Ronald Hutton and the Paradox of Witchcraft

Ronald Hutton and the Paradox of Witchcraft April 16, 2013
Professor Ronald Hutton at Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes

At the risk of sounding like a fanboy (or perhaps, at the risk of exposing myself for the fanboy I am) the primary reason I went to Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes was Ronald Hutton. I’ve respected his work ever since I read The Triumph of the Moon in 2002 and I’ve enjoyed listening to some of his lectures on Druidcast. He doesn’t come across the ocean very often and when I saw he would be in South Carolina I knew I wanted to go.

He did not disappoint. His two talks were both intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging, despite his first one being given after being up for 42 straight hours due to flight complications. He answered questions, signed books and talked pleasantly with everyone. When part of our dinner group got put into a back room, he came around and visited with us for a while. Ronald Hutton is as good a person as he is a historian.

Professor Hutton’s current research is on the witch hunts and witch trials of the early modern period. He gave us a preview of his findings and while I’m not going to try to summarize his presentation, I do want to highlight a few of his points as they relate to the subject of magic and witchcraft.

Hutton said “we are the only society that both believes in witchcraft and doesn’t believe in it, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

At the core of witch hunts is the human desire for explanations. Something bad happens and we want to know why… and we want to know who to blame. Couple that with the ancient belief in malefic magic and when crops fail, cows go dry, or children die, people go looking for witches. The practice is far from gone – there are hundreds of witch killings in Africa and Asia every year.

Professor Hutton pointed out that in the time of the great witch hunts, there were very few witch executions in the Celtic countries (Scotland was notorious for witch killings, but they were all in the English-influenced border regions, not in the Highlands). When bad things happened, the Scots, Irish and Welsh blamed it on the faeries, not on the neighbors they didn’t like.

Even in our thoroughly (post) modern society, the belief in magic remains. In her presentation, Sara Amis told of a coworker who discovered Sara read Tarot, assumed she was a witch and asked her to work weather magic for her. When people have a need they look for any way to fill it, even if it doesn’t match what the mainstream society labels as “rational.”

In his second talk, Professor Hutton used the examples of Stonehenge and Lindow Man to show how the absence of proof leads to speculation that may be very wrong. No one knows why Stonehenge was built or what it was used for. There have been many theories over the centuries, some more likely than others, though none conclusive. In 2008 two separate, highly respected and well-funded groups conducted their own research. One came to the conclusion that Stonehenge was a healing temple, an ancient Celtic version of Lourdes. The other said it was a place for the dead that was rarely entered by the living. Is either explanation right? Is either even close?

Lindow Man is the well-preserved body of a man recovered from a bog in 1984. He was presented by no less an authority than the British Museum as the victim of a human sacrifice from Britain’s pre-Roman days. Yet as Professor Hutton explained (his argument can be found in Blood and Mistletoe, pages 27-28), while that is possible, the evidence is inconclusive. Lindow Man could have been a murder victim or a common execution. And while the dating of the body allows for the possibility Lindow Man died in the pre-Roman era, it’s also possible he died after the Romans left, or at some time during the Roman period.

Who’s right? The only completely accurate answer is We Don’t Know.

You are free to believe Lindow Man was a human sacrifice, or a murder victim, or an executed criminal. That doesn’t mean all interpretations are right. He was only one of those, or possibly something else no one has yet considered. We don’t know and neither do the experts and authorities. In the absence of proof, believe what seems most likely to you and remain open to new evidence and interpretation.

How do magic and witchcraft work? Some magicians insist there are good scientific explanations, or at least there will be once the state of the art of scientific investigation improves in a few generations. Some insist it’s all in your head (although I do love Lon Milo DuQuette’s caveat “you just have no idea how big your head is”). Some say it’s a spiritual operation, the alchemy of changing lead into gold – refining a human into a god. Our fundamentalist detractors say it’s the work of demons out to deceive us. And of course, there are those who say it doesn’t work at all.

Who’s right? Again, the only completely accurate answer is We Don’t Know.

Because there is no definitive explanation of magic and witchcraft we are free to choose the one that is most meaningful and helpful to us. That doesn’t mean any explanation is as good as any other. If we take our craft seriously, we will read and study and practice, and we will write and talk with others. While we will be grounded in tradition, we will change our models and myths as our studies and experiences move us in one direction or another.

Because the mainstream society claims to be rational (though the evidence would strongly indicate otherwise), we are safe to practice magic and witchcraft without fearing that our neighbors will come for us with torches and pitchforks when one of them gets the flu. Although occasionally we come across someone who blames their problems on magical attacks, the law won’t take them seriously and it generally frowns on lynch mobs. I am thankful we live in such a time and place, even as I do my best to re-enchant the world.

Ronald Hutton is right. We are the only society that both believes in witchcraft and doesn’t believe in it, and we need to keep it that way.

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  • You aren’t the only fanboy out there . . . .

    • Fanboy for a historian – I think that’s double nerd points… or is it triple? Doesn’t matter – I love his work and I was thrilled to meet him.

      • When I was studying in Wales a few years ago a group from my uni made a 4 hour road trip to Bristol to hear him give a lecture. It was worth it! He stayed after the lecture to shake our hands and speak us personally. That left a lasting impression on me. And I quite enjoy his scholarship too. He is a gem in our wider community.

        • A gem indeed. He does frustrate me some times, when I want him to tell me what he thinks is most likely, but I understand his professional reluctance to do more than present the facts and their context.

          • kenneth

            His professionalism is something that this area of scholarship desperately needed. A lot of what I’ve read of his of course challenged and changed some pre-conceptions I had, but none of it called into doubt the essential truth of my path or the validity of modern witchcraft.

  • He is not only a great scholar but also a very nice person. He also writes and speaks clearly, eloquently, and beautifully.

  • Excellent summary, John – thanks!

  • It’s interesting that Sara Amis’ co-worker asked her to do weather magic. The association between Witches and weather magic goes back at least to the late 14th century when John Trevisa described women who “sold wind” to sailors on the Isle of Man as practitioners of “wicchecraft”. The association is probably much older than that, but that is the earliest English language source for this specific connection that I know of. By the way, this proves that Ronald Hutton is completely wrong when he insists that prior to relatively recent times, “Witchcraft” was always on only associated with malefic magic, and that those who were referred to as “Witches” were hated by their neighbors. The Manx Witches were much appreciated for the (obviously very beneficial) weather magic that they performed.

  • Noni Mausa

    And of course, this is true of the society at large also, regarding the efficacy of prayer, for instance. A charming, though untrue tale ends “As the case made its way into court, the judge looked over the paperwork. At the hearing he commented, “I don’t know how I’m going to decide this case. It appears that we have a bar owner who believes in the power of prayer, and an entire church congregation that does not.”

    If prayer worked, the way electromagnetism or hydraulics does, very few people would “use” it the way we currently use prayer.

    Having said that, I think belief, as we use it, allows us to accomplish things that no other creature on the planet can touch.


    • Noni, the events of that story may not have happened, but the story is absolutely True.

      Prayer, magic, witchcraft – none of it works the way electromagnetism or hydraulics does. When we stop trying to pretend it does, then we can do those great things of which you speak.

    • Magic is just as much rule governed as electromagnetism is. It’s just the rules are different and far more nonlinear.

  • Thank you for this! I have not interacted with Prof. Hutton directly yet (though I have indirectly on a few occasions thus far…!?!), but I hope to do so at some stage in the future.

    I am also very appreciative of the point you’ve made, which gets made far too little in the modern Pagan world (and the modern liberal-minded world as well…not that I’m opposed to either of those worlds by any means!), namely, that not every answer is a good answer, and not every opinion is a good and/or valid one. The notion that liberals, Pagans, and others are relativists is very common…and, also, both very wrong and very not-at-all-useful. Complete and total relativism is, as my Thracian colleague pointed out, antithetical to progressivism, which is something I’m entirely in favor of. There are some viewpoints that I think are categorically wrong, and which are also not remotely useful, and the suggestion that they are “just as valid” is nonsensical to me. On some matters, we’ll never have adequate answers (at least under the state of current knowledge and the methods used to obtain knowledge); but even in those areas, some answers are still right out, in my view. Some matters really don’t need an open mind to be properly apprehended, they need a good set of critical skills; the latter usually leaves one with directions for action, whereas “just keeping an open mind” and never really achieving answers, or even attempting to have provisional ones, leaves one in a state of inaction and an inability to take further useful action. That may be good for zazen meditation, but I’m not a Zen Buddhist. 😉

    • Thanks, PSVL. As an engineer, I’ve got a strong preference for facts and for following where they lead. Interpretation is open, but not open to what the facts don’t support.

      I’ve got a post on “truth and meaning” incubating in my head. My weak background in philosophy makes me a little leery of getting too deep into it, but eventually I will.