- The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present by Ronald Hutton
Margo Burns, Ronald Hutton, Witchcraft, Witch, Anthropology, Folklore, Medieval Studies, History, History of Witchcraft, Egyptology, Paganism, Mediterranean, Fairies
Ronald Hutton's new book, The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present, is a sweeping work, spanning centuries of understanding of witchcraft and magic in folklore, anthropology, and history throughout the northern hemisphere. Readers already familiar with his work should be pleased to add this to their bookshelf.
His first chapter, "The Global Context," is magisterial, laying the anthropological groundwork superbly and making his case for five universals to define "witch" cross-culturally for his study: 1) one who causes harm by non-human "magical" means, 2) one who threatens a community from within, 3) one who learns or inherits their powers within a cultural tradition, 4) one who is evil, and 5) one whose powers can be resisted. For the discussion of each of these, he cites a breathtaking number of supporting examples of anthropological and ethnographic studies of cultures from around the globe. This was both interesting and informative, but very dense. I saw this as his only way to introduce the encyclopedic scope of anthropological source materials, however.
The subsequent material missed the mark for me as an historian, until I realized that I was not the target audience: folklorists, neopagans, and anthropologists are, especially readers who are already familiar with Hutton's books. Several chapters are derived from his other books and articles in journals, [End Page 305] including an early section whose title asks the question, "Historians, Anthropologists and Witchcraft: A Friendship Gone Wrong?"1 His answer is yes, and that the fields of anthropology and history suffered a schism in the 1960s and 1970s. This book is his effort to remedy that.
Hutton has published widely on the subjects of pagans, druids, shamanism, spirituality, and witches, and this book weaves these subjects together in a grand way. The book is structured chronologically in three parts, from ancient to medieval to the early modern period. The ancient world comprises the greater Mediterranean world of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and a region he refers to as a "European sub-Shamanic province," encompassing Siberia and Scandinavia.2 In the medieval section, his focus narrows to continental Europe, and in the early modern, to just the British Isles.
Hutton's assertion about the geographical spread and influence of various concepts of magic and witchcraft in the ancient world was among the hardest for me to come to grips with. His wide generalizations about whole ancient cultures holding monolithic beliefs strained credulity, and the one-way direction of influential waves across continental Europe seemed simplistic. I found the inclusion of Egyptian beliefs perplexing, but explainable by how much affection Hutton holds for the work on Egypt by Margaret Murray, an early-twentieth-century British anthropologist, even though it is generally discounted today.
In many places, the summaries seemed overgeneralized and details conveniently cherry-picked. When mentioning "witchcraft trials" in ancient times, I wanted to know more specifics: how do we know what we know about these early people? The historian in me had a hard time just taking some of the assertions on faith. I craved more primary sources. I finally got them at the end of the book, however, where Hutton begins to cite historical records of cases of specific individuals included in the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft database.3 Pinpointing this destination as the geographic focus in Britain allows him to demonstrate that individual local areas have been able to resist being entirely subsumed by external influences, and therefore are able to reveal local beliefs that have ancient roots. He focuses on fairies and animal [End Page 306] "familiars" as unique features of the northwest region of the British Isles' Celtic/Gaelic-speaking regions, and takes issue with past assertions that there were not any witchcraft trials there, using evidence from the Scottish database to demonstrate the usefulness of historical sources...