6 September 2015


Ronald Hutton. Pagan Britain. Yale, 2014.

When this book was first published it received criticism in some quarters for not conforming for one or other version of the development of pre-Christian religions in Britain. The growth of the modern Pagan and Wiccan traditions has meant that many features of Britain’s man-made landscape have been incorporated into strongly-held belief systems.
However, Hutton demonstrates that we know so little about the life and beliefs of the people who constructed the oldest structures that any interpretation of the religious practices of their builders has more to do with modern preconceptions than a true understanding of the past.

The first evidence of any religious or ritual related activity in Britain is Goats Hole Cave on the Gower, in South West Wales, where human bones from the Palaeolithic period were found accompanied by various artefacts which suggested to archaeologists that they formed part of some ceremonial rites.

These remains were first recorded by the eccentric antiquarian William Buckland, who assumed that the fragmentary human bones, some coloured with red ochre were those of a female - literally and figuratively a ‘Scarlet Woman’ - and his nickname The Red Lady has stuck to the remains ever after it has been determined that the bones were actually male, and maybe even from more than one body.

Later archaeologists have determined that the objects found in the cave were deposited over a period of 11,000 years, and finds from later periods included bone objects which might have been blades, or possibly female figures.

Cresswell Crags stands on the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and it was here that the oldest examples of figurative drawing in Britain were found, scratched figures on bone showing a standing human figure and a depiction of a horss. Later wall carvings were found at the site showing a stag and other marks which have been interpreted as either dancing figures or a long necked bird.

And at this point we realised the massive problem with understanding anything about religious and ritual activity in prehistoric Britain. Almost all the physical evidence and be interpreted in many different ways. The caption to one of the illustrations of the Creswell Crags markings makes this clear: “So-called ‘vulva’ figures - female genitalia, or animal tracks, or something else altogether.” Indeed some of the ‘figures’ have been suspected to be natural markings on the cave walls.

When the physical evidence is so vague it is important to examine carefully the context in which modern interpretations are made. It is not surprising that the interpretation of such vaguely drawn figures, and the less ambiguous images animal and human figures from caves in France and elsewhere on the Continent has changed according to contemporary attitudes to the past.

From a largely nineteenth-century view that these were images involved in primitive rituals to ensure fertility or a fruitful hunt, interpretation moved to a more spiritual view that they were connected with practices which involved altered states of consciousness such as practiced in shamanic cultures and amongst the San people of southern Africa.

Similarly in attempting to explain the movement from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic era, and the changes in population that this involved, nineteenth century accepted a theory based on successive waves of races moving into north-western Europe and displacing the indigenous people.

However this ‘imperialistic’ view died out in the later decades of the twentieth century as there was little archaeological evidence to suggest that the peoples of the two eras were significantly different racially. It was replaced by the idea that the differences in lifestyle and settlement between the two eras were due to the introduction of cultural innovations from across Europe.

Clearly both these ideas are based on modern social and political concepts about the spread and development of cultures, and as the story progresses through the Neolithic and Bronze Ages the contemporary interpretation of the archaeological evidence, Hutton suggests, is based as much on the views of the scholar as on the physical evidence - a phenomenon we are very familiar with in other subjects discussed in Magonia.

And nowhere more so than in discussion of the Druids. Hutton came under some criticism when the first edition of this book was published, for seeming to dismiss the whole topic in a few pages. Of course the reason for this, as the author explains, is that the accounts we have of genuine druidical practices are almost entirely taken from secondary, and often very prejudiced sources. Hutton notes: “The Druids were the leading experts in religion, magic and other matters concerning the supernatural among the Iron Age people of North-Western Europe who spoke Celtic languages … and that is all that can be said about them with absolute certainty”.

There are two main sources for our knowledge of the druids - the Graeco-Roman writers like Cicero, who total experience seems to have been meeting a Druid in Rome, Caesar’s accounts from his invasions of Gaul, and Tacitus’s description of of warlike warriors fighting invading Romans on Anglesey. But the picture from these writers is often contradictory with the Druids being portrayed as anything from wise philosophers to bloodthirsty savages.

The other source is the body of medieval Irish literature, but it is not clear whether this represents a record of a continuous oral and folk tradition, or is derived entirely from the imagination of the authors, who were all writing from a Christian, post-pagan perspective.

The Roman occupation presents the first occasion in which we are presented with any written record of religious belief and practice, but this largely consists of inscriptions on tombs and memorials and is mostly of a personal nature asking for favours from, or the protection of, the gods or one particular god associated with a place or a profession. The Roman religion tolerated more or less any native religious expression so long as it posed no challenge to the authority of the state.

The Celtic beliefs were easily incorporated, and some may even have been created by the Romans to reinforce their control of local areas. The goddess Brigantia may have been a historical Celtic figure associated with particular tribes in the north of England, or a creation of the Romans as a unifying symbol for those tribes for the benefit of a centralised government

The Christianisation of England began with the spread of the religion across the Roman Empire, but was halted with the withdrawal of Roman rule, and replaced by the Germanic/Scandinavian religions of the incoming Angles and Saxon. Understanding exactly how this population movement was accomplished has as much to do with the scarce archaeological evidence as on nineteenth and twentieth century scholars’ political and social viewpoints: invasion, assimilation, multicultural enrichment, refer to your ideology and make your choice.

The later chapters of the book look at the evidence for the survival of pagan beliefs into the mediaeval and later eras. Hutton finds little evidence of a continuation of pagan beliefs amongst peasant society, and shows that Christianity was accepted across all levels of medieval and feudal society. The idea of an undercover ‘witches’ religion based around a fertility cult has been almost universally discarded by modern scholars, and the only real pagan survivals seem to have been the greater importance that country people particularly paid to seasonal festivals and ritual devotions to local saints, particularly in Cornwall and the west of England.

Hutton gives an interesting account of many folk traditions which have been cited as evidence of pagan survivals, but finds little which is not more connected to the traditioons and superstitions of the era than any historical religious tradition.

It might seem from my account that this is a book which debunks much of what we think we know about our pagan past, but this is certainly not the case. Although Hutton points out the difficulties and ambiguities of interpreting the data which history gives us, he presents that data in an interesting and appealing manner. Although this is a work of great scholarship, it is also an accessible and enjoyable account of a major part of the history of Britain. Greatly recommended. -- John Rimmer.

No comments: