Response to Ronald Hutton – Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism

pageHeaderTitleImageThe latest Pomegranate is out. Of particular note is an article, kindly provided free, by Prof Ronald Hutton, ‘Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History’. This is really very good and looks at the current controversy between two broad ways of interpreting Pagan history, particularly that concerning modern religious Witchcraft.

One of the strengths of Hutton’s writing is his ability to summarise and present academic viewpoints and arguments without resorting to academic jargon or elitism. On a personal level this article is very relevant in that it discusses the difference in the acceptance of the revision of Pagan history by Pagans in the UK and those in the former colonies, like Australia. I have some personal history of the latter and wish to talk to a few points made by Hutton. But first some context.

The revisionist history discussed by Hutton concerns the collapse of the older view that modern Pagan Witchcraft was a continuation in terms of lineage and practice of a hidden Pagan magical-religion from the medieval period or older. To quote Gerald Gardner:

[the witch] is a descendant of a line of priests and priestesses of an old and probably Stone Age religion, who have been initiated in a certain way (received into the circle) and become the recipients of certain ancient learning. (1)

Ronald Hutton

An important point, made clear by Hutton in this latest article is that the history first accepted and promulgated by modern Pagans was a product of the academy. It was never a product of oral or other history from within the Pagan community itself.  This older history found its most influential and popular expression in the works of Margaret Murray (2). These were incorporated into the Wiccan foundation myth by Gardner and others from the 1950s onward.

The academy, however, is never static and resists codification of history as ‘fact’, much less religious fact and new research promoted a new history, called the ‘revisionist’ view in Hutton’s article. However, as the academy’s consensus of pagan history shifted it did not automatically affect a parallel shift in the Pagan community. This is because for several generations of Pagans this history was presented as originating within the community, not the academy. Hence it became ‘natural’ and ‘real’. The still circulating stories of Wicca being passed via centuries old family traditions serve to reinforce this sense of a real and shared Pagan history.

This in essence is the source of the conflict between the revisionist history and the counter-revisionists, who seek first and foremost to deny the revisionist view. Often this seems to stem from a mistaken view that the revisionist history has an agenda to ‘destroy’ or lessen the validity of the Craft as a genuine religious expression. As I have discussed previously, this is very strange to me, as the new history is even more awe inspiring and full of divine inspiration than the older myth. To cut and paste from meself :)

The real history of Wicca then is just as deep and just as powerful as the mythic history. The eternal mystery, the unknowable and the unnameable became revealed in a new religious expression, slowly at first but from the 1960s on with increasing speed as a viable and engaging religion. As I recount in this post I experienced this truth viscerally and deeply when I first read Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon, becoming aware that Wicca was a true and bone fide religion of the modern era. I don’t know about you, but I find this gob-smacking and awesomely exciting. A real religion, a real revelation of Mystery born within the byways of 20thcentury Bournemouth, not on a distant and ancient tree or desert rock somewhere out of bounds, but within our own time and culture. To me this is more exciting than any secret Witch cult hidden throughout the ages. (3)

On a personal front, I was initiated into Wicca in the mid-1980s after first studying western esoteric and magical traditions. I had the advantage and blessing of studying a minor in religious studies and so was exposed to as much current research on Paganism as I chose to hunt up (it was not in our curriculum).

It was clear to me back then that the Wiccan liturgy was comprised largely of western magical material and works from Aleister Crowley. There is nothing new in this, but when I started to share my views and the limited research I had done (mainly on the Wiccan use of the material from the Key of Solomon the King), I ran into problems. The current Wiccan hierarchy in Perth refused to accept what to my mind was obvious and attacked my tentative articles on the subject and myself with vigour. This reached a zenith (or nadir depending on your viewpoint) after my positive review and recommendation of Aidan Kelly’s Crafting the Art of Magic in 1991. After a few more years of trying to share my findings and some summaries of the current British research, I gave up.

Hutton in this article writes that

Parts of North America and Australasia, where Pagan witchcraft has gained significant numbers of adherents more recently than in Britain, seem still to be engaged in that initial turmoil of identity formation and community-building: a kind of Wild West of current Paganism. They reproduce many of the tensions that their British cousins knew in earlier times, and with them, perhaps, a freshness, vigour, and excitement that British Paganism has lost as the price of settling down. (4)

This was very true and Perth back in the late 1980s and perhaps still is. Either way, the Wiccan community back then was not willing to accept the information I was naively offering. So I gave up and for wider variety of reasons, our Coven retreated into the background away from the mainstream Wiccan community. The 2001 publication of Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon (5) was both a joy and a relief for me. Here was an accessible work that gave a new and solid Wiccan history, providing copious new material and making sense of the many anomalies in the standard Wiccan history I had found and proving many of the intuitions I had regarding the actual formation of Wicca. The years following its release were however my most intense years of parenting and working for the Golden Dawn Order in Perth, so I had little inclination to put more on my plate and assess the impact of the book on Perth Wicca.

It is only recently I have re-established contact with the Wiccan community in any sustained and meaningful way. Since then I have found a mixed situation; Hutton’s Triumph has been read by  only a few Wiccans and appears to be on precious few Coven’s essential reading lists. Some of the newer Pagans and Wiccans, notably those with higher educational backgrounds, have accepted and embraced the revisionist viewpoints. Others maintain the traditional view and myths strongly while most I feel straddle a little of both worlds.

Of the former type, Perth blogger ‘Mitzy Gaynor‘ (6) is the most vocal and well researched, presenting current revisionist thought and ideas with aplomb and candour – as well as defending my own efforts from scurrilous attack by international bloggers who epitomise what Hutton describes as: “…a very testosterone-rich language of swagger and taunt.” (7)

That such attacks have come from outside Perth is interesting. In the ’80s my views and work in Perth prompted actual curses by some of the more volatile Wiccans; today there is nothing from Perth and but an insignificant peppering of defamation and online curses from US based Pagan fundamentalists. This indicates a wonderful growth in Perth (and Australian) Paganism and is very exciting. In fact, in general, my re-connection with Australian Wicca has been as wonderful as the people I have (re)met.

The traditional myth of Wiccan foundations is, not surprisingly, still held strongly by a few senior Wiccans who I have had the pleasure to interview recently for ‘Perth Pagan Oral History Project’. None of those I spoke to had read Hutton or similar works, nor did they seem very inclined to.

The majority of Wiccans in Perth, as I mentioned above, live in both worlds. They are happy to accept Gerald Gardner was the genesis of modern Wicca in some sense, but maintain a belief in a pre-existing religious Witch tradition from which he drew. Often this putative pre-Gardnerian Witch tradition is conflated with cunning craft, charmer, or herbal traditions which historically were not religiously Pagan. The importance of this sense of identity with a Witch past before Gardner for Perth (and from social media examples, for other Australian Wiccans) has been illustrated for me recently.

In September last year I was kindly invited to lecture at an annual Perth Wiccan-Pagan gathering about my recent book. I chose a slightly different tack and lectured instead on the influence of the Golden Dawn on Wicca. As part of the lecture I presented the revisionist viewpoint, drawing heavily on Hutton, Davies, Wilby and other writers. During the course of the day, after the lecture, three Priestesses approached me privately to thank me for the lecture and also to point out that what they practiced was not created by Gardner. One Priestess asserted the traditional story that her Craft was actually passed on by her mother and grandmother. She declined to be interviewed about this lineage, so nothing could be verified.

The other two Priestesses told me they had been trained in a tradition that existed prior to Gardner. This was curious as the Craft I knew they practiced (and confirmed again on the day) bore all the broad hallmarks of Gardnerian based Wicca. In the following weeks, upon invitation to present me with their lineages, these two Priestesses kindly did some research and realised their actual lineage stemmed not from a pre-Gardnerian tradition at all, but from an Alexandrian root. The lack of self-reflexivity up to the point I asked them to examine their lineage to a few generations back seemed to be connected with a desire for identification with an older, ‘traditional’ Craft to counter the revisionist history they had peripherally been aware of.

This tendency to identity with the concept of the ‘traditional Witch’ is also evident within the new Perth Pagan e-Magazine, ‘Pagan Pens‘ (8). Firstly, there is an article by myself addressing the mistaken identification by Wiccans themselves of modern Wiccans with mythic and fairy tale witches, Given a misleading subtitle by the editors, The Evil Witch and the Good Wiccan makes a case that the word ‘witch’ still refers in the mainstream to mythic, malefic beings and Wiccans should not be upset when modern storytellers draw on older stories of evil witches, since they are not talking about Wiccans, The two are separate beasts. Hutton in his recent article asserts a similar view regarding:

…the visceral fear and hatred the word “witch” still inspires in many of the British, and the deep roots of this response: the more traditional the cultural background of the people concerned, the stronger the reaction tends to be. (9)

In the same issue of Pagan Pens, Tree Foster presented an article on the besom or broom, an item and icon traditionally associated with witches, though not featuring among the eight Working Tools in Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca. It is a nice article, presenting secondary research describing the mythic and traditional associations of brooms with witchcraft. During the course of the article the author changes her voice and writes:

According to records, we [witches] could ride up the chimney on our besoms to our sabbats. Men would use a pitchfork, another everyday item. We could also sail in sieves to sink ships.

This may be simply flippant or it may, in a Pagan magazine marketed largely towards Wiccans, by the use of ‘we’ show an identification of Wicca with mythic witchcraft. This is very interesting and again may point to the need to connect Wicca with something older and more valid than the Gardnerian (re)creation. In my review of the (Australian) Pagan Awareness Network’s Paganism & Christianity I noted the same tendency by author Gavin Rees, something that was not reflected upon by members of PAN itself. (10)

Hutton also touches upon something noted in other religions: colonial and post-colonial adherents tend to practice more voraciously and sometimes with more fundamentalist tendencies than the faithful in the religion’s mother country. Anecdotally  this is something I and associates have noted in Perth for the past thirty years, though it has lessened a lot recently. Certainly there are still those Covens and Wiccans who consciously choose to follow the English ‘Wheel of the Year’, celebrating midwinter in our summer, and partake of traditional English customs and games as part of the celebration. Most groups however have now reversed the Wheel and a few are seeking to establish a genuine Australian land based system.

My recent interviews and research with Wiccan elders show a very different situation in the 1970s through early 90s. During this period many Perth Wiccans travelled to England to consciously gain Wiccan legitimacy, resources and texts. The connection with the ‘old country’ was then, and perhaps now still is, for some British migrant Witches, intimately part of practicing a religion and Craft felt to be entwined within ‘ye olde England’. An anecdote may serve here.

Ye Olde England?

I once talked with a non-aligned Pagan priestess, without any conscious Wicca connections, save when a young woman. She described being drawn to Wicca because of its heavy Goddess emphasis and went so far as to visit a couple who ran a traditional Wiccan coven. Nervous and full of trepidation from cultural associations of witchcraft with evil, she steeled herself for the visit, which went very well. In the end though, she decided not to join their (or any coven), not because of any possible diabolical connection, but because the couple, their home and interests reminded her too much of her maternal grandparents who were always looking toward ‘the old country’. There were even the classic three flying ducks on the wall in the room where she was served a typical English tea, surrounded by English watercolours and imported newspapers.

This valorisation of England as the mother country of Wicca was not solely based on the authority of Wiccan leaders found there. A personal friend of mine had in the late 1980s travelled to California and was trained and initiated by Starhawk, one of the most influential of feminist Witches. His training and initiation however was disregarded and ignored here in Perth, because as he declared in frustration one day: “They [the local Wiccans] think it’s more important to have a copy of the same old Book of Shadows if it was once owned by someone who once got drunk with Alex Sanders!”

In his final paragraphs, Hutton writes about the possible need for Pagan practitioners in former colonial countries, such as Australia, to ‘look under our nose’ for research opportunities and to ‘look more deeply into their own local history as well.’ This is exactly what we have engaged upon, when reconnecting with the Wiccan community several months back I found little knowledge of the foundation years within the hearts and minds of many contemporary Witches. Further, many elderly (and possibly soon to die) elders existed whose rich treasures and wisdom was locked away in their minds, ignored and unrecorded. The Perth Pagan Oral History Project hopes to address this problem and is progressing nicely.

The universal support and encouragement I have received for the project shows the depth and maturity of the Perth Wiccan community – even though we are in one of the most remote cities, 9000 miles away from England, practicing afar the only religion that country has given to the world.

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REFERENCES

(1) Gardner, Gerald, Witchcraft Today, n.p. Online: http://clubs.psu.edu/up/silverc/witchcrafttoday.pdf. Retrieved 20-1-13.

(2) Murray, Margaret The Witch Cult of Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921). and Murray, Margaret (1931). The God of the Witches. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921).

(3) http://magicoftheordinary.wordpress.com/2011/06/11/wicca-the-golden-dawn-and-the-revelation-of-love/

(4) Hutton, Ronald. “Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History” Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies [Online], 13. 13 Dec 2012, p.253.

(5)  Hutton, Ronald, The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford, Oxford University Press 1999).

(6) Anonymous Hate Blog, http://pagansagainststarhawk.blogspot.com.au/

(7) Hutton, Ronald. “Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History” Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies [Online], 13. 13 Dec 2012, p.251.

(8) Pagan Pens,Summer Solstice, 2012. http://paganpens.wordpress.com

(9) Hutton, Ronald. “Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History” Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies [Online], 13. 13 Dec 2012, p.236.

(10) http://magicoftheordinary.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/review-paganism-christianity-a-resource-for-wiccans-witches-and-pagans-by-gavin-andrew/

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16 comments

  1. alexsumner · January 20, 2013

    I am prepared to believe that there was a Wicca tradition which pre-existed Gardner’s involvement in it by as much as … twenty years or so. Philip Heselton, who is himself a staunch Gardnerian, said as much, so there is at least a minority of Wiccans who are under no illusions.

  2. Lee · January 20, 2013

    I highly anticipate your ‘Perth Pagan Oral History Project’ research! Great post :D

  3. Dave Finnin · January 20, 2013

    No one has presented any proof of a pre Gardnerian Wicca other than someone say’s there was such a thing.

    Dave Finnin

  4. Donald Michael Kraig · January 20, 2013

    You may be interested my response to the article here: http://www.llewellyn.com/blog/2013/01/historians-vs-history/
    I would contend that the real point of Hutton’s article was to defend his legacy and career.

  5. Pat Zalewski · January 20, 2013

    I think that there were patches of witches(pre Gardner) in much the same manner of isolated islands that suddenly appeared and also suddenly vanished. To link a chain between them requires some sort of proof and that is the hard part and to the best of my knowledge has not yet been accomplished. We also have to look at the social pressure against witches in those early times and they would have been extremely secretive. and the likelyhood of an early group of witches staying the course in an unbroken line of teachings stretching back over 100 years or more is 99.o% recurring against.

    The difference we have today between pagan and wiccan is pretty clear but to take that paradigm and apply it pre 1900 in a general sense would be unlikely to exist outside of halls of learning. Just from memory I think there was a good book on witchcraft published around 1917 in the UK, which did leave one to believe there was a linked pre Gardner craft tradition but that was the writers slant. For the life of me I cannot think of the title. There also has to be a separation between indigenous cultures of shamanism and English and European paganism as sometimes that tradition is fused into English history,or as the Americans would say “out of left field” without any local tradition behind it. It does not make it less valuable contribution,but does muddy the waters for an historian in try to establish a local continuity of the craft.

    If pagans want to claim to an establish a tradition and like everyone else they have to prove it. We see much of this in Hermetic societies. where claims end up in cloud land. My hat goes off to people like Janet Farrar who studied under the Saunders ,and produced as far as I am concerned one the best and most balanced textual paradigm the craft has yet seen.

  6. John McNair · January 20, 2013

    Excellent and informative post. I think your Pagan Oral History Project is extremely important and will be even more important in 20 years time.

  7. Peregrin · January 20, 2013

    Hey gentlemen and lady :) thanks for the responses.

    @Alex – yes, Hesleton comes closer than anyone else in showing this. I look forward to more of his research. It is still such a pity that there is no clear evidence that Gardner was doing anything like Wicca between 1939 and the publication of High Magic’s Aid in 1949. Instead he was getting friendly with Crowley, trying to run the OTO in Britain, becoming a Druid and heterodox Christian priest. Not to mention footing the bill in 1940 for his first novel, ‘A Goddess Arrives’ which has a nasty witch in it, not nice Wicca at all. And this several months after his Sept 1939 initiation and realization Witchy-poos are nice after all? I wish it all added, up and we could say, yeah there WAS a tradition for 20-30 years before Gardner. Just can’t be sure yet, though. I want to believe!

    @Lee and John – thanks. It’s slow going, but moving…

    @Dave… equally we can’t definitively prove there WASN’T :)

    @DMK. Nice blog post… thanks. Actually, with respect I disagree. Whitmore as self-published e-book writer with no academic qualifications would affect Hutton’s peers very, very little. Especially considering his un-academic approaches and selectivity.

    Also, Paganism is but one of his fields of expertise. Most academics, in my experience do not engage or take seriously non-academics the way Hutton does.

    I also think many historians do a lot more besides quoting others. Primary research, such as what Hesleton did, involves accessing untouched records, letters and diaries and drawing conclusions from them. Only secondary research quotes other historians. Thanks :)

    @Pat – yes great points. Would love to know the 1917 book! The questions remain for any earlier tradition: was it religiously Pagan and did the folk call themselves ‘witches’. There are as yet no records from the UK that hit both these spots, and I THINK in the US groups that hit only one or the other, such as the Ozark Witches, or early Pagan appreciation groups.

    THANKS :)

  8. Donald Michael Kraig · January 20, 2013

    I agree with you that Whitmore’s book, in reality, isn’t going to have a much of an effect Hutton’s professional reputation, however his repeated focus on Whitmore indicates to me that Hutton thinks it will.

    Yes, many historians do original research. Hutton’s article, however, showed none of that. As I wrote, I like a great deal of what Hutton has published.

    Thanks for your continued fine blog!

  9. darakat · January 20, 2013

    Reblogged this on Breathing awake.

  10. JamesNV · January 20, 2013

    @DMK, it is pure speculation to say that Hutton is worried about his career. Sounds a little presumptuous. Just sayin.

  11. Mitzy Gaynor · January 20, 2013

    @DMK “History is written by the victors”? As a statement on historiography? Seriously? The only time I ever see this written is by people who do not understand the discipline of history. See http://historicity-was-already-taken.tumblr.com/post/4144881286/no-really-dont-do-that for an excellent discussion of this issue

  12. Scott · January 20, 2013

    I agree that Whitmore can do little to damage Hutton’s academic credibility with his peers. As he takes pains to point out in his new article, though, failure to respond strongly to Whitmore could damage his credibility as an expert witness in legal proceedings in the UK where he is sometimes called in the defense of Wiccans.

  13. Nick Farrell · January 20, 2013

    Unlike the occult world where you are supposed to smile and look all spiritual when someone objects to what you write, the academic world is supposed to respond to people who attack them. There is a long tradition of academic name calling and it is all part of the territory. I dont think Hutton is worried, but then he cant let someone talk crap and get away with it either.

  14. Pingback: Diana Rajchel » Wicca: not the only witchcraft in town
  15. Marc Dacey · January 20

    I stumbed upon this and found your viewpoints very interesting, not only because they coincide with my own regarding the syncretic and rather modern evolution of Wicca (when you read the various ‘texts’ of Gardner’s BoSes, this is evident as Crowley is cycled out and Valiente is cycled in), but also because I find the idea of a *new* religion built on a foundation of various Western Occult Tradition precepts and the gravel of Neo-Platonism to be quite exciting, much more so than “a surviving example of a Paleolithic creed” as I have heard it called. Now, perhaps the situation in Perth, pining away for merrie olde England, is related to the fact that Wicca is, erroneously I feel, sometimes referred to as “the aboriginal religion of the British Isles”.

    Well, not bloody likely. Still, it clearly contains many notions from pre-Christian and indeed classically Pagan cultures, and the holidays work at 50N. Part of the beauty of Wicca, however, is found when we adapt it to local conditions…I live in southern Canada, and if we went out at Candlemas anywhere but Vancouver, we’d vanish in a snowdrift if our nipples didn’t snap off first. So while we find it easier to locate a private 100 acres of forest in the summer months, it’s a little hazardous to dance naked in our rites for about five months of the year! So the orthopraxy of ritual need not bother with the orthodoxy of belief as to the importance of setting or “terrior”. It works where we are, with the accommodations our country requires.

    I have heard that the Wheel of the Year in Oz is essentially an inversion of the Northern one; this is very similar. I find it funny that there’s such an Anglophilia in Perth for all things English and a reluctance to spead Vegemite on the cakes and to put Foster’s in the chalice. I doubt the gods of the Wicca, should they watch over Oz (and why not?) would object to local flavour!

  16. Peregrin · January 20

    Great comments, Marc – thanks. There are a few covens in Perth, and elsewhere now in Oz, doing things very locally. See this post: http://magicoftheordinary.wordpress.com/2011/09/10/mystery-cycles-in-perth-%E2%80%93-the-land-christian-and-solar/

    At an annual Wiccan gathering this September in Perth, the theme will be the Sabbats and a few different approaches will be explored – though I doubt Vegemite will be involved :) Thanks.

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