WITCHCRAFT AND MAGIC IN EUROPE - THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is number six in a series of six volumes covering the history of magic and witchcraft in Europe from ancient to modern times. Most of these volumes have included first rate scholarship. The fourth (and last) volume in the series, entitled, "The Period of the Witch Trials," will be published later this year.
Series authors have attempted to define witchcraft and magic for each of the covered periods. The major impression one receives on reading these books is that the concepts or witchcraft and magic as well as the operational definitions are many and varied. As Willem de Blecourt of the Huizinga Institute in the Netherlands notes in his section in this volume, "Local witchcraft discourses are accentuated and even defined by the locally current value systems." Blecourt's article is by far the best of the three in the book.
The first two sections of this book deal with witchcraft (Ronald Hutton, Bristol University) and Satanism (Jean la Fontaine, London School of Economics) as practiced in the 20th Century according to "modern" practitioners. These two sections are really more news article than scholarly essay. Each author has assembled material widely available to the public in autobiographical and biographical form, and to a certain extent "participated" in and "observed" some of the practices discussed. Both authors make it clear that Wicca (the Anglo-Saxon variant) and Satanism have nothing to do with each other. Wicca, or witchcraft as some practitioners prefer to call it, is considered by it's adherents to predate Christianity by several million years. Satanism, on the other hand, is based on the Hebrew word that means "the opposed" and requires historical references to Christianity that Wiccans eschew. The members of these two very different groups apparently loath each other. Many of the Wiccans are feminists while many of the Satanists have connections to neo-Nazis. The rationale for Wiccans is love the Earth, while that of the Satanists appears to be tear it up. Apparently, overly zealous and poorly educated Christians confuse the two. The Wiccans have been invited by the Archbishop to Canterbury Cathedral, the Satanists have not.
My favorite essay is the last, Blecourt's piece on witchcraft in Europe from the anthropologist's perspective. Most of his material comes from France, Spain, and the Netherlands. He includes material on Frisian witches, the work of Pitt-Rivers (an institute at Oxford University is named for him) who became famous for his studies of witchcraft in Andalusia, and Favret-Saada who studied witchcraft in the Bocage in France. Blecourt suggests anthropologists are faced with a perplexing situation in the attempt to study witchcraft-who to adopt as an informer. The person who informs you shapes your experience. The witch, the bewitched, and the unwitcher form a triangle with three perspectives. In the end, each will have a different tale, but you won't be able to get all three of them to confide in you. Blecourt suggests all the ethnographer can do is see witchcraft from a liminal perspective-i.e. barely at all or at the edge of perception.
This book is one in an excellent continuing series of "Witchcraft and Magic in Europe". This entry in the series concerns the history and practice of European witchcraft and magic in the 20th century,(and the book is focused on Europe and particularly Britain. There is only scant information on witchcraft and magic in North America). This is a refreshing objective study which approaches the subject from a sociological/anthropological approach; it is not intended as an apologia for witchcraft or neo-paganism, nor is it intended as a deconstruction of the topics. Also refreshing is that the writers spend little time "psychoanalyzing" and "rationalizing". What you get here is factual, fairly objective reporting. The book is divided in three sections: I.Modern Pagan Witchcraft-it's cultural and spiritual antecedents and history. Especially important here is the treatment of Margaret Murray, Gerald Gardner and Crowley. Also fascinating is the information provided on how the "paganism" of the Romantic Movement provided impetus for the later development of full blown "pagan revival" religions. (Also, as an enticement for you...did you know that Wicca and the Boy Scouts have a common ancestor! ) For readers hungry for historical facts on the "new" religions of Wicca and NeoPaganism, this section of the book provides valuable information. The author of this section, Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol, seems confident that Wiccans and NeoPagans are ready for this kind of objective exegesis. I'm not so sure... II.Satanism and Satanic Mythology-written by Jean La Fontaine of the London School of Economics; level-headed and factual. La Fontaine details the brief history of this small and very recent religious movement and also debunks much of the satanic abuse hysteria whipped up by some conservative Christian groups, there just ain't no "there" there when it comes to these charges. As in the Pagan Witchcraft section, La Fontaine does not bore us with trite psychoanalysis, but just good reporting. Important here is the objective study La Fontaine gives to The Church of Set as opposed to La Vey Satanism; heretofore most studies of these two movements have taken "sides" in the oft-times bitter feuding between the two. My only objection to this section is the lumping of Asatru/Odinism and Northern European Heathenism in this section instead of either in a section of it's own or as a corollary section to Pagan Witchcraft. While some, if not most, of Northern European Heathenism does contain some of the same religio-political concerns as some satanic groups, it is also strikingly dis-similar and deserves to be studied in its own right rather as a "cousin" of satanism. III.The Continued Existence of Traditional Witchcraft...maybe. This section, actually an overview of the cultural anthropology of witch folklore and "bewitchment", demonstrates how difficult it is to really form a cohesive argument that if organized witchcraft existed at all in the past, there is very little evidence for it. All we have is a bewildering host of healing traditions, "hexes" and remedies against hexes, and whether this is evidence of the survival of witchcraft, shamanism or simply folk-ways, is hard to say. The authors are remarkably open to the possibility of real withcraft traditions that pre-date Wicca, but demonstrate the lack of evidence for it. For students of Mysticism, religious arcana and the Occult, this volume provides a wealth of information about this fascinating, and curious, part of the Western Esoteric Tradition.