[2.5] One of those non-fiction books I don't like reviewing without ATHENS journal access; there's plenty that sets my academic spideysense tingling,[2.5] One of those non-fiction books I don't like reviewing without ATHENS journal access; there's plenty that sets my academic spideysense tingling, but I don't have the evidence to hand to say precisely what's wrong, or to suggest more of what the book should say. Yet I read it because of a dream* - I've enough mysticism in me to be sympathetic with its somewhat esoteric aims.
The author intends to be fairly scholarly, but never uses any footnotes, has a slightly critical approach to sources but not to an academic standard, and creates a nebula of associations with varying levels of tenuousness. These are the kind of felt associations that have a place in syncretic neopagan worship and magic practice, but less so in working out what concrete historical evidence we can find for the origins of a legend. (NB: just because something isn't as ancient as people would like it to be, that doesn't have to invalidate its spiritual meaning.) The go-to authority for this sort of thing is Professor Ronald Hutton, who has exactly the balance of sympathy and careful scholarship I mean. (I like his work so much that at one point during my first degree, I hoped to apply to do postgrad research with him.) Unfortunately, none of the four Hutton books I've got has Herne in the index, so I'm a bit on my own here.
In Search of Herne the Hunter is divided into nine thematic chapters; content is occasionally repeated between them, and many sections are quite poorly organised, skipping about between eras or countries, via trite connecting phrases that give the feel of a first draft of a mediocre undergrad essay written whilst tired and hungover. (Just about everything is drawn in, e.g. prehistoric sites in Britain, Europe and the Near East; a Chinese statue of C4thBC; Classical-period mythology from the Greeks, Romans, Celts and Scythians; Western anthropological writings about Inuit, Siberian, and American Indian peoples - as well as the sort stuff you'd expect given the topic in hand, about dark age, medieval and early modern Britain and western Europe.) In amateur esoteric writing, one may want to pack in this somewhat disparate information - but it could be done with better control and organisation, such as discussing ancient horned and antlered gods by country or region, and within each geographical section, roughly chronologically or by deity. (It would have been good to include something about what was known about communication and travel between different areas of Europe before the Romans - but in fairness quite a lot of that is based on more recent analyses of artefacts, genetics etc.) The existing informational jumble, coupled with the lack of referencing, contributed to a lack of trust in the text when it alluded to things I hadn't heard before. Fitch's rather random evidential standard doesn't exactly help one's confidence either: he sometimes appears to concur with Margaret Murray's old theory that there were real covens of pagan witches in medieval Europe - and at times uses fellow writers' conclusions that were based on reported psychic experiences yet at other times says this sort of thing is irrelevant. (Fair enough, though, given the topic, to list sightings of Herne - and this is mostly done in a neutral manner.) Elsewhere he cites interpretations widely accepted as orthodox at the time he was writing (early-mid 90s), such as when discussing the Gundestrup Cauldron and Iron Age bog bodies. A whole chapter is devoted to sacrificial king customs and myths: I've got reservations about this concept, having most frequently seen it discussed in the likes of Robert Graves' The White Goddess, or Frazer's The Golden Bough, and occasional TV documentaries with sensationalist overtones, and never having looked into rigorous and up-to-date academic sources; Fitch makes it a little more confusing again by bringing in neopagan terminology like the 'oak king' and 'holly king' of the two halves of the year.
Much of the material itself is interesting, although three sections seemed most worthwhile.
- 'The Legend' : records several different versions of the Herne myth from different sources, including rather a long summary of a Victorian novel. It appears the first written instance of the story is in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor. The examples could have been categorised more systematically as is done with academic studies of legends. (And who knows if any are missing?) The only common elements appear to be Herne's association with hunting in the Windsor area, and his suicide by hanging from an oak tree. (Which in different versions follows a loss of skills due to an accident, poor relations with colleagues, a period of madness, or committing crimes whether breaking forest laws, or rape and murder.)
- 'The Devilish Chase': collects examples of Wild Hunt legends from many European countries, and locations in Britain other than Windsor. Enough of these were familiar for me to trust the similar ones that weren't. Though when Fitch, having run out of decent relevant examples, started saying that the Santa Claus myth originated in [Saami] and Siberian shamans' flying experiences on hallucinogenic plants, I almost laughed. But no more on in Jutland there is even a Horn the Hunter? Er, hello author? Doesn't that sound like it might be worth a bit more research?
- 'The Mask of the Beast', like the previous, a great title for a trashy horror: collects various English folk customs involving masks, antlers and dances. (I suspect Hutton's Stations of the Sun has done a good job on tracing the origins of many of these and often found something less atavistic than Fitch does.) Those are the best things in this section, but it hopes to trace their descent from prehistoric practices: the chapter opens with the cave painting 'The Sorceror' which still never fails to strike some weird fear into me [consciously avoids the double entendre because that's worse...] although in the decades since I first saw pictures of it, I've otherwise become much more interested in and comfortable with reading about prehistory. It was very interesting to see such a large number of citations from churchmen from first European conversions to Christianity, right to the early modern period, against wearing animal masks and antlers, suggesting it was indeed widespread. However, I've a few reservations about the lack of context for these and how selection may have been carried out. I do think it's fair to say that concepts like 'hunting magic' and totemism associated with large prey animals was likely widespread across prehistoric humanity; it seems almost common sense to extrapolate from what we do know - but it's the sort of idea that needs to be phrased carefully, and examined, IMO as it's so prone to overextension.
(An earlier chapter aimed to cover the veneration of oak trees in a similar manner to these two on Wild Hunts and masks, but its lack of focus made it less interesting and convincing - an awful lot of it was conjecture, or repetition of snippets of evidence about druids, plus the odd example from medieval Prussians and Lithuanians - and if you've ever read much about them, it's hard to know exactly what to believe given the obvious bias of chroniclers.
Elsewhere in the nebulous fashion typical of the book, Herne is at various points equated with, seen as an aspect of, or performing a role similar to: the inevitable Cernunnos; Woden; a prehistoric / shamanistic Lord of the Animals who controls fortunes in the hunt; a Scythian god named Heron, possibly imported by Romans; at least two Irish legendary figures; Robin Hood; Merlin; Arthur; the Green Man. All of them on some unconscious Jungian level being kind of one entity or aspects of him. ... I get what you mean in a way. After all myths are adaptive things and ultimately I'm probably interested in the first place because of late twentieth century versions like Robin of Sherwood, The Wild Hunt Of Hagworthy and The Dark Is Rising Sequence. But I also like being clear about evidence and not overextending when we're doing actual history.)
One of the best things in the book is right at the end, a poem 'Windsor Forest' by one Eric Mottram. Somewhat like Ted Hughes, varied by some cutup, impressionistic, mainlined-to-the-psyche bits, just as powerful and evocative as anything of Hughes' I've ever read, and with a lovely raw mystical spookiness on top of the nature stuff. Ultimately it comes off as a better approach to the subject than the mashup of scholarship and woo elsewhere in the book.
* Sorry, it was a very mundane dream; most of mine are - it just included the book itself and possibly some housework, no actual Herne or pagan-related content. Anyway, when you've got over 600 unread or unfinished books, any variation of selection process makes things a bit more interesting....more
Very enjoyable IMO. (Whereas "a bit dry" was the verdict of an acquaintance less interested in the academic side of archaeology, more in simply lookinVery enjoyable IMO. (Whereas "a bit dry" was the verdict of an acquaintance less interested in the academic side of archaeology, more in simply looking at sites). Sometimes Pryor pushes his own theories at the expense of surveying other takes on a topic, but his views are generally likeable. Still much more thorough and respectable than the average popular non-fiction book - especially when compared to bigger areas like science and history. Could perhaps do with an updated revised version now, 10+ years after first publication....more
Primal Skin is a work of fantasy fiction – and sexual fantasy, at that – mixing different time periods and traditions ranging from the Upper to the MiPrimal Skin is a work of fantasy fiction – and sexual fantasy, at that – mixing different time periods and traditions ranging from the Upper to the Middle Paleolithic. It is a bisexual utopia and a world in which gender does not limit ability. There is a great deal of artistic licence... Not quite what you'd expect in the introduction to a Black Lace book - though it's probably not surprising I'd be interested in a book with this premise by an author who appears to have good historical knowledge. Although I did have it for about ten years before reading; back then I'd really liked a story by the author, aka Astrid Fox, in some collection or magazine and got my hands on a few of her other works.
More is known about human/ Neanderthal interbreeding than when this was written, which in a way validates the idea of the hybrid community it's partly set in. (Apparently I have a higher than average amount of Neanderthal genes. The purveyors of laser hair removal were probably grateful for that, anyway...)
This is really a historical novel - mystery, quest and coming-of-age - with quite a lot of sex scenes, rather than "erotica". Often I wondered if the sex had been added or elaborated after earlier attempts to get the story published had failed. (The sex scenes are not bad, though not amazing and not often what I'd call erotic; YMMV.) Given the age of the main characters and the plot - apprentice shamans in their late teens or early twenties, and themes of religious and racial (speciesist?) prejudice - these days it would be "New Adult", but in the late 90s it probably would have seemed to be in some no man's land between teenage and adult books.
It's a fascinatingly strange world though the customs don't always fit together well and some of the thoughts seem too modern. (Skin's feelings about animals that are killed seem too near those of modern vegetarians. Wouldn't a culture in which creatures are sacred and have to be hunted for food see them in some way different from our current near-binaries?) It veers between engrossing and silly and made me think about the process of writing because I could imagine making similar errors in continuity, clumsy viewpoint shifts, not being sure how to conceptualise an ancient attitude to something etc. I was aware of some of the archaeology that contributed detail to the setting; would love to know where other bits came from. There were occasional schoolboy errors (no marsupials in Europe and bats aren't marsupials anyway). It seems odd for there to be no thoughts about pregnancy as part of prehistoric sex (assuming people had worked out the link), and that none of the characters already have children at the age they are, but you probably can't put that sort of detail in Black Lace stories. There was a sort of disconnection between the historically detailed parts of the story, and the sex scenes and some conversations (both the latter sounded more like a group of modern hippyish polyamorous students than people from another time). I couldn't help thinking that the author is probably better suited to short stories, and given her eye for factual detail, probably also non-fiction. Still, quite an interesting light read if you're sympathetic to its premise....more