megaliths

A brilliant book which has been on my reading list for far too long. Hutton looks thoroughly and critically at the records of ritual celebrations in England, Scotland and Wales over the centuries, and comes out with some very revisionist conclusions. I had always assumed, for instance, that the Bonfire Night celebrations of 5 November were direct descendants of ancient Celtic Samhain ritual, shifted by a few days; Hutton shows that in fact the evidence is that Bonfire Night started as a direct commemoration of the events of 1605, that earlier Samhain celebrations are recorded, if at all, elsewhere in the country, and that if there was any calendrical shift it was in the other direction, from the 17 November anniversary celebrations of Elizabeth I's accession.

Popular ritual seems to have always been in a state of flux and development, with even Morris dancing as a popular phenomenon dating back only to the 1560s. The only celebrations that Hutton ends up crediting with genuinely ancient roots are the solstices; fully the first quarter of the book looks at the changing nature of Christmas, and summer solstice bonfires do seem to go back to Celtic times. Not surprisingly, the Reformation and the flip-flopping of the 1550s seems to have had a very disruptive effect on ancient ceremonies, but that then opened up space for new practices to emerge, Bonfire Night being only the most widespread and visible.

The book is structured in terms of the calendar, allowing Hutton to take individual ceremonies one by one and look both at the records and the historiography. He is very critical of the folklorists of a hundred years ago as historians, including especially Cecil Sharp (who I knew of because of his Clare College connection) and basically anyone who bought the idea that all the rural celebrations were survivals of an otherwise lost pre-Christian past. In his conclusion, however, he finds space to praise them as inventors of a new literary movement which culminated in the development of Wicca. This leaves me with a couple of thoughts: one stat if Wicca works for some people, then it undeniably has its own truth; the other is that this is all happening at exactly the same time as Tolkien is creating his own mythology, as a consciously fictional (rather than wishfully historical) construction to fit more or less the same needs.

Anyway, Christmas is quite a good time to read this book, especially if you have encountered any recent nonsense about traditional Christian Christmas trees.

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