These days, when the accusation of “witch hunt” seems far too casually invoked, we owe historian Ronald Hutton gratitude for showing us what a witch hunt really looks like. He details not only the diverse cultural traits of those hunted in Europe, but the roots, history and prevalence of witches throughout the world.
To avoid any misunderstanding, Hutton defines his terms early, choosing the classic historian’s definition of a witch as “one who causes harm to others by mystical means.” This dark magic is not to be confused with our modern association of the term with pagan nature-based religions, which Hutton considers “thoroughly worthwhile.” For the sake of this work, Hutton describes those who practice the healing magical arts intended to elicit beneficial results as “service practitioners.”
The witch of Hutton’s description has several distinguishing characteristics. Stereotypes aside, the targeted witch was not always a woman. Iceland’s famous witch-hunt victims, for example, were mostly male, while Scotland’s of the same era were almost exclusively female. Even so, there were common traits of the accused: The witch was a worker of destructive magic employing handed-down traditions. The magical harm invoked was always personal, often intended to harm neighbors, rather than strangers. The witch was treated as a threat to the community, someone believed to hate humanity and conspire with the devil.
Hutton’s research suggests that witches have existed in all inhabited continents of the world and across the majority of human societies. Though there are great cultural variations in customs and practices, people have persistently resorted to magical means to inflict harm on each other. And although there have been isolated prosecutions of witches throughout history, Hutton writes, “Europeans alone turned witches into practitioners of an evil anti-religion.”
What Hutton finds more difficult to prove is the existence of literal diabolic cults, though the belief in them is certainly well-documented, particularly among groups organized to combat them. The benandanti in Italy, for instance, believed their spirits went forth at night to battle gathering witches.
In some ways, it’s easier to mention three significant groups that didn’t take issue with practicing witches:
The Egyptians harbored neither fear nor disapproval of magic. When Egypt fell under Roman rule, some aspects of their ceremonial magic influenced Greek philosophy as well as Jewish and Christian culture. Forms of it were adopted by Judaic, Byzantine and Muslim religious ceremony, and later by Latin Christianity. Such symbols as the quartered circle and the pentagram, protective symbols of the Middle Ages, found their way into religious ritual.
The Celts had a similar non-reaction to witches. Hutton speculates that a concurrent belief in fairies might account for this. Indeed, the infamous and brutal Scottish witch hunts took place in areas beyond the reach of Celtic influence. Does the belief in fairies provide protection from witches as Hutton theorizes? Perhaps. The theory certainly provides fertile ground for fantasy fiction writers.
Nomadic tribes also seemed impervious to accusations of witchcraft. When unfortunate events occurred, they didn’t demonize dark magic, they simply relocated.
So when and why did things turn deadly?
Though the elements were already in existence in the ancient world, the satanic witchcraft connection emerged strongly in the late Middle Ages, after Roman influence spread throughout Europe and Christianity became the dominant religion. The church outlawed divination and ceremonial magic as heresy, prompting witch hunts in the 1420s in Spain and Italy. Friars of the Observant reform movement, who preached in remote areas and dedicated themselves to “purging Christendom of all laxity and ungodliness,” blamed misfortunes on satanic conspiracy, thereby creating widespread panic among their followers.
The second great European witch hunt arrived with Protestantism and the waning power of the Catholic Church. In late 16th-century England, Protestant evangelists targeted all magic, claiming that witches were deluded by the devil. The Catholic Church responded in kind. Each side blamed the other for colluding with Satan. This quickly escalated, leading to a number of the most brutal witch hunts in history, some that eventually reached the shores of British colonies, including America, before European belief in witches seemed to spontaneously disappear.
What never died out completely, however, was the demonization of those considered “other.” It resurfaced, along with witch hunting, in postcolonial Africa, most likely, Hutton suggests, as a response to the process of modernization after independence. Even today, we see witch hunts breaking out in different parts of the world among cultures most fearful of change.
“The Witch” is an important work, representing more than 20 years of scholarly research. Though not a casual read, for anyone researching the subject, this is the book you’ve been waiting for, one that lays to rest many conflicting theories that emerged in the latter part of the 20th century. It provides a social, historical and religious continuum based on impeccable research. But “The Witch” is more than a historical reference; it’s also a cautionary tale. In Hutton’s words, witch hunts remain “a very live issue in the present world, and one that may well be worsening.” In these tumultuous times, we would do well to learn from the history Hutton depicts.
Brunonia Barry is the author, most recently, of “The Fifth Petal.”
By Ronald Hutton
Yale University Press. 376 pp. $30