Ronald Hutton on Queens of the Wild

Ronald Hutton

In a new book, historian Ronald Hutton delves into Britain's pagan past, and we caught up with him to chat about it.
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Ronald, you wrote Queens of the Wild during 2020, when Covid struck the land, and we were all confined to our homes. Did this experience bring any historical examples to mind when writing the book – a time when plagues were a more frequent occurrence?

Covid was unprecedented, as never before could governments lock down whole nations with a single announcement, and air travel mean that a new virus variant appearing in (say) Malawi could be all over the world in four weeks. Queens of the Night was a good book to write during lockdown because I had done all the research for it already, and just had to put it together in my home.

One assumes the population of Britain, post Augustine and throughout the early Middle Ages would have become an increasingly Christian and religious population, but that’s not necessarily the case is it?

I don’t think that whole populations become more religious, as an instinct for religion is a random quality found in some people and not others. Christianity could, however, gain all the outward allegiance of a population in one or two centuries, but only by adopting many trappings and customs from older religions.

Is it easy to define paganism as simply those who have a belief in polytheism? After all, in your first chapter you mention ‘pagan survival’ would have been a familiar term to those interested in history in the last century.

Polytheism is one marker of paganism, but also of Hindus, who often don’t like being called pagans. It is better to define paganism as the pre-Christian religions of Europe and the Near East and Paganism (with a capital) as a complex of modern religions inspired by those.

Perhaps I’m going off on a slight tangent, but you mention the Cerne Abbas Giant, and that (according to a ‘50s travel guide) this pre-Christian figure would have been protected by the locals from the monks in the nearby abbey. Is that likely, since one would assume the church, if it didn’t want the ‘pagan’ symbol in situ, would have dealt with it?

It is indeed not likely that local country people would have possessed the power to prevent monks from removing a pagan figure right above their monastery. So the monks must have had a reason for perserving it. The latest dating of the Giant suggests he was medieval, and so must have been created by the monks: but the dating may be imperfect.

The more one reads of your book, the more the it seems many of our traditions are pagan in origin. With the increasing irrelevance of the church for many. Was it only ever a veneer, and we are the descendants of our pagan forebears – perhaps best exemplified by The Wicker Man?

Christianity was never only a veneer, but penetrated society and culture very deeply at every level. However, it could only do so by absorbing huge numbers of beliefs, customs, images, stories, structures and decorations from the pagan ancient world. Moreover it also, as I argue in my book, apparently proved capable of generating ideas and images which were not simply preserved from pagan antiquity, but developed within Christian culture.

Do you think pre-Christian deities (the goddesses Mother Earth, Fairy Queen, Mistress of the Night, and the Old Woman of Gaelic) are not pre-Christian, but instead developed after the introduction of Christianity to Britain?

Yes! That is indeed the central argument of Queens of the Wild, though it covers not just Britain but most of Europe. None of the figures that you name, which feature in the book – and I call them figures not deities because they weren’t actually worshipped – can definitely be shown to have come down directly from ancient paganism. On the other hand, there is nothing Christian about them whatsoever. Interestingly, they are all examples of powerful supernatural femininity, suggesting that they filled an important space left by Christian culture. They may mean that we need a new language to describe what is happening in medieval and early modern Europe, for which the old polarised and absolute terms of ‘Christian’ and ‘pagan’ are inadequate.

Are Witchcraft and Witch-finding/witch-hunting two ‘disciplines’ that are examples of where paganism and Christianity have come into conflict, but at the same time are reliant on each other?

Pagansm and Christianity did not come into conflict at all over witchcraft and witch-hunting, because both of them engaged in it, and Christianity drew heavily on ancient paganism for ideas and precedents that enabled it to hunt presumed witches. From pagan Mesopotamia and Persia it took the idea that bad people make pacts with demons to work destructive magic. From pagan Rome it took the image of the stereotypical witch as an evil old woman, and the example of large-scale witch trials with serial accusations. From pagan Germany it got the notion of female witches who fly around at night, bewitching people and holding cannibal feasts: the origins of the concept of the witches’ sabbath.

Much of England today seems as far away from pagan roots as it is possible to be, and so one imagines pagan traditions are more likely to be found in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Is that right?

No. There are as many old folk traditions and physical survivals of paganism in England than in other parts of Britain, and Ireland. Moreover, England has led the way in reviving both paganism and traditional customs. It is now rich, and rapidly getting richer, in seasonal celebrations that embody traditional rituals which in some cases descend directly from antiquity and in others are modern forms of very old customs. It was also the birthplace of the main traditions of modern Paganism, which have spread from there across the Western world. Scotland, Wales and Ireland are also full of important old beliefs and customs, and now abound in modern Pagans as well; but there is no reason to think that they are necessarily closer to pagan roots than England.

Ronald Hutton is the author of Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe – An Investigation, published by Yale University Press.