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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



The Myth of Paganism: Nonnus, Dionysus and the World of Late Antiquity by Robert Shorrock, Series Editor: David Taylor (Classical Literature and Society Series: Bristol Classical Press)

With the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman world in the fourth century AD, the role of the poet underwent a radical transformation. In place of the traditional poet of the Muses there emerged a new figure, claiming inspiration and authority from Christ. The poet of Christ soon came to eclipse the poet of the Muses, and in doing so established a conceptual framework that still drives modern approaches to the period. Christian poetry is taken seriously as making a relevant and valuable contribution to our understanding of the late antique world; by contrast pagan or secular poetry is largely ignored, as though it were devoid of meaning.
The Myth of Paganism seeks to re-evaluate the role of pagan poetry in late antiquity. Instead of maintaining a strict dichotomy between pagan and Christian, it presents a broader definition of these poets as active participants and collaborators in the creation of late antique culture. Attention focuses on an exploration of the contemporary resonance of Nonnus Dionysiaca traditionally regarded as a pagan epic in terms of its theme and content, yet in all probability the work of a Christian poet responsible for a Homeric-style retelling of St Johns Gospel.

The Myth of Paganism sets out to deconstruct the view of two contrasting poetic traditions and proposes in its place a new integrated model for the understanding of late antique poetry. As Robert Shorrock, who teaches Classics at Eton College, Windsor, and is co-editor of the journal Greece & Rome, argues, the poet of Christ and the poet of the Muses were drawn together into an active, often provocative, dialogue about the relationship between Christianity and the Classical tradition and, ultimately, about the meaning of late antiquity itself. An analysis of the poetry of Nonnus of Panopolis, author of both a pagan epic about Dionysus and a `Christian' translation of St John's Gospel, helps to illustrate this complex dialectic between `pagan' and `Christian' voices.

The book is part of the Classical Literature and Society Series with General Editor David Taylor, which considers Greek and Roman literature primarily in relation to genre and theme. It also aims to place writer and original addressee in their social context.

The Myth of Paganism is equally for readers with or without knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages and with or without an acquaintance with the civilization of the ancient world. It has plenty to offer the classical scholar and is ideally suited to students reading for a degree in classical subjects. Yet it will also interest those studying European and contemporary literature, history and culture who wish to discover the roots and springs of our classical inheritance.

The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg: A Collection of Original Documents, Illustrative of the Theology Wisdom, and Usages of the Bardo-Druidic Systems of the Isle of Britain by J. Williams Ab Ithel (Weiser Books) Serious students of Druidism and Paganism, as well as Celtic historians, are sure to include Barddas in their libraries. Barddas contains the only extant description of Bardo-Druidic Celtic philosophy. It is a metaphysical and spiritual description of beliefs handed down by word of mouth by Druidic initiates from before the Roman occupation of the British Isles.
Culled from 16th-century notes and compiled into book form, Barddas reveals a belief system with a wide range of influences, including Judeo-Christian and ancient Roman. Yet there are beliefs and views expressed within that appear to be unique to Celtic thought and oddly similar to Eastern traditions.
On its publication in the 19th century, Barddas stirred controversy. Some critics claimed that it was completely made up or based on forgeries. Others defended it by pointing out similarities to other surviving Celtic documents with clear provenance.
Photo-offset from the first-printing, this edition of Barddas includes the original Welsh on verso pages with English translation running on the recto pages. John Matthews, popular writer about all things Celtic, provides and introduction outlining the history and contemporary importance of Barddas.

How one approaches this work is very much up to the individual. It may be regarded as a literary curiosity and one that bas certainly found champions and imitators since its appearance in print. Ultimately it displays a mind of great subtlety and genius, in whose company it is a genuine pleasure to spend some time.

The content of the volumes varies hugely, both in quality and authentic­ity. The long section titled "Symbol" in Vol. I which deals largely with the bardic alphabet known as coelbren—almost certainly Iolo's invention, based in part on Norse runes—remains fascinating to all concerned with secret lan­guages. The detail with which it is described is astonishing and it remains a workable symbolic system.

But by far the most interesting part of the first volume is found in the section headed "Theology," most of which is very clearly derived from Iolo's own rather muddled Christian beliefs (he once described himself as a Unitarian Quaker!). However, imbedded in this vast tide of curious lore, is a collection of triads, gnomic statements grouped in threes and believed to be used as mnemonics by the wandering bards of the Middle Ages and earlier.

Once again, most of them are probably the product of Iolo's own mind, displaying his wide learning at every point. However, there are a number of triads included here that may very well be authentic and part of the extensive collection of bardic sayings that are genuinely ancient. Rachel Bromwich, the editor of the early triads, also made a study of Iolo's "forgeries," and believed that he must have had access to later copies of the originals long before they were widely known or had been collected and translated in English. Most, however, almost certainly remain the work of his own genius.

The third section, called simply "Wisdom contains much of interest, espe­cially the information regarding the elements, names of constellations, and months of the year, as well as the divisions of the day. As with much of the material in Barddas these derive largely from the lore of 16th- and 17th-century bards rather than the more ancient druidic characters so beloved of Iolo.

The second volume, which remained unfinished and was published after J. Williams ab Ithel's death, is really a handbook for the use of bards and those seeking to establish a gorsedd. It is meticulously detailed and repetitive and bears all the hallmarks of Iolo's peculiar cast of thought, liberally sewn with frag­ments of genuinely ancient lore and wisdom, drawn from an authentic late-medieval bardic grammar called Cyfrenach Y Beirdd, later borrowed by his son Taliesin ab Iolo for the second major selection of his father's writings.

But the question remains: How much of what Iolo wrote can we trust to be even vaguely authentic? The answer is perhaps best summed up by a con-temporary Welsh writer, Emyr Humphries, who remarks in his study of the Welsh cultural heritage:

The unnerving element in everything to do with Iolo is the surprising way in which fresh advances in scholarship are forced to concede the presence of traces of truth even in his most outlandish fantasies (The Taliesin Tradition).

A good deal of time and effort has been put into discovering the origins of Iolo's writings. The general conclusion is that many of his ideas are the product of his personal genius, though some may well be based on sound scholarship. The greatest authority on Iolo's work, J.G. Williams, reached the conclusion that much of the writings that flowed from Iolo's pen were as much the product of a warped sense of humour as of a genuine desire to educate, and that Iolo may well be laughing in heaven.

But we must not forget that Iolo was immensely well-read and genuinely did collect and transcribe manuscripts held in the private collections of well-to-do Welsh families. We should probably ask which of these documents were genuinely old and which were either bad copies of older works or the product of later medieval writers. It has been suggested, for example, that some of Iolo's sources may be traceable to a 16th-century bard named Llewellyn Sion, who, among other things, wrote a version of The Life of Taliesin, which differs radically from the better-known version published by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 19th century. This could itself be either a forgery or drawn from an alternate source. Sion, according to an account given by Iolo himself, copied manuscripts relating to the Druidic mysteries from books in the library of Raglan Castle. Nothing is now known of these writings and various schol­ars have speculated that Sion may himself have been a forger—or that he at least "updated" some genuinely ancient materials.

Whatever the truth of this, Iolo was undoubtedly a fine scholar in his own right, one whose encyclopedic knowledge was easily capable of making leaps of understanding. Also, that he was genuinely inspired—to a point where; amid the jumble of disconnected fragments that make up his work, a kind of essential truth shines through. Whether one sees his inspirations as divinely received or merely the effects of laudanum, the inherent truth of much that he wrote remains a triumphant testimony to his energy and imagination.

Iolo has been described as a force of nature, an unstoppable tide of learn­ing and native wisdom that continues to be remembered into our own time. He described himself as "a rattleskull genius" and once introduced himself to the Prince of Wales as "Edward of Glamorgan." Among his interests Iolo listed the study of language and literature, hymnology, dialectology, archi­tecture, agriculture, botany, geology, horticulture, politics, history, and folk music. He also said that he "always pushed himself forward" and was never content with mastering any single branch of knowledge. The North Welsh poet Dafydd du Eerier called him "a cross, harsh little bugger," and his unprint­able jokes and hot temper were famous. He liked to append to his name the letters BBD, which stood for Bardd wrth Ffraint a Defod Beirdd Ynys Prydein, "Bard by the Privilege and Rite of Bards of the Island of Britain," and while the title may be an invented one, in essence it is close to the truth.

By the end of the 19th century Iolo's reputation had faded and most schol­ars regarded his works with suspicion, as they do to this day. Some, however, continued to regard him as a source of information which, provided it was treated with due care, could still yield some worthwhile nuggets. In particu­lar the great modern Welsh scholar G. J. Williams did much to restore Iolo as an important poet—though unfortunately he did not live to complete more than a single volume of his projected study of Iolo's life and work. Even he was forced to concede that among the fantasies and forgeries nuggets of truth gleamed forth in the most unexpected fashion.

Today Iolo is regarded as at best a literary curiosity and at worst as a charlatan. However, while it is true that his writings must be treated with cau­tion by all who seek to investigate the origins of Druidry and the bardic mysteries, some remain worthy of study and make for fascinating reading. Often repetitive, clearly a product of laudanum-inspired dreams, there are references to ancient lore which could well have a foundation in truth.

Much of the material presented here has served as a foundation for the modern revival of interest in Druidry, and for this reason alone Barddas remains essential reading for all concerned with the mystical beliefs of the Celts. It is also a testimony to the working of a remarkable mind, to a man who wanted to encompass the worldview of a visionary people and to trans-late these into words that would inspire a new generation.

That Iolo's words have indeed continued to do so is itself a fitting memorial for this extraordinary man, whose work ultimately inspired much of the vast outpouring of modern Celtic literature, as well as a continuing fascination with the history and beliefs of this remarkable people that continues to this day. John Matthews, Oxford, 2003

Coming to the Edge of the Circle: A Wiccan Initiation Ritual by Nikki Bado-Fralick (AAR Academy Series: Oxford University Press) Imagine yourself sitting on the cool damp earth, surrounded by deep night sky and fields full of fireflies, anticipating the ritual of initiation that you are about to undergo. Suddenly you hear the sounds of far-off singing and chanting, drums booming, rattles "snaking," voices raised in harmony. The casting of the Circle is complete. You are led to the edge of the Circle, where Death, your challenge, is waiting for you. With the passwords of "perfect love" and "perfect trust" you enter Death's realm. The Guardians of the four quarters purify you, and you are finally reborn into the Circle as a newly made Witch.
Coming to the Edge of the Circle offers an ethnographic study of the initiation ritual practiced by one coven of Witches located in Ohio. As a High Priestess within the coven as well as a scholar of religion, Nikki Bado-Fralick is in a unique position to contribute to our understanding of this ceremony and the tradition to which it belongs. Bado-Fralick's analysis of this coven's initiation ceremony offers an important challenge to the commonly accepted model of "rites of passage." Rather than a single linear event, initiation is deeply embedded within a total process of becoming a Witch in practice and in community with others.
Coming to the Edge of the Circle expands our concept of initiation while giving us insight into one coven's practice of Wicca. An important addition to Ritual Studies, it also introduces readers to the contemporary nature religion variously called Wicca, Witchcraft, the Old Religion, or the Craft.
Excerpt: In this book, I use a detailed description of a particular kind of religious initiation ritual from a specific community in order to challenge our as­sumptions about rites of passage, questioning a paradigm that has changed little since its creation by Arnold van Gennep in the early 1900s. In par­ticular, I hope to challenge notions of initiation as a tripartite process with sharply defined movements of separation, liminality, and reincorporation. This etically derived tripartite model and its variations usually employ a unidirectional spatiality and a linear understanding of the process of trans­formation. But when approaching the ceremony from the dual perspectives of a scholar-practitioner, a linear and spatial analysis proves inadequate to describe particular emic aspects of the ceremony.

As a practitioner and an interdisciplinary scholar, my approach to ini­tiation is necessarily reflexive and pluralistic. Within a broad philosophical framework, I draw upon the insights and methods of ethnographic folklore studies, somatic theories, metacommunication theories, feminist critiques, and especially a performance approach, in order to access meaningful aspects of the initiation within both the immediate and larger process of a particular ritual performance.

I explore an initiation ritual performed by a small coven of Witches located in Ohio. Members of this religious community, called either Wic­cans or Witches within this book, practice a contemporary nature religion variously called Wicca, Witchcraft, the Old Religion, or the Craft by its practitioners. Wicca is an extremely diverse and decentralized religion with a great deal of local autonomy in membership, practices, and organizational structure.

Although I think a close examination of other forms of initiation ritual might also compel us to reconsider the tripartite paradigm, there are many reasons that this group's ritual works particularly well. Within this specific religious group, initiation is both a ceremony through which an individual becomes a member of the community and a central, significant transfor­mative religious experience that is arrived at through an extensive learning process.

Key to understanding this process is a concept of ritual expertise as a somatic praxis, a repetitive discipline that engages both the body and the mind in learning. Also significant is the emergence through praxis of "in­timacy" as a worldview or cultural orientation that is objective but personal, in which relations are interdependent, and in which knowledge has an af­fective and somatic dimension and is dark or esoteric. An examination of how Wiccans deliberately cultivate somatic praxis and an intimacy orien­tation may, in turn, give us clues about how ritual performances and praxis function in other religions as well.

My ultimate goal is to employ a perspective as both scholar and prac­titioner to enable us to capture new information, to weave new and more accurate models and paradigms into our scholarship. I hope to challenge and extend our scholarship on ritual more generally, allowing us to pose questions about rituals in other religious communities, and to think about rituals in some new and profitable way.

The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth by John Michael Greer (Weiser Books) A living tradition of nature spirituality rooted in Celtic antiquity and revived to meet the challenges of contemporary life, Druidry offers people a path of harmony through reconnection with the green Earth. The Druidry Handbook is the first hands-on manual of traditional British Druid practice that explores the Sun Path of seasonal celebration, the Moon Path of meditation, and the Earth Path of living in harmony with nature as tools for crafting an earth-honoring life here and now. From ritual and meditation to nature awareness and ecological action, John Michael Greer opens the door to a spirituality rooted in the living Earth.

Featuring a mix of philosophy, rituals, spiritual practice, and lifestyle issues, The Druidry Handbook is one-stop shopping for those seriously interested in practicing a traditional form of Druidry. It offers equal value to eclectics and solitary practitioners eager to incorporate more earth-spirituality into their own belief system; it also appeals to the merely curious.

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