For my ADF Dedicant Path Indo-European studies book review, I have chosen to read A History of Pagan Europe, written by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick. I was not really familiar with these authors but I learned that Prudence Jones is a former president of the Pagan Federation and has worked on books about Paganism, astrology, Cleopatra and did studies on Greek and Latin languages. Nigel Pennick is known to have written many books related to Paganism, more precisely on runes, ogham, magic, geomancy and the Celts.
The book begins with a description of Paganism and offers a good distinction between the words ‘pagan’ and ‘Pagan’. The first being the word usually used pejoratively to describe uncivilized or un-Christian people living in the countryside, the later being more used to identify a person venerating a nature-based religion by celebrating the seasonal cycles following the Old Ways customs. If most of the descriptions included in the introduction seem legit, I found the authors being too generalists with some of the given characteristics associated with Pagans beliefs. One of them is that all Pagan religions “[…] recognize the female divine principle, called the Goddess (with a capital ‘G’, to distinguish her from the many particular goddess), as well as, or instead of, the male divine principle, the God” (page 2). It can be true regarding many Wiccan or Duotheistic practitioners, circles or covens but it is false to state or assume that all Pagan religions follow that principle. By example, many Pagans are Polytheists and don’t recognize the Goddess as only one female deity, but believe instead that many goddesses from every culture are very different from each other, and that all of them should be venerated for their unique aspects.
On the other side, this book offers a very good detailed description of the Pagan evolution through history, starting with the Greek and followed by the Roman, the Celts, the Germanics, the Franks, the Saxons, the Vikings, the Baltics and the Balkans. The main concept of the book is to give information on the Pagan religions and how the various invaders of Europe adapted the principles of these practices to fit within the framework of their own. It was rather interesting to learn about how paganism traditions survived until today even with all the fears and corruptions the Pagans had to endure through the ages.
One of the fundamental principles from ADF is that we are celebrating the Kindreds: the Deities, the Nature Spirits and the Ancestors. What I really appreciated is that the authors not only added a good amount of materials on the pantheons for each culture, but they also wrote about the world of the faeries. Being strongly interested by the Nature Spirits, I was really happy to find that kind of information in the book. In addition, the worship of the Goddess theme is very present in the entire book and also offers a good description of the roles of women in various Pagan religions. The book gives a lot of information on the major festivals celebrated by Pagans from different cultures and also describes the variations about their shrines, temples and other sacred spaces of worship. We also learn about their various magical practices and their different ways to interprets omens by the seers.
Even if I’m strongly against the idea of merging different deities to adapt the various mythologies into only one story, I liked the way the authors explained the concept of similitude between deities from different pantheons. By example: Thor (Norse god of thunder) can be associated with Jupiter (Roman god of lightning) and Hercules (Roman half-god) which is the equivalent of Heracles (Greek god of heroes). These deities are similar to Taranis (Gaulish god of thunder), Thunor (Anglo-Saxon god of thunder) and Tacitus (Germanic chief god). Now, can we say that Thor is the same entity as Hercules or Taranis? I would easily answer by the negative, but it’s nice to be able to compare mythologies together if only to understand how various civilizations have more or less the same ideas about the deities’ roles and powers.
Overall, I found this book very interesting, easy to read even if I don’t have strong knowledge about European history. The authors made the efforts to follow a chronological overview of the Paganism from culture to culture in offering a quick historical and geographical background for each of them. One of the things missing would be more maps. At the very beginning of the book, only two maps are offered as references but they are lacking a lot of information and are so simplistic that they ends up being totally useless in my opinion. Maybe a timeline containing the major events as key points would have been a nice addition too, considering that a lot happened between the first occurrences of Paganism until the modern era. What the book did offer is a very good note section and an extensive bibliography going on eleven pages. The index is also very useful for any future references.
A History of Pagan Europe is the perfect introductory reading to understand the evolution and the resistance of the Pagan culture and it helps to understand all the connections and the differences between each region. This is a book that I’m strongly recommending to any ADF members who want to easily learn about the subject without being totally destabilized or discouraged by an over-complicated scholarship study requiring more reading effort, like Comparative Mythology by Jaan Puhvel.
Word Count: 916 words
- Jones, Prudence and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.