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The best books on Witches and Witchcraft

recommended by Diane Purkiss

The Witch in History by Diane Purkiss

The Witch in History
by Diane Purkiss

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For centuries, the witch has been an index not only of what we fear most in others, but also what we cannot cope with—the powerfully abnormal, strange and often irrational elements—in ourselves. And the best way to understand the history of witches and witchcraft is to first understand the supernatural, according to Diane Purkiss, Professor at Keble College, Oxford and author of the lauded book The Witch in History.

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

The Witch in History by Diane Purkiss

The Witch in History
by Diane Purkiss

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Tell us about your logic of choosing these books, because many of them are not directly about witches or witchcraft.

No, not directly. They’re about how we apprehend moments where the supernatural pokes its nose into our lives when we didn’t want it to. They’re about human irrationality, which is the subject of virtually all the research I do, and the way in which the more people think they have rational control over their lives, the less rational control they actually possess.

“Ideas of witches exist, really, from the very earliest human societies.”

All these writings are about the way in which the supernatural is not only a metaphor for the bits of our lives that are beyond our control, but also something of which we actively seek to divest ourselves: that annoying, careerist, editing brain with its to-do lists and guides. In order to free ourselves from all that post-Enlightenment stuff, we have to go back, before and beyond, to something deeper, darker and significantly scarier.

Before we discuss your individual choices, let’s go back to the beginning. How does witchcraft emerge in Europe?

When you say ‘emerges’, what you probably mean is ‘becomes a crime for which people are prosecuted’. Ideas of witches exist, really, from the very earliest human societies. One of the earliest law codes we have, the code of Hammurabi, has a statute against sorcery. It’s not a new thing that suddenly comes to consciousness with a bang in 1550.

What does happen however is that quite complex folklore with local meaning and significance gets reinterpreted in the light of scholastic understandings of the body and reproductivity. This happens in such a way as to produce a version of the witch that fits the church’s idea of heresy. Then, it becomes imperative, at least for some—though not for everybody, ever, at any point—to prosecute those people. So, say if you’re living in a village in Essex in 1566, those who you regard as a bit scary because they claim to have supernatural capabilities suddenly become people on whom you can turn the law.

Even in these early times, was the phenomenon gendered? I’ve heard that a common misconception is that all accused witches were women—the trope of the witch as an evil woman, or dark seductress—when actually, there may have been many men who were thought to be witches as well.

In England, 90% of the accused were women. But in other countries, more than half of the accused were men. If we’re talking about England, we’re mostly talking about a gendered image of what the witch is. In other places, we’re talking about an image of the witch that owes a lot more to racial and ethnic tensions, or religious denominational tensions, or even to land ownership disputes, and their gender becomes much less of an issue.

“In England, 90% of the accused were women. But in other countries, more than half of the accused were men”

It’s certainly not the case in any culture in Western Europe that the figure of the seductive sorceress, the kind that we mainly derive from medieval and Arthurian legend, really becomes the subject of interest to judges and juries in witch trials. The vast majority of people tried for witchcraft in England during the period of the witch hunts are elderly, so far are they from being seductive. They tend to be elderly; they tend to be lame; they tend to have an unevenness of body, like one brown eye or one blue, for instance, or they’re thought to be missing one eye.

So past child-rearing age.

Definitely. Post-menopausal. If you think of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and how they’re so beyond menopause that they’ve started growing facial hair, that’s a more traditional focus of anxiety and dread in local communities than the buxom, pretty witch we might now associate with either television drama or pre-Raphaelite art. That doesn’t happen really.

Let’s look at the books. The first you’ve chosen is a fantasy novel called Red Shift by Alan Garner. It’s set in three distinct time periods: Roman Britain, the English Civil War, and modern day. Tell us about why you picked it.

