Some years ago a friend took me along to a shop that was reputed to sell magical equipment to budding witches and sorcerers. Among some very ordinary-looking terraced houses, located in the suburbs of a northern English town, we found a building with its windows ostentatiously covered in heavy black shutters. Having knocked, we heard a rattle of keys before the door creaked open and we were ushered in by the owner. Inside was a mass of books as well as some ritual paraphernalia: swords, costumes and even a vial filled with green liquid.
Such juxtapositions of the mundane and the mysterious, the secretive and the theatrical, are often depicted in this book, a history of pagan witchcraft that reaches into the Middle Ages and earlier, but focuses on the period from 1800 to the present.
Ronald Hutton's aim is to provide a narrative account of the emergence and diffusion of what he describes as "the only religion which England has ever given the world". The first chapter traces the cultural, literary and ritual resources out of which contemporary witchcraft has been constructed.Hutton writes of the importance of masonic ritual as well as the interplay between German Romanticism, interpretations of the classical past and early findings of anthropology and archaeology. Out of these were created alluring images of an ancient but still vivid pagan world. Thus, the works of William Blake and Charles Swinburne rubbed shoulders with those of Friedrich Nietzsche and Sir James Frazer in the imagination of such a figure as Aleister Crowley - himself a melodramatic writer but a genius at embodying the model of a modern trickster. Numerous writers and scholars, from Robert Graves to Jacquetta Hawkes, came to believe that a single female deity and matriarchy had presided over "Merrie England" (and indeed Europe) in the distant past.
In the second half of the book, Hutton focuses more closely on witchcraft itself, particularly in the UK. He provides mini-biographies of leading figures, including Crowley, Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders. We see also how the old notion of matriarchy has been revived and remodelled in the United States, made subject to the pluralist, feminist "California cosmology" of Starhawk (the pen-name of Miriam Simos, who turned from her Jewish heritage towards a celebration of the "little people of Stone Age Britain"). An obvious irony attaches to the efforts of a respected historian as he carefully examines the historiographies of people who themselves demonstrate considerable disregard of "the facts" of the past. Yet, as Hutton himself realises, the traditions and narratives that are constructed by witches are not always meant to be judged by the values of academic scholarship. For Starhawk, the craft is a religion of poetry rather than theology. The point is to play with metaphors, symbols and cultivated experiences that are believed to have effects on the self and, potentially, the external world.
Yet the relationship between "objective" and metaphorical reconstructions of tradition remains an uneasy one. Running throughout the book is a constant tension - almost a dialectic - between academic and pagan ways of constructing knowledge of the past. Hutton writes of his own difficulties in articulating a reflexive attitude to the material: caught between the need to defend academe to pagans and the duty to dispel prejudices expressed by outsiders, he decided entirely to omit a passage detailing his personal connections with the topic.
This book, then, presents various ways of seeing the past. Hutton stands firm, however, in debunking academic as well as pagan notions of continuity between present spiritualities and past practices. He asserts that those unfortunates killed in historical witch trials cannot be seen as the inheritors of pagan tradition from the Stone Age - martyred defenders of an old religion - any more than contemporary witches can be seen as reviving a once-prominent but persecuted matriarchy.
Hutton's pursuit of the endless strands that make up pagan witchcraft results in the reader being shunted from one mythical construction to the next throughout large portions of the text. In the face of such material, Hutton's writing is mercifully clear. At times his constant retracing of genealogical pathways ("real" and imagined) makes for some repetition. A final chapter dealing with social scientific approaches is a little too rushed, even list-like, in its adumbration of possible ways to analyse paganism. Even so, he makes some good points that should be of interest to sociologists and anthropologists.
For instance, early in the book he notes how many influential writers on aspects of paganism were themselves of uncompromising Protestant stock: Sir Edward Tylor, Frazer and Jane Harrison were notable examples. At the end he points - cheekily but not without cause - to parallels between contemporary covens and Protestant house churches: both, after all, involve small groups of enthusiasts who often meet in private homes, maintain mobile memberships and stress the importance of going beyond purely intellectual approaches to religion.
Hutton manages to make the book a page-turner, suitable for the general reader, historians, social scientists and even witches (who may also of course belong to any of the previous categories). Admittedly, his deconstruction of pagan tradition does not produce many intellectual surprises. However, he shows that witchcraft should not be dismissed as a trivial or anachronistic movement: its members are often successful in other walks of life, while the playful methods through which they evoke the past indicate their many connections with wider trends in contemporary culture.
Simon Coleman is lecturer in anthropology, University of Durham.
The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft
Author - Ronald Hutton
ISBN - 0 19 820744 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 486