Reply to Ronald Hutton

In 2010 I published a book titled Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Traditional Witchcraft, which was a critique of Professor Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. I had found numerous errors in his work, and felt that he came down too heavily against (almost) any links or even resemblances between the paganisms and witchcraft of the past and those of the present day. In response to my book, Hutton wrote two articles: “Writing the History of Witchcraft: A Personal View” (2011) and “Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History” (2013), both published in The Pomegranate.1The dates given in the online versions of the articles, 2010 and 2011 respectively, are not the dates of publication. Together, these appear to constitute the full “section by section reply” he had promised (interview, Hutton & Tully 2011).

Though I started writing responses to these articles immediately, I was overwhelmed with other work, so that by the time they took shape I felt I’d missed the boat. I was also dismayed at how confused the debate had become. Both my arguments and my intentions were misconstrued, while on the other side Hutton claimed that I had misconstrued him in the same way. This shifting ground of debate was further clouded by a discussion of motive and character that was entirely beside the point, so that I imagined serious scholars would have already lost interest. I shelved my reply, telling myself that observant readers could answer Hutton’s criticisms themselves. Nine years have passed, and as I am still occasionally asked about my response, I have decided to complete it, to add what clarity I can to the subject.

Revision and debate

Hutton’s two articles contain scholarly replies to some of the objections I had raised in Trials, which I welcome, and shall respond to below. But they are also largely devoted to a fanciful narrative about how and why hostile amateur Pagan scholars attack academic insiders, and in particular, Hutton. An extended ad hominem argument, it attributes me and other scholars with characters, motives and beliefs—not to mention scholarly positions—that seem plucked from imagination. This narrative fully crystallises in “Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism”, with the premise that when scholars such as Hutton revise history in light of new evidence, there are “counter-revisionists” who will criticise such changes as a matter of faith and identity, in an attempt to defend the founding myths of Wicca. Yet none of the critics he names subscribes to those myths, nor do they promote the ideas or employ the methods that he ascribes to “counter-revisionists”. There are other motives than ideology for scholarly critique, and Hutton’s account was challenged not for departing from long-discarded myths, but for departing from evidence and scholarly consensus.

Hutton’s claim is that I, and other critics of his, are entrenched in the view

that Christianity had been no more than a veneer over medieval British society, found mostly among the social and political elite and barely penetrating the mass of the population, which continued to belong, at least in secret, to the old religion. … Above all, according to this view, [the old faith] was manifested in a flourishing witch religion, found all over western and central Europe, which represented a direct continuity of ancient Paganism and honoured ancient deities of nature. As such this religion also represented a self-conscious resistance movement to Christianity, and so was comprehensively and brutally crushed by Christian persecution between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. The claim made by the oldest attested of modern Pagan traditions, Wicca, was that it was in fact this same religion of witches, which had survived in secret through the intervening centuries to resurface in the safer environment of the 1950s. (Hutton 2013:226-7)

Yet I explicitly rejected that view as implausible, “fictitious”, a “fantasy” and a “tired old myth” (Whitmore 2010:5, 33). I felt my position was clearly stated: “Clearly, Wicca as we know it is a recent creation, and its ‘traditional’ history as stated by Gardner is a myth—as has long been recognised by Wiccans—yet I am not convinced that it has no connection or resemblance to historical witchcraft or folk magic.” (Whitmore 2010:3; see also p. 83). None of his other critics supported this myth either—not even Jani Farrell-Roberts, who defended Margaret Murray, the myth’s most famous exponent, against the charge that her distortions were conscious and deliberate (Farrell-Roberts 2003a, 2003b; summarised in Whitmore 2010:81).2The myth was most famously advanced in Margaret Murray’s 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, and reached its full form in her later books The God of the Witches (1933) and The Divine King in England (1954). It was also repeated in Gerald Gardner’s 1949 novel High Magic’s Aid, though treated more cautiously in his non-fiction books that introduced Wicca to the world.

Further still, Hutton presumes to know his critics’ motives for writing, and dramatises the disagreement as a battle waged by zealots rather than ordinary scholarly debate. My own motive he interprets as personal attack, an attempt to destroy his reputation, partly through painting him as anti-Pagan:

The whole purpose of [Whitmore’s] book is to destroy my reputation as an authority upon the history of Paganism and witchcraft, at least among Pagans […] Nobody who believes his assertions can be left with anything other than the impression that I am an unscrupulous and deceitful individual motivated by a concealed hostility to Paganism. (Hutton 2011:253)

My purpose was not to destroy Hutton’s reputation, but to contribute to meaningful scholarly debate in this field of research. I never criticised his character or personality; on the contrary, I stated very clearly my conviction that he is genuinely sympathetic to Pagans and Witches (Whitmore 2010:2). I have made similar statements in his defence in the blogosphere when others have accused him of being anti-Pagan. Hutton feels that “only the apparent faults [in his use of source material] are highlighted” by me (2011:253). In fact, I praised several aspects of his work, especially the portions of his account that deal with the years after Wicca was publicised, and his surveys of Pagan themes in literature; and more generally, his narrative skill and his obvious sensitivity to Pagan spiritualities (Whitmore 2010:2-4).

I quite understand how easily a concerted critique may be misread as personal attack, and thoroughness mistaken for savagery. The vagaries of language allow us to impute meanings to words and phrases that were never intended. For instance, my description of Hutton as a “maverick historian” (Whitmore 2010:2) has been condemned by him as a phrase that “within the academic world […] carries only negative connotations, of eccentricity, marginality and controversy” (Hutton & Tully 2011). Not so; Hutton himself praises fellow historian Carlo Ginzburg as a “brilliant maverick” (Hutton 1999:377): both he and I are using the standard dictionary definition. I hope Hutton may yet come to take my book at face value, as a straightforward academic argument seeking a straightforward academic response.

