DP Book Reviews

Indo-European Title: A History of Pagan Europe

A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick is a reasonably well-written book, and a fairly good resource for Ár nDraíocht Féin’s Dedicant Path.  It works well as a source for studying the roots of Ár nDraíocht Féin because you can identify the common themes both in the rituals of Our Own Druidry as well as in the rituals of the ancients across the Indo-European cultures discussed in the book. The book is a very good resource if the reader already knows a decent amount about Ár nDraíocht Féin, because then he or she can then make connections between the ancient practices of various cultures and religions and what the current practice is in Our Own Druidry.

There are many references throughout that book that are helpful for understanding our religion, specifically in regards to our re-creation of the cosmos using the fire, well, and tree.  For instance, in talking about the Greeks and Hellenistic religions the book describes how “many sanctuaries in later Greek culture centred on a sacred tree” and did dances in order to establish a connection between the worlds (Jones 6).  There is evidence at La Tene II barrow at Normee of this dancing around a central point, demonstrating that this idea of a sacred tree standing at the center of worlds (82).   There were Jupiter pillars as well, that seem to have served the same purpose.  The Baltic tradition uses a “pole or tree as a symbol of the World Tree, the celestial axis of the Earth’s rotation” (174).  All of these things relate to our current concept of the sacred tree, or the world tree, in Ár nDraíocht Féin.

As far as the Well in Ár nDraíocht Féin goes, this book gives evidence for that as well.  The Celts had “shrines at springs, rivers, [and] lakes” where they kept holy wells that are still known today (Jones 81).  The wells were known for their healing waters.  The ‘sun springs’ that are referenced in regards to the Celts bear a certain resemblance to a version of our two powers meditation.  The idea the deep chthonic waters mix with the bright light of the heavens is a visualization that we in Ár nDraíocht Féin often use during an attunement (88). The waters for the Greeks were often the sites of Oracles and prophecy.  This can be interpreted as a connection between the Ancient Wise that dwell in the deep and the wisdom that the Greeks thought could be gained there.

The sacred fire is also mentioned throughout the discussion of different culture.  Hestia and Vesta served as the flame and hearth keepers in Greece and Rome, respectively.  The Celts, “in County Kildare Brighde had a shrine with a scared flame, which was tended by a college of women” (Jones 102). When other religions sough to stamp out the various brands of paganism, one of the first things they attacked was the sacred fire.  “Various Church councils held in Germany called for the suppression of heathen practices, including … the need-fire” (131).  In Rome, when Catholic Christianity was declared the only allowed faith, many Pagan shrines and ceremonies were to lose State funding, but “perhaps worst of all, the Vestals were to lose their privileges and immunities and their sacred fire was to be put out” (71).  Fire was also very important in sacrifice so that the offerings could be burned and the smoke sent up to the heavens.  The Celtic and Germanic peoples echoed this importance or fire in the burning of the dead.

In focusing on how the fire, well, and tree were treated in pagan practices in Indo-European cultures, it is possible for the reader to understand how those ancient practices relate to our current practices within Ár nDraíocht Féin.  These connections, among many others, make A History of Pagan Europe a good study title for use in the Dedicant’s Training Program.

 

Cultural Title: Theogony and Works and Days

Hesiod wrote Theogony and Works and Days during the period in Greek history when oral tradition was finally being record due to the emergence of the Greek alphabet.  His work was, in many ways, overshadowed by Homer and his writing, but Hesiod’s works are still very useful in learning about the Gods themselves, as well as the people who worshiped them.  Theogony is verse that explains how the Gods came into begin, and how they family tree, or more accurately, the family thicket, plays out.  It is a good explanation of the creation myth of both the Gods and of Man, but is also not necessarily a good resource for beginners.  The text does not explain what each god has specific dominion over, and thus how he or she relates to the world, and to us.  He also uses multiple names of some gods, which I’ve never heard outside of this text.  So it may not be nearly as helpful to those new to the mythology.  One of the things I noticed in reading the long lists of names of gods, was that those who actually had every god in a group listed were the daughters of rivers and oceans.  In this relatively short text, the percentage of text that is devoted to the names of the water deities shows how important sacred water was to the Ancient Greeks.

