Friday, 4 February 2011

A review of Ben Whitmore’s "Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft"

I don't have the brain right now to digest and analyze this fully, but I find it really interesting.  - Stasa

from http://www.sourcememory.net/veleda/?p=39

Here is an excerpt:

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 http://www.goodgame.org.nz/trialsofthemoonexcerpt.pdf


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]

Read more:
http://www.sourcememory.net/veleda/?p=39

4 comments:

RantWoman said...

THANK YOU for this. It looks terribly interesting. No idea when I am going to have time to engage, but I am interested!

staśa said...

I just happened to come across this. Max posted something else from her blog to Facebook, I was reading that, and saw this. I'm pleased!

Dark Daughta said...

I've been talking to my nine year old daughter about the cultural construct, dominant image of the witch and the true historical origins of the hate. What I also bring to the conversation is the ongoing persecution of wimmin with ancient knowledge and skill who are being hunted down, jailed and forced to capitulate - the midwives. Modern day healer wimmin under fire.

staśa said...

Dark Daughta -- even now. AGAIN now, even more. We will not give up, not then, not now, not ever, though.