Book Review, Indo-Europeon Studies: A History of Pagan Europe

A)  Book review, Indo-Europeon Studies:

A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones & Nigel Pennick

A History of Pagan Europe is a thin little book considering how much information is compressed into it.  The bibliography and footnotes are impressive, the maps of the Roman Empire and of Baltic/East-Central Europe of the 10th-12th century are helpful, and all in all, the book is heavily researched and includes quite a few plates of historical effects from altars and effigies to Samhain cakes and a German greeting card depicting the Pagan sun-tree.

The book starts with defining paganism and the difference between pagan (lower case P) and Pagan, the capitalized version as referring to the religious designation used by the early Christians of those not following their faith as opposed to the preceding version which described people rather disdainfully.  Now this book also deals with a wide variety of Pagan religions, so here in the first chapter it defines what binds each of them together, that of being polytheistic, the view of Nature as a divine manifestation, and the recognition of both a male and female divine principle.

The book then jumps into the earliest of decipherable recorded history pertaining to religion, that being found in Crete though with how scanty information is to examine pre-Roman Empire, what little there is document is presented speedily with listings of God or Goddess names and what objects they are found depicted on or mentioned in and how they can be compared to the more classically known mythos of the Greeks and Eastern Mediterranean as traced through archeology.   This left me with a little inner voice chanting as I read this chapter, “begat this, begat Her, begat Him, begat begat begat.” I do not mean to belittle the research or the content, but it was difficult to keep the mind from wandering starting out the book in this manner before getting into the meat of the discourse.

Where typical mythology books compare one god to another across a country’s barrier line and making great work of assigning what a deity for a specific cause would be called in one country and then again in another country and describing the similarities and similar legends attributed to them, this book while doing those things also makes note of the linear progression of history as civilizations made their conquests through history, recording not only those conquests but also of the political clime.  This book literally marries the history of Europe with the evolution of its religion.

Of course one of our greatest sources of information comes from the recordings of the Roman civilization and what I found interested in the chapters on Rome and the Western Mediterranean and of the Roman Empire was of how the deities were adopted as Rome’s arm spread.  In later eras of religious history a common saying, “those gods of the old religion become the devils of new” may have applied  in later eras, but not here in the ancient Rome of pre-Christianity, where they adopted and assimilated foreign deities into Roman religious culture.   As stated on page 42, “When the Romans besieged a foreign city, they would ritually beseech its protective deity to change sides and come to Rome, where a worthy cult would be set up in the deity’s honor.”

The book continues to document religious structure as well as political controls as Rome expands and contracts, as revolutions and revolutionary ideas are inserted, as temples rise, fall, and are restored until we come to the thorn of my own personal complaint on religion and Man, that of Dualism.

As this book quite thoroughly documents, polytheism was the common thread that bound religions across Europe and continues as the book moves on to the other cultures beyond Rome, but not before inserting the concept that Mithraism introduced the idea of dualism from Persia. Dualism, the concept of good versus evil, is cited as a concept that is perhaps unique to the Middle East in this study of religious history.  While dualism cults came and went with little but a footnote in history, Christianity, which grew under the radar at first, introduced ideas that were not shared by the large populace of the Pagan religions, ideas of charity, heresy, and the concept of sin.  This had me reading pages 58 through 69 over and over again, examining my own gnosis and distain for how the excuse of “stamping out sin” has been a banner for wars throughout history whether it was truly a campaign of religious fervor or merely a glaze masking another agenda from politics to land acquisition.

I found it rather entertaining the way “A History of Pagan Europe” made points of rulers and their subjects changing religious sides more a matter of political advantages rather than that of spiritual revelations and the book documents the restoration of State Paganism, then Paganism’s fall again with Emperor Constantius, and then return of Paganism to the West through a commanding officer, Magnentius.

Moving on, the book touches on “The Celtic World” in chapter 5 with religious practices, shrines, deities and customs, and then Later Celts in Chapter 6, and then they touch upon the Germanic people in Chapter 7 and 8.  Throughout these four chapters the effect of the tug of war between Paganism and Christianity is documented, the tearing down of Pagan sites where Christianity would occupy destroyed sites and build their churches there.  The book documented how when deities could not be expunged, they were adopted through canonizing and claiming former deities as their own saints.

Chapters 9 and 10 were devoted to the Baltics, Russia and the Balkans which were interesting for me in that I’ve run across very little documented study on this area compared to the massive collection of “classical” mythos, the popular Celtic, and the near as popular Germanic mythos with the romanticized days of the Vikings. I found it interesting that the Triglav shrine at Stettin included an oak tree and a holy well.  The book had earlier mentioned the holy Sun Tree of the Germanic people, indeed, the book lists the sacred trees throughout the Europeon Pagan cults from birch to willow and back again as well as many, many holy wells.

“A History of Pagan Europe” concludes with a chapter of Pagan reaffirmation starting with the High Medieval period (950-1350 CE) with Christianity and Islam imposing their monotheism upon the world along with their masculine gender supremacy with a zealous military might, stamping out “evil” from people and lands whether it was wanted or not, for the so-called good of humanity, persecuting Pagans, Jews and Christians of non approved sects.  This final chapter discusses the persecution of Gypsies both for their religious beliefs and in racist fear of their dark skins.  The Inquisition spent two centuries gaining power and then falling away to the Renaissance which according to the authors, the Renaissance became the heir of the Pagan past with Pagan themes appearing in art including a great deal of bronze work notably worked into fountains which I find makes a nice artistic union of Pagan imagery with the sacredness of the wells and “holy springs.” Where dualism and Christianity had torn down representations of Paganism and their Gods and Goddesses, the Renaissance brought them back, including coinage bearing the Goddess of Britain.

Now there is a particular sentence in this chapter that has been singled out by a previous reviewer. It can be found on page 202, “Whenever a Christian chapel was erected by a landowner, then it is assumed to be authentic. Yet comparable Pagan temples are not.”  The previous reviewer commented on the “whininess” of this sentence.  And though I do not particularly like this book due to its writing style (dry as sawdust comes to mind), in defense of this book, its strength of research and well documented resources, this one sentence of opinion stated by the authors I must also defend.  It is something that cannot be documented with facts, but it is an opinion I share with the authors.  So much is made of what is “authentic” and what is “neo” and in my opinion what is “authentic” and “non authentic” is quite often judged so by prevalent Christian scholars and thus prejudiced.

Finally, the book touches on the more modern events in Paganism and religious history with the witch-hunts which were succeeded by the Age of Reason when the witch-hunts were looked back on by rational thinkers as the last outburst of zealots.  The 16th and 17th centuries brought mathematical sciences that overcame superstitions, and art and literature drew inspiration from folklore and pagan stories of ancient gods and goddesses. Studies of Druidism, both factual and romanticized arose and parallel to it, neo-paganism and with it the emergence of Wicca in 1951 with the appeal of the Witchcraft Act in Britain.

Was this book an important read for those of us studying Paganism?  I think so.  The authors paint a fairly non-colored view of Christianity versus Paganism through the history of Europe without taking sides, and as so much of the growth and evolution of the people of Europe and its history is fueled by religion, it is an important aspect of history that too few history books discount.


~ by Spider Lily on August 29, 2010.

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