Monday 20 June 2011

Review: Paganism A Very Short Introduction

Nowadays, many of us call ourselves pagans. We might be Wiccans, druids, heathens or shamans, but we are happy to use the word pagan as an umbrella term for those who follow nature-based religions. For this year's Census, the Pagan Dash campaign urged us to write "pagan" when describing our religion on the form - and many of us saw potential benefits from being regarded as a unified group.

Historically, that was far from the case. The term pagan was once a rude word meaning an uncivilised barbarian, and it has taken many centuries for that to change.

In a new book Paganism: A Very Short Introduction, author Owen Davies explains the history of paganism all over the world - from the ancient past to modern movements, such as Wicca.

Publisher Oxford University Press says on its website: "'Paganism' is an evocative word that, even today, conjures up deep-seated emotions and prejudices. Until recently, it was primarily a derogatory term used by Christians to describe the non-Christian cultures confronted and vanquished by their Churches. For some it evokes images of sacrifice and barbaric behaviour, while for others it symbolises a peace-loving, nature-worshipping spiritual relationship with the earth."

Owen Davies looks at the changing meaning of paganism in a chronological overview of the attitudes towards its practices and beliefs. Most descriptions of ancient pagan religions were made by Christians, and it is in many ways the Christian tendency to lump all non-Christian faiths together as being pagan that has shaped our concept of the term.

However, from the time of the Renaissance, an interest in the art, writing, philosophy and culture of ancient pagans developed.

In 19th century Europe, many historians and folklorists sought to find remnants of pagan practices in traditional customs and superstitions - often getting a bit carried away with their theories. The end of that era saw an occult revival. Together, these ideas led to modern paganism - different from ancient pagan faiths, but inspired by them.

As OUP says in its summary of the book: "Contemporary social paganism can be a liberating and social force, and the idea of a global Pagan theology is now on the religious map."

Paganism: A Very Short Introductionis easy to read and concise, but highly informative. If you want to find out more about the global history of paganism and the factors that led to the modern pagan movement, this is an ideal place to start. It is a book all modern pagans - and anyone interested in paganism - should read

Oxford University Press has published other titles in the Short Introduction series looking at aspects of pagan history, including ones on the druids and witchcraft.

Owen Davies' previous books include Grimoires: A History of Magic Books and The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts.

You can order Paganism: A Very Short Introductionon Amazon.

Links and previous posts:
Paganism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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