Pagan Britain, by Ronald Hutton

Sarah Semple on the ritual and romance of this island story’s early chapters

January 2, 2014

This is an expedition into deep time: a meticulous critical review of the known and sometimes shadowy rituals and beliefs in the British Isles from early prehistory to the advent of Christianity. Pagan Britain charts what we know of human spirituality across some 30,000 years. Such a broad sweep might have lapsed into mere description; instead, Ronald Hutton brings the discussion alive with detail and debate, interspersing accounts of key findings and theories with critical vignettes of the moment of discovery or the character of the antiquarian in question.

Drawing on archaeological and historical evidence, Hutton sets out what we know of prehistoric and early historic religion. He begins with some of the extraordinary early surviving Palaeolithic art found in British caves, then traverses the monumentalised Neolithic landscapes of Ireland’s Boyne Valley and Wessex’s chalk-lands, the sacred fenlands and pools of eastern England and the wild coasts of West Wales and North Scotland marked by prehistoric tomb-shrines and Viking burial mounds. The emphasis on landscape seems almost Romantic, but it accurately reflects archaeology’s recent preoccupation with place and the sensory qualities of spiritual and religious experience.

The use of material culture to explore prehistoric and proto-historic ritual practice remains contentious. Although significantly advanced by cognitive archaeological approaches in the late 20th century, many strands of interpretive work have drawn criticism. The great merit of Hutton’s approach is his willingness to eschew orthodoxies, and present and debate multiple viewpoints. In discussing ancient monuments such as Stonehenge, he considers contrasting recent interpretations – their possible roles as seasonal ancestral shrines, or places of healing whose stones possessed curative properties. Familiar themes are set against less popular and well-rehearsed interpretations.

Such multivocality makes Pagan Britain invaluable for a general audience, focusing on continuities and discontinuities of tradition and evidence in the archaeological and historical records. It also facilitates Hutton’s aim of stepping back from any single imposed view and presenting evidence and interpretations with clear oversight of the data’s limitations. Traditional viewpoints connecting painted and carved Palaeolithic images to fertility and hunting are set alongside more recent theories, such as those that connect more abstract early prehistoric imagery to the visuals one might encounter in entoptic or trance-like states. The rise and fall of arguments for the existence of divinities such as a female goddess in the early Neolithic are also carefully reviewed, and we are encouraged to consider that diverse meanings may well have existed.

This multiplicity works best when dealing with prehistory. When written sources provide some guide to contemporary practices, greater tensions emerge in rationalising textual and archaeological sources. Hutton’s discussion of early medieval Britain rightly makes reference to the sparse, difficult, written sources of the Christian era that mention pre- and non-Christian practices. Although he handles these critically and sensitively, when considered in the long view, their presence begins to feel like a constraint: accounts of designated deities including goddesses, the presence of cult structures and even male pagan spiritual leaders seem to demand that such things should be looked for even if they remain elusive. In terms of the late prehistoric, Romano-British and early medieval eras, archaeology arguably is beginning to speak in far louder terms than the scarce written accounts of a rich multiplicity of beliefs, of regional and local places of importance, and of spiritual concerns embedded in the everyday.

The long view leads to an inevitable emphasis on “big” evidence, as massive Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments shadow the more mundane, everyday traces that are the more frequent legacy of the British Isles’ late Iron Age, Romano-British, pre-Christian and early medieval communities. But it also brings benefits, spotlighting repeating traditions in human ritual activity, such as the evidence (via paintings, carvings, burials and special deposits) that caves and fissures were used for special purposes from the Palaeolithic to Romano-British eras.

More thought-provoking is Hutton’s focus on the synergy between the emergence and spread of new technologies and material evidence for innovation and diversities in ritual behaviour and belief. A connection may exist, for example, between the circulation of iron objects in the three or four centuries before the arrival of the Romans and evidence for the ritual deposition of metal objects. Even in the early medieval era, sources attest to a powerful love of material objects, “as beautiful creations which almost possessed personalities of their own”. Bladed weapons were sometimes given names, were “ritually killed” and disposed of in wetlands, and perhaps even at old prehistoric sites. Metalworking and other creative processes may have been seen as potent activities, and the products powerful in their own right.

Another insight gained by looking longitudinally is the repeated reference made by communities to the monuments and special places of past eras, in the revisitation of natural places or purpose-built monuments, for special activity. The scope of Hutton’s appraisal brings into focus the constant renegotiation of the past through material remains. Rather than intense periods of “reuse”, what emerges is a rolling but ever-changing conception of the ancient physical legacies of past populations. Even when two and a half millennia of constant development, mutation and revision of monument types, monuments and monumental landscapes came to an end in some regions of Britain in late prehistory, certain populations continued to collect and curate Bronze Age objects and metalwork. Roman temples and Romano-British shrines point to a new phase of renegotiation of ancient prehistoric sites; in the early medieval era they were reused as places of burial. In these repeating processes lie the physical signatures of shifting conceptions of place and identity, as people created new stories, myths and traditions that connected them to the past.

“Pagan” is a contentious term that has come to have an active meaning in modern society in application to neo-pagan and New Age spiritualism. No one is better suited than Hutton – author of the landmark 1999 work The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft – to handling the sensitive divide between academic discourse on ancient religions and modern popular perceptions of the pagan past. He gives voice to academic and alternative discourses and invites cooperation via “a creative and benevolent partnership”.

