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A brilliant book which has been on my reading list for far too long. Hutton looks thoroughly and critically at the records of ritual celebrations in England, Scotland and Wales over the centuries, and comes out with some very revisionist conclusions. I had always assumed, for instance, that the Bonfire Night celebrations of 5 November were direct descendants of ancient Celtic Samhain ritual, shifted by a few days; Hutton shows that in fact the evidence is that Bonfire Night started as a direct commemoration of the events of 1605, that earlier Samhain celebrations are recorded, if at all, elsewhere in the country, and that if there was any calendrical shift it was in the other direction, from the 17 November anniversary celebrations of Elizabeth I's accession.

Popular ritual seems to have always been in a state of flux and development, with even Morris dancing as a popular phenomenon dating back only to the 1560s. The only celebrations that Hutton ends up crediting with genuinely ancient roots are the solstices; fully the first quarter of the book looks at the changing nature of Christmas, and summer solstice bonfires do seem to go back to Celtic times. Not surprisingly, the Reformation and the flip-flopping of the 1550s seems to have had a very disruptive effect on ancient ceremonies, but that then opened up space for new practices to emerge, Bonfire Night being only the most widespread and visible.

The book is structured in terms of the calendar, allowing Hutton to take individual ceremonies one by one and look both at the records and the historiography. He is very critical of the folklorists of a hundred years ago as historians, including especially Cecil Sharp (who I knew of because of his Clare College connection) and basically anyone who bought the idea that all the rural celebrations were survivals of an otherwise lost pre-Christian past. In his conclusion, however, he finds space to praise them as inventors of a new literary movement which culminated in the development of Wicca. This leaves me with a couple of thoughts: one stat if Wicca works for some people, then it undeniably has its own truth; the other is that this is all happening at exactly the same time as Tolkien is creating his own mythology, as a consciously fictional (rather than wishfully historical) construction to fit more or less the same needs.

Anyway, Christmas is quite a good time to read this book, especially if you have encountered any recent nonsense about traditional Christian Christmas trees.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 26th, 2012 04:28 pm (UTC)
I love Hutton's work. You would probably enjoy his Triumph of the Moon, which is a detailed account of modern Wicca and its various originary myths, and continues the project of subjecting such myths to sceptical historical evaluation, without I think ever being sneeringly iconoclastic.

Interesting thought about Tolkien. Hutton's also written on JRRT, in Witches, Druids and King Arthur.
Dec. 26th, 2012 04:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks - I was hoping you might chime in!
Dec. 26th, 2012 05:24 pm (UTC)
This rambles, but bear with me.

Hutton has a long history of doing this, and to do so he has to set up a straw man, and pretend that people think the winter solstice was a "Celtic" thing. One problem for his hypothesis is that there really is very little[*] evidence for solstice celebrations among Celtic-speaking people in the British Isles, and absolutely none for the equinoxes.

Such celebrations clearly existed in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, but had died out by the Iron Age. Or at least there's no archaeological evidence of it, and obviously no written records because well, what does the word "prehistory" mean again? And at the very end of that, the Romans had surprisingly little to say about the British Isles, apart from "Aaaaaaaaagh! Picts! Scary!" Hutton has to use the very folklorists he despises when they claim something with which he disagrees.

The winter solstice was a Germanic and Nordic thing, brought by the English and the Vikings, both technically post-Christian in the British Isles, even though neither were when they arrived. Then there's the addition of a fictional Middle Eastern mythology that seems to fit some people's needs, which for some reason decided to celebrate their god's birth on a date that cannot possibly have been the case. But that mythology has so many strange coincidences with well-documented Roman and Egyptian mythologies that it's uncanny. You'd almost think it had a history of syncretism.

But anyway, the winter solstice didn't have to survive that long, as it was re-introduced by non-Christian invaders who turned up after Christianity had been brought to the British Isles. But you can use this to lie convincingly about it not being pre-Christian because, technically, as far as the British Isles are concerned, it isn't.

The contemporary Summer Solstice, on the other hand, is a wholly modern invention, that is fulfilling in a way that organised religion cannot be.

His Hallowe'en hypothesis mostly requires ignoring Scotland and Ireland as hard as he possibly can. Of course there's not much history of it in England - it's not a Germanic or Nordic festival.

One of the great problems of trying to study this sort of thing is that the non-Christian Celtic-speaking people, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings were proto-historic or barely historic. We have bugger all of their own writings for the period concerned, just what other (unfriendly) people wrote about them. The English- and Nordic- speaking people of England become proto-historic again for the period from 1066 till the 14th century, as nothing was written in the vernacular at all, to the degree that it is responsible for one of the Big Questions in linguistics.

But all of that only concerns the nobs. The majority of ordinary people were not literate until the late 19th century, and aren't fully so today. We only have what other people wrote about them, and it was mostly snobby upper-class clergy doing the writing to condemn whatever it was the ordinary folk were up to. The only neutral sources are archaeological, and at best that can tell us that there were festivals at certain times of year (because the shit pits are richer in the same layers as certain seasonal plant matter is found), that certain places were associated with use at certain times of year (again, seasonal plant matter in deposits) and such things. We can only guess as to what it all meant to the people doing the depositing.

But, if Hutton is right, and nothing is pre-Christian, then as a Christian you ought to be thoroughly ashamed of the cultural genocide committed in the name of that religion. Fortunately, I think the celebration at the darkest, most miserable time of year is a natural (non-tropical) human thing that transcends the Approved Superstition du Jour. It exists because we need it, and the power structures accommodate it.

[* None that I can think of, but let's pretend something has come up that I've not noticed]
Dec. 26th, 2012 06:00 pm (UTC)
I think you are being a little unfair on Hutton there - there certainly are people who think that solstices and equinoxes were part of Celtic culture, and not just on the fringes of neo-paganism, so to suggest that it doesn't need debunking because nobody important believes it is to miss the point of what Hutton is doing, I think. One of the things I like about his books is that he gives consideration to even the most far-fetched claims and tries to put them in a real historical context.
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