The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, edited by Owen Davies

Reviewed by Harriet

If there’s one thing that this impressively learned and wide-ranging volume amply demonstrates, it’s that an interest in magic and witchcraft has persisted through the ages in all eras and all parts of the world. Or at least all parts of the Western world,  as the essays here only cover Europe and North America. However, as Owen Davies notes in his Foreword,

The European experience was not isolated from global influences….Indigenous magical practices filtered subtly into European traditions. From the nineteenth century onwards, western spiritualists and ritual magicians drew inspiration from the mystical traditions and religions of India and the East.

Though these influences and associations  are discussed in some of the chapters, a fuller exploration of them would have been interesting,, but was clearly out of the scope of this volume,. Meanwhile there’s plenty to absorb and enjoy here: nine essays by a collection of distinguished academics, proceeding chronologically from Magic in the Ancient World through Medieval Magic, The Demonologists, The Witch Trials, The Witch and Magician in European Art, The World of Popular Magic, The Rise of Modern Magic, Witchcraft and Magic in the Age of Anthropology, and finally Witches on Screen. 

What emerges most clearly from this study as a whole is the continuity and persistence of some beliefs and practices. An obvious example would be the well-known practice of sticking pins into a figurine with the intent of causing harm to the person it represents. The Ancient Egyptians made figurines ‘pierced with nails or shown bound hand and foot, or made headless or blind, their mutilation or disfigurement intended to disable their human counterpart and thus protect the one who made them or had them made’.  Similar artefacts date from the Middle Ages in Europe and have been made use of ever since, and the practice undoubtedly still persists today. As the quotation above shows, this provides an interesting demonstration of the purposes magic can be put to, combining harming an enemy with protecting the maker of the image. In fact self-protection from the dangers of the world, whether it be from someone else’s evil intent or from sickness, death or financial ruin, has arguably been the driving force behind most, if not all of the magical practices described in these chapters. 

‘What do we mean by ‘magic’ in any given context, and how does it differ from religion on the one hand and ‘science’ on the other?’  Peter Maxwell-Stuart raises this important question at the start of his chapter on Magic in the Ancient World. While admitting that these are fluid categories, he concludes that

For our purposes here, ‘magic’ refers to a constellation of what are officially regarded as deviant ritualistic or ritualized ways of dealing with an individual’s immediate problems by achieving access to sacred power which demands or compels the assistance of non-human entities.

Of course ‘officially regarded’ refers primarily to those who represent the dominant religion, whether it be Christianity or its counterparts in the pre-Christian era. It could be said that Christians also solicit access to sacred power to solve problems with the assistance of non-human entities, if the saints can be described as such, but this, and the rituals of Christian worship, are not regarded as deviant in the Christian world, though adherents to other world religions, and atheists, might disagree.  However, as we move forward through time, more and more examples emerge of attempts to harness the forces of evil.  Witchcraft, as it appeared from the late middle ages onwards, was seen as a satanic sect whose members had entered into a pact with the Devil. This led, on the one hand, to the study of Demonology, the science of demons, and on the other to the massive European persecutions of the Witch Trials of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, which often seem to have had a political motivation: ‘To conduct witchcraft trials was useful to gain juridical and political power, autonomy and reputation’. These two aspects have a chapter each to themselves, and a further chapter covers the visual imagery of witchcraft in European art during this period. The author of this chapter, Charles Zika, makes an interesting point about the way witches came to be portrayed:

What must have been particularly shocking on this new iconography of witchcraft was the way it transformed the common depiction of the medieval magician. Commonly clothed in the manner of a scholar or priest…the male custodian of esoteric and learned knowledge was replaced by naked bodies of female witches with their pots, sticks, and cooking utensils, riding goats and engaging in bodily, rather than mental or spiritual activities.

In ‘The Rise of Popular Magic’, Owen Davies looks at what could be called everyday practices intended to combat threats from witches or theft, or to make someone fall in love with you, or to find hidden treasure. All these practices were punishable by law. Davies is also the author of the next chapter, ‘The Rise of Modern Magic’, in which he looks at early nineteenth century practices such as Mesmerism (sometimes called Animal Magnetism) before moving on to the rise of prophetic figures such as Emmanuel Swedenbourg and his disciple William Blake, and, ‘at the other end of the prophetic spectrum’, the Devon farmer’s daughter Joanna Southcott. celebrated for her powers to cure and protect. This chapter continues into the late twentieth century, with the rise of witchcraft museums, lesbian witches, The Golden Dawn, and Aleister Crowley.

In ‘Witchcraft and Magic in the Age of Anthropology’, Robert J. Wallis discusses the effect of anthropological research on witchcraft and magic, which made it clear that these practices are ‘consistent features of human societies across time’. And last but not least, Willem De Blécourt brings the discussion right up to the present day in ‘Witches on Screen’. This is where you’ll find Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, not to mention The Witches of Eastwick (which, he says, ‘does not stand up to historical scrutiny’), The Wizard of Oz, Bell Book and Candle, Bewitched, and many more familiar films and TV series.

I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of the large quantity of valuable material in this volume, which also has many illustrations, both colour and black and white, a Further Reading section and a comprehensive index. It should please both serious researchers and ordinary readers interested in the history of these enduringly fascinating practices and their practitioners.

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Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and once stuck pins in a wax figure, with no effect whatsoever.

Owen Davies, ed., The Oxford History of Witchcraft and Magic (Oxford University Press, 2021). 978-0192897787, 328pp., new in paperback.

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