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April 8th, 2007

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06:41 pm - Excellent book + historical and Arthurian musings
I'm reading yet another book by Ronald Hutton, who is both a brilliant historian and a good-hearted gadfly of popular misconceptions. His book on the history of Wicca, The Triumph of the Moon,

Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination looked at Siberian Shamanism from the perspective of western historians, anthropologists, folklorists, and mystics constructing the image of the "traditional shaman" from data that does not particularly well support this image. However, just as he discounts vast amounts of the widespread conclusions made about Siberian shamanism, he also does not in any way deny the experiences of either the actual Siberian "shamans" or the spiritually inclined westerners looking to that image to help explain their own experiences.

So, now I'm reading something set far closer to home for this British historian, Witches, Druids And King Arthur. I'm only 1/5 of the way through, but it's already as brilliant and vastly informative as his other works, and is made even more interesting because large segments deal with both his own and academia in general's reactions to the subject material.

The first chapter, How Myths Are Made is a mixture of general information familiar to anyone who has seriously studied anthropology or history, and many specific observations that were completely new to me. Despite having trained in a rather odd version of somewhat Celtic Wicca, I know vastly more about the myths and history of China, the Classical world, and post-colonial Southeast Asia than I do about anything Celtic – it's both too "close to home" for someone who with as much as taste for the foreign and the exotic as I do, and also contains far too little in the way of large cities, complex urban life or complex ancient technologies to interest me.

I've read some of the myths, and have read and watched a goodly number of novels and movies about the Arthurian legends, and that's about it. In any case, the first chapter looks at how national myths are made and how often very little folklore, local history and national myth have to do with anything remotely resembling historical or archeological truths. He looks at quite a number of examples, but concentrates (unsurprisingly given the subject of the book) on the British Isles. I had known that the modern kilt is in no way traditional, and that it and the supposedly "traditional clan tartans" of Scotland were both inventions of the 18th and early 19th century. However, I had not known that the history of Ireland (which I honestly know almost nothing about, having studied neither Irish history nor Irish myth in anything more than the most cursory level) is at least as much of a recent construction as the history of Scotland. Details about chariots being mentioned in Irish myth because the Christian monks writing them down had all read the Iliad, where chariots abound, despite absolutely no evidence of chariots in ancient Ireland, or the fact that the vast majority of the resistance to Cromwell's 17th century conquests were from Norman lords who had ruled Ireland from the 15th century and didn't like the idea of someone from England else displacing them. With the exception of Irish lords of Ulster, the Irish people didn't much care which set of foreigners ruled them, and the myth of his as the start of the religious wars is just a myth.

I have a particular love for this sort of history for three reasons – I find national myths of glorious fate-blessed or cursed heroes to be deadly dull, I object to national myths in general and greatly enjoy seeing them disproved, since national myths largely serve to support nationalism, which I loath and oppose and find Ken MacLeod's quote from his novel Engine City to be particularly appropriate. I also find such myths (which were largely the construction of the Romantic Era of the early 19th century) to largely also be loving descriptions of the pastoral tranquility of ancient life, and as a devoted urbanite who has absolutely no use for such pastoralist sentiments, I enjoy seeing them taken down.

However, in many ways the next chapter, "Arthur and the Academics" is even better. While some of my motives for enjoying the previous chapter are purely selfish, this chapter is a joy for any historian to read. Here, Hutton gets down to the task of looking at the Arthurian legends and the possible history behind them and largely talks about fads and trends in both popular culture and British academia that for the middle 3rd of the 20th century largely resulted in unquestioned acceptance of all manner of unlikely and dubiously documented claims, followed by a reaction in the last 3rd of the 20th century, where most British academics not only firmly disbelieve that there is any historical truth to the Arthurian legends, but largely refuse to investigate or acknowledge them. I cannot in any way speak to the accuracy of this, but his of the accompanying popular trends discussion exactly matches those I have seen in the novels and movies about Arthur and company, and moreover, it reminds me a great deal of similar trends and countertrends I've witnessed in the history of US anthropology.

Hutton deals with the process of history in the same manner that most historians deal with history itself – looking at all of the large and small personal conflicts and idiosyncrasies as well as the various social and political trends that influence both what subjects are studied, what efforts are funded and popularized, and what older trends younger scholars are reacting against. The burst of popularity of the Arthurian mythos during the 1960s and early 70s coinciding with the rise in both popularity and public awareness of both New Age and neopagan ideas and practices is obvious, and is very much where my own appreciation for all of the various stories of Merlin and Morgan Le Fay comes from, but I'd not considered that the somewhat grotesque 1981 movie Excalibur had a punk sensibility and was one of the more obvious signs of both a changing era and changing public opinion about the Arthurian mythos, but in retrospect, both are quite obviously true.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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