There are two prevalent myths among Pagans that must be dispelled.
The first is the myth that “the Old Religion” refers to a single, homogeneous continuous tradition of Celtic and/or Northern European Paganism that has remained unchanged (and, in particular, unmixed with any “outside”, that is non-Celtic and/or non-Northern European, influences) since the Stone Age.
The second is the myth that Ronald Hutton and other scholars have conclusively proven that Wicca, and modern Paganism generally, has no meaningful connection with the Pagan religions of the distant past. According to this myth, anyone today who continues to be dedicated to the proposition that we Pagans are followers of the Old Religion must either be (1) ignorant people who are unaware of the facts, or (2) “fundamentalists” who refuse to accept the facts.
The good news is that the vast majority of Pagans still believe, as Pagans have always believed, that our religious traditions are very old, even as old as humankind itself. For knowledge of the Gods is intrinsic to human nature, and this is why ancient Greco-Roman Pagans called belief in the Gods one of the “common conceptions” found universally in all human societies.
Before proceeding any further, though, let us first pause for a moment to make certain that there isn’t a reverse-Straw-Man argument (which occurs when one falsely attributes a Straw Man argument to someone else) going on here. To that end, here is Ronald Hutton, in his own words, on pages 376-377 of Triumph of the Moon:
“Modern pagan witchcraft had, after all, appeared as a movement with a very specific historical claim, and sooner or later it had to make a relationship with current academic historiography in order to put itself into a more secure, durable, perspective. A first step in this direction had been taken by Margot Adler, as described [see excerpt below from p. 370], but although she suggested that the notion of the Old Religion should not be treated as literal fact, she still suggested that there might be some truth in it. A similar hedging was made by Vivianne Crowley in her book in 1989, which took note of criticisms of the Murray thesis but told readers that they could themselves be flawed; in the same year, by contrast, Tanya Luhrmann accepted the thesis as defunct. The decisive breakthrough was apparently made at a seminar convened at King’s College London in December 1990 to discuss the comparisons and contrasts between Paganism and other varieties of religion. It was attended by several notable Wiccans, including Crowley, Leonora James, and Frederic Lamond, and a number of academics including myself, invited in my capacity as a historian of ancient paganisms. One of the most significant aspects of the occasion was the spectacle of one Wiccan after another speaking of the Murray thesis as a foundation myth, and of the Old Religion as a metaphor, in the manner of Margot Adler – but with yet greater sensitivity and erudition. As in America earlier, so now in Britain, Wiccans had broken out of the trap of fundamentalism which has often seemed to be the natural course of minority religions whose basic assumptions are questions by the wider scholarship (which was one major gateway for it to the national community) was dissolving.
It was hardly a moment too soon, for in the 1990s there broke a tidal wave of accumulating research which swept away not only any possibility of doubt regarding the lack of correlation between paganism and early modern witchcraft, but virtually the whole set of assumptions upon which both the original concept of the Old Religion and its later, evolved, American feminist version, had been based. [pp. 376-377]
And here is an excerpt from Hutton’s earlier description of Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, to which he refers back (as noted) in the above excerpt:
“[Margot Adler, in her Drawing Down the Moon] celebrated the power and utility of myth but also drew a firm distinction between myth and reality. She recognized that Wicca had probably been built upon a pseudo-history, and then suggested that this was normal for the development of religious traditions and that Wiccans deserved credit for the fact they were increasingly conscious of this without losing a sense of the viability of their actual experience of the divine.” [p. 370]
This leaves no room for doubt about either (1) the extremist position (a position that, as will be shown below, does turn out to be a real Straw Man) that Ronald Hutton projects onto others and that he claims to have vanquished, or about (2) the genuinely extremist position that Ronald Hutton was himself explicitly championing in Triumph of the Moon.
