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Historians vs. History

This post was written by Donald Michael Kraig
on January 15, 2013 | Comments (10)

Arthur Balfour (1848–1930) was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1902–1905. He was the UK’s Foreign Secretary from 1916–1919.

Arthur Balfour

He is perhaps best known for the Balfour Doctrine of 1917, which stated that the British government believed the Jews should have a national homeland in the Middle East. That doctrine resulted in the birth of the state of Israel in 1948. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about…

You see, I happen to really like a quote he made. Chances are we’ve all heard the saying, “History repeats itself.” Balfour disagreed. He said:

History does not repeat itself. Historians repeat each other.

This statement has come to be known as the “first rule of history.” The philosopher and writer George Santayana (1863–1952) also had a quote that many people know:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

An earlier philosopher of the Enlightenment, whose writings heavily influenced the founders of the U.S., was François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778). Better known by his pen name, Voltaire, he wrote:

I disagree strongly with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Portrait of Voltaire at age 24
from the Workshop of Nicolas de Largilliåere

I think it is possible to form a sort of amalgamation of all three, combined with a modern understanding of beliefs, to come up with a new saying:

Historians earn reputations by selectively repeating each other,
and they will defend to the death
your right to be wrong
by denouncing you
in an attempt to support their careers, beliefs, and agendas.

It is important to understand that history is not based on facts. History is based on the ideas and beliefs of historians. For example, the history of Masada, where 15,000 Roman troops were needed to overcome less than 1,000 Jewish men, women, and children, is almost entirely based on the writing of one man, Josephus. His story was that the rebels committed suicide rather than surrender. Recent excavations indicate that’s not what happened. So why did the historian Josephus lie? It’s been suggested that because he had been Jewish, he was presenting the story in a way that Romans could understand, believing they highly valued personal sacrifice.

Another example consists of the stories of the terrible and wild men and women of the Island of Britain who, naked, would paint themselves blue and insanely attack the superior and civilized Romans. The source of this history comes from one man, the person who was in charge of the Roman troops, Julius Caesar.

Or just think of how the history books would be different today if Germany had won WWII. Even former U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote,

History is written by the victors.

So what does all this have to do with magick?

I Was There

For about two decades following WWII, there were very few people involved in magick of any sort. Slowly, however, magick and Paganism came out of the night and started to see the light of day. The Golden Dawn was virtually gone. I saw people all over the world bring it new life. I saw people begin to practice magick. I remember when there were literally less than ten books on contemporary Witchcraft and Wicca. I saw it evolve. In fact, it has evolved so much that we can now talk about the history of contemporary Western Paganism and Witchcraft. I don’t need history books to tell me what happened. I was there. I saw the modern evolution.

But here’s the thing: I’ve seen it from my point of view. All sensory input—what we see, hear, feel, small, and taste—is filled with deletions, distortions and generalizations. That’s neither good nor bad, it simply is. A problem can develop if we don’t recognize this as true. If we think our view of what happens is not filled with deletions, distortions and generalizations, we tend to present what we think happened as objective truth. And while it is 100% true to us, another version, from a different point of view, is 100% true to someone else. There is an expression for this in Neuro-Linguistic Programming: the map is not the territory. Your map, my map, everyone’s metaphoric map can at best only be our individual interpretation of reality. And history—or more accurately, the records of historians—are just maps of what really happened colored not only by deletions, distortions and generalizations, but also ego and agendas.

When I was first brought into the Craft, I was taught that Wicca was a continuation of ancient tradition. Later, this evolved to Wicca being a new version of the ancient tradition. Even those people who claim family traditions going back centuries (and I’m fortunate to know a few people I believe really do have that link) admit that what the ancestors did is not the same as what is done today. I’m okay with that. I think it’s fine.

In 1999, Ronald Hutton published The Triumph of the Moon. In it, he presented what, to most Pagans, had become self-evident. The difference was that Hutton was an academic, a real historian. And as we learned above, the primary thing that historians do is repeat other historians. That’s not meant as an insult. It’s simply the nature of the field. Psychologists work with people. Architects design buildings. Musicians play music. Historians study other historians as well as the writings of people not considered historians (playwrights, for example, who present some information that for some reason is accepted as historical rather than a part of a play).

Cover of First Edition

There is a lot in The Triumph of the Moon that I agree with. As I wrote, I had already accepted most of the concepts. I happen to believe that Raven Grimassi’s Italian Strega tradition is, in fact, much older*, but in Hutton’s book the author writes, “the subtitle of this book should really be ‘a history of modern pagan witchcraft in South Britain (England, Wales, Cornwall and Man), with some reference to it in the rest of the British Isles, Continental Europe and North America.’ The fact that it claims to be a history and not the history is in itself significant, for this book represents the first systematic attempt by a professional historian to characterize and account for this aspect of modern Western culture” (p.vii). So that doesn’t conflict with what I previously believed and the truth is, I like Hutton’s book. I still do. It’s good and worth reading.

In 2010, Ben Whitmore published The Trials of the Moon. I did not read the entire book. However, I did read a long excerpt (claimed to be “most of the book”) of it that was distributed, for free, over the internet. What Whitmore did in this book (or what I recall from reading the version made freely available) was question some of the assumptions, methodology, and conclusions made by Hutton.

Whitmore has two problems. First, he’s “an Alexandrian High Priest, Co-Freemason, Morris dancer, artist and software engineer.” He’s not a historian at a university. To many people, his lack of an academic degree brings his conclusions into question. And second, he questioned a real historian. That can only be seen as an attack on the professionalism and career of Hutton. Whitmore seems to have wanted to question Hutton’s approach and conclusions. Hutton, to defend his career and reputation, had no choice but to respond and respond strongly.

The results have included an interesting campaign of strike and counterstrike between these writers and their supporters, with the vast majority of Pagans, Witches, and Wiccans being perfectly content to practice their beliefs and not care one whit (no pun intended) about either of these gentlemen. This is not a Witch war, it’s a war of book quotations!

Letting Loose the Dogs of War!

This brings me up to two things. First, Chas Clifton, has made it known that a new issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies that he edits, has made another issue available on line. Second, there is some free content, including an article by Ronald Hutton entitled “Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History.” I would encourage everyone reading this to consider ordering back issues and subscribing to the journal. I would also encourage you to download Hutton’s article.

I would further encourage you to read it with an open mind.

After reading it, expecting to enjoy it, I regret to say that rather than being the fascinating reading on history I had hoped it would be, it turned out to be Hutton defending himself and attacking Whitmore. Well, that’s okay, but I respectfully think that Hutton could have done a better job.

First, let’s look at the title. “Revisionism” is Hutton’s name for his position. “Counter-Revisionism” is his name for Whitmore’s position. This type of naming is a common academic approach to remove disagreements from being personal and focusing on the actual positions and opposing views. Unfortunately this article really doesn’t succeed and becomes very personal. In fact, he accused the Counter-Revisionists (i.e., Whitmore) of being “against intellectualism or academic scholarship,” and “…the Pagan manifestation of…fundamentalism.” Whew!

So if Hutton is a revisionist of something, what is he revising? He states that his writings counter a “scholarly orthodoxy” that “held that Christianity had been no more than a veneer over medieval British society, found mostly among the social and political elite and barely penetrating the mass of the population, which continued to belong, at least in secret, to the old religion.” Okay. But please remember, I was there. I’ve spoken to thousands of Witches, Pagans, and Wiccans during my travels around the U.S. and Europe. While some old writers may have believed this, I never met practicing Pagan who believed it. It seems to me this is the infamous “straw man” and Hutton is trying to break it down. Why? My guess—and I fully admit that it’s only a guess—is that Hutton wanted his ideas to be disruptive and revolutionary. In reality, they were not. They only gave added proof to what we already believed.

Then Hutton goes into a long section where he does what every good historian does: quote other historians. He also quotes from contemporary writers, but as I described above, they each had there own beliefs and agendas and distort, generalize, and delete what wasn’t important to them. Their presentations are only a map, not the territory. It’s foolish to assume that any historian is revealing the territory and not the map, but historians do exactly that. It’s their job and what they do.

I am not a professional historian. I’m a generalist. That means I’ll take information from here and there, deleting what doesn’t interest me, generalizing what seems to fit, and distorting what doesn’t fit so that it will fit. I admit it. Hutton brings up the case of Reginald Scot and his famous book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft. He claims that the author and his followers “all were radical, evangelical Protestants, with a clear purpose to condemn all forms of magic-working by the laity, for ostensibly good or bad purposes, as inherently demonic: in their terms, as witchcraft.”

Hold on there, professor! I don’t have a P, h or D after my name, but I do know something about that book. You see, I also come from the world of conjurors: entertaining (well, sometimes) magicians. We sleight-of-hand magicians have a completely different view of Scott and the purpose of that book. Specifically, Scot did NOT believe in Witches at all, or that at best people only pretended to be Witches. A large part of the book shows how their “magic” was nothing but tricks. To magicians, Scot himself loved magic and his real purpose was to reveal the secrets of magic so that magicians would have to come up with better tricks. In fact, many of the tricks Scot describes in the pages of that book are still performed today.

Further, Scot riled up the protestants, so that less than 20 years after the book was published, all available copies were burned by the Protestant king James I. He believed that Witches were real and couldn’t tolerate a book that presented another view.

A few paragraphs up I wrote, “‘Counter-Revisionism’ is his [Hutton's] name for Whitmore’s position.” Some may object to this, but Hutton makes this clear on p.238 of his article. He talks about counter-revisionism, but rather than trying to identify some group with this label he states that he’s going to analyze Whitmore’s book because it “is the longest and most sustained product of this school.” Or put another way, there really isn’t any counter-revisionism, there’s just Whitmore and a few people who have supported and/or added to some of Whitmore’s ideas.

Hutton writes, “By destroying my credibility, at least among Pagans, he seems to believe that the problem of revisionism [i.e., Hutton's approach] is removed.” He adds, “if his [Whitmore's] allegations were generally believed to be true, then I [Hutton] would not be allowed to retain a post at a university.”

As I stated earlier, this is the real crux. It has nothing to do with who is right and who is wrong. It has everything to do with Hutton keeping his reputation and his job. As I wrote above, “Hutton, to defend his career and reputation, had no choice but to respond and respond strongly.” In fact, he writes that he has given a general reply before and will deal with this in detail in his “new publications.” Wow! The implication is that Hutton is taking the claims of Whitmore very seriously, so seriously that he has to respond to it repeatedly. It sounds like Whitmore has struck a nerve.

And indeed, Hutton goes on a very serious personal attack, claiming that Whitmore labors under a delusion, fails to realize things, has a wrong premise, knew “absolutely nothing” about certain research, ignores other arguments, misuses sources, etc. For proof Hutton does what any good historian would do, he quotes other historians.

Hutton concludes by saying that Whitmore’s problem is “not a lack of intelligence, industry and (at times) access to source material, but his ideology itself.” Bravo! That’s exactly correct. Whitmore has an ideology, a belief system, and this shades all of his writing and includes distortions, deletions, and generalizations (hmm, I think I wrote that some time ago).

Hutton states that this “…blocks off both a true understanding of the nature of the issues and the data involved…” Again, he is exactly correct. Whitmore has all of this and more.

“Gnōthi Seauton”

Why is he correct? Because everyone has beliefs or ideologies that filter what we experience. Everyone deletes, generalizes, and distorts information that comes to us. I absolutely do this. I don’t pretend not to.

But the implication by Hutton is that he, the professional historian, is completely objective. He, the professor, is above it. Supposedly above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (according to Pausanias) were the above words, transliterated as gnōthi seauton, which are Greek for “know thyself.” I would submit that by not acknowledging that he, too, has an ideology, that he, too, distorts, generalizes, and deletes the information he acquires, he is not doing a good job at knowing himself. I find this a common experience among historians who fail to acknowledge that their histories are just that: their histories.

Hutton, after spending all this time denouncing counter-revisionism (i.e., Whitmore) in this article, in previous writings and, he promises, in future writings, then admits that “Counter-revisionism is, however, not a feature of contemporary Paganism in general…” In other words, few people care about Whitmore’s claims. But Hutton takes him very seriously. Again, he’s defending his reputation and career. I’d do the same thing in Hutton’s position, albeit perhaps not in the same way.

In Hutton’s last paragraph he writes, “I still receive regular letters from people who were either first attracted to Wicca as a result of reading Triumph or who were reassured by it after a collapse of confidence resulting from loss of faith in its traditional history.” I have no doubt that this is 100% true. In fact, I have no doubt that Hutton is scrupulously honest.

However, the thing I’d like to point out is that for most people histories only give emphasis to spiritual beliefs, they’re not responsible for them. People are Christians because they believe in salvation for their sins through Jesus. People are religious Jews because they believe in the promises they feel come from God. The histories merely back these beliefs up.

With Wicca, the important thing is the establishment of a relationship between the individual and the deity/deities, between you and the God and Goddess. That is what Wicca stands upon, not histories that have been written by people—fallible humans—all of whom had or have their own agendas and beliefs.

My Conclusion

I really like Hutton’s work. I value his presentation and appreciate his evolution of thought. I also understand why it’s necessary for him to strongly oppose Whitmore and the “counter-revisionists” who threaten his legacy and his career. However, I also recognize that Hutton has his own belief system that is completely correct for him. Others will agree 100% with him. Some will agree to a lesser degree. Still others will completely disagree. And that’s all good.

I really like the small amount of Whitmore’s work that I’ve read. His approach is to challenge and to question, not to resolve anything. In fact, I would say that Hutton is working all the harder and doing more because of Whitmore. Superman would be nothing without Lex Luthor. Whitmore has his own belief system that is completely correct for him. Others will agree 100% with him. Some will agree to a lesser degree. Still others will completely disagree. And that’s all good.

Debate is good. It’s important. But for the vast majority of us who are not professional or amateur historians, the important thing about our beliefs is not a history written by someone 20, 50, 100, 1000, or 3000 years ago. It’s about our relationship with the gods.

If Hutton’s work brings us closer to the gods, that’s great. If Whitmore’s work brings us closer to the gods, that’s great. And if we find that sitting back and observing two intelligent men and their supporters argue over the interpretation of events from hundreds of years ago is simply humor that the gracious Goddess has brought into our lives, that’s great, too.

Horned God and Mother Goddess on Doreen Valiente’s Altar
Crafted by Bel Bucca.
Photo by Midnightblueowl at en.wikipedia

So what do you think?
Is Hutton right?
Is Whitmore right?
Should we pay more attention to the deities while
Hutton and Whitmore, and their supporters,
duke it out (in writing, of course)?

Please let us know
in the comments below.

 


*Is my belief that Grimassi’s Strega tradition is very old influenced by my personal deletions, generalizations, and distortions combined with my own belief system and the fact that Raven was my first teacher of Wicca? Absolutely! That’s why it’s my map. Do I think my map is objectively accurate? Of course! We all think our maps are objectively accurate.

 

Reader Comments

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#1 
Written By Luis A. Valadez (Oracle)
on January 18th, 2013 @ 11:21 am

Bravo!

Honestly, I don’t think either one is 100% correct or 100% wrong. The traditional “take a stance” position always occurs in academia, and what it does is it eventually blindsides supporters from either side looking at new evidence that presents itself which may contradict the position of either. He with the loudest voice or most flamboyant words, wins.

As evidence continues to reveal some of the folk traditions and customs that have endured in Eastern European societies (i.e. Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, etc), I think a better panoramic picture will evolve of how Pagan practices endured in many places, while being revived and reconstructed in others. It’s not all “black-and-white,” and I believe the majority of contemporary Pagans in America are comfortable with this notion. That has been my personal experience anyway.

The debate of accuracy, however, is not limited to Wicca. It bleeds over into Druid Circles (over the Revivalists vs. the Reconstructionists) and Hellenic paths. Reconstructionists, for the most part, believe that something MUST be accurate to be relevant. My argument is that – perhaps. Perhaps it does, for them. But, in my experience, the Gods answering Group A AND Group B doesn’t reveal the legitimacy of either. If anything it shows how the Gods are above the squabbling of humanity, and that’s a refreshing thought.

I admire Reconstructionists for their work in reviving cultures and practices that have nearly been lost. I also admire personal Gnosis, because the ingenuity of the human mind is that it call came from us, and it will always stem from us. Does the practice make you a better person and help your community? Then that, to me, is what counts.

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#2 
Written By Patrick
on January 23rd, 2013 @ 8:28 pm

I think there are many, many problems here. First, Whitmore’s problem is not that he’ not “a historian at a university” or that he “questioned a real historian.” The problem is he doesn’t understand historical methodology. Barbara Tuchman, for example, did not have a graduate degree in any field and never held an academic appointment, but was taken seriously by academic historians (and the Pulitzer Prize committee, who named her a Pulitzer winner, twice). But she knew what historians do, and did it. Whitmore does not, and can’t recognize it.

Hutton says he’s challenging scholarly orthodoxy, that Christianity was “no more than a veneer over medieval British society.” You dispute this because, you claim, you were there. What? You were in medieval England? Amazing. You then reason you’ve never talked to a practicing pagan who believed this. Well, that’s all very nice, but do you think the practicing pagans you’ve chatted with define the state of scholarship on medieval England? Have you read all the academic works on medieval England that Hutton has? Half? A tenth? Any? I’m sure I’ve not read nearly as many has Hutton, but I’ve read some, which I strongly suspect is some more than you have, and that roughly reflects the scholarly consensus about England’s rural population. Hutton isn’t the only one to challenge it, but he’s one of them.

There’s so much more in this that’s so off base, but this one made me laugh: “It has everything to do with Hutton keeping his reputation and his job.” Honestly, seriously, do you think Hutton’s position as a tenured professor at the University of Bristol is under threat because someone who felt the legitimacy of his faith decided to self-publish a booklet attacking one of Hutton’s books? That Hutton made a response at all should be seen as a sign of the respect he has for popular paganism, because if he had ignored Whitmore entirely, it would have made no difference whatsoever on his career or his academic reputation. Whitmore is attempting to use history to defend his beliefs, no different than when fundamentalists twist history to defend their particular version of church history.

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#3 
Written By Patrick
on January 23rd, 2013 @ 8:34 pm

One more: “But the implication by Hutton is that he, the professional historian, is completely objective.”

Not even close. “My colleagues would kill me for saying this, but historians are increasingly conscious of the fact that we can’t write history. What we can write about is the way in which people see history and think history happens.” http://www.rickross.com/reference/wicca/wicca57.html

(Gary Lachman, btw, is another good example of someone without an academic appointment or credentials who does legitimate historical work).

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#4 
Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on January 23rd, 2013 @ 8:58 pm

Patrick, while I’m delighted that you were interested in my post, I think we may have to agree to disagree.

You write: “The problem is he doesn’t understand historical methodology.”

That’s exactly my point. He didn’t follow the rules of being a historian because he’s not a historian. I wrote, “To many people, his lack of an academic degree brings his conclusions into question.” If he had followed the rules, this wouldn’t have been a problem. I stand by what I wrote.

You accuse me of disagreeing with his claim of the “scholarly orthodoxy” because I obviously wasn’t around in medieval British society. Ha. Ha. But to that claim of the veneer, I specifically wrote, “okay.” I didn’t disagree with it. What I disagreed with was his claim that it carried through to the modern era when, it fact, by the time of his publication, the idea of the continuous traditional had long been abandoned by many, if not most, practicing Pagans and Wiccans. Sorry, you’re setting up a straw man. I didn’t disagree with his claims about medieval England at all.

No, it’s not me who thinks Hutton’s position is at risk. However, considering the incredible amount of time and space Hutton has spent—and with the publication of this article he writes that he intends to spend more in the future—it is clear that he is worried.

In part, I agree with you. It would make sense for Hutton to have made A SINGLE response to Whitmore’s position. But he deals with it again and again, indicating what could easily be taken as his own insecurities over his position. He obviously thinks that Whitmore’s position is not the proverbial dead horse so he has to beat it again and again.

Finally, I would point out that just because someone acknowledges they are aware that something exists doesn’t mean they don’t suffer from it.

