Book Review: IE Studies

3. Short book reviews.  (325 word min. each)


Jones, Prudence, and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. Routledge, an Imprint of Taylor & Francis Books Ltd, 2011.

This book starts with the line “in this book we describe the hidden history of Europe, the persistence of its native religion in various forms from ancient times right up to present day” (pg 1). This thesis runs throughout the book. The authors take us through multiple cultures, from the Greeks and Romans through the Celts and Germanic tribes, the Franks, Saxons, and Vikings, and on into the Balkans and Russia. Within each culture, the authors trace the evolution of religious practices and attitudes as each one contacts other cultures, new environments, and, ultimately, Christianity. The authors brought together sociological, political, economic, and other information about each culture as context and illustrated how changes in each of these intersected with changes in religious attitudes and practice. They use archeological, literary, and linguistic records in support of the main thesis that these practices transformed into folk traditions following Christianization of each culture. They illustrate how at times they were absorbed directly into Christianity in the form of saints, high days, and holy sites. It was this transformation that the authors argue allowed IE pagan practices to survive and eventually thrive in present day.

This book was immensely valuable in helping me trace some of the themes that underlie ritual structure and practice in ADF and the different ways similar ideas are experienced across hearth cultures. For example, I noticed the prominence of certain sacred numbers (such as 3 and 9), the similarities of deities (such as the sky father, divine twins, and storm god), and the interesting parallels in terms of how understanding of scared space evolved within and across cultures over time (such as fire as altar and the sacred tree/pillar and well/spring). I struggled at times with the brevity of discussion of specific deities and the practices around them; sometimes it felt almost like names and roles were being thrown out in no particular order while other religious attitudes and practices were treated with perhaps greater detail. Given the emphasis in the initial discussion by the authors on describing modern paganism in terms that were rather duotheistic in flavor, this may have been related to both the fact that the text is a high-level over-view but also the authors’ own attitudes towards what paganism is now.

I greatly enjoyed that the authors also took time to describe unique aspects of the ritual calendars in each culture. I could see similarities in themes but also the impact of geographic and sociopolitical features on the unique celebrations and different ways that similar themes might be addressed across cultures. I also appreciated that the authors provided information about how each culture viewed the Otherworlds in whatever form they acknowledged, and the beings who inhabit them. Since ADF focuses on relationships with the Three Kindreds, information that moves beyond deity focused beliefs and practices provided some direction as I start trying to develop my understanding of and relationship with the other Kindreds. In particular, the ideas put forth about the necessary caution involved in these interactions and the ways one might begin to build relationships were thought provoking.

There are a few things I would have like to see done differently. I would have appreciated some integration across cultures in terms of discussing timelines, perhaps through an actual timeline or maps detailing some of the interactions over time in different cultures and regions. I would also have enjoyed some greater detail and more time taken in discussing the deities within cultures, especially as they relate to each other and to specific cultural practices. Overall, though, I found this book interesting and illuminating, as well as accessible regardless of prior background knowledge. I would recommend this text for anyone interested in developing a pagan practice rooted in Indo-European cultures. I would particularly recommend it for ADF members as providing a firm footing in the history of Indo-European culture and religion. There is a wealth of information provided within a broad historical context that can help us modern practitioners center our own path in our modern cultural context.

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