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 witchcraft comes ultimately from evidence given at witch trials and from confessions, usually made under torture. These trials were conducted in such a fashion as to make all evidence from them highly suspect, as can be seen by reading Chapter 14 of Giuseppe Bonomo’s full and detailed study La Caccia alle Streghe (1959). The refusal of a witch to confess, even under torture, was attributed to diabolic magic (maleficia taciturnitatis) and was therefore proof of her guilt (heads I win, tails you lose). This, however, may only mean that there were many innocent victims, and not necessarily that there were no guilty ones.

In trying to decide about the reality of witchcraft it is best to consider separately two distinct activities attributed to witches: first, individual acts of magic, nearly always maleficent, performed with diabolic aid; secondly, regular meetings, as of an organized sect, at which the Devil was worshipped, sexual orgies took place, and so forth.

With regard to individual acts of magic, there can be little doubt that many people did try to produce magical effects. In any society in which the possibility of such effects is generally accepted there are bound to be people who claim to produce them, because they can thereby easily make money and gain power. Of the effects supposedly produced by witches some had evidently nothing to do with their magic: storms, for example, or epidemic diseases of cattle, crops and babies; but such disasters do occur frequently and irregularly, and until science had provided convincing physical explanations of them, there was no way certainly to disprove a witch’s claim to be their cause. Another class of effects may, however, often have been in fact produced by maleficent magic, namely psychological or psychosomatic ones on human beings. It is now generally admitted that by hypnosis, by suggestion, or the infliction of prolonged emotional strain, one can produce pathological states of body as well as of mind. It seems to me quite likely that by such means witches could and did cause illnesses. Another field in which they may have been genuinely effective is that of sex. They were constantly accused of causing impotence, especially on marriage nights; and it is highly probable that, merely by inducing intense anxiety in a nervous and credulous victim, they could achieve this.


Skepticism about the effectiveness of black magic has always existed. One particularly cogent argument against the claims of witchcraft is put forward by a speaker in Ulrich Molitoris’s Dialogus de pythonicis mulieribus (1489): if witches can really cause thunderstorms and destroy cattle and men, why do princes bother to maintain armies instead of just employing one witch to devastate the enemy’s country? William the Conqueror did in fact advance on Ely with a witch at the head of his troops; but she was no use at all. Another kind of skepticism appears after the Reformation. Protestants who wish to cleanse Christianity of all magical practices are naturally led to deny the effectiveness of black magic, which in so many instances is the obverse of Christian magic. Johann Wier, for example, famous for his protests against witch burning in his De Praestigiis Daemonum (1566), condemns many Catholic practices quite as vehemently as he does witchcraft—both are pernicious superstitions producing only illusory effects. If baptized bells do not really repel storms, then neither can witches cause them.

The reality of witches’ covens, the existence of something like an organized religious sect, is much more doubtful. Whereas individual witches and magicians, both maleficent and beneficent, have a history going back to remote antiquity, it is not until the fourteenth century that covens attain their classic form. During the early Middle Ages there are mentions of large nocturnal gatherings of women who fly through the air on beasts in the company of a goddess called Diana or Herodias, and visit houses where they feast. From the twelfth century onwards these meetings seem to become more criminal—babies are kidnapped and eaten—and the Devil presides as well as the goddess.

The earliest mention of the “Society of Diana” is in the Canon Episcopi, a document claiming to be a decree of the Council of Ancyra of 314, but in fact dating probably from the ninth century. The Canon was included by Gratian in his Decretum in the twelfth century, whereby it acquired great authority. Now in this and other documents of the earlier Middle Ages, belief in the reality of these meetings is condemned as a pagan superstition, as is the belief that witches have any supernatural powers. Up to the twelfth century the official view of the Church was that witches’ covens and their maleficent magic had no reality; they, were diabolic hallucinations, survivals of pagan superstition, which must be firmly suppressed. In spite of St. Thomas Aquinas, in spite of all the Papal Bulls of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries which accept the reality of every kind of black magic, the Canon Episcopi was not forgotten and had to be explained away by those who wished to justify the trials and execution of witches. For if witches were merely being deluded by the Devil, they would have been suffering from diabolic possession, for which the remedy is not burning but exorcism—even their adoration of the Devil and renunciation of Christianity would have been illusory, since these took place at covens. The usual method of dealing with the Canon was to claim that modern witches were a recent development, dating from only about 1400, and that therefore its prescriptions did not apply to them.

Later opponents of the reality of covens based themselves not so much on the Canon as on scientific theory and even experiment. The theory was that the unguent used by witches to anoint themselves in order to fly to their meetings was a narcotic producing profound sleep and vivid dreams, so that the witch herself believed that she had flown vast distances, danced with the Devil, sucked babies’ blood, and so forth. Della Porta, in his Magia Naturalis (1558), recounts how an obliging witch, having modestly asked him and his friends to leave the room, stripped herself naked and anointed herself all over. Della Porta watched through a crack in the door. She immediately fell into a deep sleep, from which even violent beating could not awaken her. When she came to, she told him all about the coven she had gone to, and could not be convinced this was only a dream, even when shown the bruises she had received while asleep. Gassendi later tried a similar, experiment with equally successful results. Señor Baroja rather charmingly apologizes for not having tried the experiment on himself.


Which side are we to take? Are we to follow Margaret Murray (The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, 1921), and, having purged her of too much Golden Bough, look for more evidence of a surviving pagan mystery religion or of a secret Manichaean cult, worshipping the evil God of this world? Or shall we take the less exciting course of accepting the Canon Episcopi, Alciati, Cardano, Della Porta, Montaigne, and the admirably skeptical Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar y Frías, whose investigations into witchcraft during the early seventeenth century are reported by Señor Baroja? I think the latter course will be a safer and more fruitful one for future investigations into the history of witchcraft. If a careful sifting of the evidence, particularly of the kind provided by trained contemporary investigators, such as Salazar, does show traces of a real secret cult, then so much the better. Another way to decide the question would be for Señor Baroja to bring himself to try the unguent experiment, though I must admit that it is unfortunate that an essential ingredient is baby’s fat.

This Issue

July 15, 1965