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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.