Queens of the Wild

This book is a classic example of the conflict between publisher and author. When I first saw publicity for Queens of the Wild I shook my head sadly. Surely Ronald Hutton knew better than that. And of course he does. Professor Hutton is a leading expert on paganism in the British Isles. He’s well aware of the difficulty of saying anything certain about such things. The first thing you find in the book is a preface in which Hutton describes his difficulties with the publisher over the matter of the title. Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe – An Investigation, is the least bad that he could get them to agree to. He regards the “an investigation” bit as key, and it is.

While the popular media (and, it seems, the publishing industry) is still wedded to Margaret Murray’s ideas of an underground, surviving paganism that holds true to Celtic beliefs throughout the Middle Ages, academia has long since moved on. Back in the 1990s, Hutton himself suggested making a distinction between “Surviving Paganism” – that is an actual surviving religion – and “Pagan Survivals” – that is elements of pagan belief that have survived the advent of Christianity. These days the academic consensus has apparently shifted so far in the other direction that even that sensible distinction is liable to be met with derisive laughter. Nevertheless, Hutton persists, and this book is his latest contribution to the debate.

One problem with the whole Surviving Paganism thing is that we have no clear idea of what “Celtic Religion” looked like. We have a bunch of god-names, often from single Romano-British temples. We have a bunch of myths written down centuries after the Romans left by Christian monks. And while Caesar and Tacitus might assure us that Druidism was key to ancient British beliefs, there’s no guarantee than Anglesey was some sort of Celtic Vatican. Indeed, anyone who studies ancient religion will tell you that worship is very localized. While various Celtic people might have a horse goddess, she might be seen very differently in Ulster, in Yorkshire, in Wiltshire, and in various parts of France.

A corollary of this is that arguments tend to be based on anecdata. The god Nodens, for example, who might be the same person as Nudd in Wales, and Nuada in Ireland, is known only from two Romano-British temples. He is equated to Mars, but only in his healing aspect, and to the woodland god, Silvanus. That’s not enough data to draw firm conclusions from.

Probably no one knows more about pagan religion in Europe than Hutton, and what he does in this book is to focus on four goddess types for which significant amounts of can be found in folk tales from all over Europe. There is also a section on one god, and I suspect that the book originally focused on all five equally, but the publishers wanted to highlight the goddesses.

First in Hutton’s sights is the concept of the Great Mother, or Mother Earth. Gaia was a very minor figure in Greek mythology, but Cybele, who was also a goddess of wild places, was hugely important in Rome. The concept of Natura had some currency in the Mediaeval world, but Mother Earth is more of a modern invention. Hutton points of that she is mainly a creation of intellectuals. There is little in folk tales about her. He has got me interested in reading some DH Lawrence, which is something I never thought possible.

Goddess number 2 is a British specialty, the Fairy Queen. She is largely a creation of the Elizabethan period (for obvious reasons), though she is based on folk tales about fairies which are common throughout these isles. The character of Oberon was invented in the early 16th Century, and the addition of Titania as his wife is down to that Shakespeare fellow. Belief in Fairies was clearly widespread at the time, as evidenced by court cases in which fraudsters have pretended to be Fairies in order to swindle the gullible out of their money. Hutton even mentions several plays which have this as a plot, though he misses my favourite. In Amyntas by Thomas Randolph the fraudsters trick a rich man out of his money by claiming that Oberon will turn him into a woman and marry him.

Next we come to the Lady of the Night. The Northern parts of Central Europe all have stories about a woman who rides around at night doing mischief. She is often known as Diana, but weirdly also as Herodias, the wife of King Herod from the New Testament. She and her wicked crew usually ride horses, but elements of her belief may have informed the Wakpurgisnacht tradition of witches riding forth on broomsticks. In actual pagan terms she may have a connection to Epona, the Celtic horse goddess who became popular with Roman cavalry units. Or she might be inspired by the Valkyrie of Norse mythology. What is clear is that she is an actual folk tradition and well inclined towards the poor if they treat her well. I’m wondering about connections to British protest movements characterized by men dressed as women such as the Rebecca Rioters of Wales or the Lady Skimmingtons of England.

Finally in the goddesses we have one who was largely new to me. This is the Cailleach, a hag figure common to Irish and Scottish folklore. This is not Herself, as the Cailleach has no war goddess aspect. Indeed she may not be a goddess at all in that early sources tend to refer to A Cailleach, not The Cailleach. Once again, these things evolve over the centuries.

The final section is devoted to The Green Man, and I’m sorry to inform Juliet McKenna fans that there is no evidence that the famous foliate faces in churches are evidence of a Pagan Survival. The whole theory was invented by Julia Somerset, Lady Raglan, in an essay for the journal of the Folklore Society in 1939. Foliate heads did not become fashionable in mediaeval art (manuscripts and church carvings) until the 10th Century. Nevertheless there are interesting things to be said about the concept of the Wild Man, and Hutton says them.

Queens of the Wild is an incredibly erudite book, and one that ought to be read by anyone interested in the subject because it is a masterclass in showing what can and can’t be done with the evidence.

Ultimately, however, we need to remember the basic tenet of neo-paganism, which is that religion is created by believers. It doesn’t matter whether you are following a genuine survival from ancient times, or something made up, as long as it works for you. Indeed, the whole idea that there is an authentic tradition, and that someone can be the guardian of that tradition, is antithetical to the anarchist tradition of neo-paganism.

book cover
Title: Queens of the Wild
By: Ronald Hutton
Publisher: Yale University Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura