The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic by Owen Davies

The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic
Edited by Owen Davies
Oxford University Press, 2017

wp36 oxford illustrated history of magic review cover

Review by Jason Mankey.

This is a challenging — and mostly academic — look at magical traditions over the last 3,000 years. I’m a huge fan of Davies’ contributions to magical history, especially Grimoires: A History of Magical Books and Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History, and this volume is a solid supplement to that work. But because it’s a collection featuring several different scholars, the tone throughout is uneven, and some essays feel far more relevant and enlightening than others.

While reading Witchcraft and Magic, I couldn’t stop wondering who the intended audience for this book is. It’s far too academic for casual readers, and probably not in-depth enough for academics. Topics I was intimately familiar with (such as the emergence of the Modern Craft) felt like they were given short shrift, while things I was less interested in seemed to take up more space. Often times I felt as I were reading a text-book designed for college students enrolled in Religious Studies 101.

Readers looking for a history of Modern Witchcraft along the lines of Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon will be mightily disappointed. Modern spiritual Witchcraft covers just eight or so pages, with no mention of Victor and Cora Anderson nor of the rise of “Traditional Witchcraft” over the last ten or so years.

I also found a chapter on “Witchcraft and Magic in Anthropology” somewhat uncomfortable. Perhaps it was fashionable to call the magic of the Azande people of Sudan “witchcraft” in the 1920’s, but I think we can do better today. I’m sure they have their own name for it, and translating native interpretations of magic to simply “witchcraft” feels limiting and reads as a desire to place everything in a Euro-centric box). We can and should do better.

Despite these criticisms, there are things about this book that I genuinely enjoyed. It’s an absolutely beautiful book: the images alone make this book worth flipping through, with many far outside the realm of “the usual” pictures one sees in books and articles about magical traditions.

The book is at its best when discussing the modern period, and the majority of the text covers the last 600 years or so. I once read that it takes about thirty years for new academic information to reach the masses, and anyone looking for up to date academic interpretations of Europe and North America’s Witch Trials will find them here. Davies’ own chapter on “The World of Popular Magic” is a welcome antidote to much of the unscholarly information currently floating around about cunning-craft and other forms of folk magic.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for an academic approach to society’s views on magic and witchcraft over the last several hundred years.

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