With his books on (to give only a selection) druids, witches and the ritual year, Ronald Hutton has established himself as a leading authority on paganism. A feature of all his work in this area is the consideration not only of ancient paganism – about which, in the British Isles, we know remarkably little, mostly from archaeology rather than written sources – but also of the modern kind, about which we know a great deal, from documentary evidence and living informants. His new book may be seen as a courteous but firm reproof to those who, like me, brought up on Arthur Machen, John Buchan, Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Renault and Henry Treece, not to mention H.P. Lovecraft, got the wrong idea a long time ago and have been reluctant to abandon it. The wrong idea is the ‘widely held belief that the ancient pre-Christian religions of Europe … had in some form and by some definition survived beyond the introduction of Christianity.’
The evidence for survival was and is remarkably various. One example is the Cerne Abbas Giant, the 180-foot chalk figure with a thirty-foot erect phallus, dug deep into the chalk at what must have been an impressive cost in man-hours. A quarter of a mile away there lay, until the Reformation, one of the largest and richest abbeys in England. If the figure was a prehistoric image of a fertility god, as was generally supposed, why did the monks tolerate it, unless there were some vestiges of paganism in the area which they were reluctant to challenge? More recently, scholars have argued that the giant was actually carved in the 17th century as a political caricature, and has nothing to do with paganism; thermoluminescence tests have failed to settle the matter.
If the Cerne Abbas Giant isn’t a pagan survival, what is? It has been suggested that the story of Lady Godiva’s naked ride has its origins in a cult of a horse-riding goddess. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, performed every September by men wearing reindeer antlers, has similarly been claimed as an ancient relic. Dating has confirmed that the antlers are a thousand years old, but, as with the giant, there’s no record of the dance taking place before the 17th century, and since there were never domesticated reindeer in England, the antlers must have been imported. The case for survivals isn’t helped by the spurious claims made for any kind of non-rational or superstitious behaviour, such as throwing coins into a fountain or throwing spilled salt over your left shoulder.
Hutton argues that we need to distinguish between ‘surviving paganism’, for which we have little or no evidence, and ‘pagan survivals’, which he defines as ‘a custom, belief or object taken into Christian religion … from ancient paganism and redeployed in the new religious context’. An example of the latter is ‘well-dressing’, the habit of decorating wells and springs with flowers or prayers tied to bushes – offerings that were once directed to water goddesses. But the boundaries of ‘pagan survival’ are blurred. Many things that were cited by folklorists a century ago as vestiges of prehistoric ritual, like the mummers’ play and the hobby-horse dance, appear on closer inspection to be ‘19th-century popular festivity’. Nevertheless, Hutton concedes that there are a number of ‘direct lines of connection between ancient paganism and the present’. Among them are ‘seasonal rituals’, described in detail in his earlier book Stations of the Sun. These survived because they were not ‘mere entertainment but served what seemed to be a vital purpose’: blessing, protecting animals and their keepers, fostering community spirit. Other such connections come from the ‘popular service magic’ once carried out by the ‘cunning folk of English tradition’, connected to a widespread belief in supernatural beings such as fairies and elves. None of this, however, looks anything like a religion, a distinct ‘paganism’. Such a thing only took shape in the 20th century.
Hutton suggests that there’s a simple explanation. In 1810, 80 per cent of England’s population lived in the countryside; a hundred years later, 80 per cent lived in towns. The result was that many literate town-dwellers found the countryside in some way unsettling, as well as backward. James Frazer insisted that ‘the peasant remains a pagan and a savage at heart.’ Yeats said much the same but more politely: ‘Educated Ireland … does not understand how the old religion, which made of the coming and going of the greenness of the woods and the fruitfulness of the fields a part of its worship, lives side by side with the new religion.’ Nature, witches and matriarchy formed a complex of which many disapproved, and it was pushed into remote places. Who knew what those peasants were doing in the dark?
Are there really serious grounds, then, for investigating ‘pagan goddesses in Christian Europe’? Hutton offers four test cases: Mother Earth, the Fairy Queen, the Lady of the Night and the Celtic Cailleach, with a coda on a non-goddess, the Green Man. Setting the pattern for the book, he finds no evidence that Mother Earth featured in classical paganism. Figures like Natura were known, but only as allegorical abstractions. In the 19th century, however, European scholars, seeking proof of the existence of an ancient monotheism, argued that there had been a single great goddess, of whom the many female figurines being discovered in prehistoric sites were avatars. The idea was given strong support by Arthur Evans, whose excavations at Knossos unearthed the Minoan civilisation of ancient Crete with its frescoes of bare-breasted women. He believed that all the images he identified as goddesses were aspects of a single great female deity – one form of which was the Mesopotamian mother goddess. Evans’s theory was popularised by Robert Graves, who published The White Goddess in 1948, followed a year later by Seven Days in New Crete, a novel set in a matriarchal religious utopia. In the early 1950s the modern religion of Wicca, introduced by the retired civil servant Gerald Gardner, took the Great Mother as its principal female deity.
Unfortunately, there’s no evidence for any of this. In the last twenty years, the idea of a Neolithic great goddess has been attacked by academics: Hutton directs us to what must be one of the longest footnotes ever, note 116 in his book Pagan Britain, which lists some sixty such refutations. It seems that the many prehistoric female figurines may not be of goddesses at all, let alone depictions of the same goddess. There are particular doubts about some of the evidence: the Neolithic ‘shrine’ found with a female figurine, altar and collection vessel in 1939 in Grimes Graves, Norfolk, was discovered only after the director of the excavation had cleared the area of other archaeologists. There was a sculptor on his team, and the figurine looked suspiciously new.
