John William Wickwar. Witchcraft and the Black Art. Fonthill Media. New edition 2012. (Originally published 1925)

Witchcraft, or not so much witchcraft as the belief in it, is a very mysterious thing. Why is it that, throughout the ages, in many different cultures that could have had no contact with each other, there was, and is, a belief that certain people, usually women, have great paranormal powers, and that they use those powers for evil? Such a belief is prevalent in China, India and Africa, South America and Europe – or has been up to the recent past (the last witchcraft slaying in England was investigated by Fabian of the Yard just after the Second World War) and was well-established in the Greek-speaking world by the time Homer wrote the Odyssey in about the seventh century B.C.E. I don’t think any current sociological or anthropological theory, feminist or otherwise, is adequate to explain this.

Wickwar doesn’t answer the question, but since no one else can, he isn’t to be greatly blamed for that.

I reviewed this work with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think publishers should be encouraged to publish new editions of books that have long been out of print, since many out-of-print books do not deserve to be. On the other, a reader new to the subject would be greatly misled by Wickwar’s book, if he or she took it as a straightforward factual account of what witchcraft, and a belief in witchcraft, was (and is). The publishers, in their blurb and introduction, encourage the reader to take it in that way, and they are wrong to do so. The book does, however, fairly represent the beliefs about witchcraft that many educated Englishmen and women held between the wars, and therefore sheds some light, however indirectly, on the origins of the modern religion of Wicca.

Wickwar is right about one thing. It is perfectly true that in Europe in the late antique period (from the fourth century to about the tenth) prelates and pontiffs were apt to describe surviving pagan practices as witchcraft; though he is most probably wrong to say that the witchcraft of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries owed much to those practices (beyond perhaps a survival of magical spells that had their origin in Egypt and, in Germany and Northern England and Scotland, some Nordic beliefs).

In the early modern period (the fifteenth to seventeenth century), cunning women (and men) were fortune-tellers (using geomancy and palmistry) and herbalists. They had spells to protect against witchcraft, and to cure people and animals from common ailments. Ordinary folk couldn’t afford to go to a recognised physician, and in any case were better off going to a herbalist, whose cures were often more effective.

I have to say that there are many glaring errors in Wickwar’s book. He believes the nonsense promulgated by the Inquisition and sixteenth and seventeenth century witch-baiters. For example, he imagines that witches met in “covens”. This was a Scottish belief, not found, as far as I know, anywhere else in Europe. Furthermore, covens always met, according to Wickwar and Scottish witch-hunters of those days, with thirteen members. Any reader who is a member of some local group, for example a local philately or tennis club, will know how impossible it is to predict how many members will turn up on any particular occasion. People give their apologies, and then again other people turn up whom you weren’t expecting. So common sense, apart from anything else, leads one to be sceptical of the 'thirteen members in a coven' view. (Novelists, of course, are not limited by common sense. Dennis Wheatley, in the novel The Devil Rides Out first published – significantly – between the wars, has Satanists meeting together. There have to be thirteen of them, or the evil Mocata’s plan is thwarted.)

Chapter thirteen of the book is devoted to 'A Typical Witch Tract'. This purports to be “a true and faithful account of… Elinor Shaw and Mary Phillips… executed on Saturday, March the 17th, 1705”. This is pure fantasy, the execution never having taken place. In fact, after the Restoration in 1660, executions for witchcraft became rare in England, and there were no legal executions in the eighteenth century. (Mobs murdered those they supposed to be “witches” from time to time, but that’s another matter).

Wickwar’s book is a useful compendium of spells and folklore practices, though without the index that would have made it even more useful.

I would recommend this book to any scholar researching the origins of modern-day Wicca, but cannot recommend it to the general inquirer. -- Mark McCann

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