Witches' Brew


  • Gary Jensen. The Path of the Devil: Early Modern Witch Hunts. Rowman and Littlefield, 2007. 
  • Jeffrey B Russell and Brooks Alexander. A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. Thames and Hudson, 2nd ed., 2007.
  • Gerrie ter Haar (editor) Imagining Evil: Witchcraft Beliefs and Accusations in Contemporary Africa. Africa World Press, 2007.
These three books present very contrasting approaches to the study of witchcraft. Sociologist Gary Jensen presents a detailed scholarly study, replete with graphs and statistics to examine various heories about the origins and dissemination of the witch hunts, and their correlation with a variety of social and environmental factors. He presents a strong critique of the various attempts to construct single issue theories whether correlations with bad harvests, notions of the male suppression of female midwives, or explanations in terms of ergotism or sleepy sickness (not, by the way, sleeping sickness as Jensen has it). Rather he sees a confluence of various factors, not always the same from case to case, which come together to create the ‘perfect storm’ of witch hunting hysteria.

One theme which comes through strongly is a positive correlation with ‘war on the periphery’ and a negative one with ‘war close to home’. It is knowledge or rumours of wars in distant parts, rather than those which strike at the heart of the community which is one of the factors which leads people into scapegoating the ‘enemy within’. These are important ideas which might well be worth applying to modern social panics and visionary rumours of the sort that this journal covers.

Russell and Alexander’s book, by contrast, is a broad sweep history, It is based on Russell’s original study from 1980, which has been somewhat updated, with a new section on Modern Witchcraft by Alexander. There is little in the way of detailed historical study, and a distinctly old fashioned and rather romantic outlook. Thus Russell invokes notions such as the archetype of the feminine, and still seems to believe that Early Modern village customs were pagan survivals, a notion amply demolished by historians such as Ronald Hutton or Steven Round. A whistlestop history always has the tendency to squash together all sorts of different phenomena and beliefs from different cultures. This of course is confounded when the knowledge of those cultures comes via third parties such as colonial officials, missionaries and anthropologists who translate local concepts into Judeo-Hellenic ones familiar to the west.

Russell sees the existence of witch hunts as part of the universal human propensity to project unacceptable aspects of their own personalities onto the Others. No doubt this is true, but it fails to explain why such events happen at some times and not others, nor should be taken in by his rather bleak conclusions and his rejection of the notions of progress.

Brooks Alexander’s brief history of the modern Wiccan religions, shows to some extent how religions can be built out of false history and historical myths. It also hints at how religions can be generated by sometimes rather suspect individuals, whom one might suspect of being narcissists and attention seekers of various kinds, yet can develop over quite a short space of time into much more serious and respectable movements.

Putting aside the modern witchcraft and Wiccan movements, we in the west see belief in actual real witchcraft, as opposed to its presentation in the popular media, as a subject only for the historians or historical sociologists, such as authored the aforementioned books, In other parts of the word the situation is very different, and the collection of papers by mainly African authors in Ter Haar’s book make it clear than it is a very real, potent and destructive belief system in many parts of Africa, one which is having a very negative effect on the national development of several countries. Belief in witchcraft not only leads to persecutions and deaths, but, because accusations tend to made against anyone who stands out in the local community (for instance someone who is doing well for themselves, setting up businesses, has slightly more wealth etc.) inhibits personal action and development. Women who step out of line and seek to escape from traditional gender roles are especially vulnerable.

Accusations tend to be levelled against the kin of the victim, and these papers should make anyone think again who has nostalgic dreams for the some imagined warm loving lost Eden of the little village where everyone knew everyone. With an increasingly multicultural society, witchcraft beliefs and not just from Africa are likely to become an important source of new visions and beliefs here in the West. Nor are they likely to remain solely a concern of ethnic minority communities, as ideas and beliefs permeate across community boundaries. A number of the authors point out that the modern witchcraft beliefs in Africa are actually an admixture of traditional beliefs and those imported from Christianity and Islam.

As societies are increasingly fractured by social change, and people sense their way of life is falling apart, and everything as being out of control, then this sense spills over into the supernatural world and the supernatural entities are thought of as being as totally out of control as everything else, with the traditional ways of dealing with them being felt to be ineffective, This sense of being up against an utterly uncontrollable, unstoppable malign Other is not much different than Western beliefs in alien abduction. Indeed there are a couple of stories presented, which if told in a Western context, would have been presented as alien abduction stories.

On a wider scale, we in the West may not have exorcised witchcraft so much as secularised it. Our modern witchcraft may be given other names, such as antisocial behaviour, verbal abuse etc., but the underlying themes remain the same. A recent case in which an 81 year old woman was given a six months sentence for antisocial behaviour could have come straight out of a Tudor ecclesiastical court, and featured just the sort of eccentric and argumentative old crone who would once have been accused of being a witch. The central theme of witchcraft belief, that everything that goes wrong in our life is someone else’s fault, lives on in latter day compensation culture.   | PR |

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