Thursday, October 7, 2010

on retreat

I don't actually leave until tomorrow morning. If you leave a comment before then I may or may not be able to get to it. But after that I will be off the grid until next Wednesday. (All comments on this blog are moderated.)

From: Dinosaur Comics at Ryan North is the creative genius behind Dinosaur Comics.

White crane photo by Daniel Gill.

"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",
  • 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.