Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Looking it up: Witches and Witchcraft in some early English dictionaries

The post is mostly just a raw "data dump" consisting of selections from four of the earliest English language dictionaries (dated 1604, 1656, 1658, and 1755). In every case it is shown that "Witch" and "Witchcraft" are not defined in terms maleficium, but rather in terms of magical powers in a very general way without direct reference to harmful magic. There are references to the perverse Christian notion that magic is associated with "the Devil, or evil Spirits", but this is not said uniquely of Witchcraft alone, but also of Necromancy. In many other sources from the same period one also finds the Devil (and "evil spirits") associated with Conjurers, Sorcerers, Prophetesses, etc. Also, even when Witchcraft is specifically being associated with evil spirits, as in Philips' General Dictionary of 1656, the actions attributed to Witches are described as "Wonders", and in the same Dictionary, the entry for "Wonders" refers to "the seven Wonders of the World," and there is nothing to indicate an association with maleficium or anything of the sort. Moreover, the word "Witch" is explicitly presented in the sources below as being synonymous with a variety of other words to denote magical practitioners, including especially: "Magician", "Prophetess", "Enchantress", "Wizzard", and "Sorceress" (as well as, although somewhat less directly, with "Conjurer", "Wise Man", "Cunning Man", "Astrologer", and "Diviner").


magitian, (g) one vsing witchcraft

Glossographia Anglicana Nova: Or, A Dictionary, Interpreting Such Hard Words of Whatever Language, as are at Present Used in the English Tongue, by Thomas Blount (1656)

Pythoness, a Woman posses'd with a Familiar, or Prophecying Spirit, a Sorceress, or Witch.

The New World of English Words, or, a General Dictionary, by Edward Phillips, 1658

Cunning-Man, one skilled in Astrology; a Diviner, a Conjurer.
Enchantress, a Witch or Sorceress
Magician, one that possesseth Magick, which was the same with the Persians as Philosophy among the Greeks, i. e. the Study of the more secret and mysterious Arts: Whence the Three Wise Men in the East, that came to adore the Savior of the World, were call'd Magi, but the Word now is commonly taken in a bad Sense, for a Wizard, Sorcerer, or Conjurer.
Magick, or Diabolical Magick, the Black Art, a dealing with Familiar Spirits, Conjuring, Sorcery, Witchcraft.
Natural Magick, or Natural Philosophy, an innocent and useful Science, teaching the Knowledge and mutual Application of Actives to Passives, so as to make many excellent Discoveries: But this Study being corrupted by the Arabians, and fill'd with many superstitious Vanities, the Word began to be taken in an ill Sense.
Magick Square, is when several Numbers, in Arithmetical proportions, are disposed into such parallel and equal Ranks, that the Sums of each Row taken any way, either directly or side-long, shall be all equal.
Necromancy, an Art, by which Communication is held with the Devil, so as to call up the Spirits of the Dead, such as the Witch of Endor made Use of to cause Samuel to appear to Saul.
Python, a venomous Serpent; also a familiar of prophecying Spirit, or one possessed with it.
Pythoness, a Woman so possessed [see Python, above]; a Prophetess; a Sorceress, or Witch.
Sorcerer, one that uses Witch-craft, a Wizzard, Magician, or Inchanter.
Sorceress, a Witch or Hag.
Wise-Man, see Cunning-Man
Witch, an old Hag, or Woman that deals with Familiar Spirits.
Witchcraft, the black Art, whereby with the Assistance of the Devil, or evil Spirits, some Wonders may be wrought, which exceed the common Apprehensions of Men.

A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson, 1755

Wárlock., Wárluck n.s. [vardlookr, Islandick, a charm; werloʒ, Saxon, an evil spirit. This etymology was communicated by Mr. Wise.] A male witch; a wizzard.
Warlock in Scotland is applied to a man whom the vulgar suppose to be conversant with spirits, as a woman who carries on the same commerce is called a witch: he is supposed to have the invulnerable quality which Dryden mentions, who did not understand the word: "He was no warlock, as the Scots commonly call such men, who they say are iron free or lead free." [From John Dryden's notes on his own translation of Vergil's Aeneid (link), specifically in reference to the fact that Vergil allows his hero to be wounded in battle (in Book XII), thus demonstrating that Aeneas "was no warluck", that is to say, he did not possess "the invulnerable quality" that "in Scotland", according to Johnson, is supposed, by "the vulgar", to be characteristic of both Witches and Warlocks.]