Sunday, March 11, 2012

"The New Old Paganism", or, Thoughts on the religious continuity of Paganism

A few years after publishing Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton wrote the following words in the two opening paragraphs of his essay "The New Old Paganism", which comprises Chapter Four of his Witches, Druids and King Arthur (the numberings in [square brackets] are by me, and will be made use of in the brief analysis that follows):

[1] When I first considered the relationship between ancient European paganism and modern Paganism, at the opening of the 1990s, I stressed a number of contrasts. I identified the former as [2a] essentially polytheistic, venerating many different goddesses and gods, as [3a] making a sharp distinction between religion and magic, and as [4a] representing the old, respectable and dominant faith which Christianity was to challenge in the role of brash newcomer. Modern Paganism (and especially Wicca and other forms of Pagan witchcraft which have generally served as its template) is [2b] mainly duotheistic, recognizing a pairing of a goddess and god who between them represent the cosmos. [3b] It dissolves distinctions between religion and magic, and itself [4b] represents a newly-appeared and often pugnacious challenger to to a long established set of Christian religions. Added to lesser contrasts, this led me to conclude that 'the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name, which is itself of Christian coinage'. [5] The 'past' in this context, was clearly that of Europe. I added [6] one major qualification: that if the most important varieties of modern Paganism 'are viewed as a form of ritual magic, then they have a distinguished and very long pedigree, stretching back ... to the early modern and medieval texts which derived by stages from those of Hellenistic Egypt'.

[7a] Long before the end of the decade, it had become obvious to me that this model was inadequate. [8a] Although still true - as far as anybody could tell - for the ancient British Isles, and substantially so for the rest of Europe, [7b] it ignored the existence of certain types of ancient religion which far more closely resembled Paganism, had certainly influenced it, and had certain linear connections with it. [7c] They were in every sense marginal to my own preoccupations when I made the statements quoted above. [8b] They were overtly derived from the traditions of Egypt and the Near East, whereas I was concerned with those of the opposite corner of Europe, [9a] and they made little apparent impact on ancient European paganism outside parts of Greece. [10] They appeared at the very end of the pagan ancient world, at and after the time at which Christianity became the official creed of the Roman Empire, [11] and were arguably influenced by Christian thought. [9b] They were also very much the preserve of a self-conscious intellectual elite, detached from the masses and usually disempowered. Nonetheless, [9c] the private and avant-garde nature of these ideas and practices gave them something else in common with those of modern pagans. [7d] It became clear to me that my work on the intellectual roots of modern Paganism would be incomplete unless I made a consideration of their nature and of their influence on the Pagan religions which reappeared in the twentieth century. What follows represents an attempt to fulfill that project.

Now lets go through, point by point, what Hutton has had to say for himself in the above.

[1] Hutton's self-proclaimed agenda when he first set out to investigate Pagan history was to emphasize the differences between modern and ancient forms of Paganism, with little or no attention paid to similarities. There are three main differences that Hutton claimed to have identified, as described in [2] through [4] below.

[2] The polytheism of ancient Paganism is claimed to be in stark contrast to the so-called "duotheism" of modern Paganism.

[3] A supposedly sharp division between religion and magic in ancient Paganism is claimed to be in contrast to the "dissolving" of any such distinctions in modern Paganism.

[4] In the ancient world Paganism was old and traditional while Christianity was new and "challenging", but today (it is claimed by Hutton that) things are the other way around.

[5] Additionally, Hutton makes the bizarre claim that "the 'past', in this context, was clearly that of Europe". This is his way of injecting yet another line of argument for the differentness of modern Paganism and ancient Paganism based on culture/ethnicity.

[6] Finally, Hutton points out that he has all along, even going back to his Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (published in 1993), provided himself with an escape clause based upon a completely arbitrary distinction between magic and religion.

At this point let me emphasize, rather bluntly, exactly what it is that I see going on here. Hutton had spent a decade studying the question of the relationship between modern Paganism and ancient forms of religion. During this time he published two major book-length studies (or four if you count his book on Shamanism and Stations of the Sun) on that subject along with numerous shorter publications. As a result of his "research", and I do feel compelled to use ironic quotes here, Hutton had reached the conclusion that no such relationship existed whatsoever, and that no one could be taken seriously who believed otherwise, explicitly including anyone who so much as "suggest[ed] that there might be some truth" in the notion of the Old Religion.

The only problem was that the whole time Hutton had, now by his own admission, been systematically ignoring "certain types of ancient religion" which just so happened to be precisely the ones which most "closely resembled [modern] Paganism, had certainly influenced it, and had certain linear connections with it"! And why did he ignore the one place he should have been looking all along? Because it was "in every sense marginal to my own preoccupations." Indeed.

You see, Hutton was preoccupied with the proposition that "the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name." Therefore, the very last place he would have wanted to go poking around was precisely in the one place where there was the most evidence disproving his cherished preoccupation. While such a course of action is typical human behavior, it happens to be the opposite of what a person does if that person possesses even a shred of intellectual curiosity.

Finally, for now, let us look in more detail (albeit very briefly) at the second paragraph. The parts labeled [7a-d] constitute the veritable crux of this particular biscuit: Ronald Hutton's true confession [7a-b], his lame excuse [7c], and his own proposal for a self-imposed penance to atone for his past errors [7d]. In [8a-b] Hutton continues in his attempt to inject ethnic/cultural considerations revolving around the issue of "European-ness" (a concept utterly foreign to ancient Paganism, and one that has little or no proper place in modern Paganism). In [9a-c] Hutton contends that "the new old paganism" was really nothing more than a boutique religion for an effete, culturally mongrelized elite, and he adds, for good measure, that this is one of the primary ways in which "the new old paganism" most closely resembles modern Paganism.

Additionally, in [10] Hutton makes explicit his claim that this "new old paganism" was, indeed, a new form of religion that was fundamentally different from the "traditional" forms of Paganism that had existed prior to Christianity. Moreover, Hutton claims in [11] that "the new old religion" was "arguably influenced by Christian thought".

However, as I have shown at length elsewhere in my post Hic Sunt Dracones, the Paganism of late antiquity, including especially that of well educated and philosophically minded Pagans of the time, was a seamless spiritual continuation of the traditional polytheistic Paganism of the ancient world. But despite Hutton's egregious misrepresentations of late antique Paganism, at least we now have it on his authority, such as it is, that modern Paganism is strongly rooted in Pagan religious traditions that date back two thousand years!

[The above is excerpted, with a few minor revisions, from Part Three of my still to be completed series on The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise. I was inspired to do this post by something over at the Pagans for Archaeology Blog: Cultural Continuity?]

The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise
  1. Part One: Two Myths
  2. Part Two: "A very specific historical claim"
  3. Part Three: The Recantations of Ronald Hutton
  4. Part Four: "A Different World" (Recantations, Part Deux)
  5. Part Five: More on "A Different World" (Recantations, Part Trois)
  6. Part Six: Huttonian Triumphalism (Recantations, Part Quatre)
  7. Part Seven: The Recantation of Ronald Hutton, The Final Episode [parts 5, 6 & 7 are not done yet]
  8. Part Eight: 21st Century Pagans on the Old Religion
  9. Part Nine: Coeval With Time [this part is also still to come]

Huttonologists and anyone interested in actual scholarship concerning the history of Paganism might also be interested in three other series of posts from this blog: Ronald Hutton and Reincarnation (in seven parts), Ronald Hutton Versus the Witch of Endor (ten parts), and also The Good Witch Must Also Die (in four parts).

Ronald Hutton & Reincarnation:
  1. Part One: Dion Fortune, Ronald Hutton, Wicca & Reincarnation
  2. Part Two: Ronald Hutton, Tertullian, John Italos, Anna Comnena & Reincarnation
  3. Part Three: Ronald Hutton, Reincarnation & the Renaissance
  4. Part Four: "Renaissance & Rebirth: Reincarnation in early modern Italian kabbalah"
  5. Part Five: Ronald Hutton,Vergil, Ovid & GradeSaver.Com
  6. Part Six: Ronald Hutton, Voltaire, and Metempsychosis
  7. Part Seven: Erotic Metempsychosis

Ronald Hutton Versus the Witch of Endor:
  1. A question for Ronald Hutton
  2. Ronald Hutton: Witches Are "Inherently Evil"
  3. Ronald Hutton vs The Witch of Endor
  4. Witchcraft: Black and White in Color
  5. "Maleficia Ad Sanandum": Healing By Means of Witchcraft
  6. Christina Larner on the Meaning of "Witchcraft"
  7. Margaret Murray has been completely rejected by everyone ... except for everyone who has not completely rejected Margaret Murray.
  8. Margaret Murray's Thesis "Contained A Kernel Of Truth" (Carlo Ginzburg)
  9. "In the name of the Father, the Son, King Arthur, and Queen Elspeth."
  10. The Strange Case of Emma Wilby and the Wise & Cunning Witches of Britain

"The Good Witch Must Also Die"


Katy Anders said...

Robert Anton Wilson used to say this (about different functions of the brain): "What the thinker thinks, the prover proves."

In other words, people tend to find evidence of whatever it is they're looking for. Sounds like Hutton did just that...

Very cool article.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Right. What Wilson says certainly does describe what Hutton and his fans are doing.

But Wilson's catchy little saying doesn't apply equally to everyone. In particular, some people are capable of questioning their own beliefs and opinions. This of course is much less entertaining than questioning other people's beliefs and opinions, but it is the hallmark of intellectual curiosity, which is something that any true scholar must possess (not that many do).

Raksha said...

I really like these series of posts you do critiquing Hutton. So much of the Pagan community seem to take whatever he says (or what they think he says) as gospel and it really rubs me the wrong way. It's like, that's not how academia works, people!

There are certain things I appreciate about Hutton. Wierdly, I think my favorite thing about his writing is the tone. Even if he's going to flat disagree with someone, he's still respectful and kind toward them as people. Since I first read Hutton when I was in grad school in a program I'd come to despise, reading work after work full of snotty proto-hipsters cloaking their mean-spirited value judgements behind claims of academic neutrality, I think his writing was a breath of fresh air for me.

Even still, though, I have a lot of problems with the things he says. Whereas I just roll my eyes, says "whatever, dude" and try to ignore it, I always appreciate people who are far more patient and articulate than I am taking the time to point out the problems in his work. It's important, so thanks for doing it!

Scott said...

A few remarks on your analysis:

1) It's a stretch to go from "I stressed a number of contrasts" to having a "self-proclaimed agenda." The first is a statement about the emphasis of the final work; the latter is an assertion about an intellectual construct that allegedly pre-existed the work.

5) Hutton's context is that of Europe because that's the area he was studying. PRABI was about the pagan history of the British Isles; Triumph of the Moon was about the rise of modern pagan witchcraft in England. The disproved Murrayite thesis is specifically that of the covert survival of pre-Christian religion in Britain and Western Europe. In that context, emphasizing the differences between modern pagan witchcraft and indigenous Western European pre-Christian religion is not a cop-out; it is the argument. Your inability to follow that logic is not a flaw in Hutton's argument.

Given that context, Hutton's relationship to the philosophical theurgy of the Roman Empire is understandable: he initially disregarded it because he was investigating claims about regionally specific survivals in Britain and Western Europe, and later revisited it specifically to examine its relationship to modern paganism, mediated by the intellectual magical traditions of the Middle Ages, which existed within a Christian religious context. If you have substantial evidence that philosophical theurgy was widely practiced outside of the eastern Empire, and might conceivably have had some impact on folk traditions of Britain and Western Europe, then *that* would merit a revision of Hutton's earlier arguments.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi Scott, and thanks very much for your comment. For now I can only very briefly address you points.

1. In his own words Hutton admitted that he had completely ignored the strong case for the relationship between modern Paganism and late-antique Paganism because that was "in every sense marginal to my own preoccupations." In other words, he was only interested in what he was interested in, not in inconvenient historical facts that happened to directly disprove his working hypothesis. That is an Agenda with a capital "A".

5. "Hutton's context is that of Europe because that's the area he was studying". Hutton recognized as early as "Pagan Religions of the British Isles" that a strong case exists for continuity between modern Paganism and "Hellenistic Egypt". That is, he knew and acknowledged the non-European-ness of ancient (classical and late-antique) Paganism, but he imposed an anachronistic Europeanizing template onto ancient Paganism "because that's what he was studying"?

As to "claims about regionally specific survivals in Britain and Western Europe", anyone familiar with what Gerald Gardner actually wrote knows that Gardner makes very little in terms of "specific survivals", while at the same time Gardner does make references to Egypt, to Apuleius, to Hermeticism, etc, all of which point in the opposite direction of "regionally specific survivals".