Twentieth-First-Century Contemporary Books on Witchcraft

Sona Rosa Burstein

Sona Rosa Burstein

An issue of Folklore in honour of Margaret Alice Murray, our Society’s revered and beloved veteran, would hardly be complete without some reference to the literature of witchcraft, a department of theory and writing on which she has set her own characteristic mark.

From the later fifteenth-century, which brought forth that monumental vade mecum of the witch hunter, the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, to our own day, writings on witches and witchcraft have been of a sort to bewilder the curious inquirer, who is beset by the conflicting presentations of jurists, theologians, doctors, historians, anthropologists and popular-writers ranging from honest description to the horrific and sensational.

Delving deeper into the writings of the authorities, she may be further confused by an incredible variety or aspects of occultism, of devils and demons, of incubus and succubus, of believers and sceptics. The expressed attitudes to witchcraft vary from holy indignation or superior incredulity to openly asserted belief.

In the various accounts the declared practitioners of witchcraft range from ancient, mumbling beldames through all ages and types to the belle dame sans merci of ballad and romance, from the surreptitious dealer in love potions or death by image magic to today’s overt — and indeed proud — claimant of membership in a currently existing witch coven.

Most baffling of all to any quest for precision in definition, history or interpretation of witchcraft is the strength of emotional excitement frequently aroused by this subject. From early to modern times, this theme has been a storm-centre for polemical literature, often subjective and personally acrimonious to an inordinate degree.

Forty years ago, in 1921, Margaret Alice Murray threw a pebble in the pool and stirred the waters of scholarly and popular speculation with her book, ‘The Witch Cult in Western Europe’. In this, she propounded the thesis, based on less-known chronicles and verbatim reports of trials, that the witches had preserved an ancient fertility cult. This, a pre-Christian Dianic cult, Dr Murray maintained, survived vigorously in rural Christendom, in England and Scotland, from Palaeolithic days, not only into the earlier centuries of modern history but far into modern times.

In her later book, ‘The God of the Witches’, published in 1934, she re-stated and amplified her thesis, dealing in detail with the god and the worshippers, priesthood and rites of that pagan religion, and the “covens” of thirteen men and women into which it was organised.

These theories were rather startling to both authoritative and popular interest and received both vigorous refutation and enthusiastic support.

Perhaps Margaret Alice Murray’s most effective, as well as provocative, contribution to the study of witchcraft in particular and of folklore generally is her sturdy rationalism. Firmly pushing her way through the mists of emotion and dogma and obscurantism that envelop so much of the writing on witchcraft, she insists that we look with her on real people, villagers who go on foot to an actual witch meeting. She will have nothing of miraculous transvections or mystical experiences.

Wherever she sees her way to a factual explanation of mysterious fears or unexplained traditions, she puts her considerable persuasive energy into establishing it.

I think it may be safely claimed that many a student of witchcraft or folklore, even when in stubborn disagreement with Margaret Alice Murray’s major theories, has been consciously or unconsciously influenced by her to keep his feet on the ground in his investigations and speculations.

Turning to recent witchcraft literature, it is interesting to note that the last half-decade has produced a small harvest of books of the sober, informative, non-sensational kind.

The first on our list, ‘A Mirror of Witchcraft’ (1957), by Christina Hole, supplies a felt want. The aim of the book is best described in the author’s own words: “In this book an attempt has been made to show, by means of extracts from contemporary writings and trial reports, what was, in fact, thought and felt by illiterate people during the heyday of the witch-creed.

Limitations of space have made it necessary to confine the picture to Great Britain since to deal adequately with the belief throughout Europe and America would need many volumes much larger than this. For the same reason, only a few extracts amongst many that would have been both suitable and valuable could be included in each section.

Of these, by far the greatest number are taken from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authors or trial-reporters for the simple reason that much more was written on the subject then than at any other time, and trials for sorcery occurred more frequently in this country.”

The extracts, admirably chosen, are gathered into chapters, “each dealing,” again to use Christina Hole’s own words, “with a particular aspect of witchcraft, as it appeared either to the witches themselves or to their accusers.”

It is this well-balanced presentation of viewpoints of accusers and accused, through a judicial and medical statement, confessions and denials, popular opinion, literary controversy, that gives the book its special quality of objectivity and truth.

The contemporary sources speak for themselves, with no more commentary than a brief and succinct introduction to each chapter and an occasional footnote. The introductions, for instance, to Chapters IX and X, headed ‘Signs of Guilt’ and ‘Confession and Evidence’ respectively, are admirable examples of simplicity and clarity.”

Christina Hole has cast her net wide, so that even the reader who has read fairly widely in the witchcraft literature will surely find new matter here.

Witch-finding, for example, so often linked only with the name of the notorious Matthew Hopkins and perhaps the nearly as well-known name of John Kincaid of Scotland, is shown by these extracts to have been a method used by many who knew how to exploit a current fear-situation to their own profit.

A particularly interesting case is quoted (p. 176) from a Scottish manuscript, of a witch-finder with a brisk technique of shaving pricking, whose “findings” brought many to prison and death. After a busy and prosperous career, which brought him wealth and servants, “this villain […] at last, was discovered to be a woman disguised in man’s clothes.”

The ambivalent attitude of belief and doubt is well brought out by one sentence in the passage quoted: “It is sure some witches were discovered, but many honest men and Women were blotted and broke by this trick.”

For the serious student or general reader, here is a book which may be read straight through, dipped into and laid down, or used as a permanent reference book with guidance to further sources. Moreover, the book is an excellent object lesson in how authentic Purees are to be used.

Although inevitably the material is mainly drawn from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, the orientation of the subject is completed by modern newspaper references, such as the Leigh Chronicle of April 19th, 1879, the Times of April 3rd, 1857 and September 24th, 1863 and the Daily Mirror of February 13th, 1954. With a very thorough index added to the chapter headings and subheadings, hardly any aspect of witchcraft is left unconsidered.

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