Skip to content University Press, 2017
ISBN 9780300229042
xv, 360 pages, illustrated

The Witch’ is a work of huge ambition, spanning tens of thousands of years and taking in every inhabited continent. The title, even including the subtitle, scarcely does it justice. While it’s main focus is on the image of the witch across time and in many cultures, it ranges far beyond that central theme, taking in religious and political history, folklore, ceremonial magic, shamanism and more, in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Its scope is an important part of the book’s raison d’etre and appeal. Rather than focus on a narrow exploration of Witchcraft trials in early modern Europe, it seeks to place the phenomenon of European witchcraft in a deeper historical and global context. In doing so it opens up new debates and offers fresh perspectives on existing ones. Few historians are better equipped for this task than Ronald Hutton, whose previous work has ranged from the Reformation to Druidry via modern Wicca and Siberian Shamanism. discussing witchcraft and perceptions of it, it is necessary to define what the term witchcraft has meant to most people in most cultures and at most times. In making such a definition, it is necessary to compare witchcraft with other forms of human engagement with spiritual forces including religion, shamanism and ceremonial magic. To do so requires defining each of these. This the author does with admirable lucidity. Of course, not everyone will agree with the definitions arrived at, and Hutton himself admits that they are contestable. The chosen definition of witchcraft itself may prove contentious, even though it is firmly based on the most common use of the term over many centuries, that being a means by which individuals seek to harness spiritual powers and/or magic to harm others. For this reason alone, The Witch may prove as divisive of opinion in the Pagan community as Hutton’s previous works on the subject, The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford University Press, 1999), and Witches, Druids & King Arthur (Hambledon, 2003). For those who might get apoplectic, it is worth remembering that this is about witchcraft as commonly defined throughout history, not about the present day constructs of Wicca, ‘white’ witchcraft, ‘hereditary’ witchcraft and related Pagan traditions that were the subjects of those earlier works. Having trained in Alexandrian Wicca in the late 1970s, I have often suggested to Wiccan friends and colleagues that a simple way to improve the public image of Wicca would be to discard the use of the terms ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ in describing themselves and what they do. Having described myself as a Druid from the mid-1970s, before joining my coven, I have long been aware of the very different public responses to the terms ‘witch’ and ‘Druid,’ the former being largely hostile, the latter largely positive, albeit tarnished in recent years by the aggressive militancy of an unfortunately vocal minority. of the book’s innovations is the creation of a new description of those who use magic largely to benefit others, often in return for payment, as ‘service magicians.’ This useful term covers a wide range of medicine men, witch doctors, wise women, cunning folk, shamans and the like who may use techniques similar to those attributed to witches but who use them, on the whole, benevolently rather than malevolently, defensively rather than offensively, often for reversing the perceived effects of witchcraft.

My one problem with the book results directly from its ambitious scope: even with 300 pages of text and the use of a fairly small font, there are innumerable points passed over in a single sentence about which one would like to know so much more. Just on page 224, for example, there is a brief reference to a 16th century male magician in Dorset who contacted the fairy folk “in their homes inside prehistoric burial mounds.” Living in the West Country, not too far from Dorset, I would love to know more about John Walsh, as he is named in the endnotes. The same paragraph refers to a “Susan Swapper, a reputed service magician at the Sussex port of Rye, in 1609.” I went to school in Rye for 12 years, yet had never heard of this woman and would love to know more about her. Knowing the way publishing works, I imagine that the insisted on a page limit. If this is so, I wish Yale University Press had been a lot more generous with their allowance. Under the circumstances, it’s as well that the author provides nearly 50 pages of carefully referenced notes. These have led me to seek out John Walsh’s confession online and to invest £15 in the book, Rye Spirits, by Annabel Gregory (The Hedge Press, 2013), and £60 in The Visions of Isobel Gowdie, by Emma Wilby (Sussex Academic Press, 2010).

Over the years, Professor Hutton has done a great deal to inspire academic research into paganisms old and new. This book represents a summary of the current state of research into the historical figure of the witch and other magic users and, as such, also points to where gaps in our knowledge remain to be filled. From the chapter devoted to ‘Witches and Fairies,’ for example, there is clearly scope for a substantial book just on the relationship between British magic users and the fairy folk as recorded in trial documents and other sources from the mid-15th century to the 18th. Throughout this period and right across the British Isles, such relationships often involved accessing the fairy realm via earthen mounds, meeting with a fairy queen and being taught various healing techniques by the fairy folk. The fairy folk referred to are not of the tiny, Edwardian, butterfly-winged variety, but are human sized, often spirits of dead humans known to the magician, sometimes shape-shifters.
In a brief review, it is impossible to do justice to the sheer range of information contained in this book. It is stuffed to the gunwales with everything from illuminating minutiae to grand ideas, all woven together with Hutton’s accustomed skill, clarity and insight. It’s not surprising the book was twenty-five years in the making, nor that research assistants were employed to make possible the task of sifting through the vast number of works consulted. read most of the author’s books since 1991’s seminal Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, I am increasingly impressed by the care with which he credits previous researchers in the fields covered. In this, as in much else, Hutton shows an unusual generosity of spirit. The present work is no exception. At each step of the way, full and fair acknowledgement is given to earlier writers and their ideas. This is part of what might be called the Hutton Project, which is not only to present histories of the various topics on which he writes, but to detail the history of those histories through reflecting on the lives and opinions of the historians who have formulated our understanding of the past.

The book is in three parts, Part 1, entitled ‘Deep Perspectives,’ consists of the first three chapters, ‘The Global Context,’ ‘The Ancient Context,’ and ‘The Shamanic Context.’ Part 2, ‘Continental Perspectives,’ consists of four chapters, ‘Ceremonial Magic – An Egyptian Legacy,’ ‘The Hosts of the Night,’ ‘What the Middle Ages Made of the Witch,’ and ‘The Early Modern Patchwork.’ Part 3, ‘British Perspectives,’ discusses ‘Witches and Fairies,’ ‘Witches and Celticity,’ and ‘Witches and Animals.’ suspect that this is a book that will resonate in the academic study of witchcraft and magic for some time to come, helping set the agenda for future research and encouraging that research to expand its range and ambition. I certainly hope so. For the non-academic, it is not an easy read simply due to being so densely packed with information. For this reason, I suspect its impact in the modern Pagan community will be considerably less than many of Hutton’s previous works. This is unfortunate, since it offers not merely food for thought but a veritable ten course banquet.

Image result for britannia skyA new TV series called Britannia takes as its setting the Claudian invasion of Britain in 43 CE which began almost 400 years of Roman occupation of England and Wales. In the community at large, the main talking point seems to be whether or not Britannia is trying to be another Game of Thrones clone. In the Druid community, the major topic of debate is the show’s portrayal of Druids. In weighing into these discussions, I am at the considerable disadvantage of being unable to see the programme in question due to not being a subscriber to Sky. That said, I’ll have a go based on what little I’ve been able to glean from brief clips online and other people’s comments.

Image result for britannia skyThe chief Druid in the series is portrayed by Mackenzie Crook (above), most recently gracing our screens in the excellent BBC series, Detectorists. In Britannia, he is heavily made up and seems to portray his character as something between a circus performer and a homicidal maniac. Some modern Druids have been quoted in the press as being deeply offended by this portrayal on the grounds that modern Druids are peace-loving people who honour the cycles of nature. In most cases, this is undoubtedly true. I’m a life-long pacifist myself. We may, however, legitimately ask whether the same was true of Druids two thousand years ago. Classical Druids’ ability to bring peace to warring factions is evidenced in Diodorus Siculus’ 1st century BCE statement that, “Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn and spears bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just as wild beasts are sometimes held spellbound. Thus even among the most savage barbarians anger yields to wisdom, and Mars is shamed before the Muses.”

On the other hand, classical Druids bensozia: The Sanctuary of Roquepertuse and the Celtic ...relied for their livelihood on the patronage of the warrior caste that formed the upper echelons of Celtic society, while some Celtic sacred sites were decorated with human skulls (right) or piled with the bones of the dead. Then there are the Druids in medieval Irish literature who use battle magic against their enemies, hurling balls of fire or causing rocks to rain down from the heavens. There is also evidence for human sacrifice among the Celts, albeit on nothing like the industrial scale suggested by their Roman conquerors. Need these have involved Druids? Diodorus Siculus Diodorus of Sicily LiviusDiodorus Siculus (left) suggests that they did, writing that the Celts “have philosophers and theologians who are held in much honour and are called Druids. It is a custom of the Gauls that no one performs a sacrifice without the assistance of a philosopher, for they say that offerings to the gods ought only to be made through the mediation of these men, who are learned in the divine nature and, so to speak, familiar with it, and it is through their agency that the blessings of the gods should properly be sought.”

Even from this fragmentary and at times dubious evidence, it seems likely that classical Druids were considerably more robust in their approach to life and death than many contemporary Druids are willing to believe.

The makers of Britannia, however, clearly take Roman descriptions of Druids as the basis for their portrayal. This is problematic in that the Romans were intent on conquering the Celts and as part of that agenda they needed to demonise their intellectual caste, the Druids, since they represented the only organisation in Celtic society capable of uniting warring tribes to resist Roman plans for conquest. To this end, Roman writers characterised Druids as the most bloodthirsty members of a savage race, accusing them of all manner of barbarity, including nailing people’s entrails to trees and making them run around them, divining the future from their death throes. Greek writers, by contrast, who were well acquainted with the Celts, described Druids as wise philosophers, eloquent speakers and counsellors to kings. From what I can gather, Britannia over-emphasises the brutality of Druids for dramatic effect while downplaying the other activities for which Druids were noted, like storytelling, genealogy, healing, music, poetry and the aforementioned counselling.

Druid by Takeda11 on DeviantArtIt seems that the Druids in Britannia are also portrayed as regular drug users. There is absolutely no evidence for this. On the contrary, I suspect that the inhabitants of 1st century CE Britain would have felt much that same as the more recent inhabitants of Siberia, i.e. that any Druid or shaman who needed drugs to access the Otherworld was pretty lousy at their job.

On the whole, then, it looks as though the portrayal of Druids in Britannia revels in dope and gore to excess and ignores most of the other priestly functions Druids fulfilled in their communities. This should go down well in America, where, for historical reasons, the Roman view of Druids as barbaric monsters has always been prevalent.

Image result for britannia skyIncidentally, I note that Britannia Druids are shown gathering in a sort of two storey Stonehenge (above). This will doubtless revive the old argument about Druids being a Celtic priesthood and the Celts not arriving in Britain until many centuries after such megalithic monuments were abandoned. Here again, all may not be as it seems. Julius Caesar, one of the few classical writers who actually met Druids, was told by them that the Druid faith originated in Britain (Gallic Wars, bk.6, ch.13). Celtic culture, on the other hand, originated in central Europe. Assuming Caesar’s informants were accurately reporting their tradition and that Caesar accurately passed on their words, this means that Druids were not Celtic in origin, but native to Britain before Celtic culture arrived here. In which case, as many reputable archaeologists have argued, it is possible that Druids were directly descended from those who built and used Stonehenge and other monuments. There were Iron Age shrines in southern Britain which, like many of their megalithic predecessors, consisted of timber circles enclosed by earthwork banks and ditches, arguing for some continuity of tradition. Iron Age and Romano-British finds at megalithic sites such as the Medway tomb-shrines show that they continued to be visited, though for what reasons we can only speculate. The Iron Age hill fort known as Vespasian's Camp lies a little over a mile from Stonehenge, a short stroll away and Iron Age and Romano-British pottery and other artefacts have been found within the henge. It seems impossible to believe that Druids would not re-use at least some of the stone circles built by their, and our, ancestors. It is hard to imagine that they would not have felt the same sense of ancestral connection and simple wonder that we ourselves feel when we visit such places, even harder to believe that they would simply ignore them.

I’ll probably watch Britannia when it comes out on dvd. After all, when Emma Restall Orr and I (left) sat on a bench watching the rough, grey winter sea at Eastbourne way back in the 1990s, discussing the future direction of the British Druid Order, we decided to make it our goal to bring sex, fear and death back into Druidry. In Britannia, we may have found an ally. In any case, a show that uses Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ as a theme tune can’t be all bad…

Histories of ages past,
unenlightened shadows cast
down through all eternity
the crying of humanity.
Twas then when a hurdy gurdy man
come singing songs of love….”

Greywolf /|\