“Writing the History of Witchcraft” and “Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism” are nonetheless important contributions, for in them Hutton substantially modifies—or perhaps clarifies—several key aspects of his historical views. He now recognises European witchcraft historians’ readiness “to find ancient roots for aspects of witchcraft tradition” (Hutton 2013:229), contrary to his earlier statement that these same historians had “swept away […] any possibility of doubt regarding the lack of correlation between paganism and early modern witchcraft” (Hutton 1999:377). In the same way, he now affirms that the deities of modern Wicca “were certainly derived from pre-Christian figures”, contrary to his argument in Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1991) and Triumph of the Moon that these were essentially inventions of the 19th century, and that deities of similar characteristics were either minor or completely unknown in ancient Europe and Anatolia, or else appeared as literary devices but not as deities of cult worship (Hutton 1999 32-45, 122; 1991:36,294).3Hutton denied there were ever any ancient “Great Goddesses” identified with nature, the moon and all other goddesses, stating that “the overwhelming majority of ancient pagans genuinely believed that the different goddesses were separate personalities”, and that except in one novel by Lucius Apuleius, no goddess of antiquity was ever seen “as the embodiment of all other goddesses, … identified with the moon and with the whole of nature” (Hutton 1999:32). He was a little more round-about in stating his position regarding triple goddesses, but still made himself quite clear. The only Triple Goddess he mentioned was one he characterised as distinctively modern: the deity conceived by Jane Harrison and further developed by Robert Graves into her familiar form. Harrison’s triple goddess, he believed, arose from her attempt to reconcile the “apparently incompatible attributes” of a virgin-mother deity first dreamed up by Sir Arthur Evans—which in turn “owed an unmistakeable debt to the Christian tradition of the Virgin Mary” (pp. 36-7). Despite Harrison’s and Graves’ claims of historical precedents for their deity, Hutton concluded that she was the culmination of only 150 years of development: a goddess of modern invention who had never received public worship nor had temples built to her (Hutton 1999:36-7, 41-2). Likewise, the witches’ God he saw as having more in common with the Christian Jesus than with any ancient deity: a “Green Jesus” of the natural world superficially resembling Pan but in many ways unlike that ancient and minor god (Hutton 1999:45). Dying and resurrected deities in antiquity were, he believed, few and localised: “Only under the Roman Empire did one of these (that of Attys) develop into a widespread mystery religion, and this attracted a relatively tiny number of adherents; it may, indeed, have been influenced, or even inspired, by Christianity” (Hutton 1999:122). The whole thrust of chapters 2, 3 and 7 of Triumph regarding the deities of modern Wicca was that, although they drew on some ancient images, they drew far more from Romantic poetry and Christian imagery.

He now sees religion and magic as being on a single continuum and having been harmoniously integrated in some cultures (Hutton 2011:244), rather than as distinct phenomena not usually blended together (as claimed in Hutton 1991 289–291, 335). Likewise, he is more affirmative of the “links between ancient and modern Paganisms” and “the importance of the Pagan element as a major and all-pervasive part of the British, and wider European heritage” (Hutton 2011:245-6). He affirms the survival of elements of paganism through the Christian era, including spiritual beliefs and “affection for Pagan deities” (Hutton 2013:227-8), whereas he previously held that “relics of paganism” only survived in Europe as customs “detached […] from any previous religious context”, their original meanings forgotten (Hutton 1991:292-3; Hutton 1999:122). He now gives far greater importance to pagan-Christian religious syncretism, and I am completely in accord with his nuanced description of how that syncretism is regarded in current scholarship.

In fact, in all these regards he has essentially joined my own position and resolved many of our most important points of disagreement. Hutton says, though, that in none of these regards has his position actually changed, and that I and other “counter-revisionists” merely misconstrued him. I was cautious to try to portray his position accurately, supplying frequent quotations, and indicating whether he stated things as bald facts and blanket statements or admitted alternative possibilities and exceptions. I took especial care to seek interpretations of his words that might bring him more in line with usual scholarly consensus. If, despite my efforts, what I read was not what he intended, then I am pleased that my own book has provided the occasion for him to clarify himself.

Alongside these reconciliations between us, there remain areas of disagreement. Hutton challenges me on a number of points, mainly relating to the nature and extent of pagan survivals and how they fared alongside Christianity; how the phenomenon of witchcraft was rooted in such survivals; the historical meaning of the word ‘witch’ and how we might usefully define ‘witchcraft’ and ‘paganism’ today; and appropriate methods of scholarship. The remainder of this article consists of my responses to these points.

Witchcraft and pagan survivals

Hutton says I misrepresent him when I summarise one of his key theses as being

that modern Pagan witchcraft is entirely a new invention, cobbled together by a few eccentrics of the early twentieth century out of themes from Romanticism and the recent European occult revival, all supplemented with plenty of imagination, and with no link or even resemblance to any prior form of witchcraft or pagan spirituality. (Whitmore 2010:1)

He says this is “a travesty of [Triumph’s] intended message”, but does not explain how or why (2011:253). Let’s compare this with what he has actually written. In The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles he wrote: “the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name, which is of Christian coinage” (Hutton 1991:337).4He did allow that Wicca had a considerably older pedigree if placed in the tradition of ritual magic (Hutton 1991:337), but argued that even prior to Christianity magic was not connected with religion, and that “magic of any kind” could not be described as ‘paganism’ (1991:290-2). When he wrote Triumph, Hutton revised this by noting that modern ceremonial magic “in one sense […] represented a revival” of pagan theurgy, which was a form of religious magic (Hutton 1999:83). He had been alerted to this by Don Frew (1998). Later, in Witches, Druids and King Arthur, he expanded on this idea, but emphasised that theurgy was a late, isolated and highly atypical branch of paganism (Hutton 2003:127-8). Apart from this one link with the past, he considered his conclusion of 12 years earlier, regarding the separation between magic and religion, to be “still true” (Hutton 2003:87). He also emphasised Wicca’s patchwork quality, calling it “probably the most eclectic religion in the history of the world” (1991:334). As regards historical ‘witchcraft’, in his opinion this was an imaginary phenomenon emerging out of popular paranoia, and bearing no relation to its more modern Neopagan counterpart (1991:306). All these points were further elaborated in Triumph, which took as its premise this denial of “the claim of continuity and, indeed, the notion that modern paganisms had very much in common with those of the ancient world”, and thence set out out to answer “where, when and why [modern paganisms] had in fact arisen, if they had not survived continuously” (Hutton 1999:vii). Hutton eventually credits the development of the modern movement to a succession of key individuals of unusual predilections and great imagination, who drew on popular literary themes and ceremonial magic.

In Pagan Religions and Triumph Hutton cited a number of other historians as having conclusively shown that early modern witchcraft was not connected with surviving pagan religion, and that “not a single person tried for witchcraft in Europe between 1400 and 1800 has been demonstrated to have adhered to a pagan religion” (Hutton 1999:380; see also, for example, Hutton 1999:362, 377). I have quoted many of these same historians to show that his appraisal of their work is at best misleading, at worst misrepresentation. By my reading, Monter, Ankarloo, Midelfort, Schormann, Alver, Ginzburg, Behringer, Henningsen, Briggs and others are saying virtually the opposite: that a significant proportion of those accused of witchcraft in early modern Europe were persecuted for their heterodox spiritual beliefs—beliefs carried over from pagan times (Whitmore 2010:5-11).

Hutton now opines that all that these authors show is “the presence of elements of folk belief inherited from ancient Paganism in the ideas that early modern people held of what witches do” (my emphasis)—that is, these historians are reporting beliefs about witches, not the beliefs of people accused of witchcraft (Hutton 2011:254). To me, this is yet another misrepresentation. I don’t dispute that the very largest witch-hunts killed their victims in a fog of hysteria, without any real knowledge of who they were, what they believed or what they had or hadn’t done. But in other hunts, a large proportion of the victims (the majority, in some countries) were healers, seers, diviners and magicians. The historians over whom Hutton and I are in dispute tell us quite a bit about such people’s beliefs and their pagan origins, as I discussed extensively in chapters 2 and 3 of Trials. Perhaps Hutton considers the accounts of accused witches to be mere folkloric echoes of a long-forgotten past—snatches of fairy-tales that found their way into day-dreams, or arose by free association under torture. If so, that is his own opinion, clearly at odds with authors who describe living spiritual belief systems (e.g. Schormann 1996:102-3, Alver 1971:116-9), a “pre-Christian, shamanistic substratum” (Ankarloo & Henningsen 1989:13, Ankarloo 1989:305), and veneration of “pagan deities with a Christian veneer” (Monter 1976:112, 175).

While Hutton now accepts that elements of pagan faith survived in syncretism with Christianity, he claims that among historians in general “No evidence was found in Europe of a self-conscious Pagan religion surviving the formal conversion of a state to Christianity” (Hutton 2013:227). I had cited one such example: Estonian peasants who jeeringly disdained church and clergy and continued to meet openly for sacrifice at sacred sites until nearly the eighteenth century (Whitmore 2010:68, citing Kahk 1989:276). Hutton doesn’t mention this or explain why he would discount it as evidence of a self-conscious Pagan survival. There are other examples: P. G. Maxwell-Stuart identifies persistent paganism in Scandinavia and Russia as a major contributing factor in their sixteenth- and seventeenth-century witch hunts (Maxwell-Stuart 2001:78,84). In the Volga and Cis-Ural regions of Russia several folk religions lived on in an unbroken line from pre-Christian paganism until the demise of peasant culture with the industrial revolution. While these faiths adopted some syncretic features from Christianity during their long cohabitation, they remained consciously separate from Christianity. In several cases, even through the Communist era, during which sacred groves and pagan rituals were suppressed, fragmentary chains of transmission were still maintained: groves were disguised as apiaries and the like, traditional prayers were preserved in secret. In the case of the Mari-El people, their native religion and priesthood were preserved essentially intact through the years of Soviet repression, although the large-scale revival of that religion since the 1990s has adopted some innovations. (Shnirelman 2001, Napolskikh 2002). I hasten to add that these examples are not typical of most of Europe. More generally, I consider syncretic lines of transmission within a Christian culture to have been by far the most common form of pagan “survivals”.

While I disagree on those important details, Hutton’s key point is one that I agree with: the witch-hunts and the witchcraft stereotype were not in response to a self-conscious pagan underground resistance movement. I stated this clearly in Trials: “Now, to deny the existence of a large-scale organised pagan resistance movement such as postulated by Margaret Murray would make sense. But to deny any element of pagan religious practice is a much bolder claim.” (Whitmore 2010:5).

I observed that several prominent witchcraft historians (including Briggs 1995, Behringer 1998, Ginzburg 1990) had denounced Murray’s thesis yet still affirmed that vestiges of pre-Christian belief survived in the practices and faiths of folk-magicians accused of witchcraft (who would most likely have considered themselves Christian), and that these beliefs contributed to witchcraft stereotypes and were to some degree targeted by witch-hunts. This is the “kernel of truth” that Carlo Ginzburg recognised in Murray’s work (Ginzburg 1983:xiii, xix).5This idea predates Murray and is still widely accepted among historians, though the precise parameters of such survivals are debated. Changing attitudes to this idea up to the mid-1980s are surveyed in Van Engen 1986:519-62, and numerous more recent views are cited throughout Trials. These historians, and especially Ginzburg (1990 part 2, ch. 1), showed how the stereotype of the witches’ sabbath emerged as a distortion and inversion of those people’s ancient practices and spiritual beliefs (summarised in Whitmore 2010:11). Ginzburg’s celebrated work Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (1990) examined a curious society of Italian folk-magicians called the benandanti, accused as witches, and mapped both the ancient origins of their out-of-body experiences and the relation of those experiences to diabolised stereotypes of witchcraft.

Hutton now objects to my suggestion that he may not have been very familiar with Carlo Ginzburg’s work when he wrote Triumph (Hutton 2011:254). Ironically, that objection is followed in the same paragraph by yet another apparent contradiction of Ginzburg’s work: he says, “Across most of Europe there is no trace even of such special groups of people [like the Italian benandanti] in the trial records”. But it was a major thesis of Ginzburg’s that just such parallels did exist, and he identified numerous such groups (mostly from trial records) as well as closely-related folk customs, spread over very large areas of Europe. A convenient map showing the geographical distribution of just some of these may be found on pages 98-99 of his book Ecstasies (1990; see fig. 1). Might Hutton be referring to some special, unique characteristic of the benandanti, for which no parallel has yet been found? No, his description seems clear: he is talking about “local magicians who believed that they sent forth their spirits at night in dream to fight witches and so protect their communities” (2011:254) — just like the armiers of the Pyrenees, Dalmatian kresniki, Hungarian táltos, Romanian caluczenii, Ossetian burkudzauta, Livonian werewolves and other folk magicians surveyed by Ginzburg (1990).

Figure 1. Ginzburg’s (partial) map of spirit-procession and spirit-battle customs, which I have coloured for easy reading. Pink areas indicate customs involving out-of-body journeying. Click for a larger map with key.

Hutton continues: “Whitmore seems to imply that there were actual societies of witches in early modern Europe who held residual Pagan beliefs that were peculiar to them and who were persecuted as a result. None of the scholars whom he quotes argue that.” In fact, I’ve carefully avoided labelling such people with the poorly-defined and contentious term ‘witch’; but numerous scholars have claimed that there were societies of people regarded as witches in early modern Europe who held residual Pagan beliefs that were peculiar to them and who were persecuted as a result. Ginzburg, for instance, has claimed exactly this regarding the benandanti. They were a society, in that they considered themselves to be so, and some at least were in contact with each other. Ginzburg conjectures that they sometimes gathered physically prior to their individual trances, and that their spectral battles re-enacted an older, physical fertility rite (1990:10; 1983:24). Ecstasies (1990) is devoted to tracing the elements of their faith back to ancient religious origins, at the same time showing how their beliefs were twisted into a parody and used to persecute them. Like me, Ginzburg doesn’t refer to these and other folk-magicians as ‘witches’, but he demonstrates how they came to be regarded as witches by others and even by themselves, and how the witchcraft stereotype largely arose as a distorted reflection of the beliefs and experiences of people like them.

Hutton objects that he cannot be accused of demolishing the Wiccan belief system, as the Wiccan foundation myth had already collapsed in Britain (Hutton 2011:240). I doubt many of his readers were clinging to the old myth of Wicca as a direct continuation of pagan religion in organised resistance against Christianity. But my perception, both in the 1990s prior to the publication of Triumph and today, has been that most Witches and Pagans believe in the kinds of survivals of pre-Christian spirituality affirmed by Ginzburg and many other historians, and feel that, among the eclectic elements of their tradition, there are real parallels and points of spiritual kinship with folk magic and more ancient religion. These beliefs, well historically supported though they are, were very much targeted for demolition in Hutton’s books.

Cunning folk

Hutton addresses the question of what the English word ‘witch’ meant in popular usage: did it refer only to malevolent magicians, or to non-harmful magicians such as cunning folk as well? I had argued that it applied to both (Whitmore 2010:32-3). Hutton acknowledges that certain Tudor and Stuart English writers applied the term equally to beneficent magicians, with some, such as Reginald Scot, asserting this was common usage of the time; Hutton also acknowledges that Anglo-Saxon churchmen regularly glossed ‘wicce’ and ‘wicca’ as referring to harmless workers of magic such as divination, and that this usage was repeated by ecclesiastical writers throughout the Middle Ages. But he maintains that none of these sources can be trusted to reflect popular belief, as they were all hostile, intentionally trying to demonise folk magic (Hutton 2013:233-5; also Hutton & Tully 2012). He even affirms that he and fellow historian Owen Davies “found plenty of evidence for people who called cunning folk witches”, but he says that because those people didn’t believe in magic, their usage of the term can be discounted (Hutton 2013:236).

