The Witch-Cult in Western Europe/Book reviews/American Anthropologist
|←Contents||Review of The Witch-Cult in Western Europe
|American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 24, No. 4 (October-December, 1922), pp. 476-478.|
This personal bias of Miss Murray's lends an interesting touch to what would otherwise be dull and somewhat Rabelaisian material. Unfortunately, however, this opinion of the author is altogether lacking in scientific foundation or caution. The basis of the writer's persuasion on this subject must be sought in a naïve desire for originality combined with an over-facile intuition. Perhaps something of her frame of mind in composing the book may be gleaned from the statement in which she decries "the unfortunate belief of modern writers in the capacity of women for hysteria." Surely, the present volume presents ample proofs of hysteria both in the past and in the present.
The belief in witchcraft was not confined to the civilized people of mediaeval times, as the present writer would lead us to suppose. It is rather a superstition often found among primitive peoples and intimately bound up with the life of the savage. Miss Kingsley writes that more deaths were caused by the persecution of witches in West Africa than by the entire slave trade. In this region, as elsewhere, most of the mortality, as well as plagues and blighted crops, were thought to be caused by witches. Hence, the accusation and the execution of witches were well-nigh simultaneous. It is hardly conceivable that Miss Murray would care to argue that certain West African Negroes belonged to a witch cult which was drawn up in opposition to the organized fetish religion of the locality.
If now we consider the practices of which the unfortunate victims of fanaticism in Western Europe were falsely accused, it can readily be ascertained that certain of these were of early origin, and had in fact been in vogue among primitive people, while others were entirely drawn from the realms of a popular distorted imagination. A third class were merely inversions of orthodox Christian ceremonials. Miss Murray has displayed the most fantastic lack of discrimination in her evaluation of the validity of the court testimony given at the witch trials. She has attached equal significance to the accusations that the accused rode on broomsticks, ate children, had sexual intercourse with the devil, turned away from Christianity, kept "fetish" animals, and similar misdemeanors.
Sumner has clearly pointed out that no importance whatsoever should be attached to the fact that the accused people freely confessed their complicity in these crimes, for the belief in witchcraft was the popular philosophy of the times. Certain women evidently desired to be witches. Hysterical women, for example, courted the notoriety and power, and loved the consciousness of causing fear, in spite of the risk attached. Many perfectly sound-minded and innocent women could not be sure that they were not witches. They had dreams suggested by the popular notions, or had suffered from nervous affections which fell in with the popular superstitions.
There is, however, a certain amount of anthropological interest to be obtained from the various beliefs centered around the mediaeval witchcraft delusion. Thus cannibalism, human sacrifice, and the eating of the man-god are primitive ceremonials. It is not to be believed, however, that the civilized people of Europe ever practised these customs. Nevertheless, it is not unusual to accuse unpopular personages of such offenses. Thus the Jews of Russia, as well as the so-called witches, have constantly been under the accusation of child-eating. Riding on broomsticks, the possession of familiar spirits, the power to blight crops and injure animals and people, the carnal intercourse with demons, are beliefs of varying antiquity. None of them have ever been founded on the remotest facts, yet some of them are still accepted as truths by the ignorant masses of Europe today.
The third variety of witchcraft ritual, as mentioned above, may be classed under the inverted Christianity heading. Thus the Witches' Sabbath, the homage to the devil, the use of urine as a substitute for holy water, the peculiar burning of candles, and the still more peculiar partaking of the Devil's sacrament; what are these customs but a mockery of the Christian ritual? Why should Miss Murray seek to refer these rites back to paganism when their true explanation is so apparent?
It would be needless to discuss further the bewildering mass of false inferences which Miss Murray has extracted from her material. If, on the one hand, it may startle the casual reader to be told that the devil had intercourse with his worshippers by means of artificial phalli, this blunder pales in comparison with the author's later presumption in accusing Joan of Arc of actual witchcraft. Truly, if history is to receive any benefit from anthropology, as it well may, books of the present nature cannot be regarded as furthering the interest of such a movement.
It may be that the present book has a certain amount of scientific value inasfar as it has organized and presented the evidence of the witch trials in Western Europe. But the main thesis of the book, that "witchcraft was a definite religion with beliefs, ritual, and organization as highly developed as that of any other cult in the world" remains, and will always remain, unproven.
- The frequent presence of local anaesthesia and supernumerary nipples on the witches gives some light as to their mental instability.
|This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).|