Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Nothing in common ... except the name"? (Contra Hutton, Part Two)

"Those engaging in Pagan Studies, provided that they speak and write in sufficiently public a manner, are inevitably going to mould the traditions that they are studying."
Ronald Hutton

I have the impression that very few Pagans have actually read Ronald Hutton's books -- or at least that vanishingly few have read them carefully, much less critically. After all, the man is really only known for one thing: he is the guy who supposedly succeeded in debunking once and for all the silly idea that modern Paganism is the Old Religion.

The problem, and my reason for speculating that people have not actually read Hutton's books, is this: not only has Hutton never proven his claim that "the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name," he himself has consistently admitted that this contention not only remains unproven but is, in fact, false.

Isn't it odd that Hutton has managed to achieve notoriety for championing a position he himself explicitly rejects in his own writings? Apparently, in the minds of his confused and uncritical fanbase, Hutton's vague, densely equivocal, mis-sourced, and self-contradictory prose is transformed, magically, into well-researched, well-reasoned, clearly stated, declarative findings of historical fact.

What?, you say, Ronald Hutton has all along admitted that modern Paganism has "a distinguished and very long pedigree"? And now even admits that in Triumph of the Moon he "ignored the existence of certain types of ancient religion, which far more closely resembled [modern] Paganism, had certainly influenced it, and had certain linear connections with it"!

The sad truth is, Hutton's admission of a "distinguished and very long pedigree" for modern Paganism, and Wicca in particular, was right there in black and white two decades ago in his Pagan Religions of the British Isles [p.328]. At that time, however, Hutton clung to the sophistry of a chinese wall separating religion from magic, so that the "pedigree" in question only applied to modern Paganism "as a form of ritual magic," and not as a religion.

Hardly anyone noticed Hutton's admission and the accompanying disclaimer, which were drowned out by the gleeful triumphalism with which the proclamation of the downfall of The Old Religion was greeted.

A certain kind of Pagan, you see, has always been embarrassed by the claim that ours is The Old Religion. These tend to be the same Pagans who insist that we must "get over" not only the Burning Times, but the entire history of relentless Christian violence against our religious traditions. Why, those weren't our co-religionists at all! Those medieval witches and heretics have nothing to do with modern Pagans! It's all been a big mistake, nothing more than a silly "category error" due to improper usage of the very word "Paganism" itself! Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

There were, of course, many voices raised in the Pagan community against what Hutton was saying, although to be precise, these voices were raised against what Hutton was believed to be saying, and what he wanted people to believe he was saying. For Hutton has all along handled the "nothing in common except the name" meme the way Dick Cheney treats the "Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11" meme.

(That is to say, parenthetically, that one can produce video footage of Cheney claiming a clear and explicit connection between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. One can also produce footage of Cheney denying that he has ever said any such thing. Mostly Cheney dances around the issue and simply resorts to saying "Saddam Hussein" and "9/11" in the same sentence as often as possible. Just so with Ronald Hutton and his Old Religion debunkery. Sometimes Hutton asserts confidently that modern Paganism is nothing more than an invented religion, while at other times he says that modern Paganism has a "distinguished and very long pedigree". But mostly Hutton just waves his hands and makes assertions about supposed "differences" between a distorted version of modern Paganism and an even more distorted version of ancient Paganism.)

Probably the two most well-known Pagans who have taken up the challenge are Max Dashu and Donald Frew, both of whom are quite well known and respected in Pagandom. Frew, an elder in the Covenant of the Goddess, is one of the most consistent and prominent Pagan faces in the world of interfaith dialogue (among other activities, Frew has been a Pagan representative to meetings of the World Parliament of Religions). Max Dashu founded the online Suppressed Histories Archive, and was recently awarded an honorary Doctorate degree from Ocean Seminary College "in honor of her significant and founding contributions to the fields of thealogy and Goddess iconography, as well as to women's history."

For easy reference, here are some key publications involved, in the order in which they appeared. First come the debunkifying works of both Ronald Hutton and Jacqueleine Simpson (a folklorist who has tried to put the kibosh on Margaret Murray's "witch cult" thesis), and then comes Frew's counter-deconstruction and Dashu's review of Triumph, followed by a rejoinder each from Hutton and Simpson. Lastly I list the book in which Hutton presents his most complete and explicit argument on where he stands concerning the relationship between modern and ancient Paganism, Witches Druids and King Arthur:

  • Hutton, R., 1991, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Simpson, J., 1994, "Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her, and Why?" Folklore 105 (1994):89-96.
  • Hutton, R., 1996, "The Roots of Modern Paganism." In Paganism Today, ed. Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman. 3-15. London: Thorsons.
  • Simpson, J., 1996, "Witches and Witchbusters." Folklore 107 (1996):5-18.
  • Frew, D. H., 1998, "Methodological Flaws in Recent Studies of Historical and Modern Witchcraft." Ethnologies 1 (1998):33-65.
  • Dashu, Max, 1998, "A review of Ronald Hutton's Pagan Religions of the British Isles", suppressedhistories.net.
  • Hutton, R., 1999, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hutton, R., 2000, "Paganism and Polemic: The Debate over the Origins of Modern Pagan Witchcraft", Folklore, Vol. 111, No. 1 (Apr., 2000), pp. 103-117.
  • Simpson, Jacqueline. 2000. “Scholarship and Margaret Murray: A Response to Donald Frew.” Ethnologies, 22 (1): 281-288.
  • Hutton, R., 2003, Witches, Druids, and King Arthur, London, Hambledon and London.

Future installments in the Contra Hutton series will mostly focus in greater detail on the arguments that Hutton presents in Chapters Four & Five of Witches, Druids and King Arthur. A lot of this will be new, but I will also be expanding on themes already covered in the first post and posts linked to therein.

8 comments:

Arturo Vasquez said...

So I take it that you see no problem in the fact that the vast majority of pagans seem to "make it up as they go along", or at the very most dig it out of books that couldn't really tell you what it all was really like. All I know is, as a Roman Catholic, I was taught to be a Roman Catholic by people who have been Catholic for centuries, going back to the first centuries of the Christian phenomenon. I suppose I am just a big believer in tradition. I don't think that there is a living, breathing pagan tradition where you learn from a flesh and blood person how to do it, and they in turn learned from a flesh and blood person how to do it, and so on.

It is interesting you mention the "burning times". There is a book by Carlo Ginzburg called "The Night Battles", and it was all about witch hunters who were accused of being witches themselves by the Inquisition in 16th century Italy. A lot of that persecution, if you actually dig into the archives of the Inquisition itself, was against "misguided Christians" where just as "anti-witchcraft" as anyone else. As I have mentioned previously, many avowed Christians did lots of pagan looking things, like dedicate churches according to astrological charts, or work in questionable forms of "angelic magic". Much of the anti-witchcraft backlash was against Christians themselves. You would be hard pressed to find a real, European pagan past 1200, unless they were hiding it really, really well.

All I know is that if I were to have a hankering to "go pagan", I would find an actual pagan tradition that could organically teach me, or I would join a Latin American syncretic religion like santeria or Umbanda. A lot of black and white lines between pagans and Christians have only been recently drawn.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

As far as Roman Catholicism goes, it is a distinctly European religion that only came into existence more than eight centuries after Jesus lived and died. It was founded by people who could no longer read (and showed no interest in learning) the language of the New Testament, the Nicene Creed, and all the writings of early Church Fathers.

The "traditions" of the Catholic Church have been "preserved" through coercion and violence. Torture was still explicitly endorsed by the Papacy into the 20th century.

As for modern Paganism, it is, in spite of everything, remarkably similar to the Paganism of the Greco-Roman world during late-antiquity. This fact has been accepted by Ronald Hutton, who has dedicated the last 20 years of his life to debunking any connection between modern and ancient Paganism.

Tony said...

@Arturo,

My friend, i think if you dig deep enough you'll find that today's Pagans have a lot more in common with 2nd century's Paganism than today's Catholics have in common with 2nd century's Christianity.
After all, the Catholic dogma was decided by voting in the year 325 and of the 100 Gospels that were in existence back then, all were lost for ever expect 4 (and we found very little fragments from other Gospels in the last century).
On the other hand, the Theological writings of Pagan philosophers are far more abundant and more available to today's Pagans compared with the availability of the lost Gospels to today's Catholics.

Yes of course Paganism have lost priceless theoretical and practical knowledge during the Christian persecutions. But Paganism isn't like Christianity, and for a lot of reasons we don't need an unbroken lineage of priests for our tradition to survive. Paganism has always been a dynamic and organic religion and will always remain so. Our Gods are the same of our ancestors, our piety is the same of our ancestors, our essence and human intuition is the same of our ancestors, and we have most of the knowledge we need available for whom are ready to make the effort.
Saying that Paganism is a modern religion because there's no enough evidence for direct priestly lineage is judging an organic religion by the standards of revealed religions.

Sam Urfer said...

From what I see in your post, Hutton seems to be arguing a two-fold distinction. On the one hand, there is the person-to-person living handing on of tradition. On the other, there is the esoteric knowledge of practical application, preserved to a certain degree in books, which can be passed on outside the context of a living tradition. He labels the first as "religion" and the later as "magic", but a more fair characterization might be between living tradition and ritual practice.

The first sort of lineage does not exist for modern paganism; the later, does, though divided from the social context of the ancient religion. Hence why modern paganisms tend to be labeled as "neo-" or as reconstructions: there is a link, through the research of ancient esoteric knowledge, but not a person-to-person connection.

I fail to see how modern paganism can be linked to that of the ancients, while the Catholic Church is somehow divorced from the early "Great Church" tradition tracing to the first century. There was a direct, person-to-person link between the later, such that nobody involved thought there was any break whatsoever, as well as the passing on of texts and ritual practices. That the texts were in translation matters little; when faced with divergent textual receptions, the Medieval monks took them both seriously as representing the will of God. They were not "Bible-Only" types; that would be a category mistake.

The Gnostic texts are not nearly as important as the received Gospels; the near-miss canonical Epistle of St. James or the Epistle to the Hebrews, or the *actually* near-canonical Sheperd of Hermas or the Apocalypse of St. Peter, now those get interesting. And we have them, still.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Sam, I'm pretty sure that the argument you are making also disqualifies a significant portion of modern Christianity as well, doesn't it? No one "handed" the tradition to Luther, or Calvin, etc, that they then "handed" on to others, did they?

But even for Catholics, how certain are you that you can really trace it back all the way? Wasn't Jesus an observant Jew, along with all of the disciples? What good is it, really, to get back that far and then not be able to connect the last dot?

And why were the early possessors of the one, true lineage so bloodthirsty? What the heck is up with that? Do you really wish to peg your claim to authenticity on the seamlessness with which you are spiritually descended from such sociopaths as Eusebius, Gregory Nanzianzen and Justinian.

Gregory, for example, bitterly lamented that Julian the Apostate had not been murdered as an infant. While criticizing Constantius for allowing Julian to live ("a mistake highly unworthy of his hereditary piety”), he also criticized Julian himself for failing to persecute Christians, and thereby "begrudging the honor of martyrdom."

That kind of "lineage" I am more than willing to leave to others!

Rhondda said...

Apuleius, I think I love you. (no not that way)
Thank you for mentioning Max Dashu. I love that women. I am taking her women's shamanism course. (sorry, no men allowed) Totally, totally, an underground existed. Perhaps to save one's life, dissembling is necessary. My goodness, I would say anything to save the lives of my children, so I do not get Hutton at all.
Have you read Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici? I cannot give a synopsis as I have just started it, but what I am surmising is that the burning times were very much more significant than modern historians care to admit. It is a feminist analysis about the rise of capitalism.

Sam Urfer said...

"No one "handed" the tradition to Luther, or Calvin, etc, that they then "handed" on to others, did they?"

I'm tempted to agree, but Luther was a priest and Calvin had minor orders, so, actually, yeah, they did. They went a divergent way with it, but there was still a direct link, person-to-person. Things get fuzzier with some of the Radical Reformation figures, Anabaptists, Mennonites and such.

"But even for Catholics, how certain are you that you can really trace it back all the way? Wasn't Jesus an observant Jew, along with all of the disciples? What good is it, really, to get back that far and then not be able to connect the last dot?"

About as certain as any other historical knowledge, sure. There are recorded lineages; Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch were disciples of John, Clement of Paul and Peter, and so on. And the links of the sub-apostolic fathers to later figures exist. Smoking gun proof might not be there, but neither is counter-proof. And the question about Jesus and the Apostles Judaism is also a category mistake; it assumes that this makes them incompatible with Christianity.

"And why were the early possessors of the one, true lineage so bloodthirsty?"

Because they ate pagan babies, of course. It raises the ichor.

"What the heck is up with that? Do you really wish to peg your claim to authenticity on the seamlessness with which you are spiritually descended from such sociopaths as Eusebius, Gregory Nanzianzen and Justinian."

Hey, Jesus himself was descended from petty warlords, prostitutes and villains of every stripe: http://preview.tinyurl.com/24edkvt

I do not put my trust in any given Christian, brthren though they may be. I am a sinner, as were they. I make no claim to personal or corporate perfection.

"Gregory, for example, bitterly lamented that Julian the Apostate had not been murdered as an infant."

A very Greek thing to say, all around. People say the same sort of thing about Hitler or Stalin, so it is not that shocking.

"While criticizing Constantius for allowing Julian to live ("a mistake highly unworthy of his hereditary piety”)"

Which suggests to me that he was probably using hyperbole, rather than really suggesting infanticide (which was not a Christian, but a pagan practice).

"he also criticized Julian himself for failing to persecute Christians, and thereby 'begrudging the honor of martyrdom.'"

Interesting.

"That kind of 'lineage' I am more than willing to leave to others!"

Sure, fair enough; you are not a Christian. But it is not just Christian, but Buddhist or Hindu or any other number of religions, "organic" or "revealed", also put an emphasis on Tradition, and personal handing on of the religion. There is a gap in the pagan tradition, which separates the ancient from the new. There is a link, in ritual and text, but the gap is still there where there were no pagans. The Medieval Inquisition was concerned, pretty much entirely, with divergent forms of Christianity or Muslim/Jewish syncretism. Paganism was not on the radar; read what the inquisitors wrote. They were dealing with Jonestown/Waco sort of guys, Franciscan-inspired by and large, not pagans.

Kullervo said...

Saying that Paganism is a modern religion because there's no enough evidence for direct priestly lineage is judging an organic religion by the standards of revealed religions.

Well said, Tony.