19 April 2010


Malcolm Gaskill. Witchcraft, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010.

John Michael Greer. Secrets of the Lost Symbol. Oxford University Press, 2010

Short it may be (just 146 small format pages), but Gaskell's book is still a very comprehensive history and analysis of witch belief in (mostly) the western world. The author is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia, and has written extensively on witchcraft and witch trials. He is the author of Hellish Nell, an account of England's last 'witchcraft' trial in the 1940s.
Gaskell sees witchcraft developing not as a hold-over from a previous, more 'primitive' belief system, but as part of the process of the development of the modern world. This was a world where misfortunes could no longer be blamed on impersonal supernatural forces, there would have to be an identifiable cause, a culprit who could be dealt with by society. Gaskell points out that the disturbing growth of forms of witchcraft in modern Africa is not a revival of earlier beliefs but something which has arisen in societies which are moving into the modern world.

The 'witch-hunts' in Europe in the early modern periods were generally not the result of uncontrolled mob action as depicted in innumerable films and novels, but were largely very carefully conducted according to contemporary legal standards. Within the societies in which they took place they seemed a totally rational response to a perceived threat to the established order, and to understand them we have to examine how they fitted in with the social and legal realities of the era.

Gaskell refutes many of the popular beliefs about the witch hunts; in many areas the most likely result of a witchcraft trial was a 'not guilty' verdict. Even at the time there was a great deal of scepticism about the reality of witchcraft, and the official attitude varied greatly from place to place.

The author touches briefly on modern witchcraft and Wicca, pointing out that is largely a re-invention inspired by writers like Margaret Murray, and sees it developing from the rise of occult and spiritualist belief in the nineteenth century, which in itself was a process of creating a series of scientific 'laws' to define and control the supernatural, in the same way that the earlier witch trials were an attempt to create a system of legal control over the supernatural.

Although a compact work, and very accessible, it is scholarly and repays careful reading,; highly recommended. It also it has a full index and a very comprehensive bibliography

... unlike Greer's book, which lacks both. Although its format as an alphabetical listing of topics means it can be usefully accessed without an index, one would have been useful and a bibliography would have been very helpful.

The book is marketed as an 'unauthorised guide' to the latest Dan Brown film, and without this link it would be hard to see exactly who it is addressed to. It gives brief explanations of a variety of esoteric and occult topics, as well as explaining the meanings of specialist terms, and brief notes on individuals and various occult movements and masonic organisations.

All the entries seem to be straightforward and accurate descriptions, not pushing any particular viewpoint, and they would certainly be very useful to anyone working their way through the Dan Brown oeuvre and other books of that genre. Without this link I just cannot see the book standing alone as a particularly useful reference tool, but that clearly is not its purpose, as the saying goes, "it does what it says on the tin". -- Reviewed by John Rimmer

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