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The obliteration of the pagan past

Pagan Britain, by Ronald Hutton. Yale University Press, 2013. 480 pages.

If you plucked this book down off a bookstore shelf to have a closer book, you probably would assume from the cover and the title that the book is a romanticized effort to find magic in Britain’s past. That assumption would be wrong. If anything, the book is the opposite of that. Instead, the book is a thorough analysis, based primarily on archeology, of how any genuine understanding of Britain’s pre-Christian past is impossible.

The author is a professor of history at the University of Bristol. The blurb on the cover of the paperback edition sounds promising, quoting Times Higher Education: “A magisterial synthesis of archeology, history, anthropology, and folklore.” Unfortunately, that is misleading. The book is magisterial, but the book is 99.9 percent archeology, simply because where history and folklore are concerned, almost nothing remains, whereas the archeology is extensive. The author refers to textual classical sources where such sources exist (for example, Caesar’s account of the Gallic wars). But all those classical sources must be taken with a grain of salt because they were often second- or third-hand or were written long after events occurred. Later sources, such as the Venerable Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, was written hundreds of years after events occurred and must be read as hopelessly biased by Bede’s religion. In short, such written records as exist are extremely unhelpful.

It has often been supposed that, during the Middle Ages, the Christian religion was a thin veneer over still-pagan rural cultures in which the old ways were remembered and still practiced. The author tears that idea to shreds. This study begins with the earliest signs of Paleolithic human cultures in the British isles well over 10,000 years ago and continues through the Mesolithic and Neolithic into the Bronze Age and Iron Age. The Romans arrive with their religion. Rome falls, but the Roman religion remains, and the “Dark Ages” begin. The study continues all the way forward to what we would call modernity. Again and again, no matter what the era, the author finds that there is simply no way to reconstruct a picture of how pre-Christian peoples lived and how they saw the world. Instead, the available evidence is much like a Rorschach test: The existing evidence can be interpreted in many different ways, and no particular attempt at reconstruction can be proved, or disproved.

Still, is it useful to know as much as possible about what the archeology can tell us about pagan peoples? Absolutely, though we are left with little but our imaginations to try to make sense of it. The author actually is quite respectful of the use of imagination in interpreting the archeological evidence:

“Since the 1990s, it has been feasible to propose a mutual understanding between them [scholars and the imaginations of neo-Pagans], based on the more or less undoubted fact, strongly argued in the present book, that it is impossible to determine with any precision the nature of the religious beliefs and rites of the prehistoric British. It may fairly be argued, therefore, that present-day groups have a perfect right to re-create their own representations of those, and enact them as a personal religious practice — of the sort now generally given the name Pagan — provided that they remain within the rather broad limits of the material evidence (or, if they choose not to remain there, honestly to acknowledge the fact).”

Personally, I am not interested in religious practice. But I am very interested in the project of “re-enchantment.” There actually is a scholarship of re-enchantment. That scholarship starts with the sociology of disenchantment set out many decades ago by Max Weber, who borrowed the term disenchantment from the philosopher Friedrich Schiller. If you Google for it, you will find YouTube videos of re-enchantment scholars talking to each other at retreats. They’re smart, though to me they come across as gasbags who fell off the earth into an unhelpful New Agey sky of words, abstraction, and conferences. Re-enchantment, it seems to me, is a project that is not so much about words. Rather, re-enchantment wants fresh air, rock, ruins, green things, running water, and a bit of starlight.

Writing about Patrick, who helped to drive the enchantment (if not the snakes) out of Ireland, Hutton writes: “Indeed, he explicitly considered paganism to be dead in his society, its memorials consisting only of the icons of Romano-British deities, still visible within and without the ruined cities. He recalled that his compatriots had once worshipped divine powers inherent in the natural world, but stated proudly that in his time they regarded that world merely as created for the use of humans.” Regular readers of this blog know that, to me, Patrick is one of the worst villains in history, and that I see Patrick’s Augustinian theology as one of the worst inventions, ever, of the human mind.

This book was my reading material for a recent hiking trip in Scotland (photos here). I carried the book on my back for many a mile, and it has taken me almost three weeks since coming home to finish it. The book has been invaluable for giving me a greater appreciation of the mysterious oldness that is so apparent in Scottish landscapes.

But I’m an American, so what about America? Will it ever be possible to enchant, or re-enchant, the American landscape? As I see it, recovering, through re-enchantment, what was destroyed by the Roman religion — a tragedy that played out largely in Gaul and the British Isles — is essential to saving the earth. There are those who blame the Enlightenment — reason and science — for our predicament. But I don’t see it that way at all. The Enlightenment leaves us open to redemption by progress in philosophy, whereas the Roman religion poisoned the world with an ossified theology.

Hutton writes:

“The appearance of the faith of Christ required and produced just such a seismic change, by breaking most of the conventions of religious culture as they had existed in Europe and the Mediterranean basin since history began. It claimed the existence of a single, all-powerful, all-knowing, universally present and totally good deity, who had created the world and directed its fate. It also preached the existence of a force of cosmic evil in the universe, inferior by far to the single god but powerful in worldly affairs and set on subverting the divine plan for the universe. All creation was therefore polarized between those two forces, and human beings were offered the stark choice of salvation, by embracing the worship of the true deity and obeying his rules and commands, or damnation, by ignoring or opposing them and choosing other religious loyalties. The divine beings of other religions were regarded as nonexistent, having the status of lies, deceptions or allegories, or of personifications and servants of the forces of evil: effectively, as demons. The divine will was expressed through sacred writings, which true believers had to understand and expound correctly, creating the new discipline of theology, which replaced philosophy as the main means of understanding the universe and the human place in it.”

We seem to be stranded in a damaged and disenchanted world, but I’d rather not end on a pessimistic note. So I’ll try to hang on to my memories of what persists, in spite of modernity, in parts of the British isles and even in parts of America: fresh air, rock, ruins, green things, running water, and a bit of starlight.

Update: Here is a related review of another book, on how Christianity destroyed classical, as well as pagan, culture.

The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World


  1. Phil wrote:

    I agree. We should be focused on a beautiful environment, and also good relationships. But I suspect the best view into the past is understanding that human nature does not change. Like today, I suspect 90 percent of the population was focused on survival, i.e getting food and shelter. The remaining 10 percent probably focused on increasing their wealth by controlling the rest of the people (through control tools of communication, fear, etc – i.e. religions or government). Plus ca change…

    Sunday, September 30, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Phil… Yes. There are many things that archeology can tell us. For example, archeology can tell us when people settled down into pastoral and farming lifestyles, when the wheel appeared in Britain, and differences in status and wealth as shown by “grave goods,” though adults were usually pretty healthy and well fed. There was warfare and competition for land. But there also were feasts and seasonal festivals, and, at least in my imagination, some rip-roaring good times, better by far than anything the church had to offer.

    Sunday, September 30, 2018 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Chenda wrote:

    I have hope. We’re all Hindus now, to quote Newsweek 😉

    Sunday, September 30, 2018 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  4. DCS wrote:

    Speaking of re-enchantment of the world (a la Morris Berman), you would be interested in the companion project of re-enchanting the word. That is, challenging evolutionary theories (a la Pinker) about the origins of language by a Romantic school of thought (a la Owen Barfield) that posits a more intimate connection between the emergence of language and the natural world from which it sprang.

    Here is a must-read article by Mark Vernon, writing on

    Here is a work by Owen Barfield that Vernon refers to and that is the springboard for his latest book:

    And here is a summary excerpt about the Romantic view of the origins of language:

    “If it’s a radical theory, it has radical ramifications. It suggests that words that have come to describe the inner life of human beings can have evolved only if the cosmos is full of spirit. The first humans were not inventive onlookers; they were intelligent participants in that wider consciousness. Their difference from other creatures lay only in a capacity self-consciously to communicate the meaning they felt pulsing around them. In History, Guilt and Habit (1979), Owen Barfield concluded that the evolution of words ‘always points us back to a cultural period when there was a much closer interpenetration between thinking and perceiving than is the case with us today’. Or as Alexander von Humboldt, one of the key figures at the origins of Romantic science, realised: ‘Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul.’ ”



    Tuesday, October 2, 2018 at 10:37 am | Permalink
  5. Jo wrote:

    I learn so much from your posts. Thank you.

    Re-reading your books while awaiting another.

    Also hoping for a book about the building of Acorn Abbey. In the meantime, also reading blog posts during that timeframe.

    Tuesday, October 2, 2018 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  6. daltoni wrote:

    Thanks, Jo! I seem to have stalled on book 3 of the Ursa Major series, but I hope to finish that this winter.

    Tuesday, October 2, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  7. daltoni wrote:

    DCS: This is brilliant! It’s also new to me. Thank you so much. I think I’ve figured out what to read next.

    Tuesday, October 2, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  8. daltoni wrote:

    DCS: I checked the index to the Zaleski book on the Inklings, which I reviewed here three years ago. There are many references to Barfield, but I read right over them because I was so focused on Tolkien. I have ordered “The Rediscovery of Meaning.” It will be interesting to go back and look at the references to Barfield in the book on the Inklings.

    Wednesday, October 3, 2018 at 6:04 pm | Permalink
  9. DCS wrote:

    I’m very interested in digging into the Barfield material as well and will be interested to hear your thoughts. Also, I want to get the Mark Vernon book because he is a Barfield scholar and will survey the field for us and lead is directly to further reading, dispensing with time-wasting trial and error. Cheers!


    Thursday, October 4, 2018 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

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