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A Review of Jones and Pennick’s A History of Pagan Europe

-Michael J Dangler

Jones, Prudence and Pennick, Nigel. A History of Pagan Europe. 3rd ed. Barnes and Noble Books, Inc., NY. 1995

Looking at the ADF reading list, I choose to read Mallory’s book rather than this one originally. I wish I had read this book first, since I could hardly understand Mallory, and this book was easier by miles.

I first encountered Pennick when I read his book Magical Alphabets, which I also give high marks. I had never read anything by Jones before this, but think that now I should read more.

Rather than looking at this book by chapters primarily, as I have done previously, I think I’ll look at this work as a whole, with chapter designations thrown in for organizational purposes, where I need them.

Immediately upon starting the book, on page 1, there is a definition and history of the term “pagan” and its use, the latter being something that you don’t get when you talk to modern Pagans. Apparently, the word was originally used by legionnaires in Rome as a derogatory term to describe noncombatants. It was first used religiously by the Christians to describe “non-Jewish” peoples, as the Christians saw themselves as “Soldiers of Christ.” Pagan eventually returned to its root meaning in the 4th century to “anyone who worshipped the spirit of a given locality or pagus.”

Jones and Pennick also mention the modern Pagan movement very early on, and its differences with old Paganism, as practiced in ancient societies. “Neopaganism is a theology of polarity, rather than the polytheism of ancient European culture.” (p. 3) They also cut through some of the myths that surround modern Paganism, such as the Goddess-centered worship of Crete and the evidence that Celtic women enjoyed equality with men.

The Cretans worshipped Poseidon, according to Jones and Pennick, but he was not the primary deity. Apparently, Gods had as much a place as Goddesses in the Minoan religion, and men appear to have occasionally been priests. (ps. 5-6) The main problem with this particular argument is that there are few actual citations about this, though it is mentioned that Poseidon is named specifically in Linear B, the language the Cretans used, even though he is never shown in artwork. (p.5)

Interestingly, while Poseidon is named but not shown, the Great Goddess whose image adorns much Minoan art, is never named. Other goddesses are, such as Hera and Athena, and others who are not known from native sources. (p. 5)

On page 10, there is a mention of the gifts given to Athens by the two original patrons of the city, Poseidon and Athena. This is interesting because of the Two Powers meditation that the ADF uses in liturgy and in practice. The basics of the Two Powers meditation is that there is an Underworld Power and a Sky Power. This theory, based on Pan-IE studies, is a reflection of several creation myths, and is meant to reconnect us to the Gods and to Magic. At least that is my current understanding of it. I’ll reflect on this more further on in my Dedicant’s materials.

Much of ADF’s beliefs and liturgical points are expanded upon in Jones and Pennick’s work. The sections on Greece and Rome mention the ritual space as being in the center of the world (p. 20), rather than apart from it as modern Pagans tend to place it; spirits of place are described, along with their surroundings (p. 34); and Vesta/Hestia is connected with the fire, and Janus with the doors and the gates.

The sections on the Celts provide a large amount of information that is useful to the modern Pagan, from descriptions of sacred spaces, from Chartres Cathedral (p. 85) to the sacred wells (p. 83) to the temples that the Gauls created. (p. 81)

Something interesting: apparently, despite what I had heard from numerous New Age sources, there is little evidence for the equality of women and men in Celtic societies. Tacitus tells us that the “Celts made no distinction between male and female rulers,” but according to Jones and Pennick, there is little evidence that women could ascend to the priesthood, and they dismiss Strabo as apocryphal, and also the priestesses of Demeter and Kore as described by Artemidorus. (p. 85-86)

Honestly, I was not convinced by their arguments. I recall that one of Fion MacCumhail’s foster mothers was a Druidess, which points to direct, primary source evidence that women could ascend to the priesthood. I’m not entirely sure how to take this information. I think it warrants more investigation and thought.

Page 90 includes a description of the Celtic festivals, and is a very useful synopsis. Page 111 includes an important distinction that the early writers refused to make: the distinction between the Gauls and the Germans. I feel that this is important, particularly when there is little serious scholarship that compares the Gauls and the other Celts to the Germanic tribes and the Norse. It deserves to be looked into with more zeal than has currently happened.

Jones and Pennick have a decent introductory discussion of the Norse pantheon, but I would recommend reading Davidson instead for your Norse information.

While I am not interested in the Baltic countries, I did find it useful to note that there seem to be Pagan survivals in the area, and that the Protestant Reformation actually managed to save Pagan tales and practices, by saving the language that those tales were recorded in. (p. 204)

Jones and Pennick also state that most scholars put the number of deaths during the European witch trials at less than 100,000. (p. 204) On the subject of witchcraft, Jones and Pennick note that “only on the fringes of Europe did the Great Witch-hunt attack Pagan magic as such.” They state that misogyny was not the expression of the trials and deaths, but that they were the result of it. Basically, the church did not believe that women were evil, but that they were the only people stupid enough to sign a pact with the Devil. (p. 205-206)

In all, I liked the book. While I found some things objectionable, or leaving much to be desired, I feel that the book as a whole presented interesting and useful ideas, and the history is good.

The drawbacks I noticed have been mentioned, but I loved their use of footnotes and citations. I would suggest this book to anyone who is interested at all in reconstruction of Pagan religions, not just Neo-Paganism.

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