Book Review

Witchcraft by Pennethorne Hughes

a delicious 1960s Pelican about the dark arts...

I’m having a good week, which is unfamiliar. I did some work in real life yesterday (as opposed to teaching English to Chinese children online, which is my most regular source of income atm), and I didn’t get much sleep. I worked at a wedding, which is something I used to do all the time a couple of years ago, and I always used to find them depressing and stressful.

I think I’ve always been pro-Love, and back when I was in an unhappy relationship spending every weekend watching happy people doing love made me feel fucking awful. I often used to hide to cry, and I was always glad when there was a tone of discord amongst the guests. I didn’t feel that yesterday, which was lovely. Though I verbally criticised the speeches and the drinks choices to my colleagues (and mentally criticised some of the outfits), I didn’t find myself willing visible unhappiness. It’s nice, innit, to have a healthy response to a stranger’s wedding? Back in those tough Islington afternoons it always felt very pointed, y’know, people rubbing their optimism in my romantically-moribund face. I remember, in Spring 2017, weeping the entire 40 minute bike ride home from Brixton to Islington after working a wedding of a very happy couple, unable to foresee any future where I could love or be loved. Hahaha. Poor younger me. I’m well into Love now. I’ve had love poetry published and everything.

So, yes, my love life is AOK, I’m not as anxious about my professional life as I was last week, and I spent a few days reading a wonderful, bizarre, 1960s Pelican non-fiction book on Witchcraft. As previously discussed, my mood is related to what I’m reading, and – thankfully – this little essay was an absolute fucking blast.

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the somewhat sinister Pennethorne Hughes

Pennethorne Hughes – despite having a name that makes him sound like a witch – is, alas, a long-dead academic, who opens this little paperback (a 1965 reissue of a text he first published in 1952) in a classically boisterous Pelican manner: by recounting the time he and some Oxford undergraduate buddies (including an unnamed latterly-prominent politician) tried and failed to summon a demon. Although there is some pretty gross, racist dismissal of the witchcraft traditions of everywhere other than Western Europe, Hughes is ultimately respectful towards the [white] Pagans he is writing about.

Witchcraft is a chronological study narrating the evolution of witchcraft from its fertility-worshipping origins through to the way in which we think of it now, i.e. the same way in which it was villainised in the 17th century in the UK and the Puritan colonisers of North America. Hughes explores how genuine knowledge of the healing properties of plants and basic first aid (especially midwifery) contributed to the mystique of wise elders, and how regular crackdowns of the Christian states of Europe would push underground the behaviours of pre-Catholic worship. What was once “country wisdom” became black devilish heresy; what was once harmless – or helpful – use of medicines became taboo. Once something is taboo, it becomes more attractive, and with the awful tortures and perverted minds of those doing the torturing, witchcraft became something that had implicit rebellious power.

The lengths the Church [and states] went to to suppress witchcraft, the argument ran, made it clear that there was something in it. To murder and to torture and to immolate Christian bodies are all gross sins: if the representatives of the clergy are doing this, then it must be right, right?

Torture forced confessions of imagined satanic rites, and these confessions were used as methodological blueprints by later would-be witches. The more people who were accused of witchcraft (and to be accused usually meant to be executed), the more people seemed to think witchcraft was real. Thus, a nasty cycle grew and grew and grew until basically the overzealous witch killers were told to stop and then, eventually, science caught up with itself and everyone calmed down as Western Europe entered the “Enlightenment”, when people of Pagan beliefs became figures of fun rather than figures of evil.

Witchcraft goes on to explore the pop-cultural echoes of witchcraft and witch-hunting (though its publication is just before there was anything interesting to say tbh) as well as the similarities between European pagan witchcraft and indigenous religions from other parts of the world. As a book, yes, in many ways it’s problematically of its time, but it’s about abuse and oppression received by people with non-State-mandated faiths, and Hughes is surprisingly tolerant of them [when they’re white]. Though this book is a bit too staid to directly state there’s nothing any less ludicrous about the tenets of Christianity than the beliefs held – or attributed to be held – by “witches”, it indirectly makes this plain.

It’s an interesting and intriguing book, full of quotations from historical documents from across Western Europe, exploring the similarities and differences between various folk traditions and beliefs. Witchcraft affords a blinkered but unmocking exploration of simultaneous religious structures that existed, repressed and subversive, in Europe across the last millennium. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Right. I’m gonna walk my dog, make a big salad and then sit down to watch the 1968 Vincent Price film The Witch-Finder General. G’night, buddies!!!


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