Sunday, 1 July 2012

The origins of neopaganism and Prof. Ronald Hutton

Neopaganism is a modern movement that is inspired by and/or seeks to reconstruct the ancient pagan religions of Europe and other parts of the world. 

Many modern pagans are reconstructionists - people who are consciously engaged in reviving pagan traditions (from ancient Greece and Rome, the Germanic countries, the Celtic countries or elsewhere) without making any claim that their religion is a direct lineal survival from past times.  Many others don't much care about the historical origins of their faith, viewing the origin-stories of Wicca and other traditions as myths and metaphors rather than literal truth.

Some neopagans, however, claim that their religion is a direct, lineal survival of ancient paganism.  This applies particularly to some followers of the tradition of pagan witchcraft known as Wicca.  Wicca was popularised by the retired British colonial official Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), who claimed explicitly that the religion was a survival of an ancient fertility cult which had persisted since palaeolithic times.  This claim drew on the theory that the "witches" who had been executed in the early modern witch hunts had been not unfortunate social misfits but followers of a pre-Christian pagan religion.  This idea had been around since the 1820s, but it was popularised by the British Egyptologist Margaret Murray (1863-1963), who knew Gardner personally and wrote the foreword to one of his books.  It intersected with the theories of the Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994) that the peoples of prehistoric Europe had lived in a female-centred, goddess-worshipping culture.

How much of this is actually true?  In particular, how much of modern Wicca is a genuine survival of ancient paganism?  It now seems clear that the "strong" version of the survivalist hypothesis is untenable.  The evidence shows that Wicca was created by Gerald Gardner and a small number of other middle-class occultists between the 1920s and the 1950s.  The "witches" of the witch trials were not followers of a primaeval pagan religion.  Paganism as such disappeared from Europe with the spread of Christianity, and did not reappear until the pagan revival got under way in the 19th century:
[P]aganism as a formal system of religion vanishes from Mediterranean Europe after the 6th century CE, from the western and northern parts of the continent after the 11th century, and from the north-eastern portions after the 14th century.  Among the Saami nomads of north-eastern Scandinavia it may have lingered into the 17th century.
On the other hand, some "weak" form of the survivalist hypothesis might be accepted.  Premodern European culture was undeniably indebted to the pagan past:
The pagan and Christian elements in medieval culture, as indeed in all European culture between 400 and 1900, are so closely woven together, in every aspect of life, that it seems pointless to try to separate them out. Indeed, the most narrow-minded and intolerant of medieval and early modern Christians tended usually to be far more worried by what they thought to be the wrong sort of Christianity, or by Judaism or Islam, than by pagan elements in their world.
Moreover, European countries had a thriving tradition of folk magic and "cunning craft", some of which can be seen as having pagan roots.  There is no obstacle to accepting this, as long as one does not go the whole hog and claim that folk magic in Christian times had a pagan religious identity (it didn't), that folk magicians were persecuted as witches (the vast majority weren't) or that folk magic was the organic ancestor of Wicca (it wasn't, save to a very limited extent).

The quotations above are taken from the work of Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University, the leading academic authority on the neopagan revival and the history of Wicca.  Hutton has an impressive and growing publication record, but his principal work on these subjects is still his 1999 book The Triumph of the Moon, which has been both a scholarly and a commercial success (see here for my review of it).

Hutton's work on paganism began with The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1991).  In that work, he emphasised the differences between ancient and modern paganism, castigating Wiccans for "pa[ying] no attention to the most important recent work upon either ancient paganism or the Great Witch Hunt".  He was prepared to accept, however, that Wicca had a genuinely ancient pedigree insofar as it was influenced by the √©lite tradition of European esoteric philosophy and ritual magic, which went back to ancient Greek culture.  In a 1996 essay in a collection entitled Paganism Today, Hutton went further and identified four specific means by which ancient paganism had survived into European Christian culture: the esoteric ritual magic tradition; popular folk customs; the "cunning craft" of folk magicians; and the classical tradition of art and literature.

