The Long View 2005-08-12: The Discouverie of Witchcraft

I wish I had remembered this post when Spotted Toad made this excellent analysis of why Harry Potter has become a political myth.

The Discouverie of Witchcraft

The fear expressed by many Christian groups about the influence of occult and Gnostic ideologies on popular culture is by no means ill founded. You don't have to be a traditionalist Catholic to believe that Dan Brown has an ax to grind in The Da Vinci Code; you don't have to be religious at all to think that the syrupy panpsychism of the Star Wars series is a menace to clear thinking in all its forms. So, it is entirely understandable that the Harry Potter books, which depict a school where children are taught to practice magic, should be regarded with suspicion in conservative religious quarters (including, by some accounts, by the pope). Let me suggest, however, that the most interesting thing about the Potter series is the almost total absence of magic.

Arthur C. Clarke once remarked that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That requires qualification: we use machines every day that rely on physics we don't understand, but we don't regard them as magical. We should understand this formula in the context of Northrop Frye's definition of the end of the world as the point where the world is contained by the human body; in other words, where nature becomes a city that conforms to the human mind. That is the horizon toward which technological progress moves. That technophile impulse is prefigured by the wish-fulfillment magic we see in fairy tales, and the latter is what is taught at Hogwarts School.

The Potter books incorporate many mythological elements. There are genuinely horrible horrors in the series that don't lend themselves to technological reduction. These things do not constitute a mythology for the series, however. They are Gothic properties, like the secret doorways that the kids are always finding, or the use of Latin in casting spells. (Liturgical Latin is making a bit of a comeback these days, by the way, but you are still more likely to hear Latin in a horror movie than in a Catholic Church.) The popularity of Hogwarts, however, rests on its essential familiarity. The classroom spell-casting accidents and the magical game-artifacts look for all the world like ordinary chemistry-lab mishaps and sophisticated sports equipment. The Harry Potter stories would not work differently if Hogwarts were a school where gifted children went to study secret advanced technology that had, for instance, been recovered from a crashed flying saucer.

Anthropology defines magic in various ways, but perhaps the most familiar definition is that magic is religion used for questionable private purposes. That formula needs at least as much qualification as Clarke's, but the central insight is correct. It is not hard to point to examples from the Hermetic tradition, for instance, in which elements of the Mass are incorporated into highly unorthodox magical rituals, or where words from the Kabbalah are used for personal aggrandizement rather than for prayer. Magic makes use of communal assumptions about how the world works and how it relates to the will. This necessarily includes some notion of sacred and profane, of good and evil. Such a set of assumptions is quite absent from Hogwarts School.

Hogwarts is a secular institution. The Potter series is widely praised, and I think rightly, for depicting juvenile characters who try to act morally and who usually succeed. However, their virtues are unrelated to any metaphysical system. The faculty of the school are, for the most part, sterling role models, but the curriculum they teach seems as value-free as trigonometry. That is why there can be no real magic there.

When the students do a spell, they are not communing with forces that could damn or save them. They are manipulating symbols that control a mechanism, a process not different in kind from typing commands into a program interface. The chief menace of the Harry Potter series is not that it will call up a generation of black magicians, but that someone might try to actually invent Quidditch.

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As for the historical study of witchcraft, readers should look at an essay by Jenny Gibbons, a neopagan who actually knows something about the subject. [Link from Danny Yee.] The essay was published in 1998, but much more recently than that I saw a performance-art presentation at an academic conference that dealt in part with witches, given by a doctoral candidate in Women's Studies. Part of her dissertation involved standing on stage and screaming that eight-million women had been burnt during the medieval witchcraft persecutions for saying just the sort of things she was saying that night. What would have happened to them if they had made a mess with fruit onstage like she did was left to the audience's imagination.

This was another example of why it is a mixed blessing for me to attend these events. The doctoral candidate was not a stupid woman or a wild-eyed ideologue. I saw no reason to embarrass her, so I said nothing provocative during the question-and-answer session. Neither, more surprisingly, did the tenured medievalist in the row ahead of me, though he must have known as well as I did what nonsense her dissertation advisors had led her to believe.

The Romantic Era history of witchcraft, as the religion of a pre-Christian underground in Europe that was burned out of existence in the Dark Ages by a persecuting Catholic Church, survives because it makes such a good premise for fiction. Nonetheless, it is wrong in every detail. Most, indeed almost all, executions for witchcraft occurred in the early modern era, not the Middle Ages. When executions occurred, they were usually the work of local secular courts. The Inquisition, as a rule, wanted nothing to do with any of this; especially in Spain, when it asserted jurisdiction over charges of witchcraft, it was to free the accused.

One could go on about how many commonplace ideas about the witch hunts are simply false, but the biggest misapprehension seems to be the number of deaths. Estimates made in the 19th and early 20th centuries have run to as much as 9 million. Later archival research, however, yields a figure closer to 40,000 for all of Europe, and that is with generous allowance for lost records. That is not a trivial number. The impact was locally acute: most of the damage was done between 1550-1660 in fairly restricted border areas of western and central Europe, and that at a time when Europe was not densely populated. Still, witchcraft persecutions were not a daily fact of life even in the most affected areas, and they don't seem to have been connected with any extraordinary animus against women.

Everything you know about Communism in the United States is a lie, too, but in the other direction.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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