Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
(For the general Indo-European requirement.)
Jaan Puhvel was just the person to write a book like this. A professor of Indo-European Studies for many years, he had published numerous papers on the subject (including some that were very influential on me), and edited collections of papers, but not written a book of his own. I could understand a reluctance to write a book like this; it’s essentially a summing up of his life’s work. Not only is it like carving one’s ideas in stone, there’s a certain creepiness – “See Naples and die.”
But his students kept after him to write down his thoughts finally. (Another level of creepiness, “write down before you die.”) That was lucky for us, since we have this book.
It’s divided into three parts (like Gaul; I’m sure he would have thought that to himself). The first covers the field of mythology and Indo-European Studies as a whole, including both its history and its methods; the second covers each of the larger Indo-European branches in turn; and the third is organized by theme. In other words, method, matter, and conclusions.
Puhvel first begins book with an introduction in which he begins, as we’re told good writers should, by defining his terms. He follows “myth” through its transformations: “story” (Homer), “false story” (Herodotus), and then to the modern combination of “false story” (“just a myth”), and an important, possibly true, possibly dangerous, story (“the myth of the Romantic Savage”).
He then discusses different levels of the study of myth: the myth in its natural environment, comparing myths with those in certain other environments (which will be the direction of his book), and universal mythology (a la Joseph Campbell). This leads naturally to a discussion of how similarities have been explained, either by independent origination or diffusion.
In the next to last paragraph of the introduction (p. 4), Puhvel tells us what his own approach will be, “tracing the mythical matter of disparate societies back to a common ancestry” He rightly says that only the culture of peoples who speak Indo-European (IE) languages provide us with enough information to do this. He may be wrong, however, when he goes on to say that this is because only they possess the “width and depth in several dimensions and enough similarities and variety to allow both positive conclusions and negative controls.” IE certainly has those qualities in spades, but so might other language families, such as Sino-Tibetan, Bantu, and Algonquin. These haven’t been studies in as great a depth, however. It might turn out that IE is unique in its contents, but not in its suitability for study.
Mixed in with this theoretical discussion is a delightfully crotchety insistence that “mythology” is technically the study of myth, not “a body of mythical narrative” (p. 2). This is a wonderful intrusion of the man into the academician – Jaan Puhvel, a great linguist, making the most basic linguistic error of insisting that almost everyone uses a word incorrectly. Not only is he missing that if almost everyone uses a word in a certain way, that’s its meaning, he also gives only the slightest of nods to the fact that a word can have one technical meaning, but a different everyday one. He compounds his error by comparing the word to “pathology,” which “studies the bulk of ailments,” seemingly unaware that even specialists use the term not only to describe their field, but also in expressions like “the pathology of smallpox.” How a linguist can deny the use of a term as a collective is beyond me, but it shows the passion of someone who loves his subject in a book that some criticize as too academic. I love it.
After this introduction, Puhvel presents his first section of three chapters, under the title “Directions,” in which he gives an historical overview, a test case showing how IE mythology might be compared with that of the geographically close Semites, and a description of how comparative mythology, especially that of the IEs, is done. The first is a useful survey, both for suggesting ways we can look at myths, and for suggesting ones that better forgotten. I love when he refers to “nature allegory tinged with a monomaniacal reduction to one single type” (pp. 13-4). Reading Arthur Macdonell’s Vedic Mythologyi, written to that period, I felt like it I read one more deity explained as an aspect of the thunderstorm I was going to puke.
He criticises two scholars who have had an immense influence on Neo-Paganism – James Frazer and Margaret Murray – but that’s understandable. That isn’t what the book is about, after all, nor the section. What he’s leading towards is an explanation of his own approach, expressing it well when he writes, “it is important to recall that the datum itself is more important than any theory that may be applied to it. Hence historical and comparative mythology, as practiced in this book, is in the last resort not beholden to any one theory on the “nature” of myth or even its ultimate “function” or “purpose” (p. 19).
Chapter 2 puts off Indo-European mythology for a while for a quick treatment of Semitic mythology, to put the Indo-European material in context. The chapter’s too short for this, though; he’s going to cover so many topics in the rest of the book that he can’t fit them all in here.
We then get a chapter about Indo-European, the Indo-Europeans, and reconstruction of language and culture. The introductory material on the first is good enough, although unremarkable. It’s the section on reconstruction that makes this chapter stand out among other short elements. Puhvel states the method of reconstruction succinctly: “The procedure is to evaluated in relation to one another such survival versions as can be judiciously isolated and identified” (p. 37). He then describes the branches of Indo-European, arguing for the importance of some (Italic, Greek, Indo-Iranian) over others (Albanian, Armenian, etc.). I think he gives short shrift to the Hittites, however. Even though they adopted much of their culture from the non-Indo-Europeans they lived among, they preserved much of their Indo-European heritage. Their ritual, for instance has much to tell us about that of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. I can understand, though, since covering this properly would have gone beyond the scope of the book.