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#5 
Written By Patrick
on January 23rd, 2013 @ 9:44 pm

I’m fine to agree to disagree, but let me make a few clarifications:

- It sounds like you equate having a degree with being an historian. The point of the Barbara Tuchman and Gary Lachman examples is that there are authors who write legitimate history who do not have academic degrees in history or academic posts as historians. It’s not his lack of degree; it’s his lack of historical substance. If he had a PhD in history from Oxford, it would add nothing to the credibility of this book. So the degree, or lack of one, isn’t the issue. Now, if we agree that his book is not historical and not by an historian, then great, we agree. Let’s not take it seriously as history.

- Does Hutton actually say nothing has changed from the medieval to the modern period? If so, then I’d agree, he’s wrong, but the quotation you offer doesn’t make that claim. It only speaks of Middle Ages, and you say you were there. Maybe you didn’t write what you think you did, or maybe he didn’t say what you think he did.

- Hutton is a remarkably productive historian. I don’t see anything exceptional about him taking this opportunity to address myths that are fairly widespread among wiccans/pagans. It’s certainly not to protect his job; if anything, his colleagues would probably tell him not to waste his time. Is it a dead horse? Well, it certainly appears plenty of people take Whitmore seriously.

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#6 
Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on January 23rd, 2013 @ 11:35 pm

Thanks again for your comment. In regard to your three points:

1) No, I’m not. You’re making assumptions and reading into my post comments that are not there. As I wrote, what I read of Whitman called into question some of Hutton’s conclusions. It was based on logic. It has nothing to do with any mythical “historical substance.” It’s not the degree, it’s spending full time being a historian. Hutton is; Whitman is not. Whitman, as I recall, did not claim his book was history, it just questioned Hutton.
2) I stand by what I said even though you seem to refuse to understand what I wrote. Perhaps if you read Hutton’s article again it might help.
3) Hutton’s productivity is irrelevant to this discussion. As I wrote, I was there. The myths he (and you, here) are saying were “fairly widespread among wiccans/pagans [sic]” had long been abandoned by the major Pagan and Wiccan writers and most practitioners. You say Hutton’s goal is not to protect his job. Then why does he go after Whitman again and again?

You seem to have some need to defend Prof. Hutton as if anyone daring to disagree with him is denouncing you. If that’s what you need to do, fine. Respectfully, however, you have repeated your arguments and not really responded to my reply to you. If you want to move forward, great. Otherwise, just repeating will be a waste of time and resolve nothing other than saying we disagree.

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#7 
Written By Scott
on January 29th, 2013 @ 11:50 am

“But please remember, I was there. I’ve spoken to thousands of Witches, Pagans, and Wiccans during my travels around the U.S. and Europe. While some old writers may have believed this, I never met practicing Pagan who believed it.”

With respect for your extensive experience in the community, DMK, there’s a saying in the social sciences: the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” If you want to actually document that Hutton is wrong about this, the compelling way to do so would be to research the public statements of the Pagan community during that period, in the form of books that they published or interviews that they gave. Moreover, I believe that Hutton’s specific argument was that more recent scholarship had countered that previous “scholarly orthodoxy;” *Triumph*’s purpose was to (a) document that shift and (b) provide a more accurate history of the ideas that led up to the public emergence of Wicca in the ’50s.

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#8 
Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on January 29th, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

Thank you for your comment, Scott.

I never said that anecdotes=data. Nor did I saw that Hutton was wrong about his theory. What I am saying is that the popular knowledge matched his theories and he used his expertise to verify what the majority of practicing Pagans already knew. Therefore his thesis was confirmationary, nor revolutionary. If the “scholarly orthodoxy” he claims existed, then it was decades behind popular opinion, something that is highly unusual.

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#9 
Written By Ged
on February 3rd, 2013 @ 6:52 am

Although I can find much to criticise in your post, I suspect a dissection would prove futile. Instead, I would urge you to read (or re-read) chapter 9 of Hutton’s Witches, Druids and King Arthur (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2003), ‘Living with Witchcraft’ where he explains some of the circumstances in which Triumph came to be written.

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#10 
Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on February 3rd, 2013 @ 10:40 am

Thank you for your comment, Ged. I encourage anyone interested in Paganism, Wicca, and Witchcraft to read all of Hutton’s works, too.

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