The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic

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Owen Davies
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Owen Davies is the editor of The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, a fascinating collection on the many historical facets of witchcraft and magic. Along with seven other contributors, Davies offers a very diverse exploration of witchcraft and magic in terms of geography, and around the multiplicity of mythos and ritualities associated with them. As such, nine chapters help students and scholars understand the complex relation between these notions in different cultural contexts throughout history. Authored by some of today’s most influential scholars of magic and witchcraft, these essays cover topics starting with the five-thousand-year-old emergence of writing, and show how they continue to be "fundamental aspects of contemporary societies and individual psychologies" (v). The first two chapters on ancient and medieval magic illustrate its origins in relation to both science and the rise of modern societies. The next two chapters focus on demonologists and witch trials, explaining the evolution of witchcraft as a social category in opposition to religion, and at the heart of social conflicts caused by religious tensions from the fifteenth- to the eighteenth-centuries in Europe and colonial America. These chapters are critically nuanced, and portray important issues of power and authenticity regarding "traditional" religion as well as the moral boundaries between benevolent and evil magic and witchcraft as a practice, an anthropological category, and a cultural phenomenon. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 detail the important dynamics between the ways in which magic is contrastingly represented and practiced in visual art, in popular pagan contexts, and in contemporary Paganism and Wicca.

It it worth mentioning the immense contribution of the visual culture of Robert J. Wallis who, with his chapter on witchcraft and magic through the anthropological lens, lightens a still hotly-debated disciplinary perspective. This chapter, followed by a thorough, final piece on today’s primary influential cinematic and television representations of witches, is the core of a larger goal of this book. In fact, the final chapter constitutes an important comment on the relationship between the social-scientific construction of knowledge around a specific object and the transmission of its representations throughout Western history. As such, the most important contribution made by The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft is that it engages in contemporary conversations—promoted through every chapter—that witchcraft and magic are primarily formatted through mediatic normativity. Consequently, illustrations are used as references to the imaginaries embedded in the sometimes-overlapping social climates and cultural differences. In fact, these illustrations complete an already greatly refined and up-to-date history of witches and sorcerers—one that pertains to every discipline in the humanities and social sciences concerned with issues of power and alterity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Martin Lepage recently received his doctorate in religious studies at the Université du Québec à Montreal.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Owen Davies is professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire. He has written extensively on the history of magic, witchcraft, ghosts, and popular medicine, including The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (2007), Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (2009), Paganism: A Very Short Introduction (2011), Magic: A Very Short Introduction (2012), and most recently America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft after Salem (2013).


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