Books: How Pan cast his spell on the suburbs

Nice people, nutty ideas: Robert Irwin uncovers the roots of modern witchcraft in fiction and fantasy

Robert Irwin
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:00

The Triumph

of the Moon

by Ronald Hutton

Oxford University Press, pounds 25, 485pp

IN 1989, Tanya Luhrmann published Persuasions of the Witch's Craft. This was an extremely readable account of what modern witches do and, more specifically, an analysis of how witches could continue to believe in the efficacy of their spells even when those spells failed to have any effect. Although Luhrmann was an outsider - a US anthropologist based in Cambridge - her account of the covens she infiltrated was remarkably sympathetic. Another noteworthy feature of her book was its stress on the role of fiction in shaping the rituals of witches today. Magicians read novels like J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out, and then incorporate images and plot motifs into their rites.

Now Ronald Hutton, professor of history at Bristol, has produced an historical account of modern pagan witchcraft. Like Luhrmann's book, of the Moon is surprisingly sympathetic towards its subject and it also stresses the role of fiction in modern occultism. Hutton has enjoyed the company of witches. One of his informants is a certain Lesley, who in 1983 decided to walk away from a depressing existence as a bored housewife and become a witch. He describes her as now "a happy, freckled, red-haired woman with a vulpine sense of mischief" and "a genuine power to infuse and use words".

Hutton is careful to highlight the good qualities of those witches he could not interview because they are no longer alive. Thus Gerald Gardner, who effectively invented modern witchcraft, is praised for his energy, determination and gentle personality. Alex Sanders, who in 1965 took the title of "King of the Witches", is similarly praised for his bravery and magnanimity. Yet admiration does not preclude scepticism, and Hutton's meticulously researched accounts of their teachings leaves little doubt that both men were plagiarists and tricksters who cobbled together their rituals from a bemusing range of sources.

Today's witches seem to be mostly harmless, even admirable people. Their colourful rituals, often conducted in the nude, not only sound fun, but may confer psychological and social benefits on their participants. However, of the Moon, which is densely argued and heavily annotated, leaves little doubt that the history which modern occultism has constructed for itself is bunk. The continuity of English paganism is illusory. Today's witches have no real links with either pre-Christian paganism or with any medieval covens.

Pagan witchcraft is a peculiarly modern religion, an invented tradition woven to- gether from the overlapping fantasies of eccentric archaeologists, folklorists and amateur historians. There is little or no evidence for the idea that there was a widespread cult of the Earth Mother in Neolithic times, or that matriarchy was ever the prevailing mode of ancient social organisation.

It is not true that in the middle ages witches were persecuted for proto- feminism, nor that nine million witches perished in a medieval holocaust. The English countryside has never been "a timeless place full of ancient secrets". These and numerous other foundation myths of modern witchcraft are courteously demolished.

Much of modern paganism's invented history has its source in overt fictions. The cult of Pan was really launched in novels and stories in and around the Edwardian era, such as Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and E M Forster's The Longest Journey. Pan variously stood for a return to pre-Christian values, for the countryside against the city, for the allurement of danger and even for gay sexuality.

Aleister Crowley's "Hymn to Pan" was most influential in establishing Pan as a god of occultism (the image of the Devil with horns and cloven hoofs is a 19th-century construct modelled on Pan). The quasi-literary nature of witchcraft in the 20th-century has been reinforced by the penchant of occultists for writing novels. Such leading figures as Crowley, Gerald Gardner and Starhawk have all written (rather poor) novels on occult themes.

of the Moon is packed with portraits of eccentric figures such as the cunning man Murrell, who cured warts and who "went abroad mostly at night, wearing iron goggles and carrying a basket and a whalebone umbrella". It recounts strange incidents such as "Operation Cone of Power", an alleged gathering of Gardnerian witches in the New Forest in 1940 to perform a ritual to avert Hitler's invasion of Britain. Such bizarre stuff is placed in historical context and related to broader ideological developments. It all makes for riveting reading and, despite Hutton's demolition of the supposed lineage of witchcraft, I am tempted after reading his book to become a witch myself.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments