THR Web Features   /   November 18, 2022

Hunting the White Goddess

History and the neo-pagan cultural imagination.

Jesse Russell

( Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, ca. 1786. William Blake.)

Reviewed Here

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

In 1948, an eccentric classicist and novelist named Robert Graves published The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, a critical and wide-ranging book that built upon the idea that the hunter gatherers and farmers of Europe and greater Eurasia were originally matriarchal goddess worshipping peoples. That worldview disappeared, however, when they were conquered by the Indo-Europeans who migrated across the Urals and imposed a patriarchal civilization upon the conquered people, forever silencing an older, matriarchal way of life. Or so it seemed to many scholars. Graves’s contribution was to posit that pre-historical European and Near Eastern goddess worship is secretly embedded in a host of European cultural artifacts, from pre-history to late modernity. And this thesis, it turned out, was appealing to a host of eclectic intellectual and political movements in the twentieth century.

It was an irresistible idea to many feminists, for one, that a suppressed and marginalized feminine culture might be the true heart of the West. Environmentalists, meanwhile, found much to celebrate in the suggestion that a generative and primitive culture centered around worship of Mother Earth was buried within western cultural artifacts. A green spirituality, they hoped, could be of great value in building a green future. Neo-pagans—especially Wiccans—celebrated the idea that pagan worship was hidden in a predominantly Christian culture and could further be uncovered through Da Vinci Code-esque scholarly explorations.

More recently, there have been factions on the right that came to advocate a rediscovery of authentic European or Western Culture, which was supposedly suppressed by Christianity. Providing an anti-Christian spin on Graves’s thesis, these right-wing pagans (sometimes identifiable in recent years in aesthetic elements within the “New” right or Alt-Right) do not necessarily view the invasion of Indo-Europeans and the establishment of patriarchal societies in Europe as a bad thing—quite the contrary. They nonetheless see European culture as being essentially pagan and Christianity as largely a foreign and debilitating imposition.

In his recent work, Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe: An Investigation, British folklorist Ronald Hutton takes aim at over one hundred years of scholarly and popular belief in the idea that not only goddess worship (of varying kinds), but other forms of prehistoric European paganism survive in European cultural artifacts. Hutton notes that beginning in the nineteenth century, folklorists developed the notion that paganism persisted in Europe in the Middle Ages, a time which they described as barely Christianized Europe. Paganism even persisted in the twentieth century, manifesting itself in films such as The Wicker Man (1973), which depicts a pagan sacrifice cult in modern, rural Scotland.

Hutton does not dismiss the idea that some forms of paganism have persisted, but his central thesis is that much of what figures like Robert Graves have viewed as the persistence of paganism was, in fact, the creation of Christian Europe. Hutton takes figures that folklorists and others have cited as evidence for the persistence of paganism from prehistory to late modernity or postmodernity such as Mother Earth, The Fairy Queen, and the Green Man.

Mother Earth is probably the most popular and celebrated figure in this list. Hutton notes that there were fertility goddesses—such as Hecate, Cybele, and Artemis—present in Asia Minor. There were also the Greek Gaia (popular today among certain environmentalists) as well as the Roman Terra Mater. However, Hutton notes that Gaia was largely ignored by the ancient Greeks and her cult was extremely tangential to pagan Greek worship—Terra Mater was even less significant. Aristotle did develop the idea of “Physis” or the generative power of nature, and this proto-scientific figure was taken up by the Romans in the form of Natura. Christians later adopted the notion of Nature as the “daughter” of God through whom God worked in the world—certainly there were some unorthodox and perhaps even pagan adaptations of Nature in the Middle Ages. Hutton argues that Nature was passed down by Christian hands and the idea of secret goddess worship or the persistence of paganism is unlikely.

The Fairy Queen is another figure whom some folklorists have traced to allegedly prehistoric times. She only appears, however, in late medieval texts in Britain and then largely disappears in the Early Modern period (although making an appearance in John Keats in the nineteenth century). “Fairy” is a French word introduced to Britain in the Middle Ages. The pre-Norman Germanic peoples of Britain did have words for magical creatures such as “elves,” which were often—but not always—wicked. There are other various figures in the classical world such as nymphs and Pans, a fact to which Hutton points to argue that cultural figures that have been thought to have their origins in prehistoric Europe are, in fact, loans from the Mediterranean world. However, Hutton’s key point is that fairy lore developed in the medieval period and is not a continuation of pre-Christian paganism. In various British medieval works, the faeries inhabit a fairy kingdom, which is depicted  as some sort of fantastic afterlife. They further appear in Renaissance literary works such as Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene and William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In his epilogue, Hutton treats the concept of the “Green Man” or the folkloric figure who allegedly appears in such medieval tales as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as well as even in the folk legends around Robin Hood. The notion of this wild or green man is very popular among some folklorists who see the presence of various May Day celebrations and other neo-pagan rites as the evidence of the persistence of this antique figure. Hutton, however, suggests that the Green Knight who appears in the late medieval Romance is simply a green knight who belongs more to chivalric literature than he does to pre-Christian fertility rites (this point certainly may be contested). As for Robin Hood, he was a (late) medieval historical figure around whom various legends and then, later, ethnographic stories grew—hardly a forest spirit. Finally, as for the belief that green men are part of consistent pagan culture dating from prehistoric times, Hutton notes that scholars have found it very difficult to find images of these men in artifacts prior to the Middle Ages.

Hutton’s thesis is not indisputable. Certainly, the argument could be made that Mother Earth, the Fairy Queen, and the Green Man will be discovered in some prehistoric barrow or bog in Europe. Moreover, there is a slight air of “debunking” or throwing cold water upon the idea of a persistent cultural tradition of Europe. Furthermore, there are numerous scholars who point to the various archetypes that do continually reoccur in European cultural memory. As French historian Michel Pastoureau notes in his The Bear: History of a Fallen King (2014), bears have served as important cultural archetypes for Europeans since the paleolithic era. Nonetheless, Hutton’s conclusions, which draw from the scholarly work of others, are deeply convincing and provide a warning to those attempting to recreate identities from the imagined past.

Beyond the folklore discipline, Queens of the Wild raises important questions about the continued attraction that purportedly pre-Christian spiritual expressions hold out for many people. It seems that neo-paganism is attractive in part because it offers an identity to those who have rejected postmodern, deracinated versions of Christianity and the respectable, middle-class church experience of the late twentieth century. There is no question that cultural identity is essential for human formation. However, the search for identity, as theorist Frederic Jameson famously noted in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, is itself a postmodern phenomenon. It is, in short, a necessary if sometimes futile effort: We need the past, but the past—which includes the deep, pre-Christian past—is frustratingly elusive and avoids making itself available to us in any authentic sense.