In the notes and introduction before Works and Days Athanassakis notes how this text was likely written by Hesiod directly to his brother, so he could “speak to Perses the naked truth” (Hesiod 65).       It is a text that is about moral values and the proper time to do the proper thing.  I found this section both very boring and very interesting in sections.  Hesiod spent a lot of the text discussing how farmers and sailors should go about their jobs.  And while this is excellent anthropological information about the common man during that time period, it does not speak particularly well to me.  However, the portion that I found interesting was the section where Hesiod spoke regarding portents and the correct day and the correct month for certain tasks, saying “Zeus sends the days; observe them in good measure” (Hesiod 84).  This section provides knowledge for worshiping and living with the Hellenic religion as the people of Ancient Greece did.  Granted, some of it is outdated, and some may regard it as silly superstition, but that is that nature of faith and belief.  It is in the Works and Days that we are told which days are sacred to certain gods.  For instance, beginning at line 768, the sacred days are laid out:

Here are the days that come from Zeus the counselor,

If people judge their true nature and live by it:

The chief sacred days are the first, the fourth, and the seventh;

Leto bore Apollon of the golden sword on the seventh.

This part of the text is what specifically makes Works and Days a good book for the Dedicant learner.  It provides specific information about how the Ancient Greeks lived, and how they worshiped.

All in all, I would recommend this book, but encourage it to be read alongside a collection of Greek myths.  I think that the reader will get more out of Theogony and Works and Days if they have good background knowledge of the myths.  It is an excellent primary source that is beneficial to the Dedicant learner.

 

Modern Title: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism by Carl McColman provides a broad overview of varying kinds of paganism.  It is a mixed bag of information with some glaring inaccuracies as well as some valuable tidbits that could contribute to a budding pagan’s new spiritual path.  The beginning of the book focuses on the general beliefs that all pagans have and some of the larger brands of paganism.

I had a difficult time with this first section because it tries to ascribe a set of beliefs to a huge group of people.  This not necessarily a fault of the author, but rather of the broad nature of the topic.  If one considers that the world could be divided into monotheists and polytheists, most people would agree that it seems mad to try saying “all monotheists think this way,” which in turn makes it rather insane to try coming up with a way to say “all polytheists believe this way.”  The other gripe I had with the majority of the book is how centered on Wicca it is.  Granted, Wicca and witchcraft is what gets the most press, and what will probably make the book sell, but for a book that is claiming to cover all aspects of paganism, many of the chapters and discussion within the book lean towards Goddess centered, Wiccan worship.  This, for the person who knows nothing of paganism, is likely to give a skewed picture of what types of paganism are out there.  The one other thing that made me question this book’s scholarly worth was the vast number of small, but easily noticeable and correctable, errors.  For instance when stating that Dianic Wicca is “named after the Greek Goddess of the hunt,” even though Diana is a Roman Goddess (McColman 54).  It is a small error, but one that is easily fixed.  These types of inaccuracies give the impression of little editing and research.

The last part of the book I think is where the most value comes for a new pagan.  The book offers sound advice on starting to explore through meditation your own beliefs and finding the path that’s right for you.  There is a section of how to set up and altar in your home, how to start learning about different deities, and how to go about finding groups of pagans if you don’t want to be solitary.  It even gives a list of questions that you should ask before joining any sort of pagan group, which I think is especially valuable.  I would take it further and say it’s an important set of questions to ask before joining any religious group, because they include things like “Is it okay for members to disagree with the leaders?” and “Do you feel comfortable with the members?” (McColman 308)  These are questions that can help to determine if a group has cult-like tendencies.

All in all, I would say this is a good book for the person who knows nothing about paganism and is trying to find their way spiritually.  It is a good exploratory book, and a good book for brand new pagans just beginning to develop their spirituality.  I would not recommend it to learners on the Dedicant Path if they have any sort of background knowledge on paganism, due to its heavy focus on Goddess worship and Wiccan paths.

 

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