Reviewed by Mike Gleason
Christianity: The Origins of a Pagan Religion
by Philippe Walter
Published 2006 by Inner Traditions
Paperback 224 pages
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I will admit here and now that I picked this book for review because, having been raised Roman Catholic until I left home (many years ago), I was well aware of the borrowings by the Christians from the Pagans and was interested to see how this author approached the subject. Professor Walter is professor of medieval French literature at Universite Stendahl in Grenoble. He is the author of numerous books on the Middle Ages and has overseen editing of Grail romances; all of which should make him familiar with the background of Christianity.
This book is a translation, by Jon E. Graham, of Professor Walter's 2003 work Mythologie chretienne: Fetes, rites et mythes du Moyen Age
, and as such I was prepared to overlook minor grammatical errors and such. Of more concern is the fact that the vast majority of works cited in the notes is in French as well, and most likely have not been translated into English, thus rendering it difficult to check the accuracy of the citations. Some notes do refer to classics in Latin and Greek and these are more readily available.
This is primarily a scholarly work intended to appeal to a specialist, if not scholarly audience. As such, it takes a certain, basic, understanding of the background material, since this is an assumption of the author. It is NOT a book for the casual reader.
At the same time, it is not so dry and non-interesting that it will only
appeal to academics. While it need not be on the bookshelf of the average Pagan, it could certainly prove a valuable addition to the library of those who teach classes on Pagan topics.
The illustrations used in this book are medieval-style woodcuts, which are entirely in keeping with the theme, even if they are not, perhaps, the best illustrations of the various saints under discussion. Overall, this is a well written work and the translation flows nicely.
Professor Walter examines each of the major festivals of the year and examines the relationships between the Christian celebrations and their Pagan (Celtic) antecedents. However, unlike most Pagan authors, he makes no attempt to claim that the Christians took Pagan themes and festivals and changed them. Nor does he claim, as some Christian authors have, that the Pagans stole their dates and themes from the Christians. He postulates that underlying both traditions is an older source (Indo-European) from which each drew its own particular interpretations.
Some of his conclusions strike me as curious, if not downright erroneous. The most obvious one is on page 114 (in the chapter on Beltane) when he says "The rite of May Day is arranged exactly opposite Christmas and is its springtime counterpart." Oh, really? When I look at the Wheel of the Year Beltane is in opposition to Samhain. They are six months apart, and mark the light and dark halves of the year. Christmas is in opposition to the Summer Solstice.