Triumph of the Moon; A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft
I finished Ronald Hutton's excellent history of Pagan Witchcraft a little while ago, and I've finished another book since and had some time to chew on my thoughts on this one for a little while.
I'd really just like to say that he was preaching to the choir for me, I just wanted more details. Wow, does he give it. He's got to be one of my favorite scholars to read because he's spectacularly rigorous and careful but also can write engagingly. It's not dry at all, at least to me but of course I warm to his subject matter.
For some time now it always bothered me about the notion Wiccans give themselves about being drawn from an ancient pan-European prehistoric religion. It never made sense. I had started learning about it in my early twenties after reading (big surprise) Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. But all the books on the subject were full of... crap. My bullshit sensor was strong even when I was a young woman and the facts just never lined up. It seemed like whatever was written was just sort of made up on the spot by wish fulfillment and I could never quite settle on it as legitimate.
Well of course it isn't. If you had read any of Hutton's other work you'd come to this conclusion on your own but this is kind of his final say on the matter. The best part about this book, however, is that he's quite respectful to current modern Pagans. He distances them from Wiccans and explains the differences (and how most modern Pagans actually distance themselves from Wicca as well) and is considerate of modern Pagan beliefs. I felt this actually leant even more credence to his writing because he was never dismissive. Everything he attended to was careful, thoughtful and thorough.
I was already quite familiar with Cunning men and women. I own some recipes and spellbooks that have survived from that time, which is not surprising since it was only the late 19th century when they started falling out of common use. His sections on them were delightful.
I was fascinated by the history and lore of the Freemasons - and really it's their fault ;) They were the most notorious suspects that kept creating and inventing older and more ancient "origins" for each new chapter/sect that was created. One-upmanship at it's most ridiculous. The history here is quite rigorous and is well worth the read on it's own.
We also have to blame the Romantic poets. I still to this day see people quoting Yeats' poetry as fact. It really drives me bonkers. They had a reason for what they were doing, it was cultural and spiritual and in Britain at least, there was this collective push in the arts towards the pastoral and it was quite anti-religious at this time. This whole section really, to me, showed the power of the cultural leaders at the time on shaping thought. It is different now - of course with the internet, but these Romantic Poets really did a number! As a total aside, I am very glad that their penchant for romanticizing the British countryside stuck like glue - because it is that special indeed.
Lastly, and most interestingly to me at least, is the archaeological aspects. He begins the book with this and for me, ever the prehistorian, I loved it! I think one of the most eureka moments that he revealed was precisely how people began to believe that the ancient British people had human sacrifices (which is of course complete bollocks and has not a lick of actual proof).
It was so simple I felt a bit embarrassed by never realizing this conclusion on my own, in fact. But when archaeology got it's start, it's early nascence, it was around the same time as the voyages of missionaries all over the world to tribal areas in Africa, Malaysia, Micronesia, etc. These missionaries would write memoirs and reports of their time amongst the 'savages' and describe their ways. Some of course included some misunderstood rituals and human sacrifice and cannibalism. All of this quite alarming and romantic to the people back home of course.
So they dig up some artifacts at a prehistoric barrow or stone circle; they look at it. They compare it to the artifacts that the missionaries describe or draw or indeed, even bring home from 'savage and primal' societies on the edge of the world. The artifacts look similar in construction. Thus, prehistoric societies must have been the same! (This makes me /facepalm SO HARD, how did I not see this?!) Also, of course, people believed what Caesar wrote; which I discuss already here.
So yeah, that's what happened. No archaeologists believe this anymore. They have become quite scholarly and have begun (since about 1980 or so) to oppose the inference and invention of reasons if they don't understand something. The problem is all the books written prior to 1980 that people get their hands on.
The last chapter of the book is a culminating summary of everything, quite well done and respectful of modern Pagans. In my deep skepticism I felt glad he offered them such, it made all his assertions even more decent to me, for all that they were tearing down misconstrued beliefs.
There is a place for Modern Paganism. It isn't ancient, but it absolutely does not have to be.