Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Ronald Hutton, Debunker of Historical Nonsense

It occurs to me that I haven't written much about Ronald Hutton. He's one of today's greatest living historians, doing incredibly useful work. His initial specialty was in researching the real time of origin of British holidays and customs. However, this led him to debunk many holiday customs now called pagan or prehistoric as being recently instituted for very different reasons. For example, many Southern England towns, like Ottery St. Mary (inspiration for Ron Weasley's hometown Ottery St. Catchpole) roll flaming tar barrels through town. As this site notes, the standard explanation now is that it's an ancient rite done to cleanse the streets of evil spirits. In actual fact, it was initially an anti-Catholic demonstration invented for Guy Fawkes Day, but was continued because it was fun and looked cool. Naturally, nobody wants to say "Oh, yeah, we're basically remembering our forefathers' KKK-like actions", so they fall back on the pagan explanation. (Sort of a baby, bathwater solution when it comes to religion....) Check out his accounts of how many villages still celebrate the kindness of Queen Catherine of Aragon.

Anyway, this debunking of pagan stories brought Hutton into contact with an awful lot of neopagan folks. (People tell me, btw, that "neopagan" is now considered a derogatory term in neopagan circles. Well, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to allocate the word "pagan" entirely to folks from America and Western Europe. That'd be kinda silly.) Hutton got interested in the tangled world of where all these Wiccans and modern Druids came from, and has become a historian of these new religions instead. Rigorous research and documentation has continued to characterize his work as far as I've read it.

Now, mind you, debunking the myths of neopagan origins is not going to make neopagans go away. There's a lot of power also in the idea that you can make up your own religion and liturgy, and that attracts just as many people as the pseudo-historical "ancient traditions passed down through the centuries". But given the large amount of neopagan ritual glommed from Catholicism and the relatively fast growth of neopagan groups, it's probably a good idea to read up on these things. A little more knowledge and understanding never hurt anybody.


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