Friday, November 12, 2010

Ronald Hutton - Shibboleths and Moonshine?

There has been some discussion just recently in the blogsphere that appears to debunk some of Ronald Hutton’s core theories for the historical veracity of witchcraft and paganism. It all started when Peregrine, the owner of the blog “Magic of the Ordinary” wrote a response to a rather passionate anti Christian pagan article found in the Green Egg. While I would agree with some of Peregrine’s arguments about the tone and the perspective of the article, I also felt that the author had some justification for why he presented his arguments with such umbrage. David Griffin offered some pointed rebuttal to the comments in this article, which I felt were also quite valid and correct. Then the discussion tangentially went into discussing the merits of the writings of Ronald Hutton, and the real debate began.

The central premise to this debate is whether or not there is any connection between modern witchcraft and paganism, and the paganism of antiquity. This would include the possibility of the survival of witchcraft practices and family traditions from antiquity, through the middle ages to the present time. Hutton has forcefully denied that there is any connection whatsoever between the past and present beliefs and practices, and has said that other historians steadfastly agree with him. That heated discussion brought forth an article by David, who took on the Hutton premise, and in the process, revealed some interesting new perspectives in the disciplines of history and anthropology, some of which I was not fully aware of. You can find Peregrine’s original article here, and David Griffin’s article here. I’ll let you judge these two different perspectives on their own merits.

I was actually loath to get into this heated discussion since I had also bought into Hutton’s arguments and his basic premise. Yet after being shown a link to a well written and researched book that successfully takes on Ronald Hutton’s prize theories, I had a change of heart. (Many thanks to David for that link.) I carefully read that work, and I finally decided that I had to say something about this contentious issue. That wonderful book not only empowers misgivings and personal issues that I have had all along with Hutton’s declarations, but it was also quite illuminating. As a result, I am amending and modifying my opinions about the historical validity of pagan and witchcraft survivals. I will continue to be skeptical, of course, but I will not be dismissive of them either, and for some very good reasons, some of which I will discuss in this article.

Many have read Hutton’s book, “Triumph of the Moon,” as well as some of his other books, such as “Stations of the Sun” and “Pagan Religions of the British Isles.” Many are familiar with Hutton’s writings, but typically unfamiliar with others who have taken issue with Hutton’s over-reaching declarations. The book I mentioned above, entitled “Trials of the Moon,” was written by one of those very same authors who has brilliantly revealed the flaws in Hutton’s work. I have ordered the actual book from CreateSpace dot com because I wanted to honor the author, as well as look over his bibliography and have access to an index. You can find it here.

Needless to say, Ben Whitmore has done a fabulous job showing that the case for a historical witchcraft and paganism is anything but closed. Other areas that Whitmore has opened the door to consider involve the historical validity of the occurrence of a Mother Goddess in Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Greece, and whether any pagans or actual witches were killed during the witchcraft hysteria in Europe. Whitmore has also softened the harsh criticism of Margaret Murray, Leland and other earlier scholars and their theories - individuals that Hutton has ridiculed and thoroughly dismissed.

I have to admit that my opinions are in flux right now, so my readers will have to patiently wait for me to make a more thorough study of this work. Have no fear, this issue will most definitely get more consideration in the future. I also feel obligated now to read and examine the books written by the Italian historian, Carlo Ginzburg (“Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches Sabbat,” and “The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries”) to see another quite different perspective by an accredited historian. Yet even now, I can at least make a few amendments on some of the previous statements that I have made in regards to the history of witchcraft.

You see, I freely admit that I was completely bamboozled by Ronald Hutton, taking many of his comments that I neither liked nor found palatable as a kind of academic gospel, when in fact they were poorly contrived and not supported by the actual evidence, or even by other researchers, writers and scholars. Despite his good humor and supposed regard for modern witches and pagans, Hutton must have secretly had an axe to grind, and instead of being considered an academic friend of neopagans and witches, he should actually be revealed to be quite inimical to those same people. He is, therefore, much more of a Christian apologist than a promoter of modern paganism. What Hutton did with a stroke of his academic pen was to eliminate any consideration of the historical roots of modern paganism and witchcraft. After his book became vogue and accepted as the new status quo, we who were pagans and witches found ourselves cut off from the various sources of our own beliefs and creeds, since anyone who wrote about vestigial rites, family traditions and cultural artifacts were ridiculed or vigorously dismissed. A veritable cloak of silence was placed over the writings and findings of many other historians and researchers, due mostly to the wide and uncritical acceptance of Hutton’s books.