I first read Red Shift when I was 15. I’d first read his earlier (and much more accessible) books The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. What I remember about reading Red Shift is that it was completely unlike any book I’d ever read, in that it trusted the reader to make sense of things without holding one’s hand at all, or explaining anything ever. There’s no info dump; there’s no narrator; there’s no Dumbledore figure who in the last chapter plods in and says ‘Harry, I’m going to tell you everything.’ None of that ever happens.

And at 15, I was so flattered by this book that seemed at once very exciting but unwilling to explain itself. So I read it over and over and over again. (I know lots of people who are driven back by its difficulty, but I really wasn’t.) One reason for that is that it’s emotionally very clear, even though there are stumbles about what’s really happening and who’s speaking.

It’s about three couples in three different periods. The oldest story concerns the lost ninth legion in Roman Britain. A member of the legion, whose name is Macey, eventually gets involved with a local tribal girl. The second couple are of the English Civil War era, and the third couple are modern. It starts with the modern couple, who are really the voice of the story.

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All the men are called Tom, which is also kind of interesting. Some of the women are called Janet, and some are called Marjorie or Meg. What Garner is doing there is drawing on the Tam Lim ballad; in different versions, the girl’s called Meg, and in other versions, she’s called Janet. It’s like all these different figures are incorporated into a single story. The Tom characters start having glimpses of one another’s thoughts. One character—the modern character—is saying goodbye to the modern Jan on the bus, and the bus is blue and silver, and the Roman Macey starts seeing blue and silver in his epileptic fits.

I was fascinated by this idea that time and context, though totally meaningful, could be abrogated or ripped away. That seemed to me to be a pretty good definition of what magic is: that magic is about being able to remove the constraints on a person. But Garner’s really quite pessimistic about the results of that. He really makes it clear that particularly the modern couple can’t cope with what happens to them. Eventually, it ends with—as if to make things just a tiny bit trickier, but I love this, too—a letter in code.

You can find a translation of it now on the internet, but that’s not very interesting. So I sat there with a complete Lewis Carroll trying to work out what the keyword was. Interestingly, I had a student who worked it out from scratch a few years ago by working out that the first sentence must be ‘I love you’.

So from that primal building block, you can get everything? What an apt metaphor.

Absolutely. That’s right. It’s actually really touching. It’s also potentially a suicide note, but the novel is open-ended. If Janet in the 20th century manages to read the letter, she can prevent the suicide, but you don’t ever know whether that’s going to happen. So it feels like it’s on you, as the reader.

“I was fascinated by this idea that time and context, though totally meaningful, could be abrogated or ripped away. That seemed to me to be a pretty good definition of magic”

The other recurring character that I absolutely loved is this, pictured on the cover. Even though this isn’t the edition I first read it in, I love it, because it features the Neolithic hand-axe. All three of the couples possess this hand-axe and use it in different ways; it’s the unity of power between them.

Artifacts, things, actually last much longer than people, and can be passed on from one person to another—reused, reinterpreted, redeployed. So it feels really magical that you might come across such an object, as the modern Tom and Jan do, hidden in a fireplace. I was incredibly drawn to the idea of the very old item that you might suddenly come across one day, with nobody knowing it was there at all.

And similarly, when we read case histories of witchcraft, items of significance pop up in association with accused witches. Can you say a bit about that?

One of my very favorite witches uses what’s described as a dried piece of flesh for fortune-telling. It’s not very clear how she uses it, nor do we ever learn in the course of the trial what the flesh was. Was it animal flesh? Was it human flesh? What was it, actually?

But it’s an interesting emblem—as is the hand-axe, I would suggest—of the fact that witches necessarily have to have dealings with the dark and the dead. Even if they don’t say they do, that’s actually what supernatural thinking nearly always comes down to. It’s nearly always about birth and copulation and death, the big human preoccupations. And the greatest of these is death. So an object that can transcend time is intrinsically very powerful.

Like any printed text can, in a way.

Yes! But particularly the special artifact of an individual codex. The fairy tale collection that I own originally belonged to my mother, and it now belongs to my daughter. That sort of transmission of an individual item down the generations is in a way a denial of death, and an affirmation of human beings’ power to make things—which is also a big part of writing, obviously.

