Book Review: Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival: A Magical Anthropology by Mélusine Draco (Suzanne Ruthven)

I was attracted to this book by the title – ‘magical anthropology’. You’d think I’d know better by now, eh? After all Obelix first gave me this advice when I was but a wee lad – just ‘cos an inn is called the ‘Warm and Welcome’ it does not mean one is sure to receive a warm and welcome reception. At all, at all.

Asterix in Britain warm and welcome

After 175 pages I’m not sure I am any wiser about what exactly ‘magical anthropology’ is, or even if I want to know anymore. The book though is ambitious and novel in scope. It seeks to combine scholarly methods with recent archaeological discoveries and a ‘quality of fascination’ to provide a sympathetic ‘approach to the evolution of witchcraft as a historical reality’. In this it has certain thematic overlays with Lee Morgan’s excellent A Deed Without a Name: Unearthing the Legacy of Traditional Witchcraft  (which I review here). Sadly, that is where the comparison largely stops.

Ms Draco runs us through the development of Witchcraft, as she sees it, a chapter a time, each focused on a different historical period and theme. She is clearly running with and writing within the myth of witchcraft, or ‘modern Old Craft’ as she calls it, as a continued practice or attitude towards spiritual connection and magic from ancient times. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Myths are powerful and wonderful can form the connective tissue between known historical realities and evidence to provide a broad sweep and panorama of history. Sadly, this seldom occurs and Draco’s method of connection and joining of known history (of which she seems to have read much) is disjointed and speculative. Often she acknowledges her speculation but then proceeds to build the next tier of her argument upon it anyway. The result is a history that feels uneasy and rings a few clangers to anyone critically examining this topic.

One of the main problems with this book is succinctly shown in its last words when the author is responding to a quotation from Germaine Greer:

‘The people who thought witches had occult powers were deluded; the witches who thought they had occult powers were equally deluded. Witches do not exist …’  I can assure Ms Greer that I (and many of my kind) are not delusional, and to quote the immortal words of Jean-Paul Sartre: ‘I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am … (p. 175).

Ms Draco fails to realise, or refuses to realise, that Greer is using the word ‘witchcraft’ to refer to some other phenomena than she refers to by that word – and Greer’s use is normative. And therein lies the author’s biggest problem: there is no clear definition or boundaries drawn around her topics.  Witchcraft on one page refers to ‘Old Craft’ or ‘the Old Ways’, and on another to the historical witch trials, and on another to cunning craft.

Naturally, as in many books promoting the modern myth of a pre-Gardnerian witchcraft, the ‘Old Craft’ is not a religion, more a set of powers and ways. Yet, with the Old Craft,

…it is still possible to honour the gods as they were honoured within their own time and place within Britain’s long history of religious and cultural development. (p. 13).

And on this topic,  Paganism is early on implicitly defined as uniquely ‘British':

Anything that is non-Christian in origin is immediately embraced as ‘pagan’, despite the fact that much of it had little to do with the indigenous people of the British Isles. (p. 4).

Ouch! This is an obvious mistake or a serious racial bias on behalf of the author. Either way it should have been picked up and corrected by the editors. Yet later in the book, paganism is described in the standard manner for Neo-Pagan publications. Now all this could be minor if it was not for irritating and maddening fact that Ms Draco quotes academics who present a different, and generally academically accepted, view. Once an author  uses terms like ‘anthropology’ in a title and quotes leading academic authorities on various subjects, I am sorry but they have crossed the line and into the realm of scholarly rigour. Again, sadly Draco comes up short in this respect.

For example, she quotes Owen Davies accurately on the fact that cunning folk were mostly Christian but viewed as diabolical witches by some church authorities. Yet elsewhere she conflates the two groups:

Local witches (or cunning folk) were still consulted on matters of medicine and healing, and it was only when they used their powers to the detriment of their neighbours that the law stepped in. (p. 93).

This occurs throughout the book. Accepted and well researched academic views are subtly, and I doubt consciously, twisted into a world view where ‘the Old Ways’ or the ‘old Craft’ has existed since time immemorial, consisting of a few special folk with special powers, conflated with shamanism (which itself is conflated with animism), and even if they did not call themselves witches, they really were.

A modern Old Witch feeding her book reviewers

I should have seen this coming early on. On pages 7-9 the author elucidates several core magical principles – the use of visualization and correspondences, sexual polarity and subjective experiences being mistaken for objective – which all seem quite modern to me, and I wager to most academics on the subject. Yet, she repeats at the end of each elucidation the almost propaganda like refrain,  “In ancient times, the priesthood understood this – even if the common man did not.” (emphasis in the original).

OK. But…what exact ‘ancient times’? What ancient priesthood? Is the author referring to all ‘ancient priesthoods’ or only those from the British Isles, where her focus lies. And if the latter, again what priesthood?  And how does she know this (there being bugger all records of such a beast)? In my experience broad and sweeping statements and assertions like this tend to originate  from someone working within a myth without realising they are doing so. The planes are confused.

To be fair though, the myth of the ‘modern old Craft’ is occasionally presented as gorgeously and as outré as a radical faery at the Mardi Gras:

In all honesty, there is little altruistic about Old Craft. It can best be described as having a tribal mentality in that it believes in protecting its own, but with no obligation to mankind in general. In view of the periodic backlashes, even in more modern times, this is not surprising. ‘Trust None!’ is the creed of Old Craft and it has preserved its secrecy by not divulging its rites and practices. No matter what a publisher’s blurb may claim, there are no authentic Old Craft rituals, rites of passages, spells, charms or pathworkings in print for one simple reason … Any Old Crafter committing any of these to paper for public scrutiny would be in breach of their own Initiatory Oath – and this still carries the ultimate penalty for treachery and betrayal.” (p.173)

The ultimate penalty… ooh… :)

One of the funniest moments in the book occurs when the author is citing examples of how the ‘modern Old Craft’ came to the public awareness and chooses Michael Howard’s report of the now famous speech of Doreen Valiente‘s where she refers to surviving fragments of ‘old Craft’ in Britain. Howard specifically mentions Valiente’s contact with the Cardells and Robert Cochrane (p163).  As any Wiccan history will show, the Cardells were uninformed charlatans and Cochrane’s lineage highly suspect with him making stuff up as he went along, a view that Valiente herself reached in later years.

While the book does have a list of sources for each chapter, there are no actual references to works and pages cited. And in some cases there’s not even that:

It has also been suggested that so powerful was the lure of the female pagan elements, that in England during the mid 1300s, special prominence was given to the Virgin Mary, who became more and more important in the popular devotions of the late Middle Ages, as is demonstrated by the art of the time. Was this a conscious move by the Church to elevate Mary to rival the ‘goddess’ in the minds of the people? Nearly all the important pagan festivals had been incorporated into the Church calendar, so why should the clergy be above exchanging the Earth Mother for Mary, the Mother of God? How many old churches contain a simple lady chapel to the side of the main altar? Mary was not divine and hardly warrants a separate altar, unless it was to offer an alternative Christian female image – and Mary was the only suitable female they had to hand to neutralise pagan influences. (pp97-98)

Suggested by whom? And where? Marian arts certainly increased in Europe around this time, but I am not sure they did in England – I could be mistaken and would love to be shown this. And how can this idea of a possible ‘conscious move’ by the Church make sense when ‘the Goddess’, particularly  the ‘Earth mother’ is a mostly a MODERN literary and Pagan concept? Any surviving ‘Pagan’ religious sensibilities and ‘influences’ would have been focused on particular pagan deities.

Overall, this is not a book I would recommend unless you want to uncritically live the myth of ‘modern old Craft’. And plenty do. It is a disappointing offering from Moon Books after their publication of the wonderful A Deed Without a Name: Unearthing the Legacy of Traditional Witchcraft by Lee Morgan.

Draco, Mélusine (2013). Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival: A Magical Anthropology . Moon Books. Kindle Edition.

Amazon | Amazon UK | Book Depository | Moon Books

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6 comments

  1. PombagirasPolly · September 3, 2013

    i don’t know, i liked it for is errors, but not is non academic referencing that just made me grind my teeht. i like it becasue i like to ague with books, and i have to say it did make me think about how else things could of gone..and weather or not i thought that was a thing or a part of the romantic mythological history that every generation seems to create about ‘traditional witchcraft’ however they see that as being. i reviewed it on my blogg a couple weeks ago..ifin you wanna go read..

    also it was a little weird to see your blog update email arrive in my inbox.. cause i think my review is titled almost the same.. *laughs*

  2. Philip Grier · September 3, 2013

    Hmm. I wonder is ms Ruthven a trained anthropologist? If she is, the first source she would go to would be the works of Evans-Pritchard, particularly his classic work: Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. If she has not mentioned him, it is unlikely she is an anthropologist and the title is a misnomer. I am glad it was you bought this book and not me.

  3. Peregrin · September 3, 2013

    Hi Polly,

    I did see your review and it helped me to decide to buy it :)

  4. MvdV · September 3, 2013

    The ‘Anticlimax’ line as well maybe? Had a chortle, gotta love Asterix!

  5. PombagirasPolly · September 3, 2013

    oh no now i feel kinda bad.. *laughs*.. although i am also glad that you don’t like it, so to speak.. it gives balance *waves hands about*..
    :D

  6. Matt Stone · September 3, 2013

    Peregrin, I appreciate you taking the effort to give such a thoughtful critique

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