In line with the considerations laid out above, the rest of this series, after this Introduction, will consist of four sections (although at least one of these “sections” will have more than one post in it). The first section (the post you are reading right now) will reveal the true nature of the “continuous tradition” Straw Man by showing what Charles Godfrey Leland, Margaret Murray, and Gerald Gardner all said, in their own words, about the Old Religion. The second section (which so far has two sections, here and here, but there are more to come) will deconstruct the false claim that Ronald Hutton & Co. have vanquished the notion of the Old Religion, by showing what Ronald Hutton has actually said on this subject, in his own words. In the third section (one post here) will be presented several examples of 21st Pagans who continue to identify themselves as adherents of the Old Religion. And the fourth and final section (still to come!) will present examples of how ancient Pagans already saw themselves as adherents of an even more ancient religious traditions coeval with the human race.
The “continuous tradition” Straw Man: What Leland, Murray, and Gardner actually said
The three most important figures associated with the concept of the Old Religion are Charles Godfrey Leland, Margaret Murray, and Gerald Gardner. It is quite easy to show that these three never proposed anything like the “fundamentalist” Straw Man argument that one hears so much about from Ronald Hutton and his ilk. But please don’t take my word for it.
First up, we have Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903). The man had a way with words. It was his idea, or so it is said (and so he himself claimed), to recast the anti-slavery cause as a movement for “Emancipation” rather than for “Abolition”. He was also the first to use the term “holy roller” to refer to the more exuberant forms of worship found among certain Christian sects. And he was also the first person to use the English phrase “Old Religion.” The following is an excerpt from Leland’s “Etruscan Roman Remains”, pages 1-3 in the 2007 Cosimo Classics edition, the full text of which is available at sacred-texts.com (the book was first published in 1892):
THERE is in Northern Italy a mountain district known as La Romagna Toscana, the inhabitants of which speak a rude form of the Bolognese dialect. These Romagnoli are manifestly a very ancient race, and appear to have preserved traditions and observances little changed from an incredibly early time. It has been a question of late years whether the Bolognese are of Etrurian origin, and it seems to have been generally decided that they are not. With this I have nothing whatever to do. They were probably there before the Etruscans. But the latter at one time held all Italy, and it is very likely that they left in remote districts those traces of their culture to which this book refers. The name Romagna is applied to their district because it once formed part of the Papal or Roman dominion, and it is not to be confounded with La Romagna proper. Roughly speaking, the region to which I refer may be described as lying between Forli and Ravenna. Among these people, stregeria, or witchcraft–or, as I have heard it called, “la vecchia religione” (or “the old religion”)–exists to a degree which would even astonish many Italians. This stregeria, or old religion, is something more than a sorcery, and something less than a faith. It consists in remains of a mythology of spirits, the principal of whom preserve the names and attributes of the old Etruscan gods, such as Tinia, or Jupiter, Faflon, or Bacchus, and Teramo (in Etruscan Turms), or Mercury. With these there still exist, in a few memories, the most ancient Roman rural deities, such as Silvanus, Palus, Pan, and the Fauns. To all of these invocations or prayers in rude metrical form are still addressed, or are at least preserved, and there are many stories current regarding them. All of these names, with their attributes, descriptions of spirits or gods, invocations and legends, will be found in this work.
Closely allied to the belief in these old deities, is a vast mass of curious tradition, such as that there is a spirit of every element or thing created, as for instance of every plant and mineral, and a guardian or leading spirit of all animals; or, as in the case of silkworms, two–one good and one evil. Also that sorcerers and witches are sometimes born again in their descendants; that all kinds of goblins, brownies, red-caps and three-inch mannikins, haunt forests, rocks, ruined towers, firesides and kitchens, or cellars, where they alternately madden or delight the maids–in short, all of that quaint company of familiar spirits which are boldly claimed as being of Northern birth by German archæologists, but which investigation indicates to have been thoroughly at home in Italy while Rome was as yet young, or, it may be, unbuilt. Whether this “lore” be Teutonic or Italian, or due to a common Aryan or Asian origin, or whether, as the new school teaches, it “growed” of itself, like Topsy, spontaneously and sporadically everywhere, I will not pretend to determine; suffice to say that I shall be satisfied should my collection prove to be of any value to those who take it on themselves to settle the higher question.
Connected in turn with these beliefs in folletti, or minor spirits, and their attendant observances and traditions, are vast numbers of magical cures with appropriate incantations, spells, and ceremonies, to attract love, to remove all evil influences or bring certain things to pass; to win in gaming, to evoke spirits, to insure good crops or a traveller’s happy return, and to effect divination or deviltry in many curious ways–all being ancient, as shown by allusions in classical writers to whom these spells were known. And I believe that in some cases what I have gathered and given will possibly be found to supply much that is missing in earlier authors–sit verbo venia.
Many peasants in the Romagna Toscana are familiar with scores of these spells, but the skilled repetition and execution of them is in the hands of certain cryptic witches, and a few obscure wizards who belong to mystic families, in which the occult art is preserved from generation to generation, under jealous fear of priests, cultured people, and all powers that be, just as gypsies and tramps deeply distrust everything that is not “on the road,” or all “honest folk,” so that it is no exaggeration to declare that “travellers” have no confidence or faith in the truth of any man, until they have caught him telling a few lies. As it indeed befell me myself once in Bath, where it was declared in a large gypsy encampment that I must be either Romany or of Romany blood, because I was the biggest liar they had ever met–the lie in this case having been an arrogant and boastful, yet true, assertion on my part, that though penniless at the moment to stand treat, I had, at home, twenty-four gold sovereigns, eighteen shillings in silver, and twopence in bronze. “And I don’t believe,” added the gypsy, “that he had a d—-d sixpence to his name. But he’s all right.” So these travellers on the darkened road of sorcery soon recognised in the holder of the Black Stone of the Voodoo, the pupil of the Red Indian medaolin, and the gypsy rye (and one who had, moreover, his pocket always full of fetishes in little red bags)–a man who was worthy of confidence–none the less so since he was not ungenerous of pounds of coffee, small bottles of rum, cigars, and other minor requisites which greatly promote conviviality and mutual understanding in wisdom. Among these priestesses of the hidden spell an elder dame has generally in hand some younger girl whom she instructs, firstly in the art of bewitching or injuring enemies, and secondly in the more important processes of annulling or unbinding the spells of others, or causing mutual love and conferring luck. And here I may observe that many of the items given in this book are so jealously guarded as secrets, that, as I was assured, unless one was in the confidence of those who possess such lore, he might seek it in vain. Also that a great portion has become so nearly extinct that it is now in articulo mortis, vel in extremis, while other details are however still generally known.
Next to take the stand is Margaret Alice Murray (1863-1963), the woman behind the “Murray thesis” to which Ronald Hutton refers in the passage from Triumph of the Moon quoted in the Introduction to this post. What was this “thesis”? Let’s let professor Murray speak for herself (this is from the opening of Chapter 1 of The Witch Cult in Western Europe, (the full text is available at sacred-texts.com). The book was first published in 1921:
OF the ancient religion of pre-Christian Britain there are few written records, but it is contrary to all experience that a cult should die out and leave no trace immediately on the introduction of a new religion. The so-called conversion of Britain meant the conversion of the rulers only; the mass of the people continued to follow their ancient customs and beliefs with a veneer of Christian rites. The centuries brought a deepening of Christianity which, introduced from above, gradually penetrated downwards through one class after another. During this process the laws against the practice of certain heathen rites became more strict as Christianity grew in power, the Church tried her strength against ‘witches’ in high places and was victorious, and in the fifteenth century open war was declared against the last remains of heathenism in the famous Bull of Innocent VIII.
This heathenism was practised only in certain places and among certain classes of the community. In other places the ancient ritual was either adopted into, or tolerated by, the Church; and the Maypole dances and other rustic festivities remained as survivals of the rites of the early cult.
Whether the religion which survived as the witch cult was the same as the religion of the Druids, or whether it belonged to a still earlier stratum, is not clear. Though the descriptions, of classical authors are rather too vague and scanty to settle such a point, sufficient remains to show that a fertility cult did once exist in these islands, akin to similar cults in the ancient world. Such rites would not he suppressed by the tribes who entered Great Britain after the withdrawal of the Romans; a continuance of the cult may therefore be expected among the people whom the Christian missionaries laboured to convert.
As the early historical records of these islands were made by Christian ecclesiastics, allowance must be made for the religious bias of the writers, which caused them to make Christianity appear as the only religion existing at the time. But though the historical records are silent on the subject the laws and enactments of the different communities, whether lay or ecclesiastical, retain very definite evidence of the continuance of the ancient cults.
In this connexion the dates of the conversion of England are instructive, The following table gives the principal dates:
597-604. Augustine’s mission. London still heathen. Conversion of Æthelbert, King of Kent. After Æthelbert’s death Christianity suffered a reverse.
604. Conversion of the King of the East Saxons, whose successor lapsed.
627. Conversion of the King of Northumbria.
628. Conversion of the King of East Anglia.
631-651. Aidan’s missions.
635. Conversion of the King of Wessex.
653. Conversion of the King of Mercia.
654. Re-conversion of the King of the East Saxons.
681. Conversion of the King of the South Saxons.
An influx of heathenism occurred on two later occasions in the ninth century there was an invasion by the heathen Danes under Guthrum; and in the eleventh century the heathen king Cnut led his hordes to victory. As in the case of the Saxon kings of the seventh century, Guthrum and Cnut were converted and the tribes followed their leaders’ example, professed Christianity, and were baptized.
But it cannot be imagined that these wholesale conversions were more than nominal in most cases, though the king’s religion was outwardly the tribe’s religion. If, as happened among the East Saxons, the king forsook his old gods, returned to them again, and finally forsook them altogether, the tribe followed his lead, and, in public at least, worshipped Christ, Odin, or any other deity whom the king favoured for the moment; but there can be hardly any doubt that in private the mass of the people adhered to the old religion to which they were accustomed. This tribal conversion is clearly marked when a heathen king married a Christian queen, or vice. versa; and it must also be noted that a king never changed his religion without careful consultation with his chief men. An example of the two religions existing side by side is found in the account of Redwald, King of the East Saxons, who ‘in the same temple had an altar to sacrifice to Christ, and another small one to offer victims to devils’.
Last but, at least in my opinion, not least, comes Gerald Brousseau Gardner (1884-1964). I have already said quite a bit in this blog recently about Gerald Gardner and his writings (see links at the bottom of this post or look for posts tagged “wicca” within this blog). Here I will give several short quotes, from his book Witchcraft Today (the full text of which is freely available on teh interwebs). The book was first published in 1954:
“If we only knew really what the Druids believed and taught, whether there was only one form of belief and whether they had various sects among them, it would be easier to say whether there was any connection or not with witchcraft. The latter may have been purely orthodox, thought of as extremely high or ultra low in type, the fanciful religion of a lot of women, a vile heresy, or simply the religion of the natives that no decent person might have anything to do with. It is quite possible that it was several of these things at different times and in different parts of the country.”
[Witchcraft Today, from Chapter 2, “There have been Witches in all Ages”]
“The witches do not know the origin of their cult. My own theory is, as I said before, that it is a Stone Age cult of the matriarchal times, when woman was the chief; at a later time man’s god became dominant, but the woman’s cult, because of the magical secrets, continued as a distinct order. The chief priest of the man’s god would at times come to their meetings and take the chief place; when he was absent, the chief priestess was his deputy.”
[Witchcraft Today, Chapter 3, “Witch Beliefs”]
“I fancy that certain practices, such as the use of the circle to keep the power in, were local inventions, derived from the use of the Druid or pre-Druid circle. At one time I believed the whole cult was directly descended from the Northern European culture of the Stone Age, uninfluenced by anything else; but I now think that it was influenced by the Greek and Roman mysteries which originally may have come from Egypt. But while it is fascinating to consider the cult existing in direct descent from ancient Egypt, we must take into account the other possibilities.
[Witchcraft Today, Chapter 4, “Witch Practices”]
“In ancient times probably many magicians, amongst the scholars and learned men, before and during the fall of Byzantium, came West and many may have made contact with the cult; also men who read forbidden books would be apt to come to the only places where they could meet people with free minds, the houses of the witches. Later Rosicrucians and Freemasons might have attended. They might not have known that their hosts were witches in all cases, though they would have known there were places where they might discuss things reasonably without fear of being tortured and burnt.
“There are resemblances to Freemasonry in certain parts of the rites which I think can-not be due to chance, so I think the one influenced the other. And it is probable that all these people may have brought some new ideas into the cult; but I think the only great changes were made in Roman times when contact was made with the mysteries, although this is all guesswork on my part. I can only judge on the evidence I can find.
[Witchcraft Today, Chapter 9, “What Are Witches?”]
And here is a very brief excerpt from The Meaning of Witchcraft, first published in 1959, in which Gardner is relaying one of the very first descriptions of the doings of the Witch Cult that he had been given, first hand, once he had “got ‘inside'”:
“You know what happens at our meetings? There is the little religious ceremony, the greeting of the Old Gods, then any business which has to be talked over, or perhaps someone wants to do a rite for some purpose; next there is a little feast and a dance; then you have to hurry for the last bus home!”
[The Meaning of Witchcraft, Chapter 1, “The Witch Cult in Britain”]
Conclusions (for Part One)
Leland, Murray, and Gardner never advocated anything that could be remotely considered as fundamentalist, or ahistorical (much less anti-historical). Their claims about the survival of Pagan beliefs and practice were measured, nuanced and based on evidence. They freely admitted to doubts and uncertainties. They never demanded that their conclusions be accepted dogmatically. Rather they presented their ideas, along with their evidence and their reasoning, for public discussion.
Of the three, the only one who spoke as a practitioner of and advocate for the Old Religion was Gerald Gardner. He explicitly acknowledged that Wicca had elements from a variety of historical periods and from many different cultures, and he openly stated that he could not be certain how much each of the different streams of influence should be weighted.
In Triumph of the Moon, on the other hand, Ronald Hutton aggressively promoted an absolutist position. He hectored prominent Pagans who took more nuanced positions, explicitly attacking them for “hedging”, for so much as “suggesting that there might be some truth” to the notion of the Old Religion. Simultaneously, Hutton praised those who dutifully, and without nuance, recanted their past errors and proclaimed “the Murray thesis … defunct.” But as will be seen in the next part of this series (and as is well known to anyone who has actually followed his writings subsequent to Triumph), professor Hutton was guilty of pre-mature self-congratulation when he crowed that a “tidal wave of accumulating research” had “swept away … any possibility of doubt regarding the lack of correlation between paganism and early modern witchcraft.”
[The remaining three sections outlined in the Introduction to this post will appear in future installments.]
Modern Paganism and the Ancient Mysteries:
- Part One: Sallustius, Gardner & Wicca: “A general statement of their creed.”
- Part Two: Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and the Problem of Evil
- Part Three: Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and Reincarnation
- Part Four: “Divested of their garments”
Ronald Hutton and Reincarnation:
- Part One: Dion Fortune, Ronald Hutton, Wicca & Reincarnation
- Part Two: Ronald Hutton, Tertullian, John Italos, Anna Comnena & Reincarnation
- Part Three: Ronald Hutton, Reincarnation & the Renaissance
- Part Four: “Renaissance & Rebirth: Reincarnation in early modern Italian kabbalah”
- Part Five: Ronald Hutton,Vergil, Ovid & GradeSaver.Com
- Part Six: Ronald Hutton, Voltaire, and Metempsychosis
- Part Seven: Erotic Metempsychosis
The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise
- Part One: Two Myths
- Part Two: “A very specific historical claim”
- Part Three: The Recantations of Ronald Hutton
- Part Four: “A Different World” (Recantations, Part Deux)
- Part Five: More on “A Different World” (Recantations, Part Trois)
- Part Six: Huttonian Triumphalism (Recantations, Part Quatre)
- Part Seven: The Recantation of Ronald Hutton, The Final Episode [parts 5, 6 & 7 are not done yet]
- Part Eight: 21st Century Pagans on the Old Religion
- Part Nine: Coeval With Time [part 9 is still to come]