A History of Witchcraft

Jeffrey B. Russell
Brooks Alexander
Publishing House: 
Thames & Hudson
Average: 10 (1 vote)

A historian and a witch cooperated to write a book on the history of Witchcraft. Within 200 pages, 110 pictures, small font size, glossy paper, pen resistant paper, this book is full of historical information about Witchcraft. It's actually a revised edition of 1980 updated with new content, articles, and bibliography. Everyone who practices witchcraft and magick will enjoy this book. It's not a fast read, but it flows well and it will satisfy the reader who seeks to know the history of Witchcraft from the Middle Ages till today. It is not a complete history book on Witchcraft. However, its view is limited as there is no mention of real Medieval and Renaissance Witchcraft, only on the witch trials and the fantasies of the educated people at that time.

In this book, the wrong ideas are presented, so that the reader is informed and then the right ideas are presented. It consists of 11 chapters. It contains valuable information on the mass hysteria from the 15th to the 18th century, with great illustrations, comments, books, and incidents to better present the clues and the beliefs of these people. There is also critical thinking and the writers put you in the atmosphere of these centuries. Then it moves to the return of Witchcraft through Wicca in Britain and America, leading us to the neopagan movement. The last chapters are very enjoyable and concise presenting what happened in the recent 70 years.

The Material Of The Book

Basic History Of European Witchcraft From the Middle Ages To Our Age

In the first chapter, we see the subject of sorcery, misconceptions from churches and scientists, terminology (Wicca, wizard, warlock, sorcery, theurgy, magi, witch doctor), and syncretism between European witchcraft and African witchcraft. We also see the problem of evil demons and satan in ancient cults, Judaism, and Christianity. Besides the idea of seeing Lilitu on page 30 (it's probably Ishtar or Ereshigkal), the Indoeuropean theory, which appears again in another book (what is happening to foreign universities?) and the lack of presentation of sorcery through ancient Hellenic texts, the text is easily read, flows well, each paragraph has a similar length with its previous one.

Chapter two examines the roots of European witchcraft. It starts with the misconception of the sabbat during the Middle Ages. Then we see how people interpret European Witchcraft. Let's see those views:

  • Never existed.
  • Never existed but it was an invention of the Christian church to scare people on paganism.
  • Murray's theory on an ancient fertility cult, which continued the Middle Ages and reached our period.
  • As a blend of ancient theology.

The authors disagree with Murray's theory and they write 4 arguments, so I assume that they accept the final view on witchcraft as a blend of ancient theology. But, they don't write about ancient Hellenic, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian witchcraft, which are the roots of European Witchcraft, they focus on the Middle Ages. This thing is followed for the rest of the book.

The authors continue by presenting what non-Witches believed about the Sabbat and how the Christian church started to teach that any spirit and deity that is not Christian comes from the devil. Witches who used natural forces and unexpected powers seemed to be the followers of the devil, just because they had the knowledge and the power to change a situation with means that Christianity could not understand.

Then, we see the subject of the Wild Hunt, but it is stated that Diana was the leader of the Hunt, which is not true and has nothing to do with the Goddess. It was a common belief in the Middle Ages. Also, we read that "Hecate is a form of Diana" and they associate Hekate with malevolent magick. Well, at this point, I have to state that more and more modern books on Witchcraft tend to present wrong information on Hekate and this is the case here. For the church, witches were responsible for dead crops and children and the Wild Hunt was one of these fantasies. No one thought at that time that both Hekate and Artemis (Diana in Roman religion) were goddesses of birth and protectors of children. For me, the witch-craze or mass-hysteria wasn't just an excuse to kill people but also proof that priests in the West were fully covered with ignorance to anything related to ancient religions.

We see how the festivals of the old religions of Europe became festivals of Christianity and now, these festivals are again celebrations of Witchcraft. Then we see the subject of familiars, the spirits that helped witches. The writers assume that they were nature spirits and the church interpreted them as minor demons. It's weird that they don't examine the relationship between animals and witches.


The Mass Hysteria

At the end of the chapter, we see how the Synod of Rome in 743 a.C. transferred the characteristics of evil spirits to witches and then from the Canon Episcopi of 900 a.C. how Diana is equated with the devil, witches with the devil, the sabbat myth, etc. Such announcements not only approved the hysteria but made it much worse to the conscious mind of medieval people. Not only they were terrible lies and sick fantasies, but innocent people were killed because of these views on Witchcraft and ancient cults. The next chapter continues with the inquisitions.

