Ronald Hutton Answers His Critics

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 20, 2011 — 133 Comments

Pagan scholar Caroline Tully has just posted a rare interview with historian Ronald Hutton, author of “The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft”, in which he takes the time to answer a recent resurgence of criticism regarding his work from within the Pagan community.

Ronald Hutton

“I have no interest in contesting the claims of modern Pagans to represent a secretly surviving tradition, as long as the practitioners do not attack me or offer any actual historical evidence for scrutiny. If they do neither, then they are effectively standing outside history and are not the concern of a historian. I regularly read articles by contemporary witches, expounding one system or another which they say has been passed down through their family or their initiatory tradition for centuries, and offering no evidence to support this claim. They are no concern of mine, and it is open to others to believe or disbelieve them as they will. Gerald Gardner’s Wicca was, however, based on specific historical evidence, above all the early modern trials, and academic framework of interpretation of it, which were very much the business of historians.”

I encourage anyone with any interest in Hutton’s work to head over and read the entire thing. There’s really too much to easily summarize, and quite a bit of insightful commentary concerning history and modern Paganism. In addition, Hutton generously lays out his plans for future books that may be of interest to modern Pagans, including works on witchcraft, and Britain’s pagan heritage. Thanks to Caroline Tully at Necropolis Now for making this happen.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Ceit De Vitto

    Thanks for the link — It's very helpful

  • Apuleius

    Bottom Line: those who believe that there is no connection between ancient and modern Paganism can no longer claim that Ronald Hutton is a champion of their position. In fact, Professor Hutton goes out of his way in the interview to insist that he has never promoted that view.

    • Cat C-B


      Which is not to say that there are unbroken lineages of all–or even most–extant modern Pagan religions, establishing continuity with ancient pagan religions.

      • Cat C-B

        ie: Somewhere in between "no connection" and "established continuous practice" there is a territory of ideas open to reasonable discourse. The extremes are not within that territory, however.

        • thehouseofvines

          And yet I've already seen several grossly distorting Hutton's words for their own ends this morning. They believe what they want to believe and twist and misrepresent the evidence to conform to and confirm their biases.

          Aren't people funny?

          • Cat C-B

            Yep. *smile*

          • @magickalrealism

            Great interview. I've never particularly had any quibbles with his scholarship because I have no emotional investment in whether modern Paganism hails from an ancient tradition or not (I lean towards the "not.") Hutton is doing what scholars do, and it's actually a testament to his ethos t hat he does not sway from those standards.

          • Jonathan

            I get the message. We're just being "emotional" for disagreeing with Professor Hutton.

          • Jonathan

            Looking forward to reading the new Fan Club literature coming out by Hutton. I wonder if it will bear any resemblances to his previous "replies"? Ponderous and evasive? Designed primarily to impress the reader with his capacity for historical "nuance"? Soon distributed widely across the internet while the original critiques (to which he's replying) become harder and harder to track down?

      • Apuleius

        Cat C-B: "Which is not to say that there are unbroken lineages of all–or even most–extant modern Pagan religions, establishing continuity with ancient pagan religions."

        Actually, Hutton directly contradicts what you are saying, Cat. He states categorically that significant portions of modern Paganism (especially those that fall under the heading of so-called "Neopagan Witchcraft") do, in fact, possess "a demonstrable continuity, text to text and person to person, across the centuries" going back to ancient Egyptian Paganism. Hutton reiterates and elaborates on this point, saying that modern Pagans are "able credibly to claim a direct and unbroken lineage of descent from antiquity," just so long as we are looking in the right places in antiquity. Hutton says even more along these lines: "the continued veneration of pagan deities within a broadly Christian framework … more or less spans the gap between the end of ancient paganism and the appearance of its modern counterpart." !!

        Hutton chooses to insist that those who participated in this continuous tradition of venerating Pagan deities were purely and only Christians and can in no way shape or form be considered as Pagans. Well, that is a very difficult position to maintain, in my opinion. The question of just how Christian and how Pagan these venerators of ancient Pagan deities were seems to me to be open to interpretation, to put it very broadly. More bluntly, the position that anyone who venerates Pagan deities is, at least to some extent, Pagan (regardless of what else they might also be) seems positively inescapable.

        But let us not overlook the minor miracle of Ronald Hutton lending his name, without ambiguity, to the position that those who venerate ancient Pagan deities today do so as part of a continuous tradition, albeit one that (and no one has ever denied this) was forced to at least pretend to be outwardly Christian for many centuries.

        • Jennifer Parsons

          Apuleius, I am not trying to be flip here, but if this is such an important idea to you, why not write your own book? You could even distribute it for free, like Ben Whitmore did with "The Trials of the Moon." I would read it.

          • Apuleius

            Hi Jennifer,

            Books have their advantages and disadvantages. Hutton claims in the interview that he has been widely misunderstood by American Pagans because his article, "The Roots of Modern Paganism", which he considers his "manifesto", was published separately as part of an anthology that far fewer people have read than the number who have read Triumph. To be honest, it seems ridiculous for Hutton to insist that in order to understand what he was really trying to say in the 400+ pages of Triumph that one must also read the dozen or so pages of that essay. (And this is especially true if one goes back and reads once again what Hutton wrote in Chapter 19 of Triumph.)

            So far I have chosen to simply put my thoughts on the subject of Pagan history (along with anything that strikes my fancy, like pictures representing Jesus as a Zombie) on my blog at That way I have complete control over exactly what I say and how I say it. I don't need no stinking editors or publishers (unless they want to offer me a sweet multi-book multi-million dollar deal that will set me up for life, and I plan to live a long life and I want to live in style and comfort).

          • Peg Aloi

            I fail to see what your first paragraph has to do with your second paragraph here. If you're suggesting Hutton is not able to have control over what he says and how he says it in his books, you may be misunderstanding the writing and publishing process at a very deep level.

          • Apuleius

            Both paragraphs deal with my thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of being a book author, as announced in the opening sentence. In the first paragraph the emphasis is on the shortcomings associated with packaging one's writing inside of separately purchased commodities. In the second paragraph, by contrast, I emphasize the benefits of blogging, which ensures that all of one's writings are in one place and freely available — and it also allows one to include whatever gratuitous distractions one feels like throwing in along the way.

          • Cathryn Bauer

            Thank you very much for posting this link. I look forward to exploring it fully once I catch up with some work. The quote certainly rang true for this history major.

            There is nothing at all wrong with mythology, speculation, or wishful thinking for that matter as long as you recognize them for what they are. Truth isn't served when we fail to do that. It sounds like Hutton has done Pagans a great service by pointing out the need for such discernment.

          • Bookhousegal

            I think at times Hutton's taken to overstate some case, making certain pronouncements and saying 'Just accept this, it's hard reality' or some such, …certainly in ToTM he rather neglects the notion of *cultural* survival, particularly in literary tradition, focusing on 'continuity' and 'founders' to the exclusion of their context, which is honestly more in keeping with the standards by which 'revealed traditions' claim their own legitimacy than it is really central to modern Paganism.

            I think Hutton also overstates the notion that most Pagans actually *rely* on such notions of unbroken tradition to begin with: he's done some valuable work, but I don't think all of his *theses* are supported with the strength he claims, and being scholarly doesn't mean it's to be taken *uncritically.* And the criticisms are also fairly valid, not that I think he's some bogeyman. I've yet to lay hands to any of his later stuff, in its entirety, anyway, but he does appear to have moderated some of those assertions, himself.

          • Cathryn Bauer

            Good points all. I am responding carefully since when it comes to Hutton's work, unfortunately my sources are secondhand at this point. (When I get through this next pile of transcripts…) I got my degree in history at a time when academia was beginning to incorporate a hard look at sources and the perspective of those sources into the teaching of history. I am really grateful for that influence, took it to heart, and believe it needs to be applied to any telling of just about anything, including Hutton's work.

          • Bookhousegal

            *nods* Same boat as regards actually reading his stuff: no foul here, but his areas of interest and mine only overlap a little: his *field* is kind of more 'History of Magic,' than, broadly-speaking, cultural anthropology, or shall we say, faith: Any academic will tend to see the world in terms of their own focus, of course. If nothing else, that's kind of the structure of the profession, these days. Religiously as well as magically, I kind of *am* a 'cultural survival,' in a way, just not by the sort of means that leaves much in the way of clear traces for historians. Not that there's a claim to 'unbroken tradition' there, but I do think a lot of things are in the weft of being that comes through my ancestry: things you could call 'UPG' if not for the fact the U came off much of it by looking *laterally,* rather than for a conventional sort of ''line.' Things I found later had correspondence, congruence, precedent, and independent appearances, but which I didn't *get* out of some book or passed-down verbal authority.

            You've got to be pretty interdisciplinary to make sense of *that,* really. Not that it'll get you published. But if that's not your *task,* it could get you where you need to be. There's a difference between 'knowing' something in a functional way, and 'proving' it in a *certain* method with *certain* kinds of sources. :) Especially when the study *is* on mystical subjects, one known to be recorded cryptically, if at all, a better relationship between mystics and scholars may be one where those where someone like me might help provide some *insight* into the scatterred puzzle-pieces scholars work with. The threads of a tapestry go *both* ways. :)

          • Apuleius

            Bookhousegal: "I think Hutton also overstates the notion that most Pagans actually *rely* on such notions of unbroken tradition to begin with …"

            This is the by far the biggest flaw that mars Hutton's work. He himself proclaimed in Triumph that "Modern pagan witchcraft had, after all, appeared as a movement with a very specific historical claim." But nowhere in that book or anywhere else does Hutton specifically lay out what exactly this claim is, who made it, when and where they made it, and how, exactly, this "very specific historical claim" supposedly lies at the heart of of modern Paganism. Bah.

          • Bookhousegal

            Yeah, that's problematic. I think some people get the impression that Gardnerians, Alexandrians, and 'famtrads' (As well as the occasional mass-media-stunt type) actually have or even seek some kind of massive influence over 'What Pagans do or believe.' Even on the Net it's often (in the past, anyway) seemed that everyone from recons to solitaries to ceremonial magicians are arguing with a few 'traditional Wiccans' as though they were really some gatekeepers, when I just don't see how anyone even gets that *impression* anymore.

            More to the point, when you meet the actual *people,* few of *them* are so rigid nor so 'credulous' as they're painted up to be. (To be honest, a lot of oathbonds actually prevent them from clearing up certain matters at times. I've more than a few times found myself in the position of, 'Since you already figured it out, it's not really telling, is it?' :) Yeah, there are a few out there that meet the stereotypes, both on stuff like this and the perennial 'polarity' issue, but they're more the exception, at least among those who *will* speak of it to someone like me. And, more importantly, those that don't will indeed tend to be the most reclusive, sometimes precisely *because* the broader movement just isn't on such terms.

            But I do think the perception's overblown in some pretty big ways. I also know that you don't get very far for very long in magic if you're indulging too many *illusions* of the sort accused. Give em a little credit.

            I know that I for one didn't 'start out with a historical claim,' never mind a specific one. I worked it more the *other* way, to try and figure out what was going on with even just myself in the present.

            Even my perspective on stuff like Ginzburg kind of comes from the standpoint of, 'OK, these people were quoted by *these* people as telling *those* people *these* things….' A lot of it actually makes a lot of *sense* as a more agrarian ancestor to stuff I found myself doing, anyway.

            I don't think you can necessarily really *get* that by starting from the written sources and trying to trace a line through time, though. If it's actually going *on,* nobody even says it's such a linear or written (Or even oral) process anyway.

            Suppose it's different people in a different circumstance dealing with a common 'third thing?' Call it magic, the Gods, Jungian 'archetypes' on turbo, or all three… What's the investigative approach? Maybe there's more of those than scholarship per se deals in. :)

          • Jonathan


          • Jonathan

            Well, Apuleius,

            When Hutton talks about a "specific historical claim", he clearly means the theories of Margaret Murray. He does not seem capable of distinguishing between those specific historical theories and the origin of Wicca as a religion. Many separate influences converged when Gerald Garder, Editth Woodward-Grimes, et al founded Wicca. But Hutton credits Murray alone.

            Of course, when Wicca was founded, it was very small and subversive to an extent. So Garder took validation wherever he could get it. Murray was very well respected at the time, and so she seemed to grant an aura of respectability that was often lacking in the occult world. But neither Gardner's writings nor Wiccan ritual ever relied on Murray's theories.

            She was not the first person to point out that certain folk festivals at certain times of the year corresponded to old Pagan holidays. She was not the first person to point out the importance of sexual symbolism in many extant agrarian rites.

            And she was clearly wrong about some things. But a finer reading of her work reveals a theory not all that dissimilar from Carlo Ginzburg's theory of a "shamanic subtext" that pervaded European culture.

            Essentially, Hutton just keeps attacking Murray over and over again, no matter how relevant her theories are to modern Wicca, no matter how easy of a target she is, and no matter how much the academic context has shifted since the era in which she originally wrote those theories.

            This is what passes for rigor!!!!

          • Wade@MacMorrighan.Net

            WTF? Did we READ the same interview, WildHunt? At the VERY least I sincerely believe that this Blog entry is severely mis-titled! Hutton didn’t spend ANY time demonstrably addressing any criticisms against him, and he even gave some inaccurate statements in this interview as some of the comments to the original interview will illustrate. Hutton has never responded to his critics; he had the chance after Harvard-educated freelance scholar Max Dashu showed many of his inaccuracies in “Pagan Religions”, and he merely dismissed her with a wave of his hand. But, far worse are the inaccuracies that Ben Whitmoore had disclosed showing that Hutton insisted (in building his argument that medieval witchcraft could not have been Pagan to any degree) that a select group of scholars support his conclusions when they don’t; many whom he cited actually state quite the opposite in fact! How has he been allowed to get away with this? Hutton clearly hasn’t “responded” to the degree that he should have. And, considering his dodgie-moves earlier in his career, I sincerely doubt that he will directly respond to the black-and-white inaccuracies in “Triumph” this time when he write an article for “Pomegranate”. Indeed, when he does so, it’s generally an article that amounts to, “While it may seem that I was mistaken, I wasn’t *really* wrong!” (and provides research along those lines in an attempt to get us to look in some other direction even though his words and deeds have already been consigned to history). However, I sincerely did enjoy that his distanced himself from those Pagans that view and describe his work as “definitive” as if it has “closed the book” on the history of Witchcraft. I have expressed that to fellow Pagans over the years only to be rebuked as a “Murrayite” (which I am not).

          • Apuleius

            The bottom line is that Murray's writings tell us much more about the actual history of Paganism than Hutton's. Murray at least had the right basic idea: that the Christianization of Europe was actually quite superficial and incomplete, and that to the extent that people and communities were incompletely Christianized, to that extent they were, and are, still Pagan.

          • Ian Phanes

            Bookhousegal says that [Hutton in TotM was] "focusing on 'continuity' and 'founders' to the exclusion of their context, which is honestly more in keeping with the standards by which 'revealed traditions' claim their own legitimacy than it is really central to modern Paganism. "

            It was much more central to modern paganism, and particularly in Modern Pagan Witchcraft when Hutton began his work. When TofM was published, a large number of the initiatory Witches in the US did still believe that they had received direct initiatory lineage going back to pre-Christian Europe.

          • Jonathan

            That might be true.

            But to write an entire book just to disprove that myth? It seems like a rather uninsightful thesis for a book as ambitious as TotM.

          • Ian Phanes

            "a book as ambitious as TotM"?

            I think you've ascribed to TotM much greater ambitions than Hutton did. He spends a fair bit of time in his introduction circumscribing the ambitions of the book. He calls it a "microhistory" for a reason.

            Also, as he said in the interview that started this thread, he didn't write the book to disprove a false history, but to provide an alternative history for those that had already discerned the other as false.

        • kauko

          I think that the question of whether the people transmiting these ancient, Pagan traditions were in fact Christian or secretly Pagan and posing as Christians is an interesting and complex one. Speaking just from what I know of how Finnish Pagan myth, folklore, deities, traditions etc were passed down it does seem that, certainly by the 19 and 20th centuries the rune singers who were passing on this material certainly thought of themselves as Christian. Pentikäinen actually spends a good bit of time exploring the religious world of the rune singers in his book Kalevala Mythology, and interesting these people, mostly living in Eastern Finland/ Karelia belonged to a very strict offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church known as the 'Old Believers' who had rejected reforms in the Orthodox Church centuries ago. I even seem to remember Pentikäinen mentioning how many of these rune singers would condemn anything Pagan (for example joik style singing among the Sami and Karelian Finns and other shamanic practices) while they themselves were part of an unbroken chain passing down a Pagan oral tradition that went back thousands of years (interestingly Lönnrot himself, who assembled folkloric material into the Kalevala, was a very devout Lutheran).

          • kauko

            So, I think there was very much a disconnect among the European Christians who were passing down this Pagan heritage to the point that they weren't even able to see that what they were doing might have been Pagan or non-Christian. I remember one instance of a Karelian women who was one of the few who remembered any of the Finnish rune songs going into the mid-20th century, who Pentikäinen interviewed and recorded material from. One of the songs she remembered was an ancient creation myth, but she was completely unaware that that was what it was. She thought that it was a song about the 'bird of God'.

          • kauko

            cont. again (it wouldn't let me post all this as one comment)
            I think that part of the problem with the question of Pagan survivals, continuous traditions etc is that for some people short of finding proof of a European group with an unbroken heritage to the pre-Christian world who specifically thought of themselves as Pagan and not Christian, they reject the idea that Paganism survived the Christianization of Europe. While others are content to see obviously Pagan ideas, practices, deities, rituals and so on continuing on through Christian Europe up to the modern day, even if the people practicing/ passing them on thought of themselves as Christians, as proof enough of the fact that Paganism never died and we all have every right to see ourselves as the inheritors of a Pagan tradition. Personally, I belong to the latter group.

          • Cat C-B

            And where nuance and a basic grasp of the human tendency toward syncretism are preserved, I, for one, find your position quite reasonable. Hell, I'm Wiccan, and in terms of an intellectual continuity of ideas, within the history of ideas, not only do I think I could say the same, but I find the very twists and turns of the story by which I have come to inherit the form of Paganism I have fascinating… and I have so much less right to consider myself an inheritor of European pre-Christian paganism than you have, Kauko!

            But I think that it is dangerous to oversimplify… and dull. I speak English, a language that is the result of a beautiful syncretism over the course of centuries of both Romance and Germanic languages. I do not claim to speak Old English, though I found studying that language fascinating…

            Modern Paganism is a language in its own right, too, if only because all of our practice gets to be informed by discussions like this one. Those of us who choose to reconstruct ancient forms of paganism choose to do so, as artists choose to work in classical forms.

            Those of us who choose to practice syncretic Paganism have as legitimate a choice in our branches of the Pagan tree, as artists who practice in a more modern form. This choice is new, as is our consciousness of who we are, and our commonalities and distinctions.

            I just hate seeing it all washed flat, like a badly painted watercolor, by insistence that all we are is what once was, inherited whole cloth from our granny's granny's granny, who read tea leaves in the ancient Egyptian way…

          • kauko

            "Modern Paganism is a language in its own right, too"

            I completely agree with that. I for one, although I tend toward the reconstructionist approach, don't believe in treating my form of Paganism like a dead relic that must always answer to what the latest in archaeology, history, linguistics says my ancestors did. It's a living thing that is ever changing, just as all traditions change and evolve. I've half-jokingly said in the past that I don't so much practice Finnish Paganism as Finnish-American Paganism, the added 'American' being a recognition that I live very far away both spacially and temporally from my ancient ancestors in Finland before Christianity came along. When I study ancient Finnish Paganism it's not to make it into a Bible that I have to always answer to, but as a starting point to take inspiration from and develop my own understanding of the gods and traditions of my ancestors and what they mean to me centuries later.

          • Don

            I'm diggin the waistcoat.

          • Guest

            Seriously. If you didn't know he was a historian that would be the outfit to let you know.

          • elnigma

            Hutton can also rock the tweed.

          • Bookhousegal

            He's certainly allowed to dress like the next Doctor. :)

          • Cathryn Bauer

            Yes, he'd fit right in at Hogwarts. Maybe he could be Professor of Magical Legacies or some such.

          • Bookhousegal

            Hee. Sounds kind of trivial, but I've always thought Pagans should have a little more fun with the sartorial aspects of life. Maybe it's cause I kind of grew up in subculture, but I always felt a bit affectionate for hat bit of a penchant for a little anachronism I saw developing before society got all tense and stuff. :)

            Nuffin wrong with a touch of Hogwarts, I suppose. :)

          • kauko

            I also have to say that wasn't saying or implying that reconstructionist traditions have more validity than others. I was actually trying to say the opposite, that Wicca and various other syncretic Paganisms are just as validly inheritors to ancient Paganism as reconstructionist approaches.

          • Cat C-B

            Yes–so I understood. We are led to worship/practice in the ways that "speak to our condition," if I may borrow a Quaker phrase. To say that something speaks to you and not to me, or vice versa, is not to imply a value comparison.

        • Cat C-B

          Hutton is clear that he is talking about "cultural streams," and streams carried by self-identified Christians which would eventually be "filtered out" to result in our modern Paganism.

          It is not at all clear to me what you are talking about. Sometimes I think you read others words the way that fundamentalist Christians read their Bibles: proof-texting, seeking out those words (and only those words) that support your pre-determined conclusions.

          If I am wrong, than I am afraid I am guilty of dramatically misunderstanding most of what you have written here, not just today, but on many occasions.

          • Apuleius

            First of all, there is obviously no clear bright line separating "cultural streams" from "religious traditions". And these (four) cultural streams are all characterized, by Hutton, in terms of their relationship to Pagan religion.

            Secondly, Hutton fudges on the issue of religious identity. Big time. He provides no coherent argument for why people whose religiosity is derived from both Paganism and Christianity (which he explicitly concedes is the case) should only be considered Christians.

          • Cat C-

            It is odd to me that you should insist that those who self-identify as both Christian and not Pagan should be considered to be Pagan in the case of the pre-modern world… but have such difficulty with the fact that I identify as both Quaker (though not Christian) and Pagan.

            Perhaps it's that you would insist that I am Christian, despite my lack of adherence to typical Christian beliefs or self-identification with Christianity, on the grounds that, Quakers having been at a time in the past an exclusively Christian tradition, they are therefore always so, regardless of the ideas, practices, and identification of individuals or groups within the RSoF?

            Is it that self-identification itself that seems to you to lack utility as a measure of religion?

            Or is it that you are more willing to bend your interpretation of history in a direction that gives an outcome you desire than one you do not?

          • Apuleius

            Cat, this really isn't about you. Nor is it about whatever it is that you think I have said about you or about Quaker-Pagans, which you clearly have not understood.

          • Peter M

            Cat, I agree with you on what Hutton is saying. There is a big difference between the survival of pagan ideas and the ongoing survival of self-identified pagan people. Pagan ideas, images,and myths were preserved by self-identified Christians after the classical world ended. They incorporated these things into their magical practices, art, literature, and even architecture (St. Mark's in Venice has statues of Hercules on it!) Heck, pagan gods like Jupiter, Hecate, and Diana even appear as characters in some of Shakespeare's plays. But I don't think Shakespeare or the architects in Venice identified as pagans. That's an important distinction.

          • embreis

            It seems important to me to remember that this practice of classifying people by their religion is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Pagans of the ancient world, after all, did not know that they were Pagans. One might — though few were able to — travel from Syria to Egypt to Greece to Rome to Britain participating in rites for hundreds of gods and goddesses under different names and with different rites, and have no sense that he was changing from one religion to another. I don't know that Christianity is entirely responsible for the idea that to be of one religion excluded all others, but certainly it was the principle vector for the spread of that idea.
            Medieval people who went to church on Sunday but reverenced the local wood gods also may have thought of themselves as Christians — they would have been told that they were Christians all their lives — but in fact were propagating a Pagan view of the gods whether they knew it or not.
            Of course, that's not what Hutton's concerned about. His interest is to determine whether he can, by tradition academic research, verify the claims of people who, as Gardner did, claim to have access to some secret pure teaching and use that claim as a basis to establish their authority.

          • Apuleius

            Gardner did not "claim to have access to some secret pure teachings". First of all, all Initiatory traditions have "secret" teachings, so that is a non-issue.

            So the issue is to what extent did Gardner claim that Wicca was a "pure" tradition. And the answer to that is well known to anyone familiar with what Gardner actually said and wrote. Gardner explicitly (and repeatedly) explained that Wicca is not "pure" at all, rather it has been influenced by a wide range of different traditions from different cultures and different historical periods.

            There is no excuse for the continued misrepresentation of Gardner in this way.

          • Cat C-B

            That's a good point, Embreis, and one I haven't considered from quite that perspective before. Thanks for the insight.

  • Jess Matz

    Professor Hutton has done such good work to legitimize Paganism as a field of study and we can only benefit from the works of scholars who are willing to look at the history of the NeoPagan movement with the same kind of respect and objectivity he shows in his work. It is much more difficult for us to take an objective look at our history and practices because we are immersed in the subculture. There are things we simply do not see because of this.

    • harmonyfb

      It is much more difficult for us to take an objective look at our history and practices because we are immersed in the subculture.

      I disagree. It's not difficult at all for Pagans to look at the history of their own movement objectively. Academia is awash with folks who practice what they study and lecture about.

      • Nick_Ritter

        When I was looking at options for higher education in religious studies, I asked a professor what his position as on one studying a religion that one belonged to (i.e, what is usually called "participant-observer studies"). I liked his reply, which was something like: "If someone has been in love, no one assumes that that person can't write objectively about love. It's similar with belonging to a religion."

        The point being, I suppose, that academia is more open to the idea that a participant in some pagan tradition can be an academic specializing in that tradition as an area of study. if academia can be open to that idea, then so should we.

  • Henry Buchy

    Wonder if Professor Hutton has perused JF Campbell's Popular tales of the West Highlands?
    But then he is discussing 'Modern Pagan Witchcraft',;-)

  • Hecate

    He can't capitalize "Witch"?

    • Gareth

      He can't really win on this. If he does not capitalise 'witch' you get the above but if he did you will find there are people who practice witchcraft but will insist that it is not a religion and should not be capitalised.

      • Peg Aloi

        Generally in scholarly writing, 'witch' is not capitalized, or, if it is when referring to practitioners of modern pagan witchcraft, it is not when referring to the witch figure from antiquity. Similar guidelines pertain the capitalization (or non) of the word pagan. Part of the reason also has to do with the fact that both 'witchcraft' and 'paganism' are not always considered religions per se; the "religious" branch of modern witchcraft is Wicca (hence 'Wiccan'–a misnomer if you ask me, but one which is used pervasively–is nearly always capitalized). As for the modern use of 'pagan' as a noun (meaning one who follows pagan beliefs), this is not a religion, but an umbrella term that generally refers to earth-based spirituality and beliefs. So capitalizing it is not appropriate.

        There's a lot of disagreement on this. Some academic publications have decided to capitalize 'witch' in modern contexts (the Pomegranate, for one).

        • Valerie Herron

          Thanks for this, I had always wondered about the technical rules of capitalizing the above mentioned words.

        • Ian Phanes

          The differentiation of capitalization also has resonance with the capitalization of Mason and Druid. That is, a mason is a worker in stone or brick, but a Mason is a practitioner of a symbolic system inspired by some of the images of masons. And a druid was a member of the intellectual class in ancient Celtic societies, but a Druid is a practitioner of a symbolic system inspired by the images of druids. And a witch is a practitioner of European or European-derived folk-magic, but a Witch is a practitioner of a symbolic system inspired by the images of witches. That is, a Mason is not usually a mason, and a Druid is never a druid, and only some Witches are witches.

          On the other hand, I don't capitalize "pagan" when referring to modern pagans because modern pagans are pagans, not doing something fundamentally different that happens to be inspired by images of pagans.

    • Henry Buchy

      sure he can , like so many others. Look at how many have bought his books;-)

    • Crystal7431

      No, he's far too cool for that. ::snark::

    • Kullervo

      If you're using "witch" as a proper noun, you capitalize it. If you are using it as a common noun, you don't. Same as words like "priest" or "bishop." It has nothing to do with whether witchcraft is a religion or not.

  • Kevin

    I firmly believe that there is a big difference between Pagans of say 2,000 years ago & they way they worshiped then today. Like someone else stated you can pick any one religion & it to has went though some type of change.

  • Amanda

    Am I the only one going, "THAT'S what Ronald Hutton looks like?"

    (It's just not what I had imagined.)

  • Anonymous

    Hutton. knows jolly well that he’s talking tosh. But! It does persuade idiots who are silly enough to seek to contend with his willfully controversial assertions, to pay for his dreary books. I mean! Seeking to warn pagan groups that they may attract ‘ridicule’ if they persist in claiming ancient antecedents? A chap dressed like an Edwardian fop for effect, tells others to fear ridicule?
    Well I won’t be sucked in to purchasing any of his selectivist, so called history works. He won’t make a pennorth’ of royalty from me! It’s a long time since I read either, but I would certainly opt for a read of the Beano, before giving this Dandy, any further attention whatsoever.

  • Coryllus

    Hutton. knows jolly well that he’s talking tosh. But! It does persuade idiots who are silly enough to seek to contend with his willfully controversial assertions, to pay for his dreary books. I mean! Seeking to warn pagan groups that they may attract ‘ridicule’ if they persist in claiming ancient antecedents? A chap dressed like an Edwardian fop for effect, tells others to fear ridicule?
    Well I won’t be sucked in to purchasing any of his selectivist, so called history works. He won’t make a pennorth’ of royalty from me! It’s a long time since I read either, but I would certainly opt for a read of the Beano, before giving this Dandy, any further attention whatsoever.

  • kenneth

    I believe there are deep and meaningful connections between ancient and modern paganism, but I largely concur with Hutton's assertion that there is no evidence of unbroken, unaltered pre-Christian traditions surviving down to recent times. I also feel the need to insist otherwise is rooted in the cultural baggage we carry from Judeo-Christian backgrounds – ie the notion that legitimacy is conferred by "apostolic succession." I still run across people who maintain they have an unbroken ancient family tradition. They have no way to prove it, I have neither the time or interest to disprove it. If they're saying it because they believe it themselves, bully for them. If they're saying it because they hope to impress me, they aren't.

  • Siegfried Goodfellow

    What tradition is ever "unaltered"? Traditions adjust with the times. To me, the idea that there were no traditions passed down in folklore from ancient pagan times is absurd. It's simply absurd on its face. All kinds of things passed down, and relatively intact, although, of course they adapted to the times as well. Veneration of folk figures deriving from pagan times and sometimes with pagan names is well documented. People who don't know this kind of thing are really, really ignorant.

  • Kullervo

    I think we should be talking more about the persistence of classical, pagan and mythic themes in art and literature. I don't think it is sufficient to call it "the persistent love affair of Christian culture with the art and literature of the ancient world." Certainly Christian culture has had such a love affair, but I think that's only a little part of what is going on, and I don't think it really explains what the artists and poets have been doing. By dumping all of the artists and the poets of the past 2,000ish years into the "Christian world" bucket, he suggests a very different cultural point of view and relationship between artist and subject than I think is the case.

  • Valerie Herron

    In all of his work that I have read, Dr. Hutton basically says that there is no historical evidence for an unbroken Pagan tradition. He clearly outlines that traditions have transformed (our modern holidays) and that there is obviously surviving documentation of ancient cultures and traditions that people have drawn inspiration from throughout time, but there is no evidence of an unbroken line of priesthood or specific religion. If you look at any of his works, you will also see that this was not a slap-dash effort of research on his part, he scours the freakin' Earth!

    The reactions to Ronald Hutton's works remind me a lot of the Christians reaction to showing them the Epic of Gilgamesh, or pointing out the cultural connections of Jesus to the Greek "The Good Shepperd" and Dionysus, and Osiris. If your religion's past isn't quite how you imagined it, it doesn't invalidate it. In fact, Dr. Hutton points out that the various forms of Neo-paganism are extremely remarkable, because these are the only religions to die and be reborn into faiths that have evolved to suit our present.

  • Valerie Herron

    I would also like to add that I am not challenging any claims of secretive, unbroken traditions, just speaking on my personal interpretations of Hutton's works.

  • Vermillion

    "There is also a need for more books or web sites, which make accessible to Pagans the riches of pagan imagery and ideas as developed both in the ancient world and in the Christian centuries, as resources for creative use in the present."

    For our Hellenic friends I hope they've all bookmarked Sannion's eklogai blog ( as I think it fits this quote.

    As for the rest of the interview, fascinating. I'm only now finally reading Triumph of the Moon so I can't really give any informed opinion as to the book (as I have not finished it) but I'm glad to see that Hutton will be posting a rebuttal to Whitmore in the Pom.

  • Peg Aloi

    Well done, Caroline! and thanks for sharing this here, Jason.

  • Star Foster

    Excellent! I'm a big fan of Hutton's and will have to bookmark this to read at leisure.

  • Apuleius

    Valerie Herron: "In all of his work that I have read, Dr. Hutton basically says that there is no historical evidence for an unbroken Pagan tradition."

    Ronald Hutton: "[E]ver since I first began to write about paganism, in my Pagan Religions book, I have emphasised that there is a direct line of transmission between the ancient and modern kinds, [of Paganism], though the medium of ritual magic. This was a clear counter-cultural tradition, in opposition to both pagan and Christian religious norms in Europe, but rooted firmly in the orthodox attitudes to religion and magic taken in ancient Egypt. Not only does it represent a demonstrable continuity, text to text and person to person, across the centuries, but Egyptian magical texts contain the clearest parallels to the beliefs and practices of modern Pagan witchcraft in the ancient world. In Witches, Druids and King Arthur, I went further, to show how astral magic in particular had opened a space for the continued veneration of pagan deities within a broadly Christian framework, which more or less spans the gap between the end of ancient paganism and the appearance of its modern counterpart. I am tempted to speculate that modern Pagans would have recognised the importance of this connection, and been able credibly to claim a direct and unbroken lineage of descent from antiquity, had they not been sidetracked by an error made by academic scholars in the nineteenth century and perpetuated by them into the early and mid twentieth, of identifying the people prosecuted for witchcraft in the early modern period as pagans."
    [Emphases added]

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but this illustrates that it is not so much his critics that Hutton now finds himself needing to respond to, as his would-be supporters who wildly misrepresent what Hutton "basically says".

  • kauko

    "but I largely concur with Hutton's assertion that there is no evidence of unbroken, unaltered pre-Christian traditions surviving down to recent times."

    I think that European peoples like, say, the Mari or the Sami (among others) would disagree with you about that claim.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I suspect that Pagan leaders in the 1930s to the 1960s felt a need for antiquity as though that were necessary for authenticity. That's unnecessary; authenticity comes from within.

  • Apuleius

    "I largely concur with Hutton's assertion that there is no evidence of unbroken, unaltered pre-Christian traditions surviving down to recent times."

    Jesus Christ on a bicycle, people. No one has ever claimed that "unaltered pre-Christian traditions have survived down to recent times."

    If one removes the word "unaltered", however, then Hutton here and elsewhere does state, emphatically, that pre-Christian religious traditions have survived down to recen times, and that these traditions have survived by way of "a direct line of transmission."

    Kenneth, can you read?

  • Boris

    And yet there may be some connections between old and modern Paganism which are unique to Wicca. For instance, in Dutch, there used to be an expression De duivel slaat zijn wijf = The devil is beating his wife, said when there is a thunderstorm and the sun is shining at the same time. The same expression existed in French: Le diable bat sa femme. In German they used to say: Der Teufel schlägt seine Mutter = The devil is beating his mother. I have heard the Dutch expression in the fifties, my source for the French and German equivalents is an old book on Dutch folklore (Maarten Douwes Teenstra: Booze Kunsten, Kampen 1846, page 89).
    Expressions like these tend to disappear in modern city life, but they point to a story about the devil or some pagan god beating or scourging a goddess, his wife or his mother. Once, this myth must have been known in a large part of Western Europe. Gardner’s Myth of the Descent of the Goddess seems to belong to the same tradition. My conclusion is that the ritual use of the scourge was not a quirk of Gardner’s (as some have suggested). Instead, it may point to a real survival of genuine pagan myth.

  • Cat C-B

    Yes, they probably have the best claim of any European tradition. I don't think Hutton has dealt with their history, of course, specializing, as he does, in the British Isles.

    I'd love to see a good, solid piece of scholarship on these and other traditions that were entirely pagan in religious identity and practice until recently (and perhaps, in places, through the present day).

  • Cat C-B

    I don't think anyone makes the claim that no traditions were passed down in folklore from ancient paganism. The question becomes what level of folklore and folk practice rise to the level of religion. And as definitions of religion are notoriously slippery, there will always be difficulty settling this question.

  • Apuleius

    Could someone direct me to where in this interview Ronald Hutton "answers his critics"? Specifically, where does he address some actual criticism that has been directed at his work? To be even more clear, where does he cite by name even one specific critic, and indicate where this critic has published said criticism, and then where does Hutton provide his "answer" to this criticism? I don't see it.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    He refers to an upcoming article of his in The Pomegranate which includes a section by section response to "Trials of the Moon."

  • Brannen

    Hutton seems to be saying "Those tires, that steering column, and that transmission came out of a '58 Buick" NOT "that's a '58 Buick." There's a fundamental difference in statement between those two.

  • elnigma

    Being counter-cultural doesn't mean many of those ritual magicians weren't also Christians.

  • Valerie Herron

    I don't believe what I said "wildly misrepresents" Hutton's work.

    To quote what I just said, refraining from vehement bold text: "He clearly outlines that traditions have transformed (our modern holidays) and that there is obviously surviving documentation of ancient cultures and traditions that people have drawn inspiration from throughout time, but there is no evidence of an unbroken line of priesthood or specific religion."

    The above statement from Hutton basically says that people have been practicing magic all throughout the centuries, and that is the continuity. What he is speaking of is not one, specific, tradition. He also outlines how there was a survival of Pagan myth and tradition through folklore and how it influenced medieval folklore and magical practices. This also does not outline a specific, continuing tradition, and also does not contradict what I have stated. He concludes this to say that Pagans can technically claim an unbroken tradition of magical practice, not a specific religion or tradition. Again, this does not contradict what I have stated, nor is what I have stated a wild, misrepresentation of the above Hutton quote.

    You are splitting hairs. I'm sure you will argue with this as well. Have fun with that :)

  • harmonyfb

    in Dutch, there used to be an expression De duivel slaat zijn wijf = The devil is beating his wife, said when there is a thunderstorm and the sun is shining at the same time.

    You know, my grandparents used to say that to me all the time, when I was growing up (60's and early 70's) – if the sun was shining while it rained, my Granny would say "The devil's whippin' his wife!"

    I had never found another family where that was a common saying.

  • Flora

    Extremely cool, Boris! Would love to correspond about this if you have the time…

    Flora Green

  • fyreflye
  • elnigma

    Even more, it seems to me dishonest to claim a surviving practice is solely 'pagan' (or an 'unbroken' pagan practice) if mostly Christians been the ones doing or preserving it for hundreds of years. it wouldn't be dishonest to claim the roots of some practices and stories are pagan.

  • chuck_cosimano

    I never heard it either but I'll bet in a few days I'll find someone who thinks it is proof of antedeluvian bdsm.

  • Nolawitch

    I'm from Mississippi, with Dutch on my mother's side. It was a common saying when I was a kid, and I still hear it among the older generations.

  • embreis

    I still say that, as my grandmother did, in Georgia (USA Georgia, that is)

  • Nick_Ritter

    My family used to say that. We're from Texas, originally from northern Germany.

  • Neville Thunderbelly

    My family originally hails from England and Germany, and I heard that frequently from my great grandmother and grandmother.

  • Vermillion

    Correct! Thanks, never would have caught that I failed up the link :)

  • Jay Logan

    Actually, Vermillion was correct, the parantheses just screwed with the hyperlink. Your link, Fyreflye, was to an entirely different blog in a entirely different language.

  • Peter M

    I agree. I think even if they invoked pagan deities in their workings, the Christian god was always envisioned as being at the top of the hierarchy of spirits.

  • kauko

    I think that that depends on whether the practice has become in any way Christianized. If it has then it can be said to be just as Christian as Pagan. If, on the other hand, the practice (or whatever else it may be) has retained its original Pagan nature and in no way reflects any aspect of Christianity I think that it is fair to characterize it as essentially Pagan, even if the people who do it see themselves as Christian. When Christianity spread across Europe it didn't replace Paganism it formed a new syncretic religion with all of the local forms of Paganism. Paganism did indeed survive to varying degrees in different parts of Europe, it just survived in a form that had merged into Christianity. I could reverse your statement and ask why should Christianity be privileged in examining the folk practices of people in regions where Christianity has spread? When Buddhism spread throughout East and South East Asia is became syncretized with local indigenous religions, does that mean that when talking about the folk practices of those people we can only attribute those practices to Buddhism or can we also recognize that the local, indigenous beliefs continued on in those practices, if in a new form?

  • Apuleius

    That's an interesting theory, Peter. So, according to you, a person is Christian, and purely and only Christian, no matter how many Pagan Gods they worship, as long as they envision Jesus as the Supreme God over all others? And just to be clear, you are stating that such a person is in no way shape or form a Pagan?

    And how exactly do you claim to know what all those people have been "envisioning", anyway?

  • Crystal7431

    In most cases this is indeed how religion is described in many East Asian countries, Buddhism flavored by indigenous folk practices/beliefs. However, Buddhism is more open to being syncretic, therefore it changes how they perceive and speak about religion/ belief. Buddhism proselytizes but it usually doesn't play the One and Only game.

  • elnigma

    Yes, Buddhism basically mixes with the local beliefs wherever it goes. That's why every country with Buddhism has their own Buddhist religion.
    If a new form exists it's not unbroken, it's changed, if your definition of pagan means polytheistic or non-Christian, then most Christians would not be practitioners.

  • kauko

    It's true that Buddhism lacks the hostile dynamic with indigenous traditions that Christianity has, but I still feel like the comparison stands in that you can't neatly seperate the Pagan influence on the Christianities that resulted as is spread throughout Europe. We can even look to other non-European syncretic Christian/Pagan traditions, Voudoo or Santeria for example. No one at the Wild Hunt seems to have an issue with identifying these tradtions as some how Pagan even though both owe their existence to Pagan traditions hiding under the guise of Catholicism. No one here seems to question whether they respresent a continuation of earlier African-Pagan religions. But if one makes the same observation about various European traditions that clearly stand outside of the Christian religion it is rejected as not being a legitimate continuation of various pre-Christian European Paganisms.

  • kauko

    cont. (because again it doesn't seem to let me post more than one paragraph)

    Honestly, I can't help but see this whole debate as being so Wicca-centric or at least Western European-centric that it fails to see the wide variety of forms of Paganism that existed throughout Europe and how strongly many of those traditions (especially on the outskirts of Europe) have remained throughout the centuries despite the imposition of Christianity. My own Pagan practice only exists because of a living oral tradition in Finland that continued to pass on the ancient Finnish myths right up to the 19th and 20th centuries. This didn't happen because of the power of Christianity, it happened because those myth, those stories, those gods, those spirits of the land, rivers, oceans, mountains and forests continued to live in the hearts of some people, people who thought it was worth passing on to every generation.

  • Apuleius

    Valerie, you stated that Hutton "basically says" that "there is no historical evidence for an unbroken Pagan tradition."

    In the interview, though, Ronald Hutton states that in all of his writings comparing modern and ancient Paganism that he has "emphasised that there is a direct line of transmission between the ancient and modern kinds [of Paganism]."

    What you say Hutton says is the exact opposite of what Hutton actually says. This is what I call "wildly misrepresenting."

    For a while Hutton did try to insist on limiting the "pedigree" of modern Paganism to "magic", while denying that there was any continuity in terms of religion. However, as of 2003, with the publication of "Witches, Druids and King Arthur", Hutton acknowledged that "certain types of ancient religion" going back at least to late antiquity, have the same kind of magico-religious character as modern Paganism (of the Wiccan variety), thus accepting that modern Paganism has ancient roots as a religious tradition, not just as a magical tradition. In the present interview, Hutton goes even further and states that the tradition of "ritual magic" that provides the continuity between ancient and modern Paganism, is "rooted firmly in the orthodox attitudes to religion and magic taken in ancient Egypt."

  • therioshamanism

    Thank you for this gem!

  • elnigma

    You have an excellent point.
    Most of this this about British originating traditions, and Britain has been mostly Christian for a long time, and where even being the wrong kind of Christian at the wrong time been a matter of bloodshed

  • Cat C-B

    It makes sense that the debate has been Wicca-centric, both because that is the tradition Hutton examines in most detail (with Druids next in line) and because, numerically, Wiccans have been the most significant group in the Pagan Renaissance of our times. That is changing, and other Paganisms than Wicca and Druidry deserve serious histories of their own. Hopefully, we'll get those, too, in time.

    It's important to remember how long ago Hutton began writing his books; the flowering of Recon Paganism is a good and welcome but also relatively recent thing–again, at least in terms of numbers of adherents.

  • Peter M

    I'm saying that if someone said they were a Christian, they were a Christian. I'm letting them define themselves. You may say they were worshiping pagan gods, but they would probably say they were just buying good will from the faeries, commanding demons, or invoking the planetary powers of Jupiter. They wouldn't say they were worshiping those beings.

    We can know what they were thinking by what they've left us – art, literature, artifacts, etc. And those indicate to me that the Christian god was viewed as the supreme power. In diagrams of the heavenly spheres, he's sitting above all the planetary spheres named after the Roman gods. Ceremonial magicians would use the names of the Christian god to command elementals and other spirits. Faeries could be scared away by church bells. In Dante's Inferno various pagan entities (Charon, Geryon, the Harpies) are working in Hell, carrying out the Christian god's plans. If you can show me some text or artwork from Western Europe's Middle Ages or Renaissance that shows the Christian god doing the bidding of a pagan deity I would love to see it!

    In short: I'd love to say that Shakespeare was a Pagan because he wrote about pagan gods, but I think he was a Christian who used pagan themes in his art.

  • Cat C-B

    (This is me. Bad keyboard tricks.)

  • harmonyfb

    We were from Tennessee. I'm kind of boggled that there are other families out there who shared that weird phrase. :)

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Hutton does, however, distinguish between "ancient and modern kinds." His "direct line of transmission" is folk rather than institutional.

  • Apuleius

    Your use of the terms "institutional" and "folk", Baruch, is completely arbitrary. The main line of "transmission", in Hutton's view, is the "learned" tradition of ritual magic, which might not be exactly "institutional", but it is certainly not "folk".

  • Nick_Ritter

    "I'm saying that if someone said they were a Christian, they were a Christian."

    Even if, as was certainly the case throughout Europe for several centuries, saying otherwise would have resulted in ostracism, torture, or death? How much can you trust someone's self-identification as a Christian if that self-identification is de facto (and often de jure) an enforced one?

  • Apuleius

    Peter M. : "I'm saying that if someone said they were a Christian, they were a Christian."

    It is a well established and uncontroversial fact that lying about one's true religious beliefs was a ubiquitous phenomenon throughout the history of Christendom from the fourth century through the Early Modern era.

    In particular, Augustine of Hippo explicitly acknowledges that those who are forced to accept orthodox Christian teachings under threat of punishment will (obviously) do so insincerely. At first, Augustine used this as an argument against the use of coercive measures to combat heresy, but over time he developed the (truly and deeply evil) theory that eventually those who are forced to pretend to believe will come to sincerely believe.

    Some dissenting Christian thinkers even developed a theological justification for lying about their true beliefs, called "Nicodemism".

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    But there was no church of magick.

  • Jonathan

    I agree with your main point. But I don't believe "folk" and "learned" are mutually exclusive. If someone studies a folk instrument or midwifery from a local mistress or master, then that person is "learned" in that subject.

    One of my main contentions with Hutton is that he restricts the word "learned" to academic or clerical environments.

  • Bookhousegal

    Well, technically, many forms of Wicca allow, if not encourage doing just that. Somehow I have trouble picturing most Pagans I know *actually* doing that these days, though, we can be an ornery bunch about that sort of thing. But we're not actually *required* to be martyrs. :)

  • elnigma

    Yeah, some folks lie that they are Christian, that doesn't mean that many ritual magicians didn't believe in Jesus. I'm more inclined to think those who profess such faiths wouldn't be lying for said reason when they already showed they didn't care all that much about what society thought when they decided to pursue ritual magic.
    And if someone was raised in a primarily Christian country by a Christian family, it's very likely Christianity has some resonance in their life. Even if it occasionally manifests in strong hatred and rebellion against their milk faith.

  • Apuleius

    It is beyond doubt that to whatever extent ritual magicians have believed in Jebus, a great many of them have placed far greater emphasis on the teachings of Pythagoras, Plato and Hermes Trismegistus than on anything found in the Christian "bible".

    It is also beyond doubt that at least in some cases (and these are quite important cases, like that of Michael Psellos, Gemistos Plethon, Marsilio Ficino, and Cornelius Agrippa) there is real reason to question how Christian they really were, if at all. In particular, they were all accused, during their lives, by those who knew them personally, of being enemies of the Christian religion.

  • kauko

    I definitely get that Hutton's speciality and focus deals with Britain, Wicca/ religious witchcraft, my problem with the interview, though, was that he doesn't really specify that he might only be refering to those things. He throws the generic word 'pagan' around a lot without being more specific. So, when I read the interview it often felt like he was uncritically lumping all of Europe together and treating the questions of Pagan survivals like a question with a single answer, instead of being a complex question whose answer differs a lot depending on just where in Europe and which group of people he's talking about.

  • kauko


    I have a similar complaint about the way the discussion in the comments here have gone, with 'pagan' being generically thrown around usually with a dismissal of the notion that Paganism survived in any way the Christianization process (compounded by people entering the debate with different definitions of just what Pagan survival actually is). If people here are restricting their debate only on the question of Wicca/ witchcraft and whether some kind Pagan witch-cult survived in Western Europe and became the modern day religion of WIcca, that's a very specific question and debate, but people aren't being clear that that's what they are discussing, if it is. Instead, I'm seeing blanket statements that Paganism didn't survive in Europe, often with the defense that because the people called themselves Christian that made every that they did 'Christianity', a position which I just don't personally agree with.

  • kauko

    Oh, I've not claimed that anything has gone down through the centuries 'unbroken' or 'unchanged', everything changes. I'm just contending that the religious environment that emerged over the centuries it took Christianity to spread over Europe could arguable be called Christo-Pagan. I reject the notion that we should privilege the first half of that by claiming that only it survived and accounted for what it was people were doing religiously, when there were obvious Pagan components that continued on through the centuries in the religious/ spiritual lives of people throughout Europe. I've said before that Paganism in Europe didn't truly begin to truly disappear until all of the social/ political/ technological upheavals of that 19th-20th centuries. Were it not for the modern Pagan revival over the last decades I think that that Pagan heritage that had survived through the centuries would have disappeared under the force of the pressures of the modern world.

  • Apuleius

    What is a "church"? Actually, I'll bet you know the answer to that one. "Wherever two or more are gathered …."

  • Jonathan

    "But there was no church of magick."

    There was no such "church" or "temple" for the vast majority of ancient pagan traditions, most of which were rural and based in the homestead or small community gathering spaces.

    Also, Church is an obviously Christian word.

  • Henry Buchy

    I'm pretty much liking what's been said in this thread so far.
    this isn't so much a direct reply to the previous posts or posters, as much as just some of my general thoughts.
    yep Hutton pretty much focuses on 'Modern Pagan Witchcraft', as he seems to refer to it, and as a 'religion' I'd agree with him as far as origins with Gardner et al, as in British specific.
    As far as witchcraft as a religion in it's own right, I'd tend to agree it's not descended from those poor souls persecuted by the inquisional courts.Historically, even as far back as sumer, witches were always free agents and worked outside of the local religious paradigm, but also free to work within it, if it suited them. Witches by any of the synonomous terms, as Hutton references, were pretty much outside of 'culture' or cultural streams, so of course there will be lttle 'historical evidence' of the kind Hutton seems to require, except where witches transsect those cultural streams.(continued)

  • Henry Buchy

    Being a witch of almost 40 years of practice and being instructed via a couple of lineaged initiatory trads, one fairly well known now and one more or less a family trad I was adopted into, I doubt there will be any historical evidence of the type that will satisfy historians. Mainly because we just don't care nor have a desire as to whether our historical descent is proven to the satisfaction of the public. Having been outside of cultural streams, being outside of history is no big deal. Nor is remaining outside of the "modern pagan movement".As a witch my religious beliefs are somewhat separate from my craft, though those beliefs do inform aspects of my craft.

  • Lonespark

    Yes, this too.

  • Peter M

    The torture and lying issue is an interesting one, but it cuts both ways. If we assume that everyone whose statements contradict our beliefs were lying (for whatever reason) it makes it really hard to find any valid evidence at all. How do you prove that people were lying anyway? It's really hard. How can you know anything about the past?

    During the assorted witch trials (which were really Christians persecuting other Christians they didn't like) the people who were tortured didn't confess that they were Christian. It was the opposite. They confessed that they were witches, because that's what the torturers wanted to hear. That was the real lie people told to make the pain stop. How can you trust someone's self-identification as a witch in that situation?

    That's one of the problems with Margaret Murray's theory that the witches were pagans. She took the confessions (many extracted under torture) as fact, but ignored the parts that didn't fit her theory. Horned god, nudity, dancing in a circle at night? Murray says fact. Eating babies, flying across the countryside, turning in animals? Murray ignores. The whole idea of a witches' sabbat is suspect because of the torture.

    Have you ever read Carlo Ginzburg's ECSTASIES? It's a great book, and he looks at how the alleged villains at the heart of Europe's imaginary evil conspiracy changed over time from lepers to Jews to finally witches. When ideas and images that survived from shamanism were added to the conspiracy idea – voila, the witches sabbat appeared in the European consciousness.

  • Apuleius

    Peter, we must accept the fact that there is uncertainty concerning religious identify and proceed to try to determine what can still be reasonably believed in the face of such uncertainty. It is a fact that there is always uncertainty about religious identity to some extent. Tony Blair kept his Catholicism hidden throughout his entire adult life until the day after he stepped down as Prime Minister at the age of 54.

    The simple fact is that history is not a good field for people who only deal in certainties and absolutes, for uncertainty and ambiguity are inescapable. Hutton says in the interview "I don’t believe in definitive histories: the writing of history is and should be something that is ever changing and developing." Historians always deal with evidence that is incomplete, but that does not mean that the evidence cannot be reasonably interpreted.

    Three final points (in part restating the above):

    (1) The claim that "if someone said they were a Christian, they were a Christian," is obviously without merit.

    (2) The objection that if evidence produced under duress cannot be accepted at face value then "How can you know anything about the past?" is impossible to take seriously.

    (3) You yourself, Peter, in your "analysis" of Murray, acknowledge that not al professions obtained under torture are to be accepted as factual, otherwise we would have to accept the existence of Satan-worshipping, baby killing Witches throughout European Christendom as proven.

  • Jonathan

    That is a very fruitful comparison. In fact, the exclusive focus on Wicca has blinded us to larger historical patterns, which are evident throughout Europe, in Latin American religion and in the African diaspora. Perhaps Hutton's "rigor" would be a bit more "rigorous" if he could get past his Anglocentricity and inherent class bias.

  • Ian Phanes

    I suspect you are conflating two distinct words in English, which are spelled the same but pronounced differently.

    If one studies a subject, it is said that one has learned it. That "learned" is the past tense of the verb, and is pronounced as one syllable (lernd).

    However, the two syllable adjective "learned" (lern-ed) is typically used to describe individuals who have studied in a literary (not hands-on) tradition. The OED says:
    "Of a person: In early use, that has been taught; instructed, educated. In later use with narrowed sense: Having profound knowledge gained by study, esp. in language or some department of literary or historical science; deeply-read, erudite."

    Before the development of the professional academy in the mid-twentieth century, the term academic was not an appropriate descriptor for the literati, but learned was. Thus, Hutton is simply using the traditional term for a traditional distinction between the learned and ordinary folk.

  • Apuleius

    No matter where one places the accent, there is no clear bright line between "folk" and "learned" magic.

    On this point, here are some excerpts from Ruth Martin's excellent study of the persecution of Witches by the Venetian Inquisition, Witchcraft and the Inquisition in Venice, 1550-1650:

    "[I]t seems that witchcraft of one type or another held an interest for people from all levels of society …. Womens' social standing ranged from the gentildonne who would often consult witches or even try the experiments themselves, through wives of retailers and craftsmen, to washerwomen, arsenal workers (making sails or ropes), the wives of boatmen, prostitutes, to some with no visible means of income at all. Witchcraft had in fact become the main craft of many, hence their titles: la Pirotta, la Caballada, l'Astrologo and la medegha."
    [p. 234]

    "There was also a close degree of contact between the different classes of Venetian society. The rich and poor lived side by side and the flow of ideas and beliefs between them must have been considerable. As we have seen, the distinction between the 'learned' and the 'popular' elements of witchcraft beliefs in Venice was not always easy to define. This distinction has perhaps been overemphasized in the past in any case. Christine Larner's recent work on Scottish witchcraft, for instance, has revealed a considerable degree of interpenetration between the so-called learned and popular beliefs. In Venice this sharing of beliefs by popular and learned elements of society was even closer."
    [p. 243]

    "At a different level of society other forms of witchcraft also were all part of what was presumably a Europen-wide system of popular beliefs. Mary O'Neil describes the same experiments, with some local modifications, being practiced in Modena. The Udine records, and those in Trinity College, Dublin, covering the whole of Italy contain references to similar practices. Indeed, whenever the available records provide us with a glimpse into traditional beliefs and activities, for instance those of the so-called 'cunning folk' in England, we see time and time again what were basically the same types of witchcraft as those observed in Venice.

    "England is indeed the one country outside Italy to display the most obvious similarities with Venice as far as witchcraft practices are concerned …. [T]he nature of the records in each area enables us to see beyond the large trails, the epidemics of witch-hunting, to the day-to-day beliefs and attitudes of the population as a whole …. The Venetian records provide us … with a detailed picture of a way of life … [W]hat Venice shows us was, broadly speaking, the picture throughout most of Europe."
    [p. 241]

  • Ian Phanes

    He's a historian of Britain. His work is supposed to be "Anglocentric".

  • Ian Phanes

    I did not in any way comment on the distance or lack thereof between folk magic and learned magic. In fact, I did not respond in in any way to Jonathan's first paragraph.

    I simply pointed out, in response to his second paragraph, that Hutton "restricts the word "learned" to academic or clerical environments" because that's what the word means in English.

    Please read what I actually wrote before you go off on it.