I see how all that ties together and it’s marvelous. Let’s talk about your second choice by Neil Price, The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia.

The first thing to say is that everybody’s been waiting with bated breath for the second edition to appear, because for about ten years it was one of the most sought-after books on secondhand book sites. And it’s been revised, too.

Why I’m glued to it is because I think Neil Price does a fantastic job of explaining to a modern, post-Enlightenment person what is a very strange series of cultures. He particularly focuses on the Viking idea of magic and its relation to the Viking idea of the person. Today, we tend to think in broadly Cartesian terms: we think of the human being as a thinking being. Even when people talk about the AI singularity, what they nearly always mean is the AI’s thinking capability. Will they be self-aware? Will they be able to play Go better than Go masters? That kind of version of the self.

“Behind the obvious and the everyday is a world that you can’t see, but which in some sense corresponds with your emotions”

But what I think Price understands (as Garner does) is that actually, a person is often a walking bag of complex relations to a body and to emotions—all of which won’t really be reproduced by uploading yourself to a giant computer somewhere. Particularly, Price’s take on the incredibly strange practices of what he calls ‘circumpolar shamanism’, is just endlessly fascinating. He retells dozens of stories, but the one that I’d really like to draw attention to is called ‘The Invisible Battlefield’. The story begins with “the nornir, or the terrible women of Darraðarljóð, [who] are spinning the web of war that will decide the outcome of battle”:

On looms of power, perhaps made from human bodies, the grey cloth is slowly taking shape, dyed with blood. Each thread is a man’s life, weaving in and out of those around him. In Valholl and Sessrumnir, benches are being cleared and a reception prepared for those who will shortly be taking their places in the halls of the gods.

“Those who will shortly be taking their places in the halls of the gods”—in other words, the dead. And then he depicts the valkyrjur arriving on the battlefield to collect them, with “their swan-wings spreading white behind them”. We see the increasingly visible presence of the supernatural on the battlefield to the magicians that accompanied every fighting force from Scandinavania, and tried to boost its supernatural capabilities by changing form, fighting in bird-form in the sky, often against these incredibly powerful deity entities:

The sorcerers change form, their spirits fighting in the sky in constantly shifting animal shapes, sometimes even transforming into weapons or sharpened objects to pierce their opponents’ toughened hides. They try to overcome each new choice of form, thinking ahead to gain an advantage. Some try to block the route home between body and spirit, forcing the free souls of their enemies to drift to shapeless destruction.

Increasingly, you’re seeing the visible battlefield, but also the invisible battlefield occupied by the dead, by armies of the dead, and by the armies of those who seek dead bodies and want to collect them and take them back to Valholl, or want to use them to make looms or to tell the future or to do magic.

“The Angels of Mons was based on a short story about Agincourt bowmen written by the fantasy writer Arthur Machen. But people took it for a real report, and then started saying they’d seen it, too”

It’s the idea that behind the obvious and the everyday is a world that you can’t see, but which in some sense corresponds with your emotions. It’s the fear you feel of death. If you visit any battlefield—even battlefields that are now quite old, like those of the First World War—there’s a haunting sense that here the dead still are, and they’re not going away. For instance, there’s this vast ossuary at Verdun, which has the bones of 55,000 unidentified men in it. There are still trenches where men were buried alive and they haven’t been reburied yet.

That kind of haunting of the landscape means that a narrative where the landscape is always haunted, by supernatural entities that transcend death, makes a lot of sense. Nor is it insignificant that World War One was a war in which people were heavily invested in the idea that those entities were present in battles. The very famous instance of that was the idea of the Angels of Mons; really, that was based on a short story about Agincourt bowmen written by the fantasy writer Arthur Machen. But people took it for a real report. And then they all started saying they’d seen it, too, because it fitted with the way the war felt to them—the explosive power of war to destroy people’s sense of who they were.

