Non-Fiction Reviews

The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft & Magic

(2017) Owen Davies (ed.), Oxford University Press, £25, hrdbk, xiii +310pp, ISBN 978-0-199-60844-7


Another quality book from Oxford University Press, edited by Owen Davies a Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire and an expert on magic, ghosts, witchcraft and popular medicine whose previous titles include histories of ghosts, magic books, paganism and witchcraft in America after the trials in Salem. Davies himself writes two of the chapters in this illustrated history of witchcraft and magic on 'The World of Popular Magic' and 'The rise of Modern Magic'. There are seven other chapters giving a total of nine in all and these are written by contributors from universities in St. Andrews, London, York, and as far afield as Trier, Amsterdam and Melbourne, each one writing a chapter about their own particular interest in the witchcraft world.

Through these chapters starting with 'Magic in the Ancient World' right through to 'Witches on Screen' we get a 4000 year history of the belief and use of magic from ancient times when spells were written on clay tablets through the magical beliefs of the Romans, Greeks, Jews and early Christians right up to present times and how witches have been portrayed on screen in films like 'The Wizard of Oz' and the Harry Potter movies and in TV series like 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'. Before we get that far we look at medieval magic, the Demonologists, and what really happened during the witch hunts and witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries and the rise of Wicca and modern magical beliefs.

The book is beautifully and informatively illustrated, starting with the cover and Salvator Rosa’s painting of a scene from the Bible where Saul, the King of Israel uses a Necromancer – the Witch of Endor - to summon the ghost of Samuel, his former mentor to advise him on the eve of a great battle. Samuel is not too happy about being brought back from the land of the Shades and it all goes downhill from there. The book then contains a wide variety of photographs and illustrations as witchcraft and magic is examined across the centuries, and these pictures show bronze bells, Egyptian wands, spell boards, dolls, amulets, extracts from books on the magical uses of plants, rituals to speak with spirits, talismans against the plague, various portraits of the demonologists, illustrations depicting witches in various acts including the 'obscene kiss', records of witch trials, shoes that were put in buildings to fulfil some ritual or superstition, a preserved slug impaled on a thorn bust to cure warts, a mandrake amulet which bestows good luck and fertility, witch bottles, pierced animal hearts, Aleister Crowley, witchcraft museums, cave paintings, right through to pictures from TV programmes and films such as The Worst Witch, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Stardust, The Witches of Eastwick, The Wizard of Oz, Night of the Eagle, I Married a Witch (one of my favourite films), Charmed, The Craft and Buffy the Vampire the Vampire Slayer. Reading the footnotes to these is almost an education in itself.

The middle of the book also contains 15 full-colour illustrations ranging from an ancient Egyptian piece of jewellery depicting the Eye of Horus right up to stills from the films Bell, Book and Candle and Practical Magic. All in all I cannot question the academic accuracy of the text, but I am sure they got most of it right. This is a goldmine for anyone looking for information on witchcraft and magic and perhaps those looking for inspiration and some unusual little fact or nugget if they want to dabble in some fiction involving witches or magicians, dark or otherwise.

Ian Hunter

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

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