Best non-fiction books about witches
December 4, 2016 8:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for readable, if not informative, non-fiction books about witches.

My Google-Fu is failing me. I get so much about the Salem Witch Trials and how to do kitchen magic, but that's not what I'm looking for. What I want is some good history and culture, not so much about the witch scares, but who they were and what they did. What did their cultures think about them? How did they practice? Bonus points for non-Western cultures.

To give you an idea of what I'm looking for, here's some history books I've enjoyed recently:

Banvard's Folly, by Paul Collins
Longitude and most of the works of Dava Sobel
Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell

And I've got Witches of America, by Alex Mar checked out.
posted by gc to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
haven't had a chance to read it myself, but I've been meaning to check out Pam Grossman's What is a Witch.
posted by celestine at 9:15 PM on December 4, 2016

If you are okay with academic texts there is lots of anthropological and historical work on this.

Here's the Oxford bibliography on the subject, mostly anthropology (apologies if it's paywalled--memail me for a copy).

Not on that list: an ethnography of 1980s witches in the UK, Persuasions of the Witch's Craft" by Tanya Luhrmann. I haven't read it myself, but should be fairly readable.
posted by col_pogo at 9:57 PM on December 4, 2016

NY Library made a reading list when the movie The Witch came out earlier this year.
posted by mannequito at 10:00 PM on December 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Erica Jong's Witches
posted by brujita at 10:09 PM on December 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Margot Adler's Drawing Down The Moon.
posted by cleroy at 3:47 AM on December 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you're interested in the history of the development of modern neopagan witchcraft in Britain, the bible (ha) on this is Ronald Hutton's "The Triumph of the Moon" (1999).

For developments in the U.S., a nice update from Margot Adler is "Her Hidden Children" by Chas Clifton (2005?).
posted by heatherlogan at 4:44 AM on December 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed Stacy Schiff's The Witches
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:29 AM on December 5, 2016

Best answer: Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic.
posted by effluvia at 5:45 AM on December 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Came here to recommend Religion and the Decline of Magic, but effluvia beat me to it.

The Night Battles by Carlo Ginzburg is an interesting read, from a very different part of Europe than England. Ginzburg however has been criticized for buying into the Murray hypothesis too much. His book The Cheese and the Worms explores similar themes.

As mentioned above, The Triumph the Moon is a must-read for researching the modern pagan movement, which people who today call themselves "witches" are part of.
posted by chaoticgood at 6:00 AM on December 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Carol Karlsen's The Devil in the Shape of a Woman : Witchcraft in Colonial New England is a fairly readable study (for a layperson) on Colonial American witchcraft fears and trials. It's really good in picking out the general characteristics that got women targeted as witches and the social anxieties that underscored witchcraft allegations.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:49 AM on December 5, 2016

Best answer: This will whet your appetite!
I know the author; she's a research and detail hound.
posted by BostonTerrier at 9:20 AM on December 5, 2016

Malcolm Gaskill, Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Owen Davies, Magic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2012).
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:37 AM on December 5, 2016

Maybe The Penguin Book of Witches. Contemporary texts about witches, including trials, so provides a perspective from the times.
posted by paduasoy at 10:12 AM on December 5, 2016

There's a basic premise in your question that recent historical research has upturned: the idea that there were actually witches in premodern Europe. When you ask about "who they were and what they did," you presume that there is a "they" to be talked about. That idea was promoted heavily by the late anthropologist Margaret Murray, who in a series of books and articles argued that the witches targeted by witch-hunters from the 15th through the 17th century represented the survival of pre-Christian pagan religion.

That view is no longer taken seriously by historians. Carlo Ginzburg's The Night Battles is about a group of "good witches" in northeastern Italy (Friuli) who were born with the caul and who fought evil witches in dreams to protect the crops. But they were thoroughly Christian, even if the Inquisition thought that they were heretical. Ginzburg's later work, Ecstasies, appears to revive part of the Murray thesis (as chaoticgood notes), but its reception has been much more controversial.

Beyond Keith Thomas (good but now dated), Karlsen, Gaskill, and Davies, I'd recommend Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbours, as a general overview; and James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness, for the history of witchcraft in England. Owen Davies has also written a book on "cunning folk," women and men reputed to have a knack for healing, finding lost objects, etc., who did exist and were sometimes caught up in witchcraft persecutions.

A couple very good books from the 1970s on the origins of the fantasy of diabolical witchcraft are still worth reading: Norman Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons (1975), and Richard Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials: Their Foundation in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500 (1976). Their authors (independently of one another) rewrote the history of witchcraft persecution by discovering that documents purportedly reporting on trials of witches in medieval Toulouse were forgeries.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:09 AM on December 5, 2016 [7 favorites]

Note that many of the more explicitly proselytizing books will assume the existence of and reflect a significant emotional investment in this idea of continuous tradition. It's always seemed a bit odd to me, since most modern/neo-paganism I'm familiar with also places such a heavy emphasis on the individual, personal encounter/relationship with the divine as opposed to the formal hierarchies and theology of the established churches of the West. So many religions rely on a charismatic founder figure with some form of unique access to or participation in the divine or enlightenment, or at least a history of a special relationship of the particular group of believers with the divine, so it's understandable why they make claims of great antiquity of tradition, but if one set of beliefs could probably dispense with those and remain theologically consistent, it's neo-paganism.

Religion and the Decline of Magic is a fun, thick-descriptive read even if it is now out of date. Historians rarely write in the Keith Thomas style anymore, and even if that's for good reasons, it can be enjoyable to experience.
posted by praemunire at 12:01 PM on December 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

One more note: it's very definitely not light reading—daunting even for professional historians, indeed—but if you want to know why belief in diabolical witchcraft made sense to early modern European elites, Stuart Clark's book Thinking with Demons is essential reading.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:42 PM on December 5, 2016

Response by poster: There's a basic premise in your question that recent historical research has upturned: the idea that there were actually witches in premodern Europe. When you ask about "who they were and what they did," you presume that there is a "they" to be talked about.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:09 AM on December 5

That's a good call. I had assumed that there was something to the image we have of witches now, small grains here or there borrowed from left over strains of paganism. That there must be actual people behind the myths. (I also have to admit, I have to figure there was someone like Granny Weatherwax somewhere).

Of course, outside of Europe is different. I suppose what I'm looking for isn't just witches, but healers, mystics, "witch doctors", voodoo practitioners, the people that would make "spells" and "curses" and that commanded respect because they generally got stuff done. Sorry for the confusion before. I think the idea was too deep in my head and I hadn't gotten it out fully.
posted by gc at 9:21 PM on December 5, 2016

Best answer: In Europe, the cunning folk were by and large the kind of figure you have in mind. Owen Davies's 2003 book is a good introduction to them. There's also a good article (though aimed at professionals) by Willem de Blécourt, "Witch Doctors, Soothsayers and Priests: On Cunning Folk in European Historiography and Tradition," Social History, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Oct. 1994): 285-303.

I should have taken a little more time with my earlier response. There were individuals, mostly women but in many places, men too, who were labeled witches by their neighbors—not just in large-scale panics, but also on a day-to-day basis. In Witches and Neighbours, Robin Briggs examines some of the social dynamics involved. John Demos does the same for New England witches in Entertaining Satan. Some of those accused witches might have come to believe the accusations. What didn't exist was what the Christian elites feared: a unified group of Satan-worshiping witches who were opposed to Christendom, or for that matter, any unified groups of people who self-identified as witches (beyond a few fringe cases like Ginzburg's Benandanti). Individual witches were seen as having similar behaviors and beliefs because folklore, and later, reports on confessions during witch trials, taught people who witches were and how they were supposed to behave.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:42 PM on December 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: brianogilvie, the Cunning Folk sounds exactly like what I've been looking for, in terms of putting a name to an idea. Thanks!
posted by gc at 9:52 PM on December 6, 2016

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