Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton - Part 1

Cross-posted at Religious Studies

This is a history of neopagan witchcraft, with particular emphasis on the religious tradition known as Wicca.  Its author is Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol.  Hutton has taken some stick for writing this book, both from academic colleagues and from some sections of the neopagan community.  Nonetheless, it is a fascinating and exemplary account of the history of "the only religion England has ever given the world".

Hutton begins with an examination of responses to paganism in nineteenth and early twentieth century British culture.  He discerns four broad sets of attitudes.  First, there was the belief that pagans - both the long-dead pagans of European prehistory and the contemporary tribal peoples whom European colonists were encountering - were primitive savages, whose beliefs and practices were barbaric, bloody and depraved.  Second, there was the view, derived from the classical paganism of ancient Greece and Rome, that pagans were noble and admirable people who fell just a little short of Christians.  These two discourses were culturally dominant and characteristic of respectable mainstream opinion.

The other two sets of attitudes were less conventional in nature.  Some writers and thinkers believed that paganism was not essentially different from Christianity - they were both descended from the same pure, primaeval religion of humankind.  Others saw paganism as a joyous, life-affirming faith that reconnected human beings to themselves and to the natural world.  It is from this fourth discourse, which grew out of German Romanticism, that contemporary neopaganism is descended.  The first Brits to embrace something like a revived paganism - Shelley, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, the Baron de Tabley - tended to be writers and poets with connections with the Romantic movement.  It would be a mistake, however, to see neopaganism as a socially or politically subversive movement.  Several of its founding figures were deeply conservative (and Conservative), and their quarrel was not so much with social hierarchies or economic inequality as with the unnaturalness, ugliness and destruction of traditional patterns of life associated with industrial modernity.

The goddess that many modern pagans worship grew out of the figure of the great mother goddess, who was seen as a synthesis of the individual pagan goddesses and was connected with the earth and the moon.  This represented not so much a revival of ancient pagan ways of thinking about divinity as a development and expansion of it.  Writers and poets explored the idea of the Goddess in the nineteenth century, and scholars like Sir Arthur Evans and Jane Ellen Harrison brought her into the scholarly community in the twentieth.  The male counterpart of the Goddess was the Horned God, who was frequently associated with the Greek god Pan.  Pan assumed considerable importance as a literary figure in the period that Hutton examines, and he may well have been the inspiration for the Christian conception of the devil as a horned, goat-like, cloven-hooved being.

As to the ritual and practice of modern pagan witches, Hutton traces their origins back to mediaeval and ancient magic via the Victorian era occult revival and organisations like the Golden Dawn.  Alongside this intellectual tradition, which was closely associated with the educated √©lite, there was also a popular English tradition of folk magic and "cunning craft" - village healers, fortune tellers and so on - which continues to the present day.  The initiatory coven structure which is found in some branches of Wicca (and which some practitioners regard as the only truly legitimate form of the religion) is traced to Freemasonry and its offshoots.

Why did so many neopagans end up identifying as witches, rather than as Golden Dawn-style ritual magicians or fraternal Masonic types?  The answer lies in the idea, prevalent in nineteenth and twentieth century intellectual life, that scraps of pagan beliefs and practices had survived for centuries - even to the present day - in rural folk customs.  This in turn gave birth to the theory, put forward by the Egyptologist Margaret Murray, that the "witches" who had been persecuted in the mediaeval and early modern periods were the surviving adherents of a prehistoric pagan religion.  This turned out to be nonsense in historical terms, but the idea was a powerful one and captured the imagination of a number of neopagans, including a former colonial bureaucrat from Blundellsands in Lancashire called Gerald Brousseau Gardner.  Had the old "witch-cult" had survived into modern times?  Could it be recreated?

While all this was going on, a number of writers and mystics were preparing the ground for the revival of pagan witchcraft that Gardner and others would lead.  Aleister Crowley, a man who remains famous largely for taking drugs, having sex and pretending to be a satanist, was one such godparent (or goddessparent) of the new movement.  Alongside him were such figures as the mystical Christo-pagan Dion Fortune, the aristocratic Irish poet W.B.Yeats, and poor mad Robert Graves.  By around 1950, all the elements were in place for the witchy revival.