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"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

>The Recantations of Ronald Hutton (The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise, Part Three)

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“It had become obvious to me that this model was inadequate”

Modern Paganism closely resembles and is directly influenced by much older Pagan religious traditions stretching back two millennia, or even longer. But please, don’t take my word for it. In this post we will see that the Old Religion Debunker in Chief himself, Ronald Hutton, was won over to this position, and publicly proclaimed as much, soon after the publication of Triumph of the Moon. But before getting into the details, lets briefly recap the story so far.

In Part One of this series on The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise, I proposed to take on two “myths” (in the negative sense) about the history of Paganism:

Myth #1: That the concept of “the Old Religion” refers to a “very specific historical claim” concerning an ethnically homogeneous religious tradition that has remained unchanged since the Stone Age.
Myth #2: That Ronald Hutton and others have conclusively proven that modern Paganism has no meaningful relationship with the Pagan religious traditions of the distant past.

Most of that first post was taken up by quotes from the writings of Charles Godfrey Leland, Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner, demonstrating the intellectual sophistication, nuance, flexibility, and common sense with which they approached the concept of the Old Religion. Then Part Two of this series was devoted to describing “the Hutton thesis”, that is, the crude, extremist position staked out by Ronald Hutton in his book Triumph of the Moon. In this post, which constitutes Part Three, I will begin to look at the way in which Hutton himself recanted his previous extremist position only four years later in his book Witches, Druids and King Arthur.

In the Introduction to Witches, Druids and King Arthur, published just four years after Triumph of the Moon, Hutton had this to say about the issues previously dealt with in Triumph (and also earlier in Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles):

[Chapters 4 and 5 are] devoted to paganism, and specifically to one particular problem in the history of it. In my previous books on the subject I have drawn strong distinctions between the ancient religions of the Europe and the Near East and varieties of modern Paganism that are partly based on images and ideas drawn from them. I suggested that, although there are particular streams of transmission between them, such as ritual magic, seasonal customs, and artistic and literary traditions, there had been no continuous survival of pagan religions through Europe’s Christian centuries. In this reading, the Paganism of today is a set of entirely valid religions developed in response to modern needs and having a history stretching back a couple of hundred years, even though (as stated) they draw heavily on ancient material. What is attempted in this book is a pair of additional enterprises, which operate together to plug the gap between the ancient and modern forms of pagan religion. The first is to examine those strains of ancient pagan belief that appeared towards the end of the ancient, which bore the strongest resemblance to present-day Paganism, and which have exerted the strongest influence upon it. The second is to look at ways in which a place was retained for the ancient deities within the structure of Christian belief during the medieval and early modern periods, and to seek an answer to the question of whether these traditions could amount to a survival of ancient paganism in a different form.
[pp. x-xi]

Once we get to the first of these chapters, “The New Old Paganism”, Hutton immediately begins to put some meat on these rather bare bones:

When I first considered the relationship between ancient European paganism and modern Paganism, at the opening of the 1990s, I stressed a number of contrasts. I identified the former as essentially polytheistic, venerating many different goddesses and gods, as making a sharp distinction between religion and magic, and as representing the old, respectable and dominant faith which Christianity was to challenge in the role of brash newcomer. Modern Paganism (and especially Wicca and other forms of Pagan witchcraft which have generally served as its template) is mainly duotheistic, recognizing a pairing of a goddess and god who between them represent the cosmos. It dissolves distinctions between religion and magic, and itself represents a newly-appeared and often pugnacious challenger to to a long established set of Christian religions. Added to lesser contrasts, this led me to conclude that ‘the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name, which is itself of Christian coinage’. The ‘past’ in this context, was clearly that of Europe. I added one major qualification: that if the most important varieties of modern Paganism ‘are viewed as a form of ritual magic, then they have a distinguished and very long pedigree, stretching back … to the early modern and medieval texts which derived by stages from those of Hellenistic Egypt’.

Now I would like to present the above paragraph in a slightly modified form, without changing the wording at all, but with emphases and notations added to assist in future referencing back to what Hutton has said here (where “NOP.1” refers to “The New Old Paganism”, paragraph 1):

NOP.1
[1] When I first considered the relationship between ancient European paganism and modern Paganism, at the opening of the 1990s, I stressed a number of contrasts. I identified the former as [2a] essentially polytheistic, venerating many different goddesses and gods, as [3a] making a sharp distinction between religion and magic, and as [4a] representing the old, respectable and dominant faith which Christianity was to challenge in the role of brash newcomer. Modern Paganism (and especially Wicca and other forms of Pagan witchcraft which have generally served as its template) is [2b] mainly duotheistic, recognizing a pairing of a goddess and god who between them represent the cosmos. [3b] It dissolves distinctions between religion and magic, and itself [4b] represents a newly-appeared and often pugnacious challenger to to a long established set of Christian religions. Added to lesser contrasts, this led me to conclude that ‘the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name, which is itself of Christian coinage’. [5] The ‘past’ in this context, was clearly that of Europe. I added [6] one major qualification: that if the most important varieties of modern Paganism ‘are viewed as a form of ritual magic, then they have a distinguished and very long pedigree, stretching back … to the early modern and medieval texts which derived by stages from those of Hellenistic Egypt’.

The highlights of this paragraph can now be briefly and schematically unpacked as follows:

[1] Hutton’s self-proclaimed agenda when he first set out to investigate Pagan history was to emphasize the differences between modern and ancient forms of Paganism, with little or no attention paid to similarities. There are three main differences that Hutton claimed to have identified, as described in [2] through [4] below.
[2] The polytheism of ancient Paganism is claimed to be in contrast to the “duotheism” of modern Paganism.
[3] A sharp division between religion and magic in ancient Paganism is claimed to be in contrast to the “dissolving” of any such distinctions in modern Paganism.
[4] In the ancient world Paganism was old and traditional while Christianity was new and “challenging”, but today (it is claimed that) things are the other way around.
[5] Additionally, Hutton makes the bizarre claim that “the ‘past’, in this context, was clearly that of Europe”. This is his way of injecting yet another line of argument for the differentness of modern Paganism and ancient Paganism based on culture/ethnicity.
[6] Finally, Hutton points out that he has all along, even going back to his Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (published in 1993), provided himself with an escape clause based upon a completely arbitrary distinction between magic and religion.

OK, now we are one whole paragraph into “The New Old Paganism”. And now it is time for Hutton to get to “the money shot“, so to speak:

NOP.2
[7a] Long before the end of the decade, it had become obvious to me that this model was inadequate. [8a] Although still true – as far as anybody could tell – for the ancient British Isles, and substantially so for the rest of Europe, [7b] it ignored the existence of certain types of ancient religion which far more closely resembled Paganism, had certainly influenced it, and had certain linear connections with it. [7c] They were in every sense marginal to my own preoccupations when I made the statements quoted above. [8b] They were overtly derived from the traditions of Egypt and the Near East, whereas I was concerned with those of the opposite corner of Europe, [9a] and they made little apparent impact on ancient European paganism outside parts of Greece. [10] They appeared at the very end of the pagan ancient world, at and after the time at which Christianity became the official creed of the Roman Empire, [11] and were arguably influenced by Christian thought. [9b] They were also very much the preserve of a self-conscious intellectual elite, detached from the masses and usually disempowered. Nonetheless, [9c] the private and avant-garde nature of these ideas and practices gave them something else in common with those of modern pagans. [7d] It became clear to me that my work on the intellectual roots of modern Paganism would be incomplete unless I made a consideration of their nature and of their influence on the Pagan religions which reappeared in the twentieth century. What follows represents an attempt to fulfill that project.

Before breaking this down further, let me emphasize, rather bluntly, exactly what it is that I see going on here. Ronald Hutton had spent a decade studying the question of the relationship between modern Paganism and ancient forms of religion. During this time he published two major book-length studies (or four if you count his book on Shamanism and Stations of the Sun) on that subject along with numerous shorter publications. As a result of his “research”, and I do feel compelled to use ironic quotes here, Hutton had reached the conclusion that no such relationship existed whatsoever, and that no one could be taken seriously who believed otherwise, explicitly including anyone who so much as “suggest[ed] that there might be some truth” in the notion of the Old Religion.

The only problem was that the whole time Hutton had, now by his own admission, been systematically ignoring “certain types of ancient religion” which just so happened to be precisely the ones which most “closely resembled [modern] Paganism, had certainly influenced it, and had certain linear connections with it”!! And why did he ignore the one place he should have been looking? Because it was “in every sense marginal to my own preoccupations.”

Which makes perfect sense. You see, Hutton was preoccupied with the proposition that ‘the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name.” Therefore, the very last place he would want to go poking around was precisely in the one place where there was the most evidence disproving his cherished preoccupation. While such a course of action is typical human behavior, it happens to be the opposite of what a person does if that person possesses even a shred of intellectual curiosity.

Finally, for now, let us look in more detail (albeit very briefly) at the paragraph I am calling “NOP.2“. The parts labeled [7a-d] constitute the veritable crux of this particular biscuit: Ronald Hutton’s true confession [7a-b], his lame excuse [7c], and his own proposal for a self-imposed penance to atone for his past errors [7d]. In [8a-b] Hutton continues in his attempt to inject ethnic/cultural considerations revolving around the issue of “European-ness”. In [9a-c] Hutton contends that “the new old paganism” was really nothing more than a boutique religion for an effete, culturally mongrelized elite, and he adds, for good measure, that this is one of the primary ways in which “the new old paganism” most closely resembles modern Paganism.

Additionally, in [10] Hutton makes explicit his claim that this “new old paganism” was, indeed, a new form of religion that was fundamentally different from the “traditional” forms of Paganism that had existed prior to Christianity. Moreover, Hutton claims in [11] that “the new old religion” was “arguably influenced by Christian thought”, which will prove to be a centerpiece of his argument in this chapter.

In the next installment in this series I plan to trudge on into some of the gory details of Hutton’s argument in the essay “The New Old Paganism”. Then once I am done there, it will be time to turn to his “Paganism in the Missing Centuries” (the fifth chapter of Witches, Druids, and King Arthur), which comprises the second half of his recantation.

The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise

  1. Part One: Two Myths
  2. Part Two: “A very specific historical claim”
  3. Part Three: The Recantations of Ronald Hutton
  4. Part Four: “A Different World” (Recantations, Part Deux)
  5. Part Five: More on “A Different World” (Recantations, Part Trois)
  6. Part Six: Huttonian Triumphalism (Recantations, Part Quatre)
  7. Part Seven: The Recantation of Ronald Hutton, The Final Episode [parts 5, 6 & 7 are not done yet]
  8. Part Eight: 21st Century Pagans on the Old Religion
  9. Part Nine: Coeval With Time [part 7 is still to come]

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