Ronald Hutton’s “The Witch” makes for a fascinating read…and also somewhat of a challenging one. Due to Hutton’s academic writing style, the book hasn’t had a ton of reviews. It’s true that it is quite dense and, if you’re not-all-that-into binge reading (cause hey, it’s not for everyone) then it can be a slow book to sink your teeth into.
Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s worth it! But - if you can’t bring yourself to get through reading the text, then the next best thing would be to read this blog post. Form the book - here are 4 facts we bet you didn’t know about witches and witchcraft.
1. Traditionally, a Witch Refers to Someone Who Causes Harm to Others Through Magical Means
Hutton brings up an interesting point right away in the book, and that’s around the terminology of the word witch itself. While there are many definitions of the word ‘witch’ that are very different then the one he proposes here, he sticks to the traditional academic (anthropological) sense of the term, where a witch is either “someone who causes harm to others by mystical means” and where witchcraft is “a generic term for all kinds of evil magic and sorcery” (hence, malevolence is inherent within both terms).
And while many people have a fundamentally different understanding of who witches are and what witchcraft is (especially from those who practice it), that’s okay. Ideas and concepts change throughout time, and this is especially the case with the idea of the witch. But when it comes to a historical and cross-cultural understanding of witches and witchcraft – it’s a whole lot of evil going on!
However this, of course, isn’t the whole picture Hutton paints. He makes sure to note historical instances where the idea of the witch was intentionally shaped into a polemic tool to smear all types of magical practitioners – good and bad. Which brings us to the next point.
2. Many Types of Magic and Magical Practice Got Lumped into the Same Thing
This fact comes through loud and clear in Hutton’s book. Throughout, he points to several examples where the complexity behind magic as an idea and a cultural phenomenon gets lost through translation.
For example, Greeks in the 4th and 5th centuries used many different words to describe the people who made up the magical landscape at the time. Some of these include:
Agurtēs, a kind of wandering beggar-priest
Agoēs as someone who specialized in dealings with ghosts
An epoidos was a singer of incantations
A mantis was an expert in the revelation of hidden things and the future
Pharmakeis (masculine) or pharmakides (feminine) referred to those who specialized in potions
Rhizotomoi, or root-cutters, were known for herbal medicine
And a magos usually offered a wide range of services that included some of the specialities mentioned above.
This consolidation of terminology is even apparent in the term witchcraft itself. Hutton states that “there were more than thirty terms for magical practices and practitioners” in his analysis of Anglo-Saxon secular law codes in the 1st and 2nd centuries. He isolates a few words that recur with especial frequency, and were criminalized most often:
Gealdorcraeft seems to have had connotations of song or incantations
Libcraeft has connotations of potions
Sincraeft of delusion and phantasm, and
Wiccecraeft whose meaning is more difficult to come by but can be gleaned by the law code as one who works destructive magic.
However there was a reason behind all of this magical reductionism, and that reason has to do with (you guessed it) Christianity. The official early medieval Christian attitude towards magic was of course, “uncompromisingly hostile” and “regarded all attempts to wield spiritual power to achieve material ends as demonic” (unless it was of course Christian magic, but that’s for another post).
So at this point, Christianity regards all forms of magic as maleficium, or harmful magic. The effects of this are vast, from conflating ceremonial magic with witchcraft, to viewing all forms of divination and spells to heal and protect as punishable by death!
3. Many Cultural Influences Lead to the Satan-Loving, Child-Eating Witch of the Middle Ages (Not Just Christianity)
Hutton emphasizes how the image of the medieval witch was as a cultural creation that incorporated a wide range of cultural influences. This is in opposition to the idea that hatred towards witches is inherent within Christianity itself, or that the figure of the medieval witch came from pagan sources.
For example, he shows that there wasn’t a stereotypical witch figure in Anglo-Saxon England. This is most likely because the early English attributed their misfortunes to other paranormal forces, such as fairies, goblins, or elves. They did not seek to blame their neighbors or other magical people in the community for their misfortune.
If that’s true, then where do we get the stereotypical image of the medieval witch from? Basically, a whole range of ancient traditions helped to influence the early modern witch trials and the figure of the witch. According to Hutton, this was because early Christianity incorporated:
the Mesopotamian belief in the reality of demons and the evil of witches
the Persian belief in a stark cosmic dualism of essential good and evil
the Hebrew belief of a single, true, jealous and ultimately all-powerful God
and the Roman belief in the evil of witches and the need for witch-hunts during special circumstances
He then shows how the stereotypical image of the witch as a Satan-worshiping-baby-eater appeared in the western Alps during the early fifteenth century, due to the above influences (paired with a dash of Germanic folk beliefs in night-flying, murderous, female cannibals). With all these influences combined, the medieval stereotype took off as a network of travelling friars preached around and warned villagers of people who met with the devil and killed children. The witch-craze gained traction and started spreading like wildfire.
4. Witches Are Still Persecuted Outside of North America, To This Day
Usually, when people think of witch-hunting they think of ancient history. Not so when it comes to Africa.
In explaining the complex picture of Europe’s involvement with studying African witchcraft, Hutton reminds us of how the body-counts for witch-hunting in Africa far exceed anything experienced in the European witch-hunts.
It is very much an important, contemporary issue and human rights problem in Africa. Yet public awareness on the issue is still quite low. Probably because the issues are so complex. Witchcraft and witch-hunting have been a part of African culture before colonial contact and have remained a feature of their culture to this day.
In the book, Hutton notes that witch-hunting in Africa has intensified in the 20th and 21st century, especially “during the process of modernization [and] after independence [from colonialism].” Not only has the situation in Africa worsened, but the way in which Christianity has influenced the African conception of witchcraft has usually amplified the brutal relations between the witch and their community. Again, one of the (many) factors contributing to this trend being that Christianity “reduced the credibility of ancestor spirits and land spirits… and so [produced] a tendency to blame witches alone for uncanny misfortunes.
And Oh-So Much More!
Ronald Hutton’s book “The Witch” is a must-read for anyone interested in the full range of complexity, variation, and nuance behind the history of witchcraft and the figure of the witch. These 4 points are only the tip on the iceberg. They are a small snapshot from a lifetime of study on a topic endlessly fascinating, inspiring, and mysterious. If you’re interested in learning more on the history of the witch and witchcraft from a thoughtful, academic, and cross-cultural perspective, then listen up - this book is for you!
Photo by Tikkho Maciel on Unsplash