Thursday, January 31, 2013

Witchcraft, Magic, and Anglo-Saxon Law

In an interview earlier this year, Ronald Hutton stated that, 
Wicca or wicce (according to the sex of the person described) was by far the most common of the words employed in early English law codes to describe acts of magic equivalent to serious crimes against the person, which injured or manipulated people and ranked with murder and perjury. The Laws of Ethelred II, for example, made exile or execution the penalties for wiccan odde wigelaras, scincraeftan odde horcwecan, mordwyrtan odde mansworan (witches or sorcerers, workers of magical illusion or seduction, those who kill secretly or deceive). While the other terms died out, it became standard and evolved into ‘witch’. The Anglo-Saxons had a range of other expressions for less harmful kinds of magic, such as galdra (charms) and idelra hwata (divinations). 

More recently, Hutton wrote the following in his new paper published in the Pomegranate (Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History):
"The Anglo-Saxon words that form the basis for 'witch', 'wicce' and 'wicca' (according to the sex of the person described), occur in law codes to indicate workers of deadly crimes against the person such as murderers and perjurers.(15) By contrast, Anglo-Saxon churchmen regularly glossed 'wicce' and 'wicce' [sic] with Latin terms defining a range of workers of harmless magic such as divination.(16)"

So much for what Ronald Hutton has to say. Now let us endeavor to discover the truth of the matter.

Fortunately, an industrious graduate student at the University of Amsterdam, named Marianne Elsakkers, has done a remarkable job of systematically analyzing 18 different instances of Anglo-Saxon law with special attention to the words used in those laws for referring to Witchcraft, Heathenism, magic, prostitution, etc. It should be noted that the number 18 could be somewhat misleading because it includes a number of Latin translations.

Elsakkers even went so far as to distill her analysis into one extraordinary, information-laden Table, reproduced as a GIF image at the bottom of this post. I would strongly encourage the interested reader to go directly to the source and read her dissertation to fully appreciate what she has done (and also to get all the niggling details about her sources, and so forth). Her full dissertation is available at this link:, while the specific chapter that contains the table and a discussion of the related data is here:

All of the information contained in Elsakkers' table is already known to most people who have an interest in such things. However, this is one of those cases where properly organizing and presenting the data, as Elsakkers has done, makes all the difference. There might be other law texts that could be added to this list (in fact there is at least one, as discussed immediately below), and some of the items on Elsakkers' list could use some further clarification (for example, one of the Anglo-Saxon texts is probably a redaction by Wulfstan, which I don't believe she notes). Also, there are other sources that need to eventually be included, such as Anglo-Saxon charms and so forth. One important law missing from Elsakkers table (although she does discuss it at some length in her dissertation) is that attributed to King Ælfred (c.890) which states:

Ða fæmnan þe gewuniað onfon gealdorcræftigan & scinlæcan & wiccan, ne læt þu ða libban

Of the 18 versions/texts of Anglo-Saxon law looked at by Elsakkers, 11 of them are actually Latin translations of laws originally written in Old English. The original seven laws are from the reigns of Aethelstan, Edmund, Edward (and Guthrum), Aethelred, and Cnut, with Cnut being responsible for three of the seven laws. In the following discussion I will also include the one law fro Ælfred not included in Elsakkers' table, bringing the total of vernacular laws to eight.

"Wiccecræft" is mentioned in six out of eight of the original laws in the vernacular. But in all but one of these, "wiccan" appears alongside one or more other magical terms. Three times we find "wiccan" mentioned along with "wigleras" (Aethelred and two of Cnut's laws), and twice it appears along with "scinlæcan"/"scincræftcan" (Ælfred and Aethelred), while "wiccan" appears along with "lybblac" twice (Ælfred and Aethelstan) and once along with "gealdorcræftigan" (Ælfred). The one instance in which "wiccecræft" is the only form of magic explicitly proscribed also happens to be a case where the "crimes" that are being enumerated all fall under the general heading of "hæðenscip" (Heathenism), and another item on the same list is idol worship ("idol weorðunge"). So that particular law (the first of Cnut's)  is actually a clear example of the religious nature of the earliest laws prohibiting "wiccecræft".

Two of the eight laws do not mention "wiccecræft" at all, and one of these (Edmund) does mention "lybblac" as the only form of magic specifically prohibited by that law. This is highly significant since the term "lybblac" is itself sometimes translated as "Witchcraft" and it is perhaps the most difficult of all of these terms for us to understand. While an alternative translation of "lybblac" is "poisoning", it must be remembered that this was an age when the word chemistry had not yet been coined, and instead people spoke of "Alchemy," and that, more generally, the vocabularies of "poisoning" and "magic" are often inextricably intertwined, and this is probably such a case.

The other law that doesn't mention "wiccecræft" is that of "Edward and Guthrun" (which is possibly a redaction by Wulfstan), which is included in the list because it does mention "morðwyrhtan", often translated as "secret murder", which is a term with a range of shades of meanings. This term ""morðwyrhtan" is often associated with murder by magical means, but it can also mean literally and simply murdering someone in secret, as opposed to killing someone out in the open and freely admitting to it (there was quite a difference between these two types of killing in Anglo-Saxon culture). If we include "morðwyrhtan", and related terms, as magical terms, then these suddenly jump to tie for the top of the list of magical crimes, occurring in six out of the eight laws, the same as "wiccecræft."

It should be noted that if we include "secret murder" as a magical crime, then there are no instances in which "wiccecræft" is singled out as the only form of magic being criminalized. This is in contrast to "lybblac", which is outlawed in the law attributed to Edmund, and the only other crime listed alongside it in the same section is "mansweriað", perjury, a crime with no magical connotations whatsoever.

