22 August 2011



David V. Barrett. Secret Religions; A Complete Guide to Hermetic, Pagan and Esoteric Beliefs. Robinson, 2011.

Owen Davies, Paganism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, 2011.

Hans-Peter Hasenfratz. Barbarian Rites: The Spiritual World of the Vikings and Germanic Tribes. Inner Traditions, 2011.

David Barrett is the author of a number of books on the byways of religion including the massive New Believers, which covered a huge range of religious and philosophical traditions, with a large section of Christianity and the 'Religions of the Book'.
This book is largely concerned with non-Christian traditions, It is divided into three sections. The first deals with 'New Age' groups, including movements such as Anthroposophy, Findhorn, I AM, and, of particular interest to Magonia, two UFO-related cults the Aetherius Society - to which he gives a more sympathetic analysis than most ufologists do - and the Raelians; as well as other, largely twentieth century movements.

The second section, 'Hermetic, Occult and High Magic' deals with some of the older groups with nineteenth century origins, such as the Rosicrucians, OTO, the Golden Dawn, etc., and their various offshoots. Part three examines neo-Paganism, Wicca, Druidry and the Northern Traditions.

In his descriptions of all of these groups Barratt maintains the objectivity he has demonstrated in his earlier books on religions and cults. This does not however mean that he takes the claims of all these groups at face-value, and he is careful to point out that many of the groups have developed a 'founding myth', often based around one particular individual. Barrett examines the validity of these, whilst at the same time noting that even a totally spurious founding text can lead to a religious or philosophical system that develops its own validity.

Many of the groups have split from earlier groups, often with a great deal of acrimony. This is perhaps particularly the case in the hugely complex network of Hermetic and Theosophical orders, which have subsequently then developed their own founding myths to distinguish themselves from their predecessors.

The beliefs described cover a huge range of thought, from the intellectual complexity of the nineteenth-century occult orders, to the eco-awareness of modern Pagan groups. There is an intricate network of individuals and ideas and texts which crop up through the development of these 'secret religions', and often these are surrounded by controversy. However Barrett's objective and sympathetic approach helps us find a way through the maze, and he is determined to challenge the sensational and alarmist claims that have been made in the media about many of these groups (his summary of the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare is brief but to the point).

The book is well referenced, with an excellent bibliography (with, I am pleased to note, a couple of mentions of Magonia) and provides a valuable oversight of a range of beliefs which will be quite new to many readers.

Although its title might suggest a considerable overlap with Barrett's book, Paganism, A Very Short Introduction only covers the modern Pagan revival in the last two chapters, most of the book being a study of the way in which Christianity interacted with the polytheistic religions it encountered as it spread around the world.

The spread of Christianity across Europe was largely as a result of dynastic ambition and political expediency as much as genuine religious conversion. A convenient marriage resulted in a conversion firstly of a ruling monarch, then of the whole nation. The problem that Davies finds with tracing this spread, and the nature of the pagan beliefs which were replaced, is the lack of any historical record other than those of the successful missionaries and conquerors.

In other parts of the world, particularly the Middle and Far East, there is more evidence of the ambiguous nature of many of the interactions between missionaries and the indigenous peoples. In China the Jesuits in particular took a sympathetic view of Chinese religions, seeing Confucianism as being based on a monotheistic ideal, and quite different to the 'primitive' cultures that fellow Jesuits had found in India and South America. Other Catholic missionaries were not so sympathetic in their judgements.

It was at the time of the Renaissance that Davies notes beginning of a change in the West's view of 'paganism', with the revival of interest in the Classical world and the pre-Christian philosophers and scholars. This interest broadened during the Enlightenment, when religion started to itself become the object of historical study, and scholars sought links between various beliefs and sought the origin of religion in mankind's past.

In the British isles this developed into study of the early Celtic beliefs and the development of modern Druidism in the early nineteenth-century, along with the search for 'pagan survivals' by anthropologists like James Frazer, and the growing folklore movement.

The final chapter of Davies's book deals with modern Paganism, and touches on some of the political implications that have been thrown up in recent years, with some nationalist and racist groups, particularly in Eastern Europe, incorporating an almost entirely spurious paganism into their political ideology. This is also touched on briefly in Hans-Peter Hasenfratz's book, comparing Nazi organisations such as the SS and SA which purportedly modelled themselves on Germanic pre-Christian cultic groupings such as the mannerbund, described here as "a territorial coalescence of sexually mature male youths who were able to bear arms into their own cult and specific social functions". Anyone inquiring into the 'underlying causes' of the recent rioting in parts of London and other British cities might well take note of this section.

In this book the Vikings and Germanic tribes do come across as a pretty nasty and bloodthirsty crowd, but who also seemed to have the remarkable ability to settle down into a quiet pastoral life in a generation or so. Of course, as we have noted above, these cultures left little or no written records, and it does tend to be the victors who write the history, and tell us what they think we should know about their enemies. -- John Rimmer.

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