Sunday, February 16, 2014

Conclusions from Hutton's "Pagan Britian"

I finished Hutton's Pagan Britain last night.  I'm still processing it.  As a NeoPagan, I started Pagan Britain with the expectation that myths about its historical pedigrees would be debunked.  This happened, but not to the extent that I thought (and secretly hoped) it might (in a Cynthia Eller kind of way).  It's more-or-less a continuation and updating of earlier works published by Hutton (The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles; Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination; Stations of the Sun: a History of the Ritual Year in BritainThe Triumph of the Moon; Blood and Mistletoe: the History of the Druids in Britain; and Witches, Druids, and King Arthur).  I'd place it with Pagan Religions and Shamans because of its dry runs of archeological case-studies, and include Blood and Mistletoe because it references that work a lot.

The final pages of the book argue for a subjective, both-and interpretation of the history of Paganism in Britain.  That is to say, as long as the record specifically does not disprove a particular interpretation (and he would argue, for example, that the record disproves the construction of Stonehenge by extraterrestrials), our historical knowledge, imagination, and wonder are better served by allowing individuals the ability to choose which interpretive narrative of the archeological record appeals to them the most, as long as they recognize that their historical narrative is one of several, equally plausible (though not necessarily equally probable) historical narratives.

This conclusion turns the book more into a book about the role of history as an interpretive tool, and less a book about who the ancient British Pagans were and what they were doing.   On reflection, at several points within it, the book did deliver a strong sense that the interpretation of the record says more about the interpreters than it does about ancient Pagans (and about how advances in archeological methods have enriched the available data).

I haven't decided if Hutton is trying to have his theological cake and eat it, too.  At least in terms of current British NeoPaganism (and by extension Wicca) being a continuous religious practice, the record is clear:  practitioners of both folk and ceremonial British magic, from about 500 to about 1850, were conducting magic ritual within a Christian framework.  Any "thin veneer of Christianity over a Paganism" held by the rural British masses was really more likely to be a "thin veneer of Paganism over Christianity" of the educated British elites.  With this veneer in mind, although the format of the seasonal rites might have changed, the underlying function or urge for them remains mostly the same.  This last bit shifts the question away from "what does Paganism mean?" to a more general "what does human spiritual practice (in Britain) mean?"

What makes the writings of Hutton attractive to me is that when I first took the NeoPagan path in the mid 1980's, one of the drawing features was that its adherents had chosen it as a religion instead of blindly following it by default.  "We choose our religion / We question or beliefs" was a kind of rallying cry.  Maybe this was a function of choosing the NeoPagan path at Reed College.   Reading a scholarly history of (Neo)Paganism helps me to make informed choices about spiritual practices.  (And I also think some of the more recent historical roots of modern NeoPagan practice is hysterically funny.)

Fast forward through the years, and I've encountered NeoPagans who don't know what a Solstice or an Equinox is, but who celebrate Beltane "because the ancestors did" or who celebrate Imbolc because "it was a Celtic Fire Festival" (meaning, I think, Riverdance, not realizing that "Celtic" is a language group and artistic style spanning a huge geographical area and temporal span, and not a homogeneous culture), or Goddess-worshippers who justify gender enclave as a weapon of exclusion (instead of a tool for discovering voice)  "because prehistoric Pagans were matriarchal."  This bothers me because I believe a theology unexamined is not worth practicing, and because an unthoughtful or unthinking NeoPaganism cannot produce NeoPagans who are properly balanced, centered, nor engaged with the cosmos with all of their faculties.

So, Pagan Britain allows NeoPagans to say "We choose our histories.  We question our past."  Which I guess is enlightened, but not quite as satisfying as "Hah! You're doing it wrong!" and I'll have to get used to asking "What historical interpretation of the archeological record do you use as a basis of today's ritual?"  (Sigh, I can see the appeal of Christianity, with a religious elite handing down articles of faith...)

In terms of a Queer NeoPaganism, Pagan Britain doesn't directly address it (and I wasn't expecting it to).  Since most of the Pagan rituals address fertility, a good harvest, and healthy cattle, heteronormaitive narratives of deity and worship are assumed.  To try to apply Hutton's book to the Qedeshim (who aren't British at all), my understanding is that A) they probably weren't as sexually active as early 20th century archeologists fantasized, and B) all archeology can really say is that they were temple staff that the editors of Deuteronomy didn't approve of.  Taking Hutton's approach, I'm justified believing that the Qedeshim were gay male priests in the temple of Ashera, as long as I acknowledge that there are other interpretations supported by the record.

How to apply the model of the Qedeshim and map sacred sex within a temple onto modern religious practices is something I've yet to work out ("Hi, I have public ritual sex in a temple with another man in order to invite the blessings of the gods and insure a fruitful harvest" ? ), and Pagan Britain doesn't supply any hints for applying paleolithic, ancient, or classical models of spirituality to modern times.  And recalling some of the attempts to reconstruct a gay male pagan heritage I've read, maybe that's a good thing.


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