Wicca, Ronald Hutton and a mystical experience

I am terribly busy at present, hence the paucity of MOTO posts. However, Caroline Tully’s excellent interview of Prof Ronald Hutton (previous post) and some subsequent reactions have moved me to pen this quick, personal piece.

Despite the occasional burst of negativity and misinformed spite chucked at Prof Hutton, he remains a figure of respect and admiration in most pagan and Wiccan circles, at least in the UK. Why? Because he is a great supporter of the Pagan movement, having helped progressed its field of study into legitimacy within academia, placing it alongside the other world religions. He has defended pagans in court and helped official recognition of the pagan religions by the various UK authorities. And, of course he provided the first comprehensive history of Wicca, Triumph of the Moon, giving Wiccans a history and showing their place in the religious scheme of things.

It is important to note that the subtitle to this wonderful book is “a history of modern pagan witchcraft” not “the history”. Hutton’s assistance to and introduction of  works by amateur Wiccan historians, like Philip Hesleton, shows he is more than ready to read and accept other histories than his own. This is the mark of the true academic and the true scholar.

Hutton’s work lives and breathes a rare combination of accurate and scholarly accepted method and engagement of the lay audience. Those who have not read much academic work may not realize just how rare this is. Another of my favourite academics, Bart D. Ehrman, sums it up: “most academics, just don’t know how to talk to real people”.

Whilst there have been occasional snipes at Prof Hutton’s academic qualifications and the Academy itself, I have to say I am impressed by his qualifications. I am impressed by his full membership of learned societies. I am impressed by his list of refereed articles and books.

I have only an undergraduate degree but have helped edit friends’ MA and PhD theses. Successfully obtaining a doctorate is impressive. Period. And those of us accustomed to bashing out a new blog post before bed may have little idea what researching, writing, submitting, editing, correcting and finally publishing a refereed article means. It is no small accomplishment in itself.

Finally, those people who see Prof Hutton as attacking paganism and Wicca, or even being a Christian sent in to undermine and destroy it, must by now be being willfully ignorant. Read his own words, his own motivations for study and writing. Caroline has done a lovely job in getting this all accessible and easy. The facts are clear: Hutton’s work is supportive of paganism and Wicca. He is supportive of Paganism and Wicca.

A personal anecdote may help me express this better. I first read Triumph of the Moon shortly after it was released during a weekend away from my young son. I did little else besides, practice, pray and read that glorious weekend. Hutton showed clearly what I always knew, and had argued since 1989: Wicca had no direct lineage connection to either medieval Witchcraft or any mythic pre-historic duo-theistic paganism.

At the time of my reading I was more involved in paganism than I am now, and still within a leadership role of EarthDreaming Coven. However, Hutton’s painstakingly outlined history did not detract or hinder my pagan practice or “faith” but rather enhanced it. I remember clearly reading a passage from chapter 14, where Hutton reviews the popular fiction of Rosemary Sutcliffe as a “compelling fusion” of the imagined pagan histories of Frazer, Graves and Murray:

During the last three decades of the twentieth century, many individuals who adopted a self-consciously Pagan identity said that to do so felt like coming home. Perhaps this was due to memories of past lives, or acknowledgement of long-established contacts with the divine, or simply the discovery of a spirituality which perfectly corresponded to their own instincts and needs. It is also, however, possible that much of this feeling was due to the fact that such people had spent their youth reading books of the sort described above.

As I read this I was startled. As a kid I had read Sutcliffe, just as Hutton described. As this sank in, time stopped, I disappeared and entered the Eternal. The book was gone, the concepts were gone, I was gone, there was simply Goddess.

Afterwards, I realized this experience had opened me not to despair or questioning my pagan spiritual connections, but to the realization that I was practicing a true and bone fide religion of the modern era. The divine was real and solid and Wicca was the perfect modern approach to this Mystery. Wicca was, as Hutton describes, formed by modern people to express modern myth, real, beautiful and transformational myth. I was touched in the literary sphere by the myth as a child, and now as an adult I was embracing it in the religious sphere. The myth may be historically inaccurate, but it is true.

Goddess moves in many ways, even through the Oxford University Press 🙂

13 comments

  1. Gordon · May 25, 2011

    Yes to everything in this post.

  2. David Griffin · May 25, 2011

    @ Peregrin: You write:
    “[Hutton] shows he is more than ready to read and accept other histories than his own. This is the mark of the true academic and the true scholar.”

    Peregrin, I have the salt shaker ready to help you eat these words once Hutton’s new article comes out in the Pomegranate responding to Ben Whitmore’s, Trials of the Moon.

    I most srtongly suspect that Hutton will be less than generous with Whitmore. That Hutton has disdained even to come down from his ivory tower to respond is significant, however.

    In the past, Hutton has at times preferred merely to snipe at the ethos of Pagan authors critical of Hutton’s work. Hutton’s dismissive behavior towards Don Frew immediately comes to mind.

    Have you even read Whitmore yet? I wonder if you would continue to have such esteem for the so-called “scholarly integrity” of Hutton’s work if you had.

    Clearly, I do not share your admiration. But then again, I am a Pagan and neither a Buddhist nor a former Huttonian Wiccan.

    Interested readers are directed to my thoroughly irreverent rebuttal of Prof. Hutton’s recent interview linked to my name above.

  3. Peregrin · May 25, 2011

    Thanks, Gordon. Have followed the link and now perusing yours very interesting blog 🙂

  4. Satima Flavell · May 25, 2011

    Ah, the arguments among scholars are only capped by arguments among the different sections of any religion:-).

  5. MvdV · May 25, 2011

    I’m probably going to get a telling off over this but anyway 😉

    Can I get a clarification from those who have read it.

    Arguments are being made about this text, is it;
    1) A critique of the Neo-Paganist and Wiccan movements as modern developments. e.g. the explosion of groups over the last 40 years.
    or is it;
    2) A critique of organisations that claim to be something outside of those traditions (ala DG) that have claim to more than 300 years of activity. e.g. those ‘found’ in Continental Europe and that claim unbroken lineal descent etc?

    Big difference there…

  6. Peregrin · May 25, 2011

    @Satima; pithy and wise, as always 🙂

    @MvdV – nice to hear from you again.

    Hutton’s book is more (1) in your choices. It is a history of how and why Wicca became a powerful and much practiced religion from the 1950s onwards. It only cursorily examines the explosion over the last 40 years, but looks in depth at the roots of the religion, the cultural forces that shaped it, its antecedents and formation. Well worth reading.

    As for (2), Hutton examines Freemasonry as the root structure behind the organisation of Wicca, and draws largely from the work of Stevenson on the history of the early Craft. Of course, those claiming pre-Masonic foundations and unbroken lineage push back the envelope unto Ancient Alexandria and further. As Hutton would say, this is outside of history.

    Thanks 🙂

  7. Caroline Tully · May 26, 2011

    Hi Peregrin,

    I’m glad to see that the interview with Hutton is prompting interesting discussion within the broader Pagan (in which I include the magic(k)al) scene. That’s all I want and have ever wanted – a stimulating scene in which to enhance my thinking, not close it down.

    (Now I’ll wait for the inevitable internet insults).

    ~Caroline.

  8. David Griffin · May 26, 2011

    @Caroline
    You might be waiting a long time. You did our community a huge service, even though if Hutton were Pinocchio his nose would be six feet long by now. I am eagerly awaiting his Pomegranate article.

  9. David Griffin · May 27, 2011

    Carolin Tully’s interview with Ronald Hutton is having quite a bit of reverberation across the magickal community. Sincerus Renatus has just addressed the controversy as well:

    Carolin Tulley’s interview with Ronald Hutton is reverberating all across the magical community.

    http://gyllenegryningen.blogspot.com/2011/05/historical-research-vs-anthropology.html

  10. Baphomet's Left Nad · June 11, 2011

    SR’s by his own admission has read neither ‘Triumph’ nor ‘Trials’. He questions Hutton’s reluctance to reveal any religious affiliation, when Hutton made it patently clear in his interview with Tulley why that is the case. SR’s points about shamanism simply aren’t strong enough to address the discontinuity between paganism modern and ancient. It is however, an interesting area and one Hutton I hope expands on further through his contact with Ginzburg

  11. Peregrin · June 11, 2011

    Hi Left Nad,

    yes, good points. And of course there is Hutton’s own and very good, Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination. well worth looking at 🙂 thanks

  12. Pingback: Response to Interfaith Services of The Low Country « Magic of the Ordinary
  13. Pingback: Response to Ronald Hutton – Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism « Magic of the Ordinary

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s