Four Reasons to Study the History of Witchery

When I told my father that I had recently bought a copy of Magic and Superstition in Europe, a concise overview of the history of magic and witchcraft in Western Christendom, his response was predictable.


Of course, there is a fairly obvious personal answer: “Because I want to.” Occasionally I develop an itch to learn about something, and acquire books to satisfy my curiosity. Since college, I’ve gotten a little more systematic about it. This time it’s witchcraft, but next it may very well be Calvin’s sensus divinitatis or the history of American Indians. There’s no telling.

But I also think there are very good reasons for classically educated Christians and amateur scholars in 2017 America to educate themselves on the topic. Here I’m going to present four.

Understanding Pop Culture

Many evangelical Millennials came of age in the wars over magic in Harry Potter. This was at roughly the same time that Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed brought magic into the living room, and Supernatural parked its Impala on pop culture’s Main Street not long after.

This was nothing new, of course. As many Potter partisans were quick to point out, Lewis and Tolkien had been slinging spells, or at least enchanted objects, long before the boy with the scar came on the scene. Out of Tolkien had grown most of the modern fantasy genre, including the infamous (to those of us with a fundie streak) Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons in particular got caught up in a late 70’s and 80’s Satanic panic, wherein Christians became worried about creeping occult influences on their children, in pop culture, and in society at large. This made Hollywood plenty of money with flicks like The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, and other Satanic and occult-themed horror movies. The ultimate parody of this trend came with that iconic story of bumbling exterminators facing off with ancient Middle Eastern demons: Ghostbusters.

With the rise of the internet, Dungeons & Dragons style worlds found a new platform in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games—MMORPGs, or MMOs for short. Everquest and World of Warcaft introduced people to various forms of magic and spellcasters on an unprecedented scale, and in an entertaining format. The internet also allowed people with a more serious interest in previously somewhat fringe topics of divination and spellcasting to gather for the first time in online communities. Both fantasy nerds and real neopagans flourished in the age of the internet.

Today’s pop culture is soaked in magical lore, whether it’s movies or TV, fantasy or horror, MMO’s or tabletop games, entertaining podcasts or YA novels. The sources they draw upon are widely varied, and the way those traditions interact is extremely complex. Some of this stuff is just old-as-dirt fairytale tropes, and some draws on genuine magical traditions—some more sinister than others. All of it influences the people around us. It’s a jungle out there, and it pays to have some idea of what’s going on.

Understanding Classic Literature

As someone steeped in the classics from an early age, and attempting to pass that tradition on, I think it’s pretty important to understand old books. These are the values and ideas of the people that went before us, the people who shaped our world. They have things to teach us about God, about life, and about ourselves. And they frequently mention magic.

I’ve taught through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain before. It’s a great book, and the source for much later Arthurian legend. Perhaps Geoffrey’s greatest contribution to the mythos is the figure of Merlin, the archetypal wizard. But who is Merlin? Where does his power come from? How does it work? And, considering general Christian opposition to the use of occult forces, how did the writers, readers, troubadours, and listeners reconcile such activity in so close an associate of the supposedly Christian King Arthur?

Fast forward to Shakespeare, and similar problems arise. The Tempest features a magician in a prominent role, along with his familiar spirit—neither of which are villains. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Edmund Spenser, wrote The Faerie Queene, which features other magic worker from a more sinister perspective. Why is there ambiguity here?

As we approach the modern era, as strange thing happens. These bearded men with great books chanting strange words in their towers are replaced by cackling witches who make pacts with the devil and fly around in the night abducting babies. The famous European witch trials occurred during and after Shakespeare’s day, and made their way to the New World where they became fixed in New England lore at Salem, Massachusetts. What caused such a dramatic transition in our understanding of magic from a learned pursuit to a field dominated by old and illiterate peasant women?

Going back through time, to the Greeks and the Romans, also lands us in interesting territory. The sorts of things we tend to condemn as magic—reading the future in the entrails of animals or the flight paths of birds, sacrifices for a good harvest or fortune in war, strange ceremonies by moonlight—were all more or less accepted religious practices in a certain context, but might also be viewed suspiciously in the hands of a Circe or Medea. What are we to make of this? What separates the Roman religious principle of do ut des—“I give (sacrifices) that you might give (certain benefits)”—from magical charms? What divides sinister use of semidivine power from legitimate invocation of the gods?

The picture isn’t any less replete with questions when you turn to the ultimate canon of Western Christendom, the Bible. In the pages of the Old Testament we find Moses and Aaron duking it out in a wizard’s battle with Pharaoh’s magicians, who are decided portrayed as having powers of their own. The witch of Endor legitimately summons Samuel’s spirit for Saul, and in the New Testament Paul casts an actual spirit of prophecy out of a slave girl, thus lowering her market value. Even the magi found Christ through astrological means, divinely ordained though they may have been. Magic seems to be a very real thing in the pages of the Bible, though what it is and how it operates are not always clear. And, while the condemnation of large chunks of it is not disputed, the exact differences between, say, Joseph or Daniel’s dream interpreting and that of pagan diviners is worth looking into.

Understanding the Contemporary Religious Landscape

While the Satanic Panic may have been overblown, new religious movements have certainly been on the rise since the early twentieth century, if not before. Many of these deal with magic. Whether we are talking about LaVeyan Satanism or the nature-centered world of Wicca, self-professed witches are no longer uncommon in today’s religious landscape. Wiccanism in particular has a large number of adherents, enough for the US armed forces to start using Wiccan chaplains and burial rites.

Of course, not all modern magic-users are so inspired by the notion of witchcraft as these two groups. Neopagan religions of various kinds seek to reconstruct ancient polytheistic religions, whether Norse, or Celtic, or Greek, or Roman, or even Slavic. Several of these pagan traditions include the use of magical rites that, while not central to their faith, are certainly a prominent part of it. Individually, any of these movements is almost negligible, but together they are a force to be reckoned with in modern society. With the rise of the alt-right, Norse and Germanic Neopaganism in particular are worth knowing about.

Then of course there are more traditional magical systems which either are religions or form a part of religious practice in the United States. These include things like Voodoo, Hoodoo, Santeria, and Appalachian folk magic. Such things have gained a certain degree of acceptance in today’s pluralistic culture, alongside interest in astrology, palmistry, and tarot cards. In many places in the US, but especially in the Deep South, this is a part of the world you’re going to run into from time to time.

There are also more esoteric forms of magic. Enochian magic, Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, and other practices have seen a renaissance in the age of the internet, and find their way onto the silver screen and onto the printed page in more frivolous contexts. One pair of modern magicians in particular engaged in a magical duel over the course of several years via the production of comic books embodying their different magical ideals. It is a strange world we live in.

Now many Christians are not likely to be thoroughly surrounded by any of this, but most of us have at least been around that world at some point in our lives. I personally have known multiple magic users from several of the above-mentioned traditions, so knowing about their beliefs is just part of getting to know my neighbors.

As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors, to seek the good of the city God has placed us in, and to evangelize. All three of these callings require us to know about the religions and practices that surround us. Today, that means knowing a little about the roots and varieties of magical practice. The people we must love may engage in it or be influenced by it, the cities God has placed us in include and accept citizens who practice it, and the men and women we are sent to call back to Christ may be mired deep within it. To be Christians in today’s world requires a basic literacy on the topic of magic.

Understanding Our Heritage

Part of honoring our fathers and mothers, and part of understanding the world God has placed us in, is simply knowing its history. Magic and witchcraft have been part of Western Christendom since its foundation. It features as part of the stories we tell, and as part of the lives that have lived within it. At some times the part it has played has been minor, but at others it has been momentous.

The Scientific Revolution has often been understood in contrast to the superstitious “Middle Ages,” but the truth is that Copernicus, Kepler, Boyle, Newton, Tycho Brahe, and dozens of other figures of early scientific history and Renaissance humanism were steeped in alchemy, astrology, Neoplatonic spirituality, hermeticism, and Kabballah. Science and magic advanced together in the early modern era, and were only separated much later, and by a concerted effort, during the Enlightenment.

Around the same time, and during the Reformation, the witch hunts were overtaking Europe. This widespread rooting out of Satan’s minions imprinted itself on our cultural psyche, living on in story and metaphor to this day. There is also something to be said for the argument that it played a part in building the early modern state, not to mention got deployed for propaganda purposes in the advancement of secularism.

Much earlier, magic manifested as the last remnants of old paganism lingering on into early Christian Europe, and it re-emerged in nineteenth century Romantic revivals of purportedly ancient, national folk culture. Understanding early Christian Europe and understanding early secular Europe both require some understanding of magic and superstition in those time periods.

From Christ and the magi, Paul and the prophetess, to the elimination of the Knights Templar and the rise of Romantic nationalism, magic is tightly interwoven into the history of Western Christendom. If we are to understand who we are and where we came from, we must understanding something about this topic.

A Plan of Attack

I have something of a vested interest in both classical and contemporary literature, in both the historical Western culture and the contemporary religious landscape. For these reasons, as well as general curiosity, I’m going to be investigating the history of witchcraft and magic. My goal will be to determine how major varieties of magical practice and belief have changed over time, as well how the perception of them has changed over the centuries.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve been getting a little more organized about these things, so I’ve made a syllabus for myself. I will be reading seven generally well-respected and often academic books on the subject, which will hopefully combine to provide a solid overview history of witchcraft and magic in the Christian West. Along with the readings, I’m going to be doing some outlining, note taking, and summarizing. My plan is to publish the summaries and miscellaneous thoughts on the subject here on this blog. This will both force me to review and summarize what I have learned, and will hopefully serve as an accessible intro to the subject for people who would rather not do so much esoteric reading.

If you want to follow along, however, these are the books I will be reading, in the order I will be reading through them:

  1. Magic and Superstition in Europe by Michael D. Bailey
  2. Magic in the Ancient Greek World by Derek Collins
  3. Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook by Daniel Ogden
  4. Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History by Alan Charles Kors & Edward Peters
  5. Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer
  6. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe by Brian P. Levack
  7. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft by Ronald Hutton

I hope this post has inspired you to follow along as I blog through them, because I’m not even done with the first one, and this is already a fascinating subject. I’ve discovered insane Roman epics, hilariously stubborn medieval peasants, exasperated inquisitors reining in over-enthusiastic magistrates, eccentric and unpopular authors of renowned witch-hunting manuals, apparently pious clerics under the impression they can command demons, and theological insights into the nature of prayer, magic, and authority. It’s a wild world, fully worth diving into.


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