They tell us that "beauty born of murmuring sound" will pass into a human face; but it won't. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of the Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, and the wrong side of the door. We disern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so.
C.S. Lewis "The Weight of Glory"
A Gathering of Truth: A Book Review
By Viola Larson
The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft.
By Ronald Hutton. Oxford University Press. 1999.
Modern Witchcraft, which is the largest group within the Pagan community, has its beginning roots deep within the countryside and small towns of England. Its history, filled with various religious movements and interesting characters, is captured in all its variety and texture by Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol. His book, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft is undoubtedly the most comprehensive and scholarly book written on modern Witchcraft. Hutton uses several different historical methods, including friendly interviews. He seemingly tends to lean toward the annales method of historiography, and has covered large amounts of material that range from the “traditional cunning craft,” to such persons as Aleister Crowley and such movements as radical feminism in the United States. His style is non-judgmental and his kind attitude toward those he disagrees with is reminiscent of the great theologian Karl Barth.
The book is divided into two sections, “Macrocosm” and “Microcosm.” Hutton looks in the first section at the wider culture and movements of the past that contributed to modern Witchcraft. He explores such subjects as magic, folklore and the proper alignment of paganism with the Romantic Movement. Hutton traces early perceptions of witchcraft, using the work of poets, novelist, and historians as well as religious authorities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For instance on the subject of the witch trials he looks at nineteenth century French historian, Jules Michelet, who in a dubious work entitled, La Sorciere, portrayed the victims as chosen because they were young and pretty. He quotes Michelet, who insisted that witches were “great healers, upon whose skills much of modern medicine had been based.” (140) After showing how unhistorical this particular work of Michelet's is he finds connections to La Sorciere, in the writing of an early nineteenth century American feminist, Matilda Joslyn Gage, who wrote Woman, Church, and State. Gage not only incorporated Michelet's ideas about witches as healers, she embellished on the witch trials, suggesting that as many as nine million women had died. Gage also “linked Michelet's witches with another theory going the round of her time, that prehistoric human society had been universally matriarchal.” (141)
In the second half of his book, “Microcosm”, Hutton explores various people, ideas and movements that have shaped Wicca. In this section the reader is treated to a small monograph about the leading light of early modern witchcraft, Gerald Gardner. Other important figures in this section, (There are too many to list all.), include, of course, Margaret Murray, Aleister Crowley, whom Hutton disassociates from Wicca, and Doreen Valiente, Robert Cochrane and Alex Sanders. Toward the end of this section Hutton makes a side trip to the United States. He looks at the way Radical Feminism in the United States merged with Wicca, incorporating some of its earlier misunderstandings about the historical background of witchcraft. Hutton also gives a lot of attention to the background and writings of the witch Starhawk. He takes time to record her development from simply a poetically affirming writer in The Spiral Dance, to a political activist who is attempting to deal with the anger of suffering in Dreaming The Dark. Hutton writes of the paradox of her views.
In The Spiral Dance she denounced opposed dualisms, and the `Righteousness Syndrome,' according to which `there is One Right True and Only Way-Ours!-and everybody else is wrong.' Dreaming the Dark spoke of the need to `fight' such dualisms, and with them notions of the `Chosen Few' and of salvation and damnation. At the same time a central message of this book was a call to resist powers which were threatening to destroy the world, and would do so unless society was converted to a better way of thinking.(349)1
There were three historical misconceptions bound up with the history of modern witchcraft; the continuous existence of witchcraft from ancient times to the present, the worldwide belief in an ancient Pagan Goddess connected to a peaceful matriarchal society and erroneous beliefs about various aspects of the witch trials. Hutton has dealt with all three. He shows the origins of the misconceptions, tracing their reinforcement within such literary works as James Frazer's Golden Bough, the texts of various early Wicca writers as well as the archeologist, Mirija Gimbutas. Hutton, also points out the later refutation of these misconceptions by some Wiccan scholars as well as the entrenched position of the same theories in more popular works. For instance in his next to last chapter, “Coming of Age,” Hutton writes of the large amount of research done by English historians in the mid-1990s on the subject of the witch trials. He writes that the books and research coming out of this period, refutes “many previous assumptions and models, including that provided by American feminists.” Hutton is emphatic in stating that, “It has established beyond any reasonable doubt that there was no long-lasting or wide-ranging persecution of witches in early modern Europe, trials which involved the charge being neither routine nor common in any district.” Writing of the victims of such accusations, Hutton points out that they were mostly “poor, marginalized, and anti-social, and where accusations spread they mostly reflected tensions between neighbors in lower reaches of society.”
Accusations of witchcraft were not merely made against women but very often-in some areas mostly-initially made by women, not in the name of male power but because the alleged spells cast by witches most commonly affected those spheres of activity-small children, domestic work and the physical home, the animals of the in-field-which were normally the responsibility of females. (379)
Another important theme that runs through this book is the relationship of witchcraft and other magical ideas and movements to Christianity; sometimes interacting sometimes reacting to each other. This is by no means a book concerned with Christianity, and in some cases I disagree with the author's assessment about whether a particular movement or group was Christian, but the history of the back and forth interaction of these very different world views is interesting. An example of the reaction is found in Hutton's chapter on Gerald Gardner.” Hutton stresses that Gardner's writings, which incorporated Margaret Murray's and Charles Godfrey Leland's views of the witch, “automatically pre-empted any easy reconciliation of the result with Christianity or with conventional social mores.” He goes on to point out that “this was supercharged by the fact that it paid no reverence to any Great Spirit, Prime Mover, or World Soul, who might be equated with Jehovah, but to the nature-goddess and the horned god who had arisen in the nineteenth century as the favorite deities of the positive, life-affirming, language of paganism. (235,6.)
In his last chapter, “Grandchildren of the Shadows,” Hutton clarifies the nature of Wiccan beliefs. He begins with three affirmed by the Pagan Federation: (1) “acceptance of the inherent divinity of the natural world, and a rejection of any notion of the creation of the world by a power outside itself,” (2) “the rejection of any concept of a divinely prescribed law for human behavior, and therefore of the concepts of sin and salvation,” (3) “an acceptance that divinity can be both female and male.” (390) Hutton adds five more of his own based on his observations. He list them as:
First, it aims to draw out and enhance the divinity within human beings. Second, it abolishes the traditional Western distinction between religion and magic. Third, it is a mystery religion or a set of mystery religions. Fourth, its essence lies in the creative performance of ritual. Fifth, it is eclectic and protean. (391) (Italics the author's)
Hutton elaborates in great detail on the meanings of his five essentials. Therefore, for the Christian who wishes to interact with those in the Wicca Community this chapter is essential. In fact the whole book is helpful. Within this text, unintended by the author, one finds ways to present Christianity in a more positive light to the Wiccan. Their emphasis on poetry and ritual is a clue. Their view of Wicca as a mystery religion is another. The Incarnation, God becoming human, rings with poetry and mystery, in fact, it is the great mystery. The Pagan Federation's third basic tenet, “an acceptance that divinity can be both female and male,” is seemingly a jab at Christianity and, of course, a misunderstanding of Christianity. God is neither male nor female, and He is Father because of Jesus Christ. He is the Father of Jesus Christ, as the Nicene Creed states, “begotten of the Father before all worlds [God of God], Light of Light, very God of God, begotten not made. . .” That is itself a mystery. Hutton has cleared away the underbrush that keeps Christians from speaking intelligently to Wiccans and some Wiccan misperceptions that probably keep Wiccans from hearing Christians. Excellent scholarship always leans heavily toward truth and the ultimate truth is enhanced by scholarly truth.
1 Hutton is quoting from, Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, 201; Dreaming the Dark, xi, 15-32.