Thursday, December 17, 2009

Russell & Alexander's "A History of Witchcraft": Book Review

This chronologically covers the evolution of what societies perceive as witchcraft. People may deny it, but it's widespread, often with similar images and practices assumed in very diverse instances. Witches exist nearly everywhere if in equally varied forms, despite religious and political efforts to eradicate sorcery.

As with any Thames & Hudson publication, this 2007 work combines an intelligent, accessible, but scholarly introduction with lots of photos and drawings. The last two chapters added to the revision of the 1980 original version feature Brooks Alexander's neopagan coverage. What he and Russell emphasize, as the subtitle "sorcerers, heretics, and pagans" hints, is a triple definition of a "witch". (I did wonder as an aside why neither Russell's 1972 "Witchcraft in the Middle Ages"-- reviewed by me on this blog and Amazon US-- or this book explored the popular association of the term "witch" coming from the Old English for "bending or shaping.") Anthropologists place witchcraft within sorcery as "low magic" that influences natural phenomena to effect practical results desired. Historically, in Europe especially, devil worship has been supposed to be the domain of a witch. This happened far more often, in terms of persecution and murdering those so supposed to be witches, in the Renaissance and Reformation than in the Middle Ages. Whether or not this alleged diabolical contact was practiced, its functions were assumed by church and state to be "proven," and then nearly impossible to disprove. Russell presents many examples of 60,000 marginalized victims hanged or burned for heresy.

"The process is simple. A number of children die. The midwife is a lonely and unpopular widow. Blame for the deaths is fixed on her and expressed in supernatural terms. She must therefore be a witch. But it is well known that all witches fly out at night, make pacts with the Devil, and practise other forms of demonolatry. Questions about all this are put to her under torture, and in her agony and fear she confesses. The confession again reinforces the accepted image of the witch. Misfortunes are interpreted as evil deeds, evil deeds are seen as sorcery, sorcery is perceived as witchcraft, and another human being is tortured and killed." (84)

Russell tends to compress "the intellectual erosion of witchcraft" in the 17th-18th centuries but he does explain how people stopped believing in it once rational causes for the death of a cow of the illness of a child started to gain traction and helped undermine folk beliefs that blamed demons or spells for misfortune. For modern times, the resurgence of witchcraft, both authors remind the credulous, cannot be traced to a purported underground Old Religion. Jules Michelet, with his psuedo-Marxian concept of a deep-rooted agrarian resistance to Church and State, or Margaret Murray, with her deluded insistence that a Dianic cult survived from a "pre-Christian fertility religion that had once pervaded Europe," both are shown carefully to have based their once-influential theories on poor research and wishful thinking. Pagan practices may have survived into today's West, but not the world-view of ancient or folk paganism. That perspective, however, has been reconstructed and revamped, as Alexander reveals.

Contemporary neopaganism asserts its difference against Christian-based domination. It also defies a Western, secular, and rational mindset. Its identity's based in a "contagious excitement of cultural insurrection" as its "functional substitute for missionary zeal." (163) Animism-polytheism-pantheism; feminism; denial of sin; "spiritual reciprocity": Margot Adler's terms sum up its "religious attitude." (I've also reviewed Adler's "Drawing Down the Moon.")

For Alexander, witch hunts show a flaw in human nature: we project our fears of evil on others, we push them away from us, and we "punish them horribly." (193) It is no etymological accident that a witches' "sabbat" connects with the despised "synagogue" supposed to be an assembly of idolators. The fact many of those hunted were women today may account for the determination to reclaim, for many women and gays shunted aside from conventional religions and communities, in witchcraft a place to assert their subversive pride. The growth of both counterculturally based and pop-culture teen witches-- the latter fueled by a conjunction of the Net with Hollywood-- proves a challenge. In Berkeley, typically or atypically, Alexander notes how a witch brought together the traditional and "alternative" believers in an interfaith council as their bridge. How will witches manage to stand in opposition to the norm once they are accepted by ecumenical groups and invited into mainstream society as just another faith?

He closes by urging Neopaganism to be "tempered by critical thought." He finds its role one of elevating syncretic, intuitive approaches to wisdom alongside scientific, atheist, and academically arrogant forms of "physicist" thought. Its synthesis of a more nature-caring, feminist and queer-positive, and humbly reverential, non-punishing outlook he proposes for our millennial age as particularly encouraging. Russell and Alexander in this brief, well-written, and thoughtful survey of a controversial, often sensationalized, and generally misunderstood subject serve readers well in presenting an open-minded approach to the dangers of past discrimination and the present possibilities for future openness to one of the most ancient, yet one of the newest as reinvented, of all belief systems. (Posted to Amazon US 11-22-09)

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