The Pagan Religions Of The Ancient British Isles

Christopher Chippindale | Published in
  • The Pagan Religions Of The Ancient British Isles
    Ronald Hutton – Blackwell, 1991 - xviii+397 pp. - £19.95
  • The Myth Of The Mother Goddess: Evolution Of An Image
    Anne Baring and Jules Cashford – Viking, 1991 - x+779 pp. - £25

Once again this summer, the British watched curious goings-on around Stonehenge, most celebrated of ancient English places. As has happened each June since time immemorial, a 'convoy' of 'hippies' tried to get near the place while the Wiltshire constabulary – regardless of expense – frustrated their yearning; meanwhile, the more official pagans of the Druid orders were caught in the middle of these ritual hostilities, along with others wishing to follow the ancient habit of watching the midsummer sun rise behind the Heel stone. Yet none of these customary performances actually have any antiquity; the Stonehenge free festival goes back only twenty years to the flower-power era, the police resistance to its adherents only to the harsher view of social nonconformists taken in the Thatcher years. The Druids have been going to Stonehenge only since early this century. Before the 1890s not a soul went to watch the midsummer sunrise. All these modern enthusiasts feel they are in some way following the spirit of this great pagan temple, in some manner recovering a true knowledge of their ancient beliefs. Yet Stonehenge is 4,000 years old, and we have no written record whatever of it earlier than the twelfth-century AD; historical authenticity is not here the point.

Ronald Hutton is a general-purpose British historian whose Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles sweeps away our hope of gaining reliable knowledge of these matters. He finds the reticence of the written record in the face of established Christianity so great that very little secure knowledge can survive. Even rituals like the fires of Beltane and other special days of the Celtic calendar have slight historical basis, and almost all the rest turn out to be tradition as invented and as historically insecure as the Stonehenge midsummer or the present ceremonials of the English royal family. Particular culprits are those scholars of earlier generations, like Sir James Frazer and Margaret Murray, who built confident visions of old Europe on no secure factual basis at all. Hutton's book is therefore more necessary demolition than the making of a new story. Always acute and vigorous, it is particularly good on the present-day scene, where paganism is being re-made as an element of New Age beliefs following some supposed historical basis.

As Hutton starts from the beginning, the first part of the book is all from the archaeology, which tells nothing directly of what people believed, but much about what they did, as that shows itself in the material record of burials, ritual deposits, and sacred places. The archaeologicaI record shows great diversity of practices, some enduring for several centuries and some transient. In the last millennium BC, for example, watery places were a special focus, with fine metal objects, detached human heads and occasional trussed human beings placed in them for some special reason.

These intriguing and baffling facts would be much easier to grasp if only there was some universal system, some enduring framework of symbolism and faith which goes back in Europe for ever. Many systems have been thought up. Presently influential among the academics is Dumezil's idea of a distinctive Indo-European triad of deities; a broader audience is now hearing the feminist story of a benign and ancient matriarchy as the good and natural state of European society before the men seized controI with their weapons, oppression and dismal social attitudes.

Baring and Cashford have such a system, as they follow the Jungian belief of a universal subconscious, in which each of us today can draw on past human experience. It then becomes fair and possible to pull together distant and scattered fragments as necessarily part of a single seamless whole. In the vision of their book, all images of women in prehistoric Europe, for example, are part of the myth of the mother goddess, and everything can be interpreted this way – from earliest Palaeolithic carvings, through ancient Egyptian and Sumerian religions, the Old Testament, the place of the Virgin in Christian belief, to aspects of medieval Kabbalism. If only they knew it, they could find much to encourage them also in traditional Australian Aboriginal knowledge and belief, but perhaps the Jungian universal subconscious doesn't travel that far; this kind of programme goes back to the social and anthropological theory of the last century, and it is noticeable how in this scholarly version its 'universal' view is actually trapped within nineteenth-century frames of knowledge and evidence.

In my view Hutton's book, then, is fair and Ievel-headed; so it is in large measure negative – though not as negative as he thinks. Baring and Cashford's is well-meant and diligent, but its base is dreamy; ancient images of women must be images of goddesses, and 'the underlying vision expressed in all the variety of goddess images is constant'. Why they know that the vision is constant is unstated – a matter of faith more than demonstrated evidence. Baring and Cashford's book has the better pictures, but give me Hutton's sensible attitude to history every time.

  • Christopher Chippindale is the Editor of Antiquity, and Assistant Curator for later archaeology, Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthrolopolgy.
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