For those just tuning in, this post is part of an ongoing series looking at the concept of “the Old Religion” (“The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise”). Behind that concept is the belief that modern Paganism represents the survival of ancient forms of religion that Christians (and Muslims) have been trying to “extirpate” (that is their word for it) for two millennia (although the Muslims have only been in on the fun for a slightly lesser span of time).
In 1999, English historian Ronald Hutton (
who also happens to be a Pagan himself who may or may not be a Pagan himself) published a book titled Triumph of the Moon, in which he claimed to have demonstrated that there was no basis whatsoever for the notion of “the Old Religion”. But then in 2003 he published another book, Witches, Druids and King Arthur, in which he announced to the world that he had changed his mind. In that book, he devotes two chapters (which, somewhat awkwardly, come sandwiched in the middle, making up the fourth and fifth chapters) to attempting to explain his reversal. The post you are reading right now (and several future posts) will focus on the chapter “Paganism in the Missing Centuries”. In a previous post (“The Recantations of Ronald Hutton, Part One”) I have already discussed, briefly, the chapter “The New Old Religion”.
Once we get to the essay in question (“Paganism in the Missing Centuries”), it is painfully clear that Ronald Hutton is like the proverbial general who is “still fighting the last war” (a war, by the way, that was decisively lost). By this time it has been conceded by Hutton that modern Paganism “closely resembles”, has been “certainly influenced” by, and possesses “linear connections” to ancient Paganism. In other words, the question of if ancient Paganism survived into modernity has been resolved in the affirmative, and it is now time to move on to how Paganism survived. But this is something that Ronald Hutton simply cannot bring himself to do in any constructive way.
Having failed in his campaign to prove to the world that modern Paganism is completely lacking in historical connections to ancient Paganism, Hutton turns to petulantly obscuring and misrepresenting these connections, which is all that is left to him since even he can no longer pretend that they simply do not exist. Still, old habits die hard, and so he reverts to framing his discussion, ignoring what he himself has already granted as true, as if it were still an open question whether or not there is anything that, “to any extent”, constitutes “a ‘survival’ of ancient Paganism.”
Anyway, here is Hutton in his own words from somewhere near the beginning of “Paganism in the Missing Centuries”:
The purpose of this chapter is to trace …[the subsequent history of] those particular forms of paganism that appeared in the Roman Empire towards the end of the ancient world, and have been noted as bearing most resemblance to the religions of the modern Pagan revival.
Between the early nineteenth and the mid twentieth centuries there was a significant scholarly tradition of belief that an active and organised paganism had survived in Europe throughout the Christian middle ages. It was conceived as having been essentially a resistance movement of the common people, especially in the countryside, and (as seen) was disproved by more thorough research since the 1960s. The present investigation moves through a different world, that of the scholarly elites. Late pagan monotheism, Neoplatonism, theurgy and Graeco-Egyptian ritual magic were all cultural forms that were conveyed by texts and developed by intellectuals. It remains to be asked now what was made of them during the succeeding thousand years, by people operating within societies restructured by the new monotheistic faiths of Christianity and Islam. In the process, it may be possible to answer the larger question of whether they provided any continuity of traditions during this long period that opposed, challenged or compromised the norms of the dominant religions. Did they, to any extent, represent a ‘survival’ of ancient paganism?
In this post the focus will be on one specific issue raised in the excerpt above: Hutton’s claim that medieval “scholarly elites” (who studied and practiced Astrology, Alchemy, Kabbalah, Hermeticism, etc) inhabited and constituted “a different world”, religiously speaking, completely separate from “the common people”.
This “different world” paradigm is a direct extension of Hutton’s grotesque mischaracterization of late antique Pagans (or at least those who most stubbornly resisted conversion to Christianity and who are the most closely related to modern Pagans) as a “private and avant-garde” clique that was “very much the preserve of a self-conscious intellectual elite, detached from the masses.” Hutton wishes to portray the “golden thread”, as it is often called, of those who kept the ancient Mysteries alive throughout the persecutions of the Middle Ages, as an isolated “elite”, hermetically, if you will, sealed off from any connection with “the masses”, that is, disconnected from from the vast bulk of their fellow human beings. In other words, Hutton wishes to portray this vital connection between modern an ancient Paganism as nothing more than the furtive hobby of well-heeled antiquarians and aficionados, rather than as a living spiritual tradition. This characterization plays a central role in Hutton’s schizophrenic narrative of how Paganism didn’t really survive, even though it actually did.
