Home      List of Contents      Links      Contact      The Labyrinth of the Heart

European Paganism; the realities of cult from antiquity to the Middle Ages.
Ken Dowden.
Routledge 2000. Hb £45.

The author is a classical scholar, who bases this work on the written evidence rather than on archaeology. This means that he does not consider prehistory. Most of the pre-Christian material comes from Greek and Roman sources, and even the Christian sources are almost entirely in Latin, as the different peoples usually did not have their own written language until some considerable time after they had been christianised. One of the great virtues of this book is the many detailed quotations (in translation); most other books on similar matters quote only brief phrases.

Because the amount of material available differs so much from one people to another, he structures the book by themes rather than by country. For instance, there is a chapter on 'spring, lake, river' and one on 'stone and tree', as well as ones on pagan concepts of time and on the nature of temples. This does run the risk of a Frazerian eclecticism, gathering snippets from here and there, but the author avoids this danger admirably.

He devotes his time to look at pagan practice rather than belief, and writes very little about individual gods. He says that "paganism is not primarily credal and there is accordingly even less justification for starting from official beliefs about the divinity than there is for Christianity, Islam and Judaism; to tell the god is not to tell the religion. Pagan polytheism is in fact a very complicated ideology and we need a lot of evidence to understand why their systems of gods were configured as they were." (p. 213)

His writing is full of insights. He points out that in a Christian church the altar is within the church; but in the typical Greek sanctuary "there was the temple and the historic statue of the god within, but the altar … was outside the temple and in front of it." (p.26) I had never realised, but it seems obvious now he has told me, that there are sacred trees and sacred groves, but a sacred grove is not a collection of sacred trees. And it is nice to learn that "it is impossible for us looking at Gaulish, or indeed for a Gaul speaking it, to distinguish between 'oak-expert' and 'truth-knower' as the meaning of 'druid'. So both oak and true are valid for speakers of the language and it is not for us to dismiss the inevitable associations of the two by sternly dismissing 'false' etymologies." (p.237)

He warns us that Christian denunciations of paganism are not to be relied on for information about pagan practices, as one writer will often copy another one writing at a different time and place. For instance, Augustine argues against a paganism that was already out of date half a millennium earlier (p. 152). Dowden says that "In a remarkable way Christians were unable to comprehend the variety and chaos that always makes paganism what it is." (p. 149) On p.152 he says that "paganism is something very unspecific for most Christian authors" and that 'The question then arises as to whether any local observations are made by Christian writers for themselves. [Several authors] thought not. I think that if an extreme position is to be adopted, this is the correct one."

The book is a delight to read. Dowden has an attractive style, and chooses his quotations so that they illuminate the matters he is discussing. He does not say much about the history of pagan Europe — as he says, this has been done with real commitment in Jones and Pennick's A History of Pagan Europe (Routledge 1995). This latter book, originally in hardback, was re-issued in paperback at an affordable price. It is to be hoped that Dowden's book will also appear in paperback, as it is essential and enjoyable reading for anyone interested in what pagans did.

Wood and Water 71, Summer 2000
© Daniel Cohen                                   


Home      List of Contents      Links      Contact      The Labyrinth of the Heart