Inclusion of the term "morðwyrhtan" also brings us to the question of the 11 different Latin translations that are included in Elsakkers' data. The significance of "morðwyrhtan" in particular is that this Anglo-Saxon term is the one that is most often translated into Latin as either "malefici" or "venefici", the two Latin terms most closely associated with the Christian notion of inherently evil (and literally diabolical) magic, and they are also the Latin terms that Christians are most likely to translate into English as Witchcraft, although "sorcery" would be a close second. There are a total of nine Latin law texts that translate the term "morðwyrhtan", and in five cases it is translated as either "malefici" or "venefici". By contrast, "wiccecræft" and related terms are translated in eight different Latin texts, and only twice is it translated as either "malefici" or "venefici" (once each, as a matter of fact). In the other cases it is translated as "incantores" three times, and one time each for "sortilegis", "sage", and "magi". The translation of "wiccecræft" as "incantores" is especially noteworthy, since the two times that we have examples of "wiccan" and "wigleras" being translated into Latin side-by-side, it is "wigleras" that gets translated as "incantrices." The only other term translated as either "malefici" or "venefici" is "lybblac", which is translated in three different Latin texts, once as "maleficis", and twice with invented Latin terms ("liblacis" and "liblatum") indicating either that the translator simply did not know the meaning of "lybblac", or felt that no Latin equivalent existed.

So, does "wiccecræft" stand out as "by far the most common of the words employed in early English law codes to describe acts of magic equivalent to serious crimes against the person, which injured or manipulated people and ranked with murder and perjury"? Uh, no. For one thing, the actual pool of data is rather too small to meaningfully employ phrases such as "by far the most common". In this sample (based on Elsakkers, 2010, plus Ælfred's law), "wiccecræft" occurs six times (out of a possible total of eight) as does "morðwyrhtan", while "wigleras" and "lybblac" both occur three times, "scinlæcan" twice, and the term "gealdorcræftigan" is found once.

Moreover, Hutton's attempt to characterize Anglo-Saxon laws against "wiccecræft" as falling under the general category of laws against "deadly crimes against the person" is now shown to be utterly ridiculous. It is true that "wiccecræft" appears alongside the explicitly deadly crime of morðwyrhtan in five of its six appearances, but in all but one of these prostitution ("horcwenan") is also on the list, and in the only other case, idol worship is also listed. And at least half of the laws mentioning "wiccecræft" are clearly cases of religiously motivated persecution directed against "hæðenscip."

Perhaps there are other early English laws against "wiccecræft" that Hutton is basing his claims on? But if we look at the statements Hutton has made, these appear to reference only three early English laws. In his interview he explicitly references Aethelred's law, while in his paper he refers the reader to Agnes Jane Roberton's book The Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I, which only mentions two relevant laws, that of Edmund and one of Cnut's. In fact, one of the two laws found in Robertson (Edmund's) is precisely the one case where "wiccecræft" is not mentioned at all, but "lybblac" is! So it doesn't appear that Hutton has any secret database of otherwise unknown or little known Anglo-Saxon laws up his sleeve.

Thanks to Marianne Elsakkers' scholarship, we can now see both the forest and the trees. There is no evidence, whatsoever, even remotely suggesting that the Anglo-Saxon precursors to the modern English words "Witch" and "Wicca" stand out as terms that uniquely and unambiguously refer to malevolent practitioners of harmful magic who were hated by their neighbors. Rather, Anglo-Saxon "wiccecræft" was one of at least six different terms (the others being "wigleras", "lybblac", "scinlæcan", "gealdorcræftigan", and "morðwyrhtan") used to refer to varieties of Heathen magic that the Christian kings of England sought to eradicate. In other words, the pattern that emerges when the data are laid out properly bears no resemblance to Ronald Hutton's version of Anglo-Saxon Witchcraft and magic.

Table 1 from M.J. Elsakkers, 2010: "Reading between the lines: Old Germanic and early Christian views on abortion." The table is found in "Article VIII: Anglo-Saxon laws on poisoning: an invitation to further investigation." 

Revision history:
Originally posted 1-31-2013
Revised version, including Ælfred's law, post 2-1-2013

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Popular usage of "good Witch" according to ten early modern sources

This post presents ten different authors who all attribute the phrase "good Witch" (and/or something similar, such as "white Witch", "curing Witch", or "unbinding Witch") to popular usage. The works cited span a time period from around 1600 to 1715.

In his recent publication in the Pomegranate journal, Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History, Ronald Hutton has claimed that all of the instances in which we have written accounts of this sort, that is, contemporaneous sources that attribute the phrase "good Witch" (and the like) to common usage during the 16th to 18th centuries, can be dismissed on account of bias. Hutton's theory is that all of the authors in question are "radical evangelical Protestants" who are therefore, completely unrepresentative of popular opinion. Moreover, Hutton claims specifically that the instances in which these authors attribute phrases such as "good Witch" to popular usage are all part of a "campaign" by the "radical evangelical Protestants" to convince the common people to apply the label of "Witch" to workers of beneficial magic. There are two major problems with Hutton's thesis (or to be more precise, with the specific part of his thesis dealing with these early modern written sources, for Hutton also makes some rather strange claims about Anglo-Saxon law, which will be taken up in a future post).

The first major problem for Hutton is that none of the sources in question ever puts forward anything like the argument that he attributes to them. That is to say, we have precisely zero examples of a source that first criticizes the common people for failing to label workers of beneficial magic as "Witches," and then calls on them to do so henceforward. Rather, we have either (1) passages where the common usage of the phrase "good Witch" (and the like) is reported simply as an observation, or we have (2) passages in which the common people are criticized because they do use the phrase "good Witch" to refer to healers (etc.), and where the criticism is clearly and explicitly focused not on the noun "Witch", but rather on the adjective "good".

Moreover, Hutton baldly refuses to address the fact that if these sources are to be interpreted as attempting to impose a change in how workers of beneficial magic are to be labeled, for the express purpose of maligning these same magical workers, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for these authors to repeatedly go out of their way to use the phrase "good Witch," unless such expressions were in fact already in common usage. There is no doubt that in many (but not necessarily, as it turns out, all) cases, the sources assembled here do wish to malign magical healers and other workers of beneficial magic. But if Hutton's notion of what is really going on had any validity, then surely the sources in question would, if they could, always and everywhere avoid any phrase such as "good Witch," for this obviously diminishes, if not negates, the perjorative sting that is intended to be attached to the label "Witch."

The second major problem is that Hutton's sloppy invocation of "radical evangelical Protestants" is itself fraught with multiple issues. What, according to Hutton, is supposed to objectively distinguishes a "radical" Protestant from a non-radical one, and can Hutton show (does he even try to show??) that these criteria (whatever they might be--we can only guess) actually do apply to all of these sources? As for the adjective "evangelical", Hutton, as a historian, should know that his use of the term in this way, during this time period in Britain, is comically anachronistic (or would be if so many people did not mistakenly take Ronald Hutton seriously as a historian). It is, in fact, true that all of the sources in question can without doubt be labeled as Protestant. In fact, most of them are clearly Puritans, but even that label covers quite a multitude of sins.

 At least three further objections should be made to Hutton's sweeping characterization of all of the sources in question as part of a coherent "campaign" engaged in by "radical evangelical Prostestants." First there is the fact that we know that one of our authors, Thomas Ady, devotes a significant portion of his famous book on Witchcraft to attacking another one of the authors on our list, Thomas Cooper, while two of the other authors, Richard Bernard and John Stearne, both cite Thomas Cooper with approval in their respective works. Moreover, Ady's critique of Cooper amounts to the accusation that Cooper takes a "Popish" view of Witchcraft! Second, one of our authors, Robert Burton, was a critic of Puritans, even suggesting that their religious movement constituted a kind of madness. Thirdly, our final author, Joseph Addison, was many things, but to my knowledge he has never been accused of any kind of religious "radicalism", although he has been credited with espousing and inspiring politically radical ideas, including ideas that led to the American Revolution.

The bottom line is that something more than mere hand-waving and table-pounding on Hutton's part is required if he wants to convincingly argue that the sources presented here either mean something other than what they plainly say, or that their combined and unanimous testimony on the subject of the common usage of phrases such as "good Witch" is to be summarily rejected. Ronald Hutton has shown no inclination for such a serious engagement with these sources, and until he does then no one can be expected to take him seriously either.

But now let us now turn to the sources themselves. One of the works cited below was published anonymously, this being The Witch of Wapping, which first appeared in 1652. Concerning two of the other authors, Thomas Ady and Thomas Cooper, little is actually known of them outside of their writings, although in the case Cooper three of our other authors explicitly reference him in their own writings (as further noted below). The other seven authors are William Perkins, Robert Burton, Richard Bernard, John Stearne, Increase Mather, Richard Baxter and Joseph Addison, all of whom can be described as fairly well documented historical persons (for example, at least we have birth and death dates for them, unlike Cooper and Ady).

And now to the list itself, in chronological order of the works cited. For the seven more well known individuals we will have little to say about their biographies, and even less to say about the one anonymous author. A little more background information, such as it is, is provided concerning the two Thomases. Scroll to the bottom of the post for links to the full texts of all works cited.  

1. William Perkins (1558-1602)
Perkins was a Puritan, but not a radical one in that he accepted the Elizabethan Settlement and opposed those who wished to break away from the Church of England.

Quote from Perkins' A Discourse on the Damned Art of Witchcraft (the text of one of his sermons, which was first published in 1618, well after Perkins' death.):
  • "And the good Witch is commonly tearmed the vnbinding Witch."
  • "Of Witches there be two sorts: The bad Witch, and the good Witch: for so they are commonly called."

2. Thomas Cooper (dates uncertain, 17th century)
This particular "Thomas Cooper" is a bit difficult to pin down. There was a famous Anglican Bishop named Thomas Cooper, who died in 1594. There was also a noteworthy colonel in the Parliamentary Army by that name. Then there was a Thomas Cooper of Boston, an acquaintance of Increase Mather and a captain of the Suffolk Guard. And a little later on there was a radical Chartist named Thomas Cooper who spent two years in Stafford gaol for sedition from 1843-1845. But the author of "The Mysteries of Witchcraft", first published in 1617 and then reissued under the title "Sathan Transformed into an Angell of Light" in 1622, is none of those men. Our Thomas Cooper appears to be the one listed in the Appendix ("The University Background of the Preachers") in R.C. Richardson's "Puritanism in North-West England: A Regional Study of the Diocese of Chester to 1642", where he we find one Thomas Cooper who received his B.A. in 1590 and his M.A. in 1593 from Christ Church College, Oxford.

Interestingly, three of the other authors on this list make direct references to Cooper's work. Even more interestingly, perhaps, is the fact that they have varying opinions concerning Thomas Cooper. On the one hand, Richard Bernard makes numerous references to "Master" Cooper as a reliable authority on the subject of Witchcraft, while in contrast, Thomas Ady devotes a significant amount of ink to attacking Cooper for his "Popish" views on Witchcraft. It is also significant to note that Bernard also cites King James' Dæmonologie approvingly, whereas Ady attacks that work even more virulently and at much greater length than his attack on Cooper. John Stearne makes a single reference to Thomas Cooper, and he appears to have no criticism of Cooper as an authority on the subject of Witchcraft.

Quotes from Thomas Cooper's The Mysteries of Witchcraft, 1617
  • "The Good Witch, as they are termed, because they doe seeme to helpe."
  • "And so contrariwise, there are others who by Divine Justice, are given up to Satans power with this limitation onely, to helpe and do good, and these are called Good Witches, Blessers, Wise, and Cunning-women."
  • "That the Blesser or good Witch (as we terme her) is farre more dangerous then the Badde or hurting Witch ..."
  • "That they are to bee punished with death, especially the Blesser and good Witch, as they terme her."

3. Robert Burton 1577-1640
Burton was a scholar mostly known today for his work "The Anatomy of Melancholy," in which he argues, among other things, that the "enthusiasm" of the Puritans was actually a variety of mental illness.

Quote from Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)

"Sorcerers are too common; cunning men, wizards, and white-witches, as they call them, in every village, which if they be sought unto, will help almost all infirmities of body and mind"

4. Richard Bernard (1568-1641)
A Puritan, but a moderate one who opposed separatism. Bernard has a reputation, possibly deserved, as a proponent of religious toleration, at least by the standards of the day.

Quotes from Richard Bernard's A Guide to Grand-Jury Men (1627)
  • "Bad Witches many prosecure with all eagernesse; but Magicians, Necromancers, (of whom his late Maiestie giueth a deadly censure in his Dæmonologie) and the Curing Witch, comonly called, The good Witch, all forts can let alone: and yet bee these in many respects worse then the other."
  • "That there are such as be called good Witches, and how they may be knowne to be Witches."
  • "That there are such as bee called good Witches, and how they may be knowne."
  • "Of good witches falsly so called."
  • "The good Witches (vn truely so called) may be sundry waies knowne."
  • "Thus may these, falsely so named good Witches, be discouered."
  • "The report of a White or good Witch, as the people call him or her." 
  •  "If thou shalt finde one that is a Witch: though such an one as thou couldest be contented to winke at, and to passe by (as people now doe such as be called with vs, good Witches) yet shalt thou not suffer him or her to liue; no more then a bad Witch ...."
  • "By all the names giuen vnto them, by which these sorts are set forth, and rather such as bee now held good Witches then such as be held cursing and bad Witches."
  • "The imagined good Witch, the Coniurer, Enchanter, Magician, Southsayer, and the rest ought to dye; for besides the former reasons; 1. As hath beene proued; the course of the Scriptures is generally against these."
  • "Those called good Witches should be put to death."

5. John Stearne (c.1610-1670)
John Stearne is arguably the most notorious name on this list. He was by all accounts a real, honest-to-gods, bonafide fanatical Witch-hunter. According to Malcolm Gaskill's Witchfinders, Stearne was a "staunch Puritan with a censorius manner and a mind steeped in Scripture."

Quotes from John Stearne's A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft, 1648
  • "That there are Witches called bad Witches and Witches untruely called good or white Witches , and what manner of people they be..."
  • "And as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do those also resist the truth. There you may see plainly that there should be such to the latter end, besides in diverse other places speaking expressly of Witchcraft. Likewise of the Pythoness which brought her mistress much gain. And so I might nominate diverse other places, for those which remain doubtful either being bewitched or of Witches themselves, but because their own confessions clear this evidently besides the forenamed places, I proceed to distinguish between those called bad Witches, and those called white or good Witches, which is easily to be discerned and known. But yet I say all Witches are bad, and ought to suffer alike, being both in league with the Devil: for so is the good, so untruly called as well as other, either open or implicit. And therefore I conclude, all that are in league with the Devil ought to die."
  • ".... but this woman desired him to undo what he had done; and he told her he could not undo what he had done, but told her he was sorry for it, and told her of another that could, as he said, and as she affirmed, that was one, as we untruly call them, White or good Witches, and one that was then suspected, who accordingly did it ...."
  • "And that all that are thus in league, (as express or open league as aforesaid) are to be found out and known by these evidences, be they of either sort, bad, or white or good Witches so called ...."

6. The anonymous author of The Witch of Wapping (published 1652)
  • "There are two sorts oi Witches, which the Vulgar people distinguish by the names of the Good Witch, (I wonder how that can be,) and the Bad."

7. Thomas Ady (dates uncertain, 17th century)
Other than his published writings, little is known of Thomas Ady. He is often described as "a physician and a humanist," but sources describing him as a humanist inevitably also claim that Ady's views on Witchcraft were "skeptical." It must be emphasized that while Ady was a harsh critic of many of the popular views about Witches current during his day, he was nevertheless adamant about the reality of Witches. Ady was of the opinion that many popular notions concerning what we now call "diabolical" Witchcraft were just so much "Popish" nonsense. Ady wished to replace the "Popish" conception of Witchcraft with one based solely on Scripture (or at least on Ady's interpretation of Scripture). Therefore, Ady not only emphatically endorses the Biblical injunction "thou shalt not suffer a Witch to live," but his stated goal is to correct public opinion concerning Witchcraft so that the real Witches can be hunted down and put to death.

Quotes from Thomas Ady's Candle in the Dark (1656):
  • "....  to shew them the vanity and ridiculousness of those delusions and lying Wonders, by which men were so easily deluded in old times by Pharaohs Magicians, by Simon Magus, and Elimas the Sorcerer, and now adays by our professed Wizzards, or Witches, commonly called Cunning Men, or good Witches , who will undertake to shew the face of the Thief in the Glass ...."
  • ".... many indeed have been led after Southsayers, but they are termed good Witches, and whereas they as Witches ought to dye, many have been put to death by their devillish false accusations, and if the Witch of Endor were now living amongst us, we should call her a good Witch, so blinde are the times."

8. Increase Mather (1639-1723)
Prominent New England Puritan who was the first president of Harvard College, and the father of Cotton Mather.

Quote from Increase Mather's Remarkable Providences (1684) 
  • "Let such practitioners think the best of themselves, they are too near a kin to those creatures who commonly pass under the name of 'white witches.' They that do hurt to others by the devils help are called 'black witches' but there are a sort of persons in the world that will never hurt any; but only by the power of the infernal spirits they will un-bewitch those that seek unto them for relief. I know that by Constantius his law, black witches were to be punished, and white ones indulged ; but M. Perkins saith, that the good witch is a more horrible and detestable monster than the bad one. Balaam was a black witch, and Simon Magus a white one."

9. Richard Baxter (1615-1691)
A moderate Puritan who continued to advocate against separatism after the Restoration and even after the Act of Uniformity. Theologically, he rejected the central Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement in favor of universal atonement.

Quote from Richard Baxter's The Certainty of the WORLDS of SPIRITS (1691)
  • "Being asked if he could do him no good, he said, he did not question but he could, but being a Minister he feared he should lose his Benefice by Peoples saying he was a White-Witch."

10. Joseph Addison (1672-1719)
Addison was a professional writer and also held a number of political offices. His writings, especially his Cato, A Tragedy (written in 1712), are often cited as important influences for later writers, activists, and revolutionaries in both England and America who were inspired by Addison's championing of republicanism, democracy and individual liberty.

Quote from Joseph Addison's play The Drummer, 1715
  • "The common people call him a wizard, a white-witch, a conjurer, a cunning-man, a necromancer."

Links to works cited:
  1. A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, Willliam Perkins
  2. Sathan Transformed into an Angell of Light, Thomas Cooper
  3. The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton
  4. A Guide to Grand Iury Men, Richard Bernard
  5. A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft, John Stearne
  6. The Witch of Wapping, Anonymous
  7. A Candle in the Dark, Thomas Ady
  8. Remarkable Providences, Increase Mather
  9. The Certainty of the World of the Spirits, Richard Baxter
  10. The Drummer, Joseph Addison

Revision history:
Originally posted on 1/29/2013
Revised version, including John Stearne, posted 1/30/2013
Revised again, to include Robert Burton (bringing the count to 10) on 2/6/2013

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Peregrin Wildoak egregiously misrepresents Gerald Gardner (and Ronald Hutton)

In his "Response" to Ronald Hutton" (written in response to Hutton's recent Pomegranate article), Peregrin Wildoak repeats yet again the tired-old straw-man routine about Gerald Gardner, Wicca and the Stone-Age:
The revisionist history discussed by Hutton concerns the collapse of the older view that modern Pagan Witchcraft was a continuation in terms of lineage and practice of a hidden Pagan magical-religion from the medieval period or older. To quote Gerald Gardner [from Chapter 2 of Witchcraft Today]:
[the witch] is a descendant of a line of priests and priestesses of an old and probably Stone Age religion, who have been initiated in a certain way (received into the circle) and become the recipients of certain ancient learning. 
Before going any further, let's take a closer look at the convoluted way in which Wildoak introduces the quote from Gardner. Wildoak posits that there is an "older view", which has now supposedly "collasped[d]", according to which "modern Pagan Witchcraft was a continuation in terms of lineage and practice of a hidden Pagan magical-religion from the medieval period or older."

But it turns out that what Wildoak presents as "the older view" is precisely the position that Ronald Hutton now defends, minus the red-herring of "lineage" (a word that appears precisely zero times in Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft combined). As everyone now knows, or should know, Ronald Hutton now adamantly insists that modern Paganism does constitute "a continuation", not just from "the medieval period", but from Hellenistic times and further back into ancient Egypt, in terms of religious beliefs and practices. It is true that Hutton did in the past  stipulate that this continuity was only magical and not religious, but he has since relented and now explicitly recognizes the religious, as well as the magical, nature of this continuity.

And now let us turn to a closer look at what Gerald Gardner actually did say in Witchraft Today. A major sign that something is amiss with Wildoak's "quote" is that it begins with [some stuff in square brackets]. If we pull back the curtain and have a look at the whole paragraph that Wildoak plucked his mangled "quote" from we read:
In Palestine and other countries there are two kinds of witches: the ignorant herbalist and charmseller, and the witch who is a descendant of a line of priests and priestesses of an old and probably Stone Age religion, who have been initiated in a certain way (received into the circle) and become the recipients of certain ancient learning.
Note how the context of the quote is not Witches in Britain, but Witches in "Palestine and other countries". Why "Palestine"? Well, if we look at the even broader context of the quote (that is, if one actually reads the book that the quote is taken from, or at least the chapter of the book in question), then one finds just four paragraphs earlier the following:
At a later time there were, perhaps, other reasons why women may have been dominant in the cult practice, though, as I point out later, there are quite as many men among witches as women. The Bible tells us of the poor persecuted Witch of Endor, working in secret when all other witches had been driven out of the land. It also tells us of Huldah the Sorceress, living in state in Jerusalem, consulted by the King on high points of religion when the High Priest himself could not answer
Of course, all those who know their Bibles and their Witches would immediately suspect that Gardner was referring to the Witch of Endor as soon as he speaks of Witches in Palestine. But Gardner has not left this to guesswork, for as the above quote shows, he has already explicitly introduced the Witch of Endor just prior to discussing Witches in Palestine.

What sort of Witch was the Witch of Endor? Well, in Jerome's Vulgate she is referred to as "pythonissa", which makes her a Priestess of Apollo. And so at least in the version of the story most closely associated with Western Christianity, this most famous of Palestinian Witches was, indeed, an initiated Priestess of a very old religion.