By the time that Triumph came out in 1999, then, Hutton had essentially identified himself as rejecting the strong, Murrayan survivalist hypothesis and accepting a weaker version of the thesis.  This was an utterly mainstream view at the time.  Professional historians had never believed that Gerald Gardner had discovered a genuine pre-Christian religion, and Margaret Murray's theories had been discredited in academic circles since the 1970s.  As early as 1970, the occultist Francis X. King could write in Ritual Magic in England:
Those non-members... who have examined the phenomenon of twentieth-century witchcraft are generally of the opinion that the whole movement is no more than twenty years old, the creation of a retired Malayan customs official named Gerald Brousseau Gardner.
This became the standard line in the academy - though this is not to say that scholars uniformly took an absolute minimalist approach to the question of pagan survivals (as we have seen, Hutton certainly didn't).  Most notably, the eminent Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg continued to argue that beliefs dating from pagan times had survived in some form into the Christian era.  Ginzburg's own best-known work was on the Benandanti of the Friuli district in early modern Italy.  These were basically folk magicians whom Ginzburg depicted as the repositories of an ancient tradition of shamanic practice.  It may be noted, however, that the Benandanti saw themselves as good Catholics and as the enemies of witches (unfortunately for them, the Catholic Church disagreed).  It would be misleading to characterise Ginzburg as a supporter of the stronger forms of the survivalist thesis, since he has made it clear that he does not accept Margaret Murray's ideas and he does not claim that a pagan religion survived into modern times.

Hutton's purpose in Triumph was to build on the rubble of the collapse of Murray's theory, and to show that Wicca and neopaganism generally were not aberrant constructs put together by a few dubious eccentrics, but rather were the outcome of important cultural developments in mainstream 19th and 20th century British society.  Indeed, unusually for an academic writer, he implied that he believed in the reality of the deities worshipped by neopagans.  He wrote his book in collaboration with the British pagan community, who were well aware of what he was doing and seem to have largely supported him.  He remembers that Triumph was accordingly well received by many neopagans when it came out:
A prominent Wiccan, subsequently president of the national Pagan Federation, wrote in that organization’s magazine to rebut a writer who saw the book as destructive of Wicca (and celebrated the fact), by calling it a powerful affirmation of the intrinsic value of his religion. Reviews in Pagan journals across the world were, indeed, favourable, and I got a large friendly postbag from leading Pagans and ritual magicians, and from some who told me that I had restored their confidence as Wiccans, after the collapse of faith in their foundation story, and especially after Aidan Kelly’s earlier attack on the reputation of Gerald Gardner. I also received letters which alerted me to the fact that in other countries, especially the United States, my book was read by Pagan witches who had not known of any problems with their foundation story, and took my book as an attack on it; but most of the hate-mail was from Christian fundamentalists who now regarded me as an ally of the Devil.
The reference to Aidan Kelly is a reference to the latter's book Crafting the Art of Magic (1991), which, as Hutton indicates, was more straightforwardly critical of Gardner.  Kelly ascribed - not without plausibility, it has to be said - central features of Wiccan ritual to Gardner's personal sexual predilections.

The first notable public critique of Hutton was published by an American Wiccan, Don Frew, in 1998 (it has since been periodically updated).  Frew links Hutton with a wider "bias against those authors who support some kind of historical antiquity to the Witchcraft movement".  He cites Carlo Ginzburg, and points to the ancient Hellenic school of Neoplatonism as prefiguring Wicca (Neoplatonism was bound up with the Western tradition of esotericism and ritual magic, so in fact this was consistent with Hutton's approach).  Frew does not seek to defend Murrayan ideas in toto, and he is careful to note that he is "not saying that the hypothesis that Witchcraft was a survival of paganism is proven".

Hutton responded to Frew in an article in Folklore published in 2000.  He regarded Frew's ancient parallels to Wicca as unimpressive:
Mr Frew finds his counter-examples exclusively in the mystery cults and Neo-Platonic writings of the Roman Empire, representing tiny and exclusive groups very different from the bulk of the population. Most of them, also, are drawn from the very end of pagan antiquity, often after the establishment of Christianity as the dominant religion. Most, too, derive not from Europe at all but from Hellenistic Africa and Asia.
He also noted that Frew's declining to defend the strong version of the Murray thesis was "dramatic".  The debate, in other words, was effectively being carried on between two weak survivalists rather than between a strong survivalist and a non-survivalist.  This was a measure of how much the terms of the argument had changed since the high noon of Gardner and Murray's theories in the 1950s and 60s.

