Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ronald Hutton: Witches Are "Inherently Evil"

In 2004, Ronald Hutton published an article in which he "offered a definition of the traditional witch figure." ("Anthropological and Historical Approaches to Witchcraft", Historical Journal, vol. 47, 2004, 413–34.) At present this article is not available online, but there are plans to remedy that. In the meantime, Hutton has just come out with a new retrospective article (published in The Pomegranate journal, and available for download in pdf format at their website), in which he provides us with his own summary of his definition:
Traditionally, a witch uses apparently supernatural means to cause injury to other members of the same community; is inherently evil and not merely working for profit; operates in a tradition, by inheritance or initiation; and can be effectively opposed by counter-magic or physical punishment.
It must be emphasized that Hutton offers this not as merely a definition of the "witch figure" in the English speaking world, or just in Europe and/or the Christian world, but as a cross-cultural definition "which could hold up worldwide." Hutton also makes it clear that this definition is intended to be applicable not just to the modern world, but also to medieval and early modern European Christendom, as well as to pre-Christian societies of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. In other words, this is Hutton's definition of the very essence of Witchcraft itself as a universal (or at least ubiquitous) phenomenon found in widely divergent human societies throughout the world today, and also found throughout human history going back at least thousands of years.

The problem, though, is that Hutton's definition of "the witch figure" is at odds with how the English word "witch" is actually used and has been used for centuries. Nor does Hutton's definition accurately reflect the usage of words like "Hexe", "Strega", "Bruja", "Sorcière", and so forth. Nor does Hutton's definition correspond to witchcraft-related and/or magical terminology found in any non-European languages, either. In all of these cases, the words in question are ambiguous with respect to whether or not the magic performed by the "Witch" (or Bruja, etc) is beneficial or harmful. In particular, all of these terms can be used to refer to people who perform magic (or, for the imagination impaired, "are thought to perform magic") to the following beneficial ends (this is only a partial list, many more examples of beneficial magic could be added):
  • magical healing
  • divination
  • good weather
  • successful harvest
  • health of cattle
  • financial success
  • success in love
  • mediumship (communication with the dead)
  • spiritual blessings of various kinds
  • protection from harmful magic
There is, however, one, and as far as I know only one, example of a term that is only used, and logically can only be used, to refer to someone who is intrinsically evil and who performs magic only in order to cause harm. With a little reflection, it should be obvious (but apparently is not) that this one word is the Latin word "malefica", which means, simply "evil-doer". The use of this term, a term that unambiguously refers to someone who must be intrinsically evil, to refer to magical practitioners generally is of course one the gifts that the Christian religion has bestowed upon humanity.

I have previously discussed the ambiguous meaning of "Witch" and other related terms in European languages in this earlier post: Good Witches, and in the specific case of the English word "Witch", I discuss how the use of this term to refer to practitioners of beneficial magic is documented in Thomas Ady's 1656 book Candle In The Dark in this post: "Shew me in all the scriptures where Witchcraft went without Idolatry".