Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Secret Book of Son Rivers: Pagan Mists

Epistle One: To the Pagans of the Ancient British Isles

But there remains a great deal we do not know about the religion of pagan Celts of these islands. In this respect they are like figures perceived through a mist and heard very faintly. We have no real idea, for example, whether their ceremonies were intended to ask the deities for favors, or to thank them for the continuing order of things, or both. We do not know what they believed about the afterlife, whether all religious activity had to be mediated through priests or rulers, or of what their ceremonies or prayers consisted. We do not know whether their religion had a mysterious element, requiring initiation. We do not know whether it embodied a system of ethics. All this is hardly surprising, in view of the fact that our evidence consists of badly remembered portions of mythological tales, based on a paganism which had disappeared before most (or probably all) of them were composed, joined with an archaeological record which is actually rather less rich than that for the previous millennia and which sometimes contradicts the literary sources. What the two types of evidence together do suggest is an intensely localized faith which few generalizations can be made.


What, then, after so many pages, can be said about the pagan religions of the ancient British Isles? First, that we know very little about them. An immense quality of recent work has served to show that most of what we had formerly believed that we knew is either wrong or unprovable. In fact, the only groups about which we can speak with any confidence are those of the Roman Britain, some aspects of which remain a mystery and which may obscure, rather than reveal, the nature of the native cults. Second, that part of a tremendous diversity derives from our discovery of a tremendous diversity of ritual practice and architecture, over both space and time, which may reflect an equal diversity of belief and which almost defies generalization. The peoples of our remote past have emerged as more creative, more dynamic, more fascinating and more baffling. Third, that the old religions of these islands perished a very long time ago, and absolutely. They fell before Christianity both because of tricks of fortune and because they were not well equipped to resist the new faith, but they left an enormous and varied cultural legacy. And partly because of ignorance of them and partly because of our different needs and circumstances, they are lost to us forever.

~Ronald Hutton

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