Professor Ronald Hutton: Reframing Modern Paganism

By Kate Large

Professor Ronald Hutton

Professor Ronald Hutton is an authority on Paganism and a regular fixture on the festival circuit. Kate Large spoke to him about his own journey and how his work has reframed the community.

You’ve cited your mother, who was Pagan, as a huge influence. Is there a difference being ‘born Pagan’ and ‘choosing’ it?

The great majority have ‘chosen’ Paganism, insisting they were born instinctual Pagans. Embracing Paganism is simply a recognition of their true nature; it feels like ‘coming home’. Being brought up a Pagan of my particular sort gave me a very good grounding in ancient pagan mythologies, legends and history, and a knowledge of pagan-inspired Victorian and Edwardian literature. Neither gave a direct link with most other Pagans in the 70s and 80s, but they did give me a fellow-feeling with Paganism in general.

You were a part of 1970s British counterculture and the folk scene. Are paganism and counterculture are inextricably entwined?

At all times up to the present, Paganism has represented a challenge to dominant religious and cultural values, and that it is one with direct roots stretching back over two hundred years, as I have tried to show in my writings. I was very aware, in my youth, of standing in the tradition of the great Romantic writers of the revolutionary early C19th. That tradition made a passionate plea for the freedom of the individual, and the imagination, against any imposed conformity, appealing to nature and the pagan past.

The counter-culture of the 60s and 70s could be called the ‘Second Romantic Movement’, though it lacked a sense of historical depth and often turned to Christian apocalyptic imagery, rather than pagan. The songs that most inspired me, both newly and old, tend not to be directly related to Paganism. Instead, they explore the idea of the personal quest, a new world in which belief, action and identity could be rethought, sometimes by calling back really old ideas. I’m thinking of King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and David Bowie.

I recall turning up at the folk club to hear artists enthuse us as if they were ancient bards; enjoying the sense of tribalism and celebration at the free festivals and East Anglian Fairs. I also worked with with like-minded people against entrenched injustice and brutality, demonstrating and campaigning against sexism and racism. Seasonal rituals in Epping Forest, with a Pagan group (a sort of Wiccan outer court) in 1968-9 when I was in my mid-teens, were my first experience of group Pagan ceremony.

Your academic career has seen you studying in many an ‘ivory tower’: how is your research received? And do you feel a personal commitment to your studies that transcends pure academia?

I have never ever felt myself to be a ‘pure’ academic. Everything on which I have worked has been propelled by personal enthusiasm, rather than any professional considerations. I was careful not to work on modern Paganism until I was securely established in a professorial chair, and have always kept quiet in public about my own beliefs, while actively supporting and defending Pagans who come under attack for theirs. In view of this, it is remarkable how high a price I paid for my association with Wicca, especially after Triumph of the Moon came out.

An American scholar visiting Cambridge University asked historians what I was doing, and was informed that he could forget about me, because I had gone mad, become a witch, and left the academic profession. The student newspaper in my own university put a photograph of me on its cover with caption “Warning! This Man Could Be A Witch!” For nearly ten years my career stalled. I was not considered fit for positions of higher managerial responsibility or any honours, applications for research grants were rejected, invitations to give guest lectures and papers dried up.

By heavy irony, every morning for years I put up with abusive emails from Pagan fanatics, mostly in America, who misunderstood my work as an attack on their faith. I was saved, professionally and mentally, by the fact that I couldn’t be sacked or demoted, by a loyal partner, by the success of my books and the continued friendship of most British Pagans and many abroad, including the movement’s established leaders. After a decade, my continued output took effect, and my career picked up again.

You’re currently overseeing a comprehensive study of the witch, in a global, ancient and folkloric setting. What led to this new project?

My current project has been the end phase of work going back more than a quarter of a century, which was necessary in order to gain expertise, test and develop my own ideas. First, by a series of guest lectures and papers in the 90s and then by a series of publications in the 2000s and early 2010s. With funding from a trust and research council, I have assembled a team of eight, including a colleague in Classics and Ancient History, a research assistant with a PhD, four PhD students, and an artist, working together on different aspects of the witch figure. We are on track with our intended outputs: two or three books, a clutch of articles, four doctoral theses, and a set of sculptures.

The project brings together two great traditions of scholarship into the early modern witch trials, which have run separately since the 1970s. One, among historians writing in English, applied insights from sociology, criminology, psychology and literary criticism, but avoided anthropology, folklore studies and ancient history. The other, manifested by Continental European historians such as Carlo Ginzburg, has been more willing to look for the origins of the trials in ancient beliefs, popular beliefs and tribal models of shamanism. My team is attempting to make historians writing in English appreciate the virtues of the methods used by the Continental group, while improving on them. Results are very exciting.

The witch trial plays such a huge part in Pagan consciousness – but how accurate is the classic ‘trial’ many of us envisage?

