Pagan Religions

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The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles; Their Nature and Legacy.
Ronald Hutton.
Blackwell. 19.95.

Ronald Hutton laments in his preface that "there exists no colleague whose expertise covers the whole subject of this book" and he goes on to say that this is "the principal reason for my feeling that someone ought to write it" (p. lx)

In a way, this sums up both the merits and the weaknesses of the book. On the positive side, we are presented with comprehensive coverage of the areas of religious belief in the British Isles from 30,000 BC until 1000AD. Incidentally, the author chooses to use the terms BC and AD, although it is becoming standard among scholars to use BCE and CE; these stand for 'before the Christian (or common) era' and 'Christian (common) era', which is a more objective description.

We are taken through the few examples of British Old Stone Age art, through the sites that are known of the period, to those of the megaliths; through Bronze Age and Celtic Britain to Anglo-Saxon and thence to early British and English Christianity.

It is a long journey, and we are amply provided with material to sustain us. If we need to know facts about places, dates, and such history as is available, Hutton is there to provide them, and this could make it a valuable reference work. We need all the material we can get, and the more objective, the more it can sustain verification, the better. Certainly Dr. Hutton, who is currently Reader in British History at the University of Bristol, achieves his aim of "bringing to a wider public the very large amount of new evidence and ideas relating to (his) subject ... much of which seems to be known only to experts within narrow areas of study" (p. vi).

If only this were indeed all that he had done in the book, it would be a splendid achievement. The information he brings, within the pages of (for what it is) a reasonably priced volume, would certainly be difficult for the everyday reader to acquire, and this information is extremely useful. It is the rest of the material that is problematical. Having set himself up in the way described in the first paragraph, Hutton double-weaves his tapestry. On the one side we have the objective academic, anxious to check facts, to give cautious warnings, and to expound reasonable inferences from known data. But, on the other side, he has interwoven a web of what can only be seen as prejudice against most New Age and pagan thinking. His animus against these and against ideas of Goddess spirituality strike me as extremely non-academic and full of the very suppositions and assumptions that he says he is concerned to oppose.

Writing of the ideas in the 1950s by prehistorians of the cult of a Great Goddess or Earth Mother, he writes that this notion was "shattered at the end of the 1960s" (p.20). He "confronts the question of the Goddess" (p. 36) and states in passing that no temples were raised to this being. This is a point of view only, not a fact. It is certainly possible that many of the megalithic sites were used as temples to the Great Goddess or earth mother; in Malta, at least, there is a general scholarly consensus to this effect (see, e.g., Anthony Bonanno (ed.), Archaeology and Fertility in the Ancient Mediterranean, B.B. Gruner Publishing, for the University of Malta, 1986). However Hutton's main argument on this theme concerns the work of Michael Dames and Marija Gimbutas.

He quotes Dames' remark that "Great Goddess and Neolithic go together as naturally as mother and child" and claims to demolish it with the statement that "in 1968 and 1969 two prehistorians directed criticism at this whole edifice of scholarly belief and brought it all down for ever" (p.37). Now the first half of the sentence quoted is perfectly acceptable; the second half is not. The scholars in question are Peter Ucko and Andrew Fleming. The former is well known for his work on the domestication of plants and animals by early humankind. Hutton quotes from a monograph by him published in 1968 concerning anthropomorphic figurines in predynastic Egypt and neolithic Crete. Apparently Professor Ucko questioned the need to interpret such figurines as divinities, or, as Hutton rather surprisingly puts it, "as everywhere the same female or male deity" (p.38). Ucko apparently suggests that such figurines might be "dolls" for use by "girls" (presumably for play?). Their role is demythologised, and it is not assumed by this scholar that any such play might have sacred significance.

Fleming's article in World Archaeology in 1969 entitled "The Myth of the Mother Goddess" is then cited. This, claims Hutton, "blew to pieces the accepted chain of goddess-related imagery from Anatolia round the coasts to Scandinavia" (p.38). He even goes on to say "that there was no answer possible" to the work of Ucko and Fleming (p.39).

(Come on, Dr. Hutton! Where is your scholarly outlook? How can the edifice of conjecture concerning the Mother Goddess be brought down forever, or be "blown to pieces", and how can no answer be possible? Unlikely, if you wish; improbable, even, but certainly not impossible. You yourself comment a number of times on how sparse actual evidence is - and must be - concerning actual thought and practice in pagan Britain.)

Hutton sets aside the work of Marija Gimbutas with a token bow to her scholastic reputation. He does not deal with her interpretations in any serious way, although, despite much conservative opposition to her views, she is a colossus in the world of archaeology.

