Liz Williams is a very well respected science fiction and fantasy author (see my review of her wonderful novel Comet Weather here), and (until very recently) the co-proprietor of a witchcraft shop in Glastonbury. I have professional dealings with her, in that she spoke on a panel on women in sff that I was running. I was delighted to read on her Facebook page that her new book was out.
Miracles of Our Own Making: A History of Paganism is exactly what it says, and one of its strengths is that it is utterly grounded in common sense. Liz stands no nonsense, and while respectful of beliefs that she may not share, is also not slow to prick pomposity, and to point out inequalities and exploitation where she sees them. She is a longtime practitioner of pagan ritual and has a PhD in a related subject, so she is a reliable historian of the field.
This is a history of pagan activity in Britain, though, to be fair, there is not much here from the Scottish, Welsh and Irish regions, though examples are mentioned now and again. It is described linearly, from ancient origins to the Saxons and Vikings, to the Middle Ages, High Magic and the seventeenth century, the Georgians, the Victorians, and finally, Modern Magic. Your attention will naturally focus on the periods that interest you most. I’m a Quaker, and see no likelihood of changing my own beliefs, but I find belief systems in general very interesting. Though I was distracted by Sir Isaac Newton’s voluminous writings on alchemy, which he returned to after giving up natural philosophy (physics) as a dead end (readers of Ben Aaronovitch’s terrific Rivers of London series will already know the role that Newton played in establishing magical practice for the London Metropolitan police), I am, at the moment, most interested in the remnants of Viking pagan practice in the British Isles, and curious about modern Wiccan beliefs.
These two sections show the unavoidable weakness in the book’s balance: far more is known about the latter than the former, and so Liz has to roam more widely around mainland Europe (where, obviously, the Saxons and Vikings came from) to pull out what is known about their practices, while only needing to remain in the English West Country to describe Wiccan beliefs. I would have liked to have read more on regional variations in modern pagan practice, and to have gained a stronger sense of the range of modern pagan practice in Britain. Liz is careful to acknowledge issues of cultural appropriation when white people borrow and use practices from, for example, Voudou and African animistic rites, but she does not explore the history of these beliefs in the UK, beyond acknowledging that they are present. No doubt this is because so many modern sources exist for browsing through: the list of further reading is short but very accessible, and the references cited are detailed and offer further many routes for investigation.
What will you learn from this book? That Viking pagan practices could be horrible to modern sensibilities (at least one of the primary sources Liz quotes is potentially triggering), and that British belief in the efficacy of magic at ground level seems to have survived despite civic, legal and military oppression for centuries. Magical practitioners did not all go for personality cults, though many of the twentieth-century leaders did. Herne the Hunter was almost certainly a casual invention by Shakespeare, revised into a ghost in the nineteenth century, and then mutated into the Horned God in the later twentieth century, helped by popular fantasy fiction. Freemasonry and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn borrowed a great deal of their rituals. The main fact I came away with is that ritual practice has been borrowed and shared over the centuries in a most promiscuous way, indicating that humans rely on it constantly for worship and supplication, of and to whoever they feel moved to ask. Can humans worship without ritual? They certainly can and do (Druids do, as do Buddhists, also Quakers), but the attraction of ritual is strong. Liz is quite clear that social interaction, the satisfaction of a completed work done right, and the positive psychological effect of group engagement in shared ritual practice can be a very good thing.
Miracles of Our Own Making is a terrific history, with many nuggets of useful and surprising information concealed on every page. The Appendices give practical information on modern magical tools and rituals, and some very sound advice on how to recognise malign cult activity. It’s a resource to hunt something down in, and an intriguing work to dip into. Highly recommended.