Interview with Ronald Hutton, author of The Witch

Ronald Hutton’s latest contribution to the history of witchcraft, The Witch: A History of Fear, From Ancient Times to the Present, was released by Yale University Press in September 2017. I had the opportunity to speak with Hutton by phone from his home in Bristol in July 2018. —Courtney Applewhite, graduate intern

CA: Your book covers a lot of material! Would you mind giving an overview?

RH: The Witch is an attempt to discover how old and how widespread the fear of witchcraft is—that is, the fear that human beings can use magic to harm other human beings. I discovered that it is worldwide, although it’s not universal. The ancient Egyptians didn’t fear witchcraft, but most other peoples did. In every inhabited continent in the world, those accused of witchcraft have often been persecuted with the same zeal and the same lethal results.

The fear of witchcraft, or magical harm, is very old in Europe. It was a combination of ancient Near Eastern, Germanic, and Roman ideas about witchcraft that produced the enduring stereotype of the European witch figure, which led in the early modern period to the notorious witch trials.

CA: You also talk about shamanism in this book. How does that fit in?

RH: Some scholars have suggested that there is an overlap between the figure of the shaman—somebody who goes into trance in order to contact spirits—and the figure of the witch. The thought is that an ancient pan-European tradition of shamanic worship of the dead directly gave rise to the idea of the witch’s Sabbath, the gatherings at which witches worshiped Satan.

CA: The book begins with a global overview of different witchcraft traditions and then moves specifically to the British witch. Why did you organize the book this way?

RH: I think of the book as a set of concentric circles, with each sitting inside the next. So you start with the biggest circle, which takes in the whole planet and the whole of ancient history. Then you narrow it to the next section, which focuses on the continent of Europe, and then you narrow again in the final section to look at the British Isles alone.

CA: What kind of sources do you rely on in reconstructing this history?

RH: I drew on reports by anthropologists, which is what people do when building up a global view of an anthropological feature. The sources for the ancient world are ancient texts, and those for the medieval period are chronicles and the writings of churchmen and legal records. Those for the early modern and modern periods are a combination of literature, legal records, government records, and folklore collected in the last two hundred years.

CA: When relying on written records, did you come up against anything where you were skeptical of how the situation was construed in the writing of it? That it may have differed from lived experience?

RH: This is a problem for anybody working on the early modern witch trials. The trial records are a very large body of written evidence: recorded confessions and eyewitness statements that describe the literal existence of the devil and of lesser demons and the way that they work with human beings in order to create evil in the world and destroy Christianity. I think no academic scholar of the period at the present day literally believes this stuff. So anybody dealing with the records for early modern witch trials and early modern witch belief begins by rejecting the whole intellectual and emotional basis on which they were erected.

CA: When you discuss European and specifically British witches, you refer to their tension with Christianity and argue that this characteristic distinguishes them from other global witchcraft traditions. How does this factor drive our understanding of witchcraft in a Western context?

RH: Those who were prosecuted for witchcraft in the early modern period seem to have been perfectly normal Christians. These persecutions arose because soon after 1400 in Latin Christianity there developed this totally new and unique idea that there was a Satanic conspiracy to destroy Christianity and the human race by giving individuals the help of demons so that they could work magic to hurt and destroy their neighbors in exchange for worshipping Satan. The people who generated these ideas seem to have been preaching friars working in the 1420s. They were very conscious that this conspiracy was something new.

Peoples across the world have believed that bad people use magic in order to hurt their neighbors, but Western European Christianity, the Christianity of the medieval Catholic Church and its Protestant successors, is the only culture in world history to have come up with the idea of witchcraft as an organized Satanic religion or anti-religion.

CA: You don’t go into a lot of detail about the North American witch trials. Do you see them as a carryover of what was happening in Britain and in Europe?

RH: Yes, the colonial witch trials in North America are simply an extension of the witch trials of the European homeland in every detail. The people they were prosecuting were first or second-generation settlers, like the people who were doing the prosecuting.

CA: What do you think is the next step for scholars of witchcraft? What topics should they be addressing?

RH: I think there’s a lot still to be understood about what people believed when they were describing witchcraft or, even more importantly, confessing to witchcraft in the late medieval and early modern witch hunts. Scholars have proposed answers such as Stockholm syndrome, false memory syndrome, fear, dementia, illusion, or dream. It’s a very big field and the crossover between psychology and history could be very important here. And there is yet more to be done in linking other popular beliefs—folk beliefs about the dead, magic, non-human beings—with beliefs about witchcraft.

I think by now most parts of Europe have been explored for witch trial records. There are areas of central Europe and Eastern Europe where records still survive but maybe haven’t yet been used. But unexplored sources are rapidly getting scarce.

CA: What do you think is the source of the contemporary resurgence of interest in witches?

RH: This has to do with the definition of witchcraft. There are four different definitions of witchcraft now circulating in the modern world. They are all equally valid—two of them very old and two of them are modern but have still been around for a couple of hundred years. The two that are old include the one that I use in this book: somebody who uses magic to harm others. The other old definition is that a witch is somebody who uses magic for any purpose, not only evil ones. So a practitioner of magic who heals or predicts the future, for example. And the two distinctively modern meanings are that a witch is a woman who is persecuted by men (and by women who support male rule) in order to keep women suppressed in society; and the belief that the witch is a practitioner of a surviving pagan religion—a veneration of a goddess and a god and the powers of nature. And, as I said, all four of those are equally valid. The topic of witchcraft is exciting now because the witch is one of the few symbols of independent female power that traditional societies have bequeathed to us. The witch is also potentially a wonderful expression of rebellion, non-conformity, and personal growth. The witch figure can be very attractive for people who feel out of place in contemporary society.

CA: Do you have any sense of how modern witches have reacted to your work?

RH: Modern witches are certainly very interested in my work, although they are more interested in an earlier book where I looked at the history of modern pagan witchcraft. Some have embraced this work and others have rejected it; it has created debate. Their reception of it depends very much on how long they’ve been witches and where they are in the world. On the whole, the longer that somebody has been involved in modern pagan witchcraft and the more that they live in Europe, including and especially in the British Isles, the more they are likely to greet my work positively. Conversely, the more recently they’ve been converted to modern pagan witchcraft and the more that they live in areas of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, the more likely they are to reject it.

CA: Why do you think that is?

RH: Because my work was written to fill a vacuum that had opened in the history of modern witchcraft in Britain. Many modern witches believed that their tradition descended directly from ancient paganism. By the 1990s, leading British and European witches had abandoned that idea, following on discoveries about the history of witchcraft by scholars. My work came in and provided a different history to replace the original one. So because I was filling a gap, my work was regarded with enthusiasm by most British witches. But in other parts of the English-speaking world, people who had just been converted to pagan witchcraft were taught that they had been initiated into an age-old religion that had been handed down from generation to generation without a break. And so my book, which was intended to replace a discredited idea in my homeland, was received in other areas as a deliberate attack on people’s beliefs, which of course it was never designed to be.

CA: Is there anything that you came across in your research that didn’t make it into this book?

RH: Yes, there was a lot left over which I have put into essays published in journals and collections since: like the four different definitions of “witch” I just described to you, where they come from, and how old they are; and like representations of witchcraft in British literature since 1800. The last thing I wrote up looked at certain supernatural female figures, like Mother Nature and the Faerie Queen, or Diana or Herodias or, under other names, the female leader of phantom night rides, and the great nature spirit of the Gaelic world—the Cailleach—all these seem to have been figures that developed in Christian times, yet they’re plainly not Christian. So I think they come into a special category and we need a new kind of language with which to discuss them.

CA: What is the main takeaway you would like your reader to have?

RH: I think the importance of my book is its contribution to a debate over the place of the fear of witchcraft in the modern world, and the special, or not-so-special place that Europe has played in its history. Persecution of people thought to be witches has been increasing frighteningly over most of the world, especially the developing world, over the last few decades. I want readers to understand that fear and think about what we can do stop it in the future.