The interested general public still tends to the view of the witch trials developed by rationalist liberals in the nineteenth century, as propaganda against Christian and conservative opponents. That they were a feature of Christianity gone wrong, used by people in power to terrorise and suppress those whom they found inconvenient in the societies they controlled: feminists, midwives, pagans, or the common people. It is now clear that societies worldwide put people to death for presumed acts of destructive magic, often on a large scale, and so did most of the pagan peoples of ancient Europe and the Middle East.

Christianity actually toned witch-hunts down for about a thousand years, blaming demons rather than people for bad magic, being confident that churchmen could get rid of those. At the end of the Middle Ages, Western Christianity suffered a loss of nerve and began to believe in a vast conspiracy of people hidden in its midst, destroying their neighbours, and the Christian faith, with magical powers wielded by demons whom they worshipped. Although this was a product of intellectuals, it drew on ancient fears of magic. Once belief in it spread, the urge to hunt witches mostly came from ordinary people who now believed all their misfortunes – especially the death of their children – were caused by evil people in their community.

The idea, however, caught on slowly, and the period of intense witch-hunting lasted only a short time: three-quarters of the victims died in one long lifetime, 1560 to 1640. Most communities in Europe never sent anybody for trial, and most of those which did, only attempted it once. This was because it didn’t seem to work: places which tried people for witchcraft did not have better weather, health or luck than those which didn’t. On the contrary, they were often damaged, traumatised and divided. Belief in a satanic conspiracy of witches did more harm than good, and governments withdrew their support. This is a view pretty much any academic expert would now endorse. However, there are still problems.

The concept of hidden devil-worshippers committing hideous misdeeds lingers in the West, even in people who don’t believe in devils, inspiring the ‘Satanic Ritual Abuse’ scandal. A literal belief in demons is growing in many Christian denominations, spreading deliverance ministries. Abuse or murder for alleged destructive magic is growing in the developing world, reaching epidemic proportions in some nations and provoking a revival of criminal laws against witchcraft in some.

It is possible to educate people out of a fear of magic, and vulnerability to its destructive use: an international effort may eradicate witch-hunting worldwide, just as similar efforts drove back smallpox and polio. My project is intended to contribute to such an effort, though I do not underestimate the obstacles in the way.

Your new witchcraft studies also aim to rely less on modern folklore collections to plug gaps in earlier evidence, and to place greater emphasis on regional differences. Why have you decided on this approach?

Few, if any, of the historians using modern folklore as evidence for medieval, early modern or even ancient popular belief have kept up with recent folklore studies. They have held instead to the idea put forward by C19th intellectuals that common people were too stupid to understand their own customs and beliefs, and so mindlessly repeated them. Folklorists now appreciate how dynamic popular culture is, so that ordinary people creatively reworked ideas and activities. Even one that could had genuinely survived millennia would be significantly different in1800 from in 1500, and again in1200. Our project will take this dynamism into account, while looking at regional differences in popular culture, to see if these help explain why some areas of early modern Europe held witch-hunts and some did not, some accusing women of witchcraft and others, men.

Witchcraft in Italy, male witches and the animal familiar are covered by your research. Why select these areas?

The topics were selected by three research students on my team, Debora, Sheriden and Vikki. The fourth, Tabitha, is working on the relationship between gender and magic in England, 1400-1600. They, and my postdoctoral assistant Louise, won their places in the project by presenting the best proposals. The decisions to take them were made by a panel of academics, on which I represented only one vote, to prevent any suspicion of favouritism; although the panel never disagreed. The team is entirely female, apart from me, and a quarter self-identifies as Pagan. Although we share a common methodological approach, nothing stipulates that we have to end up agreeing with each other. That’s why I can’t tell what my companions will eventually reveal. I have already found some of the results of my own research to be other than I had expected: across Europe, for example, local folk beliefs have turned out to be less important in determining the course of the early modern witch trials than I had anticipated.

Why does the archetype of the witch still resonate so powerfully through time?

Because at the present day it can mean so many different things to so many different people. It is undoubtedly a potent feminist symbol, one of the very few images of independent female power traditional European culture has bequeathed to us. Linked to paganism, it can stand for a wild, green spirituality of liberation, self-realisation, humanitarianism and care for the planet. To many people it means a practitioner of magic in general, including all benevolent forms, while to many others it means only somebody who uses magic to harm others, often lethally.

The problem is that the first two definitions are relatively recent and still fully adopted only by a minority, while the last was used by at least four-fifths of English-speakers until the nineteenth century and most of the one-fifth who used the word witchcraft for magic in general did so to smear and suppress all magic rather than redeem witchcraft. At present, the witch occupies a spectrum of recognition, from ultimate tragic victim to ultimate embodiment of evil. My project intends to contribute to the elimination of the latter concept, by presenting a better understanding of its cultural roots.

You’ve worked for English Heritage, which of course can radically divide opinion among modern Pagans. What do you make of claims that ancient sites are the ‘spiritual property’ of Pagans? And is there a way for Pagans to work positively with, rather than against, EH?

I am back at English Heritage, as the Trustee representing history and archaeology on the Board that runs the organisation, now it has been cut loose from public funding and turned into a self-supporting charity. Only one place was reserved for both disciplines and I won it through a competitive process of application and interview. I did so mostly because my work straddles both and has covered so many topics, but also a little because of my knowledge of alternative spiritualities, and of re-enactment societies, of which I have also had long experience.

The Board operates at a level above the detailed policy implementation which produces most friction, or goodwill, between EH and Pagans. Thus, the Board can decide that there should be open access to Stonehenge at the solstices, but not on what terms, and that Pagans should be invited to help care for ancient sacred sites, but not exactly how. The Board answers to a government-appointed commission, to the government itself, and so the public. It is the public, represented by elected government, which is the actual owner of the monuments for which EH cares.

During the 1990s I worked hard, with some success, to persuade academics and heritage managers that as we can never know much of certainty about prehistoric, or even ancient, religion in Britain, modern Pagan reconstructions of it were as likely to be accurate as anybody else’s. That did much to diminish the earlier tendency of such groups to dismiss Pagans as lunatics, frauds and nuisances. However, if some Pagans now claim a special right to own and interpret ancient sites and tell other people what to do with them, based on a spiritual connection which cannot be objectively demonstrated, that growing tolerance and respect is going to evaporate. Even after all these decades, Paganism is still largely a movement of the relatively poor, marginalised and powerless. It is dangerously lacking in powerful, wealthy and famous adherents and defenders. In this situation, sustained charm and persuasion are better tactics than more aggressive lobbying.

Our understanding of ancient sites is shifting, and often revised in the light of archaeological discoveries. Do modern pagans place too much emphasis on certain sites – such as Stonehenge – imposing our own narratives, even if those narratives prove faulty? And how could we address that?

I wish that Pagans did usually impose their own narratives on ancient places, and indeed on the past, either by actual research or by genuinely visionary experience. Too often, their understanding is based on now-outdated academic ideas which were dominant until the 1970s and based ultimately on the work of Victorian and Edwardian scholars. The internet reinforces this by recycling outdated ideas through websites constructed by enthusiastic amateurs.

There are at least three equally good solutions to this problem. One is to try to keep up with current scholarship in the particular aspect of the past in which particular Pagans are interested, through recent scholarly works in public libraries, bookshops and the mass media. Another is to recognise that the ancient past is largely beyond recovery, and so celebrate the right of different people to dream it in different ways, as personal, subjective belief systems. The third is to retain inherited views of places and periods of time as a private faith, passed on without contact with changing ideas; which is actually how a lot of religions cope with altering times. Different tactics will suit different people, and this list of possibilities is probably only a beginning.

How would you describe your own beliefs, and how have they changed with time, and your own studies?

My ideas of Pagan history have changed dramatically since the 1960s, when I believed everything I read in Margaret Murray, Robert Graves, Sir James Frazer, Gerald Gardner, Charles Godfrey Leland, and authors who thought that medieval Celtic literatures embodied reliable portraits of the ancient pagan past: simply because all of them either embodied or built upon what was then absolute academic orthodoxy. The outpouring of new research in the 1970s – most of it not conducted by me – gradually, and painfully, dismantled those beliefs, leaving me wondering, by the end of the 1980s, what could be put in their place.

My work since then has largely been intended to give modern Paganism a new history which can be proved from the records and gives it a proud place in the current world, as a complex of religions calling on ancient images and ideas, but addressing some of the greatest needs of modernity: and in doing so, drawing on major streams of British culture going back over two hundred years, and a continuous tradition of ceremonial magic going back millennia.

I don’t describe my own beliefs and practices in public, because I have learned through bitter experience that I am much more effective in defending Paganism against misrepresentation, to the police, the law courts, the caring services, the educational system, the heritage sector, academics and the mass media, if I keep my personal, spiritual life private. My most concise response is ‘It’s a private matter. Blessed Be.’

How can Pagans play a key role in creating a more tolerant interfaith landscape, not just in Britain, but globally?

Pagans don’t squabble as much now as they used to do, at least in Britain. In my opinion Doreen Valiente – with whom I had a very strong mutual respect and affection – got it right at the beginning, in the 1950s, by recommending that Pagans spread knowledge of their tradition by writing attractive books about it (nowadays, we would add websites and social media), avoiding journalists and publicity stunts. Also important is a sustained, effective Pagan presence at interfaith meetings, cultural events and demonstrations concerning environmental issues.

For those in traditions which stress group work, training, initiating, supporting and coordinating is vital. The end product should be people who are decent to others in the group, as to humans in general, good communicators and effective ritualists, loyal to their fellow initiates and their tradition. They are the best advertisements for that tradition. Any Pagan who wins the respect of non-Pagan neighbours and fellows in a workplace, as a person, and then informs them of her or his beliefs, is doing invaluable work to gain regard for those beliefs.