I’ll say this from get-go: I’m a skeptic first. It’s my upbringing, whatcha gonna do?
But how many coincidences does it take to make someone like me skeptical of skepticism?
I made my travel plans to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic months ago to research in their collection and library on the early modern witches and their familiars. And then it turned out that their 2018 annual conference Dew of Heaven: Ritual Magic, just happened to overlap with the beginning of my stay. And then it also turned out that three of the scholars presenting just happen to do research in the early modern period, and just happen to be more than happy to let me interview them. Well, I know it was my own initiative that got me over here, but all those nice coincidences challenge my skepticism.
But I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. (Not the best policy for a skeptic, but there ya go. Maybe I’m not a very good skeptic, after all.)
The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic’s conference was unlike other academic conferences I’ve attended in that past (well, obviously since most of those conferences are related to studio art practices.) All of the presentations were academically very well researched and presented, covering the theme of ritual magic from ancient Egypt, to the spell books of of the early modern era (I’ll come back to this), to 1970s Wicca, and on to contemporary practices in Quimbanda. Yes, it was quite the range, and incredibly informative!
The thing that struck me about the conference is that it embraced a very broad understanding of the history and practice of magic. That is, magical practices are variable by geography and historic period, and yet there seem to be common touching points that unify many concepts about ‘magic’. I think this would be a no-brainer for most folks attending this conference, but we simply don’t discuss magic in secular society in the United States, which makes these historical and ethnographic considerations quite unexpected (for me, at least).
One of the challenges in researching this documentary has been the framing of ‘truth’ versus ‘belief’. This is relatively concrete when describing misinformation in on-line social networks. It becomes murkier, however, when considering historical practices and understandings of magic and witchcraft, especially from a contemporary, skeptical, and secularist frame of reference. As Dr. Charlotte-Rose Millar pointed out to me once, there are many things for which we can’t know the ‘truth’, but we can know what people believed.
This is a taboo word for many contemporary American academics. (Even among many artists, there’s a sort of special eye-roll reserved for the word ‘belief’.) That’s fine, really, that’s a cultural framework in itself, but it can get in the way when trying to investigate a topic that is, well, utterly shaped by the beliefs of others. While this is a hard thing to quantify, I’d posit not impossible: there are certainly researchers in various fields doing just that (more on this in another blog post).
But I want to get back to Nicholas Christakis’ question about the ‘good witch’ in history. I stand by my initial response, that the question is mu and goes against the very definition of ‘witch’ in the early modern understanding of the word. But I also stand by my sense that most people truly believe (dammit there's that word again) they are doing good in their own minds, regardless of how it’s viewed by other individuals or larger societies. (There’s a lot in that, I know, I know. Maybe that’ll be another blog post some day. Or not.)
But there were definitely practitioners of magic in the early modern period, and most no doubt saw themselves as doing ‘good’ whether they were selling a curse to a heartbroken Romeo, or summoning spirits to learn the secret names of God.
The thing is, we know people have practiced magic across recorded histories, and there are people who still practice it today, in myriad forms, all over the world. This is a hard, hard thing for many American, secular academics* to get comfy with. (Bed of nails, comfy at best.) I consider myself pretty open-minded, but this is where the conference really shook me up (in the best possible ways, mind you. But a shake-up is a shake-up). I’ve been focusing on individuals in the early modern period accused of witchcraft and keeping familiars. Straight-forward. Many of these individuals probably did not practice any form of magic, although that is challenging to know in many cases.
But there were definitely cunning folk and ritual magicians who were practicing magic (and why some were accused of witchcraft and sorcery and many others weren't, I’m not sure. That's a question for Dr. Owen Davies, maybe).
I don’t know why I was ignoring ritual magicians, but I was. Confirmation biases in action, I guess. Cunning folk where sometimes quite showy about their practices as a way of drumming up business. Most ritual magicians, on the other hand, were fairly secretive (or this is my impression so far) and shared their magical knowledge with other magicians privately through their grimoires. A grimoire (likely from the French word grammaire) is a book of magic: spells, evocations, invocations, and more.
Evocations, huh? What’s that? you might ask.
Well, my friend, glad you asked.
That's summoning a spirit to do things for you. Kind of a lot like familiars. Oh wait, will ya look at that? They even use the word ‘familiar’** sometimes.
And suddenly Familiar Shapes isn’t just about witches anymore.
* I’m trying to avoid universals, here, but there ya go. I have no data on this, of course. This whole blog post is based on my impression of things as both an American academic and a second generation academic. I need to point out, however, that I’ve met several amazing American anthropologists, historians, and religious studies scholars who research magical belief systems and are quite happy to talk about them. (Thank goodness!) It makes me wonder how many students have ever double-majored in computer science and anthropology in order to study magic from two vantages. No? Just me wondering that? Ah well.
** A big thank you to Dr. Dan Harms who gave me a xerox of pages 224-226 of the 1665 edition of The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot. More on my interview with Dan in another blog post, but story behind The Discovery of Witchcraft is kind of hilarious. Basically, this was published to prove that “the Compacts and Contracts of Witches with Devils and all Infernal Spirits or Familiars, are but Erroneous Novelties and Imaginary Conceptions.” Basically, the skeptic’s guide to why witchcraft is just so much b*llsh*t. And note the date: 1665, although it was first published in 1584. Witch hunting galore. On the front page, Scott points out that this information is essential to “Judges, Justices, and Jurors” so they don’t “pass Sentence upon Poor, Miserable and Ignorant People” who were accused of witchcraft or practicing cunning craft. So, really, it’s pretty laudable: Scot was probably pretty alarmed by the rash of witchcraft accusations and executions, and was basically waiving The Discovery of Witchcraft around, saying, “Guys! Stop! This is insane! STOP!” Anyway, the hilarious part is who bought the book: cunning folk and ritual magicians. Because the damn this is so detailed in its description of beliefs and practices, it is basically a giant Dummy's Guide to Performing Magic. The pages Dan copied for me are Chapter VIII: A form of Conjuring Luridan the Familiar, otherwise called Belelah. This is pretty insanely detailed, right down to the sigils, the size and drawing of the magical circle, and how many snake skins you need for your magical hat. And just in case you need a little help with Luridan, the next chapter is How to Conjure the Spirit Balkin the Master of Luridan. You know, because witchcraft isn’t real, folks.