Jones, Prudence, and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. New York: Barnes & Noble,
A side of history that has remained silent for many years is finally revealed in Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick’s work A History of Pagan Europe. Through exploring the tomes of history, lore, and archaeology, the authors have put together an impeccable overview of the various ancient people of Europe. In doing so, they exhibit not only how Europe became Europe, but how modern Paganism came to be. A History of Pagan Europe is an excellent source for Pagan students. What I found most fascinating were the similarities shared by the various cultures discussed.
Many people of European descent know very little about their ancestors. The authors begin their work by stating that most people “are more familiar with native traditions from outside Europe than with their own spiritual heritage” (1). This is sad, particularly so because many European descendants vehemently distance themselves from Paganism even though it has always been there and continues to exist, as Jones and Pennick argue, within our modern society, intertwined in some of our most seemingly secular institutions (1) such as democracy the celebration of Christmas. The authors set out to debunk the misconceptions about Paganism held by society and show that we really aren’t so different from our ancestors.
The authors attempt to define what Paganism actually is. I’ve found that it’s difficult to do so in this modern age because so many people, in particular Pagans themselves, refuse to be defined. I feel that Jones and Pennick come to a satisfying conclusion. If Paganism is ever to become unified (even though, again, some modern Pagans would argue against this notion), we have to unite under a name and group definition. The authors first describe how people have defined Pagans in the past. From country bumpkins to “non-combatants” (as opposed to the “soldiers of Christ”), the word “Pagan” has had a more or less pejorative meaning for the past few hundred years (1). Jones and Pennick then look at the modern, spiritual definition and conclude that Pagan religions, past and present, share some common traits: polytheism (or some form of worshiping more than one deity), the view of nature as a theophany, and the recognition of Goddesses as well as Gods. While some Pagans will argue with this, I feel that it covers many of our past and present traditions. In my opinion, the authors do Paganism at large a service by providing a positive and academic definition.
We then delve into the history of the Greeks and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Romans and the Western Mediterranean, the Celts, the Germanic people, the Baltic people, and the Slavic people. I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between these different cultures. For instance, sacred trees kept revealing themselves in each culture. The authors explain that in Greece “[m]any sanctuaries in later Greek culture centered on a sacred tree…”(6). Later they explain that “[n]o temple was dedicated unless there was a holy tree associated with it” (20). The Celts were said to worship in groves of trees (81) and some Germanic tribes also met in such places (116). The Baltic people had celebrations revolving around ritualized trees that Pennick and Jones argue represented the “axis of the Earth’s rotation” (174). In Lithuania, there were also sacred groves that were not to be cut (176). Everyone seems to have had a sense of the importance of the forest. I was surprised, however, that the authors did not discuss the world tree of Norse tradition.
Nature was repeatedly venerated in some way from culture to culture. Sacred springs or wells played central roles to many of the old religions. Slavic Pagans had rituals in which ceremonial dancers “undertook a nine-day ceremony [in which they] visited nine boundary-points, filled a ceremonial vessel with water from nine springs, and prayed to their patron goddess Irondeasa” (190). The Celtic tribes felt that springs were sacred places as well. There were springs at Bath associated with the Goddess Sul and “[s]sometimes these springs were thought to cure eye diseases, bringing the light of the Sun to the eye of the sufferer” (88). In Ireland, “well-worship continues in a modern form, sometimes as a local folk-observance but more often by adoption into Christianity in the form of ‘well-dressing’” in which the well is decorated by the community and then blessed by a local priest (83-84). The Greeks also recognized sacred springs (10). The various cultures covered also had strong beliefs associated with fire and/or solar powers, nature spirits, agricultural festivals, and honoring the Earth. It was interesting to see that, although the cultures venerated nature, they also exploited it. Unlike our modern world, however, our ancestors were very aware of the balance and the need to give back to nature and the Gods.
The dead and the Otherworld were also a common theme. In Rome, “the remains of the dead were elaborately honored and they were housed in elaborate necropolises…” (26). Obviously, there existed a concern with the afterlife. We know from Celtic lore that there were times of the year when the dead and other beings of the Otherworld could commune with the world of the living (90). We know of some Germanic funeral traditions, some from direct observation. While we may not know the meaning behind the traditions, it is, again, obvious that the dead were being taken care of and that they seem to have been sent into the Otherworld fully prepared for renewed life (138). In addition, Pennick and Jones point out that the Germans were a bit different from other European Pagans in that they actually felt that their tribal ancestors were Gods (116). In my opinion, this adds a whole new layer of sacredness to ancestor worship.
There were so many common themes that it would take pages and pages to discuss them all. Reading about the various similarities helped to reinforce the customs of Ár nDraíocht Féin. The creation of our altars and what goes on them makes more sense when viewed as a continuation of our ancestral religious traditions. The tree represents the sacred tree that reveals itself again and again throughout the pages of the book. The well represents the many sacred springs. The cauldron represents the sacred fire. We give offerings to the nature spirits because, like our ancestors, we believe that we need to give back to nature in thanks for what it gives us. We honor our ancestors like our forefathers and mothers did. We set up temples and worship in or around sacred trees. Having read A History of Pagan Europe, I’m filled with a more academic understanding for all that we do in our tradition and it fills me with pride. It almost seems that through practicing as my ancestors did I am honoring them.
Reading the book hasn’t really changed how I practice my religion. I’ve been recognizing the importance of the sacred tree, well, and fire for awhile now, and have been observing the other customs of ADF because they felt right. Reading about the historical background of everything only reinforces my spiritual practices and gives me a better understanding for other cultures that I may otherwise have never read about. As someone who has clergy aspirations, it is useful to know that many of our practices are universal throughout Europe. If I was required to do a Norse ritual, for instance, I wouldn’t feel too out of place after doing the appropriate amount of research on the pantheon.
The book ends by discussing how Paganism has been reestablishing itself, first through the Renaissance, and finally through the various modern movements. The authors briefly touch on Druidry and Ásatrú, however I felt that they were more favorable of Wicca. While Ásatrú has more of an honorable mention, Druidry is made to look like a fantasy-based fraternity (211). Some of the first modern Druids do have Masonic roots, but the authors have failed to take note of other viable Celtic-inspired traditions that do more research and rely less on romantic fancy. Perhaps it’s because the book was written before Ár nDraíocht Féin and Celtic Reconstructionism were as known as they are now. Meanwhile, Wicca is praised as the “kind of Paganism [that] looks ahead, offering a new philosophy, more strongly than it looks to its roots in the past” (220). While I’ll never condemn Wicca, I do think that the authors have ignored the fact that many groups, including Ásatrú groups, take on the Reconstructionist principal that religions should be updated for our modern world while holding onto those traditions that are still applicable. Meanwhile, many branches of Wicca have become just as fantasy-driven as the old Druidic orders. I believe that having an understanding of history is very important, especially where religion is concerned.
A History of Pagan Europe should be read by every Pagan and history student alike. Modern Pagans should have a firm understanding of where their traditions have evolved from. Even Pagans who do not have European ancestry should give the book a try, especially if they live in a Euro-centric country like America or Canada. It can give a lot of perspective on our culture, especially where holidays and our calendar are concerned. Meanwhile, history students should appreciate the other side of the story and see the many examples of how Paganism was not necessarily stamped out, but rather absorbed into our modern world.