Monday, May 29, 2017

Owen Davies' "Paganism: A Very Short Introduction": Book Review

Paganism: A Very Short Introduction

This focuses necessarily on Christianity, as that force has for very long defined what it is not as pagan. For the other side, we lack a lot of trustworthy information. For the enemies of the "pre-Christian indigenous religions," if that slippery phrase itself not wholly supported by Owen Davies is any guide, rallied to denigrate their opponents. Pagans under Rome did not always live in the "sticks," but in cities, furthermore, often.

The opposition faded, but held out among the Balts, Slavs, and Scandinavians. Yet these places also betray influences by Christians. The archaeological record finds temples were probably more political sites than places of worship. And the common appeal popularized by Augustine of Canterbury to build on pagan places the Christian sacred spaces was a clever conversion move, to ease and entice those reluctant to baptism.

While such holdouts in many realms lingered, the claims of continuity from some unbroken underground lineage as advanced by Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner early last century give way to harsh reality. I wish Davies had included those who from Italy or Iceland assert such sustaining practices, but in such a short primer, this shifts rapidly from European to New World and African and Eastern intrusions, as who was pagan grew alongside Christian missionaries' attempts to overcome such beliefs, demonized by Augustine of Hippo and leading to much persecution and death.

I also wondered about Islamic attitudes towards polytheists. Glimpses can be gleaned, but again, this concentrates on Christian promulgations and prohibitions against magic, sorcery, idol worship, sacrifice animal or human, and many gods. Even the term polytheism gains suspicion, for Philo of Alexandria invented it to differentiate those who went after false deities instead of the One True God of the Torah. So, deep within monotheism rests a fundamental distrust and an active determination to root out those who defy the core message of unity and faith, by belief in many powers.

Davies has a lot to compress, so the pace is rapid. The suggested reading list is briefer than many volumes in this series, But the bibliography, even if it is not tied to the chapters that tightly, is in-depth. A necessary corrective to romanticizing or fearing this common belief system, one that in an ecologically threatened reality seeks to restore some semblance of connection to earth, and the spirits and forces that may swirl around us. (Amazon US 12/3/16)

No comments: