The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #106: Witches

General Introduction
- The end of the season
- On doctoral regalia
- Summer courses
- Slightly less minor internet celebrities
- Ongoing projects

Witches in the Bible
- Saul and the non-witch of Endor
- Necromancy
- Countercultural power
- Not suffering chanters
- Other Ancient Near Eastern prohibitions
- State-sponsored sorcery

Greco-Roman Witches
- Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft
- Outskirts of official society
- Medea the murderess
- Barely controllable feminine power
- Circe the sorceress
- The Golden Ass
- New Testament witches?

Macbeth’s Witches
- The ambiguity of their actions
- Satan or Delphi
- Shakespeare’s modifications of the classical world
- How sexualized are the hags?

- What is it?
- Its role in Faust, Pt. 1
- Farcical parade of ideas
- Black Sabbaths in pop culture

Witch Trials
- As seen by Arthur Miller
- Confessing to different things
- Feminine power without witchcraft
- Is the play any good?
- Other treatments of the witch trials

Fairy Tale Witches
- Filtered through Disney
- How we misremembered Snow White
- Sexuality and the Disney witches
- The Wizard of Oz
- Harry Potter’s non-impact

- A reclaiming of the margin
- Nathan insults Wiccans
- Historicizing Wicca
- Other pop-cultural locations
- Blaming sociology

Witches in the Modern World
- Shall we burn Harry Potter?
- Technology as witchcraft
- The egomaniacal mad scientist
- Historicize, historicize, historicize
- Taking the shortcut


@Hrothgar: Erictho! That was the memory I was trying to recover! Though I learned of her not from Lucan or Lewis, but from Lacy Collison-Morley's 100-year-old "Greek and Roman Ghost Stories": As for NT matters, Simon Magus was excluded from my (inexcusably narrow?) vision for the conversation, since he seems to have played little role in the cultural image of the Witch, though he's certainly a major player in our notion of the Sorcerer. (And we can toss Elymas into that catagory, too.) If I'd thought Simon permissible, I'd have tossed him in, if for no other reason than to go off on a riff about Irenaeus's "Against Heresies" and the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies!


Got it! The reason I couldn't find the Lucan reference is because it actually comes in "the Discarded Image": "It is ... quite possible that Lucan's lengthy account of the abominations practised by Erictho may have had a more than literary, and a most disastrous, influence. Witch-hunting tribunals may have had it in mind.  But since the great period of witch hunts fell after the Middle Ages, I will not here explore the possibility." I remember noticing that the historian and novelist (and former seminarian) Paul Doherty had named a witch Erictho in his "Templar" series. Lucan was pretty widely read in the past -- and is obviously still providing novelists with material! I think Lewis was possibly over-rarting the extent to which the phenomenon was driven by literary factors, however.  I think one also has to take into account sociological factors -- as the fact that witchcraft beliefs were different in England and on the Continent (and in Scotland) suggests. It occurs to me that James I, who considered himself an expert on witches, was a Scot, and was possibly bringing a different conception, and a rather greater urgency, with him from Scotland.  But I'm not an historian and can't even begin to unwrap and examine that possibility.


