The Labyrinth of the Heart
European Paganism; the
realities of cult from antiquity to the Middle Ages.
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
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'
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
The Labyrinth of the Heart