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I've been preoccupied with the way we've been preventing witchcraft, the occult, and magic from entering into serious philosophical and political (especially leftist political) discourse for a long time. Previously, witchcraft was the subject of ridicule. Now it's claimed by Marxists, feminists, and others, as proof of their own theorizing. I'm happy that magic and the occult are being brought into discourse, but always in a way that seems to dismiss the phenomenon itself. So I invited Thomas Waters, author of the incredible Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times to talk about all of this. His book is the nail in the coffin of magical revisionism.
Thomas's book looks at witchcraft from the 1800s to the present day in the UK and its colonies, but most importantly, it does so from a victim's point of view. In other words, it starts with a serious angle, and stays with it. Along the way, you meet a host of weird and powerful figures, as well as tragedies, atrocities, and absurdities. And our conversation follows a similarly varied path. This is definitely one of my favorite episodes, and it serves as a companion to my conversational, informal episode "The Left Vs Witches."
Most importantly, I think, we discuss the need for people who can thoughtfully interpret instances of witchcraft and magic in our time. The disappearance of these "dewitcher" figures has left us lost. These dewitchers use witchcraft as a way of seeing, and can teach that way of seeing to us.
I was happy, also, to get Thomas to express how his research into witchcraft changed him, and I'm sure he was happy to get me to talk about challenges to my academic research project.
Oh, and Thomas recites Wordsworth's "Song For The Spinning Wheel" in the most soothing and mystery-filled voice!
In this episode
- Witchcraft, belief, and placebo
- The ways we dismiss witchcraft even as we admit it into "serious" conversation
- Witchcraft as a first and last resort
- Why witchcraft is not simply a tool of the disenfranchised but of people in power, too
- The importance of dewitchers as people who sort through the bullshit & truth, the safety & dangers of witchcraft
- Witchcraft as a way of reading, as a way of seeing
- How disbelief in magic is colonialism
- Why Thomas became interested in witchcraft
• For more on Thomas, visit his page at Imperial College, which features links to articles and other projects. And if the episode wasn't convincing enough, read this thoughtful review of Cursed Britain in the Times Literary Supplement. And here's Thomas talking at the London Fortean Society.
• I mention the fact-filled (though perhaps theoretically unsatisfying) book Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture written and edited by Bader, Mencken, and Baker. It's definitely worth reading.
• A great and harsh article on the appropriation of witchcraft for feminist revisionism is by Diane Purkis - "Managing Our Darkest Hatreds And Fears: Witchcraft From The Middle Ages To Brett Kavanaugh"
• I talk about capitalism, time, and magic on AEWCH 76 with Conor McCabe.
• Thomas mentions the book Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft by Robin Briggs, and it sounds great.
• Yes, she was linked to a secret police force.
• I highly recommend reading On Kings by David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins.
• My favorite (and the most fun!) book on the Satanic Panic in the US is called, appropriately, Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. It's filled with photos, drawings, and is a great read-a-bit-a-day book. Here's a photo of it so you go buy and enjoy it now.
• If you don't follow Hookland on twitter, I suggest you check them out ASAP. They're great.
• Thomas does such a wonderful job of reading Wordsworth's "Song For The Spinning Wheel"
Swiftly turn the murmuring wheel!
Night has brought the welcome hour,
When the weary fingers feel
Help, as if from faery power;
Dewy night o’ershades the ground;
Turn the swift wheel round and round!
Now, beneath the starry sky,
Couch the widely-scattered sheep;–
Ply the pleasant labour, ply!
For the spindle, while they sleep,
Runs with speed more smooth and fine,
Gathering up a trustier line.
Short-lived likings may be bred
By a glance from fickle eyes;
But true love is like the thread
Which the kindly wool supplies,
When the flocks are all at rest
Sleeping on the mountain’s breast.
• Thomas writes a lot about Dion Fortune's book Psychic Self-Defense, but I think the best place to start with Fortune's work is either The Esoteric Orders and Their Work or The Secrets Of Dr. Taverner (which is fiction but based on Fortune's own life). Both books are excellent introductory books to the occult.
• I haven't yet visited the Museum of Witchcraft, and I really really really want to. Anyway, until I get there, maybe you can go and I can live vicariously through you?
• AEWCH 46 with paranormal researchers Greg & Dana Newkirk remains one of my favorite episodes of the show.
• And check out The Anti-Witch by Jeanne Favret-Saada (pictured below) for a good ethnography of dewitchers. And her first book, which Thomas gives a rave review to, is Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage.
• Running with the Fairies: Towards a Transpersonal Anthropology of Religion by Dennis Gaffin is a compassionate and fun ethnography on the fairy faith in Northern Ireland.
Until next time, witches,