Originally published in 2002 as part of the Pocket Essentials series, I recently finished reading the 2016 edition of Lois Martin’s The History of Witchcraft. More appropriately, this book could be called A Brief History of Witchcraft Persecution by Christians Mostly in Europe and Great Britain. I believe it’s very important for modern witches to try and understand our history, and not only rely on pagan writers to inform us of our past. This is because writing history and writing spirituality are rather different pursuits. While I am extremely interested in learning about the history of witchcraft, this book is very much focused on people, who probably weren’t witches, being killed by Christians. The introduction – the first words of the book are “Harry Potter” – mentions that this is not a book about Wicca, and the author uses Wicca as synonymous with “modern pagan witchcraft,” which is mostly because the book is written by a historian. It’s not really an issue because the book focuses primarily on persecution.
One of the important things that modern witchcraft writers have not helped with is perpetuating the myth of ‘the burning times’ when millions of witches were alleged to have been killed. I’m also reading Silver Ravenwolf’s book Halloween right now, and she throws out that very same, inaccurate statistic. I believe that Martin’s book, and others like it, give more accurate counts because this was something of which the people involved were likely to keep track. Christian (lumping Catholics in here) ‘judges’ who sentences alleged witches to die were not ashamed, and records were usually kept of the charges, tortures, confessions, and punishments.
Martin’s book is written from the perspective of how European Christians viewed witches, presumably because that is what’s available from the historical record. Early pagan religions, even ones we know about, are not mentioned often. Chapter 1 “A Brief Guide to the Devil and All His Works” starts this history of witchcraft. That’s problematic for me as a witch, of course, but to understand the history of our persecution, one does need to start with the (incredibly egotistical) assumption that the horned god is the Christian Satan. Unfortunately, the women and men who confessed to witchcraft and cavorting with the Devil did so under torture or the threat of torture in all but a tiny handful of cases. Witches and pagans have nothing to do with the Christian Devil, so it’s hard to believe a lot of the accounts. Also, some extremely imaginative 15th century men (priests, etc.) came up with the hilarious idea that witches gave the Devil the “obscene kiss” which is a smooch on the anus (51-2). If there was even any proof that 15th century people were basically children: “Tee hee hee, I heard that witches kiss Satan on the bum!” *ye olde laughter ensues*
In Chapter 2 “The Pact,” demonology is explored as well as necromancy, which was the domain of elite men (37). If you’re a poor woman though, you’ll be killed for it, it seems. Christianity-fueled demonology is, unfortunately, the origin of the word “grimoire” meaning a magical text (37). These original grimoires described elaborate rituals for summoning demons, the most famous being the Goetia, or Lesser Key of Solomon (37). This text contains seals that some modern witches use, and I have seen them in a number of witchcraft books (37-8). However, this is nothing less than Christian demonology, so I’m unclear why witches use these seals at all. Interestly, Martin points out in this chapter that the importance difference between demonologists/necromancers and “the common witch” (a distinction that emerged around 1398) was that the former commands demons, while the latter serves them: “The witch was guilty of explicit idolatry; the necromancer’s actions only implied it” (38).
Torture of alleged witches started in the early 1200s and continued for hundreds of years after. My only real objection to this book is that the author can dwell on the torture in too much detail. I skipped over one paragraph, an excerpt from a historical record, because I found it too upsetting. It’s true and it’s history, but it started feeling salacious at a certain point. Martin spends a lot of time on the legal aspect of witchcraft, including torture (what was and was not allowed, and historically when), sentencing, and notable cases. Salem only gets a small mention, as the book primarily focuses on England.
However, some of the most interesting parts of the book are where Martin deliniates the history of some things that have been adopted by modern witchcraft, but that actually have Christian, anti-witch origins. One of these is the familiar, which apparently is purely a Christian invention, and was used as proof that the witch is in cahoots with Satan. When you agree to work for him, he gives you a pet, which sounds great, honestly. If, instead of asking for cash during services, churches had puppies for people to cuddle, maybe more people would get excited about going. Just throwing that out there. Familiars are still fancied by modern witches, but the concept comes out of Christianity, which is something to think about.
Similarly, the word “Sabbat,” an alteration of “Sabbath” comes from Christian persecution of witches and, “probably a deliberate anti-Jewish slur” (52-3). The word “coven” is another, specifically from a Scottish woman named Isobel Gowdie in 1662 who confessed to witchcraft seemingly out of the blue (111). Her confession is where the use of “coven” to describe a group of witches came from (112-3). I’m both bummed out and interested by learning these things.
This book hasn’t sated my desire to find a really excellent history of witchcraft, but I definitely learned some very interesting things from it. If you have a witchling with a strong stomach and want them to be really scared of Christians, this is the book to give them. It’s honestly pretty terrifying in parts; if there’s something that many pagan books do not dwell on it’s how much Christians hated people that they thought were witches.