We foist the facts of the external narrative to match what we internally feel to be true, which is often nuanced, complicated and impossible to explain.

And particularly taboo, in war, because you’re not actually supposed to acknowledge that you’re terrified. You’re not actually supposed to announce to your friends and relations that you really don’t want to go back, and that you’d rather hide under the sofa for the duration. There’s some sense in which the fear and horror evoked by battle itself is often the thing that people can’t bring themselves to talk about. And when they do talk about it, it’s often with a sense of guilt, because it induces survivor guilt in people who didn’t, for instance, get taken after Valholl—the lucky ones.

So we find that the supernatural, in the form of a perpetual haunting, can be a cipher of emotion and trauma. In The Viking Way, Price also talks about female sorcery in this period and demystifies common misconceptions about practices of shamanism. Is the picture of ‘sorcery’ he ultimately posits very different than our modern image of what a female sorceress was?

Yes. He talks about the feminization of sorcery and the extent to which sorcery effeminizes some of the shaman figures. I think all of us have a post-Victorian, romanticized view of sorcery.

“It’s a famous urban myth that there are now so many people on the planet that they outnumber the dead. They really don’t. The dead outnumber us twenty to forty times”

What Price is trying to do is push that aside in favor of something that’s much more about telling the truth than saying what we think we ought to say. Part of the power of these figures of sorcery is their willingness to acknowledge the perpetual presence of the dead in the landscape. The dead still outnumber the living.

People often get this wrong—it’s a famous urban myth that there are now so many people on the planet that they outnumber the dead. They really don’t. The dead outnumber us twenty to forty times. It’s part of the reason that London’s so much higher up now, geologically and archeologically, than it was.

No way! I’m sure many people would find that terrifying.

But we’re nothing like as terrified as we once were. That, in a way, is what all of these books are about. What these writers are trying to do is encourage people to face truthfully the fact that mortality is still a problem the human race has not solved. We mostly now manage our feelings about death by pretending it’s not happening. And that’s not really managing your feelings—that’s actually just burying your head in the sand.

Would you say then, reading over these books, the appropriate response ought to be something more like fear, or a measured awe or appreciation?

I think it could be a recognition of what our society doesn’t provide to us. And there’s not really a lot of point in a society—or a religion—that’s so delicate in its sensibilities that it doesn’t provide anyone with any emotional equipment to deal with challenges that they will end up facing. Challenges like bereavement.

That makes me think of you saying a few minutes ago that so many of those persecuted as witches in early modern England were elderly—were the people whose sons, children and fellow community members had to face (or had trouble facing) the fact that they were going to die.

I think one of the reasons that we find elderly women so horrifying is that they are literally a kind of dead end. We’ve now created a culture—good old us!—that is far, far more rigorously ageist than any culture previously on Earth. Girls at fifteen are having Botox before they even get any facial lines.

On the other hand, you have to argue, what is it that terrifies us so much about the spectacle of age? I think it’s actually a sign that we’re no longer managing our feelings about death in any way. Nor is it insignificant that the witch trials begin at pretty much the same moment as the European Reformation in religion, which radically resets relations with the dead by deleting purgatory and the cult of the saints. Whereas previously you could be useful to the dead by praying for them. That’s useful if you were rude to Aunt Maud the day before she died; it helps alleviate guilt. Or, alternatively, the dead could be useful to you, because you could ask them to act on your behalf in front of God, just as you’d ask a local rich person to act.

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But the Reformation nixes both of those relations with the dead. And sometimes it makes things really, really violent and dramatic. My favorite story concerns the ossuary at St. Paul’s Cathedral—old St. Paul’s, before the Wren cathedral was built. In the middle of the night, this huge group of carts pulled up outside of the cathedral, and they took all the bones in the ossuary, loaded them into the carts, took them down to the local marsh, threw them into the marsh, and threw dung on top of them. It’s this obviation of the dead, because they decided they want to stamp out any Catholic tendency to pray for the dead.

