Queens of the Wild

Ronald Hutton

Ronald Hutton has examined the female deities that are pagan, but from a time when Christianity had taken hold.
Mother Earth, by Joseph Werner
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Queens of the Wild comes with two intentions: to introduce general readers to some striking and often neglected superhuman female figures from medieval and early modern Europe, and to make an intervention in a major current scholarly debate. That debate concerns the nature of pagan survivals in Europe after the conversion of most of the continent to Christianity. During the period between 1870 and 1970 there was a very widespread belief among historians that an active allegiance to the older religions had survived in various forms in European societies long after they had become nominally Christian.

In the later twentieth century the evidence for this was comprehensively reviewed, and found in every case to be flawed. It turned out that an active and conscious paganism did not seem to continue for more than a century or two in any area after it had been formally converted. On the other hand, the scholars who decided this also agreed that Christian Europe abounded in ‘pagan survivals’, meaning images, ideas, stories, rites and physical trappings that had been taken over from the preceding religious systems. In the new century, however, some historians have gone further to deny the validity of the term ‘pagan’ to these at all, holding that all of them were wholly Christianised, and so may be deemed aspects of Christian culture. This book is intended to recast the terms of the whole debate, by looking at figures in Christian European culture which do not seem to have been taken over directly from ancient paganism, and seem instead to be distinctively medieval or early modern, but have nothing Christian about them either.

There are four of these considered, one from elite and learned culture, and three from popular culture. The first, the one from literary sources, is Mother Earth or Nature, conceived as a superhuman female being tasked by the Christian God to care for the terrestrial world. She is rooted in ancient pagan poetic images, but there was no cult of such a being in the ancient world, which made it easier for Christian poets and philosophers to take her over. As such she was developed into a major character by the twelfth century and remained one in European culture ever since, giving rise eventually to the Goddess of modern feminist spirituality.

The second figure is the fairy queen, a beautiful immortal spirit with a royal entourage, inhabiting the wild places of the natural world, and residing inside hollow hills or in a parallel dimension. She appeared in the fourteenth century and was a major personality at all levels of British culture for the next three hundred years, befriending and aiding favoured humans. Her equivalent on the Continent was a mighty superhuman queen who travelled through the night with a retinue of spirits, holding revels and feasts and sometimes visiting the homes of individual humans or taking them with her on her journeys. She was especially thought to favour poor women and to give them magical powers. Her tradition appeared in the Rhineland in the ninth century, and then spread out across France, Germany, northern Spain and Italy over the following three hundred years, before contracting and breaking into distinctive regional forms in the early modern period. She was commonly called Diana or Herodias, but by many local names.

The final figure is distinctively Gaelic, being the Cailleach, an aged female being associated with the natural world and with winter. She evolved from older images of hags and long-lived royal women, but seems herself to have appeared in Ireland and Highland Scotland after the medieval period. All of them look very similar to ancient pagan goddesses, but seem to have been generated within Christian societies by people who thought themselves Christian. An epilogue to the book shows how this process is still continuing, with the emergence of the Green Man as a personifying spirit of nature in the late twentieth century. Put together, such beings suggest strongly that the old polarising terminology of pagan and Christian is inadequate to describe and understanding what was going on in Europe during the long period of Christian hegemony, especially with respect to the divine feminine. We need a new language, to describe a more complex and enigmatic history than that with which we have been familiar.

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