That Old Black Magic: Katherine Howe on The Penguin Book of Witches

‘Tis the season of growing cold, spooky tales, and things that go bump in the night. Before people ring in holiday cheer, they revel in the occult and mysterious as the days grow shorter and Halloween lurks around the corner. Witches have been one of the iconic symbols that remain in our cultural imagination year-round, however. From its origins in folklore and fairytales to Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Hocus Pocus, and, of course, Harry Potter, our ideas of witches are much more varied and benign than they were earlier in history.

Katherine Howe has explored the legend of the witch in her fiction before (The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Conversion), but in The Penguin Book of Witches, she draws from historical accounts about English and North American witchcraft trials to undo misconceptions about the women and men who fell victim to them.

The Penguin Book of Witches is an annotated collection of treaties, newspaper articles, trial transcripts, diary entries, and more that sheds light upon the mindsets of early modern English and colonial America and how witchcraft preyed upon those societies’ greatest fears and realities. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to Howe about the histories she highlights, and what that says about past—and present—social attitudes toward gender, class, politics, and the unknown.

To start, what interests you the most about scholarship on witches and witchcraft?

The trick with scholarship about witches and witchcraft is that we are in a sense trying to write the history of a false idea. Since we no longer as a culture believe that witchcraft is real (or at least, we no longer consider it something dangerous enough to require legal control), the challenge lies in writing a history of an idea that does not exist. As a result a lot of the secondary sources about witchcraft tell us more about the period of time in which they were written than they do about witchcraft as it was practiced, understood, or feared. One of my goals with a primary source reader like The Penguin Book of Witches was to bring the original documents back into the conversation.

The Penguin Book of Witches is a historical exploration into the witch trials of early modern England and America. You argue that the cultural idea of the “witch” is necessary for the formation of North American identity for the English colonists. Why do you think the “witch as Other” was so key?

I was surprised, while assembling the sources for The Penguin Book of Witches, to see how vague the definition of a “witch” was in the Biblical literature. We have such a concrete idea of what a witch, and who she is, and what she does, and even what she looks like, that I had assumed those tropes had been codified from the very beginning. Not so. I argue that this very vagueness of category is one of the reasons that the witch as an idea has had such a lasting influence in Western culture. Ultimately she exists as a set of negative qualities, rather than affirmative ones. The witch is that which we do not do, or that which we must not be. The figure of the witch serves as an important negative against which a nascent community can begin to define itself.

Those accused of witchcraft were often women, and you comment in the case of the Salem witch trials, race, class, and anxieties about scarcity also played roles into the fervor. Can you please elaborate on the intersectionality of all of these factors upon the social pressures put upon women?

The early modern period was a time of both scarcity, before the consumer revolution of the 18th century which made household goods more affordable, as well as a time in which slavery was legal, and in which North American colonists lived in a rigidly hierarchical system ranked along class, race, and gender lines. The early modern period also predates the Victorian belief in woman’s innate goodness and domesticity. In the 17th and even into the 18th centuries, the common stereotype about women was that they were both physically and spiritually weaker than men, and as such were more at risk for temptations into sin, and more in need of male spiritual and sexual authority. The idea of the witch, which perverts both hierarchies of power as well as hierarchies of sexuality, would have been especially threatening in that schema. Add to that an economic system based entirely on barter, trade, and by extension, reputation among neighbors, and a reputation as a witch could (and did) have devastating consequences.

You also write about the contrasts between how the Salem witch trials have been viewed throughout the centuries since they happened, and how they reflect the cultural attitudes at the time. For example, the 18th century thinkers of the Enlightenment dismissed the trials as medieval superstition or how Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” highlighted the political backdrop of a “witch hunt.” How do you think US society views the witch trials today?

In a funny way I think that Salem in particular serves as a lens through which we view and interpret whatever cultural issue is most pressing to us at any given moment. For instance, in the 19th century Salem was used as a way to talk about Christian piety and the necessity of maintaining faith in the face of deadly trials. In the 1950s of course Salem served as a lens to talk about political intolerance, and I think to a lesser extent about sexual impropriety and the family. Today, it’s harder to say what purpose Salem serves. On the one hand, the idea of a “witch hunt” in popular American discourse privileges the unjust aspect of the pursuit of difference, and I think for a lot of us the inherent threat posed by intolerance, whether religious or social, is an important part of Salem’s legacy. But the other side of the coin with the history of witchcraft is power. In the early modern period, witches were feared in part because they seemed to be claiming unearned power for themselves. I think that suggestion of power still intoxicates us, which is one reason we see so many pop culture representations of witchcraft today. But now those representations are about fantasy and wish-fulfillment.

In some sense, the term “witch hunt” has been embedded into the American political psyche for longer than the United States has ever existed. Do you think that this pattern of scapegoating during times of precariousness is uniquely American as well?

Unfortunately, no, I don’t think that this pattern of scapegoating is unique to America. For one thing, The Penguin Book of Witches contains many examples of witch trials from England that mirror the trials that unfolded in North America. And continental Europe had its own legacy of Medieval witch trials, about which much has been written. Even today, in parts of Africa whole villages exist to shelter children who have been expelled from their communities over fears that they might be witches. There is something tragically human in our desire, regardless of time or culture, to want to have a name for “them,” those people who are not “us.” In effect a “witch” is a synonym for “that which I fear, which I want to push far away from myself.”

The scope of your book is limited to England and North America. Are there any resources that you’d recommend for readers interested in learning more about the history of witchcraft outside of these areas?

A number of fine primary source readers exist with a different scope from my own. Elaine Breslaw edited a fine collection witchcraft in the Atlantic world, which includes examples from Africa and South America. Wolfgang Behringer wrote Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History. The Penguin Book of Witches includes a bibliography of suggested further reading for anyone wishing to expand her inquiry into the history of witchcraft.

Why do you think witches remain prominent cultural figures today?

First, I think that in American culture we are never willing to leave Salem alone. Part of the reason for that is that we subscribe, by collective agreement, to a set of cultural ideals (we might even call them myths) as we struggle to define our culture and history from so many diverse sources. We want to believe that American culture values diversity, religious tolerance, equality, and equal opportunity. Salem forces us to reckon with the fragility of those ideals. At Salem, during the foundational decades of European colonial settlement in this region, a trial occurred in which everything was done legally, by the book, by educated people who believed that they were doing what was right and necessary to safeguard their community. And nineteen innocent people were put to death as a result. That’s a chilling fact with which we must continually grapple. And I also think that today we live in a time of great economic uncertainty. Increasingly we confront the fact that there are no guarantees, either of safety, or of economic security, or of employment. Young people coming of age in this period can no longer count on the fact that they might do better for themselves than their parents. Who wouldn’t want to escape some of these harsh realities in fantasy stories about secret powers that hover tantalizingly just out of reach? Who wouldn’t want to have a letter delivered via owl to our garret under the stairs, inviting us into a world of power and privilege? Witches are enticing. Witches have secret powers that we want to have for ourselves, if we only have the nerve to claim them.


The Penguin Book of Witches is currently available from Penguin Classics.

Ay-leen the Peacemaker (or in other speculative lights, Diana M. Pho) works at Tor Books, runs the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana, pens academic things, and tweets. Oh wait, she has a tumblr too.


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