Two Interviews of Note: Ben Whitmore & Arthur Hinds

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 8, 2011 — 127 Comments

I wanted to point out a couple of recent Pagan-themed interviews that I think are worth checking out. The first is with Ben Whitmore, author of the book “Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft,” conducted by Star Foster at Patheos. This self-pubished study/critique of Ronald Hutton’s “Triumph of the Moon” has generated quite a bit of notice, and respectable amount of criticism from Pagan academics, so this opportunity for Whitmore to make his case seems very appropriate.

“At first, I hoped it would make Triumph a more useful resource for pagans and Wiccans. As I started talking with others about what I was doing, though, I discovered that Triumph had become something of a cult, and I risked getting a dressing-down for even questioning it. A fairly typical response was condescension followed by condemnation, and being told that I obviously hadn’t read Hutton very carefully, and only fluff-bunnies still cling to the old myths. Pointing out that I wasn’t clinging to the old myths didn’t seem to make any difference. In fact, “Wicca” seemed to be turning into some sort of derisive joke, with “Ronald Hutton” as the punch line. Some people were quite vicious about it. I started to feel that my critique might help restore some dignity to the Craft, and turn Triumph back into just a book; a book with no greater claim to infallibility than any other.”

Whitmore also notes recent criticisms of his work by Peg Aloi (who is currently working on a longer-form criticism for Pagan academic journal The Pomegranate) and Chas Clifton, saying they make “a big fuss about me not being an academic,” and accused him of “being too lazy to write a proper critique.” One academic in Whitmore’s corner is Max Dashu, who recently penned a lengthy and glowing review of “Trials.” Then again, one could argue that Dashu isn’t exactly a fan of Hutton’s work to begin with, making her positively predisposed to a Hutton critique. In any case, it seems that this renewed debate isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.

The second interview I wanted to bring your attention to is with musician Arthur Hinds, a member of the popular Celtic-American folk rock band Emerald Rose, and a longtime fixture on the Pagan festival circuit. Laura LaVoie from The Juggler interviews Arthur about being an “out” Pagan musician in honor of International Pagan Coming Out Day (May 2nd, 2011).

“The idea of a formalized pagan coming out day I think I has two edges. First of all, I hope that, for many people, it may give them strength or the moment to speak of who they are. I also hope that they have the wisdom not to speak it where it doesn’t belong. I do not believe in rubbing it in people’s faces anymore that I enjoy having another faith splashed in mine. I also hope that eventually the purpose for the day will simply fade away entirely and Pagans need not feel imprisoned by the secrecy they fear is necessary.”

Hinds is planning to release a new single “about the path of being Pagan” on May 2nd in honor of IPCOD. For more about Arthur Hinds’ work, check out his 2008 solo album “Poetry of Wonder”. Arthur is an extremely talented individual, and a friend, and I’m extremely pleased to see him throw his support behind this new effort. Be sure to read the entire interview!

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Riverbend

    For whatever it may be worth: there's a lovely new introductory video up at the OBOD site at <a href="http://www.druidry.org” target=”_blank”>www.druidry.org that features Hutton at the end (his voice comes in at about 6:30 and he appears a couple of times between then and the end) in which it's very clear that he is in fact very pro-Pagan. The question I think is the extent to which he's made a good case for his conclusions in his historical research, not whether or not he's somehow against us by disagreeing with the things many of us believe.

    • Peg Aloi

      He is not only pro-Pagan, he is a practicing pagan. I'd have thought this was widely known by now.

      • Yes, Ronald Hutton is a Pagan. And Alan Keyes is an African American. And Phyllis Schlafly is a woman. And Ronald Reagan was a union activist.

        • Peg Aloi

          And you're a wordsmith.

      • Riverbend

        I had heard that he was, yes, but rumors do fly after all…was lovely to see him up there with the sword in those great stripey pants. :)

    • Crystal7431

      That's a very nice video. My problem with Hutton, or the reason I always saw him as anti-Pagan, was less the points he was making but rather the derisive language he used. I have no problem with anyone challenging Pagan mythology but I wish he had been more objective while doing it. It makes him come across as if he had a major chip on his shoulder. I learned quite a bit from Hutton but I still find his tone exceedingly arrogant. I'd like to get my hands on Mr.Whittmore's book and do a case by case or perhaps rather point by point study of the two.

      • Riverbend

        I suspect it's more the dry/academic tone he uses most of the time (being a formal historian and all) that puts people off as much as anything, although he does seem to have some of that British dry-sense-of-humor thing going on as well. Being "objective" doesn't mean "not having an opinion"–it means "doing your best to accurately analyze the data you have without your preconceived notions getting in the way." I appreciate the hell out of the work he's done–it's an extraordinary effort to do that kind of research–and for me it only heightens the respect I have for all of us to learn so much detail about the roots of contemporary paganism. Other researchers will no doubt find other data and/or analyze it in different ways–that's how research works.

        • Crystal7431

          No, Neitzche (in selected texts) is dry. Hutton is arrogant.

  • Alex Pendragon

    Remember, it was mainstream "scholorship" that gave us the Western "Hero" General George Armstrong Custer, which celebrated Andrew Jackson, which taught us about "cowboys and indians" as being savages versus heroic white pioneers, and in MY particular upbringing, taught us kids in Mississippi that Jefferson Davis was a true American hero who stood against them damn yankees. Also, as one who was baptized and raised by good Catholic folk as suggested by my birth certificate (I was a foster kid), I was taught that if the Pope said it, it was a fact, no "scholorship" needed.

    I'll take my history " lessons" with a grain of salt, thank you very much, including a history written by Christians that suggests my pagan ancestors never really existed, or were morally inferior.

    • Cathryn Bauer

      Alex, WILD APPLAUSE! This kind of critical thinking is essential to bloody anything IMO, but especially whenyou are claiming to be talking about history as opposed to mythology or wishful thinking. I got a degree in history at the time when the philosophy of history study was coming into discussion. In a nutshell, this involved asking a lot of questions about who was writing the history, in what cultural context, and from what perspective. This helped form my policy of looking at historical accounts as well as those of today's news through a filter of "Maybe."

      FWIW, I actually connected with my first boyfriend because he expressed some similar thoughts as yours way back in ninth grade. Some of us weren't totally assimilated , even in 1970 >wg<.

    • Jonathan

      Yes, very good point. Academic scholarship has always had an adversarial relationship with social movements. Why should we expect that to turn around now?

  • While there are some flaws in Hutton's Triumph of the Moon, I don't think they detract from his overall explanation of where Wicca came from. For me, whether Gaia was worshipped as a goddess or just acknowledged as an abstraction doesn't change Hutton's argument about the social matrix that produced Gerald Gardner and Wicca. I find it convincing.

    I think Hutton too easily dismisses Ginzburg's work on the Benandanti and other practices that seem to be shamanic, but I don't think those practices had any influence on early Wicca, which was more ceremonial than shamanic. You can find the Benandanti mentioned in later witchcraft books like Nigel Jackson's Call of the Horned Piper (a favorite!), but he very clearly states he got the information from Ginzburg.

    Pagan ideas and practices have survived for centuries, but it seems like the ones that influenced Wicca and the modern pagan revival survived mostly through books, not through an organized body of people passing lore and rituals down orally through the generations. Groups like the Sami, the Mari, the Livonian werewolves, the Calusari etc. didn't influence Gardner or Wicca. For me, that's OK. The ideas and their effectiveness are what's important, not their age or how they were passed down.

    • Peter M.: "While there are some flaws in Hutton's Triumph of the Moon, I don't think they detract from his overall explanation of where Wicca came from."

      Hutton himself has openly admitted that his overall explanation of where Wicca came from, as presented in Triumph, is wrong in its central claim: that there is no genuine religious continuity between modern Paganism and ancient Paganism. See Hutton's later Witches, Druids and King Arthur, in which he makes this admission, but then attempts to explain it away.

      That Paganism has survived through written sources is certainly true. But these Pagan writings have also been read and discussed and put into practice throughout European history. That, after all, is what they are for. Obviously. It is also why they have been feared so much by the Church.

  • Scott

    Apuleius: "Hutton himself has openly admitted that his overall explanation of where Wicca came from, as presented in Triumph, is wrong in its central claim: that there is no genuine religious continuity between modern Paganism and ancient Paganism. See Hutton's later Witches, Druids and King Arthur, in which he makes this admission, but then attempts to explain it away.

    I still think you're misreading Hutton's claim in WDKA: there is a significant difference between stating that modern paganism is most similar to late Roman theurgical magic (compared to, for example, indigenous Northern European paganism or Greco-Roman popular pagan cult), which appears to be his argument, and stating that there is direct transmission of consciously pagan practice between the two, which is the argument that would contradict his position in Triumph. If you can cite his words directly that indicate that his argument is actually the latter, please do so. Hutton has himself revisited this subject in print several times since the publication of Triumph (WDKA is one place; I've mentioned and linked to others in up-thread discussions), and at no time has he recanted his conclusion from Triumph; to the contrary, he has affirmed that conclusion while broadening the field of discussion to address other points of similarity between ancient traditions and modern traditions. (Note that I said similarity, not continuity.)

    My reading of your arguments here is that you disagree with Hutton that transmission of consciously pagan practice should be the standard for calling something a "pagan religious survival." I would have more sympathy for your viewpoint if you would say so directly, rather than trying to put words in Hutton's mouth to make it seem as though he's come around to your view.

    • First of all, Hutton's understanding of "late Roman theurgical magic" is, well, there is simply no charitable way of describing it. It is completely based on his own very selective use of secondary and tertiary sources. His whole argument hinges on proving that this "late Roman theurgical magic" is completely unrelated to the traditional and/or popular polytheistic Paganism of not just the Greeks and the Romans, but of all the peoples of the ancient oikoumene, comprising Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Hutton absolutely fails to do this.

      Hutton names a number of specific individuals as exemplars of what he calls the "new kind of ancient religion". These names are borrowed uncritically from the work of other contemporary scholars who have themselves backtracked significantly since then. But if one looks at primary sources, one finds that each of those named by Hutton was, without any reservation, a traditional polytheist. In many cases they also voice belief in a plethora of Daemons, as well as Goddesses and Gods. In many cases they also show that they hold ancient Pagan institutions, especially Oracles, in the highest regard.

      • Scott

        Yes, I read your blog post on the matter. I fail to see how your citation of the use of polytheistic language by these individuals defeats Hutton's argument, since he is obviously aware of it: he mentions that both Themistus and Salutius speak of the traditional gods under the umbrella of a single highest god (WDKA p. 89), and specifies that both Julian and Proclus drew the traditional deities and their worship under a monotheistic framework (pp. 91-92). I note also that a recent publication says of Celsus that "although he accepted the current Platonic view that a single god should be regarded as the guiding force of the universe, and was thus in a philosophical sense a pagan monotheist, [he] also took it to be axiomatic that the order of the world depended on a multiplicity of diverse cults." (Mitchell and Van Neuffelen, eds., *One God: Pagan monotheism in the Roman Empire*, 2010, p. 9). The question would thus seem to be a little more complex than your presentation suggests.

        • What you and Hutton fail to see, Scott, is that neither Themistius, nor Sallustius, nor Julian, nor Proclus, nor Celsus (nor any other person ever identified as a "Pagan monotheist") ever say anything that is in any way shape or form more "monotheistic" than similar things that can be found in Homer, Hesiod and Pindar.

          Eleven years after the book that Hutton primarily relies upon in WDKA concerning "Pagan monotheism", Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, was published, a conference was held at Exeter University on the topic of Pagan Monotheism. Here is a quote from the website publicizing the conference: "The term monotheism is a modern one (16th century) and is traditionally used for strictly monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity or Islam. It is certainly wrong to understand pagan monotheism in the same terms as these religions."

          The contact person listed on the website is Dr Peter van Nuffelen, the co-editor, along with Stephen Mitchell, of the 2010 book that you are citing, Scott.

          • Scott

            Again, I fail to see how quoting Van Nuffelen here actually helps you. First, that quote indicates that to whatever degree we can speak of pagan monotheism, we should not understand it in the same terms as the "pure" monotheism of the Abrahamic faiths. This does not change the fact that the individuals cited in WDKA are recorded as embracing a position that is apparently substantially closer to monotheism than to traditionally-conceived polytheism. If your contention is that this is not in fact substantively different from the views of Homer, Hesiod, and Pindar, the correct way to make that case would be to cite language from those individuals which supports that assertion, which you have not done.

            Second, the alleged movement toward monotheism is only one aspect of Hutton's contention that a new type of paganism was appearing in late antiquity; demonstrating continuity of "pagan monotheism" language across antiquity is therefore necessary but not sufficient to defeat his argument.

          • Scott

            Moreover, with respect to your "where the sidewalk ends" interpretation of Hutton, I note that you do not actually quote him asserting that "while we can trace modern Paganism back to late antiquity, once we get there we can go no further," as you put it. That's because Hutton never makes that argument. It is patently obvious that the "new paganism" that Hutton is describing arose from the cultural matrix of its time, which certainly includes traditional polytheism. The problem is that you want to assert that if modern paganism is similar to Hutton's "new paganism," and the "new paganism" arose directly from traditional polytheism, then modern paganism is a direct descendent of traditional polytheism, and Hutton was in fact wrong in Triumph and is trying to have it both ways in WDKA. The way I read Hutton's argument is that there is still no evidence of direct descent of practice between the "new paganism" and modern paganism, and so his assertions on that score stand. Once again, we're back to arguing over what constitutes "direct descent."

          • Scott: "I note that you do not actually quote him asserting that "while we can trace modern Paganism back to late antiquity, once we get there we can go no further," as you put it. That's because Hutton never makes that argument."

            One cannot have it both ways. Hutton admits that modern Paganism can be traced back to a "new kind of ancient religion" that existed in late antiquity. Either (A) it is admitted that this late antique Paganism (where Wicca has its roots) can be traced back further still, or (B) it is claimed that this ancient progenitor of Wicca arises suddenly and abruptly in late antiquity, representing a clean break from traditional polytheistic religion practiced by Hellenes, Romans, etc.

            If A, then this amounts to a resounding vindication of Wicca as The Old Religion.

            If B, then this amounts to the claim that, in my wording: "while we can trace modern Paganism back to late antiquity, once we get there we can go no further."

          • Scott

            What Hutton actually said was "certain types of ancient religion which far more closely resembled Paganism" (WDKA, p. 87). There is a substantial difference between "closely resembled," which indicates similarity without requiring kinship and which is consistent with Hutton's other statements, and "traced back," which suggests a direct line of descent and which contradicts his stated position in Triumph, WDKA, and his various publications in between. Hutton spends the next chapter, "Paganism in the Missing Centuries," detailing incidents in which the writings of the Neoplatonists and other late antique pagans surfaced in the context of medieval and Renaissance Christianity, leading to their incorporation into the ceremonial magic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where Gardner would have encountered them. None of these incidents meets Hutton's standard for a historical claim of "survival of a pagan religious tradition." I see nothing contradictory about his various statements.

          • Scott, you write: "There is a substantial difference between 'closely resembled,' which indicates similarity without requiring kinship and which is consistent with Hutton's other statements, and 'traced back,' which suggests a direct line of descent and which contradicts his stated position in Triumph, WDKA, and his various publications in between… I see nothing contradictory about his various statements. "

            I agree, and I think that this point is actually so clear to a careful reader that it is difficult for me to see disagreement on this point as anything but disingenuous. I'm not saying that's necessarily the case, but my imagination fails to understand what is left to dispute.

            *shrug*

            Not that that's an especially useful observation, but it seemed worthwhile to let you know someone, at least, is still reading, and has made it this far. (In fact, I'm finding your writing wonderfully lucid, and I'm very much appreciating the time you've put into the thread.)

          • Scott

            Thanks, Cat! I'm fairly confident that Ben is still reading, since the discussion of Hutton is obviously pretty important to him, but it's good to know that there's at least one additional person. =)

            Hutton's standard for "pagan survivals" is pretty high, and obviously there are quite a few people who would argue that it's too high. There's a good conversation to be had there. Personally, I would very much like to see us reflect more carefully on the ways that we relate to surviving traditions that arguably incorporate non- or pre-Christian elements. But Hutton's standard is what it is, and so far as I can tell, he has deployed it consistently.

          • The biggest issue that I have with the whole 'pagan monotheism' debate is, wouldn't it be far more proper to label them as either 'pagan monolaters' or 'henotheists' ? (if we're still talking about Celsus, Julian, et al.)

          • Scott

            One God (cited more completely upthread) has some discussion about this; the upshot is that none of the terms currently in use appear to be satisfactory for the phenomenon (or range of phenomena) under discussion.

          • Henotheism describes a very common religious pattern found widely among polytheistic cultures. In fact, henotheism only makes sense in a polytheistic context. It is completely nonsensical to speak of a "henotheistic monotheist" (so the term "henotheistic polytheist" is redundant). The same is true, though less emphatically, in the case of monolatry.

            There are in fact few, actual instances of "Pagan monolatry", whereas cases of "Pagan henotheism" are nearly, or completely, impossible to distinguish from whatever non-henotheistic polytheism might look like.

            However, claimed sightings of "Pagan monotheism" are for the most part unrelated to monolatry or henotheism. Rather they usually come down to one of three things:
            (1) failure to understand the way that polytheists speak and write.
            (2) failure to understand the fact that pantheism is completely compatible with polytheism, but almost as completely incompatible with monotheism.
            (3) failure to understand that what is true of pantheism above is also true for monism.

          • Points 2 and 3 strike me as very important misunderstandings, and I agree that they are pretty frustratingly common. Thanks for giving voice to this, Ap.

          • I'm always very relieved to find someone who readily agrees that polytheism, pantheism and monism are not all mutually exclusive, or who at least (I don't want to put words in your mouth), agrees that they shouldn't be automatically assumed to be mutually exclusive!

          • And then if we add animism to the mix, it's perfectly possible to find pantheism, animism, monism, and nontheism in the same place.

            A thousand plus years of monotheistic hegemony have given us a stiflingly narrow imagination around matters of theology. I long to see Pagans, at least, widen our perceptions.

            Again, thank you.

          • I'm not sure about nontheism, but I do think that is a very productive area to look at more closely. Eastern (I'm thinking of India and China in particular) spiritual traditions seem to be able to comfortably accomodate nontheism. But this sometimes leads to claims that such traditions are nontheistic, which is going too far, I think.

            And as far as "animism" goes, I definitely agree! The thing I like about "animism" is that this seems to be the fall-back position for modern religion scholars when they have no idea of what other category to put something in, especially if people are following something that appears to be very old and mostly an oral tradition.

            And thanks to you, too! This is a very interesting little side discussion. But its a subject that I think has some real significance.

          • Aline O'Brien

            I'm still reading, when I can work up the energy to get into it, and I, too, appreciate Scott's comments.

            As to Pagan monotheism, I do observe many Dianics whom I would consider to be monotheists, worshipping Yahweh in drag.

          • On Resemblances (for Cat, Scott and anyone else who is still reading):

            Resemblance, obviously, is symptomatic of relatedness. Not proof, but certainly evidence. This point is so clear to a careful thinker that it is difficult for me to see how anyone could overlook it.

            And where there is evidence, one looks more closely. And if one looks more closely at the similarities between modern Paganism and ancient Paganism one does find, in the words of Ronald Hutton, that ancient Paganism "has certainly influenced" and has "certain linear connections with" modern Paganism.

            Also, "direct line of descent" is both a straw man and a red herring. This term has no actual definition anywhere in the literature of the history of religions. It is arbitrarily applied at whim without ever being examined, much less defined. People act as if "everyone knows" what it means, but as in many such cases the truth is that no one knows what "direct line of descent" means. (Well, that's not really true. I know what it means: bupkis.)

            And Scott, that is game, set and match, I'm afraid. If you want to pursue this further you really need to start reframing your presentation to explain why you disagree with Ronald Hutton.

          • Scott

            Since at this point you've reframed your argument to the extent that it's apparently identical to Hutton's in WDKA, I'm content to let the matter lie. I'm still not convinced that you've actually demonstrated that Hutton's WDKA arguments represent a "backpedaling" from his earlier positions, nor that his position is "extremist" or "anti-Pagan," but I doubt there's much to be gained by our continuing to bicker over the topic.

            And for those stalwarts still reading: if you've not already done so, I highly recommend that you read Hutton's work for yourself (including his responses to his critics, which I think are essential for understanding the continuity of his arguments) and form your own opinion. And by all means, check out Ben's work (to bring us back to the OMG!original topic here) and form your own opinions on it as well!

  • Adon

    Any Pagan with the slightest mystical experience and minimal knowledge of the writings and the rituals of the ancients will feel deeply connected to our Pagan ancestors in way that the academics with agendas like Hutton may never understand.
    Whether academically accepted or not, today's Pagans have in common with the 2nd century A.D Pagans a lot more than today's Christians have in common with the Galilean cult of the 2nd century.

    It's true that we did lose a lot of practical knowledge after the monotheists came, but IMHO Paganism have always continued in both the seen and the unseen part of our world. The direct personal initiation is a very important thing but thinking that the unbroken line of initiation is what defines the continuity of pagan religions indicates a serious lack of understanding of what paganism really is.

    • As the author of this controversial book, I'm pleased to see so many people here raising concerns that I actually share, and that I think I have anticipated in my book. For instance, I don't actually argue that Wicca is descended from folk-magic or folk-paganism. I don't claim that Gardner was unimpeachable. I don't attempt to resurrect the Murray thesis.
      Nor do I ultimately state that Hutton is wrong about there being no survivals of European paganism and no link between paganism and witchcraft. This particular issue, which many have commented on here, comes down to a question of definitions. We have the terms "paganism", "survival", "religion" and "witchcraft" (some of which Hutton gives his definitions for, some of which we can only guess at), and I feel that the definitions he has chosen lead to a very incomplete view of the actual history of paganism and magic in Europe. To take Hutton literally, pagan survivals into the Christian era are actually impossible, because he defines "paganism" temporally as the religions of ancient Europe (while capitalised "Paganism" is the modern reconstructed Neopaganism — leaving a massive unbridgeable void between the two [Triumph p. xii]). I believe better and more revealing definitions could have been brought into play, and I think that more sophistication needs to be brought to the thorny questions of what constitutes paganism and what constitutes survival. Not in an attempt to cast every bit of folk practice as 'pagan survival', but to better understand how things have persisted, changed and left traces throughout history.

      Really, my view of the history of Wicca itself doesn't differ that much from Hutton's. My concerns more revolve around his characterisations of ancient paganism, medieval folk beliefs and early-modern witchcraft, which I believe are built upon numerous errors and oversights, and result in a quite misleading picture of history.

      I hope those who have just started reading my book will persevere, and discover that I have not been entirely unsophisticated in my arguments and conclusions. You may even find that I agree with you!

      • Finnchuill

        Hutton and historians of his bent define religion in a big church/big temple way that excludes a lot of practices that most contemporary pagans consider religious. So the Fen Dwellers in early modern England left offerings for a spirt of the swamps; well, a lot of us consider such a practice religious–and do similar things. Many practices of the Fairy Faith in Ireland a hundred years ago, or even more recently, are such that many Neopagans would consider religious. I could go on and on. For those with Huttons' worldview religion is something one can only have one of, so if those people identified as Catholic, then he will exclude them. Yet today in Asia and other parts of the world many people don't feel religion is exclusive and practice a blend of several.

        I am amazed at how Hutton has tried to sweep aside all of the vast evidence of pagan survivals documented in Carlo Ginzburg's works, and Ginzburg being one of the preeminent historians of our time. Hutton's firewall has been shown to be shot full of holes.

        I enjoyed your book!