Title: Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe: An Investigation
Publisher: Yale University Press
Author: Ronald Hutton
Price: $25.00 / $11.99
Mother Earth. The Fairy Queen. The Lady of the Night. The Cailleach. Who are they? Are they lingering expressions of a polytheistic faith that fell before Christianity? Are they Deities worshipped in secret by surviving Goddess-oriented cults? Are they unique demi-divine beings who evolved organically within European Christianity? Are they poetic metaphors? Are they expressions of socio-economic class differences and rebellion? All or none of the above?
In Queens of the Wild, Hutton explores these theories and many others. Focusing primarily on the British Isles and central/western Europe, from the early Middle Ages (post-conversion) up through the modern era (the end of the twentieth century), Hutton dives into literature, artwork, court transcripts, and architecture in his pursuit of an answer. After establishing his working definition — what he means by “pagan survival” — Hutton devotes four lengthy chapters to examining the most well-known examples of “pagan survival.” Some of these have Biblical antecedents or can possibly be traced to classical Greece or Rome. Others seemed to grow out of indigenous European folklore (especially in Ireland and Scotland) or out of the ravings of Christian priests intent on finding heresy and Satanic influence. Still others appear to be entirely modern, growing out of the anthropological studies of the academic elite.
Hutton is something of a controversial figure in the Pagan/polytheist community. Some find his discussions and conclusions engaging. Others find them frustratingly generalized and wildly inaccurate. Queens of the Wild is the first book by Hutton that I have read; based on that, I fall somewhere in the middle. Queens of the Wild is written in an accessible and entertaining style. It sucked me right in, and I was happy to lose myself in its pages. Hutton also makes extensive use of primary and secondary source material. I have found a lot of Medieval and Renaissance poems that I now want to read. I found myself frustrated, though, by vague allusions to modern academics who go unnamed in the main text (you have to dig into the notes to figure out who he’s referencing), and by the broad range of the survey itself. This is a lot of material covering a wide swath of time and space. I think many of Hutton’s critics would have been less critical if he had focused on a single country/culture group or a single figure.
“Pagan survival” is a subject that has intrigued and divided the polytheist community for decades. I don’t see that changing any time soon. Queens of the Wild is an important addition to this conversation. Love it or hate it, it is intriguing, with an extensive bibliography that will have you hunting for clues and answers yourself.
Recommended to fans of Hutton’s other work, as well as The Fairy Tellers by Nicholas Jubber, The Writing of the Gods by Edward Dolnick, Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler, and American Witches by Susan Fair.
[Reviewed by Rebecca Buchanan.]