|Ben Whitmore, the New Zealander responsible for |
authoring the book I am reviewing here.
Copyright Wikipedia User Fuzzypeg.
Ben Whitmore, Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft: A Critique of Ronald Hutton’s “The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft” (Auckland, New Zealand: Briar Books, 2010), 100 pp, $ 11.00, soft cover
In the field of Pagan Studies, Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford University Press, 1999) stands out as perhaps the most seminal tome yet published. No one before Hutton had published anything like a major examination into the history and development of the Pagan Witchcraft religion, and nor had any academic publisher consented to releasing a book on this peculiar subject. Hutton literally laid the groundwork from which all scholars since - both academic and independent - have been able to build upon. In recognition of this magnificent feat of scholarship, the British academics Dave Evans and Dave Green produced an edited anthology entitled Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon (Hidden Publishing, 2009) to mark its tenth anniversary, which brought together papers by a wide array of different scholars working in a variety of academic disciplines.
Hutton’s work challenged many of the old dogmas fervently held by members of the Pagan community, pointing as it did to the idea that the Pagan Craft was a twentieth-century creation rather than the continuation of an archaic Murrayite Witch-Cult. As news of the book and its conclusions spread, many Pagans came to accept the Huttonite view of Wiccan history, accepting that theirs was a new religious movement and not the continuation of an ancient pagan religion, as the Murrayite theories maintained. Others however were not so convinced. Certain voices within the Pagan community, operating in magazines, on internet forums and even on Wikipedia, disputed Hutton’s interpretation of history, and downright criticized some of his positions. They clung to the idea that contemporary Pagan Witchcraft was solidly connected to earlier forms of witchcraft, in particular that found in Early Modern Europe, and that through this a pedigree could be traced all the way back to pre-Christian Europe.
|Whitmore's Trials of the Moon,|
self-published under his imprint of
Briar Books. Copyright of Whitmore.
Ben Whitmore’s Trials of the Moon is the first book to appear from the ranks of the Pagan community to openly challenge Hutton’s theories regarding Wiccan history directly. Its author is a practicing Alexandrian Witch and Co-Mason living in Auckland, New Zealand, who for a number of years has been putting forward his viewpoints on the internet to a rather mixed reception. This self-published book, which is his first publication, is an attempt to provide a wider outlet for such criticisms of Hutton’s Triumph, although at only 100 pages, it could be described as being little more than an extended pamphlet.
Entertainingly titled, Whitmore’s book quite literally tries to put Hutton ‘on trial’, scrutinizing some of his more minor claims in an attempt to expose holes in Hutton’s arguments. Whitmore starts by offering some praise for the eminent historian, commending him for his pioneering work, but within a few pages he has changed his tone, and instead argues that whole chapters of Hutton’s Triumph are either simply misleading or downright wrong. He examines the work of historians who have specialized in the witch trials such as Bengt Ankarloo and Alan Macfarlane and argues that Hutton has misrepresented them, thereby intentionally dismissing the notion that the witch trials may have been influenced by a substratum of shamanic belief in Europe (as has been put forward by the likes of Carlo Ginzburg, of whom Whitmore is clearly a big fan). He then proceeds to challenge Hutton’s very definition of the word ‘witch’ before moving on to condemn Hutton’s assertion that there was no singular great goddess in pre-Christian Europe and that the figure of Pan was only a minor deity in the ancient world. He chastises Hutton for his (pioneering) understanding of the British cunning-folk, primarily armed with the criticism that the distinction between cunning-folk and witches was not always as clear cut as Hutton makes out. Following on from this, he argues that Hutton has wilfully demonized such figures as Margaret Murray and Charles Leland in order to better criticize their work, a rather serious charge that I do not believe lives up to scrutiny.
Whitmore’s general method throughout the book is to read a variety of academic texts upon the subjects that Hutton discusses in the first half of his Triumph, find arguments or information that differs from that supplied by Hutton, and then highlighting such disagreements, each time presenting it as a flaw in Hutton’s reasoning. This nitpicking characterizes the entire work, and although Whitmore certainly does make some good points, highlighting where Hutton may have made some minor errors, it certainly comes across as more than a little pedantic. What Whitmore apparently fails to take into account is that Hutton is not an expert in ancient Greek religion, British folk magic, or the Early Modern witch trials, and that therefore such mistakes or differences in opinion with other academics working in these fields are only to be expected. Hutton’s Triumph was primarily a study of Wiccan history, with the professor only delving into these other areas outside of his speciality in order to provide a backdrop to the esoteric scene in which Wicca developed.
Turning to the penultimate chapter of Whitmore’s book however is somewhat more unsettling. Rather than making specific criticisms of Triumph as the rest of the book does, it comprises entirely of Whitmore delving into any and all criticisms of Hutton as a person, bringing up attacks on his earlier work The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1991) by Goddess Worshippers and then proceeding to list a number of published disagreements that he has had with both practicing Pagans and academics over the years. A case could certainly be made that this leaves the realm of scholarly criticism and enters that of character assassination. It seems clear from this that Whitmore is not content with simply disputing some of Hutton’s points; he is intent on discrediting the man and his academic credentials, at least in the eyes of the Pagan community.
One of the most telling things about the argument in this work is that at the end of it, Hutton’s basic narrative of Wiccan history that he puts forward in Triumph of the Moon remains intact in its entirety. Whitmore has highlighted some minor errors in Hutton’s work (and missed others that have come to my attention) yet these are to be expected in any such work of scholarship that covers and synthesizes information from such a wide variety of topics. I would not claim that Whitmore’s work is without merit, but its polemical nature, and the way in which it goes about attempting to discredit Hutton, are neither scholarly nor gentlemanly.
It is of note that Hutton has publicly responded to Whitmore’s criticisms in an article entitled ‘Writing the History of Witchcraft: A Personal View’, published in Volume 12.2 of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies (2010). In this strongly worded response, Hutton clearly voices his view that the book is little more than a personal attack upon himself, designed to make him out to be an “unscrupulous and deceitful individual motivated by a concealed hostility to Paganism” (p. 253), a charge Hutton emphatically denies. A famously mild mannered and level headed individual, Hutton is not known for such strong and defensive responses, and it is clear that Whitmore’s work has hit a nerve. This is understandable, although in this reviewer’s opinion his criticism of Whitmore comes across as stronger than is perhaps necessary.