Ronald Hutton on the Witch

"Witch-hunting has been found in every inhabited continent of the world": Ronald Hutton talks to Charlotte Hodgman about his new book examining the global figure of the witch – from ancient times to the present day...

Woodcut of a meal shared at a witches' Sabbath. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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The European witch trials of the early modern period did much to create an enduring perception of the figure of the witch. But these trials were influenced by global, ancient, medieval and folkloric traditions whose history has often been overlooked. Ronald Hutton’s book sets European witchcraft in an ancient and global context to revise our understanding of the witch around the world.

Your book takes a global view on 2,000 years of witchcraft and magic. Why did you choose to tackle such a huge topic?

It’s a subject that has interested me since I was a teenager. There’s been an enormous amount of work done on the witch trials of the early modern period, but significantly less on witchcraft in ancient times and across the rest of the world. This book is my attempt to redress the balance, and it has taken me 25 years to research and write.

When was the term ‘witch’ first used, and what does it mean?

The word has different interpretations. The two oldest define a witch as someone who uses magic to hurt people, or somebody who uses magic for any purpose. The feminist reading of the term is a woman of independent spirit who is persecuted for it by men in an age of patriarchy. Others see a witch as being a practitioner of a surviving pagan religion.

The term ‘witch’ itself is Anglo-Saxon but what it means is not actually all that clear. There are hints in the law codes that ‘witch’ could refer to someone who works harmful magic. But we can’t be sure.

Academics also argue endlessly about the definition of ‘magic’. I define it as being a set of techniques employed by humans in the hope of exploiting supernatural power for their own purposes.

How does  Europe’s witchcraft history compare to that of the rest of the world?

It stands out from the rest of the world for two main reasons. On the one hand it is the only place that associated witchcraft with a demonic anti-religion – a fully developed religion worshipping the devil, which was pitted against the established religion. But on the other hand, it is the only area on the planet whose peoples traditionally believed in witchcraft in the past but who have officially ceased to believe in it.

There are several reasons for this loss of belief. In the 15th century, Christian theologians developed the paranoiac idea of a satanic conspiracy that sought to destroy the human race using evil people (witches) who had been given magical powers by demons. The idea caught on and was employed as a solution to daily problems. In other words, it was thought that if you wiped out presumed witches in your area, you would stop being unlucky in general. But it didn’t work.

Areas that hosted massive witch hunts were actually more traumatised, more divided and, in some cases, more depopulated than those that didn’t. What’s more, the areas that failed to persecute witches were seen to experience as much good luck – healthy children and livestock, good weather – as those that did. And so witch hunting was given up as a bad idea.

Have you found evidence of witch hunting outside Europe?

Witch-hunting has been found in every single inhabited continent of the world and among most of the peoples who have inhabited the Earth. But it’s not a universal human trait. The largest witch-free area on the planet is Siberia, which covers a third of the northern hemisphere. So there are some quite big exceptions. But the majority of human beings through history have feared magic and have persecuted people they believe to have used it wrongly.

Globally, witch hunts have taken pretty much the same format as their European equivalents. All you needed was a population under economic and social pressure in which people felt pushed to the margins and where a bit of bad luck could ruin their lives. When this bad luck struck – a bad harvest, for example – they blamed witchcraft. But you also needed the witch hunters – people who claimed to be capable of detecting witches and of dealing with them. When these men or women got their hands on a population that was in a ferment of fear, the results were explosive.

The best known of all witch hunts was the Salem witch trials of 1692. Why is this case so infamous?

Salem stands out because it was the only big witch hunt in the British colonies of America, and also because it’s a well-recorded and incredibly dramatic story. It was a divided community, one in which a group of adolescent women – and some adults – believed themselves to be bewitched. They were stirred up by a crazy minister who, in a bid to salvage his ailing career, launched a witch hunt. The fall-out was huge, with hundreds of people coming under suspicion, and around 20 people being executed.

Has the European witch always been seen as predominately female?

Overwhelmingly, Europeans have traditionally associated women, rather than men, with magic. They thought that men were able to learn magic but that women had magic within them. This is why women in European culture have traditionally featured as prophetesses, sibyls and oracles. They come in when the men can’t figure out what’s going on. On the flip side, if women were natural magicians then, it was believed, they could also work evil magic far more spontaneously than men.

For all that, there were areas of Europe – Iceland, Normandy and some of the Austrian lands – where people overwhelmingly suspected men of being witches.

Outside Europe there was no real pattern to who might be accused of witchcraft. In some areas women were the suspected group; in others, it was men. To some, the old or rich came under suspicion, while elsewhere it could be the young or poor.

How did ancient societies view witches?

Ancient Egypt is notable for a distinct lack of belief in witchcraft and little fear of magic. Elsewhere, across the whole fertile crescent there was an acute fear of witchcraft that was associated with an even stronger fear of demons (evil spirits in the natural world).

Like the Egyptians, the ancient Greeks had little fear of witchcraft, although they did occasionally execute magicians for impiety. As for the Romans, they had a sharp image of the witch as an evil woman, and used witch hunters on a big scale.

The perceptions of witchcraft in ancient Rome and the fertile crescent did most to shape attitudes in medieval and early modern Europe – fed through the prism of the Bible.

What impact has Christianity had on witchcraft and magic?

The initial effect of Christianity was to dampen down witch hunting. Christians believed that, with an all-powerful God in control of the cosmos, there was less room for evil to operate unless humans embraced it voluntarily. There were whole areas of magic, such as a belief in night-flying witches and of demonesses working together to persecute humans, on which the church frowned. But the early medieval church was incredibly confident, mainly because of the speed at which Christianity was spreading.

During the high Middle Ages, the Christian church, especially in the west, lost a lot of this confidence. Plague was killing thousands; the climate was getting worse; Islam was fighting back in the holy lands. As a result Christianity began to turn on what it saw as enemies within. It was this that bred a new and lethal idea of the satanic witch.

James VI of Scotland was known for his fear of witches. Did other rulers feel the same?

Across most of the world, and certainly in Britain, rulers tended to stay out of witch hunts. There were exceptions here and there when a monarch or a chief used the fear of witches to enhance his or her own power. James VI is the outstanding example in Britain, although later, when he was also ruling England as James I, he became sceptical about witch accusations.

Shaka, the great Zulu king, was a notable witch hunter, as was Handsome Lake, the Seneca leader of the Iroquois people in North America.

Was there ever a time when practising magic was seen as a positive thing?

Those who worked magic to help people were often respected and much demanded figures in their communities. I tend not to use the word witch to describe these characters – not because I have any deep-rooted hostility towards the idea, but because there has always been a big distinction between those who worked good magic (often known as cunning folk or service magicians) and witches. These individuals generally escaped persecution and even helped identify witches during witch hunts.

Your book also explores the relationship between fairies, folklore  and magic. How are they related?

In certain parts of Europe, mostly on the fringes, fairies played an important role in magic and a lot of service magicians claimed to have learned their skills from the fairies. Britain in particular has a strong folklore history, particularly across the Gaelic world – the Highlands and islands of Scotland, the Isle of Man and Ireland. Here, fairies were believed to be bigger and much more dangerous, and in these areas they largely took over the role of witches in being seen as the main magical threat to humans. Fairies further south, around cities and in the south-east of England, were seen as smaller and more mischievous. Consequently they played far less of a role in the evidence given at witch trials.

Will our fear of magic ever disappear?

Attitudes are changing. We’ve come a long way since the witch trials of the early modern period. But for many there is still an ancestral tendency to seek magical or supernatural explanations for uncanny fortune or misfortune. There is a massive post-Christian, post-early modern hangover among many people who no longer have religious beliefs but who still have a vague, formless fear of magic.

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Ronald Hutton is author of The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present (Yale, 376 pages, £25).