Hutton considers other sources such as the records of defamation trials to be more reliable; here the word “witch” was considered pejorative and injurious (Hutton 2013:234). But this does nothing to demonstrate whether or not the populace regarded cunning folk as ‘witches’; it simply reflects people’s understandable desire not to risk being labelled a ‘witch’ in a legal setting or as a matter of public record, given that witchcraft was illegal.6Hutton suggests that cunning folk were largely safe in this regard, citing Robin Briggs’ statement that only “a miniscule fraction” of them were ever accused as witches (Hutton 2011:256). I too made this observation: cunning men and women were very numerous in England, and most of them were never accused or brought to trial, because of the respect they commanded (Whitmore 2010:32). But Briggs explains further that the absolute number of cunning folk accused as witches was still significant, and that this remained a real and present danger for such people, for a number of reasons (Briggs 1995:122-3). I am reminded of the pianist Liberace, who during the 1950s twice sued for libel following insinuations that he was gay, despite being a flagrantly camp gay icon, homosexual and widely recognised as such. The respect Liberace commanded meant that these accusations probably didn’t put him at great risk, but the fact remained that homosexuality was then illegal. Hutton also quotes a circa 1590 comedic play in which “Mother Bombie” is accused of being a witch. “They lie, I am a cunning woman”, is her retort, which Hutton considers makes the distinction certain (Hutton 2013:234). But this kind of line is only funny if the audience understands the blurred meanings of the word and its legal significance. Of course my speculation here could be wrong, as could his; but his is a special pleading to discount a large body of testimony by reputable witnesses over a long span of time; he needs more than speculation.

Hutton then contends that the Anglo-Saxon words ‘wicce’ and ‘wicca’ refer in law codes to workers of deadly crimes. Not so: the words referred to practitioners of pagan magic and divination. The Laws of Aelfred (c.890) state:

“Tha faemnan, the gewuniath onfon gealdorcraeftigan and scinlaecan and wiccan, ne laet thu tha libban.” —Women who are accustomed to receiving enchanters and sorceresses and witches, do not let them live!

The laws of Aelfric (late 900s):

“Ne sceal se cristena befrinan tha fulan wiccan be his gesundfulnysse.” —A Christian should not consult foul witches concerning his prosperity.

The Winchester Code of Cnut, article 5.1 (written c. 1021 by Wulfstan of York):

“Hæðenscipe byð þæt man deofolgyld [idola] weorðige, þæt is þæt man weorðige hæðene godas ⁊ sunnan oððe monan, fyr oððe flod, wæterwyllas oððe stanas oððe æniges cynnes wudutreowa, oððon wiccecræft lufige oððon morðweorc gefremme on ænige wisan, oððon on blote oððon fyrhte, oððon swylcra gedwimera ænig þingc dreoge.” —It is a heathen practice if one worships idols, whether one worships heathen gods and the sun or moon, fire or flood, wells or stones or any kind of forest trees, or loves witchcraft or commits murder in any way, or by sacrifice or divination or similar delusions does any thing.

In this last, murder appears alongside witchcraft, but so does divination and the worship of idols. There is nothing to suggest ‘wiccecræft’ related to “deadly crimes against the person”, and Owen Davies confirms that this was not so: “In Anglo-Saxon and Viking sources people who would later be described as cunning-folk were usually referred to using the blanket term of wiccan, meaning witch” (Davies 2003:viii). We have seen that ‘wicca’ and ‘wicce’ were regularly glossed as referring to harmless magicians and diviners, and a profusion of cognates in Dutch and Low Saxon also refer to conjurers and diviners rather than malevolent witches (wickhen, wicken, wigelen, wikelare, wigelinge, etc.), many of these words surviving to at least the nineteenth century with unchanged meaning (Grimm 1998:1033).7My appreciation to Pagan blogger “Apuleius Platonicus”, who has catalogued swathes of evidence regarding the ambivalent meaning of ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ (Platonicus, n.d.). Esteemed historians Alan Macfarlane, Keith Thomas and Emma Wilby all confirmed this ambivalent meaning within England (Macfarlane 1970:130 and Appendix 2; Thomas 1997:436-7; Wilby 2005:123). Against such a mass of literary testimony and scholarly consensus, if Hutton wants to convince us otherwise, he needs extraordinary evidence.

Furthermore, England was exceptional in distinguishing as clearly as it did between folk magic and malevolent or “black” witchcraft. Christina Larner observes: “England continued to tolerate cunning men and women (who were quite distinct from black witches) throughout the period of the prosecution. Major witch-hunts in Scotland and on the continent on the other hand tended to engulf the healer along with the curser” (Larner 1981:9). In Hungary, Russia and Transylvania the majority of accused witches were practitioners of traditional pagan-derived healing and fertility magic. In areas such as Scotland, Bavaria and Scandinavia such folk-magicians may not have formed the majority of those persecuted, but they were still a major target of accusations.8Regarding Russia, Transylvania and Scandinavia, see Maxwell-Stuart 2001:26-7, 78-85, 68-72; regarding Hungary, see Pócs 1999:12; for Bavaria, Lederer 2002:52; for Scotland, Wilby 2005:123. For Hutton to say that worldwide “such people [folk-magicians] were clearly distinguished from, and opposed to, witchcraft” is simply incorrect (Hutton 2011:244).

Hutton says I do nothing to demonstrate the existence of a coherent tradition among cunning folk (Hutton 2011:255); this is an important point, as by emphasising a lack of continuity among cunning folk, Hutton obscured their continuities from pre-Christian magic and religion. In fact, I cited and summarised the evidence of Keith Thomas and E. William Monter, two eminent historians who both emphasise a long continuity and shared tradition among such magicians (Whitmore 2010:31).

Defining ‘witchcraft’ and ‘paganism’

Hutton suggests that while I criticise his use of terminology for being too loose, I have myself made no attempt to define terms like ‘witchcraft’, instead “keeping them as fluid as possible so that they can fit a range of different meanings” (Hutton 2011:253). Actually, I tried to keep my usage of these terms strictly in line with his own, so as not to compare apples and oranges. The only times I departed from his usage were to point out how unsatisfactory that usage was, and why. But I can happily propose new definitions that I believe are more useful.

I would define ‘witchcraft’ as “those heterodox magical, spiritual and healing practices which have been popularly regarded as witchcraft and which fed into witchcraft stereotypes”. I suspect this definition captures the views of many or most contemporary Witches, who believe that some Europeans of the not-too-distant past venerated pagan (or pagan-derived) divinities and land-spirits, and practised magic, and as a result risked persecution as witches. Historically, this view is entirely accurate. People of that description existed, and were major targets of early modern witch-hunts. Whether or not those people referred to themselves as witches (a few certainly did, many probably did not), that is how they came to be popularly known by others.

It is certainly true that the word ‘witchcraft’ could be employed in a hostile manner, especially in witch-trials and ecclesiastical condemnations. Common academic usage—largely shaped by hostile written records—tends to be limited to these negative, derogatory meanings, and as such is inapplicable to real folk-magic practices which are not primarily maleficent.

The definition I propose above is not the one I use in Trials; instead I follow Hutton’s usage to avoid confusion. My point is that when contemporary Witches speak of ‘witchcraft’ they aren’t usually referring to maleficium, but are using the word in its broader, non-derogatory sense. When they look to the past for historical precedents for their type of witchcraft, they are not looking for “malevolent magic”, as Hutton has since defined the word (Hutton 2011:243). To do justice to their questions and their claims we must adopt a definition more like the one I propose, or come up empty-handed as Hutton has done.

‘Paganism’ I would define as “the religious and spiritual faiths deriving from pre-Christian Europe.” This differs in two respects from Hutton’s own definition of the word as “the ancient religions of Europe” (Hutton 1999:xii). First, it accommodates forms of spiritual expression that he might not recognise as ‘religious’;9Such as the veneration of sacred trees and wells, which he considered “trivialities” rather than acts of religious faith (Hutton 1991:300). second, it is not by definition limited to the ancient period, making it possible to meaningfully discuss mediaeval and even modern paganism. This proposed definition won’t make the job of writing history any easier, since it raises tricky questions around just how pagan a particular survival is, or to what extent it has become eclipsed by Christian ideas (one might even ask how pagan Christianity itself is). But these are exactly the kind of questions I feel historians should address, and a useful definition is one that facilitates meaningful debate on such issues, rather than circumventing it.

Goddess traditions

Discussing the Greek goddess Gaia, Hutton misconstrues my citation of Burkert (1985, cited in Whitmore 2010:21) as an attempt to show that Gaia was a major cult deity; Burkert considered her relatively minor (Hutton 2013:243). But my point was simply that Gaia was indeed venerated as a goddess of motherhood and the earth (which Burkert confirms), given that Hutton denied her status as an Earth Mother goddess—”Those cultures [Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Greece] did contain some figures of powerful goddesses, identified with motherhood or with the earth (though never with both)” (Hutton 1999:36)—and referred to her only as “an abstraction, not […] a being to be worshipped” (Hutton 1991:316).

Hutton also has, however, drawn my attention to an interpretation of Terra Mater and Tellus as separate goddesses: most scholars have treated them as synonymous during the Imperial period, but Hutton’s distinction between the two (Hutton 2013:242) is, I found, supported by Michael Lipka, who argues that Terra Mater was deliberately imported as a foreign deity in the rites accompanying the 17 BCE Secular Games; and that Horace’s famous hymn on this occasion, conflating Tellus and Terra Mater, reflected his own idiosyncratic views (Lipka 2009:151-3).

Hutton addresses the question of whether the Welsh Ceridwen was originally a goddess, or just a folkloric character. In Pagan Religions he had said that “modern ‘pseudo-Celticists’ … inflated her status to that of a pre-Christian deity, which she fairly clearly was not” (Hutton 1991:323). But as I pointed out, he had reached that conclusion by accidentally reversing the timeline of the Welsh poetic tales. Hutton believed that the Hanes Taliesin, in which Ceridwen appeared as a sorceress, predated poems such as The Chair of Cerridwen in which she had developed into a goddess of inspiration. He cited Ifor Williams (1944) for this timeline, but in fact Williams gave the opposite timeline: the Hanes Taliesin was not early in the literary tradition but in fact very late, and it draws from the earlier poems in which Cerridwen had been a goddess. Williams also postulates that all these poems drew on an older popular Taliesin myth incorporating pagan Celtic mythology and folklore. I explained all this in Trials (Whitmore 2010:66-7), but Hutton still adheres to the same erroneous timeline (Hutton 2013:247). He now additionally cites Marged Haycock and Rachel Bromwich, but they don’t support his timeline either: Haycock shows that Ceridwen was a muse of inspiration until the late fourteenth century, and only then fell out of favour and was transformed into a sorceress and a figure of fun; in Hutton’s favour, though, she finds no evidence that Cerridwen received cult worship as a goddess (Haycock 2007:312-4). Bromwich adheres to this same timeline and (unlike Haycock) does not hesitate to call her a goddess (Bromwich 1978:312-3, 451).

More broadly, Hutton missed my point on the subject of Ceridwen. He now insists that he did not draw a firm conclusion, but merely said Cerridwen’s status as a goddess could not be proved; I, on the other hand, he says, would not meet him in this “policy of live and let live”, but claimed to have proved the matter (Hutton 2013:249). Of course I did not; I merely pointed out that Hutton’s argument was unfounded. As I explained in the conclusion to Trials, my approach throughout the book had not been to attempt to prove an alternative historical narrative, but simply to “re-open lines of inquiry that I believe should never have been closed”, without casting final judgement one way or the other (Whitmore 2010:84).

Based on my citation of goddess invocations in the Aecerbot and “Field Remedy” charms, Hutton credits me with unknowingly having “filled the gap between the fourth and twelfth centuries by showing how […] a goddess figure was taken into Christian cosmology” (Hutton 2013:244-5).  I cannot accept this credit, though, as that gap was already closed at the time I was writing. Also, if those charms were taken as the sole “missing link”, it would misleadingly suggest a literary (elite-imposed) chain of transmission, rather than the popular chain of transmission traced by historians such as Carlo Ginzburg (1990) or Pamela Berger (2001). The primary mode in which goddess traditions survived throughout Europe was through the continued faiths of ordinary people.

The witches’ goddess Aradia, referred to in the ‘Witches Gospel’ collected by Charles Leland (1899) and taken up by Wicca, is likely a very late survival of a goddess tradition. The same name ‘Aradia’ is found in testimonies of early modern Italian benandanti, and Carlo Ginzburg traced this name back to ‘Hera-Diana’, which baffled Christian writers turned into ‘Herodias’ (Ginzburg 1990:104). This figure, who led nocturnal flights of magicians or witches, is attested under the names Herodias or Diana as early as 872, in legal fragments of Charles the Bald (Baroja 1968:60-61). There is no particular reason to believe that Leland (or his supplier) forged the ‘Gospel’ (pace Hutton10Hutton says that I never engage with his reasons for doubting the authenticity of Charles Leland’s Vangel (Hutton 2011:256). On the contrary, I exhaustively addressed each of his stated reasons in turn and showed them all to be groundless (Whitmore 2010:36-9). I invite anyone who doubts this to read Hutton’s arguments (1999:141-8) side-by-side with my own.); by every indication it represents a genuine survival of a longstanding goddess tradition. Exactly who this older Hera-Diana was is uncertain; unfamiliar woodland goddesses were often normalized to “Diana” name by Latin writers. Whether as one or many goddesses, “Diana” appears again and again across Western Europe, receiving veneration from the fourth century through to the height of the witch trials, including in northern Italy (MacMullen 1997:74-5), where the benandanti were active and the ‘Witches Gospel’ was later collected.


Hutton says: “[Whitmore] seems to assume that if medieval intellectuals incorporated classical Pagan deities into a Christian framework, they could not have been Christians.” Not at all. My point was that adherence to Christianity need not preclude one also adhering to a pagan (or pagan-derived) spirituality. I observe a repeated implication in Hutton’s writing that the two are mutually exclusive,11See, e.g. Hutton’s conclusion that the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, revering pagan deities, could not have been a pagan organisation because its founder felt that paganism addressed a deficiency in Christianity. Because Ernest Westlake stated that “one must be a good pagan before one can be a good Christian”, Hutton argues that he was demonstrating himself to be Christian, and therefore not really pagan (Hutton 1999:166). while my own view is that popular religion has a tendency towards syncretism, that pagan spirituality has historically been much more tenacious than he credits, and that paganism and Christianity have often coexisted together quite happily.

Hutton believes it was unfair of me to draw on Ramsay MacMullen’s 1997 book Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries in order to criticise his own book Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, which was published six years earlier in 1991. Hutton also points out that MacMullen was “reacting against a prevailing tendency among experts which [Hutton] was merely reflecting” (2011:256). But Hutton wasn’t just ‘reflecting’ prevailing tendencies; he was making a categorical statement about what counted as scholarship and what did not. He said that viewing the conversion of pagan Europe to Christianity as having had detrimental social effects was a “radical” notion, “thoroughly unacademic and embodied in works of fiction, tracts and radical periodicals rather than scholarly books.” The main tenets of this “unacademic” view he listed as being

that the emergence of Christianity as the dominant faith produced a deterioration in the position of women in society, a loss of respect for the natural environment, the destruction of many beautiful buildings and works of art and literature, a much more repressive attitude to human sexuality and a general narrowing and policing of intellectual horizons.” (1991:249-250)

My point was that such a view was not, in fact, beyond the academic pale; MacMullen, one of the most celebrated historians of the Roman Empire alive today, argued precisely this case, to devastating effect, in Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (1997). I made clear in my text that MacMullen’s book was written after Hutton’s, though perhaps I should also have cited one of his earlier works, such as his influential Paganism in the Roman Empire (1981), to demonstrate that such views already existed in respectable academic literature during the time Hutton was writing.

Early use of the pentagram

Hutton believes I have not stated anything new by saying the pentagram was known in the ancient world: he feels that this doesn’t contradict what he said, but merely restates it (2011:256). He has misread me. My point was that he claimed there was no consistency of meaning to the symbol prior to the twelfth century; I claim there was (Whitmore 2010:43-4).

Lindow Man

Hutton believes I am unaware of the outcome of his debate with Dr. J.D. Hill over the manner of death of the ‘Lindow Man’. In that debate, Hutton had felt that this famous bog body should no longer be considered a victim of ritual sacrifice; he also believed the body had been misdated to the Iron Age and was more likely from the Romano-British era, when human sacrifice would not have been tolerated. He says his arguments resulted in a “complete victory”, with Hill publicly conceding to him in The Times newspaper, and the museum altering its exhibit (Hutton 2011:257).

In fact, I have read the full published debate, and Hill makes no such concession, but staunchly maintains throughout that the most likely of the various possible explanations for Lindow Man’s death is still a ritual killing, and the most likely period of death is still either pre-Roman or in the initial decades of Roman control when old practices continued. I do accept, though, that Dr. Jody Joy, Hill’s successor at the museum, has updated the display to give more equal weighting to a variety of interpretations of cause of death, and has incorporated Hutton’s view (alongside others) in a museum pamphlet. Hutton could indeed count this a victory. I am delighted to have been able to add to this victory in a small way: the museum’s website still offers only a ritual interpretation of the death; when I pointed this out Joy assured me he would have it updated (Joy 2011, personal communication).

Scholarly methods

Hutton says that

[Whitmore] has carried out very little research into primary source material. What he employs instead is a number of secondary texts of varying quality and drawn from a wide span of time. Whenever he finds a passage in these which apparently contradicts me, he proclaims that I am proved wrong. (2011:253)

Hutton does not elaborate which texts he feels are unreliable, or why. The majority of my sources are reputable academic works, many of which Hutton himself has drawn from. Older texts are mostly employed either to demonstrate earlier scholarly attitudes, or to use materials that would have been available to Hutton in the 1990s, when he was writing Triumph. On quite a few points I provide quality documentary evidence to counter assertions for which he provides no evidence at all. In other cases I quote the same sources he has cited, to show that they actually don’t say what he says they say.

Nor do I uncritically pronounce Hutton wrong; I have tried to exercise caution, and in many cases I merely state that while the balance of evidence is not as he has portrayed it, no conclusion can yet be drawn. My intention was not to negate him on every point, but to re-evaluate likelihoods and show that other interpretations are possible. Regarding the absence of primary source material, that might have been a valid concern were I writing an original work of history. As it is, my book is a critique, drawn from plentiful existing scholarship and largely focused on Hutton’s own treatment of secondary sources. Primary research was not necessary to my arguments.

Hutton believes that most of my criticisms are “of detail, often trivial” (2011:253). On the contrary, I chose to ignore trivial errors and focus only on those I believe contribute to significant distortions of history. Taken together, my arguments are a systematic deconstruction of several of Hutton’s key theses, and they call whole chapters and major conclusions of his work into question. In history, where whole theories can sometimes hinge on a single scrap of evidence, the devil really is in the detail. By correcting a few “trivial” points, a whole different history can emerge.

Hutton says I make “no attempt to construct an alternative history of witchcraft and Paganism”, instead leaving Pagan witches to “go back to believing whatever they did before I wrote” (Hutton 2011:253). If I understand him, he is saying the purpose of my work is not to write history, but to unwrite it, leaving a vacuum within which any belief could be accommodated. This is simply not true. I take clear positions where the evidence supports it, and the conclusions I draw certainly don’t lend themselves to Margaret Murray’s interpretation or to “whatever” contemporary Witches used to believe: they are in many ways incompatible with the classically-formulated Wiccan foundation myth.

Nor is my work limited to simple critique. I feel I have, in a modest way, helped link together and flesh out some truly fascinating aspects of the history of European magic, folk custom and spirituality. As far as I can ascertain, some of my contributions are quite new. For instance, I stumbled across what may be the closest thing yet to a ‘smoking gun’ linking the ‘witches’ sabbath’ to actual physically-enacted folk customs: a remarkable similarity between the night-time revels of groups of young men and women in Calvinist Guernsey (as documented by Darryl Ogier, 1998) and descriptions of witches’ sabbaths from the same time and place (Whitmore 2010:73-5).

Errors in my work

Hutton identifies two genuine mistakes I made in Trials. Firstly, I accept his correction that Owen Davies was not his student (Hutton 2011:255). The second regards my account of an event in Inverkeithing, Scotland, in 1282, when a priest led young girls in a dance around the churchyard, carrying a carved phallus on a pole. Hutton had said there was no evidence of a more widespread custom, and suggested that the priest may simply have been demented. I consulted two sources for this episode, the historian Jeffrey Burton Russell (1972) and the (pseudonymous) Victorian writer Thomas Wright (1862, cited by Margaret Murray), but I did not realise that Wright had fabricated certain elements of his account which were absent from the original historical records: most importantly, that the priest had escaped sanctions by successfully arguing that this rite was in common usage in the country. I am grateful to Hutton for pointing out that this detail was a fabrication. Without it, my point, that priests were not always aloof from popular customs, is somewhat weakened, though I also referred to numerous other accounts of lewd dances and games at British and European churches throughout the Middle Ages, often with the participation of the clergy (Whitmore 2010:67-8, citing Tydeman 1979:15-16). During the popular Feast of Fools in France and Flanders, for instance, “The participants wore hideous and monstrous masks, fools’ clothing or female costume might be adopted, mock precentors were drenched with buckets of genuine water, lewd songs were sung, clerics danced, ran or leapt about the church, and similar antics were performed in the streets, where the clergy rode round in shabby carts using indecent gestures and filthy language to amuse the people.” (Tydeman 1979:17). Ribald games in churchyards are recorded as early as the sixth century, and in England prohibitions and denunciations against such games (and against the clergy’s participation in them) continued with regularity through to the 16th century (Tydeman 1979:16-18). William Tydeman suggests that because churches were deliberately built on sites of pagan worship, they became the venues where old customs continued to be “all too blatantly observed, even if purged of those features most repellant to the new faithful” (Tydeman 1979:13).

I have also previously acknowledged two other errors: Robert Mathiesen (in a blog comment at Aloi 2010) pointed out that I had mischaracterised a document of Charles Leland’s: I described it as “Leland’s transcription from the original [Italian] manuscript” of the “Witches Gospel” (Whitmore 2010:38), when it was in fact his handwritten copy prepared for publication, containing only brief Italian passages, which seem to be taken from a manuscript in Italian. Max Dashu, on her Veleda blog (Dashu 2011) pointed out that the prayer to Earth from a 12th-century Old English herbal is probably based on a Graeco-Roman stylistic model rather than native folk religion. My wording implied a native origin (Whitmore 2010:23).


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