Author: Teresa Moorey
Trade Paperback, 122 pages
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton Headway
Publication date: 1996
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Paganism: A Beginner's Guide is part of a series published by Hodder and Stoughton on their Headway educational imprint. Others in the series include Chakras: A Beginner's Guide, I Ching: A Beginner's Guide, Qabalah: A Beginner's Guide, and Tarot: A Beginner's Guide. This book is intended as a very basic guide for Paganism to spark the interest of those considering alternative paths.
The book is divided up into 13 chapters, covering subjects such as "What is a Pagan?" "The Sacred Earth" and "Cycles and Celebrations" as well as chapters on paths like Shamanism and Druidry. The chapter on Cycles and Celebrations is very well illustrated and there are a few other illustrations scattered through the book. On a more political level, there are chapters on feminism, the men's movement, and eco-pagans.
The author takes the position, as stated on the blurb, that "Paganism is Nature worship." The "What is a Pagan" chapter was written from that point of view, so we are told variously that Paganism is "nature-worship" "a fertility cult" "Goddess worship" and "doing what feels right for you." She also reckons that people may be pagan without having considered themselves such. Pagans have no "dogmas, shoulds or thou shalt nots" according to the blurb, and Moorey adds to this that many "do not follow any specific tradition." I found these statements to contradict what many Pagans have told me about their paths, and also to be rather vague. So, then, what is a Pagan, apart from someone who likes nature a lot?
This book suffers from the great difficulty of having only 122 pages with which to explain Paganism. All of the "A Beginner's Guide" series are very thin books and are probably kept to strict word limits. (I suspect that "What is a Pagan" could fill the 122 pages all by itself, never mind the other twelve chapters.) This means that the book is woolly and generalized in places. There's never a clear distinction made between Wicca and witchcraft -- the two are seen as meaning the same thing, and though Ms Mooney subdivides "witchcraft" into Traditional Witches practicing old family traditions, Hedge Witches who are solo, Open Style Craft who are new-agey and feminist, and Wiccans, she seems to regard them all as practicing mostly either Wicca or a form of eclectic Wicca. No Satanic witches here!
The reader is informed that the universal Pagan rule is "Harm None", that all witches follow the Rede, and that all Pagans worship the Goddess. The figure of nine million dead in the Burning Times is used, as is the assumption that all witches were burnt. Moorey does admit that these claims are contested, but she endorses them because Margaret Murray was a "lucid and scholarly lady". What's more "The literal truth is not important, especially to Pagans...." It appears that some of her information would need to be unlearnt by anyone who used this book as a starting point.
Moorey isn't saying that "Pagan = Wiccan" (there are chapters on Shamanism, Druidry, and Asatru) but she does make the assumption that all pagan paths are nature-worship based and that they are all...nice. Reluctant to embrace the darker aspects of history, she claims "A druid standing by [at a human sacrifice], possibly trying to advise, console and modify, may have been interpreted as officiating." Yes, and it's just as likely he actually WAS officiating. Modern Druids do not use human sacrifice and there's surely no need to cover up the past. After all, we know many things nowadays that our ancestors did not, and ancient practices have not generally survived intact and unchanged. There was also a smack at the JCI religions which struck me as unnecessary "...the old pagan ways have been far less blameworthy than many other religions."
The chapters on feminism, the men's movement and eco-paganism, while interesting, weren't hugely relevant, and probably could have been combined into one chapter. In similar vein, the chapter on sci-fi and psychology was intriguing but didn't seem to have much to do with the topic in hand.
I found this book to be rather fluffy and its insistence that "the truth doesn't matter" to be disconcerting, but I think most of its problems were due to the sheer impossibility of explaining Paganism in 122 pages! When you have only four pages to say what a Pagan is, and there seem to be more flavors of Pagan than of ice cream, it's very difficult to be anything other than vague and general.
It does provide an overview of some non-Wiccan traditions, and the chapter on Cycles and Celebrations was fascinating. I would have liked to see a whole book by the same author on the topic as it is evidently something she has spent a lot of time contemplating. Her style is accessible and lyrical, and I especially liked the fact that she defined Paganism not against either Christianity or Satanism, but on its own terms -- though I quibble with her definitions. Having said that, there are far too many problems with the book to recommend it to another non-Pagan.
Reviewed by Vash