grandfather – an educated, enlightened, yet somewhat cynical man – had reinstituted a reconstructed ‘lost’ paganism amongst the islanders as a matter of expediency in encouraging them to grow cultivars of crops otherwise unsuited to the Scottish island. He seems a character who would have been very much at home with the theories propounded by Frazer and Murray, but enough of this digression into pagan romanticism and cinematic trivia.  

Professor Hutton’s investigation into the traditions of the ritual year in Britain is carried out with commendable objectivity. Claims of survivals from the pagan past are placed under rigorous scrutiny, and in almost every instance are found wanting, with the very notion of the ‘Celtic’ year and its structure being called into question. What emerges instead is not some dim survival of a lost paganism, but of the lost world of pre-Reformation Britain; it is mediaeval Catholicism, rather than paganism, that would appear to give form to much of our ritual year and its associated customs, although not to all of them. Furthermore, the evidence that he unearths suggests that a number of folk customs that were once taken to be traditions drawn from a timeless agrarian society prove to be nothing of the sort, with many – such as some aspects of mumming – being of a much more recent provenance. Some practices, it would seem, were spontaneous creations of popular culture in a largely pre-literate age, in which a socially licensed breaking of social norms was accepted on the part of the younger members of the community. Halloween and ‘Mischief Night’ are the two notable contemporary manifestations of this tradition of youthful social transgression. 

The most detailed studies into the history of Morris dancing suggest that its first appearance was not in some Arcadian English setting, but in fifteenth-century London. This entertainment was popular at the early Tudor court, but by the mid-1520s Henry VIII had already grown tired of the dance, and had it dropped from his Christmas courtly revels. From London and high society, it disseminated outwards geographically, and downwards socially, so that by the early seventeenth century it had spread to many regions of England as a popular pastime. It is not the survival of a prehistoric pagan fertility dance. 

Hutton’s book thus reveals as much about the preoccupations of late-Victorian and early twentieth-century British society – an obsession with sex, fertility and paganism born, perhaps, of the disintegration of traditional Christian norms of sexual repression thanks to the challenges of Darwinism and the findings of anthropology in colonial cultures – as it does about the origins of our ritual year and its associated customs. Any reader interested in these themes will take much from this book, although dogmatic neopagans may not warm to it greatly.  

The only minor gripe that I have with the publication is that its font size is rather small.