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Author Topic: Reflecting on recreating Pagan religion from Ronald Hutton's book Pagan Britain  (Read 2380 times)

sionnachdearg

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I have just had the pleasure of reading “Pagan Britain” by Ronald Hutton and was particularly interested in his comments about how one can recreate a religion, in particular from northwestern Europe which was no longer practiced certainly by 1000 AD and realistically not practiced prior to this time. Thus with no surviving tradition and no untainted sources how can we create a believable religion we can believe in. Here is some of his presentation and I would like to know how others feel about this position.

Hutton states that "it is impossible to determine with any precision the nature of the religious beliefs and rites of prehistoric British. It may fairly be argued therefore that present-day groups have a perfect right to recreate their own representation of those and enact them as a personal religious practice providing that they remain within the rather broad limits of material evidence".  So what is this broad evidence he refers to?
1.   We can be certain that the pre-Roman British believed in and honoured a large number of goddesses and gods, with powers and functions related to the natural world or to human concerns and activities, and often particular to specific localities and peoples
2.   they practiced animal sacrifice, in at least its minimal form: that the beasts consumed at festivities were consecrated to deities before being slaughtered and eaten; this is, again, because it was a universal custom across pagan Europe.
3.   It is also possible to reconstruct the festive calendar of the ancient British, in outline, from historic records and comparative data.
4.   The emphasis on the right side in burial customs and (perhaps) domestic layout is almost certainly related to a belief that it is lucky to turn to the right when moving, in the direction in which the sun moves in this hemisphere and which the modern age calls clockwise. This remained widespread in northern Europe until recent times
5.   We can also be certain that the pre-Roman British possessed some sort or sorts of belief in the survival of the soul after death, not only because this is also general among traditional peoples but because Greek and Roman authors noted that such a belief was held with unusual fervor among the natives of north-western Europe.
6.   The continued deposition of objects in natural places and at prehistoric monuments went on until the very end of Roman rule
7.   Commentary by Christian monks about the residual and inappropriate behaviors of the newly converted Christians such as Gildas from 450 to 550. More specifically 540 – 547 where he recalled that his compatriots had once worshipped the divine powers inherent in the natural world and needed to change this view to that God created the natural world for the use of humans. (from another source here is Gildas quote "Nor will I call out upon the mountains, fountains, or hills, or upon the rivers, which are now subservient to the use of man, but once were an abomination and destruction to them, and to which the blind people paid divine honours,")

I think this is an interesting start and am wondering what other people feel about his in the forum.

RandallS

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Quote from: sionnachdearg;175596
Hutton states that "it is impossible to determine with any precision the nature of the religious beliefs and rites of prehistoric British. It may fairly be argued therefore that present-day groups have a perfect right to recreate their own representation of those and enact them as a personal religious practice providing that they remain within the rather broad limits of material evidence".

THis is pretty much true for any ancient Pagan religion. While what is known (and how much is known) varies from one ancient religion to another, detailed information usually is non-existant to sketchy.
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sionnachdearg

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Quote from: RandallS;175605
THis is pretty much true for any ancient Pagan religion. While what is known (and how much is known) varies from one ancient religion to another, detailed information usually is non-existant to sketchy.

 
I agree with you from what I have been able to learn but the the only pagan religions I am familiar are the Celtic and Germanic. The problem I have is how can we recreate a religion with its beliefs given such minimal information and what avenues do we have to help construct a belief system that avoids what could be seen as " a made up religion with no real basis for the belief".

 Do you agree with what Ronald Hutton suggests probably the information that appears plausible for someone interested in Pagan religions of the British Isles?

Yei

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Quote from: sionnachdearg;175640
I agree with you from what I have been able to learn but the the only pagan religions I am familiar are the Celtic and Germanic. The problem I have is how can we recreate a religion with its beliefs given such minimal information and what avenues do we have to help construct a belief system that avoids what could be seen as " a made up religion with no real basis for the belief".

 Do you agree with what Ronald Hutton suggests probably the information that appears plausible for someone interested in Pagan religions of the British Isles?

 
Don't forget about archaeology though. Archaeology can be a really useful source of information. If nothing else it can give some cultural and historical context to religious information. However it can dig up more direct information about images. Sometimes archaeologists unearth religious icons, or dig up religious site, which can reveal a whole host of information.

The real fun part comes when you start to cross reference different types of information together, because it makes it easier to see what is true, what is false, and how certain details may have been misunderstood. This is really helpful.

RandallS

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Quote from: sionnachdearg;175640
Do you agree with what Ronald Hutton suggests probably the information that appears plausible for someone interested in Pagan religions of the British Isles?

I'm not really familiar enough with the specifics of ancient Pagan in the British Isles to say. Hutton's suggestions seem quite reasonable for reconstruction of any ancient religion where information on practices is severely lacking, however.
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Quote from: sionnachdearg;175640
The problem I have is how can we recreate a religion with its beliefs given such minimal information and what avenues do we have to help construct a belief system that avoids what could be seen as " a made up religion with no real basis for the belief".

