Fire burn, and caldron bubble

Dear Ronald,

The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present” is an ambitious and detailed research on a wide variety of beliefs about witches, as well as on the many ways those beliefs may have shaped and given rise to the Western witch trials.

The book starts with an outline of the main characteristics of the European witch and the many ways these can be found worldwide. The focus lies on the definition of a witch as a person who harms others through the use of magic. Witchcraft is seen as an internal threat to a community, as well as one of the very few embodiments of female power. As such, it was taken overtime as a form of social disruption which should be resisted and, sometimes, purged. The idea of a ‘witch’ herds together a wide spectrum of social anxieties, expressed in an array of different traditions and religions.

Through this perspective, you draw upon historical, anthropological and ethnographic studies, to understand how the witch figure evolved over time, as well as how pre-Christian Western beliefs and Eastern traditions influenced our conceptions of witchcraft. You summarise the studies on witchcraft from the ancient to the early modern period, making use of anthropological and historical research – and often merging them.

The book’s historical and geographical scope is wide. Firstly, you explore how different societies around the world and in different times conceived of and treated witches. Your research includes a variety of witchcraft traditions found in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Australia, North and South America.

Then, you analyse the historical development of witchcraft in Europe and in the Near East, from ancient times to the medieval and early modern periods. You also examine Christianity and its impact on the perception and later persecution of witches, pointing out to the advent of early modern witch hunts as a symptom of the crisis in European post-Reformation Christianity. Finally, you narrow down your focus and explore the ways in which ancient Western and Eastern beliefs shaped witchcraft in Britain.

I particularly enjoyed the way you alternate between a very wide range of beliefs and a very narrow one, moving with ease through cultural and historical continuities and disruptions. The parallels you draw between worldwide traditions point out to an understanding of the early modern witch trials as defensive measures set in the context of a wide range of ancient traditions (Mesopotamian, Persian, Graeco-Roman, Germanic, Celtic…), and established by Christianity to cope with the challenges to its public credibility during the post-Reformation times.

For me, the scope of your book is both its strength and its weakness. As interesting and illuminating as the anthropological studies can be, you often use them as if the traditions they analyse had evolved completely devoid of context and background. The anthropological reports are used not as a means to test or challenge your hypothesis, but only to prove it. You often overlook the fact that the non-Western societies that serve as point of comparison to your study had already experienced exchanges with the West, as well as received the influx of so-called ‘Western’ cultural elements – in many cases, those societies had even undergone colonialization and Christianisation. In this sense, your depiction of some non-Western traditions often lacks deeper contextualisation, and the reasoning keeps circling around its own tail –  the non-Western traditions that you use to explain or analyse the Western notions of witchcraft are often the ones which had already been influenced by Western elements; moreover, they are often depicted through a Western perspective.

Despite its circularity, the book provides a good overview of the scholarship on the subject. I think it will please readers who are in search of a wider picture about witch trials, as well as the ones interested in local traditions of witchcraft. Moreover, it sets out new lines of research, and one should not overlook the vitality of the discussions your book gives rise to – like fire burning, and caldron bubbling.

Yours truly,


Witch, by Ivan Generalic

A dark Cave. In the middle, a Caldron boiling. Thunder.

Enter the three Witches.

1 WITCH.  Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.
2 WITCH.  Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin’d.
3 WITCH.  Harpier cries:—’tis time! ’tis time!
1 WITCH.  Round about the caldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot!
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH.  Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
3 WITCH.  Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf;
Witches’ mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark;
Root of hemlock digg’d i the dark;
Liver of blaspheming Jew;
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse;
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips;
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,—
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingrediants of our caldron.
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH.  Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.” – William Shakespeare, Macbeth

About the book

2 thoughts on “Fire burn, and caldron bubble

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