Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Finally a Feminist Historian's Take on Whitmore's Critique of Hutton

I'm still working my way through 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, a recent book by New Zealand Pagan Ben Whitmore. And I may have more to say about it when I've finished it and gone back and re-read Hutton.

I'm no historian, but Hutton's approach to the history of Witchcraft always seemed to me to be (1) too based in a privileged, literary, male approach to what is largely women's (and therefore subjugated and more likely to be found hiding in oral traditions, crafts, family customs, etc.) history and (2) too willing to accept monotheism's either/or way of looking at the world, i.e, either Dorothy Clutterbuck or many of the people burned as Witches were Christian or they were Witches, but, obviously not both and, if we can find, for example, evidence that they attended the Christian church (even when not to do so was to invite burning or social ostracism) then they must not have been Witches. (I don't know about Hutton, but most women I know in mainstream religions are pretty used to accepting that a certain amount of it is bollocks (yeah, right, Eve tempted Adam; yeah, right priests have to be men because the Disciples were all men, well, at least once you define the Disciples to exclude Mary Magdalen because she wasn't, you know, a man) and simply adopting the parts they like and ignoring the bollocks.) It seems far more likely to me that lots of people, especially women, simply accepted a mixture of Christianity and their old beliefs, just as many modern, self-professed Christians say that they check their daily horoscope in the newspaper, do yoga, and believe in accept evolution. [Literata makes a good point in comments: "Believe in" is bad framing, as it implies that evolution is a matter of faith.]

Now, thanks to Medusa Coils' monthly round-up, here's a review of Whitmore's book from a real historian, Max Dashu. Dashu takes a chapter-by-chapter approach to Whitmore's book and notes that the footnotes in this book are as important as the text. Dashu's review is well worth reading in its entirety, whether you plan to read Whitmore, or not.

Obligatory statements for those who should know better: Yes, of course, some of the people burned as Witches were not Witches and did not engage in any form of Witchcraft, shamanism, or other Pagan practice. Once membership in a disfavored religion becomes cause for persecution (not to mention property approbation), lots of people get wrongly accused of belonging to that religion. Look at the current attempts to insist that President Obama is a Muslim. Yes, of course, some suggested numbers of those burned at the stake appear now to have been overstated. That doesn't change the fact that thousands of (mostly) women were (and in some parts of the world today, still are) executed as Witches. Yes, of course, some early practitioners of early Wicca made up stories about covens that extended back to mythological times. Yes, of course, modern Paganism has evolved and is in many ways different from the practices, of, say, the ancient Celts or Egyptians or Greeks. You know, so has Christianity evolved. Look at what goes on in modern mega-churches, compare that to the socialist practices of 1st Century Christians gathering in each other's homes, and get back to me about how closely my Dianic magics track those of my many-times-great Swedish grandmothers.

None of those facts mean that modern Witchcraft doesn't have ties to ancient practices, that women who would today be called (and likely self-identify as) Witches weren't burned at the stake, or that Pagans need to consider ourselves a completely modern invention.

Picture found here.


Anonymous said...

I love Max. For anyone who has not taken one of her courses or bought one of her posters, shame on you. She has got it right and knows her stuff.

Lucy Fur Leaps said...

Read the excellent review by Max Dashu yesterday - now have to find time to read the book! :-)

Thalia said...

Yay Max!

Literata said...

I look forward to reading the critique. I have to object, though, Hecate, when you say that people "believe in" evolution. That's just as bad a framing as starting off an interview by saying, "I'm a Witch and I don't worship the devil!"

People don't believe in evolution. They can accept it as the current scientific consensus, they can understand the weight of the evidence behind it, and other things, but they don't believe in it. They accept it as true to the best of our knowledge and understand that it gives reliable information an is a mainstay of modern science. To use the word belief for that is to preemptively cede ground to those who think we choose to believe in science in the same way we choose to believe in the Tooth Fairy.

Wade White said...

Hekate, if it's not too late.... When re-reading Hutton, do be sure to keep an eye out for internal logical inconsistencies that seem to plague every book he's ever written. For example, in the chapter, "On Finding a God" Hutton insists that the stereotype of the Devil, which derive from Pan, is a modern invention from the Victorian era! Yet.... How can this be when Hutton also says that the Victorians had turned Pan into a Christ-like figure? Even Mary Shelly questioned how this could be so. Numerous scholars, however, support the Pagan view that the iconography of the Devil was, in fact, derived from an attempted demonization of pagan gods, which Hutton says did not happen. I am inclined to believe that Hutton is attempting to link this purview to the Murray-thesis since he charges her with having "paganize the Devil" in his earlier trope, "The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles." Surprisingly, Hutton doesn't even choose to discuss this topic in his latest book, "The Witch", where it would be most appropriate to do so! But, Hutton seems to hate admitting that he's wrong!

He's been doubling down on "Triumph" even after he'd admitted in "Witches, Druids and King Arthur" (2004) that "Triumph" simply amounted to his personal thesis, which he was totally unable to substantiate by the end. In fact, most damning IMO is his confession (in the same 2004 book!) that as he was writing "Triumph" he found evidence tying modern pagan witchcraft back to antiquity; but, he intentionally chose to ignore it, because: 1.) his personal model was still correct without bothering to admit to inconvenient proof that disproves him, and 2.) few scholars would have believed him, apparently.

It's also in "Witches, Druids and King Arthur" where Hutton makes sweeping generalizations and, again, also ignores evidence that debunks his views. In one chapter he writes, "It quickly became apparent" that Paganism in the Med. died easily by the 4th century. But, first of all, he doesn't cite to whom "it quickly became apparent" too! Furthermore, throughout this chapter, I noticed he cites liberally from every chapter from Prof. Bowersock's book, "Hellenism in Late Antiquity," with the acceptation of the first chapter. Hutton totally ignores and reject this first chapter, because it is the one where Bowersock demonstrably proves that Paganism in the Med. has not yet does by the 4th Century; but, it wasn't even waning by the seventh century, IIRC! I even found evidence from the Book of Pontiffs that a Cardinal was imprisoned for going to sacred groves, which must have been for the purpose of worship in some form or another. Even though this was the so-called "Christian Era", what we can learn from the Norse and South American converts is that there was a lengthy hybridization period, which Hutton seems to discount as irrelevant.

Wade White said...

In other words, according to Hutton, "Triumph of the Moon" was an exercise in Confirmation Bias since he admitted that his focus intentionally ignored contradictorily evidence. Therefore, this book is not an objective work of history!