Sunday, June 24, 2007

Russell and Alexander's "A History of Witchcraft"

Jeffrey Burton Russell is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of at least seventeen books. His five-volume history detailing the concept of the Devil is recognized by scholars as the definitive text on the subject. Brooks Alexander is the author of Witchcraft Goes Mainstream and has written numerous articles on witchcraft and neo-paganism and their effect on contemporary religious movements.

Russell applied the "Page 99 Test" to their book, A History of Witchcraft, and found that the test failed: the page is entirely occupied by an illustration. As is often the case, the test grade is not as interesting as the comments, which Russell generously provided:
The best reference to the book is Jeffrey Burton Russell and Brooks Alexander, A New History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, Pagans (London: Thames and Hudson, 2006) -- irritatingly put out in the US as A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, Pagans, Second Edition (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2006). The new edition contains much updated and expanded material on "Wicca" and related New Age religions.

Here are the main points of the book:

"Witchcraft" is found in virtually all cultures. But the meaning of the word varies hugely, whence the threefold subtitle.

A vast variety of magical practices exist in many societies, including ancient Europe. Anthropologists have tended to lump them together as "witchcraft" (see Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2002 ed.) for want of a better word.

We prefer the term sorcery, which involves using objects, words, and gestures to accomplish a magical end, whether beneficent or maleficent. The basic difference between magical and religious practices is that magical practices are quasi-technological: if you do such and such, such and such will happen; whereas religion involves prayers and petitions that do not work automatically but are subject to the will of God (or gods).

In the late Middle Ages in Europe, witchcraft took on a different meaning. Since about 1050 church authorities embarked on a powerful program of reform: educational, moral, and doctrinal. This program achieved vast improvements in the morality and knowledge of both clergy and laity, but the opposite side of the coin was prosecution of heretics. Beginning in the 14th century, witchcraft came to mean the practice of blasphemous rites in worship of and submission to the Devil.

How many people actually practiced such rites is unclear, though probably not very many. However, fear of witchcraft became intense in the 16th and 17th centuries in both Protestant and Catholic regions. Over 100,000 persons were tried for witchcraft and about 60,000 executed (the figure of "millions" is a fantastic hyperbole invented in the late 19th century).

The witch prosecutions ceased by the mid-eighteenth century.

Toward the end of the late 19th century a number of occult movements occurred, notably that of Alisteir Crowley. Borrowing from Crowley, Gerald Gardner invented a number of documents that he alleged showed the existence of the witch cult throughout European history, only for Gardner the cult was good and the Christians evil. This point of view was reinforced by a well-known Egyptologist named Margaret Murray. A number of occultists followed Gardner or invented their own varieties of witchcraft or "Wicca." Part of the Neopagan movement of the past few decades, these Wicca Neopagans have spread remarkably in the US, the UK, and other countries.

Though the varieties of Wicca paganism are vast, the underlying principles are dismissal of monotheism, along with positive attitudes toward polytheism, nature-worship, and feminism. Efforts to connect modern Wicca with earlier forms of witchcraft fail historically and are artificial. Most thoughtful Wiccans now happily admit that theirs is a new religion that they themselves have created.
Read more about A New History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, Pagans at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue