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The Witch:
A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present

by ronald hutton
yale, 376 pages, $30

In 1768, John Wesley expressed concern about the decline of popular belief in witchcraft and the supernatural: “The English in general, and indeed most of the men of learning in Europe, have given up all accounts of witches and apparitions as mere old wives’ fables. I am sorry for it. . . . They well know (whether Christians know it or not) that the giving up of witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible. With my latest breath I will bear testimony against giving up to infidels one great proof of the invisible world; I mean that of witchcraft and apparitions, confirmed by the testimony of all ages.”

Actually, Wesley need not have worried. If Europe’s learned had abandoned witchcraft, and most nations accordingly had stopped prosecuting it, a great many ordinary people retained older ideas. In various forms, witchcraft beliefs persisted in the West until quite modern times. And as Christianity has spread around the world over the past century, it often has done so where such beliefs remain strong, above all in Africa; and where churches of necessity devote significant effort to dealing with such manifestations among the faithful. Witchcraft, surprisingly enough, is a pressing global and theological issue of the twenty-first century.

To appreciate the commonalities that unify different historical eras, we might watch two recent films that rank among the finest cinematic treatments ever made of the witchcraft phenomenon. The Witch (2015) is set in New England in the 1630s, while I Am Not a Witch (2017) reflects conditions in contemporary Central Africa (the director is of Zambian and Welsh origins). Both films focus on the social, religious, and psychological conditions that induce societies to label and stigmatize witches. When the two films are watched together, their worlds seem almost indistinguishable. Despite differences of language and culture, the “witches” in the two films—the colonial American ­Thomasin and the modern African Shula—have much in common.

For many reasons, then, any survey of witchcraft belief should be wide-ranging enough to require the abilities of a true polymath. Fortunately, the subject finds a qualified scholar in Ronald Hutton. In Great Britain in the 1970s, there was a lively belief among the public—and to some extent in academe—that the Christian West retained an underground heritage from ancient paganism, which was evinced in the popular ritual year, the cycle of festivities and celebrations corresponding roughly to the medieval church year. In this view, truly archaic rituals had been appropriated or adapted under a Christian veneer. A belief in such very long continuities was manifested in claims that modern neo-pagans and Wiccans were in some sense the authentic heirs of old pagan traditions that had remained semi-clandestine for centuries. Through the Early Modern period, it was suggested, those underground faiths had sporadically been exposed in the notorious witch hunts. In the 1960s and 1970s, these ideas were popularized by the British genre of Folk Horror—films and novels in which unwary strangers stumbled upon lethal pagan sacrificial cults lurking in modern–day villages and suburbs. (Think of The Wicker Man.)

Hutton regarded such claims of pagan continuity as misguided, and he devoted his scholarly energies to reconstructing the authentic origins of modern neo-paganism and witchcraft. In The Triumph of the Moon (1999), he showed how and why the modern pagan synthesis had been concocted. He focused on the creative fictions of buccaneering literary entrepreneurs like Gerald Gardner, and deluded witchcraft fantasists like Margaret Murray. Neo-paganism and Wicca, Hutton argued, might be significant religious movements, but they were indeed new, and invented. They had no roots predating the early twentieth century. His arguments were fiercely debated within the neo-pagan world, especially in North America, but they have now been largely accepted.

In the popular mind, witches are an Early Modern phenomenon, and moreover Euro-American. ­Witches are generally imagined as women wearing the distinctive hats and garb of England or Germany around 1640. The standard American vision is that of Salem in 1692, as refracted through Arthur Miller’s The ­Crucible, in which harmless and even virtuous people become scapegoats for the fears of a conflicted and intolerant society, driven by repressive religion and misogyny. Salem’s “witches” are victims of Puritanism par excellence. We can certainly find historical examples that fit this stereotype, but there is much more to the story. Not only do fears of witchcraft long predate the Reformation era, and Christianity itself, but as far as we can speak in such terms, they are nearly universal.

So global are witchcraft ideas that the assumptions underlying them seem to be rooted deep in the human consciousness. The fundamental theory is that bad things do not simply happen, but are inflicted by human agency, and that it is necessary to find the person responsible, in order both to retaliate and to prevent further wrongdoing. In his splendid book Inside the Whirlwind (2016), Jason Carter studies African readings of the Book of Job. He tells a chilling story from a Christian community in contemporary West Africa. He quotes an elderly Presbyterian woman who remarks that, “In our culture, friendship is not deemed friendship until a child dies.” “In other words,” says Carter, “only when retributive blame and witchcraft accusations are not directed at family members and friends during a crisis is that friendship counted as genuine.”

No less universal is the wish to believe that effective responses exist for illnesses and misfortunes, and that these responses are controlled by ritual specialists of various kinds—often by what Hutton terms “service magicians.” The problem is that during times of chaos or mass despair, it is precisely the benevolent magicians and charmers who fall under suspicion as evil witches.

Witchcraft ideas may be universal, but they take on different shapes. The key variables include the beliefs of the larger society and the official means of detecting and investigating witchcraft. In Continental European history, one reason why witchcraft panic reached epic proportions between about 1550 and 1680 was that Roman Law countries followed inquisitorial prosecutorial methods supported by the extensive use of torture. Suspects faced overwhelming pressure not just to confess, but to implicate ever more individuals, and to confirm the witch-hunters’ speculations about far-­reaching diabolical conspiracies. In turn, the rise of printing circulated emerging ideas about devil-cults and gave inquisitors a rich panoply of questions to pose to suspects. For neither the first time nor the last, the rise of modernity promoted belief in witchcraft, rather than discouraging it.

European countries thus developed the florid mythology of the witch cult as a whole anti-Christian subterranean religion, whose devotees gathered at orgiastic Sabbats. England, in contrast, forbade judicial torture, so that witchcraft charges remained limited and localized, and the idea of the Sabbat never sank roots. English witchcraft was thus punished as a supernatural form of assault or murder, not as a heretical ritual. Meanwhile, Roman Law Scotland did torture and regularly claimed to find Satanic cults and Sabbats.

These stereotypes shaped the thought of individuals who voluntarily adopted the prevailing witch image and even boasted of their sinister powers. However cynical some of the witch-hunters may have been, they often were dealing with people who genuinely believed they wielded occult powers, and who confessed as much. The psychological processes are depicted in fictional productions such as The Witch and the Swedish-Finnish film Devil’s Bride (2016).

Though the Satanic witch cult idea was not universal, it was widespread. Many societies have imagined that witches joined together in cults that scorned the precepts of proper society. According to this nightmarish vision, each group is organized on tightly disciplined and hierarchical lines and preserves strict secrecy. The groups’ practices are based on a principle of inversion, reversing all the norms and standards of civilized society, praising or worshipping principles like death, chaos, anarchy, and evil. This principle characterizes the sects’ alleged rituals, especially their initiation practices, which involve extreme acts of violence or sexual perversion. The sects’ ritual practices include the sacrifice of animals and humans; every conceivable sexual perversion; cannibalism and the consumption of loathsome foods; grave robbery and corpse abuse; ­orgiastic gatherings featuring bizarre music and dancing. Evil cults particularly targeted children or babies. In periods of high infant mortality, evidence of witch atrocities was seldom lacking.

So were there ever real witches? Hutton demolished the case made by Gerald Gardner and others for Wicca as an authentic ancient paganism. Yet Hutton remains open to continuity arguments when they are properly advanced and substantiated, and he pays respectful attention to evidence of the survival of shamanism in various parts of Europe. In many parts of Europe—especially in Finland and the Baltic lands—ancient pagan customs long survived in the form of ritual specialists who claimed to journey to other realms in order to battle with evil forces, commonly with the goal of healing clients. Some of these shamans were also said to shift their shapes, to become wolves or foxes. Drawing no firm conclusions, ­Hutton discusses how such primitive forms might have affected later witch ­beliefs.

Witch persecutions did not begin in Early Modern Europe, nor did they end there. One curious pattern in European witchcraft history is how the persecutions progressed very slowly east and north across Europe from the fifteenth century onwards. The worst Swedish incidents did not develop until the end of the seventeenth century, and Poland and Russia experienced some of their worst nightmares in the eighteenth century.

Contrary to expectations, witch fears seem to be entering a new phase of intensity with modernity, globalization, and urbanization. Witches are as likely to be lynched in today’s African megacities as in remote bush villages. The experienced hunter or detector of African witches can count on a career as long and lucrative as could his or her counterparts in ­seventeenth-century Germany. In 2017, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in Geneva hosted the first-ever Expert Workshop on Witchcraft and Human Rights. Abuses arising from witch-hunting and witch persecution are on the global human rights agenda, and individual governments will be held to account for how they respond to incidents. In the present century, European societies have had to confront African witch fears and “witch ­churches” on their own soil. The media have commonly done so by adopting and reinforcing racist stereotypes straight out of Heart of Darkness.

Even in the United States, it would be difficult to find a single moment when belief in witchcraft disappeared. One eye-opening study is Owen ­Davies’s America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem (2013). In addition to tracing the uses of witchcraft and “Salem” in popular culture up to the present day, Davies tracks actual instances of witch killing and persecution. With some admirable digging in newspapers and printed records, he traces some 150 unofficial or illegal witch killings in American history, mainly through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and continuing up to the present. Americans killed far more witches after 1700 than before. Davies tracks witch beliefs and persecutions among the nation’s diverse cultures—European, but also African American, Hispanic, Native American, and others. The remarkable persistence of belief in witches gives rise to an uncomfortable conclusion: The last person to be killed for witchcraft in the United States has not yet been born.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.