Sunday, February 09, 2014

Hutton and Pagans on the Edge of History

The slogging through Ronald Hutton's Pagan Britain continues.  I know that the review of the archaeological literature is a necessary part of the book, but Hutton himself adds in the chapter on the Roman invasion of Britain that the archaeological record provides a wealth of exciting and suggestive data that neither strongly proves nor disproves many things and leaves blank spaces.  I wish that I had been a little more rigorous reading the book, because I know that some time in the future I'll want to reference it during an argument and then have to re-read large swaths.

What I've gotten out of the last few chapters


  • Pre-Christian Pagan worship in Britain can be divided into three broad groups: Iron Age British Pagans (Caesar's "druids" and earth-based festivals), Romano-Briton Pagans (Jupiter, Mercury, Minerva, Mars; Isis and Serapis; Cybele and Attis), and Anglo-Saxon Briton Pagans (Wotan, Thunor, Frigga, etc).  They weren't exactly a continuous spectrum.
  • Judging from animal remains, Iron Age British Pagans probably had celebrations (probably six) at the onset of the seasons (e.g. Summer, Winter, sheep shearing, and grain harvest).
  • Early Christianity in Britain had wide variation in forms of practice over the island; presumably, British Paganism would, too.
  • The peoples of northern Britain, who were never Romanized, and who were collectively called the Picts, spoke in a language that was a regional dialect of British (i.e. "Pictish" isn't its own language); they probably didn't practice matrilinear inheritance; Pictish symbol stones seem to have been developed around 500 AD, post adoption of Christianity, although the symbols resemble metalwork from the Roman Pagan period.
  • It's nice when archaeological, literary, and DNA data line up, but they don't always because some historical phenomenon don't show up (if at all) in all three types of data, and sometimes it's hard to interpret the data when the three types don't agree.
  • Even with bodies and burials and middens and ditches, figuring out if someone was ritually killed or honored in death or if something was inscribed with magical runes at its making or at its discarding is hard.  Frequently a burial or deposit can be interpreted in a wealth of ways.
  • Theories of what folks were doing that were popular in the 1980's have since been less supported by the record than originally thought, or have otherwise fallen out of vogue.  This seems to be especially true of cross-referencing Welsh, Irish, and Roman literary sources.


The book feels like it's going to pick up.  The archaeology is interesting, but what gets me excited are how the theories and interpretations change over the last thirty years.  I admit anticipatory schadenfreude for hitherto unread accounts about some venerable ancient tradition being made up whole-sale a hundred and fifty years ago to attract (nationalistic) tourists.  Already there have been some references to King Arthur, and some observations about attributing shamanic techniques to British Pagans.  Also, with the introduction of the Anglo-Saxon (not Nordic!) practices to Britain, the Paganism is beginning to resemble 1960's British Wicca.  Sort of.

In terms of writing, Mary Stewart's Arthurian retelling stands up fairly well in the light of Pagan Britain.  Other tales, not so well.  In terms of my own writing, I can see that the alternative history world I've been playing in needs to either just make a complete break with our world's history, or else I need to spend some quality time thinking through the consequences of the alternate history.

In terms of queer spirituality, Hutton suggests a couple of times that prehistoric British Pagans were not so hung up on clear categories between human and divine, human and animal, and gender.  No Queer Male way of knowing yet, and I'll guess that the record will not have much to say one way or the other.


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