In 2003, Hutton engaged in a written debate with an investigative journalist called Jani Farrell-Roberts.  The principal aim of Farrell-Roberts seems to have been to defend Margaret Murray, and specifically to attack the British historian Prof. Norman Cohn for allegedly misrepresenting Murray's thesis.  Hutton replied to Farrell-Roberts' two articles with convincing refutations in which he pointed out, relatively politely, that she didn't know what she was talking about, not least because the 21st century scholarly debate on witchcraft had moved some distance beyond stuff that Norman Cohn had written in the 1970s.  He readily acknowledged the existence of "a medieval Christian world-picture that had incorporated and transformed pre-Christian beliefs".  For her part, Farrell-Roberts made no attempt to mount a general defence of Murray.  She conceded that "the practice of the Wicca I know is very different from the medieval Craft [Murray] described", and that "Murray did make mistakes".  She elsewhere commented: "I am not arguing here that Murray’s description of a Medieval Craft was accurate".  Again, we have an argument between two weak survivalists rather than any more radical disagreement.

Things went quiet for a while.  Then, in 2010, a Wiccan priest from New Zealand called Ben Whitmore released a book entitled Trials of the Moon.  This work is more substantial than that of Frew and Farrell-Roberts (though it draws on both earlier critiques).  Whitmore is clearly a clever guy and has taken the trouble to read a good range of secondary sources on the history of paganism, but his critique is largely misplaced.  It has gained admiring reviews from some of Hutton's pagan critics, but it appears not to have been taken seriously in academic circles (see e.g. here, here, here and here).

For Whitmore, Hutton is not a distinguished scholar who is sympathetic to paganism and writes well-researched books within the ambit of mainstream scholarship.  Instead, he is "a maverick historian" who has a "provocative new take on the history of witchcraft and paganism" which is "far more conservative than most".  If Whitmore is to be believed, Hutton is unfamiliar with his material that he deals with and misrepresents his sources.  He suffers from an "over-reliance on popular literature", and would do well to develop a "more detailed engagement with historical anthropology and folklore".  His research is so shoddy that he has probably not bothered to read Carlo Ginzburg, or even Gerald Gardner (in real life, Hutton is a personal friend of Ginzburg).  These are serious allegations against any writer; for a professional historian, they are potentially career-ending.

In his attempt to defend the continuity thesis, Whitmore notes that there were folk magicians in premodern Europe, and that they were sometimes referred to as "witches".  But no-one has ever denied the existence of the phenomenon of folk magic, and Hutton points out that the use of the term "witch" to refer to its practitioners was a political move on the part of hostile Christian clerics.  Moreover, whatever the church authorities might have said, cunning men and wise women generally seem to have considered themselves good Christians rather than pagans of any sort - a point which Whitmore himself appears to concede.  Whitmore is also eager to claim the esoteric philosophers of the Renaissance - Marsilio Ficino et al. - for paganism.  Again, it is not in dispute that modern neopaganism is indebted to the esoteric tradition.  Yet the belief systems of Ficino and the rest, while undoubtedly exotic and influenced by ancient Greek models, were set within an explicitly Christian framework.  Whitmore makes too much of the case of George Gemistus Plethon, a genuine but very unusual example of a bona fide Renaissance neopagan.

Whitmore is no more convincing when he turns his attention to the ancient world.  He attempts to prove that Wiccan-type notions of a Great Goddess were current in classical antiquity (they were, but only among some people and only at a relatively late stage - which is basically what Hutton himself says in Triumph).  He also seeks to revive the old idea that dying-and-rising gods were common in the ancient Near East, even though modern scholarship generally regards the dying-and-rising god as a modern construct and/or as being reverse-engineered from the Christian story of the resurrection of Jesus.

As with Frew and Farrell-Roberts, the striking thing is how little distance there is between Hutton and his antagonist.  Whitmore accepts that "today’s witchcraft is largely a reinvention", that the "fantasies of Murray... are little more than straw dolls", that "Wicca as we know it is a recent creation", that "its ‘traditional’ history as stated by Gardner is a myth", and that his and Hutton's "views on the origins of Wicca probably have a lot in common".  In making these concessions, Whitmore has sold the pass, but he does not seem to be aware of this.  At one point, he asks, in reference to English folk customs: "Does the fact that the Padstow Obby Oss (for example) was amalgamated from other traditions in the late 1700s make it any less ‘pagan’?"  In principle, the answer to this question may well be "No", but it is clear that, on the specific issue of the organic continuity of Wicca with the pagan past, Whitmore has conceded that Hutton is basically right.

If Whitmore mostly concedes Hutton's case, what were his motivations in writing a 100-page book attacking him?  They seem to have been twofold.  It clearly irritates him that Hutton and his work have, as he puts it, "star-struck a generation of Pagans", to the extent of becoming "something of a cult".  He openly admits that he wanted to "turn Triumph back into just a book; a book with no greater claim to infallibility than any other".  As far as it goes, this is nothing more than tall poppy syndrome, and can safely be ignored.  Much more interestingly, however, Whitmore perceives that Hutton's work poses a threat to his religious beliefs.  He tells the story of two witches of his acquaintance who abandoned Wicca after reading Hutton, and he has said elsewhere that he wanted to "restore some dignity to the Craft" and win "freedom to pursue our beliefs without ridicule".  He revealingly chooses to end Trials of the Moon with an affirmation that "no historian can take away what I've learnt and experienced" as a Wiccan priest.

These sentiments will be instantly recognisable to anyone who is acquainted with the faith-based writing of conservative Christians who perceive that their beliefs are under attack from √©litist liberal scholars.  It is also noteworthy that Whitmore's commendable honesty about his own faith perspective does not stop him from accusing Hutton of being misled by a partisanship for Christianity.  In fact, Hutton was brought up as a pagan, attended his first Wiccan ritual nine years before Whitmore was born, and has never been a Christian of any sort.

The publication of Whitmore's little book was followed by a fresh round of internet attacks on Hutton and those who agree with him.  At worst, these attacks were savage and small-minded, and (as Hutton himself has commented) breathe a spirit of adolescent male aggression which seems oddly out of place in a goddess-worshipping religion with strong ties to feminism.

What is the motivation of the critics?  Reading their work, it seems naive to ascribe it to a disinterested concern for historical truth.  The natural suspicion is that their motivation is ideological - again, the comparison with conservative Christians who resist modern biblical scholarship comes to mind.  They appear to be emotionally invested in the idea that the validity of their religion is dependent on the historical particulars of its origins and development - that is, that a pedigree confers legitimacy - in spite of the fact that Hutton and many others have noted that the validity of a religion is to be measured on a spiritual level rather than by reference to the findings of academic historians.  Another suggestion that has been put forward is that such critics are motivated by anti-intellectualism, and indeed some writers do seem to be affronted by the feeling that they are being patronised by academic snobs.

As I have noted, most British neopagans have realised for years that the canonised narrative put forward by Gardner and others doesn't hold water.  Hutton has observed in an interview with Caroline Tully:
[T]he whole issue of a concern for authenticity of descent in present-day Paganisms, and a hostility to professional historians (or indeed to anybody) who appears to question or threaten it, is not a European phenomenon, let alone a British one. It is concentrated in the United States, and there mainly in the central and western parts of the country and only among certain groups and individuals. It has echoes in some areas of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It therefore is a problem which affects both sides of the Pacific, but has hardly appeared on both sides of the Atlantic. If it exists in Europe, then it is barely visible at present, and not at all in the main societies, journals and conventions that represent European Paganism.
Tully herself has observed in this connection:
Religions (indeed, cultures) in diaspora are often more conservative than the parent cultures.... Too, arguments of authenticity often intensify in diasporas, especially as communities expand and direct ties to the place of origin loosen, creating tensions around who belongs and who doesn’t. As a result, diasporic religions often develop new and creative elements, as well as an intensity of involvement that surpasses that in the parent community. These features can sometimes be puzzling to members of the parent community, for whom issues of membership and authenticity are generally much less salient.
In other words - while they might not appreciate the comparison - the anti-Huttonists are Bradford Muslims rather than Kashmiri Muslims, or Irish Catholics from Chicago rather than Killarney.

Tully has elsewhere suggested that pagan studies scholars might act as a bridge or intermediary between academics and pagan practitioners.  One can only hope that this suggestion turns out to be prescient.