Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hutton and the Writing of Witchcraft History

No - this article is not about UFOs or Fox Mulder! It is instead about the recent article written by Ronald Hutton in the latest issue of “The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies.” That article is entitled “Writing the History of Witchcraft: A Personal View,” and you can find it here. The reason why I chose the above famous picture for my article is because it has more to do with me and my recent support of Ben Whitmore’s book “Trials of the Moon,” and the fact that Ronald Hutton has written a professional and fair critique of that work. This is despite the fact that Ben Whitmore had attempted to paint a picture of Hutton as a cynical and calculating academic, whether that was his intention or not. His book has basically sought to question Hutton’s methodologies as an academic in such a fashion that one could only consider him to be a poor scholar at best, a mendacious and manipulative fixture of the bureaucracy of academia at worst. However, Hutton’s defense of himself, and his approach to this study and his motives, have now been eloquently revealed, much to the shame of Whitmore’s book. A useful quote from Hutton’s article shows that he was sincerely motivated from an objective interest in the subject matter, which, I might add, had also personally affected him. Thus I feel that he has been wrongfully maligned, much to my personal embarrassment.

Triumph [of the Moon] was therefore written not to demolish a belief system but to fill a vacuum created by the collapse of one. Both in professional terms and those of my standing among Pagans, it would have been far better for me had I been able to rescue the old orthodoxy instead. To prove the existence of an early modern Pagan witch religion, after all, would have been a sensational coup among historians, while to prove its endurance to the present day would have endeared me to all modern Pagan witches. I simply found the task impossible, and indeed it became more so as my research for the book went on.”

I guess it comes down to taking Ronald Hutton at his word, and there seems little reason not give him the benefit of the doubt, considering his stature as an academic and his apparent sympathy to the pagan cause. Others may quickly disagree with me, but I have always found it prudent to trust someone and respect their opinion until such a time that it is proven to be motivated by selfishness, delusion or deceit.

In regards to Ben Whitmore’s book, it’s easy to cherry pick someone thesis and find supposed holes in the research and the logic underpinning a theory, since looking at something in that microscopic way keeps one from seeing the context and the larger picture. Mr. Whitmore made a lot of suppositions as to Hutton’s motives and the scope of his contacts, even asking if he had ever read any of Carlo Ginzburg’s writings, when in fact, they know each other and have met. It would seem obvious that Hutton knows about and has read Ginzburg’s work, and the reverse is also likely true. There appears to be a lot of agreement between these two scholars, because otherwise, I am sure that Hutton would have gotten an earful from him when he attended a conference recently celebrating Ginzburg’s work. As I was saying, it’s easy to pick holes in someone else’s work, but to do it while promoting an alternative theory, or coming up with an explanation that doesn’t personally attack the integrity of one’s intellectual opponent is at the very least a basic requirement in academic circles. I was remiss in not considering what Whitmore was saying personally about Hutton in his book, and that taken collectively, they were quite damning.

Perhaps the most telling thing that Hutton said in his article is that he has always felt that there were loose ends in his book, and that his word was not the final word in the history of British Witchcraft. What he has written over the last thirty years needs to be seen in the context of a scholar who is evolving his theories and refining his opinions. We also need to keep in mind that academics are constantly examined, critiqued and even challenged by their peers. Even the most critically acclaimed theory will eventually be altered or even discarded by later scholars. Since Hutton has written his books and also circulated his papers, he has been intensely scrutinized by his peers, some of whom have devoted their lives to areas of study that he has only limited or rudimentary knowledge. None of these academics have disputed Hutton’s theories or called on him to verify his sources, which would certainly have happened if he had supposedly “baked” his results. I think that we really need to take Whitmore’s claims with a great deal of skepticism, and ponder why such claims are even required. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in the unenviable situation of disbelieving and seeing some kind of conspiracy in nearly every academic discipline, not just in the study of the history of modern witchcraft and paganism. 

One thing that Hutton said in his article, which really reaffirmed some of my thoughts in the area of pagan survivals, was included in a statement where he talked about how he differed from other scholars in his approach, and that this was written into a paper that he delivered to an academic conference on Modern Paganism, at Newcastle University in 1994.

It took direct issue with the view, often heard from colleagues in the university system, that there were no direct links at all. I identified four: ritual magic (again); cunning craft; folk rites, both ad-hoc and seasonally repeated; and (above all) the general love affair of Christian culture with the art and literature of the ancient world.

Perhaps the only area of quibbling would be the possible survival of shamanic elements from the past, as shown by Emma Wilby in her recent writings (most notably, on the Witch Trials of Isobel Gowdie). Hutton doesn’t quite agree with this perspective, yet other scholars might find it a definite possibility. Even so, this could be an area where further research and analysis might reveal some new possibilities. It is interesting to note that Hutton had helped Wilby with her first book, even encouraging a publisher for it. He had this to say about Wilby’s notion of shamanic survivals: “Certainly I think some of her suggestions more speculative than others, and (as she knows) I worry a bit about her selective use of widely scattered examples of what can be called shamanism taken from other parts of the world. This, however, does nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for her work.”

Hutton’s studies has shown that modern witchcraft and paganism were not invented out of whole cloth by some untutored and eccentric individuals who were part of a fringe movement within society. If anything, a lot of pagan beliefs have been encapsulated and carried into the modern age through the folklore, magic, myths, art and literature of our popular culture. Those who sought to preserve and eulogize the various cultural remains of antiquity were nominally Christian, although greatly sympathetic to pagan themes and practices. I have often stated that modern Wicca and Paganism seem more to be the product of the British middle class than something that was actually antique or even atavistic. To inflate Hutton’s work as stating that ancient paganism had completely died out and disappeared, leaving no cultural traces whatsoever is to miss the overall point of his book, “Triumph of the Moon.”

Reading through the section of Hutton’s article where he deals particularly with Ben Whitmore’s book “Trials” shows the true nature of an unequal battle, where every instance of disagreement and protest in Whitemore’s book is shown to be hollow, inconsistent, erroneous and obviously extremely biased against anything that Hutton might have said in any of his books or papers. Hutton graciously but throughly demolishes Whitmore’s book, painting a picture of him as some kind of sectarian hack who doesn’t have the breadth or the depth to really logically dispute his theories. While it is not true that Whitmore is a sectarian hack, I did feel quite deflated by what Hutton had to say. Indeed, I had to pick myself up off the metaphorical floor and dust my clothes off, because, I, too, had felt that Whitmore’s book was compelling and insightful. I have now realized that the truth is actually far more complicated, and that academic disciplines are rigorously enforced and maintained for a reason. They can be wrong, perhaps even promote falsehoods, but not for very long, since the inexorable powers of change, new technologies and new discoveries are constantly modifying the collective knowledge of humanity. It also seems obvious that there certainly isn’t any kind of unified conspiracy within academic organizations.

After such a profound drubbing, there doesn’t seem to be much more to do except ponder why I so eagerly jumped on the anti Hutton bandwagon, when several of my fellow respected witches were not so moved. Why was I so eager to believe that Hutton was some of kind of fallacious shill for Christianity, when he has actually been our advocate, even considering the daunting limitations of academia? The question is really why did I need and want to believe that there were antecedents to modern paganism that survived intact to the present times? Why indeed?

Hutton goes on to state that he sees three scenarios affecting the future of the witchcraft and pagan movements. I found the first one to be optimal, and the other two to be quite pessimistic.

The first is that trial, error, and debate produce a consensual picture, solidly based on primary research and accepted by professional scholars who are not themselves Pagan, to which Pagan authors have made a significant contribution.”

The second and third are where witchcraft and paganism break up into mutually hostile sects, each with its own promoted history, and separated by geographic location and the length and breadth of one’s involvement in a specific faction. I found the second and third future options to be quite terrifying, knowing that they could represent the ultimate end of these sects and the entire movement of modern paganism. It’s a gloomy picture where these various factions, fragmenting into smaller and smaller groups, disappear altogether. With a shudder, I realized what Hutton was actually trying to say, and I felt compelled to deeply question my own motivations in order to realize the first possibility, and thereby negate the second and third.

It all boils down to a question of legitimacy versus authenticity. I had stated even in this blog that authenticity is much more important to me (and other followers of modern occultism) than legitimacy. But I was seduced, since constantly rubbing elbows with Christians, Jews, Muslims, and even Buddhists, and Hindus, I found myself secretly lusting after some degree of legitimacy. The other religions have been around for at least a thousand years or longer, and I was the new kid on the block. I wanted to be both authentic and legitimate, and Whitmore’s book seemed to open the door to that kind of self justification. I must admit now that it was a tempting illusion, and one fostered by unmet desires. I should be much more concerned with what actually works and what is meaningful to me in the present world, not chasing after fleeting ghosts from antiquity.

What all of this means to me is that I have emotionally bonded with a concept (legitimacy), even though I have emphatically stated the opposite. I must correct this error and even perhaps go so far as to admit it publically. The problem is that “I want to believe,” even though I should know better, realizing that it’s actually not important in the here and now.

Over the years I have found that the various magickal lore from previous historical epochs, which are available to us today, have to be highly modified in order to make them effective and useful in the modern world. Would that logic not extend to a verifiable antique pagan belief or practice? Would I really want to sacrifice humans and animals, treat women as chattel, own slaves and enjoy public exhibitions of murder and mayhem in order to be truly an antique pagan? Of course not! I am not the same kind of person who lived in antiquity, and in fact, I couldn’t even imagine what it was like to think and act through the lens of that culture and epoch.

Those times are gone, and the locations, languages, cultures and even the people are also long gone. We have only fragments from those times, and certainly not enough to recreate that world as it was. Yet it is those fragments that are so wonderful and amazing, and they have enriched our present world, even helping us to create a new pagan religion. My faith and practices were from sources that evolved over time, they were touched and given expression by many hands, and they were not invented out of nothing by some obscure crank. That alone should give me a sense of belonging and fullness, even a kind of legitimacy, and indeed, it actually does.

The problem that continuously faces me (and other occultists) is the balancing act of acknowledging the work of academics on one hand, and glorifying in the myths and lore of my occultic practices and beliefs on the other hand. This is a very delicate balance, and where problems arise is when I might lose my objectivity and confuse one for the other. These two perspectives are complimentary, but they occupy completely distinct domains - the one being the domain of objective science, and the other, the subjective domain of faith and spiritual wisdom.

Science says that matter existed before the mind, and that we are a product of a long and torturous evolution; yet religion and magick say that the mind existed before matter, and even participated in its creation and formulation. Both of these perspectives are correct, but it is important to distinguish between them and not confuse them. As a pagan, I can say that I need my myths, magick and my secret lore to subjectively explain my existential place in this world living in this time (and also, to define the powers and entities that are aiding me in this quest). I also need science and history, to help me build an objective context for everything else, which includes the populace of the whole world and its diversity.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. Have you found that there's any magical advantage in working with a tradition that fits your definition of "legitimate," or is your preference for such legitimacy more aesthetic than practical?

    I ask because I've never really been in a position to set up a decent experimental test that would say one way or the other. Proponents of legitimacy have made various claims over the years that possessing proper "letter patents" or what have you will make your magick stronger and more effective. I haven't found any of those particularly convincing, but I also don't have a lot of personal experience with organizations that put a great deal of stock in such ideas.

  2. In its most extreme manifestations, the need for legitimacy becomes something like the young earth creationism found within fundamentalist strains of Christianity, I believe. Blindly, we attempt to force all the square material facts into the round hole of our origins story, forgetting that the word "hole" and everything which the expression conveys simply aren't the same thing as some sort of material hole. I'm emphatically not saying the implicit need for legitimacy which you outline here adopts such an extreme approach, of course, and with the less extreme manifestations, well yes, it's a certain comfort for those of us who like our stable patterns. And without coming down upon one side or the other of the current debate, because I'm far from familiar with the works in question, I do applaud you for revising your opinion when confronted with new evidence. Too many peeps blindly hold onto their original arguments out of misplaced pride.

    Have you read Roberto Calasso's The Ruin of Kasch? Calasso's approach to writing requires some adjustment. (Think blinds, but motorized blinds, with a remote control in the hands of someone who's three!) Calasso talks a great deal about legitimacy, and the various problems of legitimacy, mostly within the context of historical European politics, although many among his arguments plainly apply in the sorts of spheres where we occult-types move. (In particular, Calasso has the most fascinating account of the role of sacrifice within the modern sphere.)

    Blessed Be!

  3. @Ananael Qaa - I think that legitimacy vs. authenticity are exclusive to discussions about religion. All magick, as far as I am concerned, is authentic, particularly if it is effective. Witchcraft is among recent religions (such as Thelema) where religion and magick are merged into a common system, consisting of ritual magick and liturgical ceremonies, some of which can also be magickal. New religions tend to emphasize authenticity instead of legitimacy, since they are too young to have much of a significant pedigree.

  4. This is extremely thoughtful self-analysis.

    As well as being a fascinating and inspiring post as usual, of course. Bravo.

  5. As Hutton himself points out, much of his commentary takes place within (and presupposes familiarity with) the recent English/British Pagan scene and its changing interpretations of Witchcraft's claims about its own history and the role of direct survivals within it.

    I'm beginning to suspect that pro-Craft North American and Austral-Asian readers, lacking this home ground context, have tended to misconstrue various of Hutton's nuanced comments. The claims about survivals may be more important for North American and Austral-Asian adherents because they lack access to the ongoing English cultural context.