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Listening People, Speaking Earth: contemporary paganism.
Graham Harvey.
Hurst and Co.  Pb £9.95.

Graham Harvey is both an academic, working in Religious Studies, and a pagan. He has written this book (whose US title is just Contemporary Paganism) primarily for students, but also for lecturers, researchers, and indeed for a broader audience including pagans themselves. The academic aspect shows in the bibliography of over thirteen pages, and the copious footnotes. The footnotes don't intrude on the reader, though, and it is good to have statements documented.

The style of the book is very clear — just what students need, and what the general reader needs, too. Among the chapters are ones on druidry, witchcraft, the Northern tradition, goddess spirituality, as well as ecology, earth mysteries, history and influences (including mythology and fiction), and relations with other religions. In the areas I knew about, I found that he had read widely and spoken to many people, and given an excellent overview. While sympathetically portraying the different traditions, he is willing to be critical of the faults, foibles, and occasional damaging thinking (or perhaps lack of thinking — the racism and sexism which is quite common goes largely unexamined by most people, as does the incipient fascism of some in the ecological movement). I particularly liked his awareness that those Folk who may be called by such names as Fair Folk, People of Peace, Sidhe, do not like the name most commonly used for them — though he uses that name a few times, he also at times just refers to ‘Them’, which is a term I often use

The chapter headings come from Terry Pratchett (as do a few other quotations). Pratchett has a good knowledge of paganism, and manages to make profound remarks in a humorous way. For instance, one of the classical question of philosophy is definitively answered by him: “One of the recurring philosophical questions is ‘Does a falling tree in a forest make a sound when there is no‑one to hear?’ Which says something about the nature of philosophers, because there is always someone in a forest. It may only be a badger, wondering what that cracking noise was …”

Until recently if one wanted an introduction to paganism the best choice was Margot Adler's Drawing Down the Moon; though this is a good book, it concentrates on the American scene. Now we have Graham Harvey's book, which is much more based in the British tradition. If you want to explain paganism to someone who knows nothing about it (which can be a very difficult task), you can give them this book to read. I also recommend it highly for anyone wanting to know more about pagan traditions other than their own.

Wood and Water 60, Autumn 1997
© Daniel Cohen

 

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