The Witch – A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present: Interview with Professor Ronald Hutton

'The Magic Circle' by John William Waterhouse, 1886.
This article was published in New Dawn Special Issue Vol 11 No 4 (August 2017)

A leading academic in the field of Neopaganism, Witchcraft, and Druidry, Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol. During the 1990s, he produced a string of books dealing with historical paganism, folklore and contemporary paganism in Britain: The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1991), The Rise and Fall of Merry England (1994), The Stations of the Sun (1996) and The Triumph of the Moon (1999), the last of which has come to be praised as a seminal text in Pagan studies. 

Since the millennium, he has published Shamans (2001), a collection of essays on folklore and paganism, Witches, Druids and King Arthur (2003) and then two books on the role of the Druids in the British imagination, The Druids (2007) and Blood and Mistletoe (2009). Professor Hutton has also appeared on British television and radio, and his documentaries include A Very British Witchcraft (2013) and Professor Hutton’s Curiosities (2013).

His new book, The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present, employs underused anthropological and ethnographical findings to revise entirely our understanding of the witch around the world. He illuminates a fascinating ancient and global context to argue that prehistoric beliefs and experience of broader magical practices such as pre-Christian religions and shamanism provided the milieu within which European witchcraft developed and the perspective from which they were viewed.

He also looks at specific local and popular traditions across Europe and the Near East, such as ceremonial magic, beliefs about ghosts and night-spirits, Satanism, fairies, animal familiars, and the reasons behind witchcraft’s prevalence in Celtic-speaking areas. 

The following interview was conducted via email in June 2017. 

Prof. Ronald Hutton

Professor Hutton, would you mind telling us how you came to write your new book, The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present?

I have long been interested in the reasons behind the notorious early modern European witch hunts, and from an early stage it seemed to me that they could only be properly understood and explained in a much broader context than had usually been employed hitherto. That context would include ancient and global perspectives. This idea also connected neatly with a lot of my other interests – in ancient paganism, in ritual magic, in shamanism, and so on – and from 1990 onward I slowly began accumulating the different expertise needed for it. 

On the way, I realised how great a problem witch hunting still was, in the developing world, and became involved in the public debate over whether to revive laws against witchcraft in South Africa. I came to hope that a book which explained the roots of the fear of witchcraft might play a part in eradicating that fear. 

In 2014 I was ready to write it, and got the Leverhulme Trust to fund a team of researchers to work upon aspects of the subject with me, for three years. It was eight strong, including an artist, entirely female apart from me and a quarter self-identified as Pagan, and aimed to produce three books, four doctoral theses, five symposia and the art works. My own book was the largest of those outputs and completed punctually before the project concluded in February 2017.

You have achieved a considerable level of acceptance and appreciation among the broader contemporary neo-pagan and Wiccan communities – how do you imagine they will receive The Witch?

It is not really written for them, but for the wider reading world, although I would hope that they benefit from it. It is designed as a contribution to ending the fear of witchcraft, and so the persecution of people as witches, across the world, in the manner in which humanity has combined to eliminate diseases such as smallpox, polio and leprosy. This need is still especially acute in the developing world, but has resonances even in the West, where the early modern stereotype of Satan-worshipping witches that produced the great witch hunts underlay the Satanic Ritual Abuse scares of the 1980s and 1990s and fuels much of the Deliverance Ministry in contemporary North America. 

More generally, the name ‘witch’ still inspires a vague but intense fear and hostility among many ordinary people in the West which makes life uncomfortable for Pagans who use it for themselves. I want to show where this comes from, and why it is not necessary. In addition, however, Pagans of all kinds will probably find much of direct interest in my book, such as attitudes to witchcraft in the ancient world, the origins of the Western tradition of ritual magic, the history of the idea of the Wild Hunt, and the relationships between witches and fairies, and witches and animals.

You are well-known and greatly appreciated for the series of books in which you explore all manner of different aspects of the Pagan world, from Druidry to King Arthur, shamanism, and now witches. Your 1999 volume, The Triumph of the Moon, is practically required reading in Wiccan circles! What is it that you think drew you to explore these areas in the first place, and how do you find it sits alongside your, shall we say, more mainstream work as a historian?

I was brought up as a Pagan, in a non-denominational, Victorian and Edwardian sense, of regarding the Greek and Roman pagan classics as the best introduction to the nature of divinity and sensing an immanent sanctity in the land, and especially natural places. This meant that when I first encountered Wicca, in my teens, I liked it at once and found it made perfect sense as a mystery religion within the wider and vaguer paganism to which I adhered. I did not start my career as a historian by working on such subjects, as I knew that I would never get a job if I did, but on more mainstream political history, in areas which I also genuinely enjoyed. Once firmly established, however, I felt able to turn to paganism, witchcraft and magic at last. In doing so I underestimated both the security of my position and the blind hostility to anything associated with witchcraft that even members of my own highly educated profession could manifest. 

Although I never publicly identified myself as a Wiccan, or any other kind of Pagan, my identification with both, when I published Triumph did me enormous damage. An American historian visiting Cambridge at that time asked my colleagues what I was doing and was told that he could forget about me, as I had gone mad, become a witch and left the profession. The student newspaper at my own university denounced me as a satanic witch and warned people against me. Research grants and invitations to speak – the lifeblood of my profession – dried up, and my career stalled. However, I stood firm and carried on writing, and after some years it all died down. My progress in my profession – which had initially been unusually rapid – resumed, and I received its highest honours, such as election to the British Academy, to both history and archaeology sections, in the end. 

What would you say to anyone who was troubled by the somewhat pejorative definitions of the term ‘witch’ that you open the discussion in your book with? (For example, leading anthropologist Rodney Needham’s 1978 summing up of the witch as “someone who causes harm to others by mystical means.”)

I start the book by apologising to anybody offended by my employment of that pejorative term as my standard one for the rest of the contents. The problem is that four different definitions of the word ‘witch’ are circulating in the current world, and they all have some legitimacy. The first is somebody who uses magic to harm others. The second is somebody who uses magic for any means, positive or negative, with the positive often distinguished by calling those practitioners ‘good’ or ‘white’ witches. The third is a practitioner of a surviving or recreated Pagan nature religion. The fourth is a strong and independent woman victimised by the forces of patriarchy. The first two are old, the last two modern, but still established for well over a hundred years. Pagans generally use one or all of the last three, but most of British society, at all levels, still uses the first, and equivalent terms and attitudes are found all over the world. I am trying to stop belief in such a figure for good, or rather am striving to make a contribution to a long, long struggle of re-education which will achieve that work.

Down the ages – and from culture-to-culture – there have been innumerable men who pursued the study and practice of everything from alchemy to Kabbalah and ceremonial magic: all those wizards and warlocks, sorcerers and shamans – and yet the stereotype of the ‘witch’ has almost always remained defiantly female. Why is that, do you think?

This is because most Europeans – in sharp contrast to many other peoples across the world, and some in Europe itself (most of these in the far north and east of the continent) – have traditionally seen women as the more magical sex. They believed that men can learn magic, from books or teachers, but women just have it in them. That is why women were traditionally brought in by ancient Europeans, whether Greeks, Romans, Germans or Celtic-speakers, when established religious and magical processes could not cope – as prophetesses, seeresses, sibyls and pythonesses. It also means they were more readily suspected of witchcraft, because magic was regarded as inherent in them and could be used spontaneously.

Are you aware of recent movies like Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) – which, even though it does not reference the Salem Witch Trials directly, makes use of a comparable setting? Or even Anna Biller’s comedy-horror-thriller, The Love Witch (2016)? What are your thoughts on films like these (if any), and why the figure of the witch continues to interest and intrigue, or even inspire fear, still?

The enduring power of the figure of the witch lies in the very versatility it now possesses, to which I referred above. She (or sometimes he) can represent the ultimate force of evil, or of good, or the ultimate victim, and the apotheosis of either power or vulnerability. So she is very, very exciting for modern creative minds. Of the specific works mentioned, I have not seen The Love Witch. I did see The Witch, in a special screening arranged for me by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which wanted me to review it for Jonathan Ross’s national radio show. I thought that the costumes, acting, and period setting were all excellent, but the moral message completely haphazard, being sacrificed to a series of dramatic effects. At the end, the story-line seemed completely to reaffirm the early modern stereotype of the satanic witch – of a conspiracy of witches who have sworn allegiance to (an objectively real) Devil and are given superhuman powers, in turn, with which to torment and murder humans – and so effectively to justify the witch hunts. You may gather that this is not a message which resonates well with me.

What is next for Professor Hutton, professionally and personally?

In literary terms, I am busy writing the extras which I did not put into The Witch: essays on the meaning of the word, on images of witches and cunning folk in British fiction between 1800 and 1940, and on the place of the Wild Hunt in the modern British imagination. The first two are already finished, but I am not sure yet whether to put them separately into academic journals or to publish them together as part of a collection of essays from Yale University Press. A proper revised second edition of Triumph of the Moon is due, twenty years after the original. My main next project, which will take years, will however be to return to my original power base of mainstream political history and produce a study of Oliver Cromwell. In contrast to subjects concerning paganism and magic, it is really easy to get leave and other support systems for a topic like that, and I have already been granted them. As for my professional and personal future, I shall as usual work with whatever opportunities fate sends me.

Professor Hutton, thank you so much for your time!

Thank you very much for yours.

The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present (Yale University Press) is available from all good bookstores.
This article was published in New Dawn Special Issue Vol 11 No 4.
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About the Author

Emma Doeve is a changeling child from the Lost World of what were formerly the Dutch East Indies, twice removed. Her specialist areas of interest include Austin Osman Spare and the Women Surrealists, particularly Leonora Carrington. Her work has recently appeared in Women of Babalon (Black Moon Publishing, 2015) and with her partner, Matthew Levi Stevens, she is currently working on a Grimoire inspired by the Graeco-Egyptian Magical Papyri. She can be contacted via www.whollybooks.wordpress.com. MATTHEW LEVI STEVENS is the author of The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs (Mandrake, 2014), A Way With Words (with C. J. Bradbury Robinson, WhollyBooks, 2013) and A Moving Target: Encounters with William Burroughs (Beat Scene Press, 2012.) He has contributed to a number of online and print periodicals, including Beatdom, The Cauldron, Chaosphere, The Modern Review, New Dawn, Reality Sandwich and Reality Studio. He can be contacted via http://whollybooks.wordpress.com.

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