Season of the Witch: Rethinking the History of Witchcraft

Paul Jenkins

University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

“The season of the witch is truly upon us.” So opens a recent piece in The Guardian, from which this entry borrows its title. I am not sure I entirely agree, but only because I am not convinced witches ever really went “out of season,” as it were. On the other hand, it is hard not to be struck by the surging social and cultural fascination with witches and witchcraft. For some time now, in my own small corner of the world, I have been interestedly tracking the daily traffic from all across the globe that continues to visit a piece on witchcraft and human rights written for the hUManities blog back in early 2017. Of course, this trend is far too small and localized to be recognized by anyone else, but it is surely an expression of the same broad trend noted in The Guardian.

That trend has produced a spate of new television shows and movies centring on witches and witchcraft. Some notable examples include Tilda Swinton’s coven of witches in the remake of Suspiria (2018), the TV series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018), which revamps the Archie Comics character Sabrina Spellman, and Robert Eggers’ sleeper hit film, The Witch (2015). There is also chatter about a reboot of the 90’s Saturday afternoon staple, Charmed. If we look to other media we find Pam Grossman’s The Witch-Wave, a podcast for “bewitching conversation about magic, creativity, and culture.” Grossman has also just published a book, Waking the Witch: Reflections of Women, Magic and Power(Simon & Schuster, 2019). And then, obviously, there is J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse. While its longstanding ubiquity ought properly to exclude it from this conversation about recent trends, it is hard to imagine that this cultural phenomenon will ever actually go and sit quietly on the sidelines.

Yet, for all the striking novelty and the timely woke, feminist edge found in so many of these new expressions and evocations of witchcraft, much of their message can be traced back to those of earlier movements. The radical feminist group W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) quickly comes to mind, for instance. Formed in the late 1960s, W.I.T.C.H. was the “action wing” of the radical, second-wave feminist group New York Radical Women. The meaning behind their acronymic rendering is significant and worth examining, for as The Oxford University Professor of English Lit, Diane Purkiss, observes, “it goes beyond any simple reclamation of the witch as a foresister in order to assign explicit meaning to the figure.” “‘Woman’ names the witch as gendered,” Purkiss continues, “while ‘international’ asserts the ubiquity of witches, and ‘terrorist’ marks witches as violent. ‘Conspiracy’ deliberately flirts with fears of a secret organisation of subversive women, while ‘from Hell’ draws attention to the origin of witches’ otherness while pointing to women’s oppression.” Whatever its lineage, this type of interest in witchcraft is an important and layered one that draws on the past and deliberately co-opts it and redeploys the image of the witch as a dangerous and empowered woman.

Well, I say “whatever its lineage”, but I don’t mean it, for this interest in witchcraft is not really as distinctive or novel as it might at first seem. Because deviance and subversion are at their core, the witch and witchcraft have always been intensely politicized and shaped by a host of ideological commitments. As have the uses to which the beliefs and ideals surrounding them have been bent to serve. Perhaps the most striking thing in all of this, then, is our surprise in the West that the figure of the witch could still be a potent one. This surprise is a product of the way the story of witchcraft in the modernizing West has been conveniently forgotten, dismissed, or, as the historian Owen Davies neatly puts it, “obscured by myth-making and seductive assumptions about progress.”

Davies’ pioneering work is at the leading edge of a growing body of research demonstrating that beliefs and attitudes towards witchcraft and an efficacious spirit world continued to be powerful cultural expressions in the West throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. While these attitudes changed in significant ways, the magical imagination, together with beliefs in demonic possession, miracles, the unseen world of ghosts, and witches and witchcraft remained powerfully compelling to many.

In my experience, this revisionist take often jangles and seems unacceptably wrong, or, at least thoroughly unimportant, to the twenty-first-century mind. If so, it is because of the way the new historical philosophy and modes of historical production (with all of their emphasis on certain mechanisms of cause and effect), first generated by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—and still so dominant today—were marked by a pronounced tendency to ignore the continuation of the old in the development of the new. The progressivist, emancipatory narratives of the Enlightenment unashamedly bent the past to their own ideological ends, reinforcing their own intellectual novelty and discontinuity with the past. Thus, in this decidedly “enlightened” telling, liberty was a by-product of modernity and the past a foreign country: something truly other, a benighted, backwards and superstitious place.

Not surprisingly, this has sharply—yet falsely—coloured the history of witchcraft, demons and spirits, and their place in Western culture, resulting in the myths and seductive assumptions about progress noted by Davies. The problem is that in the history of ideas and culture, what at first looks like chiaroscuro, upon closer inspection, almost always ceases to be so. Instead, the colours run and the picture becomes complex and messy. However, a stark history is more dramatic and easier to write and researchers dealing with the history of early modern witchcraft, particularly the story of the decline of the witch-hunts, still typically present it in stark terms.

Modern scholars almost always see early modern witchcraft as a blatantly impossible phenomenon fuelled by delusion and superstition, and the demise of the beliefs that supported it is therefore the product of a happy evolution in thinking. This is of course perfectly understandable and in many ways quite right, and I am obviously not championing a return to delusion, superstition or the persecution of witches. However, this view of early modern witchcraft, which is founded on the assumption that at root nothing real can have been going on, is also remarkably condescending and narrow. “The moment we think of the World as disenchanted” in these sorts of ways, Dipesh Chakrabarty rightly observes, “we set limits to the ways the past can be narrated.” And these limits can be problematic and consequential.

Firstly, they ignore important historical possibilities. An attentive, dispassionate reading of the historical record reveals ample evidence of actual maleficent practices in early modern Europe. For instance, in her rich and detailed study of the famed 1662 witchcraft-fairy trial of Isobel Gowdie in northeastern Scotland, Emma Wilby makes a compelling case that Gowdie may have actually practiced harmful ritual magic and performed real acts of maleficium. I can feel your eyes rolling, dear reader, so please stay with me for a moment. Wilby closely examines Gowdie’s rich trial testimony in which Gowdie confesses to a variety of maleficent activities, and takes these confessions seriously. Drawing on studies of anthropological shamanism, particularly dark shamanism, Wilby argues it is perfectly possible that Gowdie acted more or less as she said, and that those actions can have been real in some cases, and a mixture of real and inefficacious and exaggerated components in others. The crucial question is one of action and intention, not efficacy—though we should not discount the latter, especially when it came to harming neighbours, their crops or their animals. So, while it would be unwise to simply take such contemporary witchcraft beliefs and purported actions at face value, Wilby argues that it is equally mistaken to dismiss them all together.

This simple but profound shift in approach allows Wilby to pursue a similarly simple but compelling line of argument. She suggests that the stereotypical notion in early modern Europe that women at the middle-to-lower end of the social spectrum practiced maleficent magic may have originally developed because it was true. Obviously, there can be no doubt that the fear these beliefs inspired resulted in terrible abuses and injustices. But, Wilby argues, to assume that there was nothing real at the root of these fears, that for three hundred years Europe was fixated on the identification and elimination of an entirely imaginary crime, is a hasty and condescending presumption. The rate of incidence of actual maleficium-performance, she adds, would not have needed to be high to feed the fears and anxieties that drove the early modern witch-hunts. And of course the fear of perceived maleficium-performance undoubtedly exceeded actual performance, and for every bone fide case there were many more false ones. But even with these qualifications, the essential point survives: the frantic hype that coalesced around early modern demonological witchcraft may have gathered around something that was essentially real. It is possible that “an unknown minority, with perhaps Isobel Gowdie among them, may have genuinely sought to revenge themselves on their neighbours, ministers and landlords, through an alliance with an envisioned spirit they consciously identified as the Prince of Darkness himself.”

Obviously, this is a challenging line of argument, not least because there is an understandable desire to avoid “blaming the victims” of persecutions that have been seen as fallacious and unjust for centuries. However, its merits centre more around a question of respecting historical agency, and, perhaps more crucially, appreciating the powerful politics built into the history of the history of early modern witchcraft. It is about recognizing how much the subject has been shaped and reshaped by the hands of its confident, decidedly modern and rationalist eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century students, and how their interventions have limited what we see. This is always a consideration in history, but some subjects are more greatly affected by the conceptual limitations of historians than others. None, perhaps, more so than the strange, enchanted worlds of the past.

These limitations have also greatly affected our understanding of the decline of the witch-hunts, and thus, the ghettoized space we permit witchcraft beliefs and other faith-based crimes today. They are the realm of the ignorant, the superstitious, the fanatical, the weird. It must of course be said that historians have seriously and thoughtfully examined magic, witchcraft, demons, and other occult forces, and demonstrated how well they fit into normal life. However, that life and the beliefs of those who live it are almost always consigned to a firmly pre-modern past. Even when these beliefs manifest in the modern world, as increasingly they do today, they are treated like a cultural atavism, a curious and doomed evolutionary throwback.

But this view is misconceived and dangerously out of step with growing global trends. For instance, between 2008 and 2013 in India 768 women were killed for allegedly practicing witchcraft. Meanwhile witch-hunts throughout Africa (e.g. Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa) are so common, and in places so rampant, they are said to resemble a “hidden war” carried out largely against women and children. The fears and violence witchcraft continues to provoke span the globe, from Guatemala, to Russia, to Indonesia, to Saudi Arabia, to the U.K. Thus, in 2009 the United Nations identified witch-hunting as “a form of persecution and violence that is spreading around the globe”, and that same year The Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN) formed, and in 2010 held its first conference devoted to alleviating the crisis in developing countries.

WHRIN continues to operate and now even offers specialized courses designed to help NGOs, Human Rights and other social justice workers deepen their understanding of abuse and violence linked to belief in witchcraft, juju, and spirit possession. In the face of all this, it is in many ways becoming increasingly difficult not to see a failure of both imagination and intellectual courage as traits that belong at least as much to those who unthinkingly deny and dismiss these beliefs, as those who hold them. Indeed, all of this brings to mind a passage by Rainer Maria Rilke:

This is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called “visions,” the whole so-called “spirit-world,” death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.

Obviously, the point here is not to valorise witchcraft beliefs or the gruesome violence they all-too-often trigger. Nor is it a condemnation of modern reason, science, or the ethics of toleration. Rather, it is a call to summon the courage to confront “the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter”, and to do so openly with a desire to deepen understanding. This is among the most important work history and the humanities do.

The story of witchcraft that most of us in the West think we know is quite narrow and misleading, and it starts with the dominant explanations for the decline of the European witch-hunts on the eve of the Enlightenment. This is a story that needs to be re-opened and examined anew, a point that will be made this Thursday, when the Arts of the Conversation series resumes with a talk critically reassessing the decline of the witch-hunts in early Enlightenment Scotland (c.1660-c.1700). All welcome.

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