Thursday, January 6, 2011

Book Review: History of Pagan Europe

Wow." That was my first word when I finished "The History of Pagan Europe" by Prudence Jones & Nigel Pennick. Not wow that was a fun read, but wow I sure learned a lot. Wow, I get it now. Wow, I had a lot of misconceptions. Wow those pagans who harp about the burning times are looking at the wrong things. All these thoughts and feelings summed up into one singer "wow". Jones and Pennick wrote this book as a sort of historical story, broken up into cultural groups. It starts with the Greeks, moves into the Romans, then into the Celts, the Germanic people, the Baltic lands, the Russians and Balkans, and finishes with a few words on Neo-paganism.

Here are the things I took away from this reading.
I don’t feel that I learned too much from the section on the Greeks. I did walk away with a new sense of the culture and how woman were so very repressed in Greek culture. Perhaps from listening so often to the stories of Artemis and Athena, that one comes away with the idea that the Greeks woman were near if not equal to the men in standing and freedoms. Knowing now that they were not makes the stories of these Goddesses even more spectacular and seemingly preternatural. Tumbling this stone over in the stream of my mind, I couldn't help but think of the term "Dianic Wicca" or about "Dianic Covens" What is it saying when these Hyper-feminine (and I don't mean that in a negative way) groups take their name from a goddess that stems from a culture that was so repressive to woman? Is it out of ignorance or some sort of reclaiming?

Roman Empire
Here I learned a good deal of things I didn't know before about the religion of the Romans. I also came to understand how Christianity gained ground. Despite all the bad press Rome gets in its Imperial history (and rightly so) one good thing about them is they were very open to other pagan beliefs and deity. I found it amazing how in Roman war fare they priests would "Evoke" the protective deities of a city they were laying siege to with bribes of giving the deity a temple and better offerings at home, if it would only switch sides! In this way many new deities and their cults were brought into Rome and the Roman Empire. Interestingly it was this very religious pluralism that allowed Christianity to come to Rome. It seems for a long time no one took it seriously. They preached poverty and non-violence. Very alien concepts in Imperial Rome. It would seem most people blew them off as an eccentric cult that would pass away. We all pretty well know how that ended. Still what I learned that I didn't know is that the Christian take over did not happen in one swoop. It went back and forth between paganism and Christianity. Not just in Rome, but in all the cultures that Christianity eventually over took.

This section was a bit disappointing to me. As Irish Celt is my hearth culture of choice, I didn't learn any new information here. It did repeat much that I had learned before. I was hoping for some new information.

Germanic people and all the rest
Here also I learned a good deal that I did not know before. Of the many different Germanic tribes, how they grew and changed and influenced each other. The one thing that I definitly take away from this book and is made really clear is that the coming of Christianity came at sword point, especially for the peasantry. Convert or death was the mentality of the time. Many fought back, and as in Rome the Christian take over never went smoothly or unopposed. Many were killed and Tortured in the name of the Christian god. Jones and Pennick tell one story of the mass forced conversion of what is now Moscow. How they statue of the locals god was flogged and torn down, then the entire populace was marched at sword point to the river for a forced baptism into the Christian faith. This book did nothing to endear the Christian faith to me.

I wonder at all the neo-pagans who point to what is called "the burning times" as symbol of pagan repression, when in fact, according to current research, it really wasn't, when there is all this recorded true oppression of paganism by Christianity a few hundred years before, yet I never one almost never hears of it. Can you imagine the outcry if the Catholic Church tried the same tactics today that it used to convert people in the early C.E.? It would be considered an act of war!

What I didn't like..
There are a few things I didn't like about this book. First off, MORE MAPS! It comes with two simple maps, however, found them next to useless. I would very much like more detailed maps that showed rough tribal borders and arrows to indicate movement of tribes and the coming of Christianity. Maps for each cultural group would be good. The other aspect I found confusing was that time started over with each cultural group. This made it hard for me to understand the timing of events from group to group. Perhaps a time line in the book with major events across all cultural groups would fix this issue. Even with in cultural groups I found the authors jumping forward and backward a bit too much for me. Time may not actually be linear, but it sure makes it easier to understand history if it is presented as such.

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