Liminal Book Review: A History of Pagan Europe

A History of Pagan Europe by Nigel Pennick and Prudence Jones; Routledge, London, England. Published originally in 1995, revised 2001. 288 pages.

Whilst I am very drawn to the Eastern ‘pantheons’ of Buddhas and Bodhisattva s, my DNA wants to connect and find things in common other than ancestry. A History of Pagan Europe, by Nigel Pennick and Prudence Jones began a genuine perspective not brought about intuitively. Organized by civilization, Pagan Europe starts with the Hellenic worlds of ancient Greece, Crete and the eastern Mediterranean; when studying the history of Western Civilization this is always the best place to begin. While much of this was a refresher for me, after having studied these humanities formerly in college, I was surprised to see how I could apply the cosmology of my Druidry in this ancient history. In particular, the >axis mundi and how it is utilized in the various Indo-European belief systems is of interest to me.

In ancient times, the axom or gate was based on locality, the site already being sacred instead of the hallowing needed in modern Pagan rites. For example, the Olympians were associated with various trees and before the need of structures, the temples were natural environments utilized by oracular servants; Zeus and the Oak at Dedona, Athene’s Olive in Athens, etc. The authors speculate these localized axis points were “linking the mundane world with the celestial world. In contrast to the trees reaching up toward the Heavens, the beings of the Underworld were accessible through the Omphalos stone; the ‘navel of the world’. The very act of prophecy can be seen as the restructuring of the Universe as the seer being the center. The most famous of course being the Delphic Oracle of Apollo; sitting beside the stone on a tripod, the prophetess would inhale the fumes from below.

“The omphalos too was seen as the centre of the world, as Plato tells us (‘Apollo sits in the centre on the navel of the earth’), but unlike the axom…(it) was placed in an underground setting…originally a shrine of the earth-goddess, and so the tradition of prophecy must have continued in the time-honored manner, by reference to the Underworld, not to the axis of the heavens” (p.19).

As the book moves on through the ideologies of Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Russian lands, this theme of a central pole, column or tree in which the world revolves around is a common grounding element, a conduit and link with the Deities. This connection with the axis mundi of the universe from a Hellenic perspective is something I very much long for. Another central rite in my paganism is the making of offerings; gifts of ghost-i and thanks to the Gods and Goddesses. While not a common enough thing in most other Neo-Pagan traditions, I find it brings balance to my spirituality. The commonality of sacrifice in ancient religions is well known, but the nature of these sacrifices I think are not; the motivations were not simply to appease an otherwise angry God out of fear. The authors’ discuss this Hellenic view of sacrifice, giving two logical reasons for giving to the Kindred:

“The emphasis that comes through the main practice of sacrifice is one of social responsibility of sharing what one has with other people and with the originators of all bounty, the Immortals. The ceremonial pouring of liquids in addition sanctifies a place, whether the ground itself, its altar or its omphalos. The other kind of sacrifice is a re-sanctification, the redressing of a wrong, an alternative to the punishment which the Fates would otherwise inflict(p.15).

Fulfilling a spiritual debt is not uncommon in Indo-European religions, where making oaths and swearing to the Gods was taken much more seriously than today. This sort of purging of the spirit not only clears the practitioner’s conscience, but allows them to also take responsibility for their actions. Owning up to my mistakes and making amends is an important virtue to me and I would say it is an act of Piety as well, in this Hellenic perspective. The arts, philosophies, and political cultures of the Hellenic world have been in the forethought of my Pagan experience, but never truly explored. My classical sense of beauty and worship is a good match with the Gallo-Roman-Hellenic pantheons; the drama of ritual theater, mythic heroes, and theistic traditions all appeal to me. As I look for wisdom from the past, I reconcile the conflict within me as I see my ancestors not only in the Celtic world; my French/German roots very easily lie in Gaul. The call of Cernunnos, the Dis Pater I have been missing in my Pagan spirituality, now makes sense as I embark on a new journey of discovery in my polytheistic life.

WytchfawnLiminal Book Review: A History of Pagan Europe