Friday, May 20, 2011

Ronald Hutton on Pagan History: "a demonstrable continuity, text to text and person to person, across the centuries."

I would strongly encourage everyone to read the interview with Professor Ronald Hutton by Caroline Tully over at Necropolis Now.

Therein, Hutton commits himself to four positions that, at least to my reading, appear to be very much at odds with how the Huttonian view of Pagan history is often interpreted by those (especially Pagans) who claim to agree with Professor Hutton:
  1. That "no less than four different cultural streams" provide a continuous connection between ancient and modern Paganism: (a) practitioners of ritual (learned) magic, (b) practitioners of popular magical traditions ("cunning folk"), (c) those who participate in "folk rites", and (d) lovers of Pagan art, literature, and philosophy.
  2. That modern Pagans are the legitimate inheritors of ancient Pagan traditions that are not only continuous with ancient Pagan cultures, but that have been "massively important and ubiquitous" throughout the entire history of European Christendom.
  3. That there is "a direct line of transmission" connecting modern Paganism to ancient Egyptian religion. This transmission constitutes "a demonstrable continuity, text to text and person to person, across the centuries."
  4. That the Christianization of Europe was never complete, and that the modern Pagan revival takes as its starting point those parts of ancient Paganism that managed to survive centuries of attempted extirpation by the Church.
In other words, those who wish to claim that modern Paganism is devoid of all connection to ancient forms of Paganism can no longer claim Ronald Hutton as 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 point of view.

Nevertheless, Hutton persists in the following three very problematic positions:
  • (i) That all of those who were part of the "four streams" mentioned above were purely and only Christian, and cannot in any way be considered to have been "Pagan". This includes, most emphatically, all of the victims of the Burning Times.
  • (ii) That the "four streams" are neatly separable into two discrete groups with little or no overlap. Streams (a) and (d) represent an "elite" super-stream ("super-stream" is my word, not Hutton's) of learned magicians and scholarly antiquarians; while streams (b) and (c) constitute a "popular" super-stream of folk beliefs and practices. This clear bright line between learned and folk streams is crucial to Hutton's position that these Pagan survivals cannot be construed as indicating the survival Paganism itself.
  • (iii) That the ancient forms of "ritual magic" to which modern Paganism is directly and continuously connected "across the centuries", constituted a "counter-cultural" movement in direct opposition to the "religious norms" of ancient Paganism.


Hecate said...

Clear as mud. Sometimes, it's just easier to say, "You know, that's what I thought then, but now I realize that I was wrong."

Freeman Presson said...

I'm not at all sure how counter-cultural the Egyptian (by which I am pretty sure he means Alexandrian) magical current was in its own time. Its survival became so in the Renaissance and after, only because it barely missed becoming mainstream.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi Freeman, I think you've hit on a major weakness in Hutton's current way of framing his argument. "Ritual Magic" was definitely central to the intellectual mainstream in Europe from the 12th century to the 17th. And it's demise during the 18th and 19th centuries was neither sudden nor complete.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi Hecate, It really would be helpful if Hutton were to more clearly address the way in which his own views have changed. Nevertheless, I do think that there is some genuine progress being made.

One thing I want to keep an eye on is how those like Don Frew, Max Dashu, Jani Farrell-Roberts, Phil Heselton, and Ben Whitmore are treated as this discussion moves forward. Hutton has an opportunity to take the lead in setting a positive and constructive tone and to help avoid the rhetorical excesses of the past.

It is also important to revisit how Margaret Murray is spoken of. Anyone who wishes to dismiss her work altogether cannot be taken seriously. The work of numerous respected contemporary scholars of the Witch Hunts, including Christina Larner, P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, Alan MacFarlane, Ruth Martin, and Anne Barstow all lend support to substantial portions of "the Murray Thesis".