There are many points, which I could take up, and it could become wearisome. Hutton is severe with people who make pronouncements, which outrun the evidence. I claim that he does just that, in his opinions about those in the alternative world of religion whom he dislikes. But he does not, to my mind, pay sufficient attention to those scholars in "academe" (a word he uses frequently) who have a more open, and possibly more insightful, viewpoint than his own.

For example, he attacks the idea that certain rules of primitive religion can be applied to tribal peoples at all places and times, associating this idea with the work of both James Frazer and Claude Levi-Strauss (p. 124). Rather than demolishing this totally as a concept, I prefer to go along with the Ideas of Claus Westermann, Professor of Old Testament Study at the University of Heidelberg in the 1970s. Concerned with the Jewish and Christian religions, in particular with regard to creation stories, he brings wider religious studies and mythology to his aid. He says, for example, that "one can trace a history of the creation motif from early Sumerian through Babylonian and Assyrian right down to later versions written in Greek" (Creation, SPCK London 1974, pp. 9-11). This covers a period of about three thousand years, and he remarks that a stimulating perspective opens and that a study of this kind of history of tradition has barely begun. Westermann says that not only do similar motifs stretch over a long time span, but they also reach through a wide geographical area, even moving between Europe, Asia Minor, and Africa. He is not setting out a 'diffusionist' view, but rather claiming that "the startling (sic) point must be that the many-sided and distinctive occurrence of the same motifs ... have arisen quite independently ... the conclusion is unavoidable that mankind (sic) possessed something in common in the stories about primeval time ... there is in the narratives of the primeval periods a common basis of thought and understanding which can have an even further and deeper meaning for the future of mankind ... all races, all peoples ... understand themselves in the world in essentially the same way.

Now Dr. Hutton may not agree with Westermann, but he is not entitled to make sweeping statements discrediting this kind of academic approach.

There are many more points I could make, all linked with the prejudices I have commented upon. It is sad that this should be so, as this spoils a work, which could have been one of profound scholarship. And in this respect I must question one more argument of Dr. Hutton's concerning the Witch Hunt. He calls it the Great Witch Hunt in Europe, and gives the number of witches killed as around forty thousand. I am not clear as to the dates he assigns to this "Hunt". I think that there were at least two, or possibly three, phases of the terror - the first starting in the thirteenth century CE, the second in the sixteenth giving way to sporadic persecution going on until the late eighteenth century. This number of forty thousand is a low figure (with figures of over one hundred thousand or even of several hundred thousands being given by other scholars). But even this figure represents a sizable proportion of populations of those times, and the numbers cover much continued misery and pain. Hutton states that the often-quoted figure of nine million witches murdered is a fictional one proposed by Cecil Williamson, for his Museum of Witchcraft. This may well be true, and nine million a much inflated figure (no-one seems to have produced any evidence for it). But this discussion of witchcraft comes towards the end of Hutton's book, and in the light of all his earlier non-academic and even emotional jabs at alternative religious culture and of women's spirituality within this culture, I read it as imbued with prejudice. Somehow it seemed to me that his figure of forty thousand is another aspect of his desire to set aside and deride everything that might give such culture any validity.

Some other points I have no space to discuss in detail. On p. 122 he speaks of "the decisive academic rejection of scientific astronomy in prehistory", but I cannot see that he makes a case for such rejection. Again, he pours scorn on the idea that dragons have something to do with the Earth Mother, saying that it would not have been recognisable to a number of ancient peoples including the Babylonians (p.126). Well, what about Tiamat, creator mother of the bitter waters, of whom we have a depiction as a dragon from Babylonia, and who is addressed in the Babylonian Creation Epic as a dragon? And when he discusses the Newgrange passage grave he asks why the entrance itself was not made high enough to catch the sunlight, and he writes: "the only conceivable answer is that the sun had to get into the chamber but humans were not to do so", and argues from that "the beautiful appearance of the rising sun was not intended for ... the living, it was for the dead" (p.59). Well, I, and probably many others, can easily conceive of other answers, and since Hutton's is not backed up by anything other than his own perceptions, neither need mine be.

Hutton asserts that alternative researchers look only to themselves or each other for their research material. In answer to this I would cite my own book, which contains a selected bibliography running to thirty-two pages, several works by Geoffrey Ashe, and Elinor Gadon's The Once and Future Goddess.

On pp.119-120, Hutton attacks "alternative" researchers, particularly for Imposing imaginative solutions on insoluble problems! Some of us may use our Imaginations to some purpose, without pretending it is "objective" research (a concept now somewhat discredited anyway). Hutton's book is full of his own imaginative inferences, but because he will not recognise them as such, the book comes to us as a work of scholarship, but seriously flawed.

(Wood and Water 39, Summer 1992)


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