Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft

This is a review of Ben Whitmore’s Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft. A Critique of Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Auckland: Aotearoa / New Zealand, 2010

I am glad someone took on the task of providing a detailed critique of Hutton’s book. Ben Whitmore, a Pagan priest in New Zealand, does not hail from the school of Wicca-is-a-direct-transmission-of-ancient-Pagan-tradition. He is clear “that today’s witchcraft is largely a reinvention” and favors  examining the foundational myths of modern neopaganism with a critical eye. At the same time, he feels a spiritual kinship with past traditions and holds out the possibility of recovering their authentic roots: “I feel it is high time that Wicca and Paganism be permitted to have not just myths, but a history as well.” Hear, hear.

Hutton, although himself a Pagan, has systematically attacked the idea of pagan survivals in medieval Europe, and not just in this book. He hews to an orthodox focus on literary sources as the font of culture, with a corresponding disregard for the testimony of folk tradition and its conservational power. We hear from Diane Purkiss about how the English school of witchcraft history had “hardened into an orthodoxy”since the 1970s. Whitmore points out that they ignore the rich documentation of folk paganism by continental historians (a disregard, paired with sputterings about “rigor,” that I have been protesting for years).

Hutton’s earlier book is described as taking a “withering” approach  toward neopagans while rhapsodizing about christianity. Such attitudes are unsurprising in most academic circles, but Hutton’s dismissals have been taken up by some Pagans as well. Whitmore recounts “one rather sad conversation I had with a bright young High Priest and High Priestess who were abandoning the Craft because Triumph had convinced them they were living a lie.”[2-3]

Whitmore makes an effort to be evenhanded. He praises Hutton’s chapters on Wicca as “balanced and comprehensive.” He corrects an error about the succession in Alexandrian Wicca. [3] It’s been years since I read Triumph of the Moon, so I don’t remember if the feminist branches of Wicca were included. In any case, modern paganism is not the main thrust of Trials of the Moon; it is about making the case for a historical connection between pagan ethnic religion, including goddess reverence, and later witches and witch traditions.

Whitmore counters Hutton’s exaggerated claim of “a tidal wave of accumulating research which [in the 1990s] swept away … any possibility of doubt regarding the lack of correlation between paganism and early modern witchcraft.”He lays out the misrepresentations and revisionism in Triumph of the Moon by reviewing the historical literature that Hutton cites, and systematically showing that his sources do not say what he claims they do. In some cases they say the complete opposite. The quotes that Whitmore provides shows that they affirm rather than deny the persistence of pre-Christian spiritual traditions, including shamanic ones. The exception is Muchembled, but even he acknowledged the demonization of folk beliefs and observances in constructing the myth of the Witches’ Sabbath. [6-8]

So the book tests Hutton’s evidence and provides some much-needed historiography. It also offers  helpful summaries of ideas by various authors. P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, for example, talks about the incompleteness of European conversion into the middle ages, and tracks the imposition of elite ideas about diabolical pact and witches’ sects onto folk culture. (Hmm: a footnote alludes to the famous case of two German villages where only two women were left alive. Maxwell-Stuart, however, appears to have erased the specific targeting of women, rendering it as only two “residents”spared by the hunts. [9 fn 27]) Still, I’d like to read his discussion of the number of accused witches who actually were cunning folk, healers, diviners, or people who had dealings with the faeries. [10]

“Who were the witches, where did they come from?”

Next, Whitmore turns to the classic academic definition of “witch,” whose convergence with diabolist premises has been much-overlooked. (This conflation must be grappled with if we are ever to get at the truth about folk belief.) Whitmore looks at the influential comparisons that anthropologists made with African, specifically Shona, witch-beliefs. He challenges the anthropological definition of “witch” as based on “an in-dwelling and intangible quality of evil,” as opposed to acts of sorcery. He shows that even in the Shona case, witchcraft is in fact not held to be only due to bad essence or to dreams, but also said to be based on actions. [13] As the work of Isabel Mukonyora shows,  Shona witchcraft accusations target primarily women and enforce patriarchal norms. [“Women of the African Diaspora Within,” 2006]

A big problem with the anthropological definition of “witch,” now widely diffused in academic writing about European witchcraft, is that it reinforces the terms of theological diabolism. The Christian demonologists insisted that witches were incapable of doing good because their powers came from “the devil.” So when MacFarlane says he aims to show “how witchcraft functioned,” he is talking only about the accusations of magical evildoing and resulting persecutions, not about the larger body of folk tradition with its witch goddesses, sacred places, festivals, and so on. [7] This is true of many other writers.

Not only has “witchcraft”become equated with harmful sorcery, but many academicians have adopted gender-biased terminology as the standard. They connect “witch” (culturally read as female) with magical harm while assigning value to “magician” or “sorcerer”or “wizard” (read as male) as a ritualist, even a shaman. The term that resonates as male is neutral or positive. This gendering is even more explicit in French writings, with sorcière (female) for evil-doer and (male-default) sorcier . (So I learned in a net debate with a woman who defended this terminology as neutral.)

Whitmore notes that many pagan-flavored shamanic or visionary actors identified themselves as Christian, with examples from Italy, Sicily, Livonia, Scotland. (This was doubtless authentic in most  cases, but we have to ask, What would happen if a person did not claim Christianity?) Whatever religious allegiance magical folk claimed, Whitmore points out that the pagan or shamanic associations of their spiritual or healing practice nevertheless led to their identification as “witches.”[16] The elite definition (set by bishops, theologians, rulers, lawyers and judges) made the categories of “Christian” and “witch” mutually exclusive. Because of this, sincere prayers and protestations of Christian faith counted for nothing in the torture chamber.

The “myth” of a Great Goddess

“Large sections of [Hutton’s] book — entire chapters, even — are one-sided, misleading, or plain wrong…. for a surprising number of his claims he provides no evidence at all, such as his alarming assertion that there was never an Earth Mother goddess in Mesopotamia, Anatolia or Greece.” [3]

Hutton declares that a Great Goddess was purely a 19th century invention, with the sole exception of Apuleius, a priest of Isis. Whitmore offers up Greco-Roman and Egyptian titles that prove otherwise, and enumerates Irish and Gaulish triple goddesses as well as triune Fates and birth faeries across Europe. He make the point that Graves’ age-differentiated template of maiden-mother-crone does not fit the actual pattern of goddess triads, in Greece or the Celtic world. [17-19] (On this subject, watch for Dawn Work-Makinne’s forthcoming book on the collective goddesses of ancient Europe.)

Hutton insists that virgin and mother goddesses are no more than projections of the Virgin Mary, but Whitmore shows (as have others) that the reverse is the case. In Triumph Hutton repeats his assertion  (also advanced in The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles) that Earth Mother was not a real deity, only a philosophical construct. Whitmore counters with her salutation in Old English prayers like the Æcerbot incantation (which begins Erce Erce Erce Eorthan Modor). Although christianizing phrases have been added to it, this plowing and planting incantation shows that the old veneration of Earth persisted in agricultural ceremonies. [20-22]

The footnotes of this book are not to be passed over; they are often as interesting as the main text. One offers important information about a different version of the Æcerbot from Corvei that runs, “Eostar, Eostar, eorthan modor.” The name Eostar leads back to a complex of old Germanic and Indo-European names for “east” “dawn” “egg”(as in “oestrous” cycle) and, famously, the goddess Eostre and the holiday Easter. [23]

There’s a discussion of the mysterious evocation Erce and its potential connections to other goddesses. In his book Ecstasies, Carlo Ginzburg brings in Herodiana, the underworld goddess Haerecura, and a a scratched graffito of a woman riding on a goose, inscribed fera comhera, which he translates as “Wild with Hera.” Even closer are the Herke / Harke witch-goddess names that Grimm discussed. Any of these names may have been reflected in clerics’ choice of the otherwise rather obscure biblical queen Herodias as queen of the witches. Whitmore refers to Julio Caro Baroja’s discussion of the earliest mentions of Herodias (one dating to 872) as a form of Diana who leads a company of women who fly on shamanic steeds through the heavens. He also notes that “Jacob Grimm devotes a large section of Chapter 13 of his Teutonic Mythology to Herodias, and connects her very plausibly with pagan deities (Grimm 1998).”

I’m more dubious about the beautiful prayer to Earth in the 12th century English herbal that Whitmore advances as a persistence of paganism. [23] I’m inclined to agree with medievalists who link it to Greco-Roman stylistic models. There’s no denying its pagan sensibility, and a strong background paganism may well have influenced its educated author, but it would be pushing to call it an English folk prayer.

Then it’s on to the horned god. Hutton’s case that he is based on a fusion of Pan with Jesus “doesn’t stack up.” [25] Nor is Attis the only instance of a resurrected god before Jesus,  since there are also Osiris, Dumuzi, Tammuz, Baal, Adonis, Dionysos and even Khnum. And the water to wine theme originated with Dionysos, long before christianity. Some of this ground has been covered by Arthur Evans (not Sir A.E., but the living gay historian) in God of Ecstasy: Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysos. (We could add another proto-christian model from the old Greek myth of humans coming from the ashes of Titans mixed with the remains of Dionysos. This story arguably represented a Pagan Greek concept of original sin.)

Whitmore points out that Hutton unduly narrows the field of evidence: “By assuming that the origins of Horned God are in popular literature Hutton imposes a selection bias, and ensures that that is all he will find.”[29] This selective focus also applies to the picture Hutton paints of the classical world. Part of the problem is that his interpretation foregrounds elite culture, from Homeric and Olympian viewpoints, to Roman, to literate Christian sources. Along the way, I like that Whitmore provides some overdue rehabilitation of the much-maligned Frazer (irrespective of his dying-god thesis).

Cunning Folk

Trials next discusses how widespread “cunning folk” and their techniques were. Whitmore marshalls British sources, from the early modern Reginald Scot to current witchcraft scholars Alan MacFarlane and Keith Thomas, to show that this British term was interchangeable with “witch.” He looks at the vulnerability of cunning folk to charges of harmful sorcery. (This suspicion sometimes applied to shamans on other continents, outside the European context of church diabolism and witch persecutions.) Whitmore cites Emma Wilby’s work on the blurry line between cunning folk and witches in Britain, and that of Eva Pocs for Hungary. He outlines avenues for a more detailed investigation that takes into account the diabolization of folk customs. [31-33]

The chapter on Leland and his book Aradia refers to the discovery of the 18th century German source for the fabled figure of 9,000,000 witches burned. (Whitmore credits Robert Poole [2003] who in turn credits Wolfgang Behringer.) This identification clears Matilda Joslyn Gage from accusations made, by Hutton and others, that she had made this number up. [35] She didn’t, and this  information, still little-known outside of specialist literature, bears repeating. But the figure is wrong, and many people are still quoting it as fact.

For quite a while there, anyone who took Aradia seriously risked ridicule. Whitmore ably defends Leland from being cast, as he puts it, “as a crank, a dilettante, a polemical anti-Catholic and a likely forger.”[36] He is in good company. In a recent annotated edition of Aradia,  several Pagan scholars have countered a century of dismissal of Leland, with detailed commentary and a new translation of the Italian passages. (Mario Pazzaglini, ed. Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, A New Translation. Sadly, this book is out of print, but key ideas are summarized here.) I’ve always felt that Leland could not have invented the Italian passages, since his English translations mangle them rather badly, rendering them into a stilted literary style that is much inferior to Maddalena’s oral verses. Yet he was a revolutionary scholar who saw the immense value of folk orature, whether it was Tuscan, Roma or American Indian, as the testimony of oppressed or submerged cultures.

Hutton’s repudiation of Leland’s use of “witch” is problematic. His insistence on abolishing the word “witch” from all but negative and diabolist usages has a definite political valence, as I’ve discussed. Whitmore also deals with Hutton’s mischaracterization of—and apparent unfamiliarity with—Ginzburg’s work on Herodiana. He draws connections to other Italian witch-goddesses such as Richella, and the Romanian Irodeasa or Arada, the Mistress of the Fairies, with her mythic parallels to the Aradia legend. [37-39] (For more examples, see my article on the Tregenda). Whitmore also offers an enticing glance at some important recent scholarship that expands the evidence for an actual veneration of Aradia:

“Recently, Sabina Magliocco has discovered a divinity of similar name in Sardinia, a country with close ties to Italy since the twelfth century. Here Araja or Arada was patroness of the janas or fairies, and (under the name Erode) leader of the procession of the dead around All Hallows. She has survived as Sa Rejusta (s’Araja justa, ‘the just Arada’) or ‘mama Erodas’, a bogey linked with witchcraft beliefs, who snatches children if food is not left out for her, or who enters homes through the keyhole to check that unmarried girls have been studious with their housework and spinning. This almost precisely parallels the Germanic figure Frau Holda.” [39] (And dozens of other ethnic goddesses; see my article on The Old Goddess)

Whitmore looks into the early Wiccans,  with their interweave between Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and the New Forest Coven, and their mixed Pagan and Christian affiliations. He addresses the enigma of Dorothy Clutterbuck, an early associate of Gerald Gardner whose very existence was once questioned, until her diaries came to light. Hutton cast her as a pious old woman with no pagan connections. Whitmore shows otherwise, quoting from her writings which show her reverence for Nature and  describe  faery worlds and beings (often shining female figures, sometimes referred to with a capitalized She). These extracts are compelling, and again, so are the footnotes. Whitmore also describes the occult connections of other women in Clutterbuck’s circle. [49-53]

Goddesses, magic and the complexity of “conversion”

For centuries, orthodox historians have insisted that once rulers decreed conversion, the people quickly followed and abandoned the old ways. Whitmore wants to break with the “assumption of mutual exclusivity”: the idea that people could not adopt some christian ways and still remain in many ways pagan. (Let’s not forget that this exclusionary idea was first promoted by the church hierarchy, even as they also carried out a sometime, selective policy of assimilation in order to bring pagans into the fold.) But Pagan ways did endure, and the influence of these much older cultural patterns, such as the processions with images, made itself felt in Christian custom. The footnotes refer (sparsely) to archaeological excavations that have uncovered evidence of this continuity. [57-58]

There’s a good discussion on Hutton’s insistence that pagan traditions were medieval inventions, or even later. When this will not fly, he dismisses them as insignificant customs without religious meaning. [61] Hutton reprises his claim from Pagan Religions that the Norns are just a copycat transposition of the Moirae into a Northern context. [65] He ignores a vast body of threefold fate goddesses in the ethnic folk cultures of Europe. Whitmore identifies many of these, to which he adds the triune Matres and Matronae. Hutton’s arguments are a retread of the interpretatio romana, reworking it into an interpretatio literaria. Because only Greco-Roman culture is documented in written form at an early period, all other shared cultural themes in other European societies must be derived from it. Folk myth cannot be dated, therefore it is irrelevant.

Whitmore shows in detail how Hutton gets the chronological order of texts about Cerridwen exactly backward. [66 fn 252, 67] He also challenges his suggestion that Odin’s hanging from the tree was copied from the Christian crucifixion story: “In fact, present-day scholars are largely united in considering Odin’s hanging from the tree to be an ancient theme tied to shamanistic journeying and initiation. If anything, when Christian and pagan iconography are mingled, as in the tenth-century Jelling stone, the unfamiliar newcomer Jesus seems to adopt imagery from Odin, rather than the other way round.”[66]

Hutton proposes a clear separation of magic and religion, while Whitmore offers many examples of the interweave of magic and religion, with backup from the eminent classical historian Ramsey MacMullen. He also discusses Don Frew’s challenge to Hutton on this subject. [45] He points to the persistence of pagan chants such as the Merseberg Charm and the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, and the magical elements of christian rites. [62] There’s lots more to be said about how this subject has been framed in terms of female “magic” and male “religion” (as Carol Myer and Meir bar-Ilan discuss for the Hebrew context).

Another interesting source Whitmore cites is Emma Wilby’s study of how pagan deities and nature spirits were recast as saints in Britain. [67] Pamela Berger covered similar ground in The Goddess Obscured, and we can go all the way back to Jacob Grimm, and to Lina Eckenstein’s 1896 study of the goddesses underlying saints in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

The Renaissance revivalists are key figures for Hutton’s literary-driven view of paganism, particularly the Florentines. Whitmore says, “Actually, this group were about as pagan as you could get without being killed for it, and were under constant suspicion of heresy.”[63] (Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for his Egyptian hermeticism.) Whitmore also touches on the survival of Hellenic and Sabean (not Sabine) paganism in the west Asian outpost of Harran, and reincarnation beliefs of the Greeks, Gnostics, the Druids and later Celtic cultures, the Norse, and Renaissance hermeticists.

Revel and Ritual

This chapter is full of great information about folk masquerades, animal masks, cross-dressing, house-visiting, and semi-pagan characters like Old Tosspot, all mixed up with saints and Christian themes. We read of how the old woman Baubo carried a baby in a winnowing fan in Thracian ceremonies, Dionysian rites continuing into the middle ages, plough-pageants, and hobby horse processions. [69-71] Such celebrations are described in the earliest medieval bishops’ scoldings and penitential books; they continued to be prohibited, but persisted in ethnic pockets up to our time.

One of the most interesting sections is about pagan survivals in the Channel Islands. People paraded around with horse-skulls and hides, or went in vouarouverie (werewolfery). This did not signify uncontrollably attacking people, but rather involved chaotic revelry, howling, feasting, and mudfights. These events came up in the little-known witch-trials of Guernsey (1563-1634). There’s a great quote about the Souling plays of Cheshire, which centered around the Wild Horse and a ritual battle. One participant explained:

“[T]here’s a lot of people can’t understand it, ’cause it’s really our religion. We believe in souling; we believe in ghosts, ’cause we’re supposed to be ghosts. Sometimes it’s not many of us are real attenders at church; because I think our belief is more sentimental, private. And we all turn out on All Hallows Eve, we just come, and go.” [75]

That is a marvellous quote. Whitmore adds, “The rites were held at times associated with fairies and the dead: the twelve days of Yule, Whitsunday, the four seasonal Ember Weeks,  All Hallows; or, more generally, at night. In some cases the performers functioned as intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds and were bound by strict ritual laws. They took the shape of animals, some even leaving their bodies to fly through the air; they fought and feasted. They were at times presided over by a goddess or lady, at times by the Devil.” [76] This is territory covered in detail by Carlo Ginzburg, Wolfgang Behringer, Eva Pocs, and many other scholars of regional folk traditions.

Whitmore shows that these ritual processions, flights, feasts, and battles are also celebrated by the calusari in Romania. Centuries ago they were carried out by the benandanti of Friuli in northeastern Italy. The name means “good-goers,” but in the 16th century, mounting witch hunts shattered the cohesion of this shamanic community. Under pressure from the Inquisition, male benandanti began to denounce female benandante as witches, as Carlo Ginzburg has shown. Women started going to the stake, and eventually it was the men’s turn as their erstwhile allies turned on them. The calusari differ in being a distincly all-male society, though their Moldavian counterparts caluczenii paraded in female dress. Whitmore compares these groups to the Morris Dancers of Britain, a name derived from “Moorish,” and their moresco analogues in Spain and Portugal. [14 fn, 40, 72]

Trials of the Moon winds up with sage commentary from João de Pina-Cabral on the long-surviving power of culture, which he has documented for Portugal, against constant church repression. [76] Whitmore summarizes other critiques of Hutton, including my own protest of the errors and sweeping but false claims in Pagan Religions, and its author’s ad feminam response; as well as Asphodel Long, Don Frew (at some length), Jani Farrell-Roberts, and J.D Hill. He also calls Hutton on his mockery and dismissal of alternative perspectives, not based on the evidence they offer, but because of who they are: “a growing tendency among the more caustic of his followers to ridicule ‘alternative’ researchers, applying labels such as ‘Murrayite’, ‘Feminist’, ‘non-academic’ and ‘polemicist’…”

Whitmore concludes by restating his aim: “to re-open lines of inquiry that I believe should never have been closed.” The author makes it clear that he is not proposing a firm outline of Pagan history, but he has made a contribution by naming some of the issues and themes that such a history must include and address.


Update (Feb. 8): The “12th century English herbal” is apparently 11th century, and the prayer in question, Praecatio Terrae, occurs in several medieval manuscripts, the earliest dating to the 6th century and the latest 13th century. Latin text and English translation are at*.html (This translation renders Dis as “Pluto,” who would in any case not be an English deity). For a full discussion of the linguistic and historic variants of this prayer, see this article: