Monday 30 January 2017

Review: Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft & Magic

If you are looking for a book about the history of witchcraft that is comprehensive and impeccably researched, but also well written and fascinating to read, then the new The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic is what you should pop out an buy - or stick on your wishlist if you are a bit skint at the moment. The hardback RRP is £25, but it is worth it.

The book is edited by professor of social history Owen Davies and consists of chapters covering the story of witchcraft and magic from the ancient world right up to the fictional wizardry of Harry Potter. It looks at all aspects of the subject including depictions of witches in art and on screen and the anthropology of magic and practices in other parts of the world as well as Europe. Personally, I particularly enjoyed Owen Davies' chapter on The World of Popular Magic - about cunning folk and also spells cast by ordinary people for healing and protection.

Covering 4,000 years of magical practices and ideas, the book starts with exploring the first examples of spells inscribed on clay tablets in the ancient world. It goes on to look at the magical beliefs of the Roman, Greeks, Jews and early Christians as well as the role Arabs played in preserving ancient magical knowledge. It investigates what archives really tell us about the witch trials of the 16th and 17th  centuries then goes on to cover post-Enlightenment magic and the rise of  modern pagan witchcraft, including Wicca, in the 20th century. As well as looking at Western magic, the book examines the anthropology of magic in other parts of the world in the 19th to 21st centuries and finally looks at movie and TV portrayals of witches and magicians.

The description on the Oxford University Press website says:
This richly illustrated history provides a readable and fresh approach to the extensive and complex story of witchcraft and magic. Telling the story from the dawn of writing in the ancient world to the globally successful Harry Potter films, the authors explore a wide range of magical beliefs and practices, the rise of the witch trials, and the depiction of the Devil-worshipping witch.

The book also focuses on the more recent history of witchcraft and magic, from the Enlightenment to the present, exploring the rise of modern magic, the anthropology of magic around the globe, and finally the cinematic portrayal of witches and magicians, from The Wizard of Oz to Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The illustrations, which include colour plates, really add to the book. As a practising witch myself, a photograph of what an ancient magical item or spell really looks like is more use than just a description.

And, of course, it is good to know that the book is reliable history. The contributors are all names to conjure with in the academic sense: Peter Maxwell-Stuart, Sophie Page, James Sharpe, Rita Voltmer, Charles Zika, Robert J. Wallis and Willem de Blécourt. The editor Owen Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire. He has written extensively on the history of magic, witchcraft, ghosts, and popular medicine, including Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, Paganism: A Very Short Introduction, Magic: A Very Short Introduction and America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft after Salem.

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