Respect for modern pagan witchcraft . . .

March 12, 2000|By Victoria R. Sirota | By Victoria R. Sirota,Special to the Sun

"The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft," by Ronald Hutton. Oxford University Press. 470 pages. $32.50.

As an Episcopal priest, I opened the first pages of "The Triumph of the Moon" with great trepidation. What would I find? My Judeo-Christian background had instilled in me a fear of pagan witchcraft as anti-God and pro-Satan.

On the other hand, more recent feminist writers have suggested that the branding and killing of millions of intelligent and independent-minded women had been a significant manifestation of cultural misogyny. And the hysteria and sensationalism with which the media traditionally treats this topic (including the wildly popular recent independent film "The Blair Witch Project") only increase the superstition and confusion. Is pagan witchcraft worthy of an academic and scholarly approach, and can it be treated in a balanced and fair manner?

The answer to both questions is a resounding "yes." Ronald Hutton has given us a brilliant and meticulously researched history of modern pagan witchcraft in South Britain, "the only religion which England has ever given the world."

Pagan witchcraft is a nature religion, essentially benevolent and involving the performance of complex rituals. Hutton proves a trustworthy guide as we wander through a maze of material. There are writers and poets such as Byron, Keats, Shelley and D. H. Lawrence with their nostalgia for Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. There are also secret societies, folk customs, legends and ancient and contemporary books of charms and rituals.

It is this exotic literature that is particularly susceptible to misinformation and exaggeration. This is due in part to the secretive nature of witchcraft, as well as to society's prurient interest and fascination with the dark side. It is this sensational side of the subject that has kept the books flying off the shelves for centuries.

Hutton, on the other hand, bends over backwards to be even-handed. Indeed, he often seems surprised at the truth that he has uncovered, revealing "leaps of imagination" that have no basis in fact. Because of this, the density of the discourse sometimes makes for slow reading.

The greatest gift to the reader is Hutton's primary research, clearly among the most significant additions to contemporary writing on the subject. From 1991 to 1998, he made the acquaintance of hundreds of British witches, and became familiar with 21 covens.

On the basis of their testimony, he draws his own conclusions about the subject, finally stating that neither he nor the vast majority of witches who operate in Britain have any knowledge of pagan covens "which engage in sexual orgies, or blood sacrifices, or worship of demons." The objective tone of the book reflects his great respect for the people with whom he had contact.

This story of cunning persons and charmers, witches, wizards, ritual and magic is also the history of our culture seen from the underside -- the non Judeo-Christian elements that have always been present, pagan threads woven into a rich fabric from the most ancient of times. This book separates fact from fiction, and boldly seeks the truth. "The Triumph of the Moon" is not only a fascinating read, but a volume with which scholars will be contending for years to come.

Victoria R. Sirota is vicar of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Baltimore and National Chaplain of the American Guild of Organists, as well as Visiting Adjunct Professor of Sacred Music at the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary's Seminary and University.

Pub Date: 03/12/00

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