Review: Sacred Britannia by Miranda Aldhouse-Green

Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Sacred Britannia: The Gods and Rituals of Roman Britain (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018), ISBN 978-0-50025-2222, £19.95, illus.

If there is anything that gets me more excited than the material remains of ancient British Christianity, it is the material remains of ancient British paganism. Yet the only form of paganism attested in any detail in the archaeological record is Romano-British religion, the subject of this book. Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s Sacred Britannia is the first book dedicated to Romano-British religion for the general reader since the appearance of Guy de la Bédoyère’s Gods with Thunderbolts in 2002, and it does not disappoint. Sacred Britannia is structured thematically, with chapters focussing on such topics as the role of the Roman army, divination and cursing, religious symbolism, mystery religions, early Christianity and beliefs about the afterlife. However, running through the whole book is a particular focus on the question of the ‘Britishness’ of Romano-British religion, and therefore its potential Iron Age origins. This is unsurprising, given that Aldhouse-Green is also an expert in Iron Age British religion, but it also makes a change from the approach sometimes adopted by Classicists, who compare Romano-British religion with Roman religion rather than viewing it in the context of what we know of prehistoric British religion.

In one sense, there is a wealth of evidence for religion in Roman Britain (43-409CE) in comparison with the evidence for religion in the British Iron Age that immediately preceded it, not to mention the evidential dearth for post-Roman and pagan Anglo-Saxon religion. However, the material evidence greatly outstrips the written record. There was no Romano-British Bede, and the written evidence is confined to a few stray (and unreliable) references in Roman authors and the enigmatic epigraphical testimony of altars and curse tablets. Occasionally, images of deities are paired with a clear name, but all too often cult images or cult objects are all that survive, leaving the historian with no choice but to engage in well-informed and intelligent speculation. Aldhouse-Green follows her predecessors on the path of drawing conclusions about Romano-British religion by comparisons with Gaul, a technique not dissimilar to the tendency of Anglo-Saxonists to speculate about early English paganism by reference to Norse paganism. Both approaches are open to question, however; the comparison with Gaul is justified by the claim that Britain and Gaul were religiously similar, but one of the main reasons why the idea that Britain and Gaul were religiously similar has arisen is because scholars have repeatedly argued it. Less frequently, and with clearly signposted caveats, Aldhouse-Green draws comparisons with the medieval literary evidence of ancient Irish tradition – an even more perilous business. Nevertheless, owing to her background in the study of prehistoric religion, Aldhouse-Green never loses sight of the possibility that British sacred sites might have pre-dated both the Romans and the Iron Age – the shrine of Apollo at Uley, which appears to have Neolithic origins, being a case in point.

Aldhouse-Green is also willing to entertain the possibility that some of the gods of Roman Britain were ‘invented at need’, especially by the Roman army stationed in Hadrian’s Wall. This is an interesting challenge to the usual assumption that gods with British names always represented a deep-seated Iron Age cult that was co-opted and culturally assimilated by the Romans. We simply do not know enough about Iron Age religion to be able to ascertain the extent to which it was romanised; for example, apart from a few stray Iron Age coins found in the spring at Bath, we have no idea whether the site that became Aquae Sulis was a sacred site to the pre-Roman Britons, since the evidence of Iron Age cult is so ephemeral. Was Sulis herself an ancient British god, or was she a confected goddess with an evocatively British name, invented in order to give the hot springs an appropriate back story to attract pilgrims? On the other hand, Aldhouse-Green shows that distinctively ‘British’ representations of deities with surreally large heads and lentoid eyes, or even as schematic figures more at home in twentieth-century abstract art, continued right to the end of the Roman period.

An attempt to understand the nature of Roman religious syncretism in Britain is central to the book, and one of its most original contributions is Aldhouse-Green’s departure from the usual stereotype of Roman religiosity as welcoming of syncretism except when it ran up against monotheistic faiths. Aldhouse-Green devotes a chapter to exploring the possibility of religious conflict in Roman Britain, considering the ambiguous evidence of apparent iconoclasm and cultic transformation at sacred sites. Rather than ascribing all evidence of iconoclasm to Christians after 381 (when Christianity officially became the empire’s state religion), Aldhouse-Green suggests that prejudice against mystery cults and rivalry between pagan religious groups may have been just as significant a factor. Furthermore, she questions the notion that Christians were always straightforwardly iconoclastic, suggesting that the undamaged head of the cult statue of Apollo at Uley may have been re-used as the head of a statue of Christ at the Romano-British church that succeeded the shrine. Aldhouse-Green notes that Romano-British Christians’ apparent enthusiasm for pictorial representations of Jesus Christ was not shared by many other Latin Christians of the fourth century.

Sacred Britannia is an interpretative rather than an encyclopedic account of Romano-British religion; Aldhouse-Green’s aim is not to interpret every known site or archaeological discovery, but to offer some general conclusions about the religious make-up of Roman Britain as a whole. In doing so she not only recognises the looming presence of the prehistoric past but also the cultural diversity of Roman Britain (which extended to the presence of Chinese people in Roman London). Sacred Britannia probably does the best job that can be done with the frustrating evidential problem of Romano-British religion. Owing to the materials used in Roman cults (such as stone and lead), the religious culture of Roman Britain has left extensive physical traces, but the surviving evidence offers us so little help in interpreting it that we are essentially still at sea, even when every new archaeological dig produces more evidence. While Aldhouse-Green is surely right to seek to understand Roman religion against the background of prehistoric British religion, the effort to use an even more evidentially ambiguous religious culture to understand that of Roman Britain is doomed to break down into speculation. Truly, the past is a foreign country – and none more foreign than Roman Britain, where the soil under the feet of our ancestors was the same as under ours, but their world of belief remains ultimately impenetrable. Yet the very impenetrability of Romano-British religion is what makes it so fascinating.


‘Exorcising’ Kavanaugh: magic and politics in the contemporary USA

© Catland Books

One of the weirder features of the current political turmoil in the United States is the emergence of magic (and now counter-magic) in political discourse. Attempts to use magic to effect political change in medieval and early modern England were the subject of one of my recent books, and a theme that I never anticipated would acquire contemporary political resonances. However, so intense is the opposition to Donald Trump and, now, his Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh, that both men have been the subject of campaigns of ‘binding’, hexing and cursing by Neo-Pagan magical practitioners. I was surprised when I first heard that American Neo-Pagans were choosing to go down this path, given that a central tenet of Gardnerian Wicca is doing no harm to others. American Wicca has long since taken a rather more radical political direction than British Wicca, which has long been associated with conservative political attitudes. Yet the abandonment of this aspect of the Wiccan rede by so many American Neo-Pagans is nevertheless an interesting religious development, and an indication that the political behaviour of contemporary magical practitioners may not map neatly onto their use of magic in interpersonal relationships. But I leave the exploration of this interesting subjects to scholars of contemporary Neo-Paganism.

As a scholar of exorcism, what has interested me even more about current events than the ‘hexing’ of Trump and Kavanaugh is the emergence of ‘counter-magic’ against it. Perhaps because Kavanaugh is a Catholic, the hexing of the Supreme Court Justice has attracted the attention of Catholics in a way that the activity against Trump did not. According to the National Catholic Register, the exorcist of the Diocese of San Jose, Fr Gary Thomas, is planning to celebrate a mass with the intention of spiritually protecting Brett Kavanaugh, and is convinced that a ritual designed to harm Kavanaugh represents a real threat. Fr Thomas’s reaction is very instructive for understanding the thought-world of many exorcists, and the reasons why the ministry of exorcism remains so significant within the church. Fr Thomas portrays the ritual against Kavanaugh as a ‘conjuring of evil’, when the proposed rite does not appear to invoke demons. Indeed, the invocation of demons is not part of most forms of Neo-Pagan Wicca, which is a duotheistic religion. Instead, the ritual appears to involve the direction of ‘energy’ from the participants against Kavanaugh – an idea rooted in Gerald Gardner’s description of covens of witches raising up their own energy in magical working. This is one of several respects in which the ‘magical theology’ of Wicca differs significantly from what medieval and early modern practitioners of ritual magic actually did; the essence of necromancy was the summoning of angels, fairies and demons. Rarely, if ever, is the idea that a magician might tap their own inner power found in ancient magical texts. The idea of innate, inherent magical power in human beings is found instead in fantasy literature, and may owe something to the influence of eastern philosophy on nineteenth-century occultists.

Exorcists like Fr Thomas routinely misrepresent Neo-Pagan and occultist groups as ‘Satanic’, drawing on age-old demonological narratives without stopping to question whether these are meaningfully applicable to self-identifying ‘witches’ in the twenty-first century. Although the media is misreporting that Fr Thomas actually intends to exorcise Kavanaugh (his measures are apotropaic – intended to protect against evil – rather than exorcistic), Fr Thomas’s use of the ‘counter magic’ of exorcism has the immediate effect of legitimising the original magic as a genuine threat. Without an adversary, after all, exorcists would find themselves out of a job – so it is in the interest of professional exorcists and demonologists to emphasise the reality of spiritual threats, and the specialist help needed to combat them. Fr Thomas’s suggestion that Kavanaugh’s opponents might use blood sacrifice against him betrays an ignorance of Neo-Pagan practice that is astonishing in someone whose job it is to know about witchcraft. The practice of animal sacrifice is vanishingly rare in the Neo-Pagan community, and is another respect in which Neo-Pagans differ significantly from their pagan forebears and from the necromancers, who also made extensive use of blood sacrifice. Fr Thomas’s suggestion that Kavanaugh’s opponents might make magical use of an aborted baby is an idea straight from the pages of the Malleus Maleficarum, which accuses witches of killing, eating and drinking the blood of infants at their Sabbaths.

Fr Thomas appears to believe in the reality of ‘Satanic cults’, an idea popularised by demonologists from the fifteenth century onwards that experienced a surprising revival during the ‘Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic’ of the 1980s. Psychologists and jurists have comprehensively demonstrated that neither Satanic Ritual Abuse nor secret Satanic cults exist, yet many Christians continue to insist that they do. It suits the agenda of exorcists to argue for the existence of vast, secret plots to undermine the church. The secrecy of supposed ‘Satanic cults’ is, of course, the reason why no-one ever seems to encounter them other than the expert exorcists. One final interesting feature of Fr Thomas’s commentary on the rituals against Kavanaugh is his claim that ‘Conjuring up personified evil does not fall under free speech’. Presumably, Fr Thomas is claiming that conjuring demons is a form of speech harmful in and of itself, akin to maliciously shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded cinema. The suggestion that conjuration is criminal speech evokes a number of pieces of medieval and early modern legislation. It would be interesting to see a test case that establishes whether or not the conjuration of spirits is protected by the First Amendment – perhaps in the US Supreme Court?


Peterborough Folklore at Peterborough Museum

This afternoon I spoke to the Friends of Peterborough Museum about the folklore of Peterborough and its surrounding region, the subject of one of my recent books. I have given a number of talks on this subject at different venues in Peterborough, but it seemed singularly appropriate to speak about Peterborough’s folklore at the museum (and to a group of people who volunteer there) since Peterborough’s leading nineteenth-century folklorist, Charles Dack (1848-c.1921) was the museum’s volunteer curator in the 1890s and 1910s (alongside his day job as a clerk on the Great Eastern Railway). Dack is a fascinating figure, an autodidact who lacked the financial support to get much of his work printed outside of local newspapers, but easily as competent as any folklorist of the period. He was born at Holt, Norfolk, and was also an accomplished organist and an authority on porcelain. However, I have not been able to identify a single photo of Dack or even establish the date of his death with any certainty. However, his papers were acquired by Cambridge University Library in 1921 (presumably after his death). I wrote about Dack’s papers on the blog of Cambridge University Library’s Special Collections here.

Unfortunately, no-one at Peterborough Museum, or among the Friends of Peterborough Museum, has heard of Charles Dack. However, as usual I received some interesting snippets of folklore from the audience, and I am grateful to the Friends of Peterborough Museum for inviting me to speak.