Is there any basis for this narrative positing an unbridgeable chasm between “elites” and “the masses”? Lets take a closer look.
2. On the arbitrary sociological compartmentalization of ancient Paganism
Patricius Aurelius was a Roman citizen in the North African town of Thagaste during the fourth century AD. According to historian Peter Brown, Patricius “was a poor man, a tenuis municeps, a burgess of slender means,” and his son, Augustine, grew up “in a hard competitive world, among proud and impoverished gentlefolk.” Fortunately, there was a way up and out: “A classical education was one of the only passports to success for such men … His early life will be overshadowed by the sacrifices his father made to give him this vital education.” In fact, even once Augustine’s father had been able to send his son to be educated in the “university town” of Madaura, this education had to be interrupted “for one disastrous year”, during which time Patricius was unable to send Augustine any money, and the young man had to scrape by on his own. But it all paid off. By the age of 31, Augustine was a professor of rhetoric and had gained acceptance, and a growing admiration, in all the right circles. Sixteen centuries later he is known to the world as “Augustine of Hippo”, or simply “Saint Augustine.” (See Brown’s excellent biography Augustine of Hippo, especially pages 7-10, for the basic outlines of Augustine’s early life.)
Augustine lived at a time when Christianity was the official religion of the Roman state, the largest and most powerful political entity on planet earth at the time. In the early centuries of its existence, however, Christianity had lurked tenuously at the margins of Roman society, and Christians who were well educated, or even poorly educated, were extremely rare exceptions. What evidence there is tells us that Christianity in the centuries prior to Constantine only slowly evolved from being completely unknown by those who could read and write, to being silently ignored, to being silently shunned to, finally, being openly acknowledged by way of mockery and ridicule. Over the same period, a small number of Christian intellectuals slowly developed an “apologetic” literature of their own, which consisted largely of variations on the theme of requests to be taken seriously. And to be taken seriously in Roman society required being able to express oneself in the language of rhetoric, philosophy and classical literature.
But those Christian elites who engaged in early apologetics did not speak on behalf of some separate Christianity walled off from the unwashed, ignorant, superstitious masses who made up the vast bulk of the faithful. Although they attempted to express the beliefs and practices of Christianity in a language completely incomprehensible to nearly all of their fellow Christians, nevertheless we do not speak as if there were two completely different Christianities inhabiting two “different worlds.”
And yet it is quite common to find the religiosity of Pagan intellectuals being characterized as not only utterly separate from, but actively opposed to the “traditional” religious beliefs and practices of their fellow Pagans, the majority of whom (even among the rich, the powerful and the educated) either had little interest in philosophy and “high” literature, or were even openly hostile toward them.
The fact is that if one bothers to look at what, for examples, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the so-called “Middle” Platonists, and the mislabled “neo-” Platonists, had to say on religious subjects, one finds that they all, far from attacking traditional Pagan religion, were engaged in something very much like the same kind of “apologetic” enterprise that occupied Irenaeus, Lactantius, and so forth.
Not only did the great Pagan philosophers and writers explicate and defend traditional religion, they also practiced it (just as Christian philosophers both “apologized” for and practiced the same religion as their fellow Christians). For there were not separate temples dedicated to Gods and Goddesses only worshipped by “the elites”. Nor were there separate festivals and holidays, one set for the elites, the other for the commoners. In fact, Pagan cults tended to cut across, and even to obliterate, such social divisions.
Christians have tried to have it both ways. Ancient Pagan intellectuals, they insist, couldn’t possibly, I mean not really, I mean how could they, believe in all that nonsense about Gods and Goddesses and so forth! I mean look at those silly myths! Look at those ridiculous superstitions! Philosophers and other smart Pagans might have gone through the motions, just to get along, but they obviously did not believe any that nonsense. But naturally these same Christians see no difficulty in highly educated and highly intelligent people, such as Augustine, Aquinas, and so forth, believing in all the obscene bullshit that one finds in the Old and New Testaments, not to mention the demented teachings of the Church that surpass even what is found in their “scriptures”! Here we have two interlocking circular arguments. The coupled premises are that Paganism is patently irrational and Christianity is perfectly reasonable, therefore intelligent people can’t really believe in Paganism, whereas they can, indeed should, believe in Christianity.
An early example of this standard Christian trope is to be found in the writings of Augustine himself, who, in Book VIII of his Against the Pagans, posits a threefold division of Pagan theology: (1) the “fabulous” theology of Pagan myths, “which displays the crimes of the Gods”, (2) “the civil, that is, urban theology” of the official cults of a given polis, which “manifests the criminal desires of the Gods”, and (3) “natural theology”, of which Augustine asserts, “it is not with ordinary men, but with philosophers that we must confer concerning the theology which they call natural.”
3. Was late antique Paganism “detached from the masses” and “very much the preserve of a self-conscious intellectual elite”?
Here is how Garth Fowden talks about the social milieu of late antique Hermeticism (from his The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind):
“It is time, at long last, to take up Casaubon’s cue, and ask who were the men and women who hid behind the name of Hermes Trismegitus, and how their search for God was articulated in everyday experience. Not, it must be said from the outset, that there can be any easy or even very specific answers, when they have to be sought for the most part between the lines of philosophical texts. Even as an approach to the late pagan mind, our search will have its limitations. Hermetism was only one of a number of non-elite currents of thought which drew on Greek philosophy; and anyway it is easy to over-estimate how non-elite it was …. Even so, my conclusions touch on broader areas of society than did those which emerged from my earlier investigations of the circles of Plotinus and his successors …. [M]y treatment of the movement’s historical milieu represents, I hope, a useful step forward in the wider sociological analysis of late paganism – a subject whose neglect is now slowly being overcome.” [p. xxiv]
And here is Fowden’s description of how the ancient God Thoth gradually transformed into the Egyptian Hermes:
“… [T]o understand the genesis of the Egyptian Hermes is to take a first step into the historical milieu of the Hermetica. Thoth was among the most diverse and popular of all the Egyptian Gods. Like many of his colleagues he was an accumulation, rather than a figure cast whole and unambiguously defined; he was a powerful national God who yet had certain specialties and local associations …. He presided over almost every aspect of the temple cults, law and the civil year, and in particular over the sacred rituals, texts and formulae, and the magic arts that were so closely related …. [H]e came to be regarded as the lord of knowledge, language and all science – as Understanding or Reason personified …. Esoteric wisdom was his special preserve, and he was called ‘the Mysterious’, ‘the Unknown’. His magical powers made him a doctor too …. Perhaps, though, it was to his role as guide of souls and judge of the dead that Thoth most owed his popularity with ordinary people. And he continued to inspire strong popular devotion throughout the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. His was an inseparable presence. And it is easy to see why foreign settlers in Egypt were tempted to try to establish some sort of link with him …. [T]he Greek settlers identified Thoth with their God Hermes. Like Thoth, the classical Greek Hermes was associated with the moon, medicine and the realm of the dead. Furthermore, both had a reputation for inventiveness and trickery, and both functioned as messengers of the Gods, which in Hermes’s case prepared him as well for his characteristic function in the Hellenistic period, as the logos or ‘word’, the interpreter of the divine will to mankind. Hermes Trismegistus, then, was the cosmopolitan, Hellenistic Hermes, Egyptianized through his assimilation to Thoth, and in fact known throughout the Roman world as ‘the Egyptian’ par excellence … a divinity who could deservedly could be place among the dei magni of the pagan pantheon that presided over the Roman world.”
