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by Irving Hexham

The Invention of Modern Witchcraft

A surprising genealogy of neopaganism.

The Triumph
of the Moon:
A History of
Modern Pagan

Type "burning times" into any major Internet search engine and you will be engulfed by a host of websites all telling essentially the same tale about the persecution of ancient European pagans by fanatical Christians. According to an increasingly popular tale, over 9 million witches died horrible deaths between a.d. 1000 and 1800, most of them burnt at the stake. Most of these victims were women, who, it is said, were midwives or traditional healers feared by "the Church" that loathed them because they br /ought relief to suffering without the assistance of the clergy.

Over the last 25 years, this story of Christian bigotry and persecution has become received dogma on many university campuses. It is portrayed in numerous films and television series, and is increasingly believed by large numbers of ordinary people. For example, in one of my undergraduate classes on new religions last year, over a third of the students said that they joined the class to learn more about "the persecution of witches by Christians." When I questioned them about this, they explained that they originally learned about the murder of "the 9 million" either in high school or in women's studies classes at the university, and were all convinced that it was absolutely true.

What's more, even evangelical Christians who were taking the class confessed to believing that fanatical churchmen had murdered millions of witches in early modern times. The evangelical students argued that the murders were carried out by Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic fanatics who were "not true Christians at all." Then they went on to explain that they belonged to "true churches," like the Baptists, which were also persecuted by fanatics during this period. Otherwise, a majority of my evangelical Christian students accepted the story of fanatical Christian persecution of witches and other pagans lock, stock, and barrel.

When I mentioned the reaction of my students to colleagues at a large academic conference, I found that many of them had had similar experiences. Indeed, the myth of the "great witch craze," as it is known, has become a powerful tool for discrediting Christians and removing a Christian voice from the public square. This neopagan propaganda equates Christians with the Nazis and the murder of witches with the Holocaust.

The widespread acceptance of such claims makes the publication of Ronald Hutton's The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft very timely. A growing number of other books deal with modern neopaganism,1 but none comes anywhere near Hutton's work in scope, thoroughness, and overall competence.

Hutton, professor of history at the University of br /istol in England, has published a number of seminal books on social history, including his much acclaimed The Rise and Fall of Merry England (1994) and The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in br /itain (1996). In these earlier works Hutton established himself as the leading authority on br /itish folk customs and social rituals. He also showed quite conclusively that many "ancient traditions," once thought to have originated in the mists of the so-called Dark Ages among "simple peasants," were actually the invention of Tudor aristocrats seeking to amuse themselves. Later these "traditions" were copied by real peasants and "discovered" as "authentic folk customs" by 19th-century anti-Christian antiquarians anxious to discover a pre-Christian religious system in the br /itish past.

In his latest work, Hutton shows beyond any doubt that the alleged murder of 9 million pagans by a fanatical church has no basis in history. He also shows that the claim that modern pagans belong to ancient religious traditions is equally fanciful. While there certainly were deplorable cases of persecution and hysteria, relatively few people died in the so-called European witch crazes. And in many instances church leaders protected people accused of witchcraft against irrational mobs. Further, the ratio of men to women accused of witchcraft varied across Europe; more men than women were put on trial in some areas, such as Switzerland. Finally, when women were accused it was not by a patriarchal church but—most often—by other women, and very few midwives or healers were ever accused of witchcraft. Thus Hutton destroys some of the popular misconceptions about paganism and witchcraft through the presentation of solid historical evidence.

Before Christians give too big a cheer, however, they need to know that Hutton also ably argues that modern paganism is a genuine expression of spirituality, one which attracts many sincere people. He contends that most of the people who call themselves Wiccans practice a nature religion that, as they claim, seeks to do good and harm none. Equally important is his observation that many educated neopagan leaders now accept that their religion is a new religion and acknowledge that the myth of "the burning times" is the creation of modern radical feminism, not a historical fact.

Indeed, Hutton shows, neopaganism is far more deeply rooted in modern culture than most people recognize. According to his research, modern paganism began its complex development with the reaction of German Romantics to the spiritually barren rationalism of the Enlightenment. From Germany the Romantic vision quickly spread to England, where numerous writers embr /linkced it by idealizing either ancient Greece or the Middle Ages in poetry and fiction (Sir Walter Scott is a prominent example). In a surprising genealogy, Hutton recounts the development of this idealization of pre-industrial life through the influence of a number of writers, most of whom would not readily come to mind in connection with contemporary neopaganism—from highly popular writers such as Rudyard Kipling (1875-1936) and his friend Rider Haggard (1856-1925), for example, to more literary figures such as D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). Also appearing in Hutton's chronicle are seemingly Christian writers such as Charlotte br /ontë (1816-1855), whose works reveal a growing sympathy for nature as "a divine mother."

All of this literary activity set the stage for various social movements to gradually develop an explicit identity that linked them to a long-lost pagan past. Thus Hutton takes the reader through a wide-ranging discussion of traditional healers, fortunetellers, and secret societies, such as the Masons, Oddfellows, and Horseman's Word, all of which made incremental contributions to a growing pagan movement.

Equally important in Hutton's narrative is the role of explicitly anti-Christian scholars, such as Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), the author of the bestselling Golden Bough (1890-1915), whose work inspired Margaret Murray's (1862-1963) widely read account of witchcraft as the dominant religion of England until the Puritan revival in the 17th century. Frazer and his contemporary, Sir Edward Taylor (1832-1917), Hutton notes, set out to "discredit religion in general, and Christianity in particular." But instead of replacing what they regarded as religious superstitions with rational thought, they actually made significant contributions to the creation of a new paganism.

Another boost came from social movements reacting to the increasing urbanization of industrial society—including the Boy Scouts, whose founder, Lord Baden-Powell (1857-1941), was inspired by American ideas about woodcraft and a growing thirst for harmony with nature through outdoor living and similar recreations. Baden-Powell was a practicing Anglican, but he was a very unorthodox Christian who blended Christian beliefs with ideas about the spiritual value of living close to nature. Further, movements like the Scouts encouraged the belief that native peoples were somehow closer to God than corrupt urbanites.

Throughout the 19th century and well into the early 20th century, people who blended pagan ideals with unorthodox forms of Christian piety led the growing pagan movement. Some of these people, especially the healers, were actually quite orthodox and very pious. Others, such as Kipling and even the self-proclaimed white magician Dion Fortune (1890-1946), considered themselves Christian even though they rejected orthodoxy. Only a few were explicitly pagan.

All of this changed as the 20th century progressed. Here the dominant figures in the early development of neopaganism were the black magician (and son of wealthy Plymouth br /ethren parents), Aleister Crowley (1875-1947); the author Robert Graves (1895-1985); the archaeologist Margaret Murray; and the founder of modern Wicca, Gerald Gardiner (1884-1964)—all of whom were committed pagans. Interestingly, before becoming pagans all of them were committed rationalists.

The journey from literary figures and ritual magicians to the creation of a mass movement that is increasingly seen as an alternative to traditional Christianity is a complex one full of twists and turns. Hutton navigates the intellectual route that led to the spread of neopaganism with great dexterity. His conclusions are based on a careful weighing of written sources against numerous interviews with practicing pagans. (Indeed, he claims that he has interviewed far more contemporary br /itish pagans than any other scholar.) His book is far superior to any other I have read on the topic and rings true in terms of my own research in Glastonbury during the late 1960s in a way that the works of many other writers do not.

Toward the end of the book, Hutton traces the complex interaction between neopagans in the United Kingdom and the United States. Like his other explorations, this is not a simple story. Nevertheless, it is very revealing, particularly when he discusses the use—some might say hijacking—of neopaganism by radical feminists in the 1970s. Untangling this web allows Hutton to point out differences between the two movements and the ways in which each developed in a symbiotic relationship to the other. It also allows him to show how, for a short while, radical feminist ideas were embr /linkced by neopagans before the majority of them rejected radical feminism in favor of a more holistic spirituality.

At the end of this comprehensive study Hutton concludes that modern neopaganism, including Wicca, is an essentially br /itish invention. Here I think he overstates his case. To be sure, br /itish contributions to neopaganism are impressive. But, as he points out, German Romanticism, which he never really explores, inspired the early movement. Further, throughout the 19th century various neopagan groups developed in Germany, where they laid a foundation for the radical new religions that helped usher in National Socialism. And across the Atlantic, it is possible to argue that the common designation of writers such as Tom Paine as "deists" fails to take into account their involvement with "the religion of nature."

With these minor reservations it remains to be said that this is probably the most important study of a new religion to appear in the last 25 years. It deserves to be widely read and ought to become a standard text in Christian colleges and seminaries. Studying this work will help Christians understand neopaganism as well as providing them with an example of scholarship at its best.

Irving Hexham is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary and editor of Zondervan's Christian Travelers Guides series. His most recent book is Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel), edited with John Morehead and Steve Ross.

1. See Irving Hexham, "The New Age Is Over" (www.ctlibr /linkry.com/ct/1999/dec13/22.0.html), on the decline of the New Age movement and the rise of neopaganism.

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