Witches, Druids and Kings

Ronald Hutton. Witches, Druids and King Arthur. Hambledon, 2003.
This latest book by Ronald Hutton is essentially a collection of essays which tie up some of the loose ends of his earlier works on English paganism and the birth of the modern witchcraft religion. The topics covered include the various perceptions of King Arthur held by academic historians in the twentieth century, the growth of the mythology surrounding Glastonbury, the modem Druid movement and its various factions, how 'ancient myths and traditions' have often been manufactured in comparatively modem times, the survivals and rebirths of forms of classical paganism, and the ethics of sociological and anthropological investigation.

While, personally I found the chapters on classical paganism and its possible survival in the Middle East into the early medieval period, and its rediscovery in the Renaissance, slightly dull, much of the rest should be of interest to Magonia readers, particularly those interested in earth mysteries and the like.

It is perhaps the final chapter, essentially on the ethics of anthropological and sociological research which has the widest implications. Much of this is stimulated by the sense of betrayal felt by sections of the Pagan community over their treatment by the American writer Tiny Luhrmann, who seems to have used them and then moved on. In reaction to this, Hutton comes too close to arguing that only insiders and believers can provide a true insight into that movement, and that the anthropologist or sociologist must totally and permanently immerse themselves in this culture.

This can sound seductive, until you ask yourself does this mean that for example only Nazis could study the British National Party? Attacks on 'western humanist universals' also make me uneasy, because the alternative seems to be a humanity fractured into thousands of mutually uncomprehending ghettos where people are trapped by accident of birth, and no common human ethical language by which to denounce oppression and genocide. Hutton no doubt is pushed into the this position by his human sympathy with an often persecuted community. He notes the profound ignorance and fear which these groups often evoke among otherwise rational people.

Here again we see the universal human fear of the other. Some of this persecution is genuine, imagine what the outcry would be if your Internet search engine came up with a firewall which said "access denied Muslim/ Christian/ Jewish content", yet firewalls do come with "access denied occult/ cult content" (i.e. something which gets up the nose of the American religious right). That being said, I suspect that Hutton, dealing with today's eco-friendly feminist Wiccans, underestimates the confrontational and transgressional nature of some of the founders, whose use of ritual nudity in 1950's Britain, and festooning their homes with brooms, cauldrons and other imagery of the folk witch, was like the sporting of swastikas and Nazi regalia by some teenagers; an act of sticking two fingers up at mainstream society (no doubt in years to come disaffected young people from many different backgrounds will start adopting some of the accoutrements of radical Islam as an act of rebellion against mainstream society.)

Of course such actions always run the risk of provoking extreme reactions from those offended. – Peter Rogerson. Magonia 85, July 2004.

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