The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe

The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe

Eva Pocs

The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. Series Edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. Vol. 1: Biblical and Pagan Societies. By Frederick H. Cryer and Marie-Louise Thomsen. London: Athlone Press, 2001. 168 pp. 50.00 [pounds sterling] (hbk), 17.99 [pounds sterling] (pbk). ISBN 0-485-89001-1 (hbk), 0-485-89101-8 (pbk)

The penultimate volume of this six-volume series presents the most archaic “roots” of European witchcraft, a subject that has been intensively studied in the past few decades. The two major sections of the volume point to those “roots” of European culture that have the earliest written documentation: Mesopotamian and Jewish (Old Testament) and Syrian-Palestinian magic. Like the second volume of the series, on Greco-Roman magic and witchcraft, this volume is somewhat out of place, having little direct connection to the contents of the other volumes: what is understood today to be the study of European witchcraft. The most characteristic forms of this kind of witchcraft–that was found in most of medieval and early modern Europe and in places survived into the twentieth century–were associated with a distinctive social constellation: the closed, self-sufficient village whose ideology, beliefs, and folklore regulated the norms of the community. Nonetheless, setting aside the difficulties of defining witchcraft or magic, it can be said that the volumes dealing with earlier periods have much to do with the ideas and rituals of what is defined as medieval-modern European witchcraft. The authors of the volumes on ancient witchcraft and magic do not belong to the virtual clan of historian-anthropologist-folklorist students of witchcraft; they study ancient Near Eastern texts relating to magic and divination through philological methods, but simultaneously write as fully-armoured historians about the socio-historical contexts of magic and witchcraft. It becomes clear that even under different social circumstances, many concrete precursors to the constituents of European magic and witchcraft can be found in the ancient cultures under scrutiny. The historical continuity can be traced from fragments of texts and rituals through the well-known routes of transmission of ancient magic into Christian culture.

As one of the authors says, the book also contributes to the current renewed interest in magic. For this reason too, it is interesting to provide a scientific overview of the roots of these beliefs. Both sections clearly delineate the distinctive constellations of magic and witchcraft, and their relationships to religion and science. Royal, clerical, and medical magic was performed within the framework of royal cults and played a role in power struggles. The everyday kind of magic affected the daily life of ordinary people.

The first section, dealing with Mesopotamian magic, stresses the similarities to modern European rituals of healing and exorcism. It also identifies the most important difference: at the time magic was not in opposition to official religion, but rather was intertwined with it, although there was also a forbidden and quasi-persecuted form of witchcraft, which points to historical similarities. There is a detailed introduction to the Sumerian-Akkadian magical texts; to concrete manifestations, methods, and objects of black magic; and in some cases also to the legal framework of witchcraft (court cases). For the researcher looking for “roots,” the rituals described in diagnostic handbooks and the “Maqlu” series are of special interest, such as the famous Zikurudu rite of black magic or one of the forms of exorcism against “sent” demons still known in contemporary Eastern Europe. The intertwining of religion and magic is shown by the invocations to gods of magic and witchcraft (Istar, Dumuzi). We are also informed of the variety of problems caused by witchcraft: illness, impotence, bad reputation before the king or the gods. Based on a wealth of source materials, the author informs us about purificatory rites, apotropaic objects, anti-witchcraft rituals, medical prescriptions, and about the practitioners of anti-witchcraft–namely, healing exorcists and doctors.

In the final chapters on Mesopotamian magic and witchcraft, the author discusses everyday magic and phenomena belonging to the magical sphere of religion. This includes various practices of love magic (the first love charm dates from 2200 BC), as well as a variety of other phenomena: rules of behaviour, cleanliness, ethical rules, avoidance of inauspicious days, illnesses caused by transgressions against taboos, illness demons, omens, divination, necromancy, astrology, and so on. All these are presented within a loose framework of ideas, beliefs, and rituals relating to healing and causing illness, and their place within religious systems may not always be clear for a reader not familiar with the history of religion. In any case, we get an extremely complex image of magic as something that permeates the entire religious sphere; thus the expert who is not a student of Antiquity, but rather of later phases of European witchcraft, can get an insight into the problems of deciphering texts.

The second part deals with magic and witchcraft in Syria-Palestine and the Old Testament. According to Cryer’s introduction, this area gains its special importance as the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity and as the inspiration for Islam. The introduction presents some of the key research questions, such as the problem of the Bible as a research topic, source material and actual historical background, as well as the distinctive relationship of magic and religion, the enigma of the Old Testament injunction against magic, the role of stories of miracles (and magic). A detailed discussion of the social context of magic throws light upon magic’s role in the religious hierarchy. In the magical practices of the Jews, who left behind far fewer texts, a very important role is given to omens imparted in an ecstatic state, divine revelations, dreams, as well as curses, oaths, ordeals, and divination. Many sources refer to the practitioners or carriers of these–prophets and priests–but there are far fewer traces of “real,” active magic and witchcraft, or anti-witchcraft rituals and exorcisms. The author discusses the possible causes of this difference while at the same time demonstrating the presence of certain Mesopotamian influences in Jewish magic. In comparison with the previous section, this one is especially important for the student of the historical aspects of European culture: much can be learned about the place of magic within the religious hierarchy, and the practice and practitioners of rituals alike.

Eva Pocs, University of Pecs, Hungary

COPYRIGHT 2004 Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group