Dancing with Nemetona: A Druid’s Exploration of Sanctuary and Sacred Space by Joanna van der Hoeven

Dancing with Nemetona: A Druid’s Exploration of Sanctuary and Sacred Space
Joanna van der Hoeven
Moon Books, 2014
Review by Jennifer Lawrence.

When I first began reading this book, I was wholly unfamiliar with the goddess Nemetona. I knew the word nemeton, of course; as a member of several druid organizations, it would be difficult to remain unaware of the idea of a sacred grove. As it turns out, it isn’t odd that I was unfamiliar with Nemetona, because very little is known of her with any sort of historical accuracy. A few place-names, a few inscriptions: all that’s left to tell us about a goddess whose worship apparently once stretched from Germany to Spain to Britain. Greece, Gaul, Ireland, Wales; these places paid reverence to her, but today she has all but vanished from history, and the author tells what little is known of her within a page and a half of introduction.

The first chapter talks about one’s personal “nemeton,” which, rather than being a term for the sacred space outside of one’s body, appears to be the author’s way of discussing a person’s aura — that veil of energy which wraps around and through the physical body, changes color and shape with health and mood, and can be impinged upon by others both positively and negatively.

As the book moves into further chapters, it takes time exploring Nemetona’s titles and purviews: the Lady of Edges and Boundaries, of Hearth and Home, of the Sacred Grove, of Sanctuary, of Ritual, and finally, of Everything and Nothing. Of all these, only the final chapter seems to be a stretch: while the last title might be valid in a modern interpretation of Nemetona’s strengths (which, of course, this is), I suspect that the original peoples that venerated the goddess might have found room to argue the point. If nothing else, “everything and nothing” smacks of a monotheistic deity that rules all, and given how many modern Pagans came to Paganism after leaving such monotheistic religions, they might not want much to do with a deity that claims some of the same qualities as the god they left behind. However, the rest of the material leading up to that chapter is excellent, both well-written and well-presented, although I might have wished that the book as a whole was longer.

It was a bit of a surprise to see how much of the material in this book was originally found by the author within the ideology of Zen Buddhism. This is less odd in today’s mix-and-match Paganism than one might suspect. The Zen material woven into the book actually supports the ideas on Nemetona well enough to not be objectionable.

There is so much good material that works well in this book that the above-mentioned issues are of very small import. Not only are the exercises simple to do and effective, the greatest mass of the written material reads like poetry, full of elegant and beautiful imagery that flows like clean water. When the author describes the shadowed, quiet peace of the forest, the sweet smell of earth after the rain, the songs of the trees and the sunshine, the reader is vividly and instantly able to see that forest, smell the wet earth, and hear those songs. That ability to paint a vivid picture is one of the marks of a really talented writer. This is especially so in any book on material of a spiritual nature, where the reader must be lifted — or even torn — away from the dull reality of mundane life. That Van Der Hoeven has succeeded so well at this minimizes anything I might find fault with otherwise.

This was a beautifully-done book with some excellent exercises and enough material to give an individual the tools to begin a relationship with this obscure but important goddess and the things she rules over.