Jumping the Gun

I confess to being way behind the curve on reading Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon. However, having dug into it at last, I am struck with a possibility that the text itself suggests. Triumph… can be read as the history of what happens when people jump on a band wagon, which has implications for how it is referenced in the Pagan community.

Hutton shows us the greater context from which the Modern Pagan movement emerged. Before scholars like James Frazier began popularizing the idea of a survival of ancient pagan religions, the Romantic movement laid a firm cultural and emotional foundation for such an idea to take root. In the nineteenth century, individuals working in the new disciplines of archeology and anthropology drew on the findings of geology and Darwin to suggest that human culture had evolved, in a stratified way, from primitive animism toward rational science. When Frazier wrote The Golden Bough he was, in fact, trying to discredit Christianity by establishing Christ as “just another” dying and risen god. When the Romantic movement was exposed to his ideas, however, they took it in a radically different direction. That trajectory, which utilized ideas by Frazier that had actually been discredited within his own field, established a literary tradition and a long standing obsession amongst amateur folklorists concerning pagan survivals.

Gerald Gardner did not simply decide to make up a new religion and call it old. There were two centuries of cultural groundwork laid underneath him before he began gathering together the people who would help him found the religion of Wicca. Academically, many aspects of Wicca’s pseudo-history were long abandoned. But they had found there way into the popular culture of the time, where they have yet to wash out completely. An important cluster of authors, scholars, and amateur investigators had created a seemingly consistent body of work, some of it referencing ideas in a circular fashion that gave the lay reader the impression of an established view.

It is quite easy to fall into the trap of assuming that because a number of very intelligent (or at least articulate) individuals in different fields say the same thing, it must be true. Which is why Triumph…’s reception contains a certain irony. Many voices lauding the book have, at the same time, neglected to mention that none of the events it chronicles occurred in a vacuum. Instead, Hutton’s excellent work has effectively been plundered for snark food, leaving the truly interesting and important material to drift to the bottom of the internet where it will never see the light of day.

Such, I suppose, is the fate of nuance and intelligent probing in an era when ideas get mugged rather than courted. Still, I would be nice to see some indication that Hutton’s book has a wider future than the slug fest of a chat room.

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