The Magical History Tour That Is 'Pagan Britain'

Shedding light into passage tombs, beheaded skeletons, and runic scratches, Hutton stays sober but spirited as he takes us through thousands of years of enigmatic, jumbled remains.

Pagan Britain

Publisher: Yale University Press
Length: 496 pages
Author: Ronald Hutton
Price: $45.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-05

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.