The Fairy Queen, meanwhile, is a largely British phenomenon. The figure first appeared in French literary romances, and was then taken up by British writers, culminating in Edmund Spenser’s great poem of the 1590s. Belief in the Fairy Queen seems to have been especially prominent in Scotland. Andro Man of Aberdeen gave a detailed description of her at his trial for witchcraft in 1597, and Isobel Gowdie of Auldearn made an even longer confession in 1662. He was publicly strangled and his body was burned; she seems to have suffered the same fate. Susan Swapper, of Rye in Sussex, was sentenced to death in 1607 for similar claims, but she was pardoned four years later, because in English law there had to be proof that a witch had actually harmed someone. There was a craze for tiny fairies in the early 1600s – Michael Drayton’s poem Nymphidia was published in 1627 – and the idea of the Fairy Queen had become familiar enough to be picked up by con men. In 1613 two of them convinced a servant girl that if she sat naked all night with a pot of earth in her lap, the Fairy Queen would turn it into gold by morning – which gave them the chance to steal her clothes and money.
Zero out of two for pagan goddesses so far, but the Lady of the Night is different in being ‘the focus of a genuinely popular belief system’. She shows up first in a denunciation written around 900 by Abbot Regino of Prüm in the central Rhineland. His Episcopi censures ‘wicked women’ who ‘profess that during the night they ride on certain beasts with the goddess Diana’ and ‘obey her directions as those of a mistress’. It seems likely that Diana got the blame because she’s the only pagan goddess named in the New Testament. Clerical paranoia, then, but there’s evidence that belief in night-roaming female spirits was widespread in southern Germany, northern Italy and the Alps. Such spirits were thought to visit homes, and food was often left out for them. Later accounts name the lady as Holda, or sometimes Percht, and give her a long iron nose. Disapproving clerics identified her as a strix or striga, a Germanic vampire who preyed only on adult males, but on the whole the phenomenon was seen as fairly harmless. The penances prescribed for believing in the ‘blessed ladies’ were light, until the witch craze took hold, undergoing its ‘lethal transmutation’ into satanic conspiracy from around 1420 and reaching its peak around 1600.
Once again, the Lady of the Night doesn’t seem to have been a pagan goddess. But the possibility was seized on by Charles Godfrey Leland, an American folklorist. His Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches, published in 1899, professes to be the gospel of a previously unknown witch-religion practised by a secret society in northern Italy; Leland claimed he had been given the text by an Italian magician. It’s still in print, but no trace of the religion, the society or the magician has ever been found. Aradia looks very like a fake, or perhaps a piece of wish fulfilment, but as with the Great Mother, its ‘gospel’ has been taken up by Wicca.
Hutton tells a similar story about his final test case, the Cailleach. Some scholarly folklorists still believe she is a Gaelic great goddess, or a Christianisation of a pagan goddess representing the sovereignty of Ireland. But the Irish cailleach means ‘old woman’, so the many tales that have been collected in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, and the many associated place names, may not even refer to the same person or creature. Is ‘the Cailleach’ the memory of an ancient goddess, or are the references merely to ‘a cailleach’ – an old woman, an ogress, a nature-spirit? Sometimes the reference is to the Cailleach Béara or Cailleach of Bheara, which may actually refer to an individual. But does this figure date back to pre-Christian times? Hutton argues that cailleach derives from the Latin pallium – ‘p’ regularly becomes ‘c’ in Old Irish – so the word originally meant ‘veiled woman’ or ‘nun’. One very early text refers to the ‘Cailleach Bérre bán’, ‘the white nun of Beare’, which doesn’t strengthen the case for her being a pagan goddess. Rather, she seems to be a composite figure, a giantess associated in folk tales with winter and often seen as malign. Only in the 1920s was it first suggested that she might have been a pan-Gaelic goddess, after which she was quickly assimilated to the Neolithic great goddess theory as popularised by Evans and Graves. In short, the Celtic Cailleach, as a goddess of the ancient Gaels, seems to be ‘a creation of modern folklorists’.
The same is true of the idea that the Green Man is derived from an ancient fertility cult. We owe this to Lady Raglan, a prominent member of the Folklore Society, who in the 1930s noted the preponderance in medieval churches of carved decorations featuring a human head with leaves surrounding or sprouting from it. Not unreasonably she saw this as a fertility symbol, and cited it as evidence for the theory – by this time ‘something of a scholarly orthodoxy’, Hutton writes – that ‘an unofficial paganism persisted through the Middle Ages alongside the official Christian religion.’ Raglan was clearly influenced by Frazer’s The Golden Bough, at a time when it was already becoming unfashionable (at least among scholars). Yet her short article had a considerable impact: the idea was picked up by medievalists, novelists, the composer Harrison Birtwistle and the BBC, which broadcast a programme called The Return of the Green Man in 1990.
Since then folklore studies has become more professional – without, regrettably, finding much of a place within academia. Hutton points out that many of the notions he discusses come from people with no background in anthropology or comparative mythology. Margaret Murray, the author of The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), was an Egyptologist; Lady Raglan relied heavily on a study by a retired meteorologist. Still, amateurs or no, figures like Raglan, Graves and Leland have found a substantial readership. Many of us still want to believe in grandiose theories about pagan survivals.
Hutton concludes by pointing out that there have been two main responses to the scholarly hypotheses which emerged in the first half of the 20th century. One has been to examine, deconstruct and reject them, which on the whole is what he has done. The other has been to appropriate and remodel them, the approach taken by followers of Wicca. Both responses have value, Hutton argues, and the one should not be seen as excluding the other. The Green Man may be pagan in origin, and may also have had significance for medieval Christians. But today he is ‘an effective enough representation of a divinity-like being who has appeared in response to modern needs’.
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