Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft

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I recently read this fine post at Max Dashu’s Veleda blog on Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft
which is her book review of Ben Whitmore’s re-examination of some of Hutton’s theories called “Triumph of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft”. To quote from her blog post:

“This is a review of Ben Whitmore’s Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft. A Critique of Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Auckland: Aotearoa / New Zealand, 2010 http://www.goodgame.org.nz/trialsofthemoonexcerpt.pdf

I am glad someone took on the task of providing a detailed critique of Hutton’s book. Ben Whitmore, a Pagan priest in New Zealand, does not hail from the school of Wicca-is-a-direct-transmission-of-ancient-Pagan-tradition. He is clear “that today’s witchcraft is largely a reinvention” and favors  examining the foundational myths of modern neopaganism with a critical eye. At the same time, he feels a spiritual kinship with past traditions and holds out the possibility of recovering their authentic roots: “I feel it is high time that Wicca and Paganism be permitted to have not just myths, but a history as well.” Hear, hear.

Hutton, although himself a Pagan, has systematically attacked the idea of pagan survivals in medieval Europe, and not just in this book. He hews to an orthodox focus on literary sources as the font of culture, with a corresponding disregard for the testimony of folk tradition and its conservational power. We hear from Diane Purkiss about how the English school of witchcraft history had “hardened into an orthodoxy”since the 1970s. Whitmore points out that they ignore the rich documentation of folk paganism by continental historians (a disregard, paired with sputterings about “rigor,” that I have been protesting for years).”

I had read Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon years ago and found it of interest as a historical document as I like to read All sides of the various debates on the origins of Witchcraft and Paganism. The book she reviews to is available at the above title link or HERE as a free PDF download and is about 86 pages long and good reading too. Enjoy and Blessed Be!

7 thoughts on “Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft

  1. I enjoyed Hutton’s book on modern vs ‘remnant’ paganism. I also liked his book on shamanism; but as with all things, I do think it is hard to say what is of long survival and what is reconstructed from folkish remnants.

    As for “rigor”….I often decry the seeming “fluffy logic” I see employed, but rigor is difficult. Even doing one’s best to keep in mind historical bits, personal gnosis (tested gnosis, even of the personal sort), and a sort of trial and error to quantify what works and what doesn’t…one risks falling into a paganistic “snarling logicality” as William James put it. I’ve seen this on pagan message boards, where newbies are flayed for innocent remarks where they are not trying to emulate the worst of the ‘one book wiccanesque’ sorts.

    But hey, nobody said neo-pagan spirituality was meant to be easy, right?

  2. Whitmore’s book is an excellent contribution to the discussion on historical Witchcraft. The more one delves into this issue, though, the more obvious it becomes just how tertiary a figure Ronald Hutton actually is, and how negligible, at best, has been his contribution is to the academic field of historical Witchcraft studies.

    Acknowledging Hutton’s overall insignificance does not detract from the importance of Whitmore’s critique of Hutton for two reasons: 1. Hutton looms large in the minds of Pagans, and for far too many Pagans he is just about the only scholarly “source” they are even aware of, and 2. More importantly, Whitmore provides many valuable pointers to other scholars that Pagan should be more familiar with, including, for examples, Carlo Ginzburg, P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, Alan MacFarlane, Eric Midlefort, u.s.w.

    • Yea i think when Hutton’s book came out, back when “Wicca” became “McWicca” many of us were looking for Anything a little bit intellectual and historical. But the more you read the older historians and some of the newer ones since then it all evens out. Like i told another commenter – all this history is interesting, but its nice to just go out in the woods and be a Witch.

      • “all this history is interesting, but its nice to just go out in the woods and be a Witch.”

        That is very true. But ……

        But hasn’t this always been true? And if it has always been true that one can just go into the woods and be Witch, then haven’t there always been people like us who have been doing this? How could that be stopped? It cannot. Hutton portrays Paganism as something that was utterly destroyed, and relatively easily so, by the Christians long ago. But my Paganism requires very little — just enough woods to get a little lost in. Then I am with the old Gods, who have been there all along, or however else one wants to describe it.

        Being also the bookish type, I can also find the old Gods in books – and many of these same books have enjoyed a continuous history of avid readership for the last 2000 years.

        And then there is good old Love (inclusive of, but not limited to, Sexual Love). Falling in Love brings out the Pagan in us all, as does good old fashioned Lust.

        And so forth. A lot of the resistance to Hutton comes from those who see him as painting a picture of ancient Paganism that is very weak and tenuous, and people did not really much care for, so that it was quite easy to convince people to abandon it and embrace the new religion of Christianity. I think there are very good and very obvious reasons for rejecting such a view of Paganism.

        • Yes, if we are in contact with our inner soul we can feel the same reverence for Nature as our ancestors felt watching the thunder and listening the night insects and the song so prevalent now of the mating birds. The Roman and Greek historians may have had their particular slant, but they recorded what they saw and heard of religions of “the heathen”, and where there is smoke there is fire regarding the Great Goddess ISIS etc.

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