The Witch

A History of Fear, From Ancient Times to the Present

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Ronald Hutton
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , September
     2017.
     376 pages.
     $30.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300229042.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

READ INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR HERE

Ronald Hutton’s The Witch: A History of Fear, From Ancient Times to the Present is a remarkably comprehensive work that compares ideas about the witch figure. Divided into three main parts, it begins with a global survey on early anthropological ethnographic studies in non-European regions; moves into the context of the ancient world, and how these broad global perspectives influenced medieval Europe; and concludes with how the previous two sections informed the European witch trials, focusing on the British Isles. The intent of the author is to demonstrate that our understanding of the European witch trials have complicated and nuanced connections with global history, academic studies, and popular narratives on the figure of the witch. 

In the first section, Hutton offers an extra-European perspective on the witch figure, demonstrating that Europe was far more influenced by outside cultures than previously understood. Examining data from ethnographic studies by British anthropologists, in turn, sparked by interest in the European witch trials, Hutton outlines five “cross-cultural characteristics” (9) that directly link to European notions gleaned from the global studies on the witch figure. First, a witch causes harm, knowingly or unknowingly (10). Second, the presence of a witch is an internal threat to social harmony (16). Third, a witch possesses innate power manifested by inheritance or training (18). Fourth, a witch is evil (21), and finally, there is always recourse to resist, protect, or deflect from bewitchment (23-24). From studies on the ancient world—Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome—Hutton provides detailed examples that we recognize as informing European notions on the witch, but cautions that the development and transfer of these ancient ideas into the medieval European context are slow, multifaceted, and far more elusive than we attribute. Hutton observes that despite precedents, Europe has two distinctive features on the figure of the witch: namely, that witchcraft became associated with cosmic evil, and that, just after the height of the witch-trial craze, this belief in witches as essentially malevolent was outwardly rejected, at least by official channels (41-42). 

The second section begins with a fascinating outline of how the (now) classical features of European ceremonial magic are Near Eastern in origin. Hutton emphasizes that a tradition of ceremonial magic—based on the transmission of copied texts by learned elites—developed at the same time as Christian theological progress in early medieval Europe (147). “Magicians” were conceptually equated with aristocratic, scholarly men, and thus protected from social repercussions, while “witches” were viewed as female, and thereby deviant threats (100). These distinctions shifted as Christianity was presented with a particular problem on the source of magical power, a problem solved by Augustine of Hippo: “the acts of magicians were accomplished with the aid of demons, whereas the miracles of Christian saints were made possible by the one true God” (148). This framing sets the stage for the later public theater of the European witch trials. 

In the final section on British perspectives, Hutton examines the folklore of fairies, animals, and Gaelic witch beliefs by the same rubric in which he examines the anthropological ethnographic studies and the context of the ancient world—that is, how these ideas underwrite the witch trials, by what mechanism, via which power structures, and whether or not the beliefs encourage or prevent persecution (261). He writes: “[o]ne striking feature of a global survey of witchcraft beliefs is the great variation in local forms which they take, usually corresponding to different peoples and cultures, and forming at times large regional traditions but more often a patchwork of ideological systems, none of which is exactly like another” (280). 

One of The Witch’s main strengths is that it is cognizant of Eurocentric academic nomenclature defining terms such as witch or magic. These European preconceptions are then imposed on the past and non-European cultures, distorting our perceptions of the examined data via a Eurocentric lens. To counter this impetus, Hutton makes a concerted effort to list local names—brii (12), heka (45), mageia (55), lamia (69), maleficium (61), striga (69), bruja (13), benandanti (75)—and their parochial meanings, even as the author collects these regional terms into the broader categories of magic, witch, service magician, and shaman, among others. Hutton offers practical explanations on the chosen nomenclature throughout. This effort lends itself to a nuanced and insightful discussion on how scholarly European word choices are burdened with the history of the witch trials, and retroactively, or inappropriately, imposed out of context. For such a broad survey, this discussion on suitable nomenclature is welcome and necessary. Previous studies in the expansive areas of “witchcraft” and “magic” address this issue with various levels of effectiveness, but Hutton’s approach provides an excellent example of how scholars can make decisions about terminology to improve their studies. 

Hutton expertly summarizes and engages other scholarly work, continually referencing established norms in the field of study, adding his own distinctive interpretation, or countering with a new proposition altogether. Discussions on the writings of Carlo Ginzburg and Richard Kieckhefer are prominent, among hundreds of other academic and primary sources. This provides the reader with a solid, if brief, scholarly history of how these previous works inform Hutton. 

Perhaps the most important claim for the field at large, though subtle and short in its delivery, as Hutton suggests in his conclusion, that we—the academics engaged in the study of magic and religion—have framed these two areas of study as virtually distinct entities, to the detriment of a comprehensive understanding of the witch trials (and even on broader studies on religion and magic). Hutton states: “[t]o class all expressions of medieval spirituality according to the a polarity between Christianity and paganism is itself a polemical tactic developed by zealous medieval Christians, intent on defining and policing limits of orthodoxy” (287). Scholars, by repeating these dichotomies without challenge, are then also endorsing this theological gatekeeping. 

This book fulfills its intended purpose by providing a broad, inclusive, and insightful survey on the witch figure and how these ideas inform the witch trials, while also suggesting provocative shifts for the field at large. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cimminnee Holt is a doctoral candidate in Religion and Popular Culture/Magic/Witchcraft at Concordia University in Montreal.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ronald Hutton is Professor of History, University of Bristol, and a leading authority on ancient, medieval, and modern paganism, on the history of the British Isles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and on the global context of witchcraft beliefs.

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