Ronald Hutton and the Gods
I am led from reflections in recent post on the figure of the woman from the Otherworld on a horse emerging in different guises - here as Rhiannon, there as the ‘Queen of Elfland’, elsewhere in another guise - to consideration of an article by Ronald Hutton in a recent issue of the journal Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies in which he casts doubt on the interpretation of characters in medieval stories - in particular those collected in The Mabinogion – as survivals of pagan gods. For example, he questions the back construction of the Brythonic goddess *Rigantona on linguistic evidence alone from Rhiannon whose name has been seen as a plausible development from *Rigantona. In the process of doing this he also casts doubt on the sovereignty argument, which sees goddesses as conferring sovereignty on kings or tribal leaders, as “a back-projection from medieval texts” rather than anything that can be attested in Antiquity. Hutton also casts doubt on the connection of Mabon with the undisputed Brythonic god Maponos, and of Lleu with Lugh , and in the process casts doubt on the provenance of Lugus as a pan-celtic deity. Hutton has apparently undertaken this review as an historian attempting to bring a broader understanding to the subject than is often brought by those working within narrower single disciplines such as philology, archaeology or folklore studies.
One of the points Hutton makes is that, in some cases, many of the elements in these medieval stories are international folklore motifs rather than themes restricted to Celtic cultures and that the borrowing of a name might take place without the attribution of the borrowed identity being also transferred. So the transfer of, for example, an epithet of Lugh in Ireland to Lleu in a story composed in Wales, does not imply any meaningful transfer of the deity status of Lugh to a Welsh context. Such arguments, alongside those of denying pagan survivals on the basis of linguistic evidence alone, will no doubt be assessed in responses from other scholars within the fields cited by Hutton. He also hopes that the arguments will be considered by others interested in the subject. What of those who have sought to construct a religious practice centred on Brythonic deities? For them many of the characters in what Hutton calls “wonder tales, in which apparently human characters frequently possess magical abilities” are seen as gods. Experiencing them as such is often validated by, though not entirely dependent upon, the fact that scholars have confirmed this view.
Whether one chooses to regard the gods as inhabiting the human psyche and therefore able to emerge when needed, as figures that can form and reform across cultures adapting different identities, or as beings with their own lives who choose to enter human consciousness in different ways at different times or in different places; to those for whom the gods are real in any of these ways, the problems raised by Hutton will not be problems at all. Whatever scholarship may bring to bear on the history of religion, the lives and messages of the proponents of religion and the provenance of various religious practices, it cannot address the question of the existence or otherwise of a god or gods. Gods, by definition, just are.
The recognition of a goddess on horseback possessing Otherworld qualities in the story of Rhiannon is not in itself dependent on scholarly identification of a likely divine source for her name. The fact that similar, but independent, stories exist which are equally expressive, such as the Scottish Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, are better reinforcements of human responses to the mythical life of the deity. And the expression of the mythical pattern in the folklore of different cultures is a further reinforcement of this feeling rather than an argument against it. If there are other medieval tales of women on magical horses moving at uncanny paces, as cited by Hutton referring to work by Jessica Hemming, this will further reinforce that view. So data used by Hutton to prove a particular point about the lack of specific continuity within a particular culture, might be seen as validating the view he is trying to invalidate. How can this be so?
To answer this, we could take the approach of Hutton as an engagement on an axis between scepticism about the pagan origins of medieval characters and at the other end of the axis, say, the theories of Caitlin Matthews who provides a systematic set of correspondences between these characters and Brythonic deities and supposed religious practices. The scholars cited by Hutton are nowhere near this extreme end of the spectrum but do, in varying degrees, affirm the correspondence between pagan deities and medieval fictional characters. Brythonic pagans will of course draw succour from such views, but, I suggest, should not base their religious practices on them. If, instead, we think along an axis at right angles, or some other angle, off this continuum, and suggest that historical correspondence is not the point so much as the identification of the nature of deity, then the questions will b e different ones. Can the gods choose to reveal themselves by inhabiting stories? Does it matter (to them or us) if we actually call them gods? Can stories generate themselves as a vehicle for such a process and transform themselves over time? Such questions may seem fantastic in the context of the debate along the historical continuum axis. But if these matters are to be approached by those who think of themselves as adherents of a pagan religion, then they are questions that will be to the fore, informed by research and conclusions developed on the other axis – and indeed further other axes – but not ultimately determined by them.
Would one be deluded in asking such questions? That is something that can be asked of religious believers in any faith. The Welsh Quaker poet Waldo Williams asked it of himself, and concluded that no adherents of any religion had anything but their own experiences to rely on. ‘Belief’ can be a matter of communal or social choice, but this doesn’t necessarily entail experience of a deity. Those who do have such experiences will, perhaps, turn to scholarship to inform them of the history of such belief, and they may themselves undertake the sort of investigation of the sources of texts such as I have engaged upon in recent posts on the ‘Thomas’ legend (now brought together HERE.) . They may conclude as a result of such researches that certain texts are, or are not, linked to other texts or part of a systematic religious practice at a particular place and time. But this is a separate consideration to the one which may inform their appreciation of stories as expressions of particular aspects of deity.