Bkwyrm reviews Paganism Today: Wiccans, Druids, the Goddess and Ancient Earth Traditions for the Twenty-First Century by Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman in the Bkwyrm archive.
The book is essentially a collection of essays by various British Pagans on what Pagans were, and what they are today. It’s edited by two lecturers in religious studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne – American readers will have to pay slightly more for it, as it’s an import. There are three sections to the book: Paganism and Historical Perspectives (three essays), The Main Traditions in Contemporary Paganism (eight essays), and Paganism in Practice (five essays). The book begins with a note on each of the contributors – establishing his or her authority to write their essay.
A very fine introduction by Ms. Hardman gives a general overview of the Pagan religion, Pagan ethics, and why Pagans are Pagans. There’s more to it, of course, as she delves into monotheistic, duotheistic, and polytheistic Paganism, the way the religion(s) have matured over the years, and how the different groups – primarily Wiccans, Druids, and Shamen – have developed. Ms. Hardman also talks about the historical roots of Paganism, and mentions that even though anthropologist Margaret Murray was largely “debunked” in the 1970s by Keith Thomas and Norman Cohn, the extent to which modern Paganism can be linked to a tradition in the past remains a controversial issue. She points to Ronald Hutton’s book “The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles” and Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick’s 1995 work titled “A History of Pagan Europe” as evidence of this fact. These days, it’s rare that an introduction to a collection actually serves as an introduction, a warmup to the topic, but this introduction is excellent, and would be sufficient on its own as a brief article.
The first three essays concern where Paganism fits into modern historical perspectives of ancient Europe. Ronald Hutton’s “The Roots Of Modern Paganism” is something of an interim report on research in progress at the time the book was published. He talks about the witch myths, the traditions of ceremonial magic, and how this history has been reflected in literature. Most importantly, Hutton identifies authors and books for further research and study – French, German, and British scholars who are historians and archeologists with no agenda except to find out what people really did practice those thousands of years ago. Kenneth Rees’ essay on the role of myth in Paganism – how personal and allied bodies of myths can keep a person, religion, or entire society functioning in a particular way. Prudence Jones writes on what the ancient Pagan theologies might have been – because of course, a polytheistic religion gives many different accounts of the Divine, thus the term “theologies”. She also demonstrates how these theologies are being accepted and used by the modern Pagan community in a constructive and evolving way.
The second set of essays concern the main traditions in modern Paganism. Heathenism, or Northern Paganism, is given a brief explanation and overview by Graham Harvey. The essay on Druidism by Philip Shallcrass is probably one of the weakest in the book – he presents no clear picture of modern Druidry, and does not seem to even want to attempt to link it to ancient Druidry. Vivianne Crowley’s essay on Wicca as a modern-day mystery religion is fascinating, as is Lynne Morgan’s essay on women and the Goddess. Then Richard Sutcliffe’s essay on the left-hand, or sinister, path, provides a historical and philosophical overview of the “dark” side of Paganism. Marvelous to see that included in this book, as the left-hand-path Pagans often get shoved into corners and covered up with metaphorical blankets when books like this one come out. Adrian Harris speaks on Sacred Ecology, and the link between Pagans and the Earth. Michael York wraps up the section with a brief look at the New Age Movement and Paganism, and how each has changed the other.
Finally, the section on Paganism in Practice contains five short essays. Amy Simes contributes what appears to be much more of a sociological study than a religious one – it’s titled “Mercian Movements: Group Transformation and Individual Choices Amongst East Midlands Pagans”. Not one of the best essays, and it doesn’t seem to really fit in with the rest of the essays, but still interesting enough. Susan Greenwood’s essay on Will, Gender, and Power in Magic was entirely too short. It covered the topic, but that’s one essay I’d love to see expanded into book format. Shan Jayran takes up the “dark” Pagan banner with an essay on “Darklight Philosophy: A Ritual Praxis”, exploring both her personal magical philosophy and the larger philosophies of others in an essay liberally sprinkled with block quotes from important literature. The reading list for this essay is especially impressive. Leila Dudley Edwards contributes what I consider to be another weak essay, this one on Halloween and Traditional Paganism. It may be personal bias on my part, however, as I’m really quite tired about hearing the Samhain/Halloween argument rehashed over and over again. Finally, Marion Bowman examines the current Celtic revival in the Pagan Community, and the spiritual aspects of that revival. All in all, this is a good solid book of essays. There are no rituals in here, and really no investigation of the magical practices of Paganism. This work examines Paganism as a religion, accepts it at face value, and explores where it came from, where it is now, and where it’s going. Highly recommended for those who like scholarly essays on their religion.