The Old Black Magic

The World of the Witches

by Julio Caro Baroja, translated by O.N.V. Glendinning
University of Chicago, 313 pp., $6.50

This book has many virtues not common in the large literature on witchcraft: the author is evidently not himself a magician; it contains much historical information, some of it hitherto little known, in a small space; it is sane and objective. On the other hand, it has what seem to me two basic defects.

First, its scope is much too great, covering a period from Graeco-Roman antiquity to the eighteenth century, and dealing with many aspects of this sprawling subject. In consequence, there are inevitably many large gaps and many very cursory descriptions and judgments; and the whole book lacks a focus. This could quite easily have been provided if the author had centered his book more firmly on witchcraft in the Basque country, on whose history and folklore he is an expert; the detailed chapters he devotes to this are excellent. Some of the omissions are very serious indeed. Although, for example, he once remarks, in parenthesis, that in the Bible the powers of the “Black Arts” are considered genuine, he makes no reference to Exodus XXII, 18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”), nor to the witch of Endor, nor to the competition between Aaron and Pharaoh’s magicians, all texts which are constantly discussed by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century writers on magic, and he even writes a chapter on diabolic possession without mentioning Christ’s expulsions of devils or Christian formulae of exorcism. Since in Western Europe witchcraft is constantly and intimately connected with Christianity, biblical support for the reality of black magic and for the necessity of stamping it out is of great historical importance, especially after the Reformation when the authority of scripture became so much more crucial.

The second defect is more excusable and more difficult to remedy: the author evades the question of the historical reality of witchcraft. It may be that I have misinterpreted him, and that he assumes either that his readers are too enlightened to suppose that old women ever really caused illnesses or worshipped the Devil, or that, being good Catholics, they must accept at least the possible reality of witchcraft. In any case the question is not explicitly decided, and I think it should have been, because in the historical study of persistent beliefs their objective truth or falsity is relevant to any explanation of their survival. In some cases, this question need not be mentioned: where the belief cannot be proved true or false, e.g., transubstantiation, or where its truth or falsity is now universally admitted, e.g., the belief that bees make honey, as opposed to the once almost equally widespread belief that menstruating women tarnish mirrors by looking in them. Neither of these cases applies to witchcraft. Moreover, from the early Middle Ages to the present day there has been a continuous tradition of disbelief in the reality of witchcraft, even during the great period of witch burning, from the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries.

Nearly all our detailed knowledge of …

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