Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Follow-Up Interview with Professor Ronald Hutton

I'm thrilled to announce that Professor Ronald Hutton has kindly agreed to do a follow-up interview here, addressing some of the topics that were raised in the Comments section of my previous interview with him. As most of us would be aware by now, Ronald Hutton is a Professor of History at the University of Bristol in the UK. He is leading authority on the history of the British Isles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but is probably better known amongst Pagans for his writings on topics such as the ritual year in Britain, ancient and medieval paganism and magic, and modern Pagan Witchcraft.

Professor Hutton, thank you for doing this follow-up interview. Do you have any comments to make upon the debate sparked off by the interview that you provided on this site?

Only two. The first is that the Wiccan whom I quoted as describing me as a ‘maverick historian’ was Ben Whitmore, and no other. In the same errand of clearing up misunderstandings (or in this case misinformation), I am not behind the ‘Pagans for Archaeology’ website and am not a member of Dolmen Grove, though I have friends in both, as in many other Pagan groups including the rival of ‘Pagans for Archaeology’, ‘Honouring the Ancient Dead’, to which I have acted as an official advisor. I have had honorary life membership in the Council of British Druid Orders since the 1990s, but do not take any regular part in its deliberations.

The second requires more detailed consideration, and it concerns the meaning of the word ‘witch’. Whenever it is used in practical and everyday contexts, from its derivation from the Anglo-Saxon wicce / wicca, it seems to signify somebody who uses magic to harm others. Wicca or wicce (according to the sex of the person described) was by far the most common of the words employed in early English law codes to describe acts of magic equivalent to serious crimes against the person, which injured or manipulated people and ranked with murder and perjury. The Laws of Ethelred II, for example, made exile or execution the penalties for wiccan odde wigelaras, scincraeftan odde horcwecan, mordwyrtan odde mansworan (witches or sorcerers, workers of magical illusion or seduction, those who kill secretly or deceive). While the other terms died out, it became standard and evolved into ‘witch’. The Anglo-Saxons had a range of other expressions for less harmful kinds of magic, such as galdra (charms) and idelra hwata (divinations).

There is however a complication in this process, caused by the orthodox Christian doctrine that all magic was inherently demonic because the only good supernatural changes could be wrought through the ceremonies and saints of established Churches. This ran counter to the embedded popular tradition that whether magic was good or evil was determined entirely by the uses to which it was put. Accordingly, in certain ages of reform, churchmen would attempt to destroy the reputation of magicians who operated for the benefit of other humans (if commonly for a fee), by declaring that they were merely another kind of witch, as they also (consciously or not) were working with demonic aid. This happened under the Anglo-Saxons, when some clerics glossed the words wicce or wicca as being equivalent to a variety of Latin terms which signified various forms of neutral or benevolent magic, mostly practices of divination of the future which they held to violate true submission to the will of their god. It happened again in the next really great era of reform and convulsion, the English Reformation, when evangelical Protestants set about attacking the popular faith in benevolent magicians, people known by many names but most commonly as ‘cunning’ or ‘wise’ folk. Their argument was that these were actually witches, despite their insistence that a large part of their trade consisted of spells to unmask or oppose witchcraft. It was based on the old Christian orthodoxy that all attempts to work magic were inherently ungodly and involved evil spirits. In the sixteenth century the most prominent of these authors included Reginald Scot, William Perkins, Henry Holland and George Gifford, while those in the next century numbered Thomas Ady and Thomas Hobbes amongst their kind. Some of them believed deeply in the reality of witchcraft while others (such as Scot and Hobbes) regarded apparent acts of magic as diabolical illusions. All, however, were out to destroy the reputation of cunning folk and learned ritual magicians by declaring that they were all really witches (and often that all decent people regarded them as witches). In the seventeenth century this campaign coined the term ‘white witches’ to indicate the cunning folk, which recognised that they might not be as bad as ‘normal’ witches in many ways but that their powers essentially still derived from Satan. This term passed into educated parlance, and has come down through the centuries to the present.

James Sharpe, Owen Davies and I, who are the three historians who have studied this phenomenon, agree firmly that the campaign to demonise cunning craft was a complete failure at a popular level. There is every sign, from the abundant surviving records for popular magic between 1550 and 1950, that ordinary people continued to make a firm distinction between witches (bad) and cunning folk (good, if their craft seemed to work). Individuals could move from one category to the other, but the categories themselves were still fixed. None the less, ever since Christianity took over England there have existed two languages of witchcraft: the consistent popular one, which defines a witch as a worker of evil magic, and a learned one, heard more at certain periods than others and ultimately an evangelical Christian discourse, which tried to extend the term, because everybody regarded it as having bad connotations, to workers of magic which most would regard as helpful and praiseworthy.

This matters at the present day, not merely because it causes a confusion which has emerged on this blog, but because it provides an important context for people taking the name of witch in contemporary society. There are no less than five different ways in which the word is used at present, two of which go back to the emergence of English, as described, and three which have appeared since. The third, which dates from the fifteenth century, is that a witch is a follower of a fully-formed religion dedicated to the worship of Satan. The fourth and fifth come from the nineteenth century and apply the term to a follower of a fully-formed pagan religion dedicated to the veneration of deities of nature, or a woman victimised by medieval or early modern society for asserting the rights of her sex against the dominant power of patriarchy. These are all colliding with each other across the English-speaking world at present, but not from equal positions of strength. In Britain at least, the last four are all the usage of minorities, though the fourth is used by a much larger minority than the third and fifth and the second by more people than the fourth. Even so, the second is generally employed in popular parlance with the formulation ‘white witch’, which itself presupposes the existence of the ‘black’. Still more significant, every indicator that I have seen is that the first, original and pejorative, definition of the word is still the default one for most of the British. This is a matter for concern to me, as it should be for anybody in my society who wishes for a greater (or even a sustained) level of tolerance and multiculturalism, and only an understanding of the historic context can really enable an appreciation of the visceral fear which the word still inspires for very many people, in my nation at least.

What about the issue of the use of ancient texts, like Theocritus, as evidence for witchcraft practices?

Oh thank you, yes, that is an important additional point which I should have covered. The belief that human beings can use uncanny powers to hurt others is one found in every inhabited continent of the world, but not in every people. Some societies in each continent have attributed mysterious misfortune to angry ghosts or land spirits instead. Others have blamed it on humans from rival communities. Only some have accused their own kin or neighbours of it, but these are still very numerous across the world and were the great majority in ancient Europe. In particular, the Romans feared destructive magic within in their own communities quite intensely, put suspects to death for it on a scale which exceeded later Christian witch hunts – if Livy is to be trusted – and associated it stereotypically with evil women, above all old women. The stock image of the early modern European witch is found very clearly in pagan Roman writers such as Horace, Lucan and Apuleius (and those of Shakespeare were based partly on Horace). The Romans, moreover, imposed a legal framework which embodied these beliefs upon their whole empire, and sent them straight into Christianity. The earliest Germanic law codes show the same fear. The Greeks seem to have suffered from it less, their stereotypical sorceress being more glamorous, but they still put people to death for the wrong use of magic. Moreover, from the fifth century BC onward they articulated a very negative view of magic itself, which they shared with the Romans and so handed on to Christianity, as an essentially irreligious and antisocial practice. Plato is perhaps the most celebrated early author to write in this tradition, but not the first. The peoples of Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia not only feared magicians but also demons quite acutely, and made a link between the two their own contribution to Christian thought: the notorious test for a witch, of sinking or swimming in water, is first found in the law code of the Babylonian king Hammurabi. The gender of the stereotypical witch varied greatly across these different societies – it was male in parts of Scandinavia, Baltic Europe, France and Austria, and mixed in the Middle East, but female everywhere else – but the basic dread of the hidden malevolent magician was common to all.

There were, however, two exceptions to this overall pattern. Celtic speaking peoples seem both to have recognised a right to curse, if not secretly and unjustly, more than others, and seem to have feared land spirits more than humans. They also seem to have viewed a use of magic in general as more socially acceptable. Most important is the case of ancient Egypt, a very important and influential culture in which magic was seen as wholly socially and religiously permissible, and from which, indeed, the European tradition of ritual magic really derives. The specific text which you cite, the ‘Pharmaceutria’ of Theocritus, is fascinating because it belongs at a borderline between two cultures. In Greek tradition, its main character, Simaetha, is clearly legally and morally in the wrong, because she is using magic secretly to destroy or compel a faithless lover. In the Egyptian context, she might have attracted more sympathy: and Theocritus was a Greek poet who had settled in Egypt to entertain a Greek colonial society there. The power of the poem lies partly in the fact that the poet makes no comment on the actions portrayed in it, and leaves those hearing it to form their own reactions.

Where are your sources for these conclusions?

Some are cited in detail in the fourth chapter of my collection Witches, Druids and King Arthur, and in the three journal articles identified in the recent essay that I published in The Pomegranate and allowed to go on general release online. I am pulling the evidence and arguments of all together, and augmenting them, in the next book that I am going to write.

How do you see the relationship between academic scholarship and Pagan practitioners?

I don’t think that the two can be separated, and certainly any perceived opposition between them is either a false construction or one which is limited and complicated by a number of different factors. My reasons for suggesting this are as follows.

First, universities would not be there if the general public did not want them. There are more of them in the world now than ever before, and their popularity is illustrated both by the total lack of any significant opposition to their existence, even when some cost taxpayers’ money, and by the fierce competition for places to study in most of them. They seem now to be regarded, worldwide, as an essential feature of a civilised society. Furthermore, the growing number of television and radio programmes which feature academic experts as interviewees and presenters indicates both a widespread appetite for the results of their research and a readiness on their part to engage with mass audiences. There seems to be no significant feeling in any nation of which I have personal knowledge that they lack utility or are out of step with the wider culture of the societies around them. The problem may be, on the contrary, that they reflect that wider society too well, with which some Pagans are at variance.

Second, when some Pagans now express hostility to academics, they are generally doing so in defence of ideas which were originally articulated by other academics. Most often, they are defending what was the general scholarly orthodoxy about historical witchcraft in the mid twentieth century, represented finally and most famously by Margaret Murray of the University of London. What bewilders and angers some members of the public most about professional scholarship now is not actually that it is entrenched and manufactures consent, but that it has overturned many of the received truths of previous decades. To challenge orthodoxy effectively is currently the fastest and most certain way to make an academic career, and the pace of argument and change can be bewildering for people on the outside who want stability and certainty, or at least to continue to believe what they were originally taught about something.

Third, the most determined Pagan opponents of ideas expressed by particular historians tend not to carry out any research of their own but to make use of other historians, who are either academics themselves or dependent on professional scholarship and operating within an academic tradition. A classic example of the former sort who has featured in the present debate is Carlo Ginzburg, and of the latter, Paolo Portone. They are very different sorts of author, Carlo being one of the world’s great research scholars and Paolo a polemical writer who draws mostly on existing publications. I have, however, a personal affection and respect for both: Carlo, as I have written before, is a friend, and I am trying to find Paolo a translator and publisher for his book in English. This might give some pause to those who see us as in opposition to each other. Neither of them champion the idea of a surviving medieval or early modern pagan religion, separate from Christianity and in opposition to it, let alone one which survived till modern times. Both emphasise instead the importance of ancient pagan elements absorbed into medieval and later Christian culture, carried on by people who assumed that they were themselves Christian even if other kinds of Christian did not always agree. I am completely in agreement with them in doing so, the main difference between us being that I have hitherto concentrated more on the way in which the pagan elements got filtered back out of the Christian in modern times to create a set of resurrected Pagan religions.

Fourth, the academics who are singled out as hate-figures by some Pagans are not those who are most remote from or hostile to Paganism but those who are most closely associated with it and have tried most to help it. This point is closely related to the fifth, that the Pagans who complain most about academics are usually not reacting directly to the work of those scholars at all, but to the use made of their work by other Pagans, to denigrate or mock the beliefs of the people doing the complaining. This use is often of a kind of which the scholars themselves would not approve and which itself represents a distortion of what they have been trying to say. Sixth, the whole issue of a concern for authenticity of descent in present-day Paganisms, and a hostility to professional historians (or indeed to anybody) who appears to question or threaten it, is not a European phenomenon, let alone a British one. It is concentrated in the United States, and there mainly in the central and western parts of the country and only among certain groups and individuals. It has echoes in some areas of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It therefore is a problem which affects both sides of the Pacific, but has hardly appeared on both sides of the Atlantic. If it exists in Europe, then it is barely visible at present, and not at all in the main societies, journals and conventions that represent European Paganism. Last September, British Wiccans held a ‘Day for Gerald’ to celebrate Gerald Gardner’s life and work. I was invited to speak, with people who had known and worked with Gerald, his biographer Philip Heselton, and leading members of the current Wiccan community. All of us turned out to be in agreement with each other, both with regard to Gerald’s character and the significance of his achievements. None of us addressed the question of the authenticity of his tradition, because there is no solid evidence to settle it and because it has more or less ceased to matter to most British Wiccans in any practical sense.

Incidentally, it puzzles me that, whereas Paganism is supposed to be a complex of religions centred largely on the power of the feminine, most of those whom I might term Pagan fundamentalists across the world seem to be men. What is more, many of them employ a very traditional male-gang language of swagger and taunt, of which there have been some ripe examples in the responses to my interview. I acknowledge that a few have also made some points worth discussing, which I have addressed above, but do these really have to wrapped in so much machismo?

Will you publish on the history of modern Paganism again?

Probably not. I wrote Triumph to suggest an answer to one specific question: why Wicca appeared in England, of all the places in the world, and in the mid twentieth century, as opposed to any other time. To put it another way, I wanted to show why it was that one of the most industrialised, urbanised and densely populated countries on earth happened to be the one to produce a religion drawing on ancient pagan roots and centred on nature deities, at the threshold of late modernity? In providing my answer, I also believe that I achieved three other objectives. One was to explain the national and international success of the religion concerned, and another to reassure those who knew little or nothing of it of its essentially benevolent character. The third was to show that, far from deriving from ideas and impulses which were the preserve of a fringe element in society, they drew on several which were mainstream to modern British culture, and involved some of its most familiar and admired figures. In particular, its deities, although present in the ancient world, were not those who were most central to that world’s religions but those who had become most important to the modern British in general, in a way which has not been adequately appreciated and honoured.

Having done this, I stepped back to let other researchers build on and modify my proposals, and to assist this process I repeatedly emphasised in Triumph that the data could be interpreted in different ways. I did this particularly in the case of the origins of Leland’s Aradia and those of Gerald Gardner’s rites, in each of which I proposed three quite distinct valid readings of the evidence, one of which was to accept exactly what Leland and Gerald had claimed. In each case I expressed a personal view that the traditional claim was the least likely scenario, but continued to include it as an open possibility. Likewise, I became the first person to raise an informed doubt that Dorothy Clutterbuck was a witch, but then emphasised that nothing that I had said proved that she was not. In my analyses of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century evidence, I opened up several areas which had never been properly investigated before with such questions in mind, and left those in turn to other people to consider further for themselves. If, as some have claimed, Triumph has been used to close down the investigation of Pagan history, that is exactly the opposite effect to that which I intended. Had I wanted to dominate the field, then I would have continued to base myself mainly in it and follow up the matters that I had raised myself. Instead I wrote two essays a few years later, to dispel possible false impressions created by my earlier work: that I thought that there was nothing in ancient paganism which closely resembled modern Paganism, and that there was no continuity in the veneration of ancient deities through the Middle Ages. I published these in Witches, Druids and King Arthur, and then left the whole field to newcomers.

My other reason for a reluctance to continue is that I just couldn’t locate any more evidence which promised decisive answers to the remaining problems of modern Pagan origins. Nor has anybody done since. Last November, for example, I was privileged to stand in Dorothy Clutterbuck’s former home in Highcliffe and act as questioner in a filmed debate between the two current world experts on her life, Philip Heselton and the local historian, Ian Stevenson, who had helped both Philip and me so much in our research. Neither of them believed any longer that Dorothy herself had been a witch, but Philip suggested that she had lent her house to the New Forest Coven for its activities, even if she herself may not always have been quite sure what those were. Ian was by now convinced that she had never had anything to do with witchcraft or Gerald, and that the latter misrepresented her as one to conceal the true background to Wicca. I listened to both and pronounced that, in the present state of the evidence, either could be correct, and that I hoped that one of them would uncover the solution to the problem. I don’t myself, however, see a way in which this can be done.

Several years ago I became aware of a possible source of information for Wiccan history which I had missed before: a cache of letters from Doreen Valiente and Margaret Murray to the artist and ritual magician Ithel Colquhoun, preserved in the archive of the Tate Gallery. I intended to read them when I was in the right part of London at the right moment, but recently Amy Hale, who is studying Colquhoun, made photocopies for me. Doreen’s letters are interesting on her breach with Gerald and the Bricket Wood Coven, but tell us nothing really new. The single one from Margaret Murray (Tate Gallery Archive 929/5/31/15) was important, because it revealed her attitude to Wicca, by 1960, which was bitterly hostile. She called it ‘an obviously modern sect, which has nothing to do with the old cult, which was definitely as much a religion as Christianity. The medieval witch was a devout person believing in God, though not in the Christian idea of God … The modern imitation appeals to rather brainless young people who want to feel important, and is not in any way religious’. How she could have reached the conclusion that Wicca was not a religion, when she had written a preface to Gardner's Witchcraft Today, and even the hostile newspaper reports acknowledged that its members thought themselves to be deeply religious, escapes me. The letter thus provides a rare insight into her private opinions, but like all the new information that I have seen, it adds detail to existing knowledge without answering any of the really big questions of Wiccan origins.

I have not turned my back on the history of paganism and witchcraft: instead I am farther into it than ever before, preparing the two large books of which I have spoken in my Pomegranate piece. The focus of these is on the ancient, medieval and early modern periods, which I had relatively neglected before. They should be of direct interest to modern Pagans – indeed, material from them has featured above in this interview. What I have found most significant and inspiring in the reactions to your interview with me, is the warmth and supportiveness shown by the majority of those who have responded to it. I am honoured to take my place among such a company.

Thank you again, Professor Hutton, for providing such detailed and fascinating answers to these questions. I, and I'm sure others too, really appreciate your willingness to engage with what seem to be some of the more contentious aspects pertaining to the academic study of both historical and modern witchcraft, and ancient and contemporary paganisms. I'm sure readers of this blog will agree with me that your work and ideas invigorate contemporary Pagan Witchcraft - which is essentially still a work in progress - and your accessability and public presence provide both clarification and enhancement of its nature.