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Witches, Druids and King Arthur.
Ronald Hutton.
Hambledon and London 2003. Hb £19.95.

What have witches to do with King Arthur? Very little. This book is a collection of essays, written between 1990 and 2001 (or 2002), with lengths varying between twenty and fifty-six pages.

The introduction discusses how the essays are related, not directly but by certain common themes arising within them. He indicates why he has chosen to use BCE and CE for dating, a clear account that should be read by anyone who questions this usage. He gives a similarly interesting account of why he refers to “ancient paganism” (lower-case p) but “modern Paganism” (upper-case P). I am not entirely convinced by this, as I am inclined to think that paganism refers to a cluster of related religions (just as monotheism does), but many people (including myself at times) choose to describe their own religion as Paganism. So I will endeavour to follow Hutton’s usage.

The essay on The Inklings and the Gods (I am not looking at the pieces in the order they appear in the book) in fact refers only to C. S. Lewis and Tolkien. He argues that, though they are both Christians, they “cannot be read and understood properly unless the importance of the pagan elements in their work is appreciated” (p. 216).

I found the discussion of Tolkien somewhat difficult. This is because Tolkien kept revising his cosmology, and it is often unclear what his creation myth and cosmology are. It is useful to be reminded that, although The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion were published in that order, they were written in the reverse order. While much of his writing has close connections with old northern literature, and his Valar “resemble pagan deities far more obviously than angels” (p. 229), he does not specifically speak approvingly of paganism.

The works of Lewis looked at are the Narnian novels, and the “cosmic trilogy” of novels — the explicitly Christian writings are not discussed. Many beings from Greek and Roman myth occur in the Narnian novels, among them fauns, centaurs, and dryads. Lewis was interested from his childhood in myths from several parts of Europe. His Christianity allowed some room for the paganism of the ancients. Hutton cites Lewis as saying that he “first approached Christianity from a delighted interest in, and a reverence for, the best pagan imagination, who loved Balder before Christ and Plato before St. Augustine” (p. 221). He also said that the difference between pagan and Christian stories “is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams and premonitions of the same event on the other” (p. 221). Hutton mentions how, in That Hideous Strength, “the hero and his assistants engage in a classic piece of medieval astral magic, to help draw down the other planetary deities to earth so that the latter can employ their full powers to defeat its evil divine overlord” (p. 220). These planetary powers can be seen in purely Christian terms as angels, with the overlord of the earth as Satan, but this does not fit very well. They could be seen as pagan gods, but I think Lewis would have regarded them as the planetary powers seen in Christian Hermeticism. This passage in That Hideous Strength is extremely moving, and should be read by any Pagan wanting to get a vision of the (Graeco-Roman) gods. Unfortunately, the book is also full of Lewis’s prejudices, some of which are extremely unpleasant; I have never quite decided whether it is worthwhile reading the full book (though I have done so several times) just to place the various wonderful passages in context.

Hutton takes A Modest Look at Ritual Nudity. This discusses the uses and origins of ritual nudity in Wicca. He argues against the widely-held view that its origin is no more than Gerald Gardner’s own naturism. He concludes that “In having this particular feature [ritual nudity], it does not seem to have been responding to the views of one man, or to certain functional benefits, or even to the impulse to challenge cultural norms in a modern or postmodern context. It is, rather, in a tradition of magical activity which not merely ancient but virtually worldwide” (p. 213). He argues against the standard methodologies of historians and anthropologists, which involve specialised looks at particular periods of time or societies. Instead, he uses a methodology (which I would refer to as Frazerian) that “priz[es] information from context in a wide variety of historical and ethnographic sources” and which is “regarded with disquiet in related scholarly disciplines and runs counter to prevailing techniques in them” (p. 213). He holds that “there are some historical and anthropological  problems … which are best approached by a broad and comparative method” (p.214).

The two longest essays are on The New Old Paganism and Paganism in the Missing Centuries. He states that these “represent a book in miniature, which may well later be filled out and published in its own right” (p. XVII). Both are especially fascinating, as they deal with material that is much less known than the content of the other essays. The first looks at forms of paganism “that appeared at the very end of the pagan ancient world, at and after the time at which Christianity became the official creed of the Roman Empire, and were arguably influenced by Christian Thought. They were also very much the preserve of a self-conscious intellectual elite, detached from the masses.” (pp 87–8). The first of these forms is pagan monotheism, focussing on the unity of divinity behind its plural manifestations, especially in the form of Neoplatonism. The second was a change in the attention given to “divinities, or aspects of divinity, which had hitherto been relatively neglected.” (p. 95). The third was “using religious procedures for magical purposes or vice versa” (p. 98), especially as shown in texts coming from Egypt but written in Greek. This is a long section, because Hutton looks carefully at how scholars have attempted to distinguish between religion and magic.

The next essay carries the story further, during the next thousand or so years, but concentrating on the world of the scholarly elites. In Harran in the Middle East, there was a religious sect that drew explicitly on Hermetic and Platonic traditions, although the city was in an Islamic area. Few general readers, even those interested in paganism, will know of this. Unfortunately, though Hutton looks at these people in considerable detail, the available documents are often obscure and there is much debate as to their significance. Better known and better understood, are the magical, Hermetic and Neoplatonic texts that were much looked at in the Italian Renaissance. Readers whose appetite is whetted by Hutton’s account can read further in several wonderful books by Frances Yates. Hutton argues that, though there was much use of ancient pagan symbolism among intellectuals, its purpose was not to revive paganism as against Christianity, but rather to produce a better sort of Christianity.

In both these essays, he sees that modern Paganism, though not a direct successor to ancient paganism, has been greatly influenced by texts using pagan imagery. This is a considerable change from his view in The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, where he said that “the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name.” This is largely because in the earlier book he was concerned to dispel the “belief that an active and organised paganism had survived in Europe throughout the Christian middle ages.” (p.138). Here he is more concerned with intellectual attempts to revivify Christianity by the use of ideas and images from pagan antiquity, attempts that could succeed for a short time and then fade away until a new attempt was made centuries later. His viewpoint is convincing, but I could not help wondering if, instead of talking in terms of (and rejecting) the concept of an active and organised paganism among the mass of people, one could consider the possibility of a relationship between paganism and Christianity among the general population, parallel to that existing among intellectuals.

In responding to this essay, I was reminded that the interested amateur, who knows a little about many topics, can see things that dedicated scholars, with a deep knowledge of one subject, cannot. A light-hearted example of this, which nevertheless shows how facts become fictionalised in a way relevant to Hutton’s first chapter, is the following.

He mentions (p. 161) “Michael Scot, a clerical diplomat to whom one pope offered an archbishopric, [and who] declared that wise and powerful spirits ruled the planets in obedience to the creator god, and would respond to human wishes if invoked by name.” Scot is still remembered in folktales as Michael Scot the wizard, who split the Eildon Hills in two and performed other great deeds. One year he was chosen to go to Rome to find out the date of Easter. He called up magical horses to carry him, rejecting one who was only as fast as the wind in favour of one who was as swift as the thought of a maiden between her two lovers. Is this a literary tale that has become popular? Or did his home neighbourhood have pride in his learning, and retain the memory of it in distorted form? I do not know. However, a Google search (from which I even learn that he is a major character both in some role playing games and in various fantasy novels for adults and children) reveals that both Dante and Boccacio refer to him as a wizard, so his popular reputation may well have developed from these sources.

A more important example of the same issue is in Hutton’s discussion (pp 166–7) of the twelfth-century theologian Bernard Silvester’s concept of Nature as an allegorical goddess. He cites a historian named Brian Stock who found the Roman, Muslim, and other influences behind this concept. But did either Hutton or Stock consult theologians or biblical scholars regarding this? I doubt it. Hutton states that Silvester and others saw Natura “as a divinity sprung from the One God and given the task of calling matter into being at the beginning of the universe”, “the agent and representative of the One God in earthly affairs and fashioner of human beings”, “at once subordinate to [God] and the immediate ruler of the cosmos, queen of the world.” He says that this “powerful symbolic entity” was “capable of investing the Christian with the concept of a divine feminine presence immediately responsible for the world and in charge of it”, but declares her to be “quite detached from biblical tradition.”

