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Book Review: Phantom Armies of the Night by Claude Lecouteux

I reviewed this book as a guest reviewer for my good friend Lupa at her blog, Pagan Book Reviews, so instead of copying everything over to here, I would appreciate if you could go to her place instead to see what I think.

I’m happy to say that the book echoed most of my ideas regarding the Wild Hunt and similar themes, and I found a few interesting tidbits for my own practice. The main one was the mention of Lutzl, a “form” of Berchta that is found specifically in Burgenland, which is the region in Austria that is a known origin for my family. The best known one, actually, since records with my great-great-grandparent’s names are in Burgenland’s online resources.

“Burgenland, Austria, Lutzl (Lucy) passed at this time. She was the woman of the solstice, who roamed with veiled face. She was also armed with a kitchen spoon that she used to beat people in their houses and a knife for opening their bellies. Clad in black and white she was accompanied by monstrous figures and her trajectory was a quest in which she begged for the deceased foodstuffs, the “bread of all souls” p. 198

Given that my UPG associates a lamp and the moon with Berchta, the name “Luztl” (referring to light) fits well, and probably has associations with St. Lucia’s day, another day with many similar figures roaming throughout Europe.

There is also mention of another figure, of Alpine origin, that is apparently the demonic ancestor of the PETA organization.

“Kasermandl (Alps) a kind of demon that took possession of chalets after the livestock had been taken down to the lower valleys for the winter and that often bore the features of dead cowherds who were condemned to return, because they abused the livestock in their keeping.” p. 198

I found that interesting, since the demon isn’t so much a demon as it is a reinforcer of morals. In this case, it seems like the cultures in the Alps valued their animals and those who took care of them. I wish we had Kasermandl’s for today’s factory farms, but that’s a separate issue which is outside the scope of this blog.


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Book Review: The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation by James C. Russell

The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation by James C. Russell (ISBN 0-19-510466-8)

If the title didn’t already clue you in on this, this is a very dense book (here’s the google book excerpt to demonstrate). Which makes sense, as this is an expansion of the author’s doctoral dissertation. However, this density, among other aspects, means that a book like this can be highly appreciated by some, and greatly disappointing to others. My review is from the perspective of someone who is interested in European history/culture for both personal hobby and pagan religion/culture purposes.

The main purpose of the book is to show how Christianity, and the European cultures (primarily German tribes in the case studies selected) influenced and changed each other. As the title suggests, the author is in support of the idea that Christianity was modified to suit the Germanic tribes (and Celtic tribes too, it was hard to tell them apart back then), rather than the people adopting the Christian belief systems as it was initially.

As mentioned by Dr. Russell, the book is divided into two parts, with the first being used to set up and explain the players in the game of Christian history. There is a lot of discussion on the early Christian church’s interactions with Greece, Rome, and the rest of the Mediterranean world, which is used as a model to compare to later interactions. The second half of the book zooms in on the efforts to spread Christianity above the Alps through the Roman empire, and focuses heavily on the Germanic tribes and later Germanic or Germanized states.

In the first 2 chapters, the author provides an overview and some definitions to initiate the set-up of his religious transformation model. He starts with contemporary instances where Christianity is trying to convert people through missionaries (such as in Africa and East Asia), and why they are not successful. He touches upon aspects of these cultures that share traits with the old tribes of Europe, primarily the Germanic ones. The main aspect he finds is that lack of any need that Christianity could serve to fill, as stable societies and clans tend to not want to give up the good life in order to be saved and taken away to another, unknown world.

This eventually leads into his discussion of Greece and Rome in Chapter 3, and the nature of world-rejecting (the belief that existence occurs beyond the world or state of being we see; this includes Christianity, Islam, Wicca, and Buddhism) vs. world-accepting religions (basically, what we see is what we get; this is present in lots of traditional pagan cultures). A brief history of Classical Greece and Rome is utilized to explain how they went from their (supposedly) original Indo-European culture to the Mediterranean types. This is important because this sets them up to accept Eastern mystery religions that included newly formed Christianity into its ranks (thanks to Alexander the Great). This also shows how the early Churches came to incorporate philosophies, such as Plato’s and Aristotle’s that was not mentioned in their scriptures.There is a lot of philosophical and religious terminology that is defined in this chapter.

He ends his focus on Greece and Rome in Chapter 4, after describing how the spread of the empires and increased urbanization ultimately destabilized the societies (and therefore their political religions) and allowed Christianity to take root as a viable option to non-mainstreamers, with its initial focus on being a brother/sisterhood catering to the poor of society.

Chapter 5 starts the second half of his dissertation, discussing Germanic culture in greater detail than in his 1st chapter (particularly the warrior, king and kinship traditions). He essentially describes the Germanic tribes at the time of the Roman empire (some of which stayed officially true up to the Middle Ages) and what obstacles the newly organized Church had to deal with in order to incorporate the tribes into their empire.

Chapter 6 and 7 go in chronological order from 376 A.D. to 754 A.D. and describe in detail how the Church leaders managed to modify their ideologies in order to bring the lords and kings of the pagan tribes to their side. Conflicts and dramas galore, enough to fuel soap operas for years to come. Even after baptism occurred, the majority of the population in Europe, according to Russell’s sources, didn’t know (and probably didn’t care) about Christian orthodoxy, they simply followed the cult* patterns that were enforced by law to appease the bishops. Much of the religious life ended up being a syncreticism of Christianity and their cultural religion with a very pagan base. There is quite a heavy focus on the Franks (Merovingian and Carolingian kings) due to their long association with the Church, and some mention of the Gothic tribes that once ringed the Roman empire can be found.

The main Germanic tribes acknowledged are those on the Continent (particularly Gaul), rather than the modern UK or Scandinavia, and very little referencing the Iberian peninsula outside of the Visigoths. This is an excellent book to help get at the heart of what it meant to be pagan vs. Christian, or to have a pagan worldview in the European sense (it would be rude to assume that other academically pagan cultures in the world had the same cultural values as the European tribes). The references are numerous and heavy, with the majority of sources drawing upon old texts, letters, and laws to give insight into how people thought at the time. The way Russell presents the evidence allows for flexibility in interpretation as well, which means that his personal bias does not rigidly control the texts. He is not trying to hide or twist anything that may undermine his own hypothesis. Since this is a history dissertation that focuses mainly on the shifts and uses of political and social power, this is not a book to pick up if you want details on traditions and customs of the people themselves. There are only brief references to festivals that serve as an example of how the Church culture changed through Germanic influence. The main reference is to the Catholic liturgy adopting the agricultural seasons (Winter, Summer) into their originally Roman-based list of holy days.

If you love European history and want to know how the Western world came to be, this is a book to add to your collection. If you are trying to reconstruct European religions/cultures, then this is definitely a must-have to your collection. If you don’t enjoy having modern assumptions of religion and culture be smashed, then this is not the book for you. There is no dancing around bushes in this book, and details that may make some uncomfortable are stated quite plainly. Personally, I love history AND breaking misconceptions, so this book is a win-win for me.

5 ivory-tower scholars out of 5

*I am using the academic and correct form of “cult” in this statement, not the Hollywood/Sensationalist media version that turns the stupidity of drunken teenagers into news headlines. Essentially, most every religious group is a cult or has cults and it is not a derogatory term.

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I’m going to step aside from my personal business for a moment to make a shout-out for a promising new publication made by recons that have been instrumental in my own research:  Óðrœrir, at http://odroerirjournal.com/

A heathen publication that focuses on the reconstruction of historical cultures, Óðrœrir is made to be by heathens for heathens, but also offers up pieces of literary meat for the non-heathen that wants to know more about their ancestors. The first issue touches on a variety of topics that go beyond the “typical” Viking Iceland stereotype, such as “Frankish Heathenry” and “Women in Heathenry”. There are also articles explaining what the authors mean by the terms “reconstructionism” and “heathen”, which shows readers what to expect in later issues.

Each article has a bibliography, some of which take up a page even (which I love, the more the merrier!), and there are book reviews at the end. True to their word of being by heathens, there are also works of art, photos, and comics scattered throughout the text. There is a hope to get additional literary works added in future issues, such as heathen poetry and fiction, and additional sections for things such as heathen businesses and crafts.

Keep an eye out for the next issues, and feel free to contact them at their email submissions@odroerirjournal.com if you would like to make a contribution or have questions.

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Book Review: The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors and The Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind by Claude Lecouteux

I’ve been thinking of adding book reviews to this blog for a while, as there’s a lot of reading involved in this search. The following review is pretty much just my opinion, as I do not have any degrees or similar pieces of paper to suggest that I’m an expert reviewer.


The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind by Claude Lecouteux (ISBN 1-59477-318-1)

The title of the book is a bit misleading. This is not a book that focuses on the “pagan” mind, but instead is almost exclusively focused on Germanic literature, traditions and folklore from the Viking era to the Middle Ages. Geographically, that means modern-day Scandinavia, Iceland, UK, and Northern-Middle Germany. Scattered throughout the book are bits and pieces of other locations and cultures, such as Ireland, Hungary, Bavaria, and France as comparisons to Germanic traditions. Something different from the usually Greek (and to a lesser extent, Roman), and Egyptian focuses on pagan concepts of death and the dead.

There are 12 chapters organized into 4 parts. Part I sets you up with an introduction to the Germanic view of death by first looking at the (mostly Christian) concepts that still exist today, and going back in time to where the syncretism originated. Part II goes into detail on the dead themselves, and going over the different folkloric forms the dead have taken. While doing this, he analyzes what is modern and/or Christian, vs. what was typical to the heathens. That’s why Part II is divided into the “True Revenants” and “False Revenants” chapters for comparison.

Part III takes what was discussed in Part II and analyzes the placement of the dead in the world. The concept of an afterlife (or the lack thereof), hauntings, souls, and the spirits/gods that are associated with all that are discussed here. Near the end of Part III the author starts segwaying back to modern-day via noting the changes the dead take on over time. He goes through the decline of ancestor worship and changes in the importance that the dead take in the lives of the living via the change in attitudes shown in the lore.

For a book with 229 pages of content, it is packed with sources. Unfortunately, some of them only get a vague sentence of reference, and the quoted sections are only a paragraph or two at the most of whichever saga or legend he translated to show a point. This is not a book to get if you’re looking for the stories and traditions themselves, nor is it going to sit well with you if you expect every argument the author makes to be with solid support. Additionally, most of the sources in the bibliography are not in English, so it will be difficult for some to access them for further information.

That’s not to say he does a bad job of backing himself up however. It’s one of those books that has different chapters supporting each other and intertwining. The author also assumes you’ve read the preceding chapters, because he builds upon each one with the next. It’s a book best read in order rather than flipping around.

Now the quality of the book really depends on your reading level, scholarly background, and your interest for obtaining this book to begin with. I’m used to (and prefer) reading dry, dense, academic books, and I already had a basic understanding of the lore beforehand, so this was not a difficult book to read. For those that are only used to the metaphysical section of the bookstore, or for those that hated history class in high school, are going to have problems. I’m also able to see where he is coming from when he presents his interpretations without direct citation and he’s often spot-on (though obviously don’t take my word on it).

My gripes with the book are minor and come from being a heathen that uses historical sources for her information and inspiration. He speaks from the modern, Christian-influenced worldview, so he sometimes slips into that during interpretating and labeling. That mostly shows up in the afterlife and soul sections, and it’s subtle, so for most other readers this is not going to be noticeable. He’s not necessarily WRONG, I feel that he is just not clear enough in his definitions of the afterlife, other realms, souls and spirits. He uses those terms in reference to heathen concepts, when they are words heavily associated with Christian ideas, so some readers may be mislead.

For example, he regularly translates the “landvaetter” (or land wights in english) as tutelary spirits or genius loci, which suggests a non-corporeal, supernatural, otherworldly form. From a modern perspective, that’s not a problem, but from an ancient, heathen perspective, that doesn’t fit. A landvaetter could be the tree, the bird in the tree, or even a human buried on that land. A corporeal being that can be touched, seen, and heard, in other words. The “other worlds” are not some far off place in the sky or space, or located in another dimension, they are here on Earth. For the Miyazaki fans out there, “Princess Mononoke” illustrates that perfectly. The guardian of the forest is not a ghostly spirit, it’s a solid being that can live and die, that resides in a physical forest on the Earth.

Otherwise, I enjoyed reading this. The style of writing is conversational (and you can’t even tell that it was translated from French), so it’s accessible to those that aren’t academia-oriented, and it also keeps the text from feeling dry. There is also no religious agenda or orientations to the text, it’s purely focused on intellectual understanding. From a historical perspective, this book offers a good introduction to the culture of death and provides a means in understanding why the heathens behaved and believed the way they did. There is a lack of accessible books that allow the reader to get into the old worldview, and “The Return of the Dead” is helpful for that (despite my earlier complaints).

For those that are looking at this book from a Neopagan perspective (rather than a historical/cultural interest), this can be both rich in material to work with, and disappointing. The gods don’t really care about you unless you’re a king or hero, there’s no peaceful or magnificent heaven-like realm to go to, Nature is not considered a peaceful, pretty place, and there’s little reincarnation occurring. That is what the book reveals about the heathen minds of old. For those that aren’t bothered, the stories and interpretations can lend a unique perspective on the “dark half of the year” (as that’s when the dead are most active, especially around Yule) and the idea of ancestor worship.

Reconstructionists, especially seasoned ones, aren’t going to get anything new out of this though. Those that are testing the water in the recon pool, however, may find this book a good place to start. The ancestors and the dead were a big part of the European’s (and much of the world’s) old worldviews, and had remained so for quite some time after Christianization. Up to the 18th and 19th centuries even in some places.

4 zombies out of 5.

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