In this rewarding book, Hutton asks us to recognise that the activities we see in the archaeological record “attest strongly” to ancient communities’ capacity to “conceive of worlds beyond the material and the immediate”. He acknowledges the tensions and uncertainties of the evidence, but also identifies the multiplicity of beliefs and practices that emerge in times of change. In taking the long view, he offers fresh perspectives on the creative energy of human populations in establishing new rites and traditions or reviving and adopting existing ones. What is firmly emphasised is that “the inhabitants of Britain, from the moment at which they began to reshape the landscape and erect impressive structures upon it, [have] never been truly static or conservative in their ritual behaviour”.

Along the way he unpicks many long-held assumptions, such as the view that Morris dances, Sheela-na-gigs and the Green Man are direct pagan inheritances. He not only exposes weaknesses in existing arguments but also offers a visceral experience of the remarkable and often enigmatic evidence for ancient beliefs, rituals and practices in the British Isles.

The author

“My recreation consists entirely of social life and speaking dates. Ever since I was an undergraduate I have needed to work hard all day and party or perform in the evening,” says Ronald Hutton, professor of history and head of the School of Humanities at the University of Bristol.

He lives “in a funky Victorian house in Clifton, Bristol, into which I try to cram as many friends as possible as often as possible”.

“The most charming thing about living in Bristol is its hinterland, which includes the Mendip Hills and Somerset Levels, the Wiltshire Downs, the Cotswolds, and the Wye Valley and Black Mountains. It affords a regular experience of some of the best of England and the best of Wales, and the most delightful thing is that the city itself by instinct ignores all of this and faces outward to the sea.”

Hutton was born in India and returned with his family to the UK when he was “a couple of years old, and grew up in Essex. India gave me a love of hot climates and spicy food, the latter now more easily satisfied in Britain but the former not. The most positive gain that I made from Essex was a longing for deciduous forest: I am a natural woodlander.”

Recalling his early years, he says: “I had to spend a lot of my childhood alone, and so took naturally to books and so to study. My instinctual interests were in natural history, history, mythology and creative literature, and still are.” 

“I became interested in archaeology because I lived in Malta between the ages of 11 and 12, and the prehistoric remains of the island, so abundant and concentrated, fired my imagination. When I returned to Britain I immediately sought out its equivalents. There was a local archaeological group that I joined, and the school’s Classics Society had outings to monuments. I had no school friends who were as enthusiastic as I for these subjects, but plenty of friends in general.” 

He would go on to study at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford. “I had no trouble in choosing history, because it was taught at my school and archaeology was not; because archaeology was much more scientific (and especially trying to be so at that time); and because I found that I didn’t really enjoy digging much: there were more comfortable and exciting ways of spending my summers. So no regrets – and I haven’t noticed very much interaction between the two disciplines even now.”

Hutton took up an academic post at Bristol in 1981, where he has continued to work ever since, producing acclaimed work on subjects including the Gunpowder Plot, the Civil War, the Restoration and Charles II. Beyond the academy, he is arguably best known for his research into subjects including Britain’s ritual year and folk traditions, shamanism, druids and Wicca. His groundbreaking 1999 study The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft examined in detail the evidence for claims that Wicca was based on ancient pagan traditions that had secretly survived into modern times.

Hutton concluded that Wicca was a mid-20th century invention, with a key role played by Gerald Gardner, an ex-civil servant, Freemason, naturist and self-taught anthropologist; a view that has since become the orthodox scholarly position. However, Hutton also emphasised Wicca’s significance as a religion founded in Britain in recent times, and his arguments were received respectfully by many neo-pagans.

“I wrote that book,” he says of The Triumph of the Moon, “because most British Wiccans had already lost faith in their traditional concept of their history, which was not invented by them but based on orthodox academic scholarship that had become obsolete. I wrote to fill the gap by providing an alternative history that could be tested well against the evidence and turned out to be rather a great tale, linking Wicca to some of the most profound cultural trends of modernity in Britain. That is why I was well received in Europe, but I got a worse reception from some Pagans in North America and Australasia, who were more recent converts and had not realised that the story that they had only just come to believe was wrong. Even there, however, the majority of Pagans were appreciative.” 

Asked if he finds it frustrating that stories about folk traditions, magic and witchcraft that have been disproven by scholarship nevertheless persist as “fact” in the popular consciousness, or that the participatory drama of invented traditions such as Gardnerian Wicca and modern Druidism are much more alluring than the cautious scholarly weighing of evidence for the prehistoric and early pagan practices said to have inspired them, Hutton counters: “No, I think it is natural and rather glorious, as these are exciting and moving images built into the emotional needs of modernity.

“Nor do I see professional scholars as missionaries who need to evangelise the public and bring them to better ideas: it is for people in general to decide what they want to believe. I only feel confident in arguing against recent badly founded ideas about the past because they are almost always not a tradition of the folk but the theories of Victorian and Edwardian scholars. In other words, I am dealing with the products of my own intellectual and professional forebears, and we are all entitled to argue with our grandparents if we think that they are wrong,” he adds.

If he could have the gift of any skill he does not now possess, he says it would be “an exceptional talent for learning languages fast and well, so I could read scholarly works in a wide range of them rapidly and confidently, instead of doing so slowly and usually with frequent recourse to a dictionary, in a limited number of tongues”.

Asked to choose a personal favourite from among the British Isles’ many ancient sites and monuments, Hutton names “a Neolithic long barrow at Gatcombe Lodge, on private property in Gloucestershire. It has the only perfectly preserved stone chamber of any Neolithic tomb shrine in Britain, never restored at all in modern times and left just as the Victorian excavators found it. I find it wonderful just to be able to sit in something built almost six thousand years ago and totally intact.”

Karen Shook

Pagan Britain

By Ronald Hutton
Yale University Press, 400pp, £25.00 and £36.00
ISBN 9780300197716 and 98584 (e-book)
Published 21 November 2013

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments