Book Review: ‘The Stations of the Sun,’ Ronald Hutton, 1996.

Dim and ill-remembered shades of blood-soaked pagan fertility rites suppressed by the Church, sanitised and repackaged for a Christian age; attenuated echoes of a timeless, agrarian traditionalism surviving into the urban and rapidly industrialising present. This was the vision of the folk customs and festivals of the British Isles as refracted through the prism of late Victorian and early twentieth-century folklore and anthropology, disseminated and popularised by writers such as J.G. Frazer and Margaret Murray. It reached its popular apogee in the 1960s and 1970s, finding its ultimate cinematic expression in ‘The Wicker Man’, a film which, rather appropriately, held that Lord Summerisle’s Victorian grandfather – an educated, enlightened, yet somewhat cynical man – had reinstituted a reconstructed ‘lost’ paganism amongst the islanders as a matter of expediency in encouraging them to grow cultivars of crops otherwise unsuited to the Scottish island. He seems a character who would have been very much at home with the theories propounded by Frazer and Murray, but enough of this digression into pagan romanticism and cinematic trivia.  

Professor Hutton’s investigation into the traditions of the ritual year in Britain is carried out with commendable objectivity. Claims of survivals from the pagan past are placed under rigorous scrutiny, and in almost every instance are found wanting, with the very notion of the ‘Celtic’ year and its structure being called into question. What emerges instead is not some dim survival of a lost paganism, but of the lost world of pre-Reformation Britain; it is mediaeval Catholicism, rather than paganism, that would appear to give form to much of our ritual year and its associated customs, although not to all of them. Furthermore, the evidence that he unearths suggests that a number of folk customs that were once taken to be traditions drawn from a timeless agrarian society prove to be nothing of the sort, with many – such as some aspects of mumming – being of a much more recent provenance. Some practices, it would seem, were spontaneous creations of popular culture in a largely pre-literate age, in which a socially licensed breaking of social norms was accepted on the part of the younger members of the community. Halloween and ‘Mischief Night’ are the two notable contemporary manifestations of this tradition of youthful social transgression. 

The most detailed studies into the history of Morris dancing suggest that its first appearance was not in some Arcadian English setting, but in fifteenth-century London. This entertainment was popular at the early Tudor court, but by the mid-1520s Henry VIII had already grown tired of the dance, and had it dropped from his Christmas courtly revels. From London and high society, it disseminated outwards geographically, and downwards socially, so that by the early seventeenth century it had spread to many regions of England as a popular pastime. It is not the survival of a prehistoric pagan fertility dance. 

Hutton’s book thus reveals as much about the preoccupations of late-Victorian and early twentieth-century British society – an obsession with sex, fertility and paganism born, perhaps, of the disintegration of traditional Christian norms of sexual repression thanks to the challenges of Darwinism and the findings of anthropology in colonial cultures – as it does about the origins of our ritual year and its associated customs. Any reader interested in these themes will take much from this book, although dogmatic neopagans may not warm to it greatly.  

The only minor gripe that I have with the publication is that its font size is rather small.

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