Toward the end of Fowden’s book he engages in a prolonged comparison of Hermeticism with three other, related, late antique religious currents: Platonism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism (pp. 186-195). It is important to note that Fowden characterizes all three of those movements as “intellectual and elitist,” even though one, Manichaeism, was an extremely successful religious movement that persisted for centuries and spread through much of Asia. The Gnostics, too, managed to attain something like the size and status of a mass movement that, at least for a while, was able to run with the big dogs alongside the major Christian sects. Therefore, at least in the hands of a social scientist who knows what he is talking about, “elite” explicitly does not mean “detached from the masses” in the way that Hutton loutishly insists. As for late antique Hermeticists, they were, according to Fowden, “literate but not (usually) learned …. [and] most late antique Platonists would, one suspects, have regarded the Hermetists as socially and culturally homespun.” [p. 193]
Two of the late antique religious movements discussed above, Hermeticism and Platonism, are separated “by less of a gap than has often been assumed.” [p. 134] That any clear bright line separated the two at all seems unlikely considering the fact that Iamblichus not only placed great emphasis on the Egyptian component of Theurgy, but he “specifically claims to have found the theurgical liberation of the soul from the bonds of fate described in Hermetic books.” [p. 134] Several pages later Fowden concedes that “Scholars have not found it easy to make sense of” the relationship between Platonic Theurgy and the Hermetic movement. [p. 138] A little later on he makes it clear that there are grounds for speaking of “theurgical Hermetica”. [p.141]
Hutton’s conception of an effete “late antique avant-garde” that was “detached from the masses” is clearly derivative of GW Bowersock’s “analysis” of the Emperor Julian. Bowersock had claimed, in his Julian the Apostate (first published in 1978), that his fellow Pagans were actually quite hostile to Julian’s Platonic Paganism, to the extent that Bowersock (who clearly despises Julian and Paganism generally, without possessing even the slightest understanding of either) epitomizes the death of Julian with these words: “The fanatic was gone, and there were few to regret him.” [pp.118-119]
Rowland Smith’s far more detailed and thoughtful treatment of Julian’s spirituality, Julian’s Gods: Religion and Philosophy in the Thought and Action of Julian the Apostate (1995), paints a quite different picture. Smith points out, among other things, that Julian’s Paganism was not at all limited to Theurgy, and that Julian’s philosophic leanings did not “put him hopelessly at odds with his subjects.” [pp. 47-48] Overall, Smith’s view is that Julian’s Paganism was conventional when it came to matters of piety, cult and tradition, and that the much of Julian’s philosophical interest was motivated by a desire to defend traditional polytheistic Paganism from the predations of “the creed making fishermen”. [See, in particular, Smith’s disussion of Julian’s Against the Galileans.]
4. Was Marsilio Ficino a member of the “elite”?
When Marsilio Ficino was still a boy he fell in love … with philosophy. For a time it was possible to indulge this youthful infatuation, but eventually it was necessary, due to “dire financial straits” (quotes are from Giovanni Corsi’s biography of Marsilio Ficino, written in 1506, seven years after its subject’s death) for more practical considerations to take precedence: it was time for him to learn some useful trade in order to earn a living. Marsilio’s father was a physician, and it was decided that the boy should put away his philosophy books and study medicine, which he reluctantly did.
Fortunately, though, Marsilio’s father was a very successful physician; successful enough, in fact, to be in the employ of the wealthy and powerful Medici family. Even more fortunately, Cosimo de’ Medici not only had a great love of philosophy, but also felt a passionate calling to support and propagate philosophy, and, even better, had the means to act on that noble aspiration. So when Cosimo discovered that his personal physician’s son had both a great aptitude and a burning desire for the study of philosophy, but that the father had felt compelled, because of economic considerations, to have the boy study medicine, the employer instructed his employee “to take especial care over Marsilio’s studies so that he should not go against his natural disposition.” Naturally, Cosimo added that money should be no object, and offered to personally “supply everything most generously.” Thus was set not only the course of one man’s life, but the course of all that has been praiseworthy in the subsequent intellectual and spiritual history of the West.
Was Marsilio Ficino one of the “elite”? Those who must earn a living by selling their own labor power in exchange for money (as opposed to living off inherited wealth, which is the hallmark of true hereditary aristocrats) are members of no social elite anywhere, except perhaps in some non-existent Marxist Workers’ Paradise. And access to education was no sign of “elitism” in Renaissance Florence, where half or more of all children received education, to the extent that not only the entire business class, but most of the artisans and craftsmen in their employ, were literate. In a word, Marsilio Ficino was solidly middle class. But Ficino was far better off than Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, who never enjoyed the secure benefits of long-term, stable employment, and who was forced by both economic hardships and ideological persecution to remain on the move throughout his life. Giordano Bruno, whose father was a soldier, faced similar difficulties (and ultimately far worse) as those that beset Agrippa. Then there is the case of Eliphas Levi, born 210 years after the death of Bruno, who lived out his life in grinding poverty, when he wasn’t in prison due to his religious ideas. These are some of the most important representatives of the “elite” of which Hutton speaks. (It is true, though, that some links in the “golden chain” were more fortunate in their choice of parents, such as Pico della Mirandola, who father was a Lord and a Count, and whose mother was the daughter of a Count.)
5. “A Europen-wide system of popular beliefs”
In her study, Witchcraft and the Inquisition in Venice, 1550-1650, Ruth Martin raises the question of “how the ‘popular’ aspects of witchcraft were influenced by the ‘learned’ during this period (and vice versa).” Her opinion is that “[t]here is clear evidence of a great deal of interpenetration of ‘popular’ and ‘learned’ beliefs throughout this period … but the actual mingling of these two strands, if they ever were entirely separate, seems to have taken place earlier [that is, prior to 1550] ….” [p. 225]
“Until more work is done on Venetian social history as a whole it will be hard to draw … conclusions …. Even so, it seems that witchcraft of one type or another held an interest for people from all levels of society …. Womens’ social standing ranged from the gentildonne who would often consult witches or even try the experiments themselves, through wives of retailers and craftsmen, to washerwomen, arsenal workers (making sails or ropes), the wives of boatmen, prostitutes, to some with no visible means of income at all. Witchcraft had in fact become the main craft of many, hence their titles: la Pirotta, la Caballada, l’Astrologo and la medegha.”
“There was also a close degree of contact between the different classes of Venetian society. The rich and poor lived side by side and the flow of ideas and beliefs between them must have been considerable. As we have seen, the distinction between the ‘learned’ and the ‘popular’ elements of witchcraft beliefs in Venice was not always easy to define. This distinction has perhaps been overemphasized in the past in any case. Christina Larner’s recent work on Scottish witchcraft, for instance, has revealed a considerable degree of interpenetration between the so-called learned and popular beliefs. In Venice this sharing of beliefs by popular and learned elements of society was even closer.”
“It is clear that Venetian witchcraft was by no means unique. Each category of witchcraft in Venice … paralleled what is known to have existed elsewhere in Europe during the period and, no doubt, outside this period as well ….
“Necromancy, or the practice of the learned tradition of magic, was current throughout a great part of Europe, and certainly throughout Italy during this period. Some records still survive for the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition which contain copies of certain processi, usually just the sentence and/or abjuration, which were forwarded to Rome from all over Italy. Necromantic exploits feature prominently in these records. The sentence of the 1580 Vicentine trial against Antonio de Franci, for instance, refers to the work of Pietro d’Abbano and to the Clavicula Salomonis being used used in the celebration of a mass as part of a love magic ceremony. There is little doubt that these and other books of magic like them circulated widely in Europe during this period as did the corrupted versions of traditions evident in many of the conjurations and divinatory experiments seen in Venice.
“At a different level of society other forms of witchcraft also were all part of what was presumably a Europen-wide system of popular beliefs. Mary O’Neil describes the same experiments, with some local modifications, being practiced in Modena. The Udine records, and those in Trinity College, Dublin, covering the whole of Italy contain references to similar practices. Indeed, whenever the available records provide us with a glimpse into traditional beliefs and activities, for instance those of the so-called ‘cunning folk’ in England, we see time and time again what were basically the same types of witchcraft as those observed in Venice.
“England is indeed the one country outside Italy to display the most obvious similarities with Venice as far as witchcraft practices are concerned …. [T]he nature of the records in each area enables us to see beyond the large trails, the epidemics of witch-hunting, to the day-to-day beliefs and attitudes of the population as a whole …. The Venetian records provide us … with a detailed picture of a way of life … [W]hat Venice shows us was, broadly speaking, the picture throughout most of Europe.”
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 Recantations 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]