But this divine feminine presence is in fact part of biblical tradition (her biblical and other aspects are discussed in Asphodel Long’s In a Chariot Drawn by Lions — see http://www.asphodel-long.com ). She is none other than Hochma/Sophia/Wisdom. Of her it is said (Proverbs, chapter 8) “The Lord created me the beginning of his works, before all else that he made”, “When he set the heavens in their place I was there”, “My delight was in mankind”, “From me all rulers on earth derive their nobility.” And again, from the Book of Wisdom of Solomon (chapters 7,8), “She pervades and permeates all things”, “She is but one, yet can do everything”, “She spans the world in power from end to end, and orders all things benignly.” Silvester may not have drawn explicitly on the notion of Hochma, but surely she was implicit in his writing. If the parallel is just a coincidence, it is a remarkable one.

Two further chapters discuss Arthur and the Academics and Glastonbury: Alternative Histories. The first of these looks at the evidence for the existence of Arthur and changing attitudes to this. Much of the public understanding of and belief in Arthur depends on academic work from the 1930s to the 1970s, which itself is an interpretation of a very small amount of evidence. Nonetheless, Hutton cites a textbook published in 1973 as saying that “there was now general agreement” that Arthur was a “genuinely historical figure.” An article published in 1977 “pointed out, simply and crushingly, that there was virtually no firm evidence for any of the political personalities of Britain from c. 420 to c. 540, and certainly none whatsoever for Arthur …  There was therefore no proof that Arthur had ever been more than a mythical figure.” (p. 52). This view is now the prevailing orthodoxy among academics — Leslie Alcock’s review of the evidence from Cadbury in 1995 did not mention Arthur at all, while Michael Costen’s history of early medieval Somerset opened one chapter by saying “We can begin by dismissing King Arthur.” (p. 57). Hutton discusses Geoffrey Ashe’s work, including the 1957 King Arthur’s Avalon. He says that Ashe’s “technique was simple: to show that the old stories could not conclusively be disproved and to argue from this that there was every reason to believe in them, especially as they were magnificent in themselves and part of the heritage of the nation.” (p. 46). I suspect that Hutton himself has more sympathy with this view than with the prevailing academic orthodoxy. Certainly he concludes (p. 58) by saying that “Eric John was correct to feel uneasy about the current tendency among academics to write off Arthur altogether. It begs the enormous question of how a character who may never have existed came, within three hundred years of his presumed lifetime, to be the greatest hero of his people. The traditional sources for his career have not been exposed as forgeries or errors, but left without a context.”

On Glastonbury he again looks at the various ideas and pieces of evidence. Different views are possible. He says (p. 83) that it is still possible that “all the visions which have been offered of the pre-Saxon story of the place are indeed true: that it was a great pagan sanctuary, that a huge zodiac was laid out around it, that Joseph of Arimathea founded the first church there, that King Arthur was buried there, and so forth.” The other extreme view is that “there was no significant human activity whatsoever at Glastonbury before a watch-tower was built there in the course of a military emergency in the sub-Roman period, and no religious institution before a king of [Saxon] Wessex founded a monastery there.” He says that “a variety of cases can now be made, with no decisive arguments for any.” He does mention that there are visionary claims whose power as poetic vision is tremendous, but which lie beyond the spheres of history and topography. It is these visions, or rather experiences, which persuade me that the truth is likely to be in the direction of Glastonbury being an ancient pagan sanctuary. Certainly when I first visited it, to attend a ritual at noon on Beltane, I had no intention or expectation that I would feel compelled to rise before dawn in order to climb the Tor at dawn, and that I would also feel compelled to do so barefoot; and this is not the only similar experience I have had. 

The first essay is on How Myths Are Made. He has a valuable discussion of the ways in which imaginative literature cannot be relied on as a means of reconstructing the actual natures of past societies. Stories that appear to be firmly based in one society can often be shown to occur in such similar versions in other societies that they may well be imports with little light to shed on the society in which they are told. Some of the Irish stories were composed by highly literate authors, who could easily have taken ideas from Greek and Roman texts about Celts from a different area. As against this, I would say that we also need to think why such ideas remained in the stories — was it just that they helped make a good story or did they resonate with actual behaviours in those societies in which they were told. I will look further at this later. He also points out that oral tradition can be highly unreliable, that stories, traditions and even genealogies get altered in response to altered circumstances and political and social needs. He mentions that certain well-known stories about people (Alfred and the cakes, Drake playing bowls, Raleigh’s cloak) were spread long after the time concerned and represent, rather, “the essence of what the teller believed should be known about the figure concerned.” (p. 15). I note that the story of Canute and the tide is omitted from this list. Did Hutton just feel he had enough examples, or does this indicate that this particular story is either true or was told in or near Canute’s lifetime?

It is, however, with this essay that I have most difficulty. In other chapters, such as the ones on Arthur or Glastonbury, he reviews a great deal of evidence, expresses his own viewpoint, but indicates that other views are also possible or even likely. At several points in this essay he makes definite statements with no supporting evidence given. Readers are likely to be persuaded by his tone elsewhere that his statements are the correct interpretation. But in some cases I have found his remarks to be questionable or even wrong. This makes me question whether some of his other interpretations that appear plausible are also inaccurate. Further, there seem to be many people (I have mostly found them in Internet newsgroups) who regard Ronald Hutton as infallible. Hutton himself seems to be aware of this problem. He refers (pp 35–36), and I suspect he is referring to how some people see him, to “a context in which leaders in scholarly disciplines are regarded as charismatic semi-sacred figures who provide others with a better and more truthful way of perceiving the world, … [T]hat is not a healthy way in which to treat scholarship.”

Now to look at the points where I find Hutton’s account questionable. The first is just a piece of clumsy writing, unusual for him. In the paragraph on pp 8–9, he first refers to Hugh O’Neill in the context of the Irish rebellion of the 1640s. He later says that O’Neill’s ambition for most of his life was to rule on behalf of Queen Elizabeth. A reader unfamiliar with English history would inevitably conclude that Queen Elizabeth was alive in (or shortly before) 1640. Hutton probably missed this inference because he could not believe anyone would be so ignorant of English history, whereas I would expect that many people, in Great Britain as well as in America and other countries, will fall into this trap.

He states, correctly, that words he quotes that were allegedly spoken by the Native American Chief Seattle in the 19th century were in fact written in the 1970s by the scriptwriter Ted Perry. However, the full facts are more interesting. The widely circulated text from which the words were quoted was written by Perry. But he did so on the basis of a genuine speech by Chief Seattle, with about a 10% overlap between the genuine and the fake speeches. There are, though, some issues with the ‘genuine’ speech. It was allegedly made in 1854, but its first published version was in 1887. The lines “Dead — did I say? There is no death. Only a change of worlds!”, though consistent with much Native American thinking, do not appear in Smith’s version, but were added by someone else. This indicates that one reason why the fake speech was so widely accepted as genuine is that it was known that there was a genuine speech. For instance, the Native American writer Vine deLoria quoted some lines from the genuine speech in his influential book God is Red. Details of the true story, and various forms of the speeches, can easily be found on the Internet, by typing “Chief Seattle” into a Google search.

He gives an account of the origin and history of the notorious claim that nine million witches were killed. This first surfaced in 1793, when a historian looked at the killing in one area during one period and extrapolated it to the whole of Europe and the whole period of the witch-hunt, and was taken up by others in the late nineteenth century (Hutton gives references, which were not available at the time of his previous books). This figure reached an English-speaking audience in 1893, when Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote Woman, Church and State in which she quoted this figure. I see that Hutton now accepts that this is how Gage obtained this number. In The Triumph of the Moon he claims (p.141) that “it was apparently undertaken on no rational basis whatsoever.” This slur was completely unjustified, even at the time when he wrote, as Gage clearly stated that she was relying on the estimates of historians (although she did not name them). Hutton would be in a poor way if relying on statements by historians could be regarded as having no rational basis whatsoever!

Hutton goes on to say (p. 31) that the figure “was taken up and repeated in the 1950s by the books of Gerald Gardner … His texts were read by American feminists towards the end of the 1960s.” I had thought, possibly wrongly, that the figure was used by Cecil Williamson in his Museum of Witchcraft, and that Gardner got it from him. The connection between Williamson and Gardner was close enough that either could have transmitted it to the other. In any case, where did Williamson (or Gardner) get this figure from? From Gage? From Gage’s sources? From someone who had read Gage, maybe in the 1920s or 1930s? Or was it, as I am inclined to think, created out of nothing by Williamson to indicate that the killings of witches were worse than the attempted genocide of the Jews. I don’t know, and, as far as I am aware, this has not been settled. Certainly Hutton says nothing about this, which I would expect him to do if the details are known.

As to his claim about American feminists, I would ask him which feminists he is referring to? And how many of them, were they representative of those feminists interested in the issue? His reference to this is to a chapter in his own book The Triumph of the Moon. In that book he only mentions one group of feminists who wrote about the matter before Gage’s work was brought back to popular attention by Mary Daly’s rediscovery of her. This group was WITCH — Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. He refers to two books mentioning this group. One (the author’s name is misprinted in Triumph — it is Echols, not Nichols) makes no mention of the group’s attitude to witchcraft. The other does do so, citing original documents reprinted in Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful; it is on these documents that I am relying for my next comments. WITCH was founded in New York in 1968, and groups quickly developed in other cities. In the main, despite the groups being known as covens, they were primarily involved in guerrilla theatre. The founding statement made a side reference to the nine million figure. The Chicago coven wrote a document detailing the history of witches and witchcraft, in which they said that “Several authorities have estimated that from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, nine million witches were executed.” This figure could have come from Gardner, but they could also have discovered Gage before Mary Daly’s account brought her back to feminist readers. The Chicago coven’s document does not mention Gardner, but arguably its tone may suggest that it is derived from his writing. Robin Morgan, who was one of the founders of WITCH, also refers to witchcraft, but does not mention Gardner, in her personal chronicle Going Too Far. However, on page 305 of that book she says that she is an initiated Wiccean priestess [note the spelling], while a 1973 speech given on pages 173–188 concludes with extracts from the Charge of the Goddess.

In general, I would suggest that the nine million figure gained its power because it came from two distinct sources. One was Williamson and Gardner’s figure, passed on by modern witches, the other Gage’s figure, passed on by feminists.

On the issue of Welsh national dress and musical instruments, Hutton says (p. 7) that Augusta Hall proposed in 1834 that a national costume be developed for Wales, that she and her friends appeared at eisteddfods in such an outfit, and “by mid century its red cloak, gown and petticoat, and tall black hat (none of these things particularly Welsh) had indeed been generally accepted as the national dress. … At the same time Augusta was providing her adopted country with a musical symbol, the triple harp. This was actually an Italian invention which had become popular in England in the seventeenth century and reached most of Wales in the course of the eighteenth. By the early nineteenth century it was commonly accepted there as both native and ancient. Augusta’s enthusiasm for it, coupled with her ample funds, helped to establish it as the national instrument par excellence.”

Any discussion of musical history is incomplete without a reference, critical if necessary, to The New Grove Dictionary of Music. In its sections on ‘Harp’ and ‘Wales’, the Dictionary says (I am quoting from the second edition published in 2001 — the first edition uses different words and emphasis to essentially the same effect) “It was the triple harp, however, that seems to have been so quickly adopted by the Welsh harpers living in London during the 17th century — so much so that by the beginning of the 18th century the triple harp was already generally known as the Welsh harp” and also refers to Augusta Hall’s sponsorship and support of harpers and harpmakers. Hutton’s account and this are broadly in tune with each other, though the Dictionary indicates that the harp came to Wales rather earlier than Hutton suggests. Readers will note, though, that there were several Welsh harpers known in England before this type of harp arrived. More importantly, the Dictionary also says that Welsh laws, formulated in the 10th century according to tradition and certainly written down by the 12th and 13th centuries, mention the harp. In particular, it says that “The high status of the harp was indicated by the fact that the king presented the chief bard with a harp on his appointment,” and it also notes that Giraldus Cambrensis confirms the predominance of the harp, while the first edition refers to harps being mentioned in old Welsh poetry with details of their dimensions. Hutton seems to be claiming that the reputation of the triple harp as native (to Wales) and ancient is purely mythical. I would argue that it gained this reputation precisely because it replaced an earlier form of harp which was native (in the sense of being widely used in Wales, not of being unique to Wales) and ancient. Indeed, this is made clear in the essay by Prys Morgan that is Hutton’s major source for his account of Wales; for instance, Morgan mentions that a sixteenth-century writer referred to Llanwrst as a centre of harp manufacture. I recommend this essay to anyone interested in learning more about Hutton’s points; it supports Hutton’s case in part, extends it in some places, but is in general much more nuanced.

A similar point occurs when comparing Hutton’s account of Augusta Hall’s creation of a Welsh national dress with Morgan’s. Morgan points out that women “often wore large blue or red tweed cloaks and mannish black hats.” He says that “It was an entirely unselfconscious survival. It was not in any sense a national costume, but it was turned deliberately into a national costume” (p.80 of Morgan’s essay) by Augusta Hall and others. Hutton’s failure to look at these matters produces a misleading impression. 

He discusses the Palaeolithic cave image known as the ‘Sorcerer”, made famous in the drawing by Breuil, and mounts a sustained attack on the accuracy of the drawing.

His account is almost entirely based on one important analysis in 1967. This was apparently based on photographs in which many of the details in the drawing were not visible, and the authors suggested that Breuil might have based his drawing on faint scratches in the rock. Hutton says that new and better photographs reinforce these doubts, but only gives a reference to one photograph. This occurs in the book The Shamans of Prehistory by Clottes and Lewis-Williams. In that book, Breuil’s drawing is placed next to the photograph (and it also occurs later in the book), and no comment is made about any discrepancies. This suggests that one of the authors, who is probably the person currently best qualified to judge, considers that the drawing is generally accurate. Another expert, Paul Bahn, in his book Journey through the Ice Age (an earlier version was published under the title Images of the Ice Age) also places Breuil’s drawing next to the photograph without comment.

Hutton says that “the figure drawn by Breuil is not the same as the one actually painted on the cave wall.” (p. 34). This is undoubtedly true. But what he does not realise is that it is not uncommon for engraving and painting to be used in one piece of work, that the Sorcerer is an example of such work, and that Breuil’s drawing includes both the painted portion and the engraved portion. A friend (Linda Wilson) who has seen the Sorcerer more than once says: “The head is definitely engraved and is visible in reasonable detail from the floor of the chamber below, as are engraved lines in the body of the figure. To discern the horns from that distance is not possible but there is no reason to believe that they do not exist based simply on the difficulty of identifying them in a photograph. Much Palaeolithic Art is engraved rather than painted and to photograph fine engravings is at times almost impossible.” There are designs which are generally accepted and which I have been unable to see even when a guide with a light pointer has traced them. Whether an engraving shows up on a photograph, or even to the eye, will often depend on the exact position of the light source. Engravings may well not be visible until one is extremely close to the rock face, which may not be permitted even to eminent scholars.

There are criticisms that can be made of Breuil’s work. Modern techniques permit far more accurate images than was possible for him. And he had a personal style, so that his images, which in many cases are far more familiar than the originals (even to experts), are perhaps better regarded as artist’s copies rather than scientific facsimiles (see Bahn, pp 48–51). Hutton regards Breuil’s image of the Sorcerer as what he calls a Bold Fact, a confident and striking piece of information produced by a scholar which is accepted uncritically long after its appearance. It seems to me that it is not Breuil’s drawing that is a Bold Fact, but Hutton’s account of it.

In his next to last chapter, he looks at The New Druidry. He discusses many of the current groups, including the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids, the British Druid Order, the Loyal Arthurian Warband, the Secular Order of Druids, and others. He looks at their history and beliefs. indicating that much of the essay has been based on first-hand observation. This essay is written with a great deal of warmth and affection. I was glad to see the mention of Colin Murray and his Golden Section Order. The Order ceased to exist after Colin’s death in 1986, but while it existed it kept the flame of druidry alive during the time that the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids was in abeyance. I have fond memories of Colin and the Golden Section Order, since it was with Colin that I first experienced pagan rituals, most notably at the Glastonbury twin oaks each Beltane and the Rollright Stones each Samhain, and my ritual practice is still greatly influenced by what I learned from him.

The final chapter is on Living with Witchcraft. Towards the end of the preface to The Triumph of the Moon he raises the issues of reactivity and reflexivity. “Reactivity is the effect produced on a social group by the scholar who is studying it. Reflexivity is the readiness of scholars to be openly aware of the prejudices, preconceptions, instincts, emotions, and personal traits which they bring to their studies, and the way in which these can influence the latter. It can also include the impact of the process of study itself upon the personality and attitudes of the scholar.” (p. 259; also Triumph, p. xi). He had written a section for Triumph on these issues, but decided to excise it because it was at the time too personal and painful. The current essay is a version of that earlier material. It raises important issues, and I am very glad he has decided to publish it.

These issues can be easier for a historian than for an anthropologist or other academic in the social sciences. The latter have to consider to what extent they can be part of the group that they are studying, and to what extent they remain separate from it. Traditionally, anthropologists have regarded themselves as outsiders who may participate in ritual but never become involved, and they consider themselves wiser than those they study. This approach has been questioned for some time, and many scholars now accept that they learn something valuable from those they study. He looks at this change in attitudes both theoretically and by discussing the working methods of those who study modern Paganism. He indicates that his attempts to find the real history of Pagan witchcraft as distinct from its foundation myths and legendary history was not a battle of an academic against true believers — rather, it placed him on one side of a divide that already existed in Pagan witchcraft, many of whose practitioners had already realised that “its traditional historiography should be regarded as myth and metaphor rather than as literal history.” (p. 265).

He discusses how his work has been received, both in academia and outside. He says: “[A]ll the usual structures of academic support were placed at my disposal and maintained with perfect consistency until the work was complete.” (p. 271). However, fellow academics often reacted to his research project with greater than usual distancing, disapproval or derision (p.273).

More worrying were the attitudes he often encountered in the wider society, among highly-educated, sophisticated, influential and generally well-informed individuals. One the one hand, they tended to associate Paganism with all the traditional stereotypes associated with witches, such as blood sacrifice, child abuse and sexual orgies. Though he does not mention it, there was at least one occasion on a radio program when he attempted to explain to the other participants what Paganism actually is, but they mostly preferred to stick with the stereotypes and prejudices they already had. There is also a negative attitude to Paganism as a religion — those in Christianity or other well-established religions do not accept that a newly created or revived religion is worthy of respect, while those who are not religious see religion as part of a disappearing world, and will be courteous to established religions but laugh at the idea that a new religion has any real purpose or meaning.

Many Pagans regard Hutton as an objective scholar who is not a Pagan. I believe he would disagree with both parts of this description. He does not in this book say if he is currently a Pagan, or what spiritual beliefs and practices he has (he discusses why he does not want to do so, and indeed it may be pure curiosity that leads people to wonder), but he does say (p. 269) that he was brought up as a Pagan. As to ‘objectivity’, at several places he questions the whole concept (for instance, pp 284–5).

One topic that I would have liked to have been in the book is the Welsh origins of the four main branches of the Mabinogion. I have heard his delightful talk on this, but perhaps it would not transfer easily into print. The tales of Gruffydd the Wanderer’s rescue from imprisonment in Chester, of Princess Nest and of Princess Gwenllian (at whose court, and possibly by whose hand, the stories were first written down) are as good stories as any in the Mabinogion. Anyone who likes stories or who is interested in Welsh history should attempt to hear him if he is speaking on the subject.

Hutton is always fascinating and generally reliable. But please do remember that he can be wrong, sometimes badly so. I emphasize this, and spend much time criticising him, because I feel that many people take his words as gospel and the final word on various subjects, an attitude that he himself would not approve of. Despite my criticisms, I consider that his book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history, recent and older, of paganism and related matters.

Wood and Water 84, Winter Solstice 2003
© Daniel Cohen

 

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