20 December 2022


Ronald Hutton. Queens of the Wild. Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe. An Investigation. Yale University Press, 2022.

In his introduction to this book, Ronald Hutton explains that for most of the last century and a half the concept of 'pagan survivals' dominated thinking about folklore and folk traditions, particularly in England. The idea grew that in the period from the Christianization of Saxon England until the religious upheavals of the Reformation, and in some cases even beyond that, Christian belief and practice had been a veneer over deeper pagan beliefs.
This was thought to be particularly true of country areas, where the more remote the more likely it was that the inhabitants had been “cheery semi-pagans” who “paid homage to the old deities by their firesides or at the time honoured haunts, grove or stone or spring” [1] This was the general opinion of many of the founders and early member of the Folk-Lore Society. One, E. S. Hartland, author of English Fairy and Other Folk Tales, claimed that the story of Lady Godiva was based on the pagan cult of a horse-riding goddess.

This strain of theorising arose in the nineteenth century when in the period from 1810 to 1910 the proportion of the British population living in the countryside and involved in agriculture declined from 80% to 20%. This had the effect of making rural dwellers seem an anomalous oddity, remote and perhaps rather strange and sinister. This chimed well with ideas of the Enlightenment and the growth of a materialist and scientific world-view which had no room for magical 'survivals'.

It also provided great inspiration for fiction writers, who created a whole genre of 'folk horror' stories long before the term became established. One of the first such stories was John Buchan's novel Witch Wood, set in the 1650s, which seems to have set the archetype with its account of a young minister coming to a remote Scottish parish to find that most of his parishioners belong to a cult which conducts depraved rituals at an ancient stone altar.

Nora Loft's The Devil's Own (written under the name of Peter Curtis) is set in modern Essex (where else?) where a “obsessive celibate spinster” encounters a pagan society which celebrates pagan festivals with “sexual orgies, naked dancing and gluttonous feasts”. In both these cases the protagonists manage to overcome the forces of reaction. Other intruders into these ancient rites, the Wicker Man for instance, are not so fortunate in their struggles.

Writers such as Rosemary Sutcliffe and most notably Margaret Murray, contributed to the popular acceptance of 'pagan survival' ideas to the extent that they became the default position not only in popular culture but also in much of academia, and through Gerald Gardner became the basis for an entire new religion. They also helped established a feminist perspective on the historical witch persecutions.

These ideas fitted well with 'sixties ideas of sexual liberation, the rejection of industrialisation and modern capitalism, and hostility to what were seen as oppressive religious norms and an openness to other forms of spirituality. However at the same time the academic world was also changing. Hutton suggests that in the 1970s and 1980s the professionalization of the academic system with a great expansion of higher education and an emphasis on research and publication, widened the social groups from which academics were recruited, and led to a re-evaluation of the earlier historical orthodoxies. This re-evaluation soon led to the realisation that much of the earlier research had been based on assumptions about society, and most particularly the role of class, in building the orthodox account.

There is the example of Mary Macleod Banks, President of the Folklore Society in the 1930s, who took it upon herself to upbraid one of the participants in the Padstow hobby horse procession for altering their costume, thus 'spoiling the rite'. Violet Alford, the daughter of a canon at Bristol Cathedral changed the Marshfield (Gloucestershire) mummers play 'to make it seem more solemn and religious'. The cultural anthropologist R. R. Marett proposed that such 'bygone rituals' should be restored to a more 'mystic' form, considering that the contemporary versions were 'boorish merrymaking.'

Hutton makes clear that there is a distinction between 'surviving paganism' and 'pagan survivals'. Events such as well-dressing ceremonies and various seasonal celebrations may have been carry-overs from pre-Christian times, but lost their connections with any earlier religious practice and became completely integrated within Christian conventions and did not continue as a parallel underground set of beliefs and rituals. To demonstrate this, Hutton examines four female archetypal figures to see how they fit into the earlier and modern revisionist vies of 'pagan survivals'.

Firstly he reviews the figure of 'Mother Earth'. This idea seems to have arisen as a literary convention, with no basis in any actual pagan belief system. Although the Greeks did have the goddess 'Gaia' – a name later requisitioned by modern environmentalists – she was a marginal figure in the pantheon, and mainly appeared as an emblematic figure in literature.

The modern idea of the all-encompassing Earth Mother evolved in the early nineteenth century, largely through writers and thinkers of the Romantic Movement like J.-J. Rousseau who sought to “strip away the empowering and dominating figure of the Christian god”, and perhaps more specifically the male Christian god. Hutton traces the growth of the idea, from the Romantics, via German classical scholars, through early twentieth century archaeologists who were interpreting new discoveries in the Middle East as evidence of a monotheistic goddess cult, eventually becoming interpreted as a worldwide goddess worshipping matriarchal society.

Hutton concludes that rather than being a 'pagan' figure that remained in popular belief and practice alongside Christianity, the Earth Mother was borrowed from classical philosophical and poetic roots to fill a gap in Christian theology that nineteenth century philosophers felt existed, but which then carried on to become an established part of modern Paganism.

