Extra Book Report (was IE Studies)
THE PAGAN RELIGIONS OF THE ANCIENT BRITISH ISLES
By Ronald Hutton
This book is a complex and thorough overview of what is known about the indigenous religions of the ancient British Isles and is at once both thrilling and depressing. While giving lots of information and a feeling of what things might have been like in ages past, it also pokes holes in many cherished theories and ideas popular today.
There is so little evidence of religious practice in the Old and Middle Stone Ages that the idea of an earth mother goddess, cherished by many New Agers, is shown to have little or no basis in fact. Also, the best that can be said of those religious practices, if any, is that they are a mystery to us.
The Neolithic brought us the mound tombs (both round and long barrow shaped) and the sacred enclosures, like on Windmill Hill, Wiltshire. Religious practice has been inferred for these structures. The tombs seem to have not been places to dispose of corpses but rather as religious centers, which played a continuing part in the community, as did the bones of the dead, placed in them. The sacred enclosures were not used for defense but rather for occasional gatherings. The one at Windmill Hill also had burials, and some of the bones deposited there were missing portions from bodies at one of the long barrows. As for which God or Gods these were dedicated to, there is little evidence. Only New Grange and Maes Howe are aligned with a solar event, the Winter Solstice (for sun worship), while the others don't seem to have any particular significance at all in their placement and alignment.
Everything changed in the mid Neolithic, however, with burials becoming permanent and tombs no longer being re-opened. Perhaps this showed a new importance for the nobles of the time, with magic worked through their spirits rather than the spirits of the people as a whole.
The stone circles began to appear in the early Bronze Age in places like Avebury and Mount Pleasant . They were places where large numbers of people could gather. While human burials appear in some rings, they are not in all of them. Also, small rings, almost like local parishes, appeared all over the landscape.
Stonehenge , however, was built upon the site of an earlier stone circle and appears out of sync with the rest of the surrounding countryside. As it prospered, the other, older stone circles in the area seem to have been abandoned or destroyed. It is not known if the populations of the older circles had been conquered or seduced away. But Stonehenge is an elitist circle, as it would have been very difficult to see what was going on inside while standing on the outside. But while there is no conclusive evidence of what the religion of the time was, there is strong evidence that it was one mediated by shamans and that contained a cult of the sun and possibly the moon. But what of the relationship between these early Bronze Age monuments and the heavenly bodies? The author states, “Most stone rings and rows and all surviving ‘coves' do not provide any obvious alignments upon either moon or sun…There is now not a single astronomical aspect of the monument upon which scholars are firmly agreed.”
Then at the end of the middle Bronze Age the great monuments were abandoned. The late Bronze Age, from about 1100 BC to about 600 BC was almost entirely devoid of ceremonial monuments or burials of any kind. No one knows what happened, but two possibilities could be either an ecological disaster (the weather got colder and wetter) or invasion. Or both. The climate changes did happen, and a period of vast migrations of peoples took place all over Europe at this time, so either is plausible.
When Britain emerges into the historical record, it is populated by the Celts. While in the past scholars had assumed that the Celts had arrived in three waves, as in the Irish invasion stories, they nowadays seem to feel that the process of ‘Celticization' instead occurred with the inhabitants of the British Isles slowly importing these cultural traits.
For many years people have used the Irish legends and the Welsh ones, like the Mabinogion, as source materials for the religion of the Celts. However, the author states that scholars now feel that many of the stories were not even invented until the Middle Ages and may not actually represent any old, pagan religious ideas. Some of the Gods certainly existed in the pagan era, such as Lugh, the Dagda, Goibhniu, Ogmha, Brigit, Rhiannon and Manannan Mac Lir. But others are less certain; in particular the Welsh Goddesses Cerridwen and Arianhrod, who may have been invented by Welsh Bards in the Middle Ages.
As for festivals, the great four of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnassadh are all well documented, but there is no evidence that the solstices and equinoxes were ever celebrated. Sacred wells and rivers seemed to be abundant, due to the number of water hoards that have been found. But there is also no firm evidence that there was ever a ‘cult of the head', stories of King Bran to the contrary.
What we don't know, however, is if their ceremonies were intended to ask the Gods for favors or to thank them for the continuing order of things, or both. We don't know if they believed in an afterlife, had an ethical system, if only priests or Kings could conduct religious affairs or even of what their ceremonies or prayers consisted. The faith of the Celts seemed to be an extremely localized one and scholars can make few generalizations.
The coming of the Romans to Britain brought great change to religion there. Many cults from all over the Empire found their way to Britain and mixed with the local faiths already established. Indeed, the Roman names for the deities seemed to be used instead of local names, at least on inscriptions. Epona, the horse Goddess from Gaul was imported (and is very similar to Rhiannon) and possibly also Cernunnos.
Christianity made great headway partly due to being favored by the late Roman government but also had other attractions. The Irish took to it quickly without ever suffering under a Roman occupation. But then, when the bulk of a country's trade and cultural links are with the Christian Roman world, ‘joining in' could be very attractive. After Roman rule collapsed, the Angles and the Saxons conquered much of Britain and brought their pagan gods with them, but they all converted to Christianity in short order as well. In fact, by the 730's AD, when Bede wrote his history, all the old native, pagan religions were dead.
At this point Mr. Hutton's book explores the works of Margaret Murray and Robert Graves. Their interpretations of the evidence were grossly inadequate and involved many flights of imagination, including Dr. Murray's concept of the secret continuity of the old religions down through the Middle Ages until today, using the old witch trials as evidence. Dr. Murray's ignorance of ancient paganism kept her from realizing that the rituals that modern witches were supposed to celebrate were actually just parodies of Christianity and current social customs.
Mr. Hutton also demonstrated that some of modern paganism's favorite symbols, such as the sheela-na-gig and the Green Man, were actually medieval inventions. The maze, while appearing in a few ancient classical situations, only really came into common usage in the Christian era, and there is no evidence that the ‘maze' on Glastonbury Tor ever existed, or that the Tor was ever a sacred pagan site. As for modern Wicca, he credits Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner for creating “what is probably the most eclectic religion in the history of the world.” No ancient God or Goddess worth their salt would ever allow themselves to be invoked to a particular place at a particular time and then be employed by their worshippers. And Wiccans see the Gods and Goddesses as aspects of the great couple instead of the discreet beings they were in ancient times.
Many people seem to feel that if a religion is not “ancient” and with a long pedigree then it is not really valid or “real”. Christianity has now been around for some 2000 years and even when new, could, in a pinch, point to the long, Abrahamic tradition in Judaism as its pedigree. But mere, long usage need not be the measure of truth. The Apostle Paul distorted Christianity so much that it bore little resemblance to its parent. Buddha came out of a Hindu background, but Buddhism has little resemblance to Hinduism. One quote of Mr. Hutton's, however, is worth remembering, “…modern paganism might well be a recent creation which draws upon ancient images but employs them in a new way and for modern needs.” And so to Druidry and modern paganism. While our religion comes out of those of the ancient, pagan Indo-Europeans, it need not actually be a copy of them, but its own truth for the here and now.