Non-Fiction Reviews

The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic

(2017 / 2021) Owen Davies, Oxford University Press, £19.99 / US$25.95, pbk, xiv + 310pp,ISBN 978-0-192-89778-7


Quite a heavy going very academic read, this is quite a comprehensive history, divided into essays by multiple contributors.  It includes a detailed look at the treatment of witchcraft in art (especially the work of Durer) and a look at the treatment of witches in film and TV, with a particularly detailed comparison of witches in TV’s Bewitched and the Harry Potter movies. There could do with being a feature on witchcraft in literary fiction. Sadly that is absent.

The main body of studies deal with history but seem at times torn between looking at actual practitioners of magic, from prehistoric fetish cults to medieval alchemists and the innocent victims of witch hunts.  Taken in sequence the essays cover a different period of time each and, with some overlap, add to a single chronological record. Later features examine the twentieth century revival of paganism, which is often presented as a complete invention rather than a return to traditional practices. The rise of the Golden Dawn is well covered up to the breakaway Thelema group established by Alastair Crowley, who is presented as rapidly becoming a crude parody of himself, eventually dying in penury.

Famous events and names such as the trials in Pendle and Salem and the work of Matthew Hopkins get surprisingly little attention.

Interestingly the study dismisses the clichés associated with the witch-trials, such as ‘witch-craze’ and witch-hysteria’.  The investigators and trial conductors were often very learned and stuck meticulously to the letter of the law.  The problem was that the learned and wealthy legal process often stripped suspected impoverished witches of adequate defence and right of appeal.

The early church was more concerned with suppressing heresy, (supporting practices that deviated from the mainstream, at risk of sectarianism and breaking away into independent competing religions). With the bulk of heretical orders crushed, many of the same methods of investigation and punishment began to apply to suspected witches.

The fantastical works of artists like Durer, depicting Sabbats, cavorting with demons and broomsticks in flight, were to fuel the perception of what was actually going on. Though often painted as fantastical, the studies were used as propaganda and often illustrate church produced warnings of witchcraft to frighten the faithful.  The notorious 1486 Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) by Heinrich Kramer was much less influential than generally believed, and rarely used by professional legal witchcraft investigators.  Kramer penned the book after his sexually explicit claims of the goings on of witches was laughed out of court in Innsbruck. Local bishops there questioned his sanity. He presented his case in the Malleus, appropriating a Papal Bull sent for other political purposes as a letter of approval from the Vatican, and put the book into print. Though popular with the public, (helping to fuel the cliched perception of witches serving Succubae and Incubae, eating babies, etc.), it was not taken seriously by those in positions of authority.

One of Kramer’s most outspoken critics was Jacob Spenger, but years after Spenger’s death, Kramer added his name to the book’s preface as co-author.

It is in such deconstructions that the Oxford history excels itself. This is a book for teaching us that much that we believe we know about witches is hopelessly wrong.  The revival of witchcraft in the 19th century grew from increasing interest in social anthropology and archaeology. The finds in Egyptian pyramids and tombs were particularly important. Freemasonry drew heavily on contrived ceremonies relating to the finds of Egyptologists.

Today, witchcraft practice is seen as harmless new age fringe activity in The West, though in Africa exorcisms and witch persecutions still often end in terrible death for those on the receiving end, a sobering conclusion the book brings home very effectively.

Arthur Chappell

See also Ian's take on The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft & Magic.


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