Hutton then considers three more supernatural female figures, looking for evidence that they may represent some form of continuity pagan belief or practice into medieval and early modern Europe. The figure of the 'Fairy Queen' was largely a literary manifestation, which was popular from the thirteenth to the early seventeenth century, with a later manifestation in the Victorian era, largely as a growth of amateur academic interest in folk beliefs and customs. It survived into a late twentieth century revival as a 'spiritual' motif, and also as an actually experienced phenomenon. [2]

The broader belief in a hidden alternative fairy 'kingdom' was a major component of folk belief throughout this period, but almost entirely confined to England and Lowland Scotland. A fairy kingdom was considered to have a real-world existence, but there is no evidence that this belief was seen to be part of any 'underground' pagan practice, or have any continuity with pre-Christian beliefs. 

In contrast Hutton's third exhibit, the 'Lady of the Night' was the focus of a genuinely popular belief system, rather than one promoted through elite literature. She was a feminine spirit who rode nightly with her retinue, sometimes inviting humans to join her, largely in areas of northern Italy, the Alps and Franconia. Unlike many other human contacts with supernatural figures, this usually ended up benefiting the human participant, who gained status from their encounter. Most of these 'contactees' were women, usually what Hutton describes as 'service magicians', the healers, and purveyors of charms and potions.


Although the figure of the 'Lady of the Night' (Hutton uses this term to cover a number of individual names in different regions, such as Holda and Percht) has been interpreted as a continuation of a cult of Diana or other classical female figures, there seems to be no real evidence for this. She, in her various forms, manifests more a figure of rebellion, a protector and friend of the poor, particularly women, and her behaviour is more like a rebel than a goddess, perhaps appearing as a female Robin Hood figure, taking from the rich to give to the poor.

The final possible pagan 'goddess' figure to be considered is the Cailleach, from Celtic folklore. Cailleach simply means 'Old Woman' in Gaelic, and stories portray her as a giant; angry, destructive and hostile to humans, responsible for cattle plagues and the birth of handicapped children. In her character and actions she is as far as possible from the Lady of the Night, and seems to have more in common with the trolls of Scandinavian folklore in her random violence, and deep association with the landscape.

Hutton finds her almost totally absent from written records until the arrival of the systematic study of folklore in the nineteenth century. As the stories of the Cailleach were collected, compiled and analysed, the figure of a great Celtic goddess who survived from pre-Christian times began to emerge, not from the 'folk' but from the writers and anthologists who sought to see her as another variation on the theme of the Great Mother Goddess, dethroned by the arrival of Christianity.

Hutton's Epilogue switches to consider a male character considered to be a survival of pagan belief, the Green Man. This figure fits in well with current ecological concerns, and like the Earth Mother has been assumed to be a survival of early fertility cults. Images of men's faces surrounded by foliage, or with it growing from them like hair and beards, or flowing from the figure's mouth and ears do have a long history, but until quite recently these have appeared almost entirely in a Christian context as decorations inside and outside churches and in manuscripts. They are so prominent they were unlikely to have been 'smuggled in' to their sites by carpenters and carvers preserving their ancient hidden beliefs.

The idea that the Green Man was a historical pagan figure seems to have been almost entirely the work of one woman, Lady Raglan, Julia Somerset. In 1939 she published a paper in the Journal of the Folklore Society, claiming that the Green Man was the source of the many characters, dressing in flowers and foliage, that took part in folk customs celebrating the end of winter and the coming of spring. But Hutton makes it clear these celebrations and their accompanying carnival figures such as Jack of the Green arose spontaneously across Northern Europe as a natural reaction to the changing seasons, and did not need any single deity for their origins.

This book is a fascinating collection of folklore and folk belief, but perhaps more importantly it is a critique of the science of folklore itself, and the way folklorists have taken these customs and images and manipulated them to support their own ideas of pagan survivals. This may have been either an attempt to belittle established Christian beliefs (we see elements of this each year, with newspaper and Twitter comments about how every Christmas tradition is some kind of pagan survival) or to reveal a more academic and 'purer' form of folk belief, and tidy away the unruly chaos of what real 'folk' actually do and say to create a neat Unified Theory of Folklore.

After all, people dressing up, singing, dancing, telling scary stories, over-eating and drinking can't be doing it just for 'boorish merrymaking', can they?
  • John Rimmer

[1] G.C. Coulton, Five Centuries of Religion, Vol I, Cambridge 1925.

[2] Marjorie T. Johnson. Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society,


1 comment:

  1. Hutton may be considered a scholar, however, his broad brush strokes to rationalize and whitewash an entire branch of magic and magical entities deemed as folklore and 19th c fabrications, fails. This is the branch with the least amount of leaves because those 'wise' women and their ways were passed down orally, and used when needed, otherwise remain hidden. There are a few old sources in celtic, nordic/teutonic and slavic folklore that he fails to mention as well. While a few of his other works are more explorative, this one reads like a man with a science created bone to pick. One highly selective book does not prove a thing.