The number of people in America and Europe who actively identify themselves as “pagans” is small—judging from those countries in which data on religion is recorded by censuses—but the broader influence of the idea of paganism within secular culture is inescapable. In particular, the belief that the pre-Christian religions of Europe were more life-affirming, more compassionate, and even more “rational” than Christianity is now widespread. In spite of their disavowal of all religion, secular humanists often treat paganism sympathetically—to the point that it is now a cliché for the atheist to bait Christians with accusations that Christianity is an interloper religion with no ideas of its own, which simply took over pagan beliefs and festivals. It is not difficult to see that, for those who choose to weaponize it against Christianity, “paganism” means whatever people want it to mean, and the imagined paganisms of popular culture bear little relationship to what we know of historical pre-Christian religion. Nevertheless, it is intriguing to ask exactly how and why a particular positive idea of paganism became embedded in skeptical and secular discourse—and embedded so deeply, in many cases, that there seems little chance of public education dispelling it.
For over thirty years, Prof. Ronald Hutton has been the leading scholar of the history of paganism, both ancient and modern. While Hutton’s iconoclastic masterpiece The Triumph of the Moon (1999) essentially denied contemporary neopaganism any convincing claims to historical continuity, Hutton has always balanced his scrupulously polite eviscerations of neopagan wishful thinking with an insistence that the history of paganism nevertheless matters, even if the real history is not the one many of us expected. In his latest book, Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe: An Investigation, Hutton returns to a key question posed in his work in the 1990s: Was there really any continuity or survival of paganism in the Christian Middle Ages? Inspired by the centrality of the figure of “The Goddess” to neopaganism, Hutton attempts to answer that question by examining four culturally significant “goddesses” who have been considered “pagan” at different times: Mother Earth, a personification of the entirety of nature; the Fairy Queen, ruler of a parallel supernatural world and, Hutton argues, a distinctly British phenomenon; the Mistress of the Night, a mighty supernatural woman who roved the night with an entourage that mortals could join; and the Old Woman, or Cailleach, of Gaelic tradition, a legendary woman of immense age who came to be associated with mountains and wild places.
Hutton shows that popular perceptions of paganism are sometimes still informed by an old historiography that advanced the idea of “surviving paganism,” most notably in Margaret Murray’s “witch-cult” theory. Murray’s outlandish belief that groups of “witches” secretly worshipping a Neolithic goddess and a horned god in a fertility cult survived into the seventeenth century prevailed as a respectable scholarly position into the 1970s. Yet in the ’80s and ’90s a new generation of scholars—including Hutton himself—rapidly rejected the notion that paganism could have lingered for more than a short time after Christianization.
Instead, Hutton made a distinction between “surviving paganism”—the persistence of an organized pagan religion as a competitor of Christianity—and “pagan survivals,” the lingering existence of pagan elements as part of folk Christianity. Once elites abandoned their pre-Christian beliefs, Hutton argues, there was no chance of a coherent paganism surviving, but this did not mean scattered elements of pagan rite and belief could not endure. Some scholars have taken the revisionism even further, arguing that “pagan” is a meaningless term, and all we can say is that certain practices belonging to medieval popular Christianity had little to do with Christian orthodoxy.
Hutton is at pains to hold back from this kind of extreme skepticism, maintaining the meaningfulness of “pagan” as a category. He offers an intriguing analysis of why such skepticism took root so quickly, however. While the “Murray thesis” of pagan survival appealed to a post-Christian academic world when the rejection of Christianity was still new and self-conscious, as scholars became accustomed to a secular, pluralistic society, the project of exposing the flaws of Christianity lost its urgency, thus permitting historians to adopt a more objective approach to the analysis of medieval popular Christianity. For the second and third generations of scholars for whom religion is often no longer a lived reality, nor even a component of their experience at all, there is no longer any incentive to favor or discredit one religion over another.
Hutton’s “goddesses” originate from very different sources; Mother Earth was originally a learned personification, while the Fairy Queen came from literature. The Mistress of the Night and the Gaelic Cailleach both grew from folklore. However, all four figures are of particular interest to Hutton because they took on a life of their own, becoming figures of power with their own kind of agency in the collective cultural imagination. For example, the Fairy Queen was a literary figure at the end of the Middle Ages who appeared under a number of different guises in romances, from Morgan le Fay to a reimagining of the Roman sibyl, but by the sixteenth century she had seemingly made the transition to the “real” world, and judicial records show that she was often invoked by fraudsters and confidence tricksters as a source of magical power and authority. In the same way, the allegorical Mother Earth of the medieval alchemists and natural philosophers became, in the twentieth century, a much more literal personification of the suffering planet Earth.
What is most striking about these figures, according to Hutton, is how important they were and how little they had to do with Christianity. They were, to all intents and purposes, goddesses; yet they were also not (in any meaningful sense) mere survivals from the ancient world—they were, rather, new cultural creations of Christian societies with no obvious connection with Christianity. Mother Earth, the Fairy Queen, the Mistress of the Night, and the Cailleach all originated as characters in the medieval period, even if they shared some characteristics with figures of the ancient world such as Cybele, Persephone, and Diana. Yet they were also not symbols of resistance to Christianity; in spite of what contemporary neopagans may wish to believe, heterodoxy and subversion in the medieval world almost invariably took the form of rival iterations of Christianity, not outright rejections of it.
Hutton’s four “goddesses” are not, however, alone as cultural creations that have taken on a life of their own. His book concludes with an examination of a fifth figure, this time male: the Green Man. The Green Man was essentially invented in the 1930s by an amateur folklorist, Lady Raglan—a new figure fashioned from a hotchpotch of artistic and architectural motifs and folk customs. Hutton’s point is not so much to expose the Green Man’s inauthenticity as to point out the surprising degree of cultural power the invented Green Man has become capable of wielding in such a short time. The Green Man, who is popular among modern pagans and non-pagans alike, is thus a twentieth-century analogue for the sort of processes that may have created Mother Earth, the Fairy Queen, the Queen of the Night, and the Cailleach.
In the end, Prof. Hutton is left posing the question of whether the binary categories of “pagan” and “Christian” are adequate or useful at all for fully understanding the past or the present. This is not to say that the categories are meaningless, but cultural artefacts exist that cannot be fitted adequately into either. The polemical approach of contemporary pagans intent on discrediting Christianity and portraying the medieval world as pagan at heart does little to advance our ability to reconstruct the thought-world of the past. That thought-world, we must surely conclude, allowed for rather more subtle distinctions than ours does and transcended some of the more simplistic binary oppositions of modernity.
Francis Young is a British historian and folklorist.
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