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22.11.09 Hutton, Queens of the Wild

22.11.09 Hutton, Queens of the Wild

Ronald Hutton, a prolific historian of both early modern Britain and contemporary British Paganism, has played a complex role in the integration of those fields. On the one hand, as a sympathetic writer with close ties to the Pagan community, he has done more than any other historian to make their religion academically respectable. On the other, he is deeply skeptical of Pagan myths of origin such as those promoted by Margaret Murray, which not only trace the religion back to antiquity, but allege its underground existence throughout the Middle Ages. The present book engages in some debunking and presents useful case studies of five folkloric figures: Mother Earth, the Fairy Queen, the Lady of the Night, the Cailleach, and the Green Man, treated in an epilogue as the only male figure in the volume.

In a preface, Hutton demythologizes his own title, which he says resulted from a “tug of war” between marketers who wanted to make his book sound “as colourful and alluring as possible” and his own “pedantic anxiety” to present it accurately (ix). In fact, he does not maintain that all the figures he examines were either pagan or goddesses, and some are decidedly post-Christian. Nevertheless, the book offers a wide-ranging, highly readable survey of some “queens of the wild” important to either medieval or modern Paganism. [1]

Hutton’s first chapter presents an eye-opening historiography of British paganism. He distinguishes sharply between “pagan survivals” in the Middle Ages and “the survival of paganism.” From the late nineteenth century until about 1970, writers in many fields--historians, folklorists, archaeologists, religionists, novelists--believed that a robust paganism had coexisted with medieval Christianity until the early modern era, when it was persecuted out of existence under the name of witchcraft. But that picture changed sharply in the late twentieth century. When revisionism came, it came swiftly, based on a plethora of detailed local studies that more persuasively reinterpreted the supposed evidence for a surviving paganism. The famous Cerne Abbas giant, for example--an enormous, ithyphallic figure carved into a chalk hillside in Dorset--turned out to be more likely a seventeenth-century creation. [2] Similarly, such “pagan survivals” as the mummers’ play and the sword dance also turn out to be early modern, while yet more folk customs date only to the nineteenth century. These are revivals rather than survivals, many of them inspired by the romantic medievalism of the Victorian era. Hutton insists vehemently that paganism, as anorganized or even a folk religion, did not long survive the introduction of Christianity to any given region. Actual pagan survivals, however, are not rare. Some of these are central to Catholicism itself, not least “the use of candles, incense, wreaths and garlands, altars, images, formal liturgies, hymns, vestments, choral music and sermons”--all aspects of ancient pagan worship into which the Church “poured a radically different theology” (30). More obvious survivals can be found in the realm of magic, whether complex ritual magic or the “popular service magic” performed by local cunning folk for their clients (32). Seasonal customs, such as midsummer fires and midwinter feasts centered on lights and greenery, are genuinely ancient, though their particular forms have often changed. Perhaps the most important line of continuity is European culture’s ongoing love affair with classical mythology, which has never ceased to shape its art, literature, folklore, and even public rituals.

One of the chief differences between ancient and modern Paganism, as Hutton has argued elsewhere, lies in their attitudes toward deity. [3] Ancient paganism was overwhelmingly polytheistic, with abundant cult practices but no theology at all, at least until the rise of Neoplatonism. But modern Paganism, especially in its Wiccan branch, is inclined to “duotheism”--the worship of a Great Goddess identified with nature and her male consort, a dying-and-rising vegetation god. The modern emergence (or re-emergence) of these deities is traced in Hutton’s chapters on Mother Earth and the Green Man. The former has genuine antecedents in the minor Greek goddess Gaia, the Roman Terra Mater (also minor), and the medieval literary goddess Natura. But her modern ascendency owes more to Romantic and Victorian poetry, novels, and not least, scholarly reconstructions of prehistory. Such luminaries as the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, the classicist Jane Ellen Harrison, and the Jungian psychoanalyst Erich Neumann created an overarching vision of Neolithic Goddess-worship, adjacent to the movement that promoted the idea of an underground paganism in medieval Europe. Literary figures ranging from the conservative Robert Graves (The White Goddess) to the feminist Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon) found versions of this Goddess highly compelling. Even after her myth began to crumble under the weight of revisionism, it was revived by the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas and adopted on faith by countless feminist Pagans. While Hutton does not deny that Neolithic peoples worshipped goddesses, he takes issue with the implicit monotheism of the construct, as well as its association with a peace-loving, life-affirming prehistoric matriarchy overthrown by waves of patriarchal Indo-European invaders. That model, promoted in such popular books as Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade, has an obvious appeal but cannot, alas, withstand historical scrutiny. [4]

Hutton credits the plausibility of such constructs, in part, to the rapid urbanization of Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which inspired a nostalgic idealization of the countryside and its supposedly timeless folkways. Another example is the figure of the Green Man, an early twentieth-century construct promoted by Julia Somerset, Lady Raglan. “Green men” do exist, of course: every medievalist will be familiar with the foliate heads sprouting greenery, found throughout English churches and cathedrals. The question is what, if anything, they meant. Lady Raglan connected these with several other phenomena: the Jack-in-the-Green figure in May Day celebrations, the Green Knight beheaded by Sir Gawain, pub signs depicting a Green Man, and even Robin Hood (or as she preferred to call him, Robin of the Wood). Inspired by Sir James Frazer and The Golden Bough, she found unmistakable evidence in such figures for a dying-and-rising fertility god, surviving in the heart of the medieval Church. Hutton presents some fascinating historical sleuth work to deconstruct her conflation. For example, the Jack-in-the-Green turns out to be a late eighteenth-century innovation of London chimney sweeps, introduced as part of their end-of-season fundraising performance--not even rural, let alone pagan. Robin Hood was based on a historical outlaw, while the pub signs denote an early modern version of the Wild Man (or Green Man) who played a role in Tudor-era urban pageants. But the foliate heads still elude any consensus interpretation, despite the work of numerous art historians and folklorists. They may, in fact, have been purely decorative. Not a single medieval author ever attempted to “explain” them.

The fairy queen, or elf queen, is more a literary than a religious figure, whom Hutton stresses is distinctively British. There is a clear distinction between Anglo-Saxon “elves,” who (before Tolkien glamorized them) were chiefly bringers of disease, and high medieval “fairies.” The latter were conceived as beautiful, seductive creatures “who appeared dancing at night in wild places, and with whom humans could mate” (78). Clerics literally demonized them, as Richard Firth Green has shown, [5] while Scottish witch trials in the early modern era dealt harshly with service magicians who claimed to have learned trade secrets from fairies. Romance writers took a more generous view; if fairy liaisons could be dangerous, that only heightened their allure. In Marie de France’s lai of Yonec, a shape-shifting fairy lover goes so far as to receive the Eucharist in order to prove he is not a demon. Hutton’s chapter ranges widely over romances, folk beliefs, and Elizabethan drama. It was Shakespeare who popularized the notion of a true fairy queen, Titania, with her husband Oberon, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So successful were these figures that the “virgin queen” Elizabeth was often entertained by fairy pageants, and Spenser allegorized her as Gloriana in his epic, The Faerie Queene. This courtly vogue for Faerie culminated in a seventeenth-century craze for cloying miniature fairies, with names like Pigwiggen and a tendency to ride forth in acorn cups. But “there was only so much of this stuff that a reasonable person could stand,” and the fashion quickly waned (108).

“The Lady of the Night” is the name Hutton gives to a puzzling figure of medieval popular belief, who may be a genuine pagan survival. The early medieval canon “Episcopi” denounces a superstition held by an “innumerable multitude” who, deluded by Satan, believed “that during the night they ride on certain beasts with the goddess Diana and an uncountable host of women,” and obey her as their mistress (111). This belief, originating in the Frankish heartland no later than the ninth century, spread far and wide across Europe and persisted until the end of the Middle Ages. Diana, the alleged leader of the host, acquired many other names in different regions, such as Holda, Unholde, Berchte, Bensozia, Satia, Lady Abundia, and most strangely, Herodias--the wife of Herod Antipas, blamed in the Gospels for the execution of John the Baptist. The ladies’ activities involved feasting, dancing, and sometimes the blessing of houses. They were not accused of causing harm and should not be confused with the Wild Hunt or night ride of the dead. Although the women’s belief was certainly not Christian, Hutton meets with little success in his efforts to link it with known pagan goddesses, ranging from Diana and Hecate to the horse goddess Epona, the Matronae, and the Valkyries. He concludes tentatively that the belief arose in the early Middle Ages and persisted because it so effectively served the needs of marginalized women, especially practitioners of magic, “enabling them to cope with established social and economic structures that worked to their disadvantage” and allowing “some pride, reputation and imagined or envisioned wish fulfilment” (138). But dreaming of night rides with Diana seems not to have been correlated with any actual practice, though it would tragically feed into the inquisitorial myth of the witches’ sabbath.

Finally, Hutton devotes a chapter to the Cailleach, a Gaelic word for Old Woman or Hag. The Cailleach is conceived as a giantess of immense age, tramping (and in some stories, creating) the hills and mountains of Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, and the Isle of Man. Though unknown to elite culture before the work of nineteenth-century folklorists, she appears in a wide range of tales, with some antecedents in medieval Irish poetry. Predictably by this point in the volume, she would emerge in a scholarly article of 1935 as a Gaelic version of the Great Goddess, a primeval nature deity. Hutton, of course, believes her to be no such thing, despite her undoubted prominence in regional folklore. Yet he adds that this debunking “need not strip her of her current spiritual and symbolic significance, or indeed...of her possible objective existence” (158). Few historians would be so generous on the last point. In a footnote, Hutton makes a similar point about the Earth Mother. This blend of skepticism with ontological humility renders him a uniquely refreshing guide to his field.



1. Following Hutton’s usage, I employ lower-case “paganism” for the ancient world and upper-case Paganism for the modern religion.

2. Although there is no documentation before the late seventeenth century, recent optically stimulated luminescence testing has suggested a date between 700 and 1100, so the jury is still out. The figure has certainly been altered over time.

3. Ronald Hutton, “The New Old Paganism,” in Witches, Druids and King Arthur (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2003), 87-135.

4. Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987).

5. Richard Firth Green, Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).