Response to Peg Aloi’s review of Trials of the Moon

Peg Aloi published a review of my book Trials of the Moon (Whitmore 2010) in 2011 in The Pomegranate volume 12 number 2. She had earlier published a “brief critique” (2010) which I declined to publish a response to, as I felt it grossly misrepresented the content and arguments of my book. Her formal review, though still largely an attack on my supposed motives and lack of credentials, does contain some more cautiously framed arguments on points of scholarship. I respond to each of those scholarly arguments here.

  • Aloi criticises me for not researching primary sources, “even once”. But this was hardly necessary to what I was trying to achieve. My critique centres around Hutton’s divergence from and misuse of other secondary scholarly sources, so it is these I refer to.
  • Aloi describes as “vague and outrageous” my claim that “Large sections of Hutton’s book—entire chapters even—are one-sided, misleading or plain wrong”. She observes that this claim (made in the opening pages) is insufficiently footnoted to stand on its own. It would be indeed, were it not then expanded and substantiated with careful references throughout the following seventy-eight pages.
  • Regarding Gerald Gardner’s assertion to Aleister Crowley that he was a Royal Arch Mason—which Hutton disbelieves—Aloi incorrectly states that I attempted to prove that this assertion was true. I did not. I simply pointed out that this claim of Gardner’s is more plausible than Hutton allows, and that Hutton’s scepticism stems from a misunderstanding of Masonic degree structure. Aloi then, surprisingly, questions whether Gardner even made this claim, and proposes a novel theory that Crowley, who she says was a notorious liar, could have invented that part of their conversation. This is remotely possible, but I cannot conceive what Crowley’s reason for such a fabrication in his own personal diary might be, and from Hutton’s account of this story (1999:218-9) I believe he and I are in agreement that Gardner did indeed present himself in this way.
  • Aloi objects that I should properly credit Hutton for revealing “a citation from the late modern period for one of the most fundamental aspects of Wiccan ritual”: Eliphas Levi’s use of the pentagram in summoning and banishing the elements of the four quarters. This never occurred to me, as Levi’s system is famous among occultists, and its connection with Wicca, via the Golden Dawn’s Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, has (to my impression) been both obvious and well-known in the magical community for decades.
  • Aloi believes I have misunderstood Hutton’s position on ancient goddesses, and that I am wrong to assume “that Hutton was saying there had never been any temples built, or any worship accorded, to any Great Goddess or Triple Goddess [of antiquity], ever.” As astonishing as it may sound, I think this is exactly what Hutton was saying. First, let’s be clear on terms: when Aloi says ‘Great Goddess’, I believe she means a goddess regarded as embodying all other goddesses; and a triple goddess is one deity comprehending three aspects (as opposed to a partnership of three goddesses, such as the Greek Fates or Graces). These were Hutton’s definitions. Now, Hutton explicitly states 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). This seems to be a clear dismissal of there having been any antique Great Goddess. Hutton is a little more round-about in stating his position regarding triple goddesses, but still makes himself quite clear. The only Triple Goddess he mentions is one he characterises as distinctively modern: the deity imagined by Jane Harrison and further developed by Robert Graves into her familiar form. Despite Harrison’s and Graves’ claims of historical precedents for their deity, Hutton concludes 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 (pp. 36-7, 41-2). The whole thrust of the chapter containing these statements is to demonstrate that modern Neopagan conceptions of the Goddess, though they draw on some ancient images, are essentially very different to the deities of the ancient world. Hutton sees their real origin as being in Romantic poetry and Christian imagery. So according to him, Harrison’s triple goddess 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). In other words, the Virgin Mary was unconsciously projected onto antique mythology, then expanded from the two aspects of virgin and mother into a trinity. I do not feel I have misinterpreted Hutton’s position at all; he has discounted the historical validity of triple goddesses, and instead proposed that they emerged from modern responses to Christian myth. I feel this is what his chapter conveys, both on casual and close reading. Neither has Hutton taken the opportunity to correct me on my interpretation. Yes, these are astonishing claims for him to make, but they are no more astonishing than other claims he makes within that same chapter, or elsewhere in his books.
  • Aloi misrepresents my work on a number of other points, casting it in a unflattering light. These points can briefly be corrected as follows: I do not call Hutton a liar or a fraud, as she claims; nor do I praise him as having a “superb knowledge of history”. I do not claim to set myself up as his successor (in fact, I present my book as a call for more and better scholarship to supersede both Hutton’s work and mine [Whitmore 2010:84]). I do not claim to prove Gardner’s involvement in either the hypothesised New Forest coven or in Co-Freemasonry. I do not claim to prove that Hutton is wrong regarding Dorothy Clutterbuck’s lack of involvement with witchcraft, or that her “occult-fascinated circle of friends” makes her a witch; and neither does Philip Heselton: both of us only present this as a possibility. Aloi’s fixation with hard proofs not only misrepresents the nuanced approach I took through most of the book, but misses a point I tried to state very clearly in Trials: that proofs in many instances are impossible, and that I have necessarily left a number of questions open:
As suggestive as all this may be, my intention … is not to champion any particular theory regarding the origins of modern witchcraft. I am limiting myself for the time-being to critiquing Hutton’s account and providing counter-examples, but not proposing an alternative history of my own. I hope merely to re-open lines of inquiry that I believe should never have been closed, and to defend those who find themselves marginalised for questioning orthodoxy—which is what Hutton’s work has become. (Whitmore 2010:84)

I also reiterated this point to Aloi in a private email exchange before she began writing her formal review:

… you seem to think I am intending to prove a number of things which I am not. Perhaps this is understandable: I offer a certain amount of evidence, that you might think is headed towards me drawing some conclusion, but I don’t actually pass judgement. I use words ‘may’, ‘could’ etc. quite a lot in the book, and in the conclusion I explicitly state that I am not attempting to advance my own account of the history of Wicca and paganism, and that I feel it would be premature to pronounce judgements in a number of areas. But perhaps you still interpreted me as attempting to offer proof. I do in some areas, don’t get me wrong, but in many other areas I don’t. (Pers. corr. 27/1/2011, in response to Aloi’s “brief critique”, 2010)

Yet she persists in misconstruing several of my arguments as attempted proofs. Nonetheless, she has apparently accepted other corrections I pointed out in my email, as she has refrained from repeating a number of earlier misrepresentations she made of my book (Aloi 2010). For that I thank her.


Aloi, Peg (2010) “Trials of the Moon: A Brief Critique” [weblog article]. Retrieved 7/7/2011.

Aloi, Peg (2011) “Review: Trials of the Moon” in The Pomegranate vol. 12 no. 2.

Hutton, Ronald (1999) The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitmore, Ben (2010) Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft. Auckland: Briar Books.

2 thoughts on “Response to Peg Aloi’s review of Trials of the Moon”

  1. Wade MacMorrighan

    RE: “Aloi criticizes me for not researching primary sources, ‘even once’.”

    I would argue that she’s flat-out wrong, since what is the “Greek Magical Papyri in Translation”, the “Orphic Hymns”, the “Theogony”, Plutarch’s “On Isis & Osiris”, Tacitus “Germania”, Charles Singer’s translated prayer to the Earth-Mother, the “Âbân Yast” verses and so on and so forth, but primary source-material that scholars routinely quote from?!

    She clearly seems to be misrepresenting you, and doesn’t seem to have read your work closely enough.

    It’s lovely to see your virtual presence again, my friend. Take care of yourself, and your wee one (who may not be so “wee” anymore)!

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