October 05, 2004

The Science of Witchcraft

Occasionally, this blog has entertained discussions on the order of "Was Wahhabism the Islamic Reformation?" (short answer from me: no), or does Islam need a Pope (ditto), or, conversely, does Islam need a Luther, (again, no) etc. etc. My own poor contribution to such debates is that of a not-particularly-well-educated layman; I find it difficult from such a great remove to make sweeping recommendations to or generalizations about one billion souls scattered over a few dozen polities. But there is something more to it than that -- which perhaps I can better indicate with a brief sketch on a work and an author I know only from a few excerpts, an altogether unsatisfactory biographical sketch, one trenchant essay, collected in the aforementioned The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft, and from the influence he exerted over an intellectual adversary separated from him by an ocean and a century.

Reginald Scot, a minor landholder, an occasional office holder in the English parliament, author of the first English manual on growing hops, set out, at some point in the 1570s, to refute the "witchmongers," as he called them -- those bent on persecuting witches. Scot took it for granted that he would have to see for himself. He conducted interviews with judges, jurors, witnesses, and confessed witches; he experimented with various sleight-of-hand and optical illusions -- to show what nature was capable of -- and he tried, following the spells in various condemned books, to conjure demons. His reliance on empirical methods had a salutory effect. In the 1690s, when Cotton Mather attempted to prove that Scot was wrong and that the power of witchcraft was indeed real, he relied not on the authority of scripture but rather his own observations and treatments of afflicted persons.

Reading Scot, reading about Scot (the essay on him in The Damned Art is by Sydney Anglo), one feels at once that he's stating the obvious; it is worth remembering he is often stating it for the first time. Not always -- he argued that witch trials, by their very nature and the special procedures they allowed, were antithetical to English custom. More importantly, he seems to be the first to point out that most of the witches -- impoverished old women with no financial or material support -- made a rather bad bargain selling their souls to the devil, and getting not a nickel for it. If the devil indeed was the prince of this world, his treatment of the hired help was appalling. (And if witches did have access to demonic power, why didn't they use it to procure themselves a comfortable income along with doing away with the neighbors' livestock?) His descriptions of various magic tricks -- including a magician may make it appear that he has lopped off his own head -- while perhaps tedious for us to read are often the first explanations of how such tricks were done.

But what makes the Discoverie of Witchcraft so interesting is that Scot not only relied on empiricism to make his case, he turned to the authoritative Scriptures themselves, and strove to reinterpret them -- to, through superior exegesis, rescue the Word of God from the witchmongers. Scot noted that the early translators of the Bible had a disturbing tendency to translate various words -- including those for "malefactor, poisoners, cheats, false soothsayers, and lying pseudo-magicians," to quote Anglo's fine essay, as "witch."

But Scot also argued that, had the Witch of Endor been able to raise Samuel from the dead, doesn't that diminish Christ's raising of Lazarus? And if witches are indeed capable of harnessing supernatural power to effect the course of events on earth, doesn't that diminish Christ's miracles?

Scot changed the terms of the debate -- in his questioning of the witchmongers, he reordered the universe, eliminating the agency of supernatural powers from everyday affairs and leaving us in a state in which Cotton Mather lamented, "We shall come to have no Christ but a light within, and no Heaven but a frame of mind."

Most of us, I daresay, would not share Mather's gloom.

Posted by Ideofact at October 5, 2004 11:42 PM

This is very interesting.

It almost seems that the witchcraft stories were made up of the same material as most urban legends. That is, they appeared possible given the societal presuppositions, and they became fixed against what later appeared as "commonsense". Also, some strange occurence, when re-told, might become a tall tale which was accepted among the folklore as certain proof that witches actually did exist, and had evil power at their beck and call.

Of course, some people could argue that this does not disprove the influence of the supernatural in the natural--but others, who have sub-consciously accepted the existence of witches as an integral part of their picture of the supernatural/natural interaction, would feel their worldview being destroyed.

Posted by: steve h at October 8, 2004 09:45 AM

One more thought--I agree and disagree with Scot about the story of the witch at Endor.

If I remember right, the references surrounding that story are to "spiritists" or "diviners" who communicate with the spirit of a dead person, not to people who actually raise the dead.

It reads more like a ghost-story than a back-from-the-dead story. It also appears that whatever necromancy (or trickery) the woman usually practiced, something else happened--and she was surprised.

Given the context of Hebrew scripture, it is hard to conclude that resurrection from the dead was being talked about in that story. The Hebrew scriptures do tell of two resurrections that I can remember (both events were connected to Elisha, if I remember rightly). Whether or not you accept those stories as historical, it is hard to accept that the event at Endor involved any claim of resurrection from the dead.

However, I agree with Scot--that story is the only Scriptural reference to anything akin to witchcraft, as he was referring to.

And it is pretty weak, as a story of a person sellling themselves to an evil power. It looks more like a person selling their abilities, whether fabricated or real, to other people.

Posted by: steve h at October 8, 2004 09:56 AM

Doubting witchcraft seems to have been happening through Europe then: Montaigne at about the same time said that of witch trials that we rated our hypotheses pretty highly if we roasted people alive for them.

Posted by: Roger at October 8, 2004 12:23 PM