1. Abstract

 

Views taken by scholars nowadays about a number of phenomena – the corn spirit, the nature of the ancient festival of Samhain, the Celtic New Year, the Jack-in-the-Green and the Green Man – differ from those that used to be taken by folklorists and anthropologists of the past. Those earlier views have been attacked in the writings of scholars, especially in Professor Ronald Hutton’s book The Stations of the Sun. In particular, this book has contributed to the researches of Sir James Frazer being brought into disrepute. However the writings of Hutton and the other critics themselves have serious flaws which ought to be brought to light. Especially, longstanding views in academic circles on issues relating to the corn spirit need to be radically revised. These errors seem to be connected with rationalist assumptions in the minds of scholars.

 

 

Introduction - Ronald Hutton and Paganism

 

Those interested in folklore or alternative spirituality will probably be aware of the books of Professor Ronald Hutton. He is a professor of history at Bristol University, who has specialised in pagan history (ancient and modern) and the history of British folk traditions. He has often made appearances on television. He has become a "well-known and much loved figure" in the British pagan community (Whitlock 2011, 33). When some of his books first appeared they were displeasing to some pagans, but there is now a general assumption among them that his research is well-founded. He appears as a speaker at pagan and new age events, and an interview with him has appeared in the “Pagan Dawn” journal.[1]

 

A book particularly relevant to pagan beliefs – and which seeks to discredit a range of such beliefs - is Hutton’s The Stations of the Sun (1996).[2] In this book (and others), Hutton describes and attacks ideas in the works of earlier authors, such as Sir James Frazer, Sir John Rhys, Margaret Murray, Robert Graves and Violet Alford. These authors used to be important in pagan thinking, but their theories are now, according to Hutton, totally discredited. In my experience non-academics who are aware of Hutton’s ideas nowadays uncritically accept them, and accordingly the works of those earlier authors seldom play a part in the discourse of today’s pagans. This is a loss to their movement, because some of the copious writings which Hutton rejects en masse contain a wealth of interesting ideas and recorded customs which might serve to enrich pagan rituals and thinking. I will not be attempting to justify all the ideas of these authors, but I will be indicating some areas where the attempts to discredit their ideas have clearly gone too far. In the case of one scholar in particular, Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), I should like to discuss his book The Golden Bough and to defend this work against Professor Hutton’s attacks.[3]

 

Firstly, though, some other shortcomings in The Stations of the Sun need to be mentioned. There are instances in this book in which what Professor Hutton says is ill-founded, because he has not taken sufficient care to read his sources properly. I will commence with his treatment of the issues of the figures of the Jack-in-the-Green, seen in processions and pagan ceremonies on May Day, and the Green Man, or carved foliate heads, found in old churches and cathedrals and other places.[4] He produces material on both figures, intended to show that neither represents pagan deities and that they were not regarded as associated traditions before the twentieth century.

        Notes

[1] See Pagan Dawn, issue 200 Summer 2016. It is also available at http://www.pagandawnmag.org/professor-ronald-hutton-reframing-modern-paganism/.  The interview contains the revealing statement by him that his work has “largely been intended to give modern Paganism a new history which can be proved from the records”. This has been accompanied by a policy of rejecting ideas about history that cannot be proved from records. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of religious beliefs. Such beliefs – including beliefs about historical events - are material that cannot be proved as true (or untrue). If they could be proved they would no longer be beliefs. To indicate that  beliefs should be limited to what can be proved to be true is inappropriate and misconceived. It would be interesting to see Professor Hutton try to apply this project to the beliefs of Christians and Moslems.

 

[2] The matters I address differ from those addressed by some other critics of Hutton, eg Ben Whitmore, whose book (Whitmore 2010) is a critique of Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon. However I agree with Whitmore that Hutton’s acute scepticism disenfranchises some pagans who feel kinship and connection with that which has gone before (Whitmore 2010, 2-3).

[3] Frazer and the others were all dead, so unable to reply to the criticisms of them. If there were to be any reply to the criticisms it could only come from a living person.

 

[4] Note that in this paper I use the term “Green Man” to mean only the foliate heads. Sometimes the term “Green Man” is used to mean both the foliate heads and the Jack-in-the-Green. The Jack may be treated as one manifestation of a broader category of Green Man, who may also cover traditional characters such as the Wild Man, the Green Knight, John Barleycorn and Robin Goodfellow.

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