A Review of Ronald Hutton's
The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles

I was staggered by the intense anti-feminism of this book, whose author has been praised as a reliable source and a rigorous scholar. He clearly has this opinion of himself, but in addition to large helpings of opinion and polemic, his book contains factual errors, mischaracterizations, and outright whoppers. These range from minor (identifying authors Phyllis Chesler and Evelyn Reed as "Chester" and "Read") to major (his claim that female reliefs in Breton megaliths "are the only prehistoric monuments in western Europe to bear the figure of an unmistakable female.")

Mr. Hutton had better go back and check the archaeological record again. Numerous female megalithic sculptures have been found along the Aveyron river, especially the area around Rodez, in Mas d'Azais and Mas Capelier (shown at left is one from St-Sernin). Back in 1962, Sibylle von Cles-Reden was citing some "fifty female statue menhirs" discovered in Languedoc. An incised female menhir at the Soto site in Huelva, Spain, is strikingly similar to a capstone petroglyph from Paradis in Guernsey. At Câtel on the same channel island stands the "Déhus," a fully sculptured female menhir (not to be confused with the "Gran'Mère" menhir at St-Martin, which is a Celtic-era resculpt of another archaic megalith).

Hutton declares that the stones in Iberian megalithic graves are "bare of art." Besides the ancestor/goddess at Soto, I can think of several statue menhirs from southwestern Iberia. A statue menhir from Bulhôa (Boulhosa) in the southern Portuguese Alentejo (shown below) is a sere human form wearing a necklace resembling those of the Aveyron goddesses. Over the Spanish border, a crowned face, necklace and belt are pecked into a menhir in the megalithic tomb at Granja de Toninuelo, and in relief on a stela at Caceres. There are, as well, the bone and schist "eye idols" at Los Millares, Montemar-o-novo, and other archaic Iberian sites.

The way Hutton frames the entire question is problematic, calculated to minimize a considerable body of evidence. He dismisses the widespread French goddess reliefs as "a late developing local cult." Well, not exactly local: the necklace-and-breasts motif is found in the Aveyron, Marne, Paris basin, Breton, and Guernsey statues and reliefs. These unquestionably belong to the megalithic continuum Hutton claims to be void of goddess iconography. (Jean-Pierre Mohen's 1989 study cites numerous examples of such art, though unfortunately omitting pictures of the most dramatic examples.) The Iberian and Corsican statue menhirs shoulded be included as well, and another example has turned up at Arco in the Italian Tyrol.

As for "late-developing," the vast majority of human representations flowered in the third, not the fourth milennium BCE. But many scholars see these goddessees or ancestral mothers as continuous with abstract "idols" of the earlier period. This view has more to recommend it than Hutton is willing to concede; he simply omits any description of the 3rd milennium megalithic images. (Perhaps he is simply unacquainted with them, but in that case he has no business making sweeping declarations that there are no such female images.) In the same vein, Hutton dismisses the ubiquitous clay figurines as "dolls" or aids in magic, fertility, "or to overcome gynaecological ailments." But he offers no explanation for their presence in burials. They figure in birth, increase, ritual, and death--but they can't be deities.

Hutton's agenda is most transparent when he "confront[s] the question of the goddess." Using the metaphor of all-out warfare, he praises scholars who "attack" the notion of a widespread neolithic goddess veneration, "blew [it] to pieces," and "brought it all down forever," with "no answer possible." Really? "Even Malta, long considered one of the most obvious centres of Neolithic goddess worship, fell before David Trump." This triumph was achieved simply by stating that the Maltese statues had small breasts and were, therefore, "androgynous." That no male statues of such voluptuous proportions have been found in any other culture, neolithic or otherwise, must be of little moment. Nor, apparently, is the presence of scores of quite similar fat neolithic figures (also small-breasted, and unmistakeably female) at sites in nearby Sardinia or further east, in the older Sesklo culture of the southern Balkans. At any rate, most scholars persist in thinking that the Maltese worshipped a goddess.

Hutton sets up a straw doll as "The" feminist model, then triumphantly knocks it down. In his view, all feminist thinking on the question of neolithic goddesses must be derived from that of Glyn Daniel and O.G.S. Crawford. He equates "radical feminist" attempts to recover goddess traditions with the dominant misconception of mainstream European and American scholars circa 1860-1960, who assumed that the "Middle East" was the only possible wellspring of advanced culture, therefore megaliths must have diffused to Europe from there. From my perspective as a feminist scholar, this was precisely the sort of assumption we were challenging back in the early '70s. All the scholarly sources were subject to question, because most refused to deal with the masses of female iconography or, like Hutton, claimed they were meaningless, and were in any case suspect for engrained assumptions of African inferiority and "Middle Eastern" superiority (the latter to be chalked up as a European predecessor).

I would like to see more skepticism regarding the classic Eurocentric bias of Oxbridge orthodoxy. Hutton claims that the European megaliths are the oldest in the world. Maybe: how about some documentation? Such declarations are at best premature since there has been little indepth investigation of megaliths in other parts of the world. My research shows strong similarities between European and Saharan menhirs (which both bear brows, nose and necklace in low relief). As I write, an AP news wire reports a calendrical alignment in the Egyptian Sahara older than any other known: 7000 years ago -- older than any known European megaliths.

Hutton's approach to Celtic times is similarly slanted. Comparative IE studies, linguistics and folklore get shorted. (So does iconography, which throughout the book is illustrated by poorly executed drawings, giving a rather hideous impression of the ancient art.) Eriu, Fótla and Banba are proposed as mere "literary inventions," and there is "no trace" of a triple goddess in the Irish and Welsh texts. Everything in the early medieval literature is dismissed as the invention of clerics. Hutton does a reverse on these writers' demotion of deities to historical mortals, suggesting instead that they elevated actual personages to deities (most notably in the case of Cerridwen, whose name he incorrectly translates as "crooked woman."). The guy won't even concede that Brigid/ Brig/ Brigantia was a widely worshipped goddess, but _could_ be "genuinely separate local deities with the same or similar names." Excuse me, but this know-nothing attitude is just obscurantist.

Hutton concludes that we know nearly nothing about pagan Europe, except a little from the Roman era. He seems eager to explain away many pagan deities (including the Norns and Wyrd Sisters) as derived from Greco-Roman or Christian sources, without offering even a shred of evidence for his assertions. He dismisses evidence of pagan survivals in the penitential books thus: "But the practices described really rank as magic or superstition rather than full-blown religion..." This claim begs the question, since open, free exercise of the old folk religions was against the law. During the early middle ages when the books were in use, it was often punished by flogging, land confiscation, even enslavement.

By this time, it is predictable that Hutton will take a minimalist stance on the witch hunts, with a conservative estimate of 40,000 deaths. He doesn't acknowledge other, much higher scholarly estimates in the hundreds of thousands, preferring to go for an easier target, the much-ballyhooed mythic figure of nine million. I won't try to argue the much-debated issue of numbers here. But Hutton's failure to address the growing body of European scholarship on pagan cultural themes in the witch hunts, including such eminent writers as Giuseppe Bonomo, Carlo Ginsberg, Bengt Ankarloo, Gustav Henningsen, Eva Pocs and Tekla Dömötor, is a serious omission.

While Hutton has some valuable information on Iolo Morgannwd's modern Welsh "druidry" and assorted other topics, I don't trust him, and wonder what else he's leaving out. In any case, most of his book is dry as dust, and I'm sorry I bothered to plough through it. If this is rigor, it is mortis. I found John Manley's Atlas of Prehistoric Britain a much juicier read. Many people are leery of the errors in popular books like the Llewelyn publications, but it's worth remembering that for all their trappings of objectivity, academic writers can also be inaccurate, misleading -- and biased.

© 1998 Max Dashu


A retort "In Defense of Ronald Hutton" was placed online in 2005 by a James F., who is secretive about his last name but wants you to know that "Max Dashu is a feminist. She teaches feminism; she writes about it. She's biased. Very biased." So now you know.

This writer included a reply by Mr Hutton himself, whose defense was that his sources had it wrong, and it was all so long ago. He says that the article (on this page, above) is "the work not of an academic of any sort but of a professional artist whose ideological stance is one of dedicated and extreme feminism." (Emphasis in original) Reader, you have been warned. Caveat lector...

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