Review: Pagan Britain

Pagan Britain
Ronald Hutton
London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.
496 p. ISBN: 9780300205466

In Pagan Britain one might suspect that Professor Ronald Hutton wants to create an inventory of the Pagan groups now active in Great Britain, but nothing could be further from the truth: he explores pre-Christian ritualistic behaviour by the oldest inhabitants of the archipelago.

As Hutton explains, we only have the archaeological evidence to go on, as prehistoric inhabitants of Britain never left any written records. The written records that do exist, are mostly composed by Roman authors of whom many never saw Britain and thus relied on third parties who told them about the behaviour of the ‘savages’. Hutton acknowledges that these sources, how tempting these might be, are unreliable. In fact, Hutton admits that we know in fact very little about the Pagan beliefs of British prehistory.

The book explores the time from the palaeolithic period until the arrival of Christianity in Britain, and even explores the survival of Pagan customs during the Middle Ages, and also admits that there is no certainty whether witchcraft is the survival of prehistoric magic. Hutton does support a more creative input by modern pagans, in the confines of the archaeological evidence, to try to restore some of the beliefs that now have faded into history.

We can imagine that Stonehenge is built for ritualistic use, we cross the border when we say it was built by extra-terrestrials, Egyptians or Phoenicians: the builders were indigenous to Britain, they used it for something, and maybe someone might accidentally stumble upon a novel thought, that might be worth more than any historic interpretation. In that case the book by Hutton is unique, as he presents to us what is known academically and invites us to interpret this data for ourselves and try to come to an interpretation of Pagan Britain.

Although the book has been written as an academic overview, it is a very inviting book to read. The many illustrations are very informative and well chosen and for the real buffs there are notes and a bibliography. A recommended read!

Wilmar Taal

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