Friday, December 17, 2010

Trials of the Moon Book Review: A New Witch War?

We in the Golden Dawn community are no strangers to flame war. The decade long periodical eruption of Golden Dawn flame war has gone far to destroy the reputation of our venerable tradition in the greater magical community.

Thankfully, this situation has improved greatly in our community, thanks to fine bloggers like VH Frater SR, H Frater AIT, and VH Soror FSO, whose fine and frequently well researched articles have raised the tone of scholarly discourse in our community to a level never witnessed before.

Sadly, events of the past week have shown that the Pagan community is not immune to flame war either, where the sort of propaganda war that we have witnessed being waged against one Golden Dawn order or the other, is now being waged clandestinely against Pagan scholar, Ben Whitmore.

For over a decade, Professor Ronald Hutton's study on the history of Wicca, Triumph of the Moon, has been considered by most Pagan scholars to have closed the book on the issue of the survival of elements of Paganism from Pagan antiquity. This has led to most Pagans defining themselves as "Neo"-Pagan, and the pervasive belief that the entire modern Pagan movement is based on mere reconstruction.

A new book has recently appeared, Trials of the Moon, by Ben Whitmore, that has reopened the case. Subsequent buzz in the blogosphere has made it clear that many Pagans are highly sensitive to these issues, and that even respected scholars are not immune to resorting to flame war tactics when cherished beliefs are called into question.

On The Witching Hour blog, for example, blogger "Peg" recently pretended to write a scholarly review of "Trials of the Moon", using flame war techniques to attempt to undermine Whitmore's credibility as an author. While completely ignoring the quite copious and well documented evidence that Whitmore presents, Peg writes:
"Whitmore is not an historian, nor even an academic. And this shows in his failure to observe the most rudimentary rules of objectivity and neutrality of stance."
I responded, commenting on her blog, exposing the flame war rhetorical tactics she was using and outlining my own objections to certain holes in Hutton's scholarship. Predictably, my comment was censored, underscoring that The Witching Hour review is not a serious critique of Whitmore's study, but merely the opening salvo in flame war designed to undermine Whitmore's credibility as an author and thereby suppress uncomfortable revelations about the holes in Professor Hutton's scholarship in "The Triumph of the Moon." 

This new-born flame war further escalated when respected Pagan scholar, Chas Clifton, quoted from "The Witching Hour" article, then added:
"Another example of [Unverifiable Personal Gnosis] UPG-fueld writing appears to be a book called Trials of the Moon, which purports to challenge Ronald Hutton’s historical books on Paganism without, y’know, actually having to do the depth of research that he does.
It’s sort of like wanting to bat against the San Francisco Giant Tim Lincecum’s pitching but demanding that you get to keep swinging and swinging until you hit one over the fence—none of that “three strikes and you’re out” stuff.
Some people like it even while admitting that it “offers no alternate theory or proposes any possible history” for Wicca."
One might consider Clifton's remarks as based merely on ignorance of the actual contents of Whitmore's study. It is, in any case, clear that Clifton has not actually read "Trials of he Moon." Whitmore is quite transparent that he is not an academic, but the evidence he presents clearly demonstrates nonetheless how Professor Hutton reached unsupported conclusions in "The Triumph of the Moon" and frequently even misquoted and misrepresented his sources. 

No, Whitmore does not present an alternative history, nor does he even try to. What he does do - is to conclusively demonstrate that the case for the survival of elements of Paganism from antiquity is far from closed, and that Professor Hutton has not at all closed the book on this as Pagan scholars have believed for nearly a decade. Moreover, contrary to what is misstated on both The Witching Hour and Chas Clifton's blogs, Whitmore clearly has done (and well documented) his research.

Sadly, I must also mention that on his blog, Chas Clifton likewise censored my rather innocuous defense of Whitmore's study in response to Clifton's rather uninformed remarks and having given "The Witching Hour" hack job undue attention. Thus, I can only conclude that we now have a full scale Witch War on our hands, where even well-respected Pagan scholars are stooping to flame war tactics (like cherry picking comments that represent only one side of a discussion) in order not to deal with uncomfortable new developments in Pagan scholarship.

In conclusion, my own criticism of Professor Hutton's study lies not in that it some sort of "evil" attack on cherished Pagan myths, but rather that Hutton's study is fatally flawed. Far too frequently, Dr. Hutton plays anthropologist, although he is not trained as an anthropologist nor does he even attempt to use the ethnographic method. Moreover, as Mr. Whitmore has demonstrated, Hutton frequently misquotes and misrepresents his sources. Finally, Professor Hutton makes sweeping, speculative generalizations completely outside of the stated geographic region of his study as, for example, in Hutton's completely unqualified remarks about C.G. Leland and the origins of Stregheria in Italy.


  1. Well said, brother. I have also chimed in on my blog. I think that this has been quite troubling to me and others. You can find my blog article here -

  2. I did not censor you. When a comment is deleted, a notice appears saying as much. So, as of the time of your accusatory post saying I deleted your rebuttal, nothing had been deleted. So why lie about it?

    I did, however, delete your comment linking to your accusatory blog post. I see no reason to allow you to publicize your blog post when it's full of insults.

  3. @ Peg
    Come on Peg. People on the Blogosphere have more intelligence than your cat. The notice only appears when you do not check "Remove forever" on Blogger.
    On the contrary, you just proved not only that you are cherry picking comments as part of your little Witch War against Ben Whitmore and Trials of the Moon. You have also proven that you are not above lying about it when exposed either.
    Transparency, not censorship, rules the blogosphere.

  4. In the interest of fairness, I just attempted to repost the originally censored comment on Peg's blog. Guess what?!? Unsurprisingly, Peg has now slapped moderator approval on the blog. It matters little as Peg's Witch War agenda against Whitmore has already been exposed.

    A simple Google Blog search for "Hutton Pagan" or "Trials of the Moon" makes clear that I am not at all the only Blogger objecting to Witch War tactics derailing serious, scholarly discussion of Whitmore's new and essential contribution to Pagan history.

  5. I am pleased to witness a growing chorus of bloggers speaking out against Witch War on the internet as a tool to suppress uncomfortable Pagan research. Here is yet another voice for sanity:

  6. What mostly annoys me in Hutton and his supporters is their anglocentrism. The English are superior, therefore nothing that happened elsewhere in Europe doesn't matter. That there is massive amounts of evidence that paganism and traditional ways of worship survived all over Europe well into beginning of 20th century (at which point they started to be so well publicized that it is impossible to discern any more where it is an actual continuation of ancient traditions or a revival based on published literature) doesn't matter because A) the evidence is published in other languages than English and therefore meaningless for Hutton and his cronies, and B) everybody in Europe (and the rest of the world for that matter) who is not English is a semi-human cave-ape anyway, and therefore of no interest for Superior English Ubermensch like Hutton and hos worshippers.

  7. Anonymous:
    Dr. Hutton is only Anglocentric because his books are defined as examining English traditions, which are the ones he knows best. He has never put down or attacked or attempted to undermine the traditions of any other country; he has refused offers to write a history of Neo-Paganism in the United States. England is his country, the site of most of his research, his readership, his publications. He has been initiated into many Wiccan and Druidic groups there and has led many. Any inferiority is clearly felt by you, and I'm sure he'd advise you to get over it.

    His devotion to paganism, as it happened, began with devotion to Venus while doing Latin translations in school and, later, when an adolescent in Malta at the time the great neolithic temples were being unearthed there, filling him with awe. But he has attended conferences and taken part in site studies in dozens of other countries, examined the work of scholars in twenty countries when doing his research into the Witch Trials, and has made friends in the Pagan communities of all these lands.

    England happens to be where Wicca was invented. That is why Hutton, an Englishman of the English Wiccan traditions, puts it first in his very English books.

  8. @ Brightshadow. Your use of anonymity has inspired me to likewise finally raise my own voice with unfettered truth without negative consequences for my academic career. I invite you therefore to my new blog, AN ACADEMIC WITCH UNGAGGED, where you will find my rebuttal to Prof. Hutton as well as to your defense of him.

  9. I have recently bought 'Trials of the Moon" and it is an EXCELLENT book. If nothing else, this little book is well worth the $12 I paid in that it mentions a huge list of writings by historians and other scholars on the history of witchcraft, both modern and ancient. I am so glad that finally someone has written a critique of "Triumph of the Moon" which I felt was full of holes, even when I read it 5 years ago. I can hardly wait until I read some of these books.

    What disturbs me and what I can't understand is why so many pagans and wiccans are so against the likelihood that this modern religion is rooted in an ancient and varied past.