The doyen of British occult studies disentangles the arcane histories of contemporary druids, followers of wicca and neo-pagansby Ian Irvine / July 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present by Ronald Hutton (Yale, £25)
Donald Trump has recently been tweeting that he is the subject of a “witch hunt”—and, almost needless to say, he believes it to be the greatest in US history. The events at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, rather contradict him. But those 20 deaths pale in comparison to the 40-60,000 legal executions for witchcraft across Europe between the 15th and the 18th century. If the ideal of history is to present the past “as it really was,” few subjects are more intractable. The witch, in the sense of a person believed to use magic for malevolent purposes, has been recorded in most societies worldwide since ancient times, but so many of the sources are the products of fear, fantasy and religious ideology. And since the 1960s academic turf wars fuelled by post-colonial embarrassment have stymied the interdisciplinary collaboration between anthropologists and historians necessary to produce a global perspective of the phenomenon.
Ronald Hutton is the doyen of British occult studies. Through his scrupulous, but always sympathetic, approach he has previously disentangled the arcane histories of contemporary druids, followers of wicca and neo-pagans. His latest book offers a convincing account of how an early conspiracy theory, the spurious idea of an organised Satanic religion, came to obsess political and religious authorities, killing in the process so many simple healers and users of folk medicine. It also charts the rise of witchcraft from an unrespectable fringe interest to a worthy subject of historical enquiry.