Pagan Britain and the religious instinct in Man

Rainbow over stonehenge

This examination of Pagan Britain throws up some fascinating questions on the nature of the religious instinct in humans, and on what our interpretations of the past say about our present, writes The Tablet.

Pagan Britain by Ronald Hutton (Yale University Press)

- Reviewed by Melanie McDonagh

Pagan Britain isn't just another way of saying 'Prehistoric Britain,' the shadowy millennia from the first settlement of the island until Roman times and beyond; this wonderful book is precise­ly what it says on the cover, an attempt to say something about pre-Christian religion.

Ronald Hutton ponders at the outset whether it's possible to say anything useful at all about this subject, given the limitations of the evidence and its openness to endless, quite different readings. This could, in other hands, be a source of weakness, but for Hutton it's an endlessly good thing that we can project so many interpretations on to prehistory, so long as we're clear about what we're doing and respect the established facts.

The attempt to engage at all with the question of religion does, of course, raise some basic questions about the religious instinct in man.

'What is quite clear,' says Hutton, 'is that our own species, Homo sapiens, manifested every sign of possessing the necessary imaginative faculty [for religious belief] as soon as it evolved, whether as a result of evolution, as most Western scholars now believe, or as a divine gift, as is still the opinion of some adherents to certain faiths.

'Every test of evidence ... has yielded an unequivocal result ... and especially in two areas: the cere­monial burial of the dead, and the production of painted or carved representations ... Together with other traces of a heightened sense of imagination and of symbolic behaviour ... these activities attest strongly to a capacity to conceive of worlds beyond the material and the immediate.'

Readers of The Tablet will no doubt want to contest the assumption that the origin of religion is just a toss-up between evolution or divine gift – given that God's gifts can come through the medium of evolution as easily as any other – but this is to say something crucial about man, and our capacity to apprehend realities beyond our physical environment and appetites – including our sexual appetite.

Hutton remarks that 'Old Stone Age picture-makers seem to have been remarkably uninterested in the act of sex.' Which puts in their place those scholars who assumed that early man's creativity was to do either with hunting magic or fertility magic.

These academics were, Hutton observes, a product of 'an age deeply concerned with science and technology, and predisposed to interpret ancient ritual as an attempt to secure the practical benefits eventually produced by those forces.' His running theme, in fact, is that interpretations of the ancient past almost always say more about us than about it.

Read full review: Pagan Britain (The Tablet)

IMAGE: Rainbow over stonehenge from Celtic Myth Podshow


Simon Schama History of Britain Ep. 1 - Beginnings (YouTube)

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