Author: Ronald Hutton
Trade Hardcover, 504 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: May 2000
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This is an outstanding and readable scholarly book on the history of Wicca (Modern Pagan Witchcraft) by a professional historian. Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at Bristol University, has previously authored two rather successful books on the pagan religions of the British Isles (The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles) and the origins of the English folk festival cycle (The Stations of the Sun). If you are familiar with Dr. Hutton’s previous books, you know that he argues rather convincingly that there was no unbroken survival of the pre-Christian religions of the British Isles up to modern times (17th -18th century). From this, he follows the various intellectual and artistic developments that formed the fertile ground that would spring forth Modern Pagan Witchcraft.
The book is divided into two halves. The first half traces various threads that led to the formation of Wicca and other neo-Pagan religions in the twentieth century. The major groups that Dr. Hutton focuses on are Freemasonry (and other fraternal organizations spilt from or inspired by them), the pastoral language and poetry of the Romantic literary movement, 19th century study of folklore (Golden Bough, and theories of Great Neolithic Goddess Cult - note that Marija Gimbutas was hardly revolutionary in this area), and the predecessors of Leland and Murray who proposed that the early modern Witch Trials were related to a real religion of the witches. From there he looks more closely at authors that most likely directly influenced Gardner. These include Margaret Murray, Robert Graves, Charles Leland, Aleister Crowley, and Dion Fortune.
Dr. Hutton's training in methodology for studying history really comes through in his section on Gerald Gardner. Hutton had access to a number of private documents (The Toronto papers made infamous in Aiden Kelly's book Crafting The Art Of Magic and numerous other personal collections in Great Britain) that made his analysis even more convincing. Hutton's premise is that Gardner entered retirement and quickly began looking for an outlet to his creative energies. After growing tired of archeology (his amateur work on the history and religion of Malaysia are still rather highly regarded by scholars) and volunteering for the war effort, he began studying the occult in earnest. After a failed attempt to revive the OTO in England (with Crowley's blessings) he began working on recreating the Witch religion outlined in Murray’s books. The early work involved a lot of syncretism of existing materials from Freemasonry, the Golden Dawn, the OTO, medieval grimoires, Romantic poetry, etc., but with a new twist. From there, the inspiration of Gardner and his followers soon took the new religion in totally new directions.
From here, Hutton traces Wicca's jump "across the pond." He notes that a "new and improved" Wicca made the jump back across the pond to England in the early 1980's. Hutton notes that what was essentially a politically conservative religious movement (stressing a pre-Industrial "golden age," resistance to modernity, and a hint of nature conservation) came back as a liberal/progressive movement of feminist issues, progressive social policy, and self-help/group therapy. He freely admits that he doesn't have the resources or the knowledge to adequately catalog the development of Wicca and Paganism in the US, (and hints that he hopes scholars in the US will fill in the gaps), but he does chart some of the cross-pollination of Wicca with the feminist and ecology movements. He also looks at some of the work seminal writers in these areas such as Starhawk and Z. Budapest and examines their innovations to Wicca.
Dr. Hutton also describes the work of other that have preceded him into this field, from Aiden Kelly and Margot Adler to Tanya Luhrmann and others, as well as their influences and the influences of their material on neo-Paganism as a whole. All in all, Hutton maintains a balanced and objective view of the history of Wicca, and always remains respectful of neo-Pagan beliefs. While I don't completely agree with all of his conclusions, I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in the actual history of Wicca and the underlying philosophical and artistic movements that are the parents of neo-Paganism in all its forms.
Where Margot Adler simply reported on the state and direction of the neo-Pagan movement in the US as a journalist, Ronald Hutton offers a thoughtful and critical analysis of the origins of the neo-Pagan movement from a historian's perspective. This book is a definite four stars.
Reviewed by Stryder
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