So we’ve decided we’re just going to sling mud on top of them?

That’s right! Absolutely that. It’s so gobsmackingly insensitive. How would you feel, if your relatives were buried in a graveyard, and you got up one morning and realized the graveyard had been turned into a theme park? And that all the bones had vanished from the cemetery and been replaced by swing sets? It’s that. Most people would feel a very personal sense of violation. But that’s simply one of the kinds of events that people had to face.

“In Norse myth, old age is an old woman”

The consequence was that in deleting good relations with the dead, people were inspired to a greater level of fear than before about the passing of time. The visible figures of the poor, elderly, disabled trundling around, looking as though they weren’t long for this world, came to represent old age and death for them. Let’s not forget that in Norse myth, old age is an old woman. And she beats Thor at wrestling because even Thor can’t top old age!

Are those changes with the Reformation the reason why relations with the dead become so dark and seemingly threatening, leading people to accuse those around them of witchcraft? Suddenly, because there are no benevolent ties to the dead, the dead then have to become a specter of evil?

Arguably. Additionally, one of the effects of the Reformation is that over time it tends to delete the grey areas of folklore. Everything is black or white. You’re either going to the hot place or you’re going to heaven—there’s no in-between. There’s no purgatory; there’s no limbo. Similarly, every supernatural entity has to come from either heaven or hell. All those middling beings like fairies and ghosts also get dropped. Anything that does bad stuff is, therefore, a demon.

Previously, it’s quite likely that some of what witches describe in the trial literature as ‘familiars’ were originally household fairies, brownies and hobs. Some of the practices that witches describe in their confessions are very like the practices associated with such entities: the notable one is leaving out a bowl of cream or milk for them, which again is a trans-national custom. (Scandinavians also do it for trolls and elves.) There are a lot of descriptions of people doing it for their demon, and the demons often sound quite a lot like fairies or elves—bearing in mind that fairies and elves are hobs. If they’re household brownies, they’ve got hair all over their bodies. The word ‘hobbit’ in Tolkien derives from the term ‘hob’, so they’re hairy and small.

Interestingly, the reformed Church won’t have a bean of this. From its point of view, all these entities must be demons—because they’re not angels, so what else could they be? They can only either be delusions of strange old women or demons.

In modern secular culture, there are rigid distinctions between satanic, demonic, ghostly, haunting and evil. But actually it sounds like these groups were much more porous.

I think so. Certainly, prior to the Reformation, they’re much more flexible and overlapping compared to after the Reformation. The Reformation really happens at different times in different places, and even happens differently to different individuals.

If you look at the Lancashire witch trial of 1612, the two older women in their nineties accused in that trial are, according to their own children, using charms that we would probably think of as Catholic prayers. They’re getting people to invoke the five wounds of Jesus Christ, and to say a Pater Noster and an Ave Maria afterwards, in those terminologies, in Latin. For a very theologically up-to-the-minute Protestant, those prayers are themselves kind of diabolical, because by that stage, they’ve decided in their own minds that the Catholic church is all about Satan.

“One of the effects of the Reformation is that over time it tends to delete the grey areas of folklore. Everything is black or white”

Again, if you’re doing stuff that Protestants think is bad, there’s no grey area. There’s no room for tolerance. You’re either right or wrong. In that sense, it’s quite terrifying. It’s a terrifying worldview. And it persists to this day—it’s very similar to what we saw when the Harry Potter books were published in America.

And yet there are so many people—public figures even—that use Harry Potter metaphors as a way of understanding individual morality in modern life, like ‘he’s a Slytherin’—stop! You’re an adult!

It’s horrifying, isn’t it? But alternatively, there are also all those people who believe stories of how their children were possessed by Satan after reading those books, which is the flipside of that, the other kind of crazy.

This is where I should probably shut up, but I find the determinism of the sorting hat quite troubling. The idea that you are a Slytherin, you are a Gryffindor. