by Ashleen O'Gaea
I asked Ashleen if I could include her review of Hutton's work in this edition of Witchcraft: A Concise Guide, not only because I agree with almost everything she says, but also because much of what she says about the need for Wiccans to accept and take pride in our true history applies to my research as well. [Words in square brackets are mine.]
iTS^ onald Hutton, a Professor of His-JFSM tory at the University of Bristol, has written a book called The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. The book is well researched, clearly and cogently presented, encouraging, and respectful. It's important for all those (and other) reasons — and because it will be devastating to some of us.
The friend who recommended that I read this book told me, "it blows everything out of the water." I listened, stunned, as he explained that Hutton debunks all our myths; and when I started reading it, I reacted with the anger my friend had predicted. From etymology to events, Hutton deconstructs our history.
No, he says, Wicca wasn't handed down in secret through persecuted generations. This bit came from Masonic ritual, that from ceremonial magic, and the other from the Romantic poets or the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry. The genealogy he uncovers for modern Wicca is not disinteresting or dishonorable, just very dramatically different from the history most of us take for granted. But "Triumph of the Moon" is not a cynical or sarcastic title, and Hutton hasn't left us for dead. The more I refer to it, the better I like it; I hope to convince you not only to read it, but to see it as more hope and glory than gloom and doom.
Hutton calls it to our attention in his Preface that this "claims to be a history and not the history." He describes his work as:
.the first systematic attempt by a professional historian to characterize and account for this aspect of modern Western culture. As such it is an exploratory and tentative work, intended as an initial mapping out of an area which badly needs and deserves serious treatment by more scholars... In Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, I took notice of the fact that Pagan religions existed in the modern British Isles, which sometimes claimed to represent an unbroken continuity of those who were my principle subject. V irtually all academic scholars of ancient Paganism until that time had either ignored them (or in the case of Druids) cursorily dismissed them. My own book came down heavily against the claim of continuity, and, indeed, the notion that modern Paganisms had very much in common with those of the ancient world. On the other hand, I also formed the opinion that they were perfectly viable modern religions in their own right.
He then began to wonder "where, when, and why they had in fact arisen, if they had not survived continuously." The Triumph of the Moon lays out the answers he's found to those questions.
In the backs of our minds at least, most of us have known three things for a while. One, our emotional dependence on Wicca's being an ancient religion reflects a patriarchal standard that is both inappropriate to our cosmology and beneath our dignity to accept. Two, Margaret Murray's and Sir James Frazier's scholarship proves to be inadequate by today's standards. Three, "Gardner made it all up."
Writers like Bonewits and Kelly have been telling us so for some time, but because Bonewits wasn't [known to be] Wiccan and Kelly was "out to discredit Gardner," it was relatively easy to table their work, or ignore it, or deny it. Many of us took various related professional and scholarly debates to be fueled as much by conservatism and sexism as anything else.
Hutton's different, though. He's got a decent academic reputation, he's an expert in relevant fields, and he had access to primary sources. Just as important, however, is that he has no axe to grind, no point to prove. Throughout Triumph he is respectful of Wicca and consistently treats it as the real and legitimate religion it is. There is even a subtle undercurrent, I think, of excitement about Wicca's documentable history. We can't refuse to take Hutton seriously, and we can't ignore his challenge to Wicca's traditional history.
We must at last, however regretfully, consciously acknowledge that our beloved Medieval Witchcraft — the peasants' generations of proto-Wicca that disappeared into secret, sacred woods and hills while the Inquisition raged across the land, barely surviving till Gardner gave it public life again — never existed. Contrary to the slogan that Bonewits coined, "Never again the Burning," the truth seems to be "Never even once the Burning." As Hutton says, "[It is] established beyond any reasonable doubt that there was no long-lasting or wide-ranging persecution of witches in early modern Europe..." [although, it depends on your definitions of all the words in that sentence].
Gardner, of course, didn't know that — he and most of his contemporaries accepted Murray's and Frazier's interpretation. It was "common knowledge" in his day that ancient Pagan religions survived the Inquisition by going underground, that those Pagan religions had been matriarchal, worshiping a Great Mother and Her horned consort, and that folk-tales represented memories of those ancient rites and ways. When Gardner developed Wicca, he sincerely understood himself to be redeveloping and restoring it. Those elements he knew not to be literally true he felt were spiritually, symbolically, or poetically true. I think he was right.
"It should be said that there is nothing inherently implausible in Gardner's claim to have been initiated into an existing religion," Hutton admits. But how much of himself Gardner put into the history of the New Forest coven is, I think, not the most significant aspect of the new truth Hutton tells us. In fact, my estimation of Gardner is rising as I see the magnitude of his accomplishment in Hutton's brighter light.
Once, the lack of evidence for ancestral Wicca's survival seemed reasonable: what evidence would a secret cult leave? But as Hutton says,
[S]tudies of heterodoxy in the period [1400-1800] have revealed that it is possible to track even tiny and secretive sects through the centuries, both through their own private papers and literature and the observations of outsiders, whether neighbors or local or central authorities. This is true even of the sixteenth century, let alone the seventeenth, when the breakdown of central controls during the Civil War allowed sectarian groups to flourish...
Gardner didn't have to address this new scholarship; but we do [see my comments about the maranos in Chapter 5].
By the early 1900s, Hutton's research suggests, British culture had been articulating a need for Pagan energy for about 100 years. Romantic poets from the mid-1800s on had been rhapsodizing about the English countryside as a last bastion of peace and quiet, and natural pleasures and transactions — a haven against the clogged and polluted urban centers which demoralized humanity. The "Merry England" movement was in full swing (and hasn't slacked off much since), and Christianity, along with attendant hierarchies and parallel authorities, was under attack from the arts and sciences.
In the process of laying all this out for us, Hutton does show that most of Wicca's history is, in fact, a myth. But story breaking isn't his intent, and Wiccan readers need to stop the habit of responding defensively to new information. Never mind that there's still a scholarly debate over the origin and meaning of several of "our words," including "witch;" as Dr. M. Scott Peck reminds us in The Different Drum, everything is overdetermined (has more than one cause or origin). One of the roots of witch means "bend or shape," and I see no reason to give that up when it's worked so well so far. Thus, I propose to do a little bending and shaping here — not of the facts as we now must admit them, but of our approach and interpretation of them. Here's the story I "hear" in Hutton's work:
In the time before time, the Great Mother and Her horned Consort were worshiped universally, in various rites around the world. When Christianity emerged, there was a short period of "peaceful" coexistence, then a period of struggle, and — here's the part I'm getting from Hutton — then Paganism was pretty effectively wiped out. We can guess there must've been something going on as late as the 12th-13th centuries, when laws against specific Pagan practices were still being written, but there's no evidence for survival after that.
Hutton's previous works, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isle, Stations of the Sun, and The Rise and Fall of Merry
England all showed that modern Paganism hasn't much in common with the ancient style, and we may tend to bristle about that, but we don't need to. Any organized Paganism, with its personal responsibility (authority as well as accountability), and parity for women, was gone by the time the Inquisition was declared. About 40-50,000 people were executed for "witchcraft," one of many heresies the Church opposed, and none of them were "us."
I think what happened is that Christianity did take over, had hundreds of years to make its best case, and was eventually found lacking in several respects. There were some consequences of the Inquisition years to deal with. There was a huge redistribution of wealth following the plagues' decimations of the population. An economic middle class gradually developed, and so did the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. All these changes kept things stirred up for a few centuries. But once the dust settled, people began to realize that the extant theology left something to be desired. Specifically, it left a Goddess to be desired
This desire was ever more specifically and insistently articulated in the 150 or so years before Gardner's lifetime. Reading Hutton, it's clear that the arts and social sciences — proper voices to declare longings of the heart, don't you think? — had been preparing British culture for a restoration of a natural relationship to God(s). The Romantic poets' work was full of fair countrysides peopled by wise men and wise women who knew the ancient lore of healing, and villagers who kept the old ways still.
The Industrial Revolution's developing social and political institutions were as intrusive and overbearing as the Church, and drove more and more people to Pagan country idylls and havens, real or imagined. Freudian and Jungian psychology had an effect. The far-reaching effects of colonialism were factors. Leland's Aradia, which he and many others wholly believed was evidence for Murray's and Frazier's theories, had an effect. Pan and Diana were still there — one only had to seek them out or, maybe, draw them out from within.
Typically of his underlying attitude toward points of Wiccan theology, Hutton puts it this way as he closes his third chapter:
... I am not necessarily suggesting that the deities themselves are in fact imaginary. Much of the tone of the past two chapters may be taken to imply that they are nothing more than projections — even if passionate projections — of the human heart and mind. This may well be so. It may equally well be true, however, that human belief has actually given them life, or else that they have always existed and have been perceived anew because people now have need of them. These are questions which no historian — indeed no human — can resolve, and the functional nature of my idiom should not be allowed to obscure that fact.
What this book has shown me is that Gardner didn't "make it up" so much as he restored something he believed to have survived by the skin of its teeth. He might even have been an Avatar [a human who incarnates a deity]. Hutton might agree. "In religious terms, it might be said that he was contacted by a divine force which had been manifesting with increasing strength during the previous two hundred years, and that it worked through him to remarkable effect," he says in his chapter about Gardner.
The now-we-know-it's-a myth that Murray and Frazier boosted and several cultural pillars supported is still a precious story, and has a lot of life left in it. If the life it has comes from our belief, and us, we have both the right and the responsibility to understand that lineage as successful magic, or even a miracle, and not a calamity.
Remember the movie E.T. and the scene where the space-suited scientists took over the house? That sequence was shot from a really low angle so that the scientists would look as scary to the audience as they did to young Henry. "Our" story about the Medieval Witches (Charlie Murphy's "The Burning Times" is still a Wiccan anthem) turns out to be told from the same low angle, and it expresses the same sort of psycho-emotional truth as that scene in E.T. — It's not a lie, it's a perspective. We don't have to stop telling this story, we just have to start hearing it differently.
At the same time, we can be proud of a new story: we really are "the Witches, back from the dead," as one of the lines asserts in "We Are the Flow, We Are the Ebb," a popular Pagan chant. What Paganism there was, was literally killed, and was so sorely grieved and missed that it had to be brought back. Hutton catalogues a growing longing for Her through the 18th-19th centuries, and makes it as plain as your cat's nudges for attention. If no one else but Gardner could have revived it, then we should be even more impressed with the synchronicity [and his genius].
Wicca's still growing, and not just because everybody likes the pointy hats so well. Wicca is growing because the theology and cosmology makes sense to people. If there were no Wiccan-style witches before (about) 1950, well, it's their loss! Fascinating details, interesting new connections, appreciation of a well-written book, and the value of knowledge for its own sake aside, Hutton's book, like Bonewits', doesn't have to be devastating at all. It can, in fact, boost our energy considerably.
Both authors hope their work will inspire more research — and it should; there's no lack of threads to follow. Not having to maintain an allegiance to the literal truth of the medieval underground Witchcraft story frees us to uncover more of our real history, and to understand our mythic history in new ways.
And, listen to this! In another few hundred years, say by the next millennium, our Wicca will be ancient. That means that what we're doing today is establishing Wicca's ancient traditions. None of us, not once we've read Hutton, anyway, can think we are just "following" this religion. We are all reviving and creating this religion, still making its history. We are our own "ancestors in faith."
It's really even more exciting when you think of this line from the Charge of the Goddess: " ...for if that which you seek you do not find within yourself, you shall surely never find it without." Well, we've now found that it was within ourselves before we found it without (and that's true about the way many of us came to Wicca, too). We find it without because we create it from within. Could it be more fitting that this is how Wicca emerged?
Hutton considers Wicca's legitimacy as a full-fledged religion, too, and his discussion of Wicca in a beautifully named chapter, "Grandchildren of the Shadows," is a pleasure to read. It's good to see how close American and British Wicca really are, when the differences tend to get the emphasis; and we all need reminding now and again of the enormous progress we've made since 1950. He reviews the categories of religion presently recognized — cult, sect, new religious movement, native religion, nature religion, post-modern religion — and Wicca, he thinks, fits easily into none of these categories.
A new classification might be proposed here, of 'revived religion.' This is the only one ... which truly does justice to what is arguably the central and enduring characteristic of Pagan Witchcraft; that it is a modern development which deliberately draws upon ancient images and ideas for contemporary needs, as part of a wholesale rejection of the faiths which have been dominant since the ancient ways of worship were suppressed.
The true conceptual significance of Paganism, including Pagan Witchcraft [he concludes], is that it occupies the ground at which nature religion, post-modern religion, and revived religion intersect. None of these is a religious model which scholars trained in traditional history, theology, sociology, and anthropology find easy to understand; which is probably why, although Pagan Witchcraft has had a prominent public profile in Britain for half a century, it has been much less studied than other religious movements which have appeared or arrived more recently. Perhaps the present book will do something to alter that pattern."
Let's be true to our history, live our myth, and take a hand in the alterations. Read Hutton's book, and let it change the pattern of your thought about Wicca and its history. Let Triumph's microhistories intrigue and delight you; let Hutton's references fill your reading list for summers to come! Go beyond the standard hagiographies and get to know the founders of our faith as the very human men and women they were — and let yourself be awed as you try to imagine doing the work they did! We may deeply mourn the crossing of our underground ancestors to the realms of myth, yet through this loss we can still rely on Her promise of "peace, freedom, and reunion with those who have gone before." This contingency has been provided for: "...to be reborn, you must die, and to die you must be born, and without love you may not be born; and this is all the magic."
Hutton's not rewriting our theology, and our beliefs do not depend on the literal truth of our myths. Be at peace in the knowledge that though Pagan sites and rites may have been overcome, the Goddess did not die, nor did people's need for Goddess. On the contrary, people's love for Her was so great that it brought Her Witches (that's us!) back from the dead. Goddess is alive and magic is afoot — embrace this new freedom to explore other aspects of Wiccan myth and liturgy. (Our mythical ancestors are free now too, from our narrow imaginings, to join us in more thorough explorations of the inner realms.) And we can merrier meet our historical forebears again, with a renewed and extended appreciation of their achievements.
One of Starhawk's best-known contributions to Wiccan liturgy is the chant, "She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes." Bearing in mind the obvious implication of Starhawk's chant that if you're not changing, She's not touching you, read Hutton's book and adjust yourself to the new reality. Read what the Goddess has written in your aura and on your soul, and be reconciled with the Moon.
"Reconciling with the Moon" was first published in Circle Magazine, Summer 2001, © 2001 by Ashleen O'Gaea.
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