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Pagan Britain

Ronald Hutton

(Yale University Press; US: May 2014)

An expert on past and present paganism, Ronald Hutton revises his 1991 survey of practices in the ancient British Isles to narrow it to Great Britain. He peers back thousands of years at rituals, monuments, and remains to surmise how people sought to connect with the sacred and the natural. Those two force-fields mingled in intricate ways, many of which may elude their stony, bony, material traces. A Professor of History at Bristol University, Hutton conveys an immense amount of scholarship in a cautious but lively manner. As with his previous books, he combines graceful prose with an awareness of the dangers of reducing this perplexing topic to romantic, lurid, or airy phrases.


Not that this factual compendium turns stodgy. While any serious presentation of such material means dry stretches will intervene, Hutton keeps a brisk pace. Endnotes pack a lot of references for scholars to pursue. His narrative is academic yet accessible. The evidence being very limited for both prehistoric and early historic Britain, constraints emerge as scholars compete to advance their interpretations. Hutton shows readers how current attitudes towards religion, immigration, feminism, and imperialism warp various theories applied to the archeological record, and how such an endeavor draws in diverse fields, so that scholars wind up discussing and debating across their typical divides.


Sometimes, bewilderment or enchantment seeps through Hutton’s diligent recitals of digs and finds. Paleolithic images at Creswell Crags include in his captions “d) Shapes taken by some to be dancing women, and by others to be long-necked birds. e) So-called ‘vulva’ figures—female genitalia or animal tracks, or something else altogether.” These remind me of Jorge Luis Borges’ sly lists of Chinese marvels.


At Langdale Pikes, a remote Neolithic “factory” for stone in Cumbria’s Lake District, Hutton allows us to glimpse the material and the spiritual as they blend. “The climb to the site is still long and hard, and anyone who makes it enters a world where wisps of clouds still drift along the surface of the land, and silence is usually absolute save for the voices of the wind and of thunder, and where pieces of rock, broken by frost or storm, come loose from their places and roll crashing down from the slopes of scree. It is a place where the majesty of stone is most evident, united with that of the heavens themselves.” Such excursions are rare in this book, but necessary, for we view through a professor’s eye the measured vision, in steady narration, the awe that accompanies so much analysis.


Stones shape into megaliths, dolmens, patterns. These by the New Stone Age after around 3,000 BCE challenge conjectures that they paid homage to a Great Goddess, or that they stood for farmers who conquered hunters, or that they marked boundaries of sacred spaces and/or armed fortresses. Hutton weighs various arguments, but leans towards ambiguity. Often, the closer the evidence gets to the present-day technologies applied to interpret the traces, the less secure the previous theories become.


Even if much has vanished, the stones remain in henges and circles. So do hints of timber-circles and in tombs in turn, the slow pace of many millennia can be sensed. Systems may have been embedded very long in the British archipelago. The average Orkney Islands burial shrine held but 11 bodies over 30 to 50 generations, indicating those interred there must have been particularly favored. Avebury’s stone henge was assembled over a thousand years; a Saxon-era village now surrounds it.


This antiquity attests to the wonder with which earlier Britons regarded these monuments. Its most famous site reveals prehistoric burials nearby, made by visitors from the Continent, marking its long fame. Stonehenge has been mythologized for at least the past nine centuries in writing, and it functions “as a mirror in which modern people can reflect and justify their own prejudices, ideals and expectations.” For example, the two most recent interpretations of Stonehenge neatly contradict each other. One proposes it as a place of magical stones and healing. The other regards it as a stony necropolis, balanced by a nearby gathering place which by its timber affirmed the powers of life.


For the next period, those doughty classifications of short, dark Neolithic inhabitants invaded by what archeologists termed on account of their imported pottery the Beaker People, and then tall, fair Celts who swept in from the Continent, meet their dismantling. Instead, genetic evidence traces trade across the North Atlantic and beyond, when smaller waves of immigrants—then as now—arrived to exchange goods, mate, and settle down with the islanders. Barrows with burials of bodies and bling faded as a warrior elite grew, and as their artifacts and cremated urns gained prestige in cemeteries.


These shifts cause some to attribute them to new beliefs, brought perhaps along with the new imports. Britain chilled, from its South of France ambiance, into Scandinavian levels of cold before resuming what is closer to today’s weather. What emerged as its new set of “ritual practitioners” sparks dissent. Hutton in previous books has analyzed paganism then and now, and this Druid cult past and present.


He sums up these studies and balances them fairly against the counter-cultural champions of “avant-garde spirituality”. Ley lines, astro-archeology, and earth mysteries emerge in the past few decades as the fringe battles the mainstream, and as science and magic square off in the press. Hutton explains that professors rarely rush to defend their archeological turf, as they face derision if correct and dismissal if their findings fail (as they will) to please those who ally with “poetic truth” instead. However, as his endnotes evoke, he graciously thanks many among these ranks for their contributions to widening the scope of scholarship, to take in sounds, colors, lines of sight, and mythic resonances.


Throughout Pagan Britain, Hutton places his own work within these “power politics of knowledge in the modern age” nimbly. He manages to reach out to mavericks whom most scholars ignore, while he advances mainstream scholarship. As an historian, he may be well placed, being slightly outside the archeological camp but trained in the analytical methods his own field shares, while being a fellow traveler who reports from the ranks of British iconoclasts, the unifying theme of his career’s pursuit.


By late prehistory, whatever the former neat divisions of Bronze and Iron Ages now give way to, the ripples of the power that will be Rome enter Britain, perhaps as early as 400 BCE. While Julius Caesar will not land in Britannia to report on Druids until 55 BCE, goods and culture earlier shift far to the north of the Empire, as it comes closer. Outmoded conceptions of Celts as a triple threat of art, languages, and “race” as Hutton explains now adjust to a proto-European Union model, where whatever the continental peoples were before Rome, they seem to have possessed some common cultural elements to loosely unite many diverse nations.


These presences, when excavated from land or water, may by a sensational media gain notoriety if the bodies of early Britons preserved in bogs as “Druid priests” or human sacrifices. Hutton knows too well the dangers of promoting sagas as fact. As with chalk figures still seen on hillsides, or Iron Age coinage, the evidence enduring creates its own problems of meaning, and figuring out what is sacred and what is secular eludes those who now try to decipher the “intractable nature” of evidence. But, one case cheered me as typical of this search.


Near my ancestral farmhouse, since the mid-‘80s reverting to ruin in Ireland, stands what Hutton terms a “burnt mound” (fulacht fiadh in Irish eludes easy translation from “bloody-flesh spit for wild animals/deer”). These are found by the thousands across the archipelago, serving as the primitive equivalent of a hot tub. Professors long figured these were for heating stones to plop in to cook meat. Recently, some conjectured them as logically a place for not only feasting but, in damp weather, warming up in a sweat lodge tent; two scholars in Galway experimented with brewing barley ale via a modern mock-up. Hutton genially figures all three speculations, from evidence, meet his criteria. I dutifully add that a prosaic use has been posited, if less invigorating, just as necessary: doing laundry.


With the Romans, recognizable baths arrived, along with the historical record’s advent. Yet debates over interpreting the depth of British adaptation of Roman ways continue over the evidence found of idols, inscriptions, and images from a presence that at its height numbered 55,000 troops and up to four times the amount of civilian support for that imperial occupation. Given headless corpses have been often interred, as Hutton shows, four plausible explanations can be conjectured for their presence.


An image of a comely nude woman, escorted by two clad if somewhat stouter females, may be a Venus between two nymphs, or a Christian postulant readied for baptism by a pair of matrons. These examples testify to the difficulty of distinguishing native from Roman impacts on beliefs, a process accelerated in later centuries when Romanization had settled in enough to cause some to revert to a retro-paganism as Christianity began to rise, and later as legions withdrew from Britain.


This overlap between persisting Roman and nascent Christian practices, in a time of tumult during the fifth century, creates another difficult period for archeologists and historians to puzzle over. The records of what some would even then claim as the coming of dark ages reflect their Christian panic. All the same, two hundred years ensue in which the historical record, the economy, and the culture appear to have suffered dramatic cessation, as far as the British pagan legacy can be followed. For, while in the east a Germanic-Scandinavian paganism brought by invaders replaced it, this seems to have wiped out previous pagan practices.


In the west of the island, descendants of the Roman colony adapted Christianity in its similarly Roman version, which appears to lack continuity with the Roman occupation, nevertheless. Discontinuity reigns: while the genetic and landscape evidence shows little sign of dramatic British change, the linguistic break from Latin and Celtic and the ethnic divisions persisting between Saxon and native run deep for many centuries after islanders convert to Christ.


While Arthurian fiction imagines shamans, wizards, and magic, Hutton remains firmly suspicious of any Anglo-Saxon presence for such “cunning men” as continuing pagan rather than as eventually Christian, and he repeats his research affirming the lack of any truly pagan practitioner of magic after the medieval acceptance of Christianity in Britain until the twentieth century, allowing for a few mavericks from old, inconclusive reports who may have been instead deluded or plain insane.


Over a few centuries, the scattered redoubts of paganism surrendered to a relentless force. Pagan and Christian rulers fought over which petty or restive realm would be Christian or pagan; for a while, common people wavered back and forth, too. But while indigenous worship was rooted in the local, the Christian manifestation demanded elimination of any rivals, as “more aggressive, determined and monopolistic” a regime.


Yet, Hutton avers that medieval Christians conveyed four patterns that aligned with their pagan predecessors. Polytheism persisted by a cult of saints aligned to trades or holy wells, by a “provision of new figures who offered a parallel service”. Ritual observances led to seasonal festivals, worship opened up spaces for female participation, and male priests kept presiding over sacrificial altars. But, there was no “continuing allegiance to the old deities in preference to Christ” even as rites, usages, ideas and festivals as “trace-elements” were absorbed into Christian and/or popular superstitions.


Herne the Hunter and Ceridwen as Mother Goddess appear, as “back-projections” of modern unease about progress or patriarchy, not pagan deities who have managed to elude 1500 years of Christian crackdown. Hutton examines the Green Man, sheela-na-gigs, labyrinths, hillside chalk giants, as he weighs this evidence for and against his position. Fair-minded but confident, Hutton strengthens his previous arguments which doubt what others have claimed when looking at these as manifestations of the pagan. These artifacts “echo” ancient images and practices, rather than confirm direct survivals.


In conclusion, four-hundred pages of this solidly presented, thoughtful narrative (given the sheer mass of material to sift through and present for both a scholarly and a mainstream audience, no small feat; my only regrets are too few maps and few typos) repeat a characteristic humility for this affable yet eminent scholar of paganism. This is a big book on a vast subject, presented intelligently. It reminds us of how quickly academic “proof” can shift, and the 20-odd years since his 1991 study reveal how technology and our own mentalities filter into dim corners of the past. 


Hutton, shedding light into passage tombs, beheaded skeletons, and runic scratches, stays sober but spirited as he takes us through thousands of years of enigmatic, jumbled remains. While “The Quest for….” and “In Search of…” appeal to those who speculate as if ancient mysteries can be resolved at last, Professor Hutton knows better. He reminds us of “how much we cannot know” as “an opportunity and a strength” rather than as an embarrassment or a hardship” when examining the “common resource” of evidence.

Rating:

Born in Los Angeles but should have been born in my parental Ireland. Find me at:"Blogtrotter".


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