Pagan Britain

Pagan Britain Britain S Pagan Past, With Its Mysterious Monuments, Atmospheric Sites, Enigmatic Artifacts, Bloodthirsty Legends, And Cryptic Inscriptions, Is Both Enthralling And Perplexing To A Resident Of The Twenty First Century In This Ambitious And Thoroughly Up To Date Book, Ronald Hutton Reveals The Long Development, Rapid Suppression, And Enduring Cultural Significance Of Paganism, From The Paleolithic Era To The Coming Of Christianity He Draws On An Array Of Recently Discovered Evidence And Shows How New Findings Have Radically Transformed Understandings Of Belief And Ritual In Britain Before The Arrival Of Organized Religion Setting Forth A Chronological Narrative, Hutton Along The Way Makes Side Visits To Explore Specific Locations Of Ancient Pagan Activity He Includes The Well Known Sacred Sites Stonehenge, Avebury, Seahenge, Maiden Castle, Anglesey As Well As Obscure Locations Across The Mainland And Coastal Islands In Tireless Pursuit Of The Elusive Why Of Pagan Behavior, Hutton Astonishes With The Breadth Of His Understanding Of Britain S Deep Past And Inspires With The Originality Of His Insights

Ronald Hutton born 1953 is an English historian who specializes in the study of Early Modern Britain, British folklore, pre Christian religion and contemporary Paganism A professor of history at the University of Bristol, Hutton has published fourteen books and has appeared on British television and radio.

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  • Hardcover
  • 496 pages
  • Pagan Britain
  • Ronald Hutton
  • English
  • 14 August 2017
  • 9780300197716

10 thoughts on “Pagan Britain

  1. says:

    So ive read this diligently for a while now in the 4 page conclusion section it tells me that basically we don t really have a Scooby about Pagan man before the RomansI wanted to like it I really did as a lot of research effort thought has gone into writing this but..I feel slightly tricked as Ive not discovered anything amazing revealing from reading this book about Pagan Britain from times before the Romans as I didn t really count the Roman belief system as being a British influence I wanted to know about prehistory, Iron bronze Age man but sadly all we learn are about different concepts, none of which are really proved much of the time is spent disproving theories by the competing archaeologists who put a new modern twist slant onto every discovery as mankind develops we have Christian, Victorian, feminist Marxist views of their time impinged on the findings of the past which is quite frustrating but also in a ways, good to know how such views theories are tainted It s certainly opened my eyes on the subject matter the conclusions arrived at by some, in this the author does a very good job, he is very non subjective in that respect.Its quite comprehensive as it includes sections on extraterrestrials, fairies, witches they all get a mention which makes for an entertaining read. at times.Not enough though to make me sit up go WOW Even when there was it was then shot down in flames a few chapters later with a very disappointing poof thats the deflated balloon variety too It did though get me thinking about it all my own conclusion well everyone else has had a go at it so why not me is thus my own view is that early man was fascinated by the world around him chose to mimic landscapes in his building of early creations He also lived at one with nature It s kinda like today as the majority of us look upon landscape nature with awe it s not a great leap to believe that our ancestors in their own way looked upon the land mother nature if you like with perhaps a certain reverence.

  2. says:

