The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present

Book Review

By Ronald Hutton; reviewed by Richard Brown, published 24th May 2018

The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present, Ronald Hutton, Yale University Press, 2017, 360pp., £25 hard, ISBN 978-0-300-22904-2

Why have societies across the globe feared witchcraft? This book delves deeply into its context, beliefs and origins in Europe's and global history.  Witches came to prominence and often a painful death – in early modern Europe, yet their origins are much more geographically diverse and historically deep.

In this landmark book, Ronald Hutton traces witchcraft from the ancient world to the early-modern state. He also looks at local and popular traditions across Europe and the Near East such as ceremonial magic, belief about ghosts and night spirits, Satanism, fairies, animal familiars and the reasons behind witchcraft’s prevalence in Celtic-speaking areas. This book sets the notorious European witch trials in the widest and deepest possible perspective and traces the major historiographical developments of witchcraft.

Hutton, a renowned expert on ancient, medieval, and modern paganism and witchcraft beliefs, combines Anglo-American and continental scholarly approaches to examine attitudes on witchcraft and the treatment of suspected witches across the world, including in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Australia, and North and South America, and from ancient pagan times to current interpretations. His fresh anthropological and ethnographical approach focuses on cultural inheritance and change while considering shamanism, folk religion, the range of witch trials, and how the fear of witchcraft might be eradicated. A fascinating book to read.