Criticisms of the book Trials of the Moon:
Response to Peg Aloi
By Ben Whitmore, 27/4/2012
Peg Aloi published a highly critical review of my book in the same issue of The Pomegranate as Professor Hutton’s response to me (Aloi 2011). Her points may be answered as follows:
- Aloi criticises me for not researching primary sources, “even once”. But this was hardly necessary for a critique based largely around Hutton's own use of secondary sources.
- Aloi describes as “vague and outrageous” my claim that “Large sections of Hutton’s book—entire chapters even—are one-sided, misleading or plain wrong”. She observes that this claim is insufficiently footnoted to stand on its own. Perhaps so, but that introductory statement is prefaced by the words “I hope to show”, and is subsequently expanded and substantiated with careful references throughout the following seventy-eight pages.
- Regarding Gerald Gardner’s assertion to Aleister Crowley that he was a Royal Arch Mason—which Hutton disbelieves—Aloi incorrectly states that I attempted to prove that this assertion was true. I did not. I simply pointed out that this claim of Gardner’s is more plausible than Hutton allows, and that Hutton’s scepticism stems from a misunderstanding of Masonic degree structure. Aloi then, surprisingly, questions whether Gardner even made this claim, and opines that Crowley, a notorious liar, could have invented that part of their conversation. That is remotely possible, but I cannot conceive what Crowley’s reason for such a fabrication in his own personal diary might be, and from Hutton’s account of this story (1999:218-9) I believe he and I are in agreement that Gardner did indeed present himself in this way.
- Aloi suggests that I should properly credit Hutton for revealing “a citation from the late modern period for one of the most fundamental aspects of Wiccan ritual”: Eliphas Levi’s use of the pentagram in summoning and banishing the elements of the four quarters. I’m afraid this never occurred to me, as Levi’s system is famous among occultists, and its connection with Wicca, via the Golden Dawn’s Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, has (to my impression) been both obvious and well-known in the magical community for decades.
- Aloi believes I have misunderstood Hutton’s position on ancient goddesses, and am wrong to assume “that Hutton was saying there had never been any temples built, or any worship accorded, to any Great Goddess or Triple Goddess [of antiquity], ever.” Let’s examine what he says a little more closely, then.
First, we should be clear on terms: when Aloi says ‘Great Goddess’, I believe she means any goddess regarded as embodying all other goddesses; and a triple goddess is one deity embodying three aspects (as opposed to a partnership of three goddesses, such as the Greek Fates or Graces). Now, Hutton explicitly states thatthe overwhelming majority of ancient pagans genuinely believed that the different goddesses were separate personalities. In only one text from near the end of the pagan period, the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, was the writer's favourite female deity declared to be the embodiment of all other goddesses (or at least of the most important) and identified with the moon and with the whole of nature. It was, however, that highly atypical image from Apuleius which became the predominant concept of a goddess in the modern world.(1999:32)He then states that this concept became popular only about two centuries ago. Thus we seem to have a clear dismissal from Hutton of there having been any cult of a Great Goddess in the pagan world.
What about triple goddesses, then? The only triple goddess Hutton mentions is one he characterises as distinctively modern: the deity imagined by Jane Harrison and further developed by Robert Graves into her familiar form (pp. 36-7, 41-2). Despite Harrison’s and Graves’ claims that this deity was historical, Hutton concludes that she was of modern invention, and the culmination of only 150 years of development: “No temple had been built to her, and no public worship accorded; yet she had become one of the principal cultural images of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (p. 42). The whole thrust of the chapter containing these assertions is to demonstrate that Neopagan conceptions of the Goddess, though they draw on some ancient images, are essentially new inventions and quite different to the deities of the ancient world; Hutton sees the modern Goddess’ real origins as being in Romantic poetry and Christian imagery. So according to him, Harrison’s triple goddess arose from her attempt to reconcile the “apparently incompatible attributes” of a virgin-mother deity first dreamed up by Sir Arthur Evans—which in turn “owed an unmistakeable debt to the Christian tradition of the Virgin Mary” (pp. 36-7). In other words, the Virgin Mary was unconsciously projected onto antique mythology, then expanded from the two aspects of virgin and mother into a trinity.
So I understand Hutton as saying that the idea of a triple goddess is a modern invention, based in part on Christian myth. I see nothing inaccurate in how I have represented Hutton’s position on ancient goddesses. And I note that Hutton has not taken the opportunity to correct me regarding his position.
- Aloi misrepresents my own work on a number of points, all of which tend to cast it in an unflattering light. These points can briefly be corrected as follows: I do not call Hutton a liar or a fraud, as she claims; nor do I praise him as having a “superb knowledge of history”. I do not claim to set myself up as his successor (in fact, I present my work as a call for more and better scholarship to supersede both Hutton’s work and mine [Whitmore 2010:84]). I do not claim to prove Gardner’s involvement in either the hypothesised New Forest coven or in Co-Freemasonry. I do not claim to prove that Hutton is wrong regarding Dorothy Clutterbuck’s lack of involvement with witchcraft, or that her “occult-fascinated circle of friends” makes her a witch; and neither does Philip Heselton: both of us only present this as a possibility.
Aloi’s fixation with hard proofs not only misrepresents the nuanced approach I took through most of the book, but misses a point I tried to express to her very clearly in a private email exchange, some time before she began writing her formal review:… you seem to think I am intending to prove a number of things which I am not. Perhaps this is understandable: I offer a certain amount of evidence, that you might think is headed towards my drawing some conclusion, but I don't actually pass judgement. I use the words 'may', 'could' etc. quite a lot in the book, and in the conclusion I explicitly state that I am not attempting to advance my own account of the history of Wicca and paganism, and that I feel it would be premature to pronounce judgements in a number of areas. But perhaps you still interpreted me as attempting to offer proof. I do in some areas, don't get me wrong; but in many other areas I don't. (Pers. corr. 27/1/2011)I wrote this in response to an earlier "brief critique" she penned of my book (2010). Although Aloi still misconstrues several of my arguments as attempted proofs, she has apparently accepted other corrections I made in that email, as she has refrained from repeating several other major misconstruals of my book. For that I thank her.
- Aloi, Peg (2010) “Trials of the Moon: A Brief Critique” [weblog article]. http://themediawitches.blogspot.co.nz/2010/11/trials-of-moon-brief-critique.html. Retrieved 7/7/2011.
- Aloi, Peg (2011) “Review: Trials of the Moon” in The Pomegranate vol. 12 no. 2.
- Hutton, Ronald (1999) The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Whitmore, Ben (2010) Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft. Auckland: Briar Books.