Now I have come to discover that there are indeed many peculiar practices, beliefs and symbolism that have survived the onslaught of Christian persecution and continue to exist today, whose source was indeed antique paganism. This would seem so obvious to anyone, but was harshly and intensely contradicted by Hutton, who made the global pronouncement that there were no pagan survivals; that all cultural relics which seem to be pagan are in fact more recent creations. This has now been shown to be completely false, and not only by other practitioners of modern paganism and witchcraft, but by other scholars as well. Ronald Hutton represents a very ultra-conservative view point, which is not shared by other scholars who have researched the same or analogous evidential materials. The fact that they have come to completely opposite conclusions than what Hutton has written about is something of a profound eye opener, to say the very least.

What this means is that there are a lot of pagan practices, beliefs and symbolism embedded in our culture today. They are buried and integrated into a modern Christian post-modern culture, but they can be identified, extracted and placed in a new context, one that is exclusively pagan. In fact one could say that modern Christianity and its cultural beliefs and practices owes a tremendous debt to ancient pagan beliefs and practices. This, of course, takes the argument that Peregrine was making (that modern paganism and witchcraft owes a great debt to Christianity) and completely turns it on its head. What we have to consider now is that perhaps the founders of modern paganism and witchcraft weren’t just shamelessly appropriating Christian practices and beliefs, and then populating them in a new package, but maybe they were just extracting what they supposed were the pagan components from Christianity and properly restoring them into a modern pagan reconstruction.

 Still, Hutton was mostly correct about Gardnerian witchcraft and all of its various offshoots - they’re, without a doubt, all modern practices and traditions. The history of the Gardnerian tradition of witchcraft probably only goes back to the late 19th century, earlier than Hutton has allowed, but very much in line with what Phillip Heselton has discovered and written about in his books. Even so, modern witchcraft and paganism were not formed in a vacuum. These modern religions could easily have a lot of comparable beliefs and practices analogous to pre-Christian pagans. The times may have irreparably changed, the mind-sets and cultures are completely different, but the human condition is forever analogous. It is there, in that place of confluence, where we meet and join with what was practiced by our ancestors before Christianity became the dominant faith.

In regards to the ongoing discussion between Peregrine and David Griffin, I think that one very important concept that no one has addressed is that "religion" in antiquity had three very specific domains - the religion associated with the State, the family, and the individual. The outlier is, of course, the mysteries. Yet in all cases, the only really organized religion in antiquity was the State religion, and that was not nearly as organized as it became under the authority and influence of the Catholic Christian church.

For instance, in antique paganism there were no theologies, tightly regulated scriptures, single source liturgies, professional priests with exclusive liturgical prerogatives, an over-arching hierarchy or even ecumenical councils to establish a common creed. Religion in antiquity was highly informal and unstructured, with only State festivals, celebrations and the larger mystery schools acting as exceptions to this rule, and even then, traditions were subject to change for various reasons, and nothing was considered a hardened doctrine. Heads of households could perform community sacrifices and other liturgies, and throughout that time, there wasn't either a book of common liturgy or common belief.

All of this massive organization and uniformity in religion came about when Christianity was elevated to the state religion in Rome. The common folk were quite happy to attend to the state sponsored religious activities as they always had, and then continued with their pagan family and personal traditions without so much as an eye blink. While many people may have converted to Christianity and gave up their pagan beliefs, others were more or less co-opted into the faith, particularly those who lived in outlying and fringe areas, away from the major cities and towns. Because a religion in those times would have been a mixture of State, family and individual practices, one would surmise that a truly ancient survival of the pagan times would also incorporate a mixture of State (in this case Christianity), family and individual practices.

By the early middle ages, the Catholic church was fully engaged with converting pagans to the church in massive numbers (instead of persecuting them), but there no longer was the desire or the ability, or even the number of trained educators and clergy, to thoroughly change the way that many of these pagans actually believed. So it would not be surprising if some of these folk kept their pagan beliefs and practices quite active while still attending church (if there was a church to attend) and outwardly behaving as good Christians. It would not have been until the Reformation that the church and civil authorities would send out teams of interrogators to find and prosecute anyone who wasn't pure in their faith. Still, there were no witch trials in Italy and probably in other locations as well.

Even so, a secretive family tradition could have been kept alive all through the middle ages and even into the 20th century, yet it would have been a heterodoxy of Christianity mixed with pagan beliefs and practices. So I think that Peregrine and Hutton are dead wrong about their pronouncement that nothing survived the two thousand years of Christian persecution. Since religion in antiquity differentiated between State, family and the individual, adopting Christianity would have satisfied the need for conforming to the State religion, yet that conformity wouldn’t have completely purged all such practices and beliefs from the family and personal domains.

I believe, then, that one of the major problems with this discussion is that the definition of what a religion is may be too heavily influenced by Christianity. Hutton is looking for an organized religion analogous to Christianity surviving into the present times, when the religion of antiquity was never organized to such an extent. He also requires that individuals must exclusively belong to one group or the other, when this probably didn’t always happen. Using this criteria, Hutton has judged that such a religion never existed, and he's right, it didn't; but then again, it never did until Christianity came along. How ironic all of this appears to me, and I never would have known these perspectives had I not boned up on my studies of Greek and Roman religion, particularly through the writings of Walter Burkert.

The possibility for survival seems much more likely, but the big question that remains is what do we do about it and where do we go with that discovery? What is the future destiny of our faith? I, for one, would not be interested in engaging with an authentic historical tradition that mixed Catholic Christianity with pagan beliefs and practices. What I would be interested in is filtering out the Christian beliefs and engaging in a reconstruction effort to create a modern tradition of witchcraft with lots of ancient pagan lore. As a friend of mine has put it, the purpose of religious reconstruction is to create a system that would approximate what that original pagan tradition might have looked like if it had survived intact and were practiced today, as a modern synthesis and expression of an ancient tradition. I believe that modern paganism and witchcraft, allied with the various heathen research and reconstruction efforts, has managed, in its own flawed way, to do just that. There is a lot of room for improvement on the existing praxis, but that is very likely the task of a new generation of elders in the religious traditions of pagans and witches. 

Frater Barrabbas


  1. It seems to me that this whole argument is one of definitions. It is pretty clearly demonstrable that Wicca as it is practiced today is a fundamentally new religion, but it is just as clearly demonstrable that some forms of paganism can be traced back to ancient times. When we conflate family traditions that combine magical practices and pagan beliefs with Wicca by calling both of them "witchcraft" the whole thing becomes something of a mess. Paganism is ancient, while Wicca is modern.

    Above and beyond this I'm always amazed at how much importance is accorded to whether or not various traditions are old or new. The important factor should be whether or not the practices those traditions teach work, not how far back they go. There is no reason to think that an ancient magical system should be superior to one that was invented within the last decade. In fact, I would think that since recent systems can be built around current scientific understanding of both physics and psychology a good argument could be made that the modern system should work better.

  2. @Ananael Qaa

    The whole problem was created by Ronald Hutton's contention that not only Wicca is modern, but Paganism as a religion as a whole as well. There are sweeping generalisations that became all but enshrined as dogma in the modern Pagan movement, which largely allowed Hutton to redefine it as "Neo"-Pagan.

    The question of efficacy of magical system and of the value of antiquity of a religion are two separate issues and not to be confused.

    I am astonished by the willingness of so many modern Pagans to have allowed themselves to have been all but cut off from the roots of their faith in antiquity, by leaving Hutton's sweeping pronouncements unchallenged for so long.

    Yes - modern systems of magic are certainly authentic and efficacious.

    However, the ancient magic should not be thrown out with the academic bathwater so easily either!

    - David Griffin

  3. Another problem facing the modern Pagan movement (also thanks to Hutton!) just became apparent on my blog as well. My debate opponent (spouting Hutton as gospel) was pretending to be Pagan. It was only after a heated emotional exchange that a provocative witch outed him as a both Christian apologetic and a Pagan detractor, which he proudly admitted once outed.

    One can only wonder how many of these sort of clandestine attacks have occurred over the past decade from individuals pretending to be Pagan while spouting Hutton and seeking to destroy the faith from within!

    - David

  4. The whole problem was created by Ronald Hutton's contention that not only Wicca is modern, but Paganism as a religion as a whole as well.

    Well, I can't say I'm familiar with Hutton's work but if this is indeed the case he must be pretty stupid. The Babylonians and Sumerians weren't pagan? How about the Egyptians? The Greeks? The Romans prior to Christianity? The religions of all of those cultures fall under the general umbrella of paganism - polytheistic religions rooted in reverence for the cycles of nature. It should be obvious that pagan religions of one form or another have been practiced for thousands of years to anyone who knows anything about history.

    However, the ancient magic should not be thrown out with the academic bathwater so easily either!

    I just think that both ancient and modern methods should be tested for effectiveness like any other pieces of technology. Then we should keep working with the methods that work best, regardless of their history.

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  7. Ananael,

    I know that this sounds outrageous from the outside, but Hutton is a master of smoke and mirrors. He built a great case for the modernity of Wicca, then piggybacked a case onto it that no elements of Pagan religion had survived from antiquity, but instead had been completely wiped out by Christianity. Hutton never denies Pagan religion in antiquity. Instead, he simply declares that it all went away, and that everything today is but modern revival.

    At first glance, Hutton's arguments appear ait tight, unless you happen to be an expert in a given subject area or are willing to do a lot of research for yourself.

    For example, to build his case that the magick of Witchcraft is purely a modern invention, Hutton actually makes the quite audacious claim that it was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn that invented Theurgy, and that all pre-Golden Dawn magick was but the magick of coercion to make things happen rather than for the spiritual development of the individual.

    This is quite ludicrous, of course, but when presented by such an "imminent" authority on Pagan history, it nonethelous takes on an air of believability to the average lay person.

  8. Well, if Hutton's argument was able to convince anyone that no modern pagans engage in any practices that were also used in antiquity, he must be a master of smoke and mirrors indeed.

    And I suppose if one is going to contend that the Golden Dawn invented theurgy one would have to demonstrate that the invocation of the Holy Guardian Angel from Abramelin was in no way theurgic. Clearly, as a Thelemite, it seems obvious to me that this is not the case.

    It sounds to me like Barrabbas' takedown of this guy was long due.

  9. Thanks all, for your comments. Yes, I felt it necessary to "takedown" Ronald Hutton. Now on to the pleasant work of reclaiming and inventing.

  10. As the author of the above-mentioned book, I can’t resist responding.

    Firstly, thank-you, Fr. Barrabbas, for your very kind words. It is immensely gratifying to hear the excitement of someone fresh to my material, mirroring the excitement I felt during the research and writing. It’s especially nice to see you so accurately mirror the case I lay out in the book, representing my arguments fairly and without overstepping my own conclusions. I've been a little concerned to see some other responses (both positive and negative) failing to grasp the subtleties of my arguments. Does my book convey what I actually mean it to? Your eloquent summary goes a long way to offsetting that concern.
    I particularly like your point about our definition of 'religion' perhaps being deficient. This is exactly the kind of subtlety of debate (with potentially far-reaching consequences) I was hoping to provoke.

    I now find myself in the unlikely position of defending Ronald Hutton. You and David Griffin suggest that he may, behind his sympathetic exterior, be inimical to Paganism. I admit, this is something I wondered when I was starting this project, but I no longer think this is likely. In the course of my own research and writing it has become clear how much care is needed to avoid slipping into a selection bias and finding just those works (or passages within works) that tend to support my views. Without pretending any knowledge of Hutton's methods and motives (I have never met him nor had any exchange with him), I can imagine him truly believing what he wrote. What I suspect is that he painted himself into a corner with his earlier book, Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, and has only gradually been able to start working his way out of it. That book, he has admitted, was written in anger at what he saw were neopagans promoting a false history. And he is correct, there was a lot of false history being thrown around at the time, which was an embarrassment to more informed witches and pagans. The quality of research and referencing in Pagan Religions is pretty poor, and his conclusions correspondingly inaccurate. It reads as a polemic. However, since then his books have shown an increasing sympathy towards Paganism, and he has gradually eroded his own hard line against the possibility of pagan survivals -- not far enough, I would contend, but to me this demonstrates his genuine regard for the Pagan faiths and the Pagan community.
    I know he has responded bitterly to some critiques, but he has also written glowing recommendations for other books which, while not openly criticising his work, clearly undermine it. Heselton's books are a case in point. I have also heard numerous people speak of his generosity in giving time and energy to Pagan researchers. This to me demonstrates that while he may still be somewhat wrapped up in his own views, he would like to participate in a developing and changing field of research, and even re-evaluate his conclusions -- and ultimately that he enjoys the company of Pagans and very much values their acceptance of him within the community. I can understand that some of my readers may feel antagonistic to Hutton: as David Griffin observes, the forceful rejection of a prevailing dogma can for some be necessary when re-establishing their own religious views. But I take no pleasure that I may turn people against Hutton as a person. For me, this is an intellectual debate, and in a way, my quarrel is more with those who have turned Hutton's opinions into an unquestionable dogma than with Hutton himself.

    (To be continued... I'm running out of characters for this post!)

  11. (Continued from previous comment)

    Regarding your comments about survivals and reconstructions, they remind me of a conversation I had with my High Priest in Wales about trying to distinguish what was pagan from what was Christian. His view (and I hope I can get this roughly right) was quite refreshing, for he considers Christianity itself to be largely pagan, not just in terms of specific images and elements it has preserved from ancient religions, but in terms of its ability to speak to certain primal needs and impulses in people. This is so often buried under oppression, restriction and fear- and hate-mongering, which are inimical to any true spirituality. But as Peregrin correctly points out, in many other cases it is a valuable, valid and powerful path to enlightenment, compassion and rich participation in life. Perhaps, for my HP, 'paganism' is whatever speaks to true spirituality, and is thus in some way universal to humanity. My discussion of the theories of Jose Pina-Cabral would tend to support this view.
    This leads me to give a caution, which is perhaps not directed at any of the contributors so far, but at others who might read this discussion:
    In reconstructing a 'true' paganism, I would be cautious of throwing out the baby with the bath-water (as I feel some 'traditional witchcraft' revivalist traditions have done) by abandoning the more positive ethical values that some associate with 'Christian' morality. This I believe has come from seeing paganism and Christianity as fundamentally opposed forces. As a regime, Christianity has indeed been opposed to paganism at various points in history, but as a spirituality, Christianity has seemingly co-existed with paganism for centuries and found much in common. I believe that many so-called 'Christian' values gained acceptance among pagans for the simple reason that they were essentially already present in paganism. Or so my research has led me to believe. If our reconstructions of paganism are built around a forceful rejection of what we see as 'Christianity', we risk defining ourselves in terms of that Christianity as its opponent, and becoming a spiritually impoverished tradition.

    That single concern now spoken to, I can join you, Frater Barrabbas, in your excitement at the prospect of a renewed and re-empowered modern Pagan tradition, and I hope to see more voices of this calibre join the debate.

    To the glory of the Gods,
    Ben Whitmore

  12. I'm sorry, I've already waffled for long enough, but I'd like to clarify something: I said "I've been a little concerned to see some other responses (both positive and negative) failing to grasp the subtleties of my arguments." I was referring to entirely unrelated discussions on other pagan sites, rather than anyone here...

  13. @Ben Whitmore - Thank you so much for your posting. I heartily agree with you, but I do look forward to the time and the day when Hutton does some revision and formally accepts some other points of view.

    Christian compassion and the high value placed on individual life are important contributions to the world. However, we in the U.S. are experiencing a fair amount of cultural war with a minority of politically conservative Christians, which has unfortunately muddied the waters. Passions are high on both sides, but you are correct, more unites us than divides us.

    I would very much like to correspond with you offline, please send me an email to my blog mailbox ( so I might be able to have an email to respond back to.

    Bright blessings -

    Frater Barrabbas

  14. While I do not wish to continue this debate incessantly and simply let readers study the evidence and make their own minds up, I do wish to correct a few points directed at me personally.

    @David - I have never seen any evidence of Christians or anyone else "seeking to destroy the [Pagan] faith from within!". And of course I have never tried to destroy any faith, pagan or otherwise. How does one go about doing this, anyway? I have no idea.

    I never pretended to be Pagan. I never called myself a Pagan on your blog or elsewhere in relation to this issue. I can't recall when I last called myself a Pagan.

    I said I no longer CALL myself a pagan or magician because of the dysfunction I see in these communities. I also do not CALL myself a Christian for the same reason, and because I do not have a deep enough relationship with Christ.

    What I PRACTICE is personal and esoteric based. I suspect nearly all Christians would call it Pagan, as do the many pagans I know.

    I have immense respect for the Neo-Pagan traditions as religion. I just feel the western esoteric traditions are of more depth for magical /theurgic work.

    I said only (with a smile) that my ego would like to be called a "Christian apologetic" - historically the Christian apologetics were brilliant thinkers in an environment where they were persecuted and likely to lose their lives for what they wrote.

    I hope this clarifies the issue, which any reader can clearly see by looking at what I actually wrote.

    As for the topic...I am enjoying the extract from Ben Whitmore's book and slowly cross checking his work as much as I can without references which I will have once it is published. I really hope to have my opinions challenged and changed - as a teenager once I had realised Wicca was based on western magical works I spent many years trying to connect and find older Craft/Pagan religious traditions. It would be nice to think there are some. I concluded back then and again when Hutton and others published, there were no historical traditions. I am ready to change my mind if I see the evidence :) Thanks

  15. @Peregrin - Thanks for your posting. The book is in print at book number 3473805. I already ordered my copy and got it three days ago.

  16. Good article. Thank you.

  17. Seeing as Ben Whitmore's new book discusses the relationship of Hutton's work to Ginsburg's among other things, interested readers might consider getting a hold of the new article on 'Witchcraft and Deep Time – a debate at Harvard' in the journal 'Antiquity' (Volume: 84 Number: 325 Page: 864–879) in which Ronald Hutton comes together with Carlo Ginsburg and others - marking the twentieth anniversary of Carlo Ginzburg's influential book on the connections between witches and shamanism - to discuss fascinating subjects close to all our hearts!

  18. Will wonders ever cease! Based on Ben Whitmore's work, even Peregrin now appears willing to reevaluate the case for the survival of elements of Pagan antiquity, rather than merely parroting Dr. Hutton's arguments as though they were dogma sealed in stone as he did at the outset of this debate.

    Truly, Ben Whitmore has done a great service to the entire Pagan community. "Trials of the Moon" is bound to have a far reaching impact. At a very minimum, it has people thinking for themselves again, even in unexpected quarters.

    - David Griffin

  19. I just want to point out that if you are not keeping up with all of the relevant literature, you are likely to miss a lot. For example, Ronald Hutton did not single-handedly or lightly dismiss Murray: there was a protracted and detailed dismantling of her work on Witchcraft in the professional literature. If you skipped from Murray to Gardner to Hutton (to exaggerate a bit) you would think that Hutton had expected Murray to go away at the wave of a pen, which was anything but true.

    The discussion needs to go on, but without the posturing and cockfighting.

  20. I am stunned that scholars have spent over 50 years trying to dismantle modern Witchcraft. Ultimately that is what this discussion is about if we look to the root issue.

    When will we admit that we know next to nothing of our pagan past and that is all there is to it! All the "progress" we have made in the Pagan History field has been nothing more than educated guesses, and blind opinions.

    As an old, tiring, Wiccan, I wish we could just say that Gardner took the fragmentary remnants of a surviving witchcraft tradition, spruced it up, modernised it, and gave it to the world,and Margaret Murry was off on her theories, yet there was still a core of truth in them.

    I am tired, I think everyone else is too, of scholars trying to find proof and answers of Pagan survival that simply do not exist! It's time to admit that we simply need to except that it is time to direct our attention to the future, not the past.

  21. I can't believe that I misspelled Carlo Ginzburg's surname TWICE in my above post. Must've been in a typing frenzy that day.