But what about those "other countries", and isn't Britain one of them? Well, yes, but once we see the whole quote and it's proper context, it immediately and emphatically raises the question of whether or not Gardner expresses himself any differently when he is talking more specifically about Witches in Britain? And, indeed, Gardner states of British Witches (in Chapter 1) that "their practices are the remnants of a Stone Age religion," which is not that far from the position that Ronald Hutton also eventually came around to.

Elsewhere in Witchcraft Today, Gardner further qualifies, twice, any connection between modern Wicca and the Stone Age as follows:

From Chapter 4, Witch Practices:
I fancy that certain practices, such as the use of the circle to keep the power in, were local inventions, derived from the use of the Druid or pre-Druid circle. At one time I believed the whole cult was directly descended from the Northern European culture of the Stone Age, uninfluenced by anything else; but I now think that it was influenced by the Greek and Roman mysteries which originally may have come from Egypt. But while it is fascinating to consider the cult existing in direct descent from ancient Egypt, we must take into account the other possibilities. 

From Chapter7, The Witches and the Mysteries:
I had always believed that witches belonged to an independent Stone Age cult whose rites were a mixture of superstition and reality and had no connection with any other system. But during my short stay in New Orleans, though I did not succeed in getting into Voodoo, I noticed some suspicious resemblances which made me think that Voodoo was not solely African in origin but had been compounded in America out of European witchcraft and African mythology; and when I visited the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii I realised the great resemblance to the cult. Apparently these people were using the witches' processes.

So, what Gerald Gardner actually wrote in Witchcraft Today is that modern Wicca is not "directly descended" [Gardner's words] from a Northern European Stone Age cult. Instead, Wicca has a variety of different sources, from different cultures, different continents, and different time periods.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

"The Good Witch, as they are termed, because they doe seeme to helpe."

SATHAN TRANSFORMED into an Angell of Light
LONDON, Printed by Barnard Alsop. 1622.

pp. 207-208 (pp. 176-177 in the original)

Of the Subject of Witch-craft.

NOw let us come to the maine Subject and Occasion of this Treatise: Namely, to consider of the Practiser of this Mystery, to wit, the witch, whether man or woman.

And heere, first consider wee the Generall Notion or Description of a Witch.

Secondly, wee will resolve these points, I Whether men as well as women, may not bee Practitioners in this Art:

And yet, Why more women then men are engaged therein.

Thirdly, we will lay downe the divers kindes of these Witches: namely, 1 The Bad Witch, which is the Hurter.

2 The Good Witch, as they are termed, because they doe seeme to helpe.

Where it shall bee resolved.

1 Why Satan useth these severall instruments for these contrarie ends.

2 Whether the good Witch cannot hurt, or the bad Witch helpe.

3 What places are especially infested with Witches.

pp.  234-236 (pp. 203-205 in the original)

And so contrariwise, there are others who by Divine Justice, are given up to Satans power with this limitation onely, to helpe and do good, and these are called Good Witches, Blessers, Wise, and Cunning-women. And this Divine Dispensation is both Sutable to the parties who are limited thereby, and also very availeable for the execution of the Divine Justice.

I say sutable it is to the severall qualities of the parties thus diversly dispensed, whereof some being vaine-glorious and drowned in Poperie are therby caried with the applause of Good Workes, and therefore are fitted by Satan thereunto: Others are prone to malice discontent, couetousnesse, & c. and so are likewise fitted by the Devil, with power to bee avenged.

And doth not the just and holy God, by this diversitie and restraint of Satans power, accomplish most wisely his just wrath upon the wicked?

Yea certainely, and that not onely upon the unbeleeving world; but upon the very Witches themselves. As for the unbeleeving and wicked Generations they are hurt by the one, that they may with the danger of their soules seeke helpe of the other: And they have helpe by the one, that so, as a punishment of their infidelitie they may bee given up againe to bee hurt of the other. And so betwixt the Good Witch and the Bad, afflictions are encreased, and yet repentance excluded, and so the measure of sinne is made up among the children of disobedience, that so the measure of vengeance may accordingly be inflicted.

And doth not this also very wisely, further the damnation of the Witches themselves.

Yea certainely, the Bad Witch, by hurting, makes way for the good Witches helpe, and so thereby encreaseth her sinne; and the Good Witch in helping bewrayes the Bad Witch, and so, many times, brings her to the Gallowes.

The Good Witch in helping makes more worke for the Bad, who being suspected, revengeth her selfe usually by doing more mischiefe, and so thereby ripens her sinne to the Gallowes, and so still makes more worke for the Blesser to encrease her condemnation. The Bad Witch, because she doth hurt, is hated of the world, and so thereby encreaseth her malice, and doth more harme. The good Witch is honoured, and reputed as a God, because she doth good, and so is hardened in her sinne and ripeneth the same, by adding to all former sinnes, finall impenitencie, and so usually commits the unpardonable sin.

pp. 300-301 (pp. 269-270 in the original)

CHAP. II. Of the detection of Witches, and meanes thereto.

OF the detection and punishment of Witches: That they are to bee punished with death, especially the Blesser and good Witch, as they terme her.

SECT. I. Of unlawfullmeanes of detection.

HAving discovered the power of Witches, and so followed them to the utmost of their glorie and advancement: Seeing now Pride goeth before destruction, and the glorie of the wicked is their shame: Let us now consider of their Fall and confusion, and of such meanes as further the same.

Wherein we may behold the admirable wisedome and power of God, who as hee leaves them to their owne lusts, to embrace Satan, and submit unto him, for the obtaining of their desires; so hath hee so disposed in his wonderfull Justice, that the God whom they worship, when he hath them sure his owne, seeing he is greedy of his Prey, and would gladly have other imployment to doe more mischiefe, therefore he cares not how soone the bargaine be performed, and rather then faile, though all other meanes of detection should cease, himselfe will bee the instrument to bring his Beare to the Stake: And this he doth, 

By Being an instrument for the detection of the Witch, and yet in such dangerous policie, as that heerein also he hunts after unstable soules, while he seekes to give them content in the discoverie of the Witch which hath done them so much mischiefe. To this is it, that he hath not onely The Blesser readie to discover and detect the A Bad Witch, that so he might thereby encrease the poore peoples rage against the Witch, whereas indeed they should be angry at their sins.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"the Curing Witch, comonly called, The good Witch"

More quotes from Richard Bernard's 
"Guide to Grand-Jury Men".
[Cornell University Library of Witchcraft Collection]

pp. 7-8 

The sinne of witchcraft, and the diabolicall practice thereof, is omnium scelerum atrocißimum, and in such as haue the knowledge of God, the greatest apostacie from the faith. For they renounce God, and giue themselues by a couenant to the Diuell. Bad Witches many prosecure with all eagernesse; but Magicians, Necromancers, (of whom his late Maiestie giueth a deadly censure in his Dæmonologie) and the Curing Witch, comonly called, The good Witch, all forts can let alone: and yet bee these in many respects worse then the other.

p. 146  (p. 129 in the original)

The good Witches (vn truely so called) may be sundry waies knowne: I. From the quality of the party, one commonly very ignorant of religion, an obseruer of times, of good and bad daies, of good and bad lucke, very superstitious in many things, not induring willingly such as feare God, and such as delight in his Word. They are also fantastically proud, as Simon Magus was, who boasted much of himselfe, as these doe of their gift and power; as those in Spaine, which call themselues Salutadorres.

p. 153  (p. 1 36 in the original)

This Bodinus sheweth by examples three or foure, where of one Healer came to a Bishop, and willed him to trust in him to cure him, and this was in the hearing of Bodinus himselfe, there in the Chamber, and one Doctor Faber, a learned Physician. Thus may these, falsely so named good Witches, be discouered.

pp. 245-246  (pp. 228-229 in the original)

5. The Physician, if vse haue beene made of him. It is very necessary to haue his iudgement in this case, to know whether the disease bee naturall, as hee vpon mature deliberation, and diligent search hath found it? or whether there bee any counterfeiting herein? or if the disease bee not naturall, yet whether Satan may not mixe with it his supernaturall power, beyond the force of the disease? These are for Physicians to iudge: And therefore it is very requisite to haue the aduice of some iudicious Physician herein.

6. The report of a White or good Witch, as the people call him or her. This Witch must be brought before Authority, and it must be demanded of him or her, I. What they haue reported of the suspected partie? 2. Vpon what grounds they haue thus accused the said party? for such an one may know the other to bee a Witch, one of these two waies ....

Friday, January 18, 2013

"Of good witches falsly so called."

"That there are such as bee called good Witches, and how they may be knowne."

For many years now, Ronald Hutton has claimed that the English word "Witch" has "traditionally" only been used to refer to individuals who (1) cause harm through magic, (2) are malevolent in their disposition toward others, and (3) are hated by the other members of their communities. According to Hutton, the use of the word "Witch" to refer to practitioners of beneficial magic is a purely modern development.

The problem for Hutton is that there are a great number of sources that directly contradict his theory. These sources incontrovertibly document the fact that, essentially for as long as the English language has existed, the word "Witch" has been used to refer to healers, diviners and other practitioners of beneficial magic who, far from being hated, have been valued and sought after for the good that they do.

Hutton now claims that all such cases in which Witches are referred to as healers, etc, are irrelevant because they are confined to the utterances of "radical, evangelical Protestants" and other "churchmen", whose use of the word "Witch" was wildly divergent from that of "the great bulk of the populace," who only used "Witch" as an epithet for hated, malevolent, evil-doers. This argument is put forward by Hutton in his new article in the latest issue of the Pomegranate journal: Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History.

The thing is, though, that in the sources that Hutton refers to, one never finds the authors putting forward arguments of the form:

A. Those who are commonly referred to as healers, soothsayers and wise-women should instead be referred to as Witches, because they are in fact evil-doers who deceive people into following Satan.

If such arguments could be produced, they would give some validity to Hutton's position. But in every case what we find instead are arguments of the following sort:

B. Those who are commonly referred to as good Witches, because they heal and otherwise appear to do good, are in fact evil-doers who deceive people into following Satan.

Arguments A & B both refer to the same group of people, namely, practitioners of beneficial magic.  And both arguments are concerned with how these people should be named, and how they should not be named. Argument A says "do not call them healers, for they are Witches." While Argument B says "do not call them good Witches, for they are not good." Argument A is purely a figment of Ronald Hutton's imagination, while Argument B is found throughout the entire history of the English tongue.

Therefore these sources completely undermine Hutton's claim, for they provide direct testimony as to the ubiquity in common usage of  "Witch" to refer to those who do good, and, moreover, that those who were called "Witches" by the common people were also referred to by them as "blessers", "healers", "cunning women", etc.

But please, don't take my word for it. Below are the first two pages of Chapter VIII of Richard Bernard's 1627 book, Guide To Jury-Men. That chapter is entitled "That there are such as bee called good Witches, and how they may be knowne." [For much more along these same lines see also Witches: Good, Bad, and Otherwise.]


As in Gods Church there be good and bad; So in this kingdome of Satan, there bee good and bad Witches.

These good or white Witches are commonly called blessers, healers, cunning wisemen, or women (for there are of both sexes) but of this kinde, many men.

These haue a spirit also, as one Ioane Willimot acknowledged, and are in league with the Diuell, as well as the bad and black Witches be. By their spirit they learne, who are bad Witches and where they dwell, who are strucken, forespoken, and bewitched, and by them they learne how those doe, whom they vndertake to amend; for the spirit is sent vnto their patients from them: all which the foresaid Ioane Willsmot acknowledged before Authority in her examination.

The profession of these Witches is, for the most part, to heale and cure such as bee taken, blasted, strucken, forespoken, as they vse to speake, and bewitched: all which cures they doe by their compact with the Deuill.

But though these Witches be almost all healing Witches, and cannot doe to man, or beast any hurt, except they procure some other to doe it, yet we may finde, that some of these sometimes haue the double facultie, both to blesse, and to curse, to hurt, and to heale, as it is probable Balaam had at the least in Balaks imagination, Num. 22.6.

The whole text of Benard's book, along with images of the original publication, can be found at the online Cornell Witchcraft Collection:;cc=witch;rgn=main;view=text;idno=wit140

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Ronald Hutton on Witches. Yet again.

I am still working on a new post - but I accidentally hit "publish" while I was still editing it. Anyway, rest assured that I will soon be responding to Ronald Hutton's most recent attempt to deny the simple, historical and linguistic truth about the meaning of the word Witch.

In the meantime, please enjoy these past posts from this blog on that particular subject:

Monday, January 7, 2013

Are modern Pagans morally and intellectually superior to adherents of "traditional and indigenous" religions?

There is another problem with the globalization of the term Pagan. It make us (real Pagans) think we are like other traditional religions like the Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist traditions, or the indigenous cultures like the Shuar, Cherokee, or Yoruba, among so many others. We are not.
Do you think the Earth is the center of the Universe?
Do you think diseases are caused by germs and viruses?
Do you know about more elements than four (or five)?
Has the scientific revolution touched you?
Do you think democracy is a good idea?
In traditional and indigenous society the valences of the above questions are reversed and we are in no position to go back to them. (Everyone in the room who is still alive because of antibiotics, raise your hand). In fact, these ideas are so important that traditional and indigenous societies are adopting them and adjusting themselves accordingly. Good for them, but these ideas are *native* to us. We figured them out, for the most part, and they changed us permanently.
[Sam Webster, "Welcome, Thinking Pagans"]

The above quote is from an online article by Sam Webster smugly entitled "Welcome Thinking Pagans." Webster's casual ethnocentrism is, sadly, all-too common among well-educated modern "liberal" Westerners. Another example of this kind of ethnocentrism, and one which I have previously written about in this blog, is the claim made by David Loy, a prominent American Western Buddhist writer, to the effect that the very concept of social justice is utterly foreign to non-Westerners in general and Asians in particular, and that Asian Buddhists require the guidance of Western Buddhists in order to overcome this deficiency (see  David Loy & the White Buddhist's Burden). The same conceit can also be found in another contemporary Western Buddhist writer, Stephen Batchelor, as I have also discussed elsewhere (see Reason #7 in Top Ten Reasons Why Stephen Batchelor is Full of Shit). And the same kind of ethnocentrism is also implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the writings of the New Atheists (such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) whenever they deign to discuss religions other than Christianity and Islam (such as Buddhism and Hinduism).

But lets return to Sam Webster, and his claim that "traditional and indigenous" cultures have their "valences" "reversed" when it comes to things like science and democracy. Better yet, let us turn away from Webster and instead look to the writings of a genuine expert on the subject of democracy and social justice: Martin Luther King, Jr.

As always happens with the best and the brightest, Martin Luther King, Jr. searched for a guiding philosophy while he was a college student, a journey that he continued in even more earnest as a young seminarian. What he was looking for, as he later recounted it, was a world-view that applied “the love ethics of Jesus” to the problem of social injustice.

During this “intellectual odyssey”, as King himself called it, he studied the works of Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stewart Mill, John Locke, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin, as well as Christian authors such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr, and also ancient authors especially Aristotle and Plato. In particular, King struggled long and hard with the writings of Niebuhr, especially wrestling with Neihbur's rejection of pacifism.

In addition to the above listed writers, King was also was personally influenced, during his studies at the Boston University School of Theology, by Walter Muelder, Allan Knight Chalmers, Edgar S. Brightman, and L. Harold Dewolf. It was under the mentorship of Dr. Brightman that King undertook a close study of Hegel, and King would later say that Brightman had provided him with ‘the metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God’’ [Papers 4:480].

But none of these Western philosophers, revolutionaries, teachers, and theologians, either living or dead, provided what King was looking for.

In his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, King wrote: “Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships …. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.” Moreover, in King’s estimation, “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.” King wrote further that: “The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from [Bentham, Mill, Marx, Lenin, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Nietzsche] I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi. I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom."

Martin Luther King, Jr. is unquestionably one of the most celebrated champions of social justice and the basic principles of democracy in modern history. His search as a young man for a guiding philosophy was based both on moral and intellectual requirements. He was not looking merely for a philosophy that expressed the moral sentiment of social justice, but one that met the intellectual challenge of showing how to apply a philosophy of compassion not just to interpersonal relationships, but to the much broader realm of social change, up to and including social change on global scale.

Those who naively privilege the modern West as the sole font of democracy, equality, and liberty, really need to closely study that figure who, more than anyone else, personifies the modern conception of progressive social change: Martin Luther King. Anyone who makes such a study cannot help but conclude that not only does modern Western culture have no monopoly on "social justice", but that, as a matter of fact, we in the West have much to learn from others.

Also see these related posts from this blog: