The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 6: The 20th Century
Edited by Ankarloo and Clark, published by The Athlone Press 1999 at £18.99. 395pp. ISBN: 0-485-89102-6 (Reviewed by Brian Hoggard)
This is another great book from the six volume Athlone history of witchcraft and magic in Europe set. In this volume Ronald Hutton tackles the history of modern pagan witchcraft and Wicca, Jean la Fontaine jumps into hell (joke) with a look at Satanism and Willem de Blecourt brings up the rear with an extremely interesting look at 'old' witchcraft as it occurred in the twentieth century.
Those of you who have had the chance to read Ronald Hutton's latest book, Triumph of the Moon (1999 OUP - reviewed in the Imbolc 2000 issue of WD) will not really find anything new in this book. But that is probably because he wrote the section for this book before finishing the Triumph of the Moon, this is just being reviewed slightly later. Ron's section traces the origins of modern pagan witchcraft by looking at secret societies, notions of Gods and Goddesses, Gerald Gardner and just about every other piece of the puzzle which makes up modern pagan witchcraft. While not as in-depth and elaborate as his own rather long book, this book may be a wiser purchase for many who prefer to read shorter and slightly cheaper pieces - and you get the work of two other authors thrown in too! Ronald is the man for the history of Wicca at the moment. You've really got to read some of his latest stuff.
Jean la Fontaine is not very well known outside of the academic study of witchcraft and Satanism but hopefully this book will rectify that. Most people have an idea of what a Satanist must be and this idea is usually highly incorrect, as my friend Stu would be quick to point out. In this study la Fontaine has objectively considered the printed material produced by Satanists and related groups (and, I suspect, communicated with several of them) and has discovered and analysed what they're really all about. The individualism inherent in the Satanic philosophy parallels the work of Nietzsche and is even similar to 19th century industrial capitalists who had a 'let them take care of themselves' attitude. I must say that discovering the different varieties of Satanism was new to me and I hadn't realised how much certain racist groups were trying to co-opt the Satanist material into their beliefs. This is a thorough, fair, interesting and insightful account of Satanic groups in the 20th century. There is a good handling of the Satanic abuse cases which clearly illustrates that these cases were all hype and fear, not the result of an organised network of Satanic abusers. Another must-read.
Willem de Blecourt has a rather dense writing style which contrasts against the flowing narrative of both Hutton and la Fontaine. It is well worth persevering with however. The content of this section becomes really fascinating after de Blecourt has got his ground work out of the way. This is a superb study of the role of cunning folk (unwitchers as he calls them), the bewitched and witches in 20th century Europe. Much of the evidence comes from Holland for this section, which is de Blecourt's research area, but the work of other scholars from other European regions is strongly represented also. The case studies, newspaper reports and first hand accounts display a remarkable resemblance to early modern witchcraft cases, although this is not de Blecourt's main point. With the survival of Catholicism as the state religion in one or two of the countries dealt with here, an insight into witchcraft in England prior to the Reformation can be gleaned. Although far from identical, it seems that the kind of village beliefs about witchcraft which evidently survived widely until the mid twentieth century are directly linked to the kind of beliefs about witchcraft which occurred five centuries ago. A truly fascinating read this is.
In short, this is one of the best books I've read in ages. Truly interesting, covering three aspects of the occult in the twentieth century which are often mistakenly linked by the general public. This book clarifies and explains the nature of 20th century pagan witchcraft, Satanism and satanic abuse scares and also deals with folk-witchcraft of the historical sort and its survival into the 20th century. Never in one book has so much great research about the movements we know been presented before. If you don't buy it, you'll regret it.