Thanks.  Interesting episode. A few things did occur to me while listening.  As I think I said, I'm not an English guy: my background is in the sciences, so these are strictly amateur thoughts, but might be worth throwing in. First: on the classical material.  I immediately thought of Lucan.  (I'm actually more familiar with the rather funnier Lucian! But never mind.)  The witch in Pharsalia -- her name escapes me right now -- is a horrific figure.  C. S. Lewis has some interesting comments on this in "Poetry and Prose in the 16th century": I just looked at the book, but can't find the relevant passage, and the index is no help.  Basically, she does filthy things.  Lewis, as I recall, says *the* question is whether anyone ever did such things or whether it was all coming out of Lucan's imagination.  And since later ages probably took Lucan as a true account ... well, you'd get inquisitors asking suspects whether they'd done the things they (the inquisitors) had read about in Lucan, and, under torture, they'd probably say they had.  So witchcraft scares may have been partially driven by literary imaginings. (Lewis is also interesting in this same book on the renaissance interest in both magic and science (comes up also in "The Abolition of Man").  He says something like they were twins: the one that was found to work survived.  (This is the point Michal made later in the podcast.) ) Here we are: I just googled up a text of Pharsalia: "Haggard and loathly with age is the face of the witch ; her awful countenance, overcast with a hellish pallor and weighed down by uncombed locks ..." There we have the "hag-like" image of the witch one of you referred to. Whether or not anyone in mediaeval and renaissance Europe was trying to do anything really sinister I suspect most "witches" were just harmless people who had a few simples and few memorized charms.  I'd think in a Christian society many of the charms probably had a Christian form -- they'd incorporate saints' names and suchlike -- but from the viewpoint of Christian theology would reflect an unacceptably magical view of things -- since the efficacy would be seen as residing in procedures or incantations or objects.  Keith Thomas mentions practices of this sort in his famous "Religion and the Decline of Magic". IIRC, people would do things like save communion wafers and put them in the furrows of ploughed fields in the hope of inducing fertility.  I guess there's a sense in which this is ostensibly Christian but actually in effect betrays magical thinking -- since it assumes that the host will "work" for one's own purposes, efficacy residing in it as an object, rather than its efficacy being according to God's pleasure and happening when taken sincerely and used as His son directed.  (C.f. interesting to see "magical" uses of the host coming up much later in the novel "Dracula" -- as a door sealer!!) * * * * * Secondly: Alan Macfarlane of King's College Cambridge: is interesting on English witchcraft beliefs in "The Culture of Capitalism".  This is an old book from the 1980s.  Macfarlane is an historian as well as a sociologist.  AFAIK, at the time he learnt it sociology was assuming a late emergence of "individualism" across Europe in line with what people like Marx and Weber had asserted (assumed?).  Macfarlane actually found when looking at the historical evidence that "individualism" had emerged much earlier in England and that England had never really had full "feudalism" in the sense in political scientists use the word.  Among many other things, he found that witchcraft beliefs in England were quite different from those in much of the rest of Europe -- even Scotland.  So it wasn't generally believed that gangs of witches met for "witches sabbaths".  In England the witch was conceived as a lone figure -- almost an "English eccentric" only rather more dangerous.  This was probably a reflection of the fact that English society was more individualistic.  The Continental  witchcraft beliefs were a reflection of a more communitarian society -- its imagined inversion. * * * * * Thirdly: on the Salem witch trials.  There's an American historian -- I forget her name -- who has advanced the intriguing theory that what was going on there was ergotamine poisoning.  As you probably know, when the ergot fungus attacks rye, a substance similar to LSD is produced.  Now rye was not a common crop in England, but some was grown in East Anglia, which was where many of the people in the newEngland settlements came from.  This lady says that the years in which the witch scares happened were unusually wet years.  This would have encouraged the ergot fungus.  If someone ate bread made from ergot-tainted rye flour they would experience some very strange symptoms that they might well conclude meant they had been bewitched.  Alternatively, they might start behaving in strange ways that would lead others to think that they were a witch.  There also seems to have been a rather unfortunate witchcraft test in use at the time.  What people would do is bake a "witch cake" and throw it to a dog.  They'd marked it with a suspect's name; or perhaps they just said the name; I can't remember which.  Anyway, the subsequent behaviour of the dog was taken as a test.  I think you can see that if that cake had been made from infected rye, the dog would, indeed, behave pretty strangely, and perhaps die. * * * * * Finally, on New Testament references.  You guys are far better at this than me, but as it happens I just re-read Acts. there's another in that book: Simon Magus.  I just checked the reference: it's chapter 8: "But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one ..." I recall that Bede, who knew what result he wanted at the Synod of Whitby was who very rude about Celtic Christianity, said that the Celtic tonsure was the haircut of Simon Magus and therefore evil and heretical!


dgrubbs Ah, yes, of course.  "Witch" wasn't being used to mean "practitioner of magic".   The episode was, for the most part, meaning specifically a *female* practitioner of magic.  There was some mention of the druids -- or rather of what eccentrics like Dr. William Price of Llantrisant had foisted on their image -- and some talk of Harry Potter, but essentially this was about the ladies.  There was even some reference to what feminists had said. St. Patrick's Breastplate is interesting, isn't it?  Depending on the translation from the Old Irish we have: "... I invoke today all these virtues ... Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids ..." Or: "... I summon today all these powers ... Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards, ..." It would seem that the Ancient Irish thought that the magic a woman might use had some kind of distinctive character. And you'd find that elsewhere (including in Ursula Le Guin's fantasy novels).  I used to work with an archaeologist who remarked once, "Smith's are magical, of course, because they can literally 'draw a sword from a stone [sc. ore]"." It's an amusing comment, although I think even if that's the ultimate origin of the  scene in Malory, it's kind of irrelevant to what Malory was doing. Anyway, wouldn't it be fascinating if one could actually meet someone from Dark Age Ireland?  Wouldn't you like to ask questions such as: "What does smith's magic consist in? does it go beyond the forging of implements?" and "What would (or could) a druid do that a witch wouldn't (or couldn't) -- or vice versa?"