During the Middle Ages, people believed that witches fly during the night to meed the devil, kiss his ass, have orgies with each other, mock Christianity, eat babies, sexually seduce men, destroy the animals and the crops and make a pact with the devil. This activity led the Christian priests of the west to make Witchcraft not a law crime, but a religious crime, a heresy. In 1022 a.C. at the trial of Orleans in France witches were killed because they believed in dualism and from this trial we see that Witchcraft is considered heresy. At the same trial, witches were accused of sex orgies, night rituals, devil-worshipping, and blasphemy of the church. Since Witches worshipped the devil they should be executed. That's what people believed at that time. Educated people wrote books with tales, in which witches were people of evil and devil worshippers. So, again, we can see that during the Middle Ages, ignorance was feeding the mass hysteria against witchcraft. Scholastic philosophers propagated the idea that witches make pacts with the devil, have sex with him etc. In England, Witchcraft was considered a crime of law, but from the 12th century, it appeared t be a heresy and from the 15th-century witches were burned. Around the 13th century, the inquisitions started to establish trials for witches.

At that point, we see that the writers of the book support that witches submit to incubi by their will, which is not true at all. Witches don't worship demons neither they do have sex with them.

Moving on with the witch-craze and mass-hysteria, in chapter 4 we see how it continues to the rest of the 15th and 16th centuries and why it becomes a common thing. Educated people continued to spread ill ideas on Witchcraft through their texts, books etc. and the invention of printing made things worse for innocent people. They compare this situation with Nazism and Stalinism and they are absolutely right. Theologians propagated the idea that Witchcraft is the worst of heresies and in 1486 we have Malleus Maleficarum appearing... with absolutely evil things to come. From the 14th century, even bishops were killed with the accusation of Witchcraft and in 1313 the Order of Temple was accused of corruption and devil-worshipping. We notice the increase of witch trials in France and Germany, the accusation of witchcraft for political reasons like the case of St. Joan of Arc, people confessing (sic) after being tortured, and special torture houses for the witches. The authors describe the "swimming", "bible weight" and strappado and not other tortures. 

During the 16th century with the creation and rise of Protestantism the persuasions and the killings increased. The Caroline Code imposed heavier penalties for the witches. If something bad happened, like a child of a kid, a change in the weather, an illness, the solution was to accuse anyone of witchcraft. In the book Discours des Sorciers we read that all witches should be burned. Remember that this is the time we call Renaissance! Although it was advertised as a period of knowledge, this doesn't seem to be true. 600 people were burnt after torture in the house that was created to torture witches, at Bamberg. As years were passing, the mass hysteria was growing in the west.

The Situation In The British Isles

Chapter 5 describes the situation in the British Isles, which was better than it was in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Low Countries. Witchcraft in the UK was not associated with devil-worshipping, on the contrary, evil witchcraft was a law crime. The great John Dee was an advisor and secret agent of queen Elizabeth I. Malleus Maleficarum had not translated into English and the hysteria against witchcraft has not arrived in the British Isles. King James I of England and King James VI of Scotland started the witch trials due to their fear of witchcraft. In 1597 king James published Daemonologie calling his pupils to find the enemies of Christ and in his version of the Bible, he used the word witch in a free way. But, cunning men and women were working against evil witchcraft in the British Isles. After 1640 the persecutions started, in a period of social anxiety with the Civil War and the appearance of the unsuccessful lawyer Matthew Hopkins, the so-called "witchfinder". The witch-craze starts with him and we see the transfer of the same ideas as we see in western Europe. In 1666 Joseph Glanvill writes similar things and the trials continue until the 18th century.

The Salem Village Trials

In America, the most severe incident is found on Salem Village, where 19 innocent people were killed and 100 people were imprisoned, due to a mass hysteria created by a trial, in which an Indian slave woman Tituba said that she was working with the devil. The kids and mentally ill adults were influenced by the trial and they were accusing each other. The doctor couldn't find anything to support that the girls were sick, so it must have been witchcraft. As usual, confessions happened during torture.

A General Idea

What we have seen so far is that when something bad happened, death of a child, an illness, bad weather it must have been witches behind it, so people were accused and confessed their alliance with the devil to die faster than die during tortures. Most of these people were women, who were unmarried or widowed. It didn't matter if these people were poor or rich. The authors notice that physicians, students, and lawyers were never accused. Another thing is that the mass hysteria was created and propagated by educated people and it passed into literature too.

The End Of Hysteria

In Sweeden in the town of Mora 87 people were killed with the accusation of witchcraft in one trial in 1669. Witches in the countryside continued to practice more than people in towns, but the trials were diminished in the middle of the 17th century. So, people were not killed as witches in England after 1684, after 1962 in America, after 1727 in Scotland, after 1745 in France, after 1775 in Germany. However, the law against witchcraft was replaced in 1951 and then we see the appearance of Gerald Gardner and the religion of Wicca. People start to calm down after the end of the 17th century in western Europe. Of course, witches existed and practiced their beliefs, but they were not accused as devil-worshippers and thus heretics. Educated people started to believe that witchcraft was never real and so, nobody could accuse people of using it. People started to accept that the accusations against witches and the acts that were attributed to witches were fantasies. New books were written with this thesis and the world view of the west started to change. Even the witch trials were seen as a weapon of the devil to destroy Christianity.


Witchcraft Comes To The Scene

At the beginning of the 19th-century, people started to write the truth about witchcraft, away from the fear of being accused as devil-worshippers.

  • In 1828 Karl Ernst Jarcke writes that witchcraft is a natural religion.
  • In 1830 Sir Walter Scott writes that witchcraft had been misunderstood in the Middle Ages.
  • In 1839 Franz-Josef Mone writes that Witchcraft is a cult of Dionysos and Hekate.
  • Jules Michelet writes that it is an ancient fertility cult, the same theory we see in the modern revival.
  • Occultists and secret societies which practice witchcraft like the Golden Dawn and the OTO gain popularity at the end of the century and in the 20th century. Personally, I believe they should have emphasized the influence and the work of the Golden Dawn, as it was the main factor in creating other modern witchcraft traditions and secret societies.

In chapter 8 we see that witches start to appear in public, through articles, tv, books. Witchcraft has not only survived and revived but it made a comeback. An exception is Germany, in which witch trials continued and the victims were mostly women. In chapter 9 we see the modern influences of writers that continued the current of 19th century, the Romantic movement. The initial idea was that Witchcraft is an old religion, that predated Christianity. Michelet wrote a best-seller book, La Sorciere in 1862 and we read that witchcraft was a pagan survival and a fertility cult based in nature. American folklorist Godfrey Leland, writer of 55 books published Aradia, in which he insisted about a fertility pagan religion that survived in Italy during the Middle Ages and Renaissance until his days. He attributed this book to a witch called Maddalena. The authors don't believe his story and personally, I agree with them. The third most influential person is Egyptologist Margaret Murray, who wrote books about the witch cult of Europe and their god. She described a fertility cult that Christianity considered to be diabolical and thus the witch trials. Murray was considered valid at her time, but later her theories were rejected by other historians. The last author was poet and novelist Robert Graves, who wrote the White Goddess from mania within 3 weeks. It was published in 1948 and three years later we have the public appearance of Wicca. Graves didn't write history, but his views or he channeled ideas in his book, which influenced Wicca.


Gerald Gardner was one of those people who actually gave life in Witchcraft during the half of the 20th century and his work continues up until this day to Europe and America. There are many good books on the history of Wicca and on this one we see a synopsis of the main events that took place to the creation and the increase of Wicca's popularity. Gardner lived in Ceylon, Malaysia, India and he studied their religions. He returned to England for his retirement and then he studied Co-Masonry, theosophism, and eventually, he found a coven of witches in New Forest. He was initiated and he created Wicca by mixing elements from the available sources and influences, including Aleister Crowley's writings. He wrote three books on Witchcraft and he draw public attention through articles in the press. His coven gained popularity. He met Doreen Valiente, who reformed the material of Wicca, keeping it real and traditional. From the wide publicity that Garnder brought to Wicca and his coven Valiente and some members left in 1957, which means that the work of her in Gardnerian Wicca lasted 4 years. Garnder continued to work promoting Wicca and he draw many new people to his coven.

After his death, another man, Alex Sanders appeared and he used the power of the press to promote his tradition, which was based in Gardner's, and later he added material from the Golden Dawn and ceremonial magick. In 1967  he married Maxine Morris and together they put up some great shows to attract attention. 

Wicca was introduced to America by Raymond and Rosemary Buckland in 1962, two Gardnerians who started to spread from Long Island. In that continent, people started to mix Wicca with other traditions and their ideas and thus the diversity in Witchcraft became obvious. Buckland created Seax Wicca in 1973 and as more public appearances occurred and more books were written by Gardnerian and Alexandrian witches, more people came to play a significant role. One of them was Zusanna Budapest who blended Wicca with feminism and she created the Women's Spirituality and Dianic Wicca. Starhawk mixed Wicca with Faery Tradition and Dianic and her book, The Spiral Dance formed the mind of many people interested in Witchcraft. American witches blend Wicca with politics and in the land of freedom that worked on their behalf, as they promoted a new agenda for witches. 

America continued to play an important role in the diversity of Witchcraft. Journalist Margot Adler wrote a book on modern Witchcraft and the internet helped Witchcraft to spread and connect people. Witchvox with thousands of articles, people, groups, and shops brought people together. Sadly, Witchvox has been shut down. From the mid-'90s we have the appearance of movies relating to the Craft and the audience is mostly teens. The most notable movie is The Craft, which was seen by millions of people who read books on Witchcraft and applied to covens for membership. Personally, I believe that the series Charmed played an important role to inform people about Witchcraft and delete all the medieval superstitions. Movies were created with the support of real witches and thus promoted a closer approach to reality. Modern Witchcraft is growing and people are more informed. More importantly, there are books from Witches available to anyone who can read them and learn what Witchcraft is and what isn't. Other religions continue to make their propaganda spreading medieval fantasies, but with the internet and books, anyone can search for what is true. The good thing about modern Witchcraft is that people who are intelligent can unite their practice and beliefs with positive ancient beliefs and make a difference in our world.

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