Witchcraft

The Basics

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Marion Gibson
The Basics
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , June
     2018.
     196 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781138779976.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In recent years, the market for both academic treatments of witchcraft (and related areas, such as magic or occultism) and slim beginner's introductions to myriad subjects has grown immensely. Oxford University Press' extensive A Very Short Introduction series, for instance, includes titles on witchcraft and on magic, and Bloomsbury Academic has published A Guide for the Perplexed that focuses on Western Esotericism. Within this academic trend a similar series by Routledge has emerged, with a recent addition, Witchcraft: The Basics.

This very useful introduction is written by Marion Gibson—a renowned expert in the study of representations of witchcraft and magic in renaissance literature. This introduction focuses primarily on the Christian European and North American anglophone context, so those interested in an introductory guide to attitudes towards witchcraft in, say, ancient Rome or Mesopotamia will be disappointed. To be fair, this is stated in the preface to the volume and (unlike OUP's similarly focused Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction) is also clearly reflected in the titles of its chapters when browsing the book on the publisher's website.

The book's introduction briefly explains how the beliefs regarding witchcraft and the practice of harmful magic that crystalized during early Christianity (influenced by the Old and New Testament) became relevant in early modern Europe. Again, just a few paragraphs on witchcraft beliefs in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome would have been very helpful for undergraduates making their first foray into the field. On the other hand, Gibson importantly utilizes the introductory part to problematize the popular image of the Witch Trial period for the non-specialist reader by presenting voices of skepticism contemporary to that of Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger's 1486 Malleus Maleficarum.

The first chapter discusses early modern views of witchcraft as expressed in contemporary demonologies and trial documents, utilizing English and Scottish writings as a case study in order to show the reader that while "there were shared opinions about witches across the British Isles, there could also be sharp differences" (18) among demonologist writings, state legislations, and local beliefs. Each chapter in this volume concludes with a helpful summary of its argument, and includes several “questions to consider” that help the lay reader engage with the material in a deeper level.

Chapter 2 similarly deals with the 17th and early 18th centuries, with North American colonies replacing Europe as a case study. Once again, Gibson takes her readers beyond the enduring popular depiction of Salem and emphasizes the differences between laws and perceptions of witchcraft in Puritan Massachusetts, “Anglican Virginia, and Catholic Maryland, for example, where English laws applied . . . , Quaker Pennsylvania and Dutch-governed New Amsterdam” (38).

The next chapter explores the depiction of witchcraft in a number of seminal literary works produced in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, and shows how they both built on earlier and contemporary demonologies and influenced writing on the subject during modernity. Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606) and The Tempest (1611) and Thomas Middleton's The Witch (c. 1613-16) are amongst those analyzed in this section, together with the portrayal of witches in Renaissance poetry such as Edward Spencer's The Faerie Queene (1590). Witchcraft in these works, maintains Gibson, is "often employed as a metaphor or allegory . . . for different kinds of power, [or as] an excuse for spectacle or fantasy, which can be safely dismissed as wicked or unreal but nevertheless pleasurable" (91). 

With chapter 4, we put early modernity behind us to turn to the scholarly theories that have proliferated since the late 1700s in order to explain the persecutions that occurred during the preceding centuries. Gibson provides here a good introduction into the field of witchcraft studies, starting with Romantic historians who began to look into state archives and describe those persecuted as witches as yet another group victimized by church and state authorities; moving to mid-19th-century writers such as Jules Michelet, who imagined witchcraft as a survival of ancient pagan beliefs; and concluding with early to mid-20th-century popularizations of these views, primarily by Margaret Murray. Gibson also chronicles the collapse of the Murray thesis due to works by Norman Cohn and other during the second half of the 20th century and introduces the reader to economic and cultural interpretations of the witch-hunts, as well as other scholars such as Carlo Ginzburg, who suggest that shamanism is an important concept for understanding the persecutions.

The following chapter examines contemporary notions of witchcraft as a religion, focusing on Gerald Gardner and the rise of Wicca, as well as on the development of feminist interpretations of Wicca since the 1970s. Aleister Crowley also makes an appearance as a link between Gardner and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn of the late 19th century, but as his references to witchcraft were in actuality moot, it is unfortunate that Gibson dedicates one and a half pages to him, instead of just a paragraph. This could have freed precious space in order to dedicate a page to witchcraft beliefs in Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome in the volume's introduction. The rest of chapter 5 is dedicated to the flourishing of witchcraft persecutions in specific areas in Asia and Africa, "sometimes as a direct result of Christian or Islamic evangelical activity" (133). The final chapter explores the representations of witches in 20th century popular culture, from plays such as Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953) to television shows and books such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Harry Potter (1997-2007). A reading list for further study follows at the end of this volume, which—as already noted above—serves as a good introduction to the scholarly study of witchcraft, provided you are interested primarily in the early modern period and not its preceding eras.           

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shai Feraro is a historian and a scholar of religion. He is a lecturer at the Oranim College of Education.

Date of Review: 
March 17, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marion Gibson is Professor of Renaissance and Magical Literatures at Exeter University and works on witches, magic, paganism and the supernatural in literature. Her previous publications include: Rediscovering Renaissance Witchcraft (2017), Imagining the Pagan Past (2013), Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity co-edited with Shelley Trower and Garry Tregidga (2012), Witchcraft Myths in American Culture(2007), Possession, Puritanism and Print: Darrell, Harsnett, Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Exorcism Controversy (2006) and Reading Witchcraft: Stories of Early English Witches (1999).

Keywords: 

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