Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Hutton Thesis: "A very specific historical claim" (The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise, Part Two)

"Modern pagan witchcraft had, after all, appeared as
a movement with a very specific historical claim."

[Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon]

What was the "very specific historical claim" that Ronald Hutton claimed to have overthrown in Triumph of the Moon? Where in the 500 odd pages of that book does he name those who made this claim, and explain how it had come to be that those named had spoken authoritatively, monolithically, and specifically for the "movement" as a whole? Where does he provide us with the precise words with which this "very specific historical claim" was supposedly articulated by those who supposedly made it? Where does he provide an explanation for how "modern pagan witchcraft", unlike any other religion known to humankind, is capable of speaking with such a unified voice? No one can produce any such passages from Triumph of the Moon, because none exist.

In Part One of this series on The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise, we saw that Charles Leland, Margaret Murray, and Gerald Gardner were not, in fact, at all "specific" when making their "historical claims" concerning the Old Religion. They were only as specific as the evidence, in their view, allowed. Specifically, they did not claim that the Old Religion was purely Celtic, or purely Northern European, or even purely European. In fact, they all explicitly acknowledged that it was none of those things. They did not claim that the Old Religion had remained unchanged since the Stone Age. In fact, they acknowledged that it had elements originating from a variety of historical periods, including the classical era, late-antiquity, the early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the early modern period, and also more recent times.

In sharp contrast to the reasoned and cautious, but nevertheless positive, views expressed by Leland, Murray, and Gardner on the subject of the Old Religion, Ronald Hutton loutishly declared that not only was there no correlation, none whatsoever, between modern and ancient Paganism, but that "any possibility of doubt" regarding this had been "swept away", and that anyone who dared to question this was caught in the "trap of fundamentalism." A more disgusting (and blatant) display of ideological hubris masquerading as "scholarship" is hard to imagine. This has been made all the more disheartening by the warm reception that the "Hutton thesis" has received among many Pagans.

It should be emphasized that Hutton could have taken a different path. He could have accepted the plain and obvious fact that there are many and various connections and correlations between ancient and modern Paganism, and then he could have argued that Leland, Murray, Gardner, & Co. had gotten these connections and correlations wrong. He could have argued, for example, that these relationships had been exaggerated, or perhaps they had been interpreted in ways that were simplistic, romantic, anachronistic, naively comparativist, etc. Hutton could then have endeavored to provide his own better documented and more intellectually rigorous narrative of the (often literally) tortuous history of Paganism's survival over the centuries. And he could have done all this while still (as Leland, Murray and Gardner had done) admitting to gaps in our knowledge and ambiguities in the evidence, that is, allowing for multiple interpretations where this is warranted, or even admitting that there are limitations to our ability to fully explain every aspect of Pagan history. But Hutton did no such thing. Instead, he falsely ascribed an absolutist position to others, while promoting his own absolutist position as the only possible alternative.

What, then, is this "absolutist position", this "Hutton thesis" that I am ascribing to Ronald Hutton? It is a very specific historical claim. What is it that I claim that Hutton claims in this thesis, in his own words?
"in the 1990s there broke a tidal wave of accumulating research which swept away not only any possibility of doubt regarding the lack of correlation between paganism and early modern witchcraft, but virtually the whole set of assumptions upon which both the original concept of the Old Religion and its later, evolved, American feminist version, had been based."
This thesis, as stated by Hutton above, makes one primary claim, and three subsidiary claims:
  1. There is no correlation between modern Paganism and any form of Pagan religion that is more than a few hundred years old. It must be emphasized that Hutton himself explicitly states that his thesis is intended to exclude even so much as "suggesting that there might be some truth" in the notion of the Old Religion.
  2. This primary historical claim (above) is supported by an overwhelming volume of recent research.
  3. "Virtually" all of the underlying assumptions behind the original concept of the Old Religion (the conception of Leland, Murray, and Gardner) have also been thoroughly disproven.
  4. "Virtually" all of the underlying assumptions behind the "American feminist version" of the notion of the Old Religion have also been thoroughly disproven
The most important thing to know about the Hutton thesis is that Ronald Hutton himself explicitly rejected it in his next major book-length publication on Pagan history following Triumph. That book is titled Witches, Druids and King Arthur, and the next post in this series will look more closely at Hutton's own admission that the "Hutton thesis" is wrong, and his explanations of how he came to be so completely wrong. But in the remainder of this post I want to recommend several sources that I consider to be far more worthy of attention than Hutton's prevarications in Witches, Druids and King Arthur.

(1) Gus diZerega recently (Fall 2010) wrote a series of posts for his blog on the subject of Theurgy. More specifically, these posts were focused on the recently completed Theurgicon 2010 conference in Berkeley California. In the Introduction to that multipart series, diZerega begins by pointing out some significant similarities between Wicca and late antique Theurgy, and then he states, "These similarities, along with some others, are the reason why some investigators of our history argue that Wicca's earliest major roots lie not in Celtic Britain or stone age Europe but in late Classical times."

In other words, diZerega is suggesting that there might, indeed, be some truth in the historical claim that modern Paganism has correlations with forms of Paganism that go back much further than a few centuries. Most importantly, diZerega emphasizes not only the connection between modern Paganism and late antique Theurgy, he also emphasizes the fact that, in his opinion, Theurgy itself was the culmination of an "unbroken line of thinking and practice extending back into the Paleolithic origins of human civilization." For more on diZerega's views on Theurgy and Wicca, I suggest starting here: Theurgicon and Pagan Neoplatonism I.

(2) Joscelyn Godwin's The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions is a treasure trove of information about the stubborn survival of the ancient Pagan Mysteries as a living (and lived) religious tradition. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as a treasure map. Unfortunately, Godwin's presentation is somewhat jumbled, and, even worse, the author adopts a wavering attitude toward Christianity which is maddeningly inconsistent and unnecessarily ambiguous. But treasure maps are notorious for their imprecisions, and if the map gets you in the right general vicinity, then one should not complain if a little extra searching of one's own is still required in order to find the booty.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 11, "The Pagan Renaissance":
"The new, Pagan imagination of the Renaissance worked on two levels, exoteric and esoteric. In the public domain there were new palaces and gardens, paintings, sculptures, decorative objects, prints and books, where were the antithesis of the Gothic cathedrals and of Medieval Christian art. No one could evade the influence of the new imaginal environment, and few would want to, for it openened the senses to the Eros of earthly beauty. All unknowingly, Europeans were become Platonists: for while mainstream Christianity spurned natural beauty and erotic attraction, Plato's philosophy embraced them, as the first sprouting of the wings on which the soul would eventually rise to the knowledge of intellectual beauty.

"In the more esoteric circles of the highly educated humanists, it was equally impossible to evade the seduction of classical philosophy and the challenge it posed to the Christian view of the world. As we ahve seen in chapter 1, [George Gemistos] Plethon's lineage of Pagan sages opened up a vision of the distant past .... The newly discovered texts of Hermes, Zoroaster, Plato, etc., set a thorny problem to those obliged to reconcile them with the Christian revelation."
[pp. 101-102]
(3) Nicolas Campion's History of Western Astrology, Volume II: The Medieval and Modern Worlds is yet another treasure map similar in many ways to Godwin's Golden Thread. Campion's book is far longer and meatier, and while its focus is ostensibly the subject of Astrology, it is really more of a history of applied Hermetic philosophy over the last 2000 years or so, with a special emphasis on Astrology (or, more precisely, on Cosmology).

Below is an excerpt from Kirk Little's excellent, in-depth review of Campion's book. The review is from the British online Astrology journal (link):
"From the outset, Campion states 'the central theme of my narrative is religious' (p. ix) and his introductory chapter nicely lay out the complex issues faced by the historian of astrology. Among those issues are the philosophical questions raised by the astrological world view concerning fate, free will and moral choice. The religious and philosophical issues, more than the social and political uses of astrology, constitute the major strands of his narrative thread and lend this book an intellectual heft lacking in other recent histories of astrology. Campion is quite concerned with historical continuity and often makes startling connections between groups of astrologers separated by both great distance and historical time. Take for instance, this passage on the Ghayat al-Hakim composed around 1000 AD by Moslem scholars in Andalucía:
Translated into Latin in 1256 by the Castilian monarch Alfonso the Wise, it was known in medieval Europe as the Picatrix, and was to be the key text of magical astrology until the seventeenth century. The Picatrix provided a direct line of transition for Islamic Hermeticism, and hence for Babylonian celestial deities, direct into the thirteenth century Christian West. (p. 66)
"Or this one concerning the 19th century occult writer Eliphas Lévi:
Lévi's astrology was embedded, even more than Ebenezer Sibly's, in the medieval system of magical relationships by which nature's secrets could be penetrated and manipulated. Lévi, following in the tradition of the esoteric Masons and illuminists of eighteenth century France, advocated practical magic in the style of Agrippa and the Picatrix… (pp. 223-4)
"Leaping across centuries and cultures, Campion hopes to demonstrate unifying themes and intellectual commitments, even if the actual uses of astrology are quite different."
(4) Finally, here is an excerpt from Angela Voss' 2006 biography Marsilio Ficino:
"Ficino played a major role in the 'rebirth' of classical learning we know as the Renaissance, through his commitment to the renewal of Platonic and Hermetic philosophies and his determination to integrate their metaphysics into Christianity, a marriage - however problematic - which revitalised religious and cultural life and placed a new emphasis on the capacity of the human soul to realise its innate divinity. The words of Hermes Trismegistus, "a great wonder, O Asclepius, is man!", reiterated by Giovani Pico della Mirandola in his Oration became the battle-cry of the era, in celebration of a new-found human dignity and intellectual prowess. Ficino and Pico's revival of 'pagan' ritual in the service of spiritual enlightenment was however doomed to provoke reactionary forces. In the 1490s the fanatical Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola railed against both philosophers and astrologers, instigating a puritan regime in Florence. The Inquisition was gaining strength, and the Catholic Church was about to face its most serious challenges in the upheavals of the Reformation and the new scientific discoveries of Copernicus. But for a brief, golden period in the fifteenth-century Florence, the ancient Gods descended once more and inspired human creativity to unprecedented heights, summoned by the invitation of Marsilio Ficino ....

At the height of his career Ficino was at the centre of a circle of intellectuals in Florence known as the Platonic Academy, which included his patron Lorenzo de' Medici and many of the leading humanist thinkers of the day. Their aim was not ony to promote the perennial wisdom (prisca theologia) of the 'ancient theologians', but also to have a direct influence on the arts as an accessible way of bringing it to contemporary humanity. It has been suggested that Ficino himself provided the programme for Botticelli's Primavera, Birth of Venus and Minerva and the Centaur, and he certainly inspired a new generation of musicians who brought a Platonic imagination to bear on both theory and performance. Such geniuses as Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, John Dowland and Claudio Monteverdi all swam in the tide of the spiritual renewal instigated by Ficino.
[pp. 1-3]

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 Recantations 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 [part 9 is still to come]