Getting It Right About Rites


Janet and Colin Bord. Earth Rites. Granada, 1982.

Bob Pegg. Rites and Riots. Blandford Press, 1981.

Earth Rites deals with a wide range of British folk customs and argues that all of them are derived from fertility rituals going back as far as the Stone Age. A great many people have a vague idea that this is the origin of folk customs, probably because it has served as the background for many supernatural thrillers (such as the British film The Wicker Man), so it's worth pausing to look at this explanation.

The idea originated with Dr Margaret Murray's The Witch Cult in Western Europe, written in the 1920s. According to Dr Murray the prehistoric fertility religion was still the religion of the mass of the population of Britain throughout the Middle Ages until it was stamped out by the witch persecution of 1550-1650. Unfortunately, there are serious problems here that Dr Murray (and the Bords) leave undealt with. First of all, it is rather hard to picture an unbroken continuity of beliefs from the Stone Age to Medieval Britain when in the intervening period Britain had undergone invasion and settlement by Celts, Saxons and Vikings. It is certainly true that whole cultures did not become Christian overnight and that we can trace pre-Christian survivals into the Middle Ages. However, neither Druidism, the pre-Christian religion of the Celts or the worship of the Viking or Saxon gods bears much relation to any hypothetical fertility cults. Nor does what we know of the popular culture of the Middle Ages from sources such as Chaucer suggest the existence of any such cult.

Furthermore, the Bords follow Dr Murray in believing that several violent deaths of medieval monarchs and other prominent people were in reality human sacrifices to ensure fertility. The reason this idea has failed to convince any historians is not because they 'know nothing of esoteric pagan practices' but because Dr Murray's evidence is based to quite a large extent on misquotation and misrepresentation. (For further details see: Norman Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons, and Elliot Rose, A Razor for a Goat.)

In spite of the problems with the Bords' main thesis, their book contains much that is interesting about folklore and customs, many excellent photos and detailed documentation, making a welcome change from many recent works on fringe science which consist almost entirely of material rehashed without acknowledgement from other equally dubious works.

A rather different approach is taken in Rites and Riots. This book examines a variety of European traditional annual customs and attempts to analyse why they have lasted and what social function they fulfil in their community, rather than treating them as ancient survivals. In the process it turns out that many may be considerably less ancient than often thought and in some cases may have been influenced by published accounts of alleged 'ancient rituals' that the participants had read rather than 'ancient fertility cults'. (The way that some folklorists assume that those they study are illiterate and incapable of original thought is rather similar to the way some ufologists assume that those they interview are incapable of picking up information on UFOs from the printed word.

The kind of social analysis attempted in this book may be usefully applied to the current popularity of 'fertility cult' explanations of popular customs. The idea of a once-universal cult centred around childbirth and the need to renew the earth, although it may not tell us much about the origin of our popular customs, speaks eloquently to a time when many are becoming more conscious of the importance of the earth's resources and of the manner in which the experience of women is excluded from many orthodox religious and philosophical discourses. - Roger Sandell, from Magonia 11, 1982.

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