 
You can't.  No matter what religious stuff you hold to - including perfectly bog-standard mainline Abrahamic monotheism - there will be people who see it as a made-up thing with no real basis.  Worrying about this will keep you from ever doing anything.

More useful is to figure out whether the system you construct or adopt is useful.  Does it meet your standards of consistency (including consistency with whatever historical lore you care about)?  Does it cultivate good relationship (with yourself, your community, any entities involved)?  Does it support you in goals of being a better person?  Is it beautiful to you?

If it doesn't do these things, does it matter if it's "authentic"?
as the water grinds the stone
we rise and fall
as our ashes turn to dust
we shine like stars    - Covenant, "Bullet"

sionnachdearg

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Quote from: Darkhawk;175653
You can't.  No matter what religious stuff you hold to - including perfectly bog-standard mainline Abrahamic monotheism - there will be people who see it as a made-up thing with no real basis.  Worrying about this will keep you from ever doing anything.

More useful is to figure out whether the system you construct or adopt is useful.  Does it meet your standards of consistency (including consistency with whatever historical lore you care about)?  Does it cultivate good relationship (with yourself, your community, any entities involved)?  Does it support you in goals of being a better person?  Is it beautiful to you?

If it doesn't do these things, does it matter if it's "authentic"?

 
I like what you express and I understand it will come down to a point of what we individually decide we must believe in but I want to know what more about what my ancestors believed in. I personally believe I can learn from my ancestors that will help me develop my beliefs which is why I became interested into pagan religions.

I do not believe we can reconstruct a Celtic religion the way it was practiced in the past for so many reasons.  For one thing the beliefs appear to have changed with a changing relationship to the world both natural environmental changes and contact with other cultures. Despite this I believe we can still learn for our ancestors which can help shape my beliefs and have already influenced what I believe.

An example of this comes from comments expressed by Monks living in the areas of Ireland, Northern England and Scotland. As in the example I first presented about  Gildas who was in Ireland from 450 to 550,  he recalled that his compatriots had once worshipped the divine powers inherent in the natural world  but now they were created for the use of humans. Here I see a divergence in beliefs where the Pre-Christians saw the natural world was divine from the springs to the rivers, moon and sun, and even trees and animals. My impression is they did not see the distinction between animals and humans as did the Christian beliefs who expressed that nature was created for the use of humans. Thus Gods and Goddesses were associated with animals. Thus I identify with the belief the natural world is divine.

sionnachdearg

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Quote from: Yei;175642
Don't forget about archaeology though. Archaeology can be a really useful source of information. If nothing else it can give some cultural and historical context to religious information. However it can dig up more direct information about images. Sometimes archaeologists unearth religious icons, or dig up religious site, which can reveal a whole host of information.

The real fun part comes when you start to cross reference different types of information together, because it makes it easier to see what is true, what is false, and how certain details may have been misunderstood. This is really helpful.

 
I agree archeology is important even though its interpretation is full of risk. An interesting debated has surrounded the cave paintings in western Europe. Are they associated with religious beliefs, does their position in places that are more difficult to access important, does the location in many cases in areas of special acoustics give us an idea of their purpose, and do the subjects depicted which often blended animals and animals with people give us a hint to the beliefs of the people who made them? Can we also see patterns of religious behavior today that can give us insight?

Yei

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Quote from: sionnachdearg;175724
I agree archeology is important even though its interpretation is full of risk. An interesting debated has surrounded the cave paintings in western Europe. Are they associated with religious beliefs, does their position in places that are more difficult to access important, does the location in many cases in areas of special acoustics give us an idea of their purpose, and do the subjects depicted which often blended animals and animals with people give us a hint to the beliefs of the people who made them? Can we also see patterns of religious behavior today that can give us insight?

 
Well it comes into its own when you start to combine it with written texts and oral histories. The more evidence their is for something the better. The advantage that archaeology provides is that it can provide physical proof of something, and there is always more to find.

sionnachdearg

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Quote from: Yei;175828
Well it comes into its own when you start to combine it with written texts and oral histories. The more evidence their is for something the better. The advantage that archaeology provides is that it can provide physical proof of something, and there is always more to find.

 
I agree the physical proof feels the most secure but in searching for answers in Celtic we try to use all different types of information to help explain what is found in the archeological record. I find the use of anthropology very interesting in looking at patterns of human behavior to see if it helps unlock the secrets of the archeological information. On such area is the practice of altered states of consciousness which has been now described as Shamanism, a word borrowed from a specific group of people. I personally think they should have used another word for it but now it has become pervasive in discussions about this altered state of consciousness but that is just my opinion.

This comparison does though suggest and interesting explanation to some of the things we find in Celtic beliefs including the shape-shifting references, the importance of the number 3, the part one animal part another or part animal part human. It also may help us understand the concept of the sidhe. Of course there are many other way this can be viewed but I find it an interesting approach to help understand what we know of Celtic beliefs.

Another clear aspect is the importance of the natural world as being divine which is a separation point from the Christian religion that replaced the existing pre-Christian beliefs.

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