The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present by Ronald Hutton - review by Tracy Borman

Tracy Borman


The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present


Yale University Press 376pp £25 order from our bookshop

What was a witch? This deceptively simple question has prompted fierce debate among scholars for many years. There are several possible sources of the word, including the Old English wicca (meaning sorceress) and the German wichelen (meaning to bewitch or foretell). Although definitions vary, most describe a witch in a negative way, as someone who wishes to do harm to others. As Ronald Hutton, a leading witchcraft scholar, points out in his new study, this is both inaccurate and unhelpful. By taking the longer view, he provides a convincing alternative, arguing that for many centuries before it rose to notoriety, witchcraft meant something altogether more positive. It is an argument that will resonate with the hundreds of thousands of Wicca and pagan devotees today.

Most histories of witchcraft focus on the early modern period, and for good reason. This was when witch-hunts took centre stage, becoming intertwined with the intense religious and social strife that was sweeping across Europe and resulting in a rash of high-profile witchcraft cases. The beginning of serious official action against witches was signalled by a papal bull issued in December 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII. The bull, which was widely printed and circulated, decried those who had ‘abused themselves with devils … and by their incantations, spells, conjurations, and other accursed superstitions and horrid charms, enormities and offences, destroy the offspring of women and the young of cattle, blast and eradicate the fruits of the earth, the grapes of the vine and the fruits of trees’. In order to stop such evil, Innocent VIII gave great powers to the inquisitors responsible for rooting out such ‘heretical depravity’.

The significance of the bull was that it declared witchcraft to be heresy. Until then, witches had been viewed merely as magicians who could command special powers to do good or evil. But now they were condemned as Devil-worshippers who had rejected God and the Christian faith in order to serve Satan. This was a crime against the Church and as such could not be left unpunished. Stoked by a rash of salacious publications, witch-hunting fervour soon came to dominate communities across the Continent. Over the next two hundred years, thousands of people (mostly women) were put to death for the crime.

The history of witchcraft and its persecution makes for compelling, often terrifying reading. It’s little wonder that it has proved such a magnet for historians. Keith Thomas’s seminal work on the subject, Religion and the Decline of Magic, first appeared in 1971 and has never been superseded. Hutton might therefore seem to be entering a crowded market. But what makes his history unique is that it provides a much longer – and broader – perspective.

The Witch draws upon previously neglected anthropological and ethnographic findings to set the origins of witchcraft and its subsequent persecution in an ancient and global context. Hutton makes a convincing case for how prehistoric beliefs, including those espoused by pre-Christian religions and shamanism, provided the inspiration for the ‘magical’ practices that defined European witchcraft.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, ‘Deep Perspectives’, provides an overview of attitudes to witchcraft around the world and explores how different societies treated suspected witches. It also considers the extent to which ancient and shamanic beliefs and traditions influenced later European history. Hutton draws upon some fascinating examples here, such as the long-standing belief held by inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands, now part of Papua New Guinea, that there were women who flew around at night naked and, invisible to their victims, removed organs from living humans for cannibal feasts, or the Roman tendency to associate witches with owls – a tradition that has proved remarkably enduring.

Having established the context for witchcraft, Hutton then goes on to consider the development of magic and witchcraft in Europe and the Near East. He moves the narrative forward to the medieval and early modern periods, and examines the impact of Christianity on the evolution of the witch and the ways in which she was perceived by her contemporaries. This was the age of the witch-hunt par excellence, when clerics, scholars and even kings applied their literary talents to whipping up popular fear and hatred of witches, thereby prompting an outpouring of wild accusations against troublesome neighbours, outsiders and even family members. Although the vast majority of those who were hauled before the courts were poor, illiterate and vulnerable members of society, there were some notable exceptions. Dame Alice Kyteler was the subject of a sensational early trial that took place in Ireland in 1324–5. Accused of murder and demon worship, she was found guilty but managed to escape before punishment could be meted out. Few others were as fortunate and Hutton provides plenty of disturbing examples of those who failed to get away.

The final section of the book explores the ways in which ancient, global and continental history shaped witchcraft beliefs and practices in Britain. Bringing together the evidence from the previous chapters, Hutton demonstrates just how pervasive this influence has been. The nocturnal goddesses that were such a mainstay of magical tradition in the Alps, Italy and southeastern Europe can clearly be seen as versions of the ‘fairies’ and ‘ladies of the night’ so beloved of British folklore. But a number of beliefs peculiar to this island also come to light, notably the English witch’s adoption of an animal familiar, which was often, but not exclusively, of the feline variety.

In concluding his study, Hutton returns to the question of definitions. Has the ‘deepest possible perspective: global, ancient, medieval and folkloric’ brought us any closer to being able to define a witch? Hutton claims to have shattered the perspective of a witch as something inherently evil by providing a better understanding of the roots of belief in such a figure. It is a bold claim, but one which his scholarly and engaging narrative justifies. Perhaps the most pertinent contribution of The Witch, though, is to prove that witchcraft, in all its forms, was – and still is – a truly international phenomenon.

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