Book Review: Trials of the Moon by Ben Whitmore

Book Review: Trials of the Moon by Ben Whitmore November 21, 2010

Title: Trials of the Moon: A Critique of Ronald Hutton’s “The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft
Author: Ben Whitmore
Publisher: Briar Books
Genre: Religious History
Year: 2010
Pages: 100
ISBN13: 9780473174583
Binding: Paperback
Price: 11.00

Just as I was planning to sit down with Ginzburg, Frew, Hutton and an array of others over the Thanksgiving holiday, The Wild Hunt announced the publication of Ben Whitmore’s Trials of the Moon: A Critique of Ronald Hutton’s “The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft.”

Hutton was very influential on the young Pagan I was, and I honestly haven’t had a serious sit-down with his books in years. As I plan to focus more of my writing onto my own religion, Wicca, I feel a need to seriously study it’s history, especially now there are more resources available, and now that I have more resources than my 17 year old fast-food employee self ever did.

I wanted to read critiques of Hutton before picking up Triumph again, following the advice of a Pagan long ago who encouraged me to read the newest books first then work my way backwards through Pagan literature. At the time it seemed an odd way to study but it seems to fit my current needs.

Whitmore’s volume is slim and inexpensively bound (my copy found the back cover so misprinted as to be unintelligible). Excluding the index and bibliography it adds up to 85 pages densely covered in small print, with extensive footnotes. Which turns out to be plenty long enough for his task, which is to re-open avenues which Hutton has closed prematurely. He offers no alternate theory or proposes any possible history for Wicca but simply offers the evidence from respected academics which suggests that paganism did survive in some respects, and could possibly have provided the roots for modern Paganism.

I was especially astounded by a quote from Wilfred Isherwood in 1954, who’s family had participated in Souling plays for several generations:

[T]here’s a lot of people can’t understand it,’cause it’s really our religion. We believe in souling; we believe in ghosts, ’cause we’re supposed to be ghosts. Sometimes it’s not many of us are real attenders at church; because I think belief is more sentimental, private. And we all turn out on All Hallows Eve, we just come, and go.

There is a lot of talk today about our emphasis being on practice. We are Pagans because we practice as Pagans. Not because we confess a creed. Yet some of the argument against Pagan survivals is that practice does not a religion make. Think of that in context of our current traditions. As they used to say, put that in your pipe and smoke it!

I suggest anyone planning to re-visit Hutton or read Hutton for the first time to take a look at this quick and informative critique. It will strengthen your critical eye and make you hungry for more scholarship, whether that scholarship originates among the Ivy Leagues or at a kitchen table in Topeka.

After Yule you can expect more on the history of Wicca and Wicca in general from this blog and the Pagan portal at Patheos! Stay tuned!

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  • Sara A.

    I think Whitmore is right on. I have been reading my way through the scholarship on Early Modern witchcraft for a while now…Ginzburg, Pocs, Wilby and the rest…as well as that on the folk magic traditions still being practiced in Europe…as well as Frances Yates’ work and the responses to it…and yeah. I pretty much agree with everything Whitmore says. Especially with the way that Hutton likes to attack his critics as “feminist” like that’s a bad thing (and like it’s not valid…when an academic says “feminist criticism” they mean a specific kind of theoretical approach. Hutton should know that, but he always act like feminist = polemic and uneducated.) I didn’t know that Owen Davies was his student, but he pulls some of the same stuff..I read a book in which he blithely dismisses the work of people like Barbara Ehrenreich by saying there’s no evidence that women were targeted more than men, then contradicts himself in the very next sentence.

    One author I like is Claude Lecouteaux. He was a medieval history professor at the Sorbonne, so his credentials are spotless. Only two of his books have been translated into English, though. I am actually trying to learn enough French to read his book on grimoires, but it’s slow going.

  • Wade MacMorrighan

    Sara, I had no idea Prof. Lecouteux had a book on Grimoires! AWESOME! Considering he’s had 3 books trans. into English, now I hope this book will eb translated as well. I also hope the same of Anthropologist Christian Ratsch’s book on Beltane written in German!

  • Sara – I’ve heard this critique of Hutton before, that he’s anti-feminist. I was wondering if you could point me to where he makes his anti-feminist remarks or dismisses alternative theories as “feminist.” I have a few of his books and haven’t noticed this kind of anti-feminism in any of them, but then, I often feel that his writing is so dense with historical references and specialized language, perhaps I just missed it. So some suggestions about where to look would be helpful!

    Star, Thanks for the review. I’m definitely thinking about adding this book to my Solstice wish list. ;)

  • My very limited dealing with Prof. Hutton has shown him to be a very nice guy and I think he does have good intentions, so I hope no one takes my recommendation of this book as bashing him.

    Ali, Whitmore mentions Hutton calling his critics “Feminists” but I can’t pull up the page. I believe this may not be from his books but from interviews and responses to critiques. His response to Don Frew’s critique can be found with a little Google-fu.

    As far as Hutton’s books being dense, I never have made it past the first chapter of the book that starts off talking about circles. :o)

  • Hi Star, thanks for reviewing my book. I just wanted to respond regarding the very embarrassing printing issue with the back cover. This intermittent problem has now been permanently fixed, according to my printers/distributors CreateSpace. They have accepted responsibility for the issue and will replace defective copies. I think (hope) only a small number were affected, but I apologise to you and anyone else who had this problem. Please feel free to contact me (contact details on my website) if you have any difficulty getting a replacement.
    All the best!

  • Hey Ben, no worries! To be honest, I thought it was some sort of occult code when I first picked it up! lol

    It’s a great book! Thanks for writing it!

  • While I certainly disagree with the statement that “practice does not a religion make,” my reluctance to consider what I know about Pagan survivals to be part of a continuous tradition is a little different — I don’t see evidence that the *practitioners* thought of themselves as practicing the same religion. Certainly many British practitioners of folk magick (the “cunning folk” that Hutton and other speak of) considered themselves to be Christians.

    I hesitate to call a collection of hereditary folk magick traditions and contradictory scraps of myth a single religion. While contemporary Pagans gather practices and myths from all over the world under a single religious umbrella, that is a *modern* way of looking at these practices, even if syncretism was common in the ancient world. The religion of Egypt was not the religion of Babylonia, but those who draw on those traditions congregate together today for a variety of political and social reasons. I do not know if this was the case for the people who were practicing what are now being held up as “Wiccan survivals.” Some of the evidence for Wiccan survivals in Europe that I’ve seen actually looks like evidence against the claim of a continuous tradition, because to my eyes, their resemblance to modern Wicca is slight. I am not sure those practitioners would *want* to be claimed as ancestors by us; I’m not sure they would recognize what we do today as the same religion, and I don’t know if they thought of what they do as a religion. Even Gardner, who spoke of Wicca in terms of religion, treated it at times as more of a magickal practice or magickal order: it’s noted in published sources that he initiated practicing Christians. His comment on that was, “I can see no real reason why one cannot be a good enough though unorthodox Christian and a witch at the same time. It seems to me easier than being a Christian and a Communist” (Witchcraft Today p. 121).

    I think of contemporary Pagan traditions as being new religions based on old and new practices, and I see the need in our community to find additional historical legitimacy as a sign of insecurity.

  • Hi Helix
    I suggest you have a look at my book, in which I give many of the same cautions you so rightly express here. I don’t argue for Wicca as a pagan survival (though it may draw on some elements of paganism), and I discuss and fully credit the difficulty of identifying pagan survivals within Christian (or even nominally Christian) societies, where even magical practitioners identify themselves as Christian.
    My book is not a radical reinstating of the Murray thesis, or anything like that, but it does contain much food for thought. It is available free-to-view (minus front matter, bibliography and index) at http://www.goodgame.org.nz/trialsofthemoon.html

  • Prof. Hutton caught a lot of flack from certain quarters for being one of the critics of the Universal Neolithic Mother Goddess mythos. That might be why, at some point not too long ago, an alignment between “feminist” and “Hutton critic” might have made sense. I don’t recall anything antifeminist in his oeuvre. That does not have anything to do with TotM.

    I haven’t read the present book yet (haven’t been offered a review copy *cough cough*) so I can’t get into details on Trials v. Triumphs. It would be interesting to see Hutton’s response. He has generally been pretty fair to those critics who were above-board.