Intrigued by Ronald Hutton's assertion that "Wicca" (meaning the wiseones) is the first all British religion given to the world, I approached his book The Triumph of the Moon as my first serious study of Wicca and Witchcraft with an objective attitude and without any preconceived perspectives on the matter. As anyone who has read any Hutton will already know, his books are academic, copiously referenced and invariably not a light read.
Art by Alexis Mackenzie
On Witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism In Britain;
Restricting his research to Great Britain, the book opens with an exploration of prevailing attitudes towards Paganism in the late 19th - early 20thC, asserting that Wiccan belief and practice owe much to the scholars, novelists and poets who resurrected Pan and the Goddess in the Victorian and Edwardian culture, and identifying the four key perspectives of the period;
First, a belief that all Pagans, both of European prehistory and of contemporary tribal peoples represented a religious expression of humanity's ignorance and savagery.
Second, that derived from the religion and culture of Ancient Greece and Rome, the Pagans were noble and admirable people but essentially remained inferior to Christianity in their ethics and spiritual values.
Third, that some writers considered Paganism superior to Christianity, being a life affirming and joyous alternative approach to religion which respects all of nature and seeks to integrate our lives with it.
Fourth, that a number of thinkers, writers and poets with connections to the Romantic movement such as Shelley, Leigh Hunt and Thomas Love Peacock, considered Paganism a remnant of a great universal religion of the distant past, elements of which were to be found in all the major religions practice by civilized humanity, from which contemporary NeoPaganism is descended.
Hutton then explored in greater depth the various strands of Romantic literary Paganism, the Frazerian Anthropology, Folklorism, Freemasonry, Theosophy, the revival of Ritual Magic and of Ceremonial magic, Thelema, and Woodcraft Chivalry, among others.
I found his research into the varieties of 'Cunning Folk' and other groups including 'The Toadmen' (still around in 1938) and a Masonic styled secret society called 'The Society Of The Horseman's Word' in the 19th century to be particularly enjoyable and informative reading.
To introduce them briefly, the 'Cunning Folk' were professional or semi-professional practitioners of magic active from at least the fifteenth up until the early twentieth century who practiced folk magic - also known as "low magic" - although often combined this with elements of "high" or ceremonial magic. In earlier times, the witch's power to harm people, livestock, and crops was greatly feared: for this reason country people consulted with the 'Cunning Men' and 'Wise Women' who had the power to negate their spells with counter-magic. Cunning-folk practitioners were also consulted for love spells, to find lost property or missing persons, exorcise ghosts and banish evil spirits.
Ronald Hutton suggests that the 'Cunning Craft', rather than dying out, had changed character by being subsequently absorbed into other magical currents.
The decline of the cunning craft in Britain was not however indicative of other European nations: in Italy for example, cunning practitioners continued operating right into the early twenty-first century.
Nevertheless, the author portrays that through the increasing interest in ancient Paganism and survival of traditional magical practices like charms during the 19thC, there came about in the 20thC what amounts to a new religion.
Laurie Lipton. The Black Sun
Witchcraft and Paganism in Britain;
The second half of this book traces in greater depth the modern history of that new religion, of Paganism and Wicca, with particular focus on Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions of Wicca and examines the personalities involved in launching modern pagan witchcraft, including Gerald Gardner, Sanders, Valiente, the Crowthers, Pickingill and others.
Hutton says that Wicca was introduced by Gerald Gardener in the mid to late 1950's shortly after Britain repealed their anti-witchcraft laws. Gardener had claimed that he became acquainted with a group of Rosicrucian actors who introduced him to an ancient surviving craft and that Dorothy Clutterbuck, their priestess, initiated him into their coven.
However, Hutton also argues that Wicca's origins go well beyond Gardener claiming that Gardener was influenced not only by Ancient Hinduism following his period of civil service in India, but also a diverse collection of sources including 17th and 18th century fraternal organizations, 19th century esoteric societies including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis and Freemasonry from whom he borrowed Wicca's ritual structure, initiations, handshakes and passwords. The author makes clear that Gardener also derived inspiration and some practices from the Occultist Aleister Crowley and Romantic literary authors including Yeats, Frazer and Graves as well as the Back-To-Nature movement.
Despite Gardener's claimed introduction to an older craft group - which Hutton points out is contested, and because of Gardener's own subsequent gathering of sources and resources such as The Book Of Shadows, his forming of Covens and publicizing of his new organization, Gardener is nevertheless portrayed as the founding father of modern Wicca.
Whilst this early NeoPaganism may appear a socially or politically subversive movement, particularly because of its secrecy and the reversal of cultural norms such as that some aspects of ritual were to be carried out naked, the point is made that at this stage the movement was not of a socially minded reactionary nature at all. Several of its founding figures were deeply conservative (and politically Conservative), and their quarrel was not with social and economic status quo, but rather against the unnaturalness and destruction of traditional patterns of life and societies deep involvement with nature that characterized the rising industrial modernity.
On the one hand then Hutton appears to make the argument that early modern Pagan Witchcraft did not stem from any unbroken lines of succession and does not represent a survival of ancient forms of indigenous religious practice, but equivocally he also states that various forms of earlier practice such as the Cunning Craft, Wise Women and others had been subsumed and evolved into the new forms of neo Paganism and Wicca...
Of the Modern World View
& American Feminist Remodeling of Paganism and Wicca;
Moving on to consider the more recent developments in Wicca and Paganism, Hutton presents the modern world phenomenon of Witchcraft and of Paganism as having developed in Great Britain and been exported to USA where they were taken up by feminist pagans who massively popularized the concepts as well as imbued them with a more socialistic communal minded orientation. After this socialization the author says a "new and improved" Wicca made the jump back across the pond to England in the early 1980's, that Paganism and Wicca have returned with greater prominence and popularity to Great Britain in large part via the books of such authors as Starhawk, Z. Budapest and others who have provided a number of self initiation and guide books for the growing number of solitary practitioners or hedge witches. Hutton portrays then the development of an essentially a politically conservative religious movement evolving into a liberal/progressive movement prioritization feminist issues, promoting a progressive social policy, and advocating self-help/group therapies. The author rounds out his voluminous research with an interesting personal account of what in his view the principle precepts of modern Paganism and Wicca entail.
Of the Authors Conjectural Conclusions
And Their Ultimate Uncertainty;
Despite the apparent academic objectivity of Ronald Hutton's research which I have thoroughly enjoyed in a number of his studies, I found in this work an ambivalence and lack of clear resolution on a number of occasions. Mr Hutton seems to present an evidence based case as far as it would go and then implies the ensuing conjecture without the definitive evidence for the the implied conclusions, a practice which he points out in others as imaginative if academically erroneous. I find myself further intrigued by such deft footwork from an academic author and because of these misgivings I have looked about for other reviewers opinions. Of the many such reviews that I found among those who were not too overwhelmed, like myself, by all the cross references and closely written and basically bewildering panoramic scope of fine details, some appear to see the wood through the trees, claiming that the authors main pitch in this work, that Wicca and NeoPaganism do not carry any unbroken lineage to antiquity, are partisan perspectives that the author has impelled his evidence to support. These views of Ronald Hutton as expressed in The Triumph Of The Moon have then provoked a certain amount of debate from both sides of the camp so to speak. In response to such perspectives, Hutton frequently hints that there is more to this story, but states that without definitive evidence we cannot be sure and then proceeds present to his own conjectured conclusion almost as a definitive orthodoxy.
Of The Debate over Authorial Objectivity in
The Triumph Of The Moon;
For a balanced review of The Triumph Of The Moon, I have include a few quotes here from a well argued case against Ronald Hutton's conjecture that there is no ancient lineage of Witchcraft or Paganism in Britain, from the author of the website 'e g r e g o r e s' under the title of
The Recantations of Ronald Hutton;
''In Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton triumphantly claimed that the whole notion of the Old Religion had been "swept away" by a "tidal wave" of research...Hutton had spent a decade studying the question of the relationship between modern Paganism and ancient forms of religion...Hutton had reached the conclusion that no such relationship existed whatsoever, and that no one could be taken seriously who believed otherwise, explicitly including anyone who so much as "suggest[ed] that there might be some truth" in the notion of the Old Religion.
The only problem was that the whole time Hutton had, now by his own admission, been systematically ignoring "certain types of ancient religion" which just so happened to be precisely the ones which most "closely resembled [modern] Paganism, had certainly influenced it, and had certain linear connections with it"! And why did he ignore the one place he should have been looking all along? Because it was "in every sense marginal to my own preoccupations."
Hutton was by his own admission preoccupied then with his own proposition that "the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name."
As I have previously held no particular view over the ancient lineage claims for Witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism in Great Britain, and their authenticity or lack thereof, and because I have followed a largely intuitive path similar perhaps to that of a Hedge-Druid in my relative independence of groups and traditions as regards my own awareness of Pagan and nature reverencing issues and of what I shall term Supernature and its apprehension in daily life, I have found this volume to be informative, enjoyable and unexpectedly provocative. That there ensues some degree of partisan prejudice was almost to be expected, as the wider public may still hold various oppositional perspectives based on an until recently dominant Christian cultural ideology and its ensuing misinformation against Paganism and Witchcraft in particular. That such views should apparently inform an objective academic in his choice of how to handle his subject matter is not a question that I am well enough equipped to consider. I would surmise however by saying that I have learned a lot by reading this work, both within the tome itself and further by becoming aware of sensible and informed dissent without.
For all of these reasons I recommend this study to any who would consider the origins and developments of Witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism in modern Britain today, with the caveat that there may indeed be more to this story than meets the eye or is presented here.
So Mote It Be ~