Pluralism in ample portion

A History of Pagan Europe
September 22, 1995

On the eleventh page of this book the present reviewer is thanked for acting as publisher's reader, and it may seem strange that I should now have a second chance to air my opinions upon it. None the less, the same note mentions that I refrained before from comment on points of interpretation, and it may be interesting to others to know why I heartily recommended it for publication.

The main reason is that it is so remarkably comprehensive, touching every part of Europe; alongside the more familiar deities of Olympus, gsgard and Tir nan Og appear immortals such as Mehnesis, moon god of Latvia, travelling in his chariot drawn by grey horses, and Kupala, Slavonic goddess of fertility whose worshippers threw garlands into sacred rivers and jumped bonfires. All aspects of religion are dealt with: sacred space, personnel, and ritual. No other work has this range.

Furthermore, it sets out self-consciously to provide a rich and exciting context for modern paganism, by redefining Christianity in minimalist fashion as the writings and practices of the original Christ cult. By this means the bulk of European culture, at all social levels, can be reclaimed for paganism.

The splendid coverage of the book is largely due to the complementary interests of the authors, a classicist partnered with an expert in northern European traditions. All that slips over the edge of this alliance is the Welsh and Irish material, and here there is a literal use of later medieval texts sufficient to bleach the hair of anybody aware of the extreme caution with which specialists now treat them.

This is, however, a small exception. The scope of the book is rigorously historical, omitting the whole vast span of European pre-history, with so many images and monuments which are a major source of inspiration to the present day; yet this limitation not only prevents an already ample book from capsizing, but sidesteps a lot of acrimonious debate and fruitless speculation.

All in all, it is a splendid educational aid, furnishing treats for readers at any level of expertise. The tone is sober, objective, and reassuring, constantly conveying information and defusing controversy. In its own quiet way, however, it is a revolutionary work, helping to nurse into existence a genuinely pluralist, post-Christian, European society.

Ronald Hutton is reader in British history, University of Bristol.

BOOKS History

A History of Pagan Europe

Author - Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick
ISBN - 0 415 09136 5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £25.00
Pages - 220

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