    This may not be the definitive text on paganism in Britain before and during the Christian era but it is not going to be easily bettered in terms of grand narrative.Hutton s approach, not at all unsympathetic to the way we all imaginatively reconstruct the world out of slender evidence, is highly sceptical of academic claims to know very much about paganism.Until we reach the historical record, imperfectly represented for Roman evidence and only becoming clearer during the Middle Ages, what we have is material evidence that can be interpreted in many ways.Over and over again, he takes a site or an artefact or a deposit and shows us how little we can be certain of what it may have meant to the people of its time.The book, for much of its length, runs along two parallel tracks a precise description of the evidence to hand and an account of how earlier and current generations of academic have interpreted it.We are all used to books of archaeology that give us inordinately dull descriptions of pots and post holes and then, having flummoxed us with facts , try to persuade us of something we cannot argue with.Although Hutton s book has its share of descriptions of burials and stone circles, just as we are about to stifle a yawn, up he pops with a bit of intellectual history that makes it interesting again.His fundamental scepticism about claims is refreshing which is not to say that he is not describing significant progress in the archaeology of belief if only to show how evidence can strip away old theory.As he suggests, the evidence has the virtue of not permitting certain beliefs to hold water e.g that the Egyptians built Stonehenge but it has the vice of allowing a great deal else.His response is to be tolerant to let a thousand flowers bloom of academic suggestions and counter cultural beliefs so long as none claims the mantle of evidenced truth.From this perspective, the book is invaluable He strips away the nonsense of the great goddess as truth but permits women to invent her even if it clearly turns some of them into irrational harridans.He does similar knife jobs on the survival of the old religion as witch cults, the Celtic goddesses allegedly to be found in Celtic literature, Heathen survivals and .Perhaps the best chapter is the last where some historical evidence can be added to the archaeological yet even here texts prove slippery and contingent with much later invention being misinterpreted.His critical analysis of all the evidence, written or otherwise, tells us that we are unlikely ever to know what pagans actually believed and did before Christians arrived and started writing texts.Hutton is also fair to the totalitarian religion that replaced paganism He elucidates its power well and is persuasive that it did, indeed, almost entirely replace paganism without permitting survivals.He reinstates Britain as a fundamentally Christian country between the integration of the last pagan Scandinavians and the recent arrival of secularism, atheism, pagan revivalism and imperial migration.Indeed, from this perspective the last three hundred years or so of rationality looks a little exposed and vulnerable in the long run of 5,000 years though perhaps palaeolithic man was rational too.In that last chapter, he takes a surgical knife to almost every claim of pagan survival from the sacredness of yew trees to the existence of Herne the Hunter so that we are left with very little tangible.What survives is a generalised set of cultural assumptions that do seem to have survived Christianity simply because they were not a challenge to it and were largely expressed as folklore and cunning.He is persuasive that belief in fairies and elves is an ancient pre Christian survival and there are a number of other customs and habits that may be but almost no identifiable folk rituals.The final picture is one of a somewhat anxiety driven middle class rediscovering paganism in response to modernisation and desperately seeking proofs that are not there of meaningful continuities.Many appropriations are purely political especially for feminism but also as reflections of the uncomfortable status of the middle class in relation to its own working class and the colonised.Hutton is persuasive that what we might attribute to pagan sensibility was actually fully Christianised in the sense that no one believing in folk ideas or doing folk acts was not self defined as Christian.This book will be troublesome to true believers who want belief to be true Hutton is tolerant than me in that he wants us to have respect for belief rather than my view respect for the believer.He leaves open the door to the right to accept an unproven belief which is going to be no worse than believing Christian claims so long as it is definitely not contradicted by the evidence.And, of course, the nature of the evidence means that a lot of reconstructionist neo paganism cannot be contradicted as a claim about past belief Phew Like Christianity, neo paganism can be absurd.A pagan Kierkegaard might now with justice throw himself or herself into the Mother Goddess or communion with Nature or Odin without having to worry about most claims by most archaeologists He is, consequently, as tough or gentle with his fellow academics as with believers and he maintains his scepticism about their claims being anything than probabilities and possibilities Even , he recognises that counter cultural theories about survivals or the beliefs of the ancient may have been shown to be wrong headed but they did stimulate important lines of research.Although most cases result in investigation showing why the counter cultural belief was false, this is far from the case in every respect sometimes, the line of enquiry throws up new evidence.Although ley lines now seem to have no basis in fact and archaeo astronomy is highly problematic, serious investigation of both has thrown up new facts to consider He thus places counter cultural believers in, say, earth mysteries much closer to most academic theorists as really not that different in their relationship to truth telling.Both sets of believer really can believe that they have the answer to the same evidence under conditions where neither can prove their claims, merely offer contingent probabilities and possibilities.This is why the book is so useful It offers us a senior academic s assessment of academic epistemology and it comes to a conclusion that is highly sceptical possibly an edge too much so in the last chapter.There are philosophers today who are also asking similar questions about their own discipline, beginning to question whether they are destined always to go round in circles on some central questions.The value here lies in demarcating the so called social sciences the exploration of what is human that is not hard biology much from the hard sciences which have laws and can create technologies.This is important because the soft sciences are making claims increasingly in political contexts that are merely probabilities and possibilities and have always done so, sometimes dangerously.The point is that, as with half baked genetics in the nineteenth century, soft scientists are in danger of claiming that they can provide technologies of social control above all.This book and other humanist contributions rightfully help us to be sceptical of theory based on evidence with multiple interpretations and sparse or selective in its nature So much for nudge By repositioning archaeology as a hard science in terms of provision or critique of evidence but as a humanity in terms of its interpretation of evidence, he does a great service.He runs both positions in parallel in this book to the benefit of the discipline We thus feel confident about the facts but decline to accept the fact definers as than guides to interpretation.Not only can facts be overturned after all Christ just could appear in all his glory on Tuesday morning but interpretations are seen as highly contingent on social conditions and personal prejudices.Hutton shows that the history of archaeology has included a Mulderian need to believe and, if this is so, then the need to believe is a human quality that neo pagans have as much right to.However, what he also does is reintroduce us to the concept of judgement, weighing up all the options and sceptically waiting until the balance of evidence holds little other than one interpretation.Very few claims about the actual beliefs and behaviour of pre historic Britons hold water in that context We are faced with hypotheses that we should treat as or less plausible stories.Nor can we expect this situation to change All early historical texts are unreliable Stones do not speak Our ancestors cannot be brought back from the dead So much has been destroyed.

  3. says:

    This is yet another book that gives an overview of pagan European cultures from the Palaeolithic to the Dark Ages I ve read so many of these lately that I admit that I m starting to find it slightly soporific This book focuses on Britain in particular, as opposed to the whole of Europe, but nevertheless it ends up covering much of the same ground That said, I do like how up to date the book is with current thought in the archaeological field It rejects the male female dichotomy that was one time applied inexplicably to Palaeolithic art, and David Lewis Williams later ideas about shamanic symbols And in contrast to the two others books I ve recently read about pagan religion in Europe Jean Markale s The Great Goddess and Marija Gimbutas The Living Goddesses Ronald Hutton takes a much objective view, noting the lack of evidence for a unified mother goddess and pointedly highlighting how this hypothesis arose out of Romantic idealism of the 18th century In other words, whilst early religions were replaced and appropriated by later ones, the notion of one unifying European goddess has to do with wishful thinking than the facts, and is just a bit too far fetched Just to be clear, Hutton does not deny that ancient peoples worshipped goddesses only that there was one single unifying, monotheistic goddess across the entirety of Europe To the contrary, it seems clear that ancient peoples worshipped a wide variety of distinctly local and unique goddesses and gods Hutton also thoroughly examines and debunks crackpot nonsense about ley lines, water dowsing, Atlantis, and ancient aliens, to boot I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this.8 out of 10

  4. says:

    This is one of those books that you see in the book store, you read the back and find yourself intrigued.Sadly, while it does a great deal of work speculating on what COULD have been, what MIGHT have been, what SHOULD have been, there is far too much inconclusive postulating about what could have been that you end up feeling like you ve not learned everything as each every time you feel like you picked up some information that could stand up to scrutiny, the rug is pulled out from under your foot and you re back to square one.This book could have easily been condensed into the following sentences There were Romans who became Christians When Rome left, there might have been pagan practices develop There might not We just don t know At least that way, you d be spared almost five hundred pages of pontificating, pondering and vagueries.

  5. says:

    What a fantastic book One learns from one book by Ronald Hutton than from a whole library of folklorism and esoterica , and that is particularly true for this book It s 400 dense pages in which Hutton with his typical flair and clarity discusses the archaeological, textual, and symbolic evidence about paganism in Britain This book retains Hutton s characteristic union of extremely solid historiography and scientific discussion with a personal sympathy for the validity of mystical, neopagan etc interpretations of the past, but unlike some of his previous works does not concern itself with neopaganism itself or the reception history as separate topics Here, the discussion is strictly limited to historical paganism in Britain, from the Paleolithic to the last Viking vestiges As one might expect, the general conclusion from the work is that we know next to nothing of prehistoric paganism and little indeed about historic paganism, simply because such material evidence as there is allows for too many different interpretations But those interpretations and their discussion are fascinating in their own right Hutton clearly sets the boundaries of the possible He does not hide his assent to the strong scholarly consensus, still not well reflected in the popular view, that essentially nothing remained of any historic paganism as a religion rivalrous with Christianity after the last conversions of the Danes in the Middle Ages He also discusses why this is and why so many have wanted to find the opposite, and a particular topic of his interest engages with the ways in which Christianity did give new substance to old moments in the ritual calendar and provided parallel services to fulfil the same needs of the old faith He has written in detail on this in other works as well Such hoary topics as the Mother Goddess, human sacrifice, and the Green Man make their appearance also and are deftly dealt with.The emphasis in the work is on archaeological evidence than on philology and linguistics, but this is as much because about 2 3rds is concerned with prehistoric paganisms as because of a greater interest in material culture The general point of the book is not just to give an excellent overview for the informed lay reader about the state of knowledge on historical paganism in Britain, but also to make the very Huttonian historiographical point that it is good to openly acknowledge how little that knowledge really is, and to encourage the public to engage with and interpret such evidence as there is according to their own needs and desires within the bounds of the possible rather than forever seeing the domain as the scene of a turf war between professionals and speculative amateurs.

  6. says:

    Hutton argues for an informed plurality of interpretation, grounded in the known facts It is not possible for example, to argue convincingly that Stonehenge was built by extraterrestrial aliens, Mycenaeans or Egyptians, or dates from any period other than the third millennium BC It is equally impossible to declare that it was a factory or a royal dwelling or anything other than a ceremonial site It now equally at odds with the evidence to publish the view that Early Neolithic Britain did not know anything resembling warfare, or that any active pagan religion survived anywhere in the island, in opposition to Christianity, throughout the Middle Ages let alone much longer Much else, however, regarding the nature of prehistoric British society and religion and the way in which ancient paganism blended with medieval and early modern pagan culture remains entirely open to personal choice 398 It s an interesting approach Outline the evidence, present the often conflicting interpretations, in some case track the history of those fashions, then, when certainty is impossible, as it in most of the book, step away and encourage an informed subjectivity.Basically, nothing is known about the specifics of prehistoric belief, very little is known about pre Roman or Anglo Saxon beliefs, the idea that paganism surivived into the Christian middle ages as some kind of organised, underground belief won t hold water Beyond this you are on your own.I see the point, and admire the approach, but after a while it feels as though Hutton is trying so hard to be reasonable that he begins to sound evasive I don t share his belief in the power of evidence I suspect there are people who are convinced Stonehenge was built by aliens and will continue to believe so, because Hutton is the last person to pretend anyone can prove they didn t Just as there are people who are convinced Druids have existed in secret enclaves until they emerged again in the modern period and that witches were the devotees of a female earth cult that predated Christianity One aspect of Hutton s writing that is very enjoyable is the way he can almost become a different writer when he is describing landscape Brief passages of natural description, some of only a few words, some a sentence or two, bring the landscapes he describes to life.

  7. says:

    A wide ranging review of sources, with a fair minded guide Holds the interest throughout, although at times I felt definitions were a little too fuzzy and individual subjects like the cult of saints were maybe dealt with a little cursorily Also had the usual downsides of concentrating on a specific geography you can t bring in enough contextual sources without losing all the focus.The conclusion, which put experts in the role of providing non experts with the constraints and information to make an informed decision about some culture specific questions looks a little over optimistic, given the current bad tempered culture wars, into which so much history is roped in.A good read Always an enjoyable author.

  8. says:

    This is one of those books where you learn something new on every second page, and the pages in between those each give you pause for thought The main thing you learn is that many of the commonly held assumptions about this topic are simply wrong, and that much assumed ancient pagan practice or evidence has in fact a much younger pedigree Still I do like the way that while he politely and painstakingly unpicks the supposed deep history of many of these things that he still leaves space for them to still be an important or comforting symbol for some people despite losing their claimed deep history.

  9. says:

    Spotted in The Guardian To seek the best deal

  10. says:

    Professor Hutton is, perhaps, one of the most affable and publicly recognisable academics in Britain today and, arguably, its greatest authority on this country s pagan history and heritage In this volume, he sets himself the task of surveying the rise and fall of paganism in our island story, from the distant Palaeolithic to the early modern period However, whereas the matter of the pagan revivalism of the past century is touched upon, it is not treated in any depth in itself, although it is considered in connection with the retro projection of its beliefs, and practices, into the distant past He has previously dealt with the subject matter of the history of Wicca in his book, The Triumph of the Moon A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, a work that, apparently, caused umbrage amongst certain elements of the contemporary pagan community The primary message that came through in this thorough and engaging treatment of the subject was this there is much that remains in terms of the material legacy of the pagan past, yet next to nothing with respect to our knowledge of the concrete beliefs and rituals conducted by pagans at various points in the pre Christian era of our island Much of what is commonly supposed about the pagan beliefs of the inhabitants of Britain is little than that supposition, based upon the most tenuous of textual evidence, and erroneous conjecture arising from the once widespread belief that the uneducated mediaeval populace adhered to a basically pagan set of beliefs beneath a superficial veneer of Christian piety None the less, it is this very absence of certainty with respect to the beliefs and practices of our pagan past, in which much of this subject s charm and appeal inheres it is cloaked in an aura of mysticism Hutton marshals and interprets an impressive array of evidence to provide an outline of developments in ritual practice From prehistory we by definition have access only to archaeological remains, but this period has bequeathed to us such a rich legacy of different types of ceremonial monument henges, stone avenues, barrows cursuses, dolmens, etc that it is evident, thanks to the development of carbon dating, that beliefs were far from static From the Mesolithic onwards, there were significant shifts in monumental form, with many sites the most famous of all being Stonehenge being refashioned over the centuries and millennia, presumably to keep pace with changing ritual practice and belief As to the detail of the actual substance of these beliefs the names of any gods, goddesses and spirits called upon and propitiated, and the mythologies attendant upon them they will forever remain beyond our grasp Only with the entry of the island of Britain into the orbit of the ancient literary cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, do we find any indications as to what these beliefs and deities were, and even then, what we are left with is fragmentary and, perhaps, rather tendentious in nature it does not present us with an objective ethnographic commentary on the beliefs and practices of the ancient Britons We remain in the historical twilight Rather is known about the religious beliefs and practices of the Roman conquerors, and cult precincts and associated dedicatory inscriptions reveal that many of their gods and goddesses were revered here, often, as elsewhere in the Empire, in syncretistic form with native deities, with the most famous case being that of Sulis Minerva at Bath To what extent the coming of these new deities supplanted those already resident in the imaginations and devotional practices of the island s inhabitants is unknown, but it could be argued that an eclectic form of fusion and co existence took place, before Christianity asserted its grip One question that will also forever go unanswered will be the extent to which late Roman Britain was Christianised Evidence exists such as from the Romano British pagan temple at Brean Down that non Christian beliefs were still adhered to in the second part of the fourth century, which would be consonant with Julian the Apostate s 361 363 attempt to revive Hellenistic paganism However, by the time that Theodosius the last Emperor to rule over both the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire began to vigorously enforce Christianity as the sole state religion from the 380s onwards, Roman Britannia was already in a position of significant material decline and marginalisation, and would be lost to the Empire in 409 or 410 The pagans of post Roman Britain left us no written record of their beliefs and practices, and all we have to go on are a handful of hostile references produced by Christian scholars such as Gildas and Bede As Hutton emphasises here, we possess only the most tenuous of knowledge relating to the newly arrived deities beyond their names Woden, Thunor, Tiw and Frigg Indeed, he calls into question the commonly believed assumption that there was an Anglo Saxon goddess named Eostre This appears to possess but the flimsiest of foundations, with Bede s supposition that Eosturmonuth was named after such a goddess likely to have been a misunderstanding, with the name of the month equivalent to April , simply meaning the opening month, which Hutton suggests could well refer to the unfurling of leaves The material evidence for pagan belief during the fifth to seventh centuries is even scant than that of earlier eras, for no single pagan temple from this period has been conclusively identified in Britain What we are presented with, however, are changes in burial practice, that are clearly not Christian, and often include the interment of grave goods alongside the Saxon dead It seems, however, that once the Anglo Saxon, British and Pictish elites had adopted Christianity, the new religion readily established itself amongst the mass of the population What greatly eased this transition, argues Hutton, was Christianity s ability to present its new followers with an array of saints who functioned in a manner analogous to that of the old gods and goddesses who looked after a particular sphere of life, or a particular place There is much that Hutton discusses in this book with respect to possible pagan survivals, including mediaeval Welsh and Irish textual sources, as well as folk traditions relating to a parallel supernatural realm populated by fairies, hobgoblins and so on However, once the pagan Danish settlers had converted to Christianity, it is Hutton s opinion that paganism ceased to operate as a coherent system of operational belief within the island of Britain He also dismantles the widely cherished belief in a prehistoric Great Goddess, tracing the emergence and development of this concept in modern times, and uses the concept of human sacrifice to show how remains particularly decapitated ones can be used both in favour of this theory, and against it His treatment of these issues, and the subject as a whole, is even handed, pluralistic and non prescriptive He encourages the reader to reflect, and to draw his or her own conclusions with respect to the evidence presented For anyone interested in this area of our history, this book makes for a rewarding, and essential, read.

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