Bookstores across the world are filled with New Age books that of more pop than fact. Most texts deal more with fantasy than history. Sadly, even when history is taken seriously the result is from a flawed perspective or simply wrong. The last few years have given rise to a more academic study of Pagan history. Triumph of the Moon is one of these works. As the back cover claims, this is the first full scale study of English Paganism. This is a work of detail and solid academia.
Ronald Hutton explores this history of modern English Pagan witchcraft in great detail. Hutton separates the book into two specific sections. The Macrocosm section explores the roots of Paganism, language, magic, and structure. This section is where the bulk of research is placed. The tone is strictly historical, although the reader might find many of the poems of Aleister Crowely fodder for a blush or laugh. The second section, Microcosm, looks at the modern history of Paganism. Here Hutton takes on a more light hearted tone. His sections on Gardener read like a comedic soap opera. It is clear that Hutton has great respect for the Neo-Pagan spirituality. When combined both sections work to accurately explore the history of English Paganism.
This is a serious contribution to the historiography of Paganism and Witchcraft. Many readers may be shocked to find no references to massive numbers of deaths in the “Burning Times” or romantic notions of massive pre-Christian Pagan empire. Margaret Murray, Mircea Eliade, and Robert Graves have been heavily criticized for their research. Sadly their works are still cited as truth in numerous “Pagan/ Witchcraft 101” books. Hutton’s story is different from those found in “how-to” books located on the occult shelf. Hutton tells the story of the past two hundred years of Neo-Paganism. This is neither pro-Pagan propaganda, nor sensationalist ravings. While this is a story of a post modern religion, it is still history.
Hutton begins Triumph of the Moon with an exploration of English society between 1800 and 1940. These were the decades that gave birth to the revival of Paganism. Hutton explores various aspect of English society and offers the reader a new window into the beginning of Neo-Paganism. This section begins with a look at language. Hutton argues that a central issue in the rebirth was finding a language to explain itself. Terms like pagan, heathen, and witch all suffer from a lack of agreed upon meaning. Hutton does extensive research in the entomology for these words. Hutton sates that there were four different languages (discourses) that were used by Victorians to intellectually approach Pagans. This chapter is marked by a long list of Victorian literature, and the various meanings of Pagan they present.
The second and third chapters delve into the two most common Pagan deities, the Goddess and the God. Hutton again delves into the literature of the Victorian era. According to Hutton female divinity was altered over time. Goddesses, such as Diana, lost their traditional cultural characteristics and soon were linked with natural phenomenon. Through these changes she became linked with the moon, an image which the modern Pagan Goddess is an amalgamation of traits from Goddesses from many cultures. This new Goddess is linked with the natural cycles of the Earth, birth, life, and death. She is a mother, a provider, and a rebel against modernity.
Hutton’s examination of the God is really the story of Pan. Pan’s change into the God was more direct than that of the transformation of the Goddess. Pan began as a backwater god in ancient Greece. Early Christian literature cited Pan as the god of the natural world. As Christianity gained influence Pan was cast aside or killed, a metaphor for the demise of Pagan culture. Pan did not appear again until the Victorian era, where he was depicted as the friendly protector of the English countryside. His most famous appearance was in a chapter of Wind and the Willows where he is a protector of animals who uses magic to make them forget about his presence. Pan, being half beast, was also seen as a god of passion. Aleister Crowley, Victor Neuburg, and others composed powerful literary images of Pan as ravenous god of animal urges, and in some cases bisexuality. It was during the end of World War One that Pan’s popularity as a public figure decreased and his use as a private one grew. It was here that Pan was cut loose from his traditional roles and linked with the Goddess, becoming her consort and lover. Pan ceased to be a lecherous protector of hamlets; he had become the God of nature.
The next few chapters explore Neo-Paganism link with Freemasonry. Chapter 4 Finding a Structure traces the development and growth of Masonic groups throughout 18th century Europe. Hutton place Neo-Paganism as an outgrowth of Freemasonry. This chapter is filled with comparisons and similarities between the practices of Neo-Pagans and Masons. Hutton clearly states that witchcraft, and Neo-Paganism, is the latest outgrowth of Masonic mystery traditions.
Hutton then moves into a discussion about magic. Two chapters; Finding a High Magic and Finding a Low Magic are a study of ritual forms of magic and those who practiced them. Finding a High Magic is a history of the various occult movements of Europe. These rituals were a form of therapy designed to strengthen one’s spiritual potency. High magic was linked to the Supreme Being of Masonic belief, and through summoning angels, spirits, and elementals, one could achieve great inner development. Hutton considered this form of magic to be a creation of modernity. It was a reflection of the Western world’s growing political, social, and economic control of the world.
If high magic was crafting of the soul, low magic was a craft associated with the real world. Low magicians played roles as craftsmen and blackmailers. While many were herbalists, astrologers, treasure finders, and diviners who worked a trade in their communities, there were those who threatened to magical harm unless compensated. It was the later that were often hunted down by authorities and punished, either by official witch laws or mob justices. Witch laws Hutton argues, were not a constant threat to the “cunning folk” but were a consequence to those who ran afoul of the community or were simply unlucky. Hutton closes this chapter on an ironic note. Neo-Pagans identify themselves with the “cunning folk” when they bear much more similarity with the stereotypical images of witchcraft from the 19th century a confusion which plagues Neo-Pagans to this day.
The rest of the microcosm section explores folklore and the historical evidence for English witchcraft. Hutton takes his time and processes these sections with the same care he has taken in previous chapters. What Hutton argues in the closing chapters of the first section is that there were many individuals who had an interest in a revival of Paganism. Two impulses drove this revival. One hoped that Paganism would rise alongside Christianity offer new insights and refreshing belief. The second worked to separate Paganism from Christian ideals and revive the religion in its own right. It was out of the latter impulse that Neo-Paganism arose. Here Hutton transitions into a study of those people who were influential in the development of Neo-Paganism. This chapter is an excellent segues into the second half of Triumph of the Moon.
The second section concerns itself with the modern story of witchcraft. As would be expected these chapters concern themselves mostly with Gerald Gardener and Wicca. Hutton portrays Gardener as a feisty rascal who managed to control the history of his religion right up to the end of his life. Hutton’s main focus is not who Gardener was, but where his witchcraft originated. Hutton does not offer firm answers. What Hutton does offer is a complicated tales of Gardeners various relationships with European magicians and organizations. The most interesting aspect of Gardener’s biography explores the controversial relationship between Gardner and Crowley. While Hutton does present excellent research he fails to find a verifiable source of Gardner’s Witchcraft. He mentions in closing that even if Gardener fabricated Wicca himself it does not invalidate the religion.
The following chapter explores the hostility and prejudice that Neo-Paganism faced during the modern era. Hutton details how many occult writers focused on witchcraft as a pact with the Devil. Black magicians were a common antagonist in many publications. Pagan (referring to pre-Christian peoples) religions were distorted, seen as dark primal faiths that featured human sacrifices to dark inhuman gods. H.P. Lovecraft, a writer typical of this genre, created an entire pantheon of dark, terrible beings that were worshiped by savage non-white pagans. Race, belief, and evil were linked. Other magicians also looked upon witchcraft as an evil practice. Rollo Ahmed in Black Magic explores a history of magic that reflected the philosophy of Dennis Wheatly, a bigoted view where black peoples and black magic were one and the same. Hutton closes this section with a series of personal anecdotes. He tells of various conversations with friends where, upon hearing of his interest in the occult, open up about their personal experiences with the supernatural. All of these individuals claim to have “powers” but seems shocked and offended by any connection between their abilities and Pagan religion. Even in mid twentieth century England fear and misunderstanding prevail. This is further explained by Hutton as a side effect of the decline of organized religion and the rise of personal faith.
The follow five chapters detail Neo-Paganism maturation as a global faith. While these chapters do cover Alexandrian Wicca and the relatively unknown Robert Cochrane, the most important chapter deals with Neo-Paganism and the United States. Hutton states that while the United States had its own indigenous Pagan revival it was not until the 1970’s that American became the center to Neo-Paganism. Hutton’s major focus is the effects of Feminism on the Craft. Hutton claims that the overestimated numbers of deaths in with trials were the result of Feminists attempting to create a crime on the same level of the Holocaust. Also present are the creation of darker aspects of the Goddess under Feminists such as Starhawk and Z. Budapest. Their Goddess was a dark avenging figure who was more linked to Greek interpretations of Diana rather than traditional concepts of the Goddess. The Goddess became a destroyer and the God was the target of her destruction. Hutton’s opinion of American Feminism is not negative as critics argue. In closing this chapter he praises how American Feminist history was a key factor in brining Neo-Paganism into an academic discussion. He closes with a story of a young woman named Leslie, who reclaims her life and self image through Neo-Paganism and a relationship with the Goddess.
Hutton’s final chapter is a look at modern Pagans. This chapter is a collection of Hutton’s personal observations regarding Paganism he met while researching Triumph of the Moon. This is a heavy chapter explores Hutton’s take on Neo-Paganism, what it is/isn’t, and its status as a religions. Hutton’s five observations are as follows. First, Paganism aims to draw out humanity’s innate divinity. Second, it abolishes the Western distinction between magic and religion. Third, Paganism is a set of mystery religions. Fourth, the essence of Paganism lies in the creative power of ritual. Fifth, it is protean and eclectic. The bulk of the chapter is spent explaining these points. Hutton also explores the nature of the relationship between the New Age movement and Neo-Paganism. Hutton’s makes it clear that while these two movements share many common factors they are separate system of belief. Finally Hutton details the differing opinions concerning Neo-Paganism as a religion. Hutton argues the Neo-Paganism presents a challenge to traditional definitions of religion. Again limitations of language make it difficult to accurately define Neo-Paganism. What can be determined is that Neo-Paganism is a truly post-modern faith one that will require academics to alter their concepts of religion. Hutton closes with the hope that Triumph of the Moon will help scholars in making these changes.
Triumph of the Moon is an excellent study of Neo-Paganism. It approaches the subject with respect and offers excellent support for its claims. Most Neo-Pagan scholars approve of Hutton’s work. He has done wonders in clearing up many misconceptions that academics and Neo-Pagans themselves have about the religion. Unlike many previous works of Pagan scholarship Hutton’s work strike scholars and laymen alike. Many prominent online Pagan communities praise Hutton. They find his research sound and his validation of Neo-Paganism as a religion refreshing. Those few bits of criticism are the result of those Neo-Pagans who follow Margaret Murray’s theories concerning wide spread “witch-cults”. While an academic Hutton is also a practicing Neo-Pagan and an active member of Britain’s Neo-pagan community. Hutton’s major contribution to the study of Neo-Paganism is to free the faith from a reliance on false histories. He is not robbing Neo-Paganism of anything. He is actively trying to find a history for the movement and give it a sense of continuity. This is a faith validated by the spiritual experiences of individuals. A factual historiography will not lessen these experiences, merely give them context. Triumph of the Moon is a valued addition to Neo-Pagan scholarship, one the gives the movement a sense of history, as well as a sense of self. In short this work is an excellent introduction to Neo-Pagan studies and should be herald as the “go-to” work in the field.