There are some very funny things in this chapter. He attributes the Celts’ loss of dominance to “their lack of political discipline, coupled with a druidical tabu against writing and other quirks of national psychology” (34). And he describes French as “the descendant of a broken down import Latin in the mouths of Gaulish speakers, a patois related to classical Latin about as Haitian creole is to Standard French, subsequently refurbished with learned Latinisms through the bookish efforts of scholars” (36). Most of us think these sorts of things; it takes a scholar as well-respected as Puhvel was to dare to put them into print.
Now begins the second part of the book, in which he treats individually what he considers the Indo-European traditions most important for the purpose of comparative mythology. It’s good to see him include the Balts and Slavs, who are usually ignored because of the lateness of their evidence, and to spend enough time on the Celts and Germans, who are often relegated to a lower level than the big three of Indo-Iranian, Greek, and Italic.
Iran and India each get two chapters, but that’s OK with me, because it allows him to separate them into the early material, and the later epics. The early material is more IE than the later, of course. This is true in these tradition as in no others because of the great reforms that changed Vedism into Hinduism and Iranian Paganism into Zoroastrianism. However, even the epic material has been shown to have significant amounts of IE matter in it, so it needs to be presented.
The third part reverses the direction of the second one. There the individual traditions were in the foreground, with elements of them being put into IE context, whereas now he presents five IE themes, and discusses the evidence behind them. This is the part that interested me the most, because of my interest in PIE religion.
The themes are God and Warrior, King and Virgin, Horse and Rider, Fire in Water, and Twin and Brother. The first four are connected – the king comes from the warrior function, and sovereignty is connected with female figures, horses, and a sacred drink which is thought of as fire in water – but they have their individual interests as well. Because a major interest of mine is inauguration rituals, I found these four to be very useful.
In “God and Warrior,” Puhvel shows how the interaction between the martial and the sacred isn’t always a happy one. His particular interest here is in what’s called the “sins of the warrior.” A warrior breaks sacred rules, such as oaths or hospitality, and is brought down as a result. These frequently line up with the three Dumézilian functions.
“King and Virgin” covers the relationship between the royal and the female. What interested me the most in this chapter is Puvhel’s analysis of the story of Ma:dhavu:, which he connects with sovereignty. That’s a big interest of the tales from Ireland as well, a country lousy with kings, each of whom had to justify his rule. The reason for my interest is that this them applies to my fascination with horse sacrifices, with which Ma:dhavi: can be connected by her being equated with horses and with her name being based on *medhu “mead,” a drink connected with horse rituals.
Which leads into the next chapter, “Horse and Ruler.” Puhvel describes the “triptych” of IE horse sacrifice: the Vedic asvamedha, Roman October equus, and the Irish ritual described by Gerald of Wales in his History and Topography of Ireland. Each of these concerns a horse sacrifice connected with establishing and/or maintaining kingship. There are similarities among all three, and between each of them in groups of two, that make it likely they came from a PIE source. Puhvel includes a possible fourth comparandum, a Hittite law in which we find that even though bestiality is usually punishable by death, when it’s with a horse or mule it only disqualifies one for the priesthood. Since kings would have come from the warrior class, this would have been no problem, which implies at least the possibility that kings might sometimes have sex with horses.
The next chapter is on my second favorite IE topic, “Fire in Water.” I believe that be the central mystery of PIE religion was the preparation and consumption of a drink which was both fire and water, and the myth that justifies and explains it. That this is connected with both horses and inauguration rituals is a big plus for me. Puhvel is interested here in myth, not ritual, which is a little disappointing. I can’t blame him, though, since the ritual is something that would require its own book or books.
The final chapter, “Twin and Brother,” addresses creation myths involving one twin kill (sometimes specifically sacrificing) the other. This chapter is very short, and is more of an introduction than an investigation. I’m very surprised that he didn’t direct us to Bruce Lincoln’s work on this very topic (including an entire book, Myth, Cosmos, and Society: Indo-European Creation and Destruction), though.
The book does have other flaws. It’s not just Lincoln that’s left out; there’s no reference section at all. There are suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter, but these are severely limited. For example, for Greece he recommends only two books, and those by the same author, and some chapters have no recommendations at all.
Puhvel sometimes seems to be confused about his audience. He fluctuates between explaining and assuming. In many cases, most notably with the chapter “Twin and Brother,” he’s not doing much more than touching on topics.
I think the flaws have their basis in the reason he wrote the book. I think he took his colleagues urging literally, and just wrote down what he had in his mind. The book reads a lot like recordings of lectures. In a lecture hall, there would have been the opportunity to ask him to explain or elaborate, or for further reading, but that isn’t the case in this book, of course.
The book will be of varying use to different people, then. For those who are only interested in one ethnic tradition, it provides enough of an overview of other ones to be able to have an idea of what people in them are about. It might be useful for someone who hasn’t picked a tradition yet, and wants to see what’s out there. For those who are interested specifically in PIE or comparative IE, though, it could be very frustrating; due to its sparse references, it is more of a destination than a beginning. It would be hard to know where to go from here. For those of us who are fairly knowledgeable in the field already, however, it’s worth reading for Puhvel’s own opinions on certain topics.
I’ve also heard complaints that the book is hard to read. I think that that’s a result of Puhvel’s confusion over his audience. He doesn’t just sometimes forget whether he’s talking to those who are well-versed or beginners, he speaks in a somewhat academic manner. He can’t really be faulted for that; that’s the way such things are taught and explained, and it’s not necessarily even possible to discuss them without certain words. I myself run across this problem; sometimes people feel stupid because I explain things they know, and sometimes because I don’t explain things they don’t. It’s a hard distinction to make.
All in all, though, I think the book gives a fine overview of what the different IE traditions are about. Better than that, it gives some fine examples of how comparisons of myths should be done – there are indeed rules, and paying attention to Puhvel will give readers a good idea what those are and how they can be used. I think it’s a great book for the Dedicants’ Program.
Winn, Shan M. M. Heaven, Heroes, and Happiness: The Indo-European Roots of Western Ideology. New York: University Press of America, 1995.
(For the hearth culture requirement.)
Winn states his major influences in the Acknowledgements: Georges Dumézil, Jaan Puhvel, Bruce Lincoln, and Marija Gimbutas. Lincoln is a bit player, Dumézil’s is evident in Winn’s trifunctional title, and Puhvel’s influence are mostly a matter of technique. Gimbutas, however, is a huge influence, and the major flaw of the work.
In the Introduction, Winn gives the standard comments on how we can know about the Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIEs). He then states his agreement with Gimbutas’ kurgan theory of the PIE homeland. This is important because it adds archaeology to the methods. This is followed by an overview of the book in which he introduces the major "Patterns and Themes of Indo-European Ideology,” “Origins and Destinies Reinterpreted,” and “Indo-European Expansion and Ideological Impact.” This is an excellent summary of the book.
Under the first part, Winn gives a short introduction to the three functions. Part II concerns itself with creation, death, and eschatology, and part III how the themes of the Indo-European (IE) ideology are still playing themselves out today. His debt to Gimbutas is clear here, with depictions of the religion of the European pre-IEs as being centered around “the goddess.” (At least Winn doesn’t capitalize it.) The map of the world on p. 8 showing the areas in which IE languages are principal or official ones is dramatic, and might have made a good cover.
Chapter one starts with the standard definitions of IE, and how it was discovered. No surprises here. Winn then turns to a quick summary of the three functions (again, but more fleshed out), followed by another standard section, this time on how we know about the IE ideology, language, archaeology, and myth. We are told the Gimbutas myth again, about how myths about goddesses (at least this time the word is plural) “suggest that women played a dominant role in the religion and social organization of this people” (p. 24). One wonders how much Winn has studies such cultures as ancient Athens whose primary cult was of a goddess and whose women were almost slaves.
All this is followed by a short excursion into PIE myths, those surrounding the second function god, “The Striker,” and those connected with the sword. The low importance of the second, especially since it was something which the PIEs didn’t have, makes it an odd choice for a first chapter.
The next chapter concentrates on the importance of all three functions for completeness in IE ideology, all three being necessary to a society. Winn gives a fair number of examples in a number of categories: kinship, divine hierarchy, social. I like the comparison of the US government and the functions; I don’t like the representation of Cernunnos from the planetary vase (fig. 10) as an example of the importance of three functions. (As many ADFers know, I see the three-faced Cernunnos as one main face and two subsidiary ones facing in opposite directions. Even if I’m wrong, I think we have to be wary of seeing the three functions in every IE triplicity.)
Mixed in with all this is a mention of the importance of duality. I think Winn downplays this, which is a shame, because I think that the three functions are actually based on dualities.
In chapter 3, Winn touches on this some more, but only as part of class conflict between the first two functions and the third. You’d think this would make me happy, but it doesn’t. First, it puts too much emphasis on the “War of the Functions” as representing social conflict. Second, it allows Winn to bring in the goddess myth again, with matriarchy (the third function) giving way to patriarchy (the other two). While Winn recognizes that this war results in an acknowledgement of all three functions as necessary, he also insists that its effect was to maintain the class system. It certainly could theoretically do that, but since it didn’t in Ireland, Germania, Rome, and Greece, it could hardly be said to have been an important part of the ideology.
Chapter 4, “’Fear God’ – ‘Trust in God’,” treats the division of the first function into the duality of what Dumézil called the Mitra and Varuna aspects. Winn sees these as aspects of the head god *Dyeus. Again he follows up with examples from a number of IE cultures – India, Scandinavia, Rome, and Ireland. A large emphasis is on oaths, with a division between the “Magical, Religious” (Varuna) and “Legal, Contractual (Mitra, whose name Winn inexplicably spells “Mithra”). Like so much in this book, Winn oversimplifies; Mitra is far more than social, and Varuna far more that Cosmic.
Chapter 5, “Heroes with a Cause,” turns to the Second Function, the Warrior. Winn’s misunderstanding of PIE society as pastoral leads him to again emphasize the warrior/farmer split. The PIEs were almost certainly transhumant, that is, combining settle agriculture with herding. This means that farming was an integral part of society right from the beginning, and that, more important, originally any given Proto-Indo-European could have been both a warrior and a farmer. The pastoral error will echo through the book.
Winn follows with a good survey of warrior deities and myths from a number of different traditions. He then turns to the best-preserved myth, the slaying of the Serpent by the Warrior God. There is unfortunately only a cursory treatment of its bad side, another opportunity to recognize duality missed. A following section on kingship misinterprets kingship as being solely connected with the second function. Although I believe that kings do come from the Second function, Winn has already recognized, at least by implication, his place as being firmly in the First, as the representative of Mitra.
We now come to the Third Function, “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Here Winn’s misunderstanding of the PIEs as pastoral again causes problems, since it results in his placing the producers into a low position. Although this is seen in later IE traditions, I don’t see this as possible until IE society became more settled, allowing for a stratified society, rather than a transhumant one.
Winn covers the important parts of PIE religion that revolve around the Twin Gods and their sister. These are often ignored in treatments of PIE religion. Although Winn spends a fair amount of time on their possible dual paternity, however, he only mentions their being both the “Sons of the Sky God” in passing (p. 154). How they can both be sons of a god and one can be the son of a mortal is a problem left unsolved.
Chapter 7, “In the Beginning,” turns to what seems to be a well-preserved PIE myth, that of creation by the dismemberment of a divine being and the ordering of the world from its parts. I say ”seems” because almost all of the work on this has been done by one man, Bruce Lincoln. I think Lincoln’s probably right, but we still have to have some caution.
This myth is closely connected with life after death, first because the killed being goes on to be the lord of the land of the dead, and second because the dismemberment of the original being into the world means that we are part of the divine.
A split that Winn makes between a good land of the dead and a not-so-good one once again allows Winn to make social judgments. I think he is way off-base here. There isn’t any such division in Rome or India, and the division in Greece wasn’t between the third and the first two functions, but between almost everyone and a small number of heroes who were raised to semi-divine status, a tiny fraction of the upper-class dead.
Only now does Winn bring up the “Sins of the Warrior,” in which we encounter the bad, overly-violent side of the Second Function. His treatment of Mithraism is so wrong as to be odd. Winn is aware of the recent work of David Ulansey (although he isn’t referenced), but apparently not of the fact that Mithraic scholars, including Ulansey, think that the influence of Zoroastrianism was minimal. Maybe Winn knew of Ulansey’s work only second or third-hand, which would be sloppy scholarship.
“The Armageddon Cycle” (chapter 9) presents us with an eschatology involving a final battle, after which the world is renewed. Winn does not, however, seem to be aware of the possible myth that the parts of the body of the primordial sacrificial victim will be reconstituted, which is odd because this has been discussed by Bruce Lincoln in the same works in which he presents the creation myth that Winn has already given us.
The final section, “Indo-European Expansion and Ideological Impact,” is where the earlier rumblings of Gimbutas explode. We’re warned of this right away: the title of the first chapter is “Twilight of the Goddesses.” It’s sort of funny that a page after this title we are told (p. 238) of the importance of goddesses in Greece, Anatolia, India, and Celtica. That he then goes on to discuss trifunctional/transfunctional goddesses, when the gods are only in charge of part of what these goddesses are continues the humor: how can gods be more powerful than goddesses, when the gods are only in charge of part of what the goddesses are? And then we learn of the polyandry of these goddesses: they can do what women in IE society can’t. The emphasis on virginity in the story of Ma:dha:vi can be seen as a nod to Indian society, but the fact remains that her marriages were her own choice. Rhea Silvia, mother of Romulus and Remus, did not conceive parthenogenically, but by sex with a phallus sent by Mars, so that her sons’ father was Mars himself. I don’t know why Winn even brings up the Irish Medb in a section on virginity.
Now Winn turns to a favorite topic of mine, the horse sacrifice. This is naturally too short for me. Winn limits himself to listing the evidence and pointing out that the king, by conducting the sacrifice, acquires the blessing of the transfunctional goddess. There’s an odd error on p. 252, where Winn says that there’s a trifunctional sacrifice on the day of the Roman ritual. This isn’t true, and I wonder where he got the idea.
Now we do reach the “Great Goddess” in a section with the title “Ecological Reflections of Goddess Worship.” We learn here about the wonderful goddess of power and fertility, and the bad patriarchal IEs who demoted her (or should I say “Her?”) We learn as well about the only two PIE goddesses that can be reconstructed, Dawn and Sun. This isn’t true. We can reconstruct the names and functions of the goddesses of Death (*Kolyos “the Coverer”) and Wealth (*Gwouwinda: “Giver of Cattle”), and the functions of others, primarily a hearth goddess and a horse goddess (possibly named *Ekwona:). It’s particularly odd that Winn has told us that there was a powerful IE goddess of sovereignty connected with horses, but now forgets her. Winn points out that goddesses are more popular than gods among peasants in India today, without seeming to note how patriarchal those peasants are. But all this allows her to maintain that goddesses have been “relegated ... to the bottom of the tripartite hierarchy.”
I’m not just pissing and moaning about Gimbutasism. By his theories, Winn has missed an important part of the PIE ideology. He is saying that IE goddesses are, as a rule, associated with the third function, other than for a few exceptions. Two things are forgotten here. First, he has told us in this chapter about trifunctional goddesses. Second, Winn’s failed to ask the question of why there are the exceptions. What about Dawn and Sun (and Death, Hearth, and Sovereignty) kept them around, and unless the PIEs had no other goddesses, what made the other ones disappear? Winn has told us of how goddesses are connected with rivers, regions, and agriculture. What do these have in common? The Land. And what changes when people migrate? The Land. And what doesn’t? Social roles, death, the hearth, sovereignty, and dawn. The goddesses that could come with the IEs came, and those that couldn’t stayed. No need for gender-politics to be at work.
We now come to “A Collision of Cultures” (chapter 11). Gimbutas is often mentioned now, with her “Old Europe” being destroyed by the IEs. In they come, on their horses, weapons at their sides, to destroy the peaceful, Neolithic Goddess-worshipers. Winn’s evidence is primarily archaeological, and is legitimate as far as it describes the spread of the IEs (given certain assumptions about what cultures were IE and what weren’t, something I’m not qualified to address). Much of Winn’s interpretation of the evidence, however, is once more skewed by his mistaken belief that the early IEs were pastoral rather than transhumant.
Winn then turns towards the dispersal of the IE languages. There’s been so much work done in this area since the book was published, especially in Asia, that I won’t spend any time on this section.
The next chapter is the final one to address the question of how we know what we know. These techniques include looking where the animals and climates restricted to PIE can be found, evidence for pastoralism, technology, social structure, placenames, and relationships with other languages, bout IE and not. One would think that with all these sources we’d have no problems figuring out where the IE homeland was, but no such luck. The very fact that so many lines of evidence have had to be used is a good sign that none of them is sufficient, and indeed that all of them aren’t enough.
So now, in his final chapter, Winn turns to the homeland question. He goes through the ones that have been proposed, devoting a lot of space to demolishing Colin Renfrew’s Anatolian theory (and rightly so). He then spends even more space describing his preferred theory, the “kurgan hypothesis,” which puts the homeland in southern Russia, around the northern Black and Caspian seas. This is Gimbutas’ theory, and something that I actually agree with. It is as well the theory most common accepted by those in the field. With this, Winn is done.
There’s a large amount of evidence in this book, so many of Winn’s theories can be supported. A lot of this is due to his allegiance to Gimbutas, and most of the rest is due to his misinterpretation of the PIEs as pastoralists. For the first, I defer to Indo-European scholars, almost of whom oppose the Goddess theory. For the second, I can point to the existence of PIE words for “plow” and “pig,” the widespread transhumance of the IEs, and the universal and necessary close relationship between pastoralists and agriculturists. For these and other reasons, IE scholars (other than a few such as Winn) have turned away from a pastoral view. These theories also, as I have shown, cause Winn to miss the importance of evidence, sometimes to the extent of even ignoring what he himself has presented.
I have to admit, though, that the book’s a good read. I like the short cultural notes at the ends of each chapter. Unfortunately, these are the sections that most heavily rely on Gimbutas and pastoralism.
I would recommend that this book be removed from the Dedicant’s Program list. The large amount of evidence Winn presents could be useful to anyone familiar with the field, but Winn’s theories could be misleading to beginners.
Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
(For the modern Paganism requirement.)
This is a book that was long overdue. Wicca has suffered with a variety of myths about its origins, starting with Gardner’s assertion that it was a continuation of an ancient mystery cult, up to today’s common claim that it goes back to the Stone Age (usually connected with the “primal Goddess-religion” fantasy). In their place, Hutton puts detailed research and well-reasoned arguments.
The book is divided into two parts, “Macrocosm,” which describes what lead up to the creation of Wicca, and “Microcosm,” which follows its development and early history. My personal interests lie in the first section, although the second provides fascinating insights into the way in which the clash of personalities can affect a religion in its earliest years.
The first chapter, “Finding a Language,” gives an overview of European attitude towards Paganism. This has varied over time, with different attitudes sometimes existing at the same time. Pagans could be enlightened or libertine. Among many moderns, the libertine definition is common , and I have to say that the combination of nudity and ritual and casual sex found in many groups makes that a not entirely inaccurate description.
Hutton then goes on to “Finding a Goddess.” Much in this chapter surprised me. I hadn’t known how much attitudes towards the classical goddesses (in Europe they were always the classical ones, with the Egyptian Isis making a late entry) had changed over time. Particularly interesting was how the choice of the most important goddess changed. Perhaps the preeminence of Minerva in early American imagery should have prepared me, but I was still surprised.
What didn’t surprise me was the development of the Great Goddess belief. This was foreshadowed by a blurring of categories – Venus as goddess of the wild, for instance – but really took off with the writings of respected scholars such as Jane Ellen Harrison, who introduced the triple Goddess complex, even if she didn’t flesh it out what would become the Crone. J. G. Frazer, who was to be a greater influence on the development of the Wiccan God, had a hand in this as well, although his Goddess was a dual one, Maiden and Mother.
It was left to Robert Graves to flesh out the Triple Goddess in his astoundingly influential book, the White Goddess, published in 1948. In this book, Graves (who has a lot to answer for) tied together Celtic and classical goddesses into one Great Goddess. He marshalled a dizzying number of “facts,” which he throws at the reader in such profusion that they are overwhelmed. For good measure, he throws in a belief that the Goddess had a consort who was the god of the waxing and waning year.
In the next chapter, “Finding a God,” Hutton turns to this consort. Unlike the changing Goddess, the most popular male deity was Pan for a very long time. It was in the 19th century, however, that he became the Great God Pan, as part of the Romantic emphasis on Nature as good, and of sexuality as a creative force. Hutton hints that the representations of Satan as Pan-like date from this time, which would be a fascinating topic for another historian to follow up on.
Chapter 4, “Finding Structure,” traces the development of secret societies as the Masons. Particularly relevant is showing how the Masonic initiation ritual developed over time. His description of its final form shows it to be almost exactly the same as the Gardnerian first-degree initiation ritual. This isn’t surprising, since Gardner was a Co-Mason, but that the form which made it into Wicca didn’t exist before the early 19th century is a serious blow to any claims that Wicca is ancient.
“Finding a High Magic” (chapter 5) shows how ceremonial magic developed from ancient times to that of Gardner. Again we see how the forms found in Wicca, such as the tools and their use, didn’t exist until a modern period, in this case the Renaissance. This wasn’t much of a surprise to me, though, because I already knew that Gardner’s circle-casting was taken almost word-for-word from MacGregor Mather’s translation of the King of Solomon. Thus, although the elements of Wicca’s High Magic at first look to go back all the way to the Renaissance, they can't date from earlier than 1888, when Mathers made his translation.
The Golden Dawn now makes an appearance. Its system, which combined elements of Egyptian Paganism with the initiatory system of Freemasonry, is similar to that of Wicca. I’m not convinced, however, that Gardner could have been sufficiently familiar with what was still a secret society for it have been a direct influence. He was familiar with the published works of the Golden Dawn initiate and schismatic, Aleister Crowley, though, so there was an indirect influence.
Chapter 6, “Finding a Low Magic,” seems a bit out of place. I don’t see much of what it covers in Wicca. Perhaps that was its point, though, to eliminate one possible influence.
Chapter 7, “Finding a Folklore,” crystallized a vague unease I’ve had for some time. In it, Hutton shows how the belief that folk customs are survivals of ancient, and thus Pagan, ones, is unfounded, based on 19th and 20th century ideology and misunderstandings. The “folk = Pagan” equation turns out to have been a reaction to modernity, a longing for more traditional ways. This combined with the rather insulting belief that the “folk” – i.e. the rural – changed slowly, if at all. The folklorists were therefore uninterested in the historical development of folk customs; in fact, they didn’t even think such things existed. Gardner was a member of the Folklore Society, even publishing in their journal, so he was heavily invested in this view.
The next chapter, “Finding a Witchcraft,” describes the theories of witchcraft through the ages. This of course includes Margaret Murray’s, which would be the one at the root of Wicca.
Chapter 9, “Matrix,” covers literary treatments of magic and Paganism by such authors as Rudyard Kipling and W. B. Yeats, as well as the Woodcraft Chivalry movement. Hutton doesn’t think the last had any influence on Wicca, although the cultural views that led to it and that it expressed, as well as those of the writers he discusses, were those in which Wicca came into existence.
The final chapter in the first section, “God (and Goddess) Parents,” concerns itself with those who were around immediately before and during the creation of Wicca.
Hutton’s expressed interest is to show how such diverse sources could be woven into one religion. He has several times expressed an admiration for the creativity of Gardner and his associates. I certainly grant them that.
What strikes me most about the first section, though, is how inexorably it leads to the conclusion that Wicca is the creation of the later 1940s and early 1950s. The book reads like the summation of a detective at the end of a mystery novel; with each chapter a door slams shut, until there is only one left to go through. Hutton does this by showing how the major elements of Wicca – the Triple Goddess, folk customs as Pagan survivals, witchcraft as mystery cult, etc. – weren’t all in place until the point he claims for the creation of Wicca. Even more impressive, he’s able to show how it couldn’t have been created later than that. Not long after the date he suggests, some of these, such as the belief in academia in the Goddess, fall out of favor. Hutton is therefore able to determine almost a precise date for the origins of Wicca, no mean feat.
Since my personal interest in the development of Wicca is in the sources that were woven together to create it, my interest in the book declined as the second section went on, since it concerns itself with the development of Wicca rather than its origin. Naturally, much of what became Wicca is tied up in those early years – something had to be done with the sources traced in “Macrocosm” – but in this section my main interest was in how the sources were woven in more than the result.
The section’s first chapter, “Gerald Gardner,” starts with a short biography of Wicca’s Founding Father. He was certainly an interesting man, with an interesting and colorful life. Hutton is also able to show how although Dorothy Clutterback, the supposed head of the supposed coven into which Gardner was initiated, did exist, it’s highly unlikely that she was a Wiccan. All of this is important, of course, to the question of whether there was a pre-Gardnerian witch cult. My personal view is that there was a pre-Gardnerian magical group which had written the initiation rituals for the three degrees (although not necessarily the Great Rite part of the Third Degree) and developed the Eight Paths to Magic, but didn’t identify itself as witchcraft and wasn’t religious. That’s for another day, though.
The next chapter, “Gerald’s People,” essentially finishes the history of how Wicca was created. Hutton discusses the evolution of the Book of Shadows, particularly the importance of the contributions by Doreen Valiente. This period saw the expansion of the Wiccan ritual year to eight holy days, the ones celebrated by most Neo-Pagans, including ADF.
Chapters 13 – “The Wider Context: Hostility” and 14 – “The Wider Context: Reinforcement” – are concerned with the reactions of non-Wiccans to the new religion. The second is the most relevant to me, because it deals with folklorists, archaeologists, psychologists, etc., whose writings have been used to support the claims of Wiccans. Unfortunately, usually these writers have been working outsider their fields, or relying on secondary sources. That may have been fiction writers, such as Mary Sutcliffe, has made the border between truth and fantasy that much harder to find.
“Old Craft, New Craft” covers the claims of non-Gardnerians to be descended from old-time witchcraft as well. The most colorful of these was Sybil Leek. Her writings can serve as a warning: in The Complete Art of Witchcraft she includes the “Charge of the Goddess,” a thoroughly Gardnerian text.
Chapter 16, “The Man in Black,” turns to Robert Cochrane. Both his system of witchcraft and the man himself deserve an in-depth study. Unfortunately, Hutton’s treatment lacks the depth of the rest of the book.
Alex Sanders, the primary subject of chapter 17, “Royalty from the North,” is near and dear to my heart. My introduction to a fully-developed form of Wicca was through What Witches Do, an account of Sanders’ system by Stewart Farrar. Much of what we know about Sanders is on the level of gossip, not hard since he was so colorful. How did he acquire a copy of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows? Was he given it? Was it loaned to him? Did he steal it? Fun questions, with no answers.
“Uncle Sam, and the Goddess” (chapter 18) concerns, no surprise, what happened to Wicca in the US. Hutton’s look is cursory, not surprising given his overall intent and his nationality, as well as the size of the topic. He’s after all spent a over a dozen chapters on a small group of people; he could treat an entire country in one.
Cover it he must, though, because it’s in the US that the three most important changes to Wicca took place: the Goddess movement, festivals, and popularization. The first is an outgrowth of the feminist ideologies of people like Graves and incorporated such non-Americans as Marija Gimbutas, but developed its political bent in a good old-fashioned American way: a tension between the importance of the individual and small groups, and society as a whole; and a utopian vision. This allowed the assumption of a position that is way too popular today: “I’m better because I’m more oppressed.” This easily leads to bad history – my bad treatment (or rather, the bad treatment of the group with which I’ve identified myself) goes way back. Thus we get the “Burning Times,” and nine million women killed as witches. The biggest irony is that at the time Goddess spirituality proponents were coming up with this at the very time that historians of the Middle Ages were abandoning much of the work on which it was based.
The popularization of Wicca (and of all forms of Neo-Paganism) through the festival movement and through the creation of non-initiatory forms spread mostly through books, but also through the festivals, represents a sea change that I don’t think Hutton gives enough attention to. It anything, it’s this that represents the actual “Triumph” of his title. It’s from this that the growing acceptance, or at least acknowledgement, of Wicca as a religion that deserves a place at the table has its source.
There has been a reverse flow from the US to England, of which the festival movement is an example. Pagan gatherings there have become important, and songs written for and spread by US festivals have been incorporated into UK Paganism.
There have been some studies of American Neo-Paganism, Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon being the best known, but much more needs to be done. I don’t think Hutton has done much here, but then that wasn’t his main purpose, and his training doesn’t equip him well for a subject which is more anthropology than history.
The “Coming of Age” of Hutton’s next to last chapter is only in the most transitional sense. We have a lot of growing up to do, and will continue to come of age as shifts appear in the ways we express and interpret our religion.
What Hutton seems to be trying to express with that term, however, is the experience that one is supposed to have upon becoming an adult – facing one’s limitations, errors, and failings; in short, facing the truth. Isaac gets a favorable nod as having “ruthlessly and accurately exposed the shortcomings of the authors upon whom most Wiccans relied.” Other scholars are given their due. Margot Adler, of course, but also the highly controversial Aidan Kelly, whose analyses of the origins of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows has caused such a stir. Not only Neo-Pagans themselves have done this work; one of the important parts of age is being recognized as grown-up by others, and that’s starting to happen with Neo-Paganism. Of the academics which have begun studying us, Hutton mentions Tanya Luhrmann, whose Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft was a study of some British witchcraft groups from the point of view of an anthropologist. My personal impression of her book was that it was boring and muddled, but I might just not be familiar enough with the methods and writing styles of her discipline.
Hutton’s account of the changing views of the medieval witch hunt puts him right into his own field. It’s sad to see how much work has been done which so few Neo-Pagans are familiar with.
The book ends with Hutton’s analysis of what modern Wicca has become, and who practices it. I admire his attempt to define it, owing to the immense diversity it’s spawned. I can’t agree with his entire description, although that may be a regional thing; Wicca may still be a mystery religion in England, but that’s true for only a tiny percentage of American Wiccans.
What sort of people become Wiccans comes as no surprise. It’s nice to have figures, but it wouldn’t take too long at a gathering to discover that Neo-Pagans tend to be what might be called the “lower intelligentsia” – not so many professors, but lots of students; not so many doctors, but lots of health practitioners; not so many electronic company executives, but lots of programmers. Financially, the same division is true – not so many wealthy, but lots of middle class – although I get the impression that the English groups Hutton was looking at drew from a lower economic group that we find in America. I don’t think it’s possible to compare American and British Pagans politically. I can understand the small percentages of Tories Hutton found, but that wouldn’t transfer to American Conservatives. British parties are still strongly linked to class, and American ones are less so. My experience has been, in fact, that many American Pagans are of the classical Conservative bent, the philosophy that government should keep its nose of our lives as much as possible, with even a strong Libertarian leaning.
I love this book. It’s a gripping read, almost like a detective novel in its first half. Hutton follows every lead, and anticipates every counter-argument, until his conclusion, that Wicca is the product of the mid-twentieth century, has been established beyond a reasonable doubt. He does not do this out of rancor, however (he is, after all, a Gardnerian himself), but rather first because he’s an historian and that’s what they do, but more important because he believes that the creativity of what Wicca actually is is far more to be celebrated than any made-up history.
The second half is less successful. Hutton’s training as an historian equips him to deal with texts more than with personalities. The second half is more gossipy than historical, and Hutton, to his credit, is an historian, not a gossip. An account of the post-creation period of Wicca remains to be seen.
I would recommend this book to anyone who has to deal with the “Back to the Stone Age” theory, and to those who want to see how historical research is done. I can’t judge whether it belongs on the DP list, though. I myself came out of Wicca, and find books on its history not just fascinating but personally relevant. I would have to defer to those who came to ADF fresh for that decision. (In the interest of fairness, I should also note that Hutton is a friend, and that I’m referenced in the book.)
I’m glad I re-read this book. A second look is always enlightening, of course, and I’d forgotten just how much of a kick the book is.