From the Vault: Concerning Witchcraft

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 2:02pm -- mfarias

As the spookiest night of the year approaches, your Redwood Librarians are preparing the only way we know how, by reading everything we can find on witchcraft and demonology on our shelves. We have pulled two books on these subjects from our special collections to share with you and hopefully alleviate any witch- or demon-based fears you may have about this Halloween season.


Witches Frolic, 1830 by George Cruikshank
From Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Sir Walter Scott


The first book on witchcraft was published in London in 1677, fifteen years prior to the start of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693 in Salem, Massachusetts. The work is an attempt by John Webster (1610-1682, “Practitioner in Physick”) to calm the unfounded fears and counteract the unproven claims of witchcraft, which were present in earnest in the 17th century. Thus, the (very) long title of this work is, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft. Wherein is affirmed that there are many sorts of Deceivers and Impostors, and Diverse persons under a passive Delusion of Melancholy and Fancy. But that there is a Corporeal League made betwixt the Devil and the Witch, or that he sucks on the Witch's Body, has Carnal Copulation, or that Witches are turned into Cats, Dogs, raise Tempests, or the like, is utterly denied and disproved.


The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, 1677 by John Webster
From the collection of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum


In the introduction to his work, Webster comments on the long tradition of writings on witchcraft across various countries and languages that publish new claims without making any progress in the field in terms of proof. He writes, “And though there be nothing more common than disputes of Witches, and Witchcraft, both in words and writing, yet not one of great multitudes that hath plainly told us, in what notion, or under what acceptation, they take the words, nor what description is agreed upon, of either of these, that their existence, or not being, their power and operations might be known and determined: But all the disputes as yet concerning them have been loose, wild, and in vagum.” John Webster does not deny all manner of supernatural events, he even says, “That we do not (as the Schools speak) deny the existence of Witches absolute and simpliciter, sed secundum quid, and that they do not exist tali modo, that is, they do not make a visible Contract with the Devil, he doth not suck upon their bodies, [etc.].” He aims to contradict the most wild, fear-driven beliefs that are not based in fact, but yet are regularly repeated, often to hysteria.


Elfin Tricks1830 by George Cruikshank
From Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Sir Walter Scott

By the publication of the second book from our collection in 1830, the genuine fears surrounding witchcraft and the supernatural had lightened significantly to become a subject of interest and humor. The Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft: Addressed to J.G. Lockhart, Esq. by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) are an example of this, as he writes on the origins and traditions of all manner of supernatural phenomena. In letter IV, he tackles “the Fairy superstition,” where he first names some of the cultures in which Fairy stories can be found, such as with Celtic tribes, because “a great feature of their national character, [is] that the power of the imagination is peculiarly active among the Celts, and leads to an enthusiasm concerning national music and dancing, national poetry and song, the departments in which fancy most readily indulges herself.” The tone from the beginning of each letter is similar to this, placing fairies, witches, and demons in the realm of fancy and imagination, but with a certain appreciation for the creativity.


Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, 1830 by Sir Walter Scott
From the collection of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum

On the more specific nature of fairies, Scott writes, “One injury of a very serious nature was supposed to be constantly practiced by the fairies against the ‘human mortals,’ that of carrying off their children and breeding them as beings of their race… An adult, on the other hand, must have been engaged in some action which exposed him to the power of the spirits, and so, as the legal phrase went, ‘taken in the manner.’” He clearly enjoys many of the legends he shares, but does not take them seriously as issues to be concerned about. It seems that we should follow his and Dr. Webster’s lead, but it can never hurt to keep an extra eye out for spooky sightings until we reach November safely.


Fairy Revenge, 1830 by George Cruikshank
From Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Sir Walter Scott

If you would like to see these books for yourself, they will be on display in the Rovensky Delivery Room through Halloween, including this Friday night at our Halloween at the Redwood event starting at 5:30, more information here.