Witches, like ninja, so excite the popular imagination that everyone knows about them, but most of what we know is incorrect — either by virtue of being exaggerated or being imbued with cultural and narrative coloring. Gaskill’s book shows us the changing landscape of popular belief about witches and witchcraft, and it contrasts those perceptions with what the historical records show. So, for example, while there was undeniable persecution of individuals accused of witchcraft, it was less of a widespread mania than one might have been led to believe.
There were several fascinating discussions throughout the book. One such discussion is how surprisingly widespread the phenomena of witchcraft is, with witches being found in Africa who demonstrate remarkably similarities to those we are familiar with from the stories of Europe and New England. One can imagine how societies in which medicine was rooted in shamanistic practices, e.g. mixing herbal medicine with superstitious rituals, might produce practitioners that the modern, Western viewer would associate with witchcraft.
Another interesting question under discussion involved the psychology of accusations of witchcraft. For example, it’s not like every time a child died the parents leapt to the conclusion that there was some sort of voodoo witchcraft being practiced against their child, but in some circumstances it definitely happened. Under our current understanding of science and medicine, it’s hard to imagine how anyone would reach such conclusions, but it’s illuminating to explore the conditions under which our ancestors did. It tells us a great deal about humanity’s changing understanding of the world.
The book consists of eight chapters and the usual ancillary matter for the AVSI series (preface, graphics, references, and recommendations for further reading.) It begins by asking: “what is a witch, exactly.” It’s not as simple a question as one might think. Is a witch an herbal healer? Is she a malicious devil-worshipper? Is he or she just a neighbor with whom one had a beef, resulting in the use of that person’s perceived nefariousness to explain an unexpected tragedy? Is a Wiccan a witch? (This is addressed later because Wicca is a relatively recent phenomenon.) Is a witch just a popular Halloween costume based on stereotypes and story details? In some sense, the witch is all of these things wrapped into a messy mélange.
Chapter two recounts how the rise of Christianity warped the way witchcraft was viewed. As Christians attempted to both eliminate the competition of existing spiritual beliefs and to fit those who practiced witchcraft into the context of the Christian belief system, a new kind of witch came to be introduced. Chapter three delves into how the popular image of witches came to be associated with older, haggish women. (In the early days of witchcraft, women were no more associated with the practice than were men.) This chapter also has a fascinating section about cases of neighborly disputes playing out through accusations of witchcraft.
Chapter four explores how witchcraft came to be conflated with demon-worship in the popular imagination, and how beliefs about witchcraft were influenced by competing takes on Satan and what powers the devil was believed to have (or not have.) It also discusses the topic of witch hunts, and proposes that, while horrific things happened, there are many more examples of rationality and calm reflection winning the day. As I was reading this book, it sometimes felt to me like the author was acting as an apologist for the forces of persecution, but upon closer reflection I realized that he was just trying to combat an overly exaggerated view of what it was like to be amid witch hunts and trials. From what most of us have heard about the Salem Witch trials one might be led to believe that any woman in the seventeenth century who was accused of being a witch would immediately be drowned by an insane and angry mob. That was [mostly] not the case. Which is not to say it’s not horrible that it happened at all, but it is useful to understand the scale of any problem.
Chapter five investigates the nature of witch trials, and the changing face of how witchcraft was treated under the law. Witch trials have become synonymous with a vicious catch-22 in which a woman is tied to a rock and thrown into a river: if she floats out, she’s immediately killed as an agent of Satan; if she doesn’t, they say “our bad” and reward her with a Christian funeral. Gaskill emphasizes that there were people at the time who recognized and challenged how horrible and insane that approach was. [I often mention Dr. Sherrill’s formulation of the “Outhouse Fallacy,” the idea that because earlier people didn’t have indoor plumbing that they must have been complete dimwits, and the fallacy tends to apply to our popular conception of people of that era.] Chapter six dips further into crazes and panics over witchcraft. Chapters seven and eight consider different dimensions of how fantasy and reality became intertwined in how witchcraft was seen – from Macbeth’s trio of witches to modern Hollywood adaptations.
I read a lot of these AVSI titles from Oxford University Press; they are a good way to get a quick overview of a subject with which one has a limited familiarity, while ensuring the source has a high degree of scholarly competence. This edition is no different, and – in fact – owing to its fascinating topic, it’s probably more engaging than most. I enjoyed learning how my perception of witchcraft varied from reality, and how perception becomes a kind of reality unto itself. If you’re interested in learning about witch hunts, witch trials, and the like, this book provides an excellent and brief overview of the subject.