The Witch

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 28 Aug 2017

Member Reviews

I am currently going through my Shelf to clear out books that I either DNFed or was not able to write a full review for whatever reason. Unfortunately this is the case with this title.
I hope to pick up a physical copy soon as it looked intriguing and a very interesting title, particularly since I did a lot of research into Witchcraft history when in college for classes on monsters as well as my own research.
Thank you for the opportunity to read this book, and I hope to read more in the future.
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Really interesting account of European witchcraft. Accessible and engaging and filled all the info gaps with interesting facts and stories. Really enjoyed it.
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A magisterial survey of the whole complex of witch beliefs, which pays particular attention to the area of special interest in the West – the early modern witch craze – while making sure to acknowledge also their relation to the diverse variations on the theme found in much (though crucially, not all) of the world. Of course, what's meant by 'witch' can vary greatly, and whatever definition you use, you’ll find certain witches wriggling free of it – but then, they are often reputed shapechangers, aren’t they? This is the first but not the last of the times that the book bogged me down somewhat, particularly when Hutton digresses into shamans, and the definition of that term, and how far they intersect with witches, and at one point there's a discussion of the various different sorts of service magician in Hungarian folk culture and I started to feel like I was reading one of those RPGs with too many character classes, and I was reminded of my own attempt at a setting which took Dunsany's reference to the fifty different types of magic as a starting point, but even in my desperate grasping for ways to fill out that number I didn't include the bed-maker and the smearer. Still, while you may need to take a breather at these points and read something else*, it is worth persevering, and as unlikely as it may sometimes seem, those digressions do all get drawn back into the main story. Hutton is building something here, and all the pieces matter. But do be aware that, if you’ve a fairly casual interest in the topic and just want a quick overview, this is not the book you’re looking for. Nor, for that matter, is this the review you’re after.

This depth and breadth of erudition also means, of course, that a lot of the things one vaguely thinks one knows about the subject turn out to be deeply partial, if not outright wrong. Readers in post-Protestant countries will be particularly surprised to learn that, if you were accused of witchcraft in Catholic territory, you’d have a much better chance of getting off entirely, or at least escaping with your life, if your case was dealt with by the Inquisition, who applied much higher evidential standards, and lenient punishments, than lay magistrates – and sometimes even came down hard on such overenthusiastic amateurs. Similarly, we tend nowadays to think of witch-hunts as largely being a way for the patriarchy to attack non-compliant women, but it's interesting how non-universal that is - some African instances (and there are horrifyingly recent ones in here) were more a way for dispossessed young people to attack the elders who had all the traditional power and resources, so more like Generation Rent with a body count. Elsewhere, the gender balance even of the victims of the European witch-hunting craze varied hugely by region. Of all the examples quoted, probably the one closest to the modern-traditional notion of wholly sexist witch persecution is that among the Kuranko of Sierra Leone, where women who reputedly changed shape to enact destruction were put to death…while men engaging in the exact same activities would brag about how crafty and powerful they were, and be generally respected for it. #everdayoccultsexism in its purest form.

Still, this is not to say there weren’t at least gendered inflections elsewhere. "A law from West Gotland of the early thirteenth century forbids various terms of slander against a woman, one of which is 'I saw you ride on a hurdle, with hair dishevelled, in the shape of a troll, between night and day’." Well, I think we'd all prefer people not gloat the morning after we've had a night like that. And the detective story takes in a fair bit of Norse material; I was particularly fond of "A man in the Vatnsdalers' Saga could make his friends invulnerable in a fight if he lay down motionless nearby”, which as wheezes to skive off a fight go, would be the envy of Flashman or Blackadder. And given the Northmen’s tardy and arguably less complete conversion to christianity, it is unsurprising to learn that pagan touches survived more there in magic – though even then it was largely in the academic field of ceremonial magic, where Odin (Hutton favours a more correct spelling, but I can't face digging out the characters) in particular was often mentioned as a chief among demons. And it’s in this ceremonial sorcery that most of the evidence for pagan survivals resides. It’s another of the sections where mission creep feels like it’s setting in, but it’s not without interest when Hutton analyses the mentions of non-native things like reed pens and hoopoes in mediaeval Northern European grimoires, tracing a line of descent to Egypt. And it serves as a useful contrast to the idea that witches represented a survival of pagan beliefs among the lower orders, where the evidence isn’t nearly so strong. Hutton points out the assumptions and wishful thinking underlying such notions, with folklorists attempting to composite various similar-ish local myths, and then deduce a lost ur-form from them - which by its very nature will tend to be unfalsifiable. True, certain old names will sometimes crop up, as when Diana was in some places reputed to lead the night rides we’d now tend to think of as variants of the Wild Hunt. But the woman leading them was equally likely to be known as Herodias, which doesn’t fit quite so nicely with folk horror notions of the old native ways surviving beneath the imported faith.

Still, looming over all this variety is an awareness of impending atrocity. How did we get from the situation in the early middle ages, where popes would condemn witch-hunts as an attempt to avoid wider moral responsibility for disasters which were clearly divine punishment, to a widespread acceptance that individual malicious humans, in league with infernal powers, were to blame? Hutton does an excellent job of drawing together various close work that's been done on the evolution of the witch hunt. He looks at some early spasms, before showing how strands of other persecutions which had been more popular in the early middle ages (of heretics, Jews, lepers) were woven together into the terrifying composite of baby-slaughtering, night-orgying, Satan-worshipping witches. He even comes reasonably close to identifying a Patient Zero for the whole crazy outbreak; we don’t get a name, but there’s a compelling case that a particular group of friars were key to what would ensue. Still, even as persecution becomes much more common, there are certain surprising details. For instance, the notion that it would be the harmless village midwife or cunning man on whom everyone suddenly turned? Not so much. It happened in a few areas, and if your success rate wasn’t so hot, or you got mixed up in the wrong sort of local politics, then yes, you could be in trouble. But service magicians are at least as likely to turn up as accusers or expert witnesses as victims.

There are two key points of interest, though. Two details unique to Europe and its North American offshoots. These were the only places where a belief in witches as individuals, a race or small groups morphed into a belief in a unified, organised anti-religion – and later, they were the only places where belief in witchcraft altogether faded. Well, almost altogether; Hutton notes that he’s personally aware of a Cornish village which turned on an alleged witch in 1984. And here the same close reading of both sources and earlier syntheses is brought to bear on the standard iconography of the Western witch. The broomstick, for instance, which was reported as one of the ways early modern witches rode to the Sabbat – though others rode animals, baskets or reeds, and you have to feel sorry for the poor schmucks who just walked there. And of course the familiar, which turns out to be a distinctly English and Welsh notion, whose evolution Hutton again traces, albeit stopping just short of explaining why it’s those two specific details, along with the hat, which have come to form the pop culture shorthand.

That mention of Wales should be qualified, mind, because the paucity of trials in Wales as against England is another of those regional variations which keep cropping up. Hutton wryly notes that it has been attributed to greater social cohesion and less wealth inequality - but then points out that these charming notions are rather undermined by wider trial records, which demonstrate the Welsh being perfectly happy to denounce each other for all sorts of other crimes, many absurd, just not really witchcraft. In Scotland, meanwhile, the fair folk were much more likely to be mentioned in witch trials than elsewhere – which provides an opening for the question of how accused witches and other folk magicians thought they got their powers, if not through pacts with the Devil. The answers being intriguingly varied; some said birth with cauls, or were dream warriors; perhaps an easily taught knack, or even the frank admission that nobody really knew why some people could do this stuff, not even the practitioners. In Scotland especially, getting them from the good neighbours seemed to be an occasional theme - but one complicated by the fact that, like myself, these people felt it impolitic to use the F-word, so it's unclear whether their 'seelie wights’ were a subset of the little people, or another class of being altogether. And then with James VI and the Reformation, the Scottish attitude to such beings starts to darken, and they’re more readily identified with disguised devils – even as, south of the border, an England ruled by an Elizabeth happy to be identified with the Faerie Queene held on to a merrier and more friendly interpretation. If you’ve ever wanted chapter and verse on the evolution of the moral role and cosmological placing of Robin Goodfellow, this is the section for you.

And this is a core part of Hutton’s argument, here: mediaeval and early modern peasants were not some stolid herd, their ideas necessarily either derived from the church or survivals of the old religion. Then, as now, poor people could have new ideas, or change existing ones. Contradictory ideas, too – Hutton talks of 'parallel cosmologies’, but it’s not as if you don’t get plenty of modern and educated people possessed of logically incompatible beliefs, yet showing no particular tension over holding them. Indeed, the rationalist approach to the history of witch-belief could be considered as fairly puzzling too, when you consider the weirdness of a whole field taking it for granted that they're writing about idiots or nutters (it was precisely this which put me off Religion and the Decline of Magic back when that was the go-to text):
"It seems therefore that in the case of the attempted use of witchcraft by early modern people we have a strong presumption that something happened without quite being able to prove that it did, while in that of the satanic witch religion we have ample evidence for the existence of something, which we disregard on the grounds that it is incredible.”
So did anyone perceive themselves as the Satanic witch with which good christian folk were so obsessed? Perhaps. One plausible suggestion here links the upswing of that belief to the Reformation and ensuing conflicts; when people are changing religion, and each form of christianity stigmatises others as in league with the Devil, turning to the old fellow himself in extremis doesn't feel like such an enormous leap as it did when European Catholicism was monolithic, and witches less feared. And of course, even if the Satanic witch cult was a prurient invention at first, such scandals do give people ideas. To use an example Hutton doesn’t, I was reminded of the old 'Chazbaps' story in Popbitch which, while an exaggeration of the original incident, inspired a few people I knew to try the more shocking version as per the rumour.

In summary: make no mistake, this is a lot of book. I mean, reading my review back I at once feel like I've waffled at great length, and that I've done Hutton no justice at all. But if you’re interested in really digging into this stuff, The Witch is more than worth it.

*This may explain why, in what I think is a new record, it took me eight months to get around to finishing this, despite generally trying to read Netgalley ARCs with some alacrity, and despite having already been intrigued by what I’d heard about Hutton. The friend who first alerted me to him has since kindly sent her old copies of some of his other books to me, though I think I may need a break before I attempt another.
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If you are a serious scholar of witches and witchcraft, then this is book for you. Meticulously researched, wide-ranging and comprehensive, Ronald Hutton traces witchcraft in great detail from ancient times to modern times. It’s a magisterial tome, learned and of immense interest. But it’s not an easy read and I gave up on it as I found it just too heavy-going. I’m possibly not the intended reader although I have seen it described as accessible to the general reader in other reviews, but I didn’t find it so. I found it dull and I was soon bored. That makes it very difficult for me to rate it as I suspect it’s actually a very good book. Indeed it has garnered many 5* reviews. But I can’t leave a review on Amazon without rating it. So I’ve had to hedge my bets and fall plumb in the middle. My rating reflects my reaction to it not its intrinsic worth.
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I read most of this and enjoyed it! Keep up the good work!
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Well written and fast read. Great for a quick escape!
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What comes to mind when you hear the word "witch" ? Is it a green-nosed Margaret Hamilton in the Wizard of Oz? It is a cruel woman cursing those she hates into mice? Is it a flashback to the Salem Witch Trials? 

Author and Professor Ronald Hutton wants you to forget all of that for a moment and go back through the history of the witch in popular culture. He explores cultures in Africa where body parts of individuals are considered to be good for different ailments. Hutton looks at Ancient Egypt and Greek to uncover battles between "witchcraft" and "magic."  And of course, he explores witchcraft trials across multiple cultures and the continued belief that witches are women who have sold their souls to the devil. 

What was most surprising about The Witch by Ronald Hutton was the fact that there have been so many people before who have studied the concepts of witches and witchcraft, but with relatively faulty practices and none with as much detail as Hutton (or so I've seen). He sites and incredible number of sources, historical texts, and previous works. While he can occasionally go on and on about a concept that he's already covered in adequate detail, it is hard not to be fascinated with the information he's explored and his explanations. 

If you're looking for a scholarly take on the concept of witches and witchcraft, or even want to explore aspects of early "magical" studies and how they may have affected future religions, Hutton's book is an excellent place to look.
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Book received from NetGalley.

I've had this book for awhile but something in me had to wait to read it until the "spooky" days of October.  I have to admit I love Ronald Hutton, the television shows he's been in show just how quirky but knowledgeable he is.  I've read a few other books of his and enjoyed them just as much.  My only issue with the book is he seemed to have a set number of pages he wanted to write so he tried to shove quite a bit of information into these pages.  I'm not sure how much a general history reader will get from this, and I definitely believe if you're just starting on your journey into this subject you shouldn't start with this book.  You can tell he's an academic and that's who the book seems to be written for.  Even with all that I loved it and even though I've read quite extensively on this subject I learned quite a few things.  This is for the rest of the Pagans out there, this is a book I highly suggest you add to your library if you have one focused on The Craft.
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This is a study book, it is well researched, very informative but unfortunately  not what I expected so it wasnt for me
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“The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present”, by Ronald Hutton, is a detailed researched book on a wide variety of beliefs about witches, as well as on the many ways those beliefs gave rise to the Western witch trials. 

The focus lies on the definition of a witch as a person who harms others through the use of magic; witchcraft is seen as an internal threat to a community, as well as one of the very few embodiments of female power. As such, it was taken overtime as a form of social disruption which should be resisted and, sometimes, purged. 

Through this perspective, the author draws upon historical, anthropological and ethnographic studies, to understand how the witch figure evolved over time, as well as how pre-Christian Western beliefs and Eastern traditions influenced our conceptions of witchcraft. 

The book’s historical and geographical scope is wide. Firstly, the author explores how different societies around the world and in different times conceived of and treated witches. His research includes a variety of witchcraft traditions found in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Australia, North and South America. 

Then, Hutton analyses the historical development of witchcraft in Europe and in the Near East, from ancient times to the medieval and early modern periods. He also examines Christianity and its impact on the perception and later persecution of witches, and points out to the advent of early modern witch hunts as a symptom of the crisis in European post-Reformation Christianity. Finally, the author narrows down his focus, and explores the ways in which ancient Western and Eastern beliefs shaped witchcraft in Britain.

I particularly enjoyed the way Hutton moves from a very wide range of beliefs to a very narrow one, and then back again, moving with ease through cultural and historical continuities and disruptions. The parallels he draws between worldwide traditions provide us with a better understanding of the early modern witch trials as defensive measures set in the context of a wide range of ancient traditions (Mesopotamian demonology; Persian cosmic dualism; a Graeco- Roman fear of magic as intrinsically impious; Roman images of the evil witch; and the Germanic concept of night- roaming cannibal women), and established by Christianity to cope with the challenges to its public credibility during the post-Reformation times.

The book provides a good overview of the scholarship on the subject.  It will please readers who are in search of a wider picture about witch trials, as well as the ones interested in local traditions of witchcraft.
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What is a witch?  Interestingly enough even a definition is hard to come across in this book.  Hutton is an expert in many areas and this serves him well as he explores the differences between witchcraft, medicine and religion and the perception of witchcraft across the globe and the centuries.  This book is fascinating and Hutton is a well-researched guide and link maker.
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I don’t often read non-fiction these days, but having an interest in the history of witchcraft, this book really appealed to me.

The good things about this book are that it is without a doubt exceptionally well researched, very informative and straight to the point with no bulking out of words. This would be a great book for anyone studying this subject. There is also a huge bibliography at the back, so plenty more to read after completing this book if you wish.

For my personal enjoyment this book was too academic and somewhat heavy going. I’ve not read something quite like this since my university days twenty years ago, when I studied a degree in Psychology, Sociology, Philosophy and English Literature. I think I used up too many brain cells in my twenties, as I struggle to take in this amount of information these days. I think I would have to read this a couple more times to be happy that I’ve absorbed enough information in this subject. I would say it is written a lot like a dissertation, so it really does cover a lot of information about different views, fears and beliefs about witches and witchcraft all around the world, during different periods of time throughout history.

Some of the information was very interesting. Having been fascinated about Ancient Egypt since a child and actually writing about Ancient Egyptian religion for my university dissertation, I did really enjoy the sections that discussed Egypt. I loved that Egypt didn’t fear witches and didn’t disapprove of the use of magic. I could definitely have been an Ancient Egyptian. Egypt is actually the only country that I’ve been to outside Europe, and I’ve actually been there twice, so I must love it.

Having also loved fairies since a child, I really enjoyed the section on witches and fairies, and how people believing in fairies led to them being treated as witches. Unless I lived in Ancient Egypt, I don’t think I’d have survived living in the past, as I have far too much of a whimsical mind, and love living in a fantasy world, which no doubt would have resulted in my demise somewhat earlier that I would have liked!

If this had been a fictional book, I would have rated it 3 stars based on personal enjoyment. However, I do feel this book deserves 4 stars because of the extent of information this book provides to the reader. Clearly a huge amount of effort went into researching this subject. So as long as you don’t mind absorbing a lot of information then I would recommend this book if you are interested in this subject.
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The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present is a grotesque but thoroughly researched must-read for those who enjoy scholarly work. Ronald Hutton takes his readers back to the days of early modern Europe and provides them with his insightful knowledge of a time where witchcraft wasn't considered a bunch of hocus pocus.

It was horrific to learn about the rituals that were practiced when Shamanism was at its peak; and it was even more disturbing that innocent men and women were being killed from baseless accusations. One wrong look at your neighbor could be implication enough that you are practicing satanic magic. Furthermore, the techniques used to gain one's confession back then were absolutely horrendous. Can you imagine being accused of a crime you did not commit while having black pepper rubbed in your eyes? Being starved to death? Beaten! Many falsely confessed at the time of their trial because they could no longer endure the torment. 

The amount of citations and references the author provides its readers is commendable. Every statement is supported with factual information, so you never feel as if you are reading someone else's biased opinion on the subject. 

I'll be honest though, this was an extremely dense read and it would have engrossed me more if the contents had been presented in a more energetic manner. However, if you are someone that enjoys reading academic work (in a thesis format), then you should definitely give this one a go!
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Do appreciate the way that RH makes his writing so accessible to readers both interested and erudite. Personally, I fall between those two stools and enjoy the way he adds to my knowledge base.

In this case, setting out the reasons for the persecution of folk who, largely, were undeserving of persecution. Witches generally had and to some extent still have a bad press but RH, as always, puts such topics under the microscope and offers a lucid analysis of the mistakes, misunderstandings and downright wilfulness of those who  persecuted those labelled as witches. As history shows that those who stand out, in any way, as different from those around them are so often persecuted, due to dogmatic differences and/or either fear or vindictiveness but seldom for good reasons.

A very readable and informative book which I commend to you.
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This is definitely the most thorough book about witches that I've come. Fascinating and well written from an academic perspective.
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This wasn't really what I was expecting and unfortunately a little dry for my taste.
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Too academic, written in a stilted, soul draining fashion that manages to suck any excitement out of a fascinating subject.
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I have an interest in the subject but currently found the book too advanced and complicated for me currently. I stumbled at the definition of a witch. It is in depth and well researched so I hope  to come back to it at a later date.
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Many thanks to Ronald Hutton, Yale University Press, and Netgalley for the free copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

This, I had assumed, was a Narrative format. Instead it read like a college thesis, which was a bit drab for my tastes. It was most certainly a treatise on the various definitions of magic and magical persons, as well as how the common folk dwelt with them; alas, I learned little about what I expected. Familiars were very briefly discussed, but it seemed that witches are simply expected to dance naked and drink blood and become an all around nuisance. I finished this book feeling quite dissatisfied and will continue my hunt for knowledge on this topic.
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I have long admired Hutton' work, and this academic, intelligent look at the history of the "witch" from ancient times through modern is no exception. Fascinating look at how the term is applied worldwide (or not at all) and how cultures see a "witch" as malevolent, benevolent, or both. Hutton covers the world, exploring Africa, Asia, and the Americas in context of the European understanding of the term.
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