Second book review: Modern Paganism

Image from Treadwells bookshop, London.

Image from Treadwells bookshop, London.

Hutton, R. The triumph of the moon: a history of modern Pagan witchcraft. Oxford University Press, 1999.

The book I have chosen for the Modern Paganism topic is The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft by Ronald Hutton.

Hutton is an academic historian at the University of Bristol, UK, with a deep interest in modern and ancient Paganism and how it interacts with culture.

The book’s focus is British Wicca, and the reason I’ve chosen it from the reading list is that many of the other books focus on American pagan movements, which are not as relevant to me here in the UK. While I am not Wiccan, Wicca is the source of much of modern paganism, and its ideas and symbolism have percolated popular culture to an astonishing extent. Yet some of it is rooted in outdated scholarship and debunked theories.

According to Our Own Druidry, Hutton’s book “serves as a counter-balance to much of the information and theories that are likely to be encountered when reviewing Neo-Paganism in general”.

The first part of the book explores the background to the creation of modern Wicca, and discusses the influence of Romanticism, spiritualism and Victorian ideas of “nature” (including the archetypes of the wild horned god and the triple goddess, essentially created by Robert Graves) which were brought into Wiccan thought from the very beginning.

Other influences Hutton discusses are Freemasonry (which may have been the source of the liturgical phrases “merry meet” and “so mote it be”), and the ceremonial magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a 19th century magical order which included W.B. Yeats among its members. The Golden Dawn’s ritual structure (casting circles, calling quarters, use of four elements and pentagram symbols) was clearly a major influence on Gardner’s development of Wiccan ritual, which in turn has influenced other Pagan groups including much of British Druidry today.

Hutton debunks several modern Pagan myths in this book, skewering false beliefs with academic precision. The “witch cult” theory of Margaret Murray, the belief in pre-Christian goddess-worshipping matriarchies, the lack of Pagan origins for the Green Man figure seen in English churches…all are shown to be modern interpretations based often on insufficient evidence. Gardner’s own version of the events that led to the founding of Wicca is also shown to be more myth than history: it is highly unlikely that he was initiated into a secretive ancient coven by a mysterious “high priestess”.

The effect of wishful thinking, esoteric fantasy, charismatic individuals and some fairly poor scholarship all played a role in the creation of Wicca, although this does not necessarily mean that Wiccan practices are not valid as a modern religion, but that it cannot be claimed as a survival of ancient Paganism.

Triumph of the Moon also traces the development of Wicca after Gardner, in both Britain and the US, and the growth of modern “eclectic Wicca” or “eclectic Paganism” as well as how Wicca, originally a cult of (hetero)sexuality and fertility, became an environmentalist and feminist nature religion through influential writers such as Starhawk.

Hutton’s work may ruffle the feathers of Pagans who believe in the claims of unbroken ancient traditions, but I believe it is essential to know and understand the true history of modern Paganism if we are to take it forward into the future as a modern, environmentally aware and scientifically conscious way of life for the 21st century.

 

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