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Home > Books & Reviews > Pagan > A History of Pagan Europe Search

Book Review:
A History of Pagan Europe

Author: Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick
Trade Paperback, 262 pages
Publisher: Routledge
Publication date: 2000
ISBN: 0415158044
Price & More Info: Click Here


A History of Pagan Europe is a solidly written and entertaining reference. It will appeal to those with an academic background, as it is well-researched and appropriately footnoted. The bibliography provides ranks of further reading for those who interested in primary sources. Despite the scholarly polish, its 262 pages are energetically written and engaging. Included are 63 black-and-white plates of maps, etchings, artist renderings, and photographs.  

At first glance this relatively short book, which covers the entire history of Pagan Europe, might seem too generalized to provide insight into any one tradition. I found the book very concise, however, offsetting quantity with quality. Even in areas where I felt confident, such as classic Greco-Roman antiquity, I benefited from the reoriented perspective the authors brought to their study. Jones and Pennick turned the intellectual map of Europe upside down, looking southward from the north, thus revealing the kinship and deep structural unity that underlies the ancient western traditions from Iceland to the Russian Steppes.  

For instance, instead of presenting classic Greco-Roman religion as a vestige of Mediterranean civilization, Pennick and Jones traced it through its earliest pre-Minoan, pre-Etruscan forms, and in so doing exposed the European core of the religion, as well as its kinship to northern belief. The European tradition itself, as it appears in Russia and the Baltic, the Balkans, in the Celtic and Germanic lands is laid out as a complex, but unified, fabric. Unfortunately due to the completeness of the rendition, holes in our knowledge -- areas where the pre- Christian tradition was all but lost appear in stark relief.  

Another strength of the book is its acknowledgement of the differences between the theory and practice of the modern European Pagans, versus their cultural ancestors. Jones and Pennick are scrupulous in their dating of ancient movements, and dedicate their last chapter "Paganism Reaffirmed" to reemerging Pagan tradition. The authors begin this chapter with the High Middle Ages (950-1350), which strengthens the impression of an unbroken line of Pagan activity from ancient times to the modern. Jones and Pennick choose to challenge this possibility, however, demanding solid research rather than simply following the seduction of the nice-to-believe.  

"In 1839 the archivist Franz-Joseph Mone of Baden proposed that the orgiastic features of the alleged witch cult had in fact been part of an underground religion derived from Dionysiac worship in the Greek colonies on the Black Sea and brought back to German by the returning Goths. (Such) thinkers drew attention to their regional heritage, but unfortunately failed to demonstrate by reference to contemporary records that any of the people accused had actually taken part in either 'witchcraft' ceremonies or ceremonies of a continuing Pagan religion. As we have seen, modern research tends to argue against these conclusions." (p 206)  

Occasionally Jones and Pennick come off as whiney, or petty, even when they have a legitimate point, as on page 202 when they describe the reemergence of Pagan gods into the Christian landscape in the 17th and 18th centuries: "Whenever a Christian temple was erected by a landowner, then it is assumed to be authentic. Yet comparable Pagan temples are not." (pp. 201-201)  

A similar note of pique also appears on page 210, where the authors state: "The romantic interpretation of ancient Druidism are no more or less valid than the equivalent mythologies of other hagiographies. Materialist critics of Druidism fail to apply the same criteria of criticism to the prophets of other religions."  

A more significant issue arises when the authors blame early Christians for burning the Library at Alexandria. This claim is presented as uncontestable fact and without substantiation, when most historians today believe the library's loss occurred over several centuries, and divide the blame between the Romans under Octavian, the Caliphate, and eastern Christians. An author's occasional slide from objectivism gives ammunition to those who would disregard modern Paganism as a rootless, academically anemic fad. Jones and Pennick seldom step outside their scholarly demeanor, however, and when they do the material as a whole does not suffer for it.  

In fact Jones and Pennick usually maintain an even hand. They describe ancient traditions, (or excesses thereof,) which we might look down upon today. On the other hand, Protestant Christians are credited on page 204 for reintroducing to civil life of certain regions the use of their local languages, including translating the bible into vulgate editions. By preserving the local languages these Protestant Christians preserved the local histories, myths, and religion recorded within them.  

The few problems with A History of Pagan Europe are far outweighed by the many gifts it offers. I have recommended the book to several friends, and would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone in search of a broad view approach to the history of Paganism in Europe.

Reviewed by Christine Moonflower

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