Some thought on the book The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles by Ronald Hutton

Original forward, as written for a correspondence course in 1994: As Druids, even admittedly reconstructionist Druids, we have an obligation to ourselves, and our spiritual predecessors, to the truth. If that truth supports our claims, great! If it doesn't, then we must reevaluate ourselves and our religion accordingly. Hence, the following:


Neo-pagans share a wealth of oral tradition; we frequently speak to each other (and to anyone else who'll listen) about the antiquity of the Goddess, the persecution of practitioners of the "old religion" by the Catholic Church and the survival through that persecution of many of our "ancient traditions" in Christian and folk festivals and ways. But how often do we stop to check the validity of these claims? Have we, who value truth so highly, fallen into the same habit of belief "because this authority said so" that we denounce in other religions? Do our beliefs stand up in the face of continuing archeological discovery? As a people who profess to value the truth, we need to constantly reexamine current archeological findings and their impact on our faith.

In his book The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1991), Ronald Hutton observes that for the past twenty years, mos Wiccan/Pagan authors have tended to quote only each other and to ignore new academic publications in relevant areas. "This does not appear to be a conscious process of censorship," he states, "so much as a genuine loss of contact with thought worlds other than their own." This intellectual closure seems to have led to a situation where many accept as "ancient tradition" and "craft lore" things that only date back to the early and mid twentieth century. Much of what we accept as fact, based on the writings of Sir James Frazer, Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner, has since been shown to be inaccurate. Worse, some of it was never supported by facts in the first place. Mr. Hutton seems, overall, to be reasonably sympathetic to those with neo-pagan beliefs, but he does feel that "If the revised ideas of academe concerning the Goddess were made available to her modern worshipers, the latter would probably reject them." This could be taken as a challenge, and the subject needs to be addressed.

There are many points raised in Mr. Hutton's book, and it is outside the scope of an article such as this to address them all, or to do so in any great depth. Some are little things, like the fact that the "Celtic" Cross developed in the western Carpathian region around 3000 BCE, and spread across Europe over the following millennium. It is traditionally regarded as a sun symbol, and there is nothing particularly Celtic about it. Or our vision of ancient people living lightly and respectfully on the land, when in fact it was common practice in and before the 9th century BCE to use fire to clear vast tracts of woodlands. Many of England's heaths and bogs are places where the ecosystem never recovered from such abuse. Other points touch at the basis of our belief system -- our symbology, our festivals, our view of our history, and our vision of the Goddess Herself.

The pagan "Wheel of the Year" as we know it was fabricated by authors such as Murray and Robert Graves. There is ample evidence that the Irish Celts observed Samhain (Nov. 1), Imbolc (Feb. 1), Beltane (May 1), and Lughnasadh (Aug. 1) -- although not always by these names. Samhain was the most important, the beginning of the year, and Beltane was the second most. The feasts of Imbolc and Lughnasadh had little importance compared with the other two, and there is no evidence of any celebration of solstices or equinoxes.

Of the four great Irish feasts, the Welsh observed only May Day (and May Eve), and attached to it much of the supernatural importance the Irish gave to Samhain. There is no existing literary evidence for Scotland or Gaul on the matter of these festivals, although "Beltane" was chosen from the Scottish spellings by Frazer and became the most accepted standard spelling.

There is a reference by an eighth century writer that the English Celts marked the beginning of the year with their greatest festival, "Modranicht," or "Mother Night," the winter solstice. There is no sign of a counterpoint festival at the summer solstice. The autumn equinox falls during the harvest, but there is no evidence that any feasts held during that time celebrated the equinox specifically, nor that any of the general "welcoming of spring" festivals commemorated the vernal equinox per se.

The concept of Imbolc marking the recovery of the Goddess from giving birth to the "Sun God" at midwinter first appears in Murray's work in 1921, so although we may choose to commemorate it in this way, we cannot rightly claim an ancient origin for the idea. Candlemas was placed on Feb. 2 by church councils in the Mediterranean who probably never heard of Imbolc, and was set to commemorate Jesus' presentation at the Temple at the time following his birth (which had been set on Dec. 25) dictated by Hebrew law. Hutton states that "Its especial association with candles, evident during the course of the early Middle Ages, was suggested by Simeon's words, read out at the service, that the child would be "a light to lighten the Gentiles."

As to our terms for our festivals, Murray adopted the word "sabbaths" from the writings of early modern demonologists, who felt that Jews and witches were both the antithesis of Christianity. The word "esbat" for monthly "business" meetings came from one French work. Authors like Gardener, Caitlin Matthews and others built on Murray's work, and eventually the eight-sabat "Wheel of the Year" became an accepted pagan standard, though no Celtic group is known to have celebrated more than four of the eight festivals.

Much of our current body of pagan tradition can be traced to a chain of misunderstandings and misinterpretations that goes back at least as far as the 13th century. The Welsh Gogynfeirdd ("fairly early poets") compiled a manuscript known as the Canu Taliesin, the Book (or more properly Song) of Taliesin, from 9th century Welsh texts. In the process, many human and semi-human characters were elevated to the status of deities. This could have been because the 13th century writers no longer fully understood the 9th century language (and the 9th century writers apparently had only a hazy idea of their predecessors a century of so before), or because they deliberately chose to create a new mythology. Mr. Hutton gives three examples of this, one of which is Ceridwen. She appears only in one tale, the birth of Taliesin, and according to Mr. Hutton the elements of this story are not particularly Welsh -- they are found all over Europe and Asia. The name Ceridwen, which means "crooked woman," appears to have been created solely for this tale. Her cauldron of inspiration, however, appealed to the 13th century poets, who adopted her as a sort of Muse. Later writers elevated her to a Goddess, and many today, including this author, honor the Lady by that name.

For another example of a goddess created by relatively modern authors, consider Aradia. Charles Godfrey Leland, in his 1899 Gospel of the Witches, gives Aradia as the Italian rendering of the goddess worshiped by the witches of the hereditary cult in Tuscany, Herodias. He apparently got this name from Jules Michelet's 1862 La Sorciere, and Michelet apparently adopted it because Herodias was "the most wicked woman who featured in the New Testament." In the century since Leland's work, no historian, folklorist or modern witch has ever found a trace of his supposed Tuscan cult, and no conscientious scholar of the Middle Ages ever took his story seriously. And yet, today, Aradia is revered by many as a goddess of Nature and the Moon, and as the Maiden.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, several writers mistranslated the already erroneous 13th century works, sometimes adding to them to suit the desires of the contemporary interest in Welsh culture. In 1849, Lady Charlotte Guest innocently printed many of these questionable works in the translation of Medieval Welsh tales, The Mabinogion. This lent the tales an undeserved air of credibility, upon which later writers built. One of the most noteworthy of these is Robert Graves. His The White Goddess is often quoted by modern pagan writers, who take his metaphors as myth. To quote Mr. Hutton, Graves had "built a fantasy upon a forgery." Hutton says that "His (i.e., Graves') friends have maintained that in private he himself did not believe that his vision had existed in reality: he was expressing a state of creative longing which made what he wrote poetically, not literally, true. His bluntest retrospective comment on the work, written to a stranger, was: "It's a crazy book and I didn't mean to write it.." But his concept of the Triple Goddess has taken on a life of it's own and become a part of the foundation of the current pagan paradigm.

Adding to the mire was Sir James Frazer and his early anthropological work The Golden Bough. He popularized the idea that the whole concern of ancient paganism was fertility, and gave us the theory of the sacrificial king. But modern pagans should also be aware of some important points regarding the man and his work. Sir James was on a quest to demonstrate that Christianity rested on the same principles as other early and primitive religions, and therefore deserved to be treated with the same objectivity and the same contempt. The Golden Bough was never accepted by most historians and theologians -- it combined material from all over geography and time, and ignored contexts and discrepancies. And, for all his writing, Sir James had not given a single actual example of a monarch being slain and replaced in his so-called "universal" fashion.

Like Sir James, Margaret Alice Murray was a respected writer in her field, and her work The Witch Cult in Western Europe is widely referenced. It was supposed to be an attempt to objectively study the Great Witch Hunt, but Murray succumbed to the temptation to mold her data to fit her premise -- that the trials were of a genuine religion. She ignored a large amount of unpublished data, ignored, misquoted or rationalized evidence of physically impossible actions like flying, and "pruned and rearranged her evidence ruthlessly to support her assertion" that her proposed religion was standard throughout Europe. Her use of the terms "sabbath" and "esbat" and her interpretations of ancient festivals have already been mentioned, and she never bothered to ask, let alone answer, the questions of why the Hunt was confined to certain places and times, and why her pan-European "witch-cult" failed to survive in areas where it wasn't persecuted. In academe, the "Murray Thesis" collapsed in the 1970's. Mr. Hutton lists half a page of references, ranging from 1969 to 1989, supporting his statement that "During the past two decades a score of detailed local studies of the Great Witch Hunt, spanning Europe, have demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that its victims were not practitioners of the Old Religion." Despite this, and perhaps in simple ignorance of it, Ms. Murray is still quoted in the pagan community as virtual gospel.

One of the latest writers in this chain of re-interpretations, and one who's influence is felt even by those who are not of his "tradition," is Gerald Gardener. He drew on Margaret Murray's work, was apparently influenced by Ivanhoe's erroneous history, and combined these ideas of the Old Religion with the magical practices of the Ordo Templi Orientis and the Golden Dawn. The use of the ceremonial circle with the four cardinal points that can be created and removed at will, the use of pentagrams and triangles, incense and water, the bound and blindfolded initiation, these and more trace their origin not to any ancient religion, Celtic or otherwise, but to the ritual magic derived from the ODO and Golden Dawn, the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons, and ultimately to Hellenistic Egypt. In these aspects, at least, we can truly claim an ancient origin to our practices.

Some of our traditions are, however, truly ancient. To quote Hutton, "It is obvious, for example, that like many ancient peoples the British and Irish believed that it was lucky to make a circle sunwise, in modern terms clockwise (or in Old Irish "deisiol"), and very malicious or foolish to proceed in the opposite direction or, as the English were to say, "widdershins."

Lastly, but certainly not least, of the subjects we must consider is that of the Goddess Herself. During the early part of this century, scholars put forth the idea that all neolithic people honored a "Mother Goddess," giver of all life and creatress of all things, the central figure in Neolithic religion. They dubbed any female figure from that period, and many of questionable gender, as goddesses. Andrew Fleming, in his 1969 article in World Archeology entitled The Myth of the Mother Goddess, points out the simple fact that there is no supporting proof for the assumptions that spirals or dots represented eyes, that eyes, faces and genderless figures represented women, or that female figures represented goddesses. Figures of women could easily have been dolls (might some future anthropologist assume we worship a busty, thin-wasted blond, showering her with clothing and Corvettes?), or have been used in sympathetic magic by women who feared death in childbirth. A large neolithic settlement in Turkey has yielded an abundance of apparently religious images, but even so it's impossible to tell whether its culture viewed women as powerful, to be feared and honored, or as threatening, to be feared and subordinated. Even studying present-day primitive agricultural and hunter-gatherer peoples is no help, for some are animists, mono-theists, polytheists, or a combination of these. Again, while it's entirely possible that some, even many, prehistoric people revered an all-powerful Mother Goddess, we are outside the facts when we claim that her worship was wide-spread and pervasive.

So, does it matter that the Goddess as we know and honor Her may have existed only for decades rather than millennia? Only if you're into the "my religion is older (therefore more valid) than your religion" game. To the rest of us, the fact the She exists now would seem to be far more relevant. Sure, it would be nice to know that the Lady has been worshipped since the dawn of humankind, but let's not claim a past that doesn't exist. We have enough of a credibility problem as it is.

And, of course, where no proof exists one way or the other, even the most conservative of anthropologists and archaeologists must concede that we have the right to claim "It might have been that way!"

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[*] Selected quotes from The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles by Ronald Hutton, including his footnotes

[*] Order Ronald Hutton's The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy from Amazon.com today!

[*] Return to the Grove of the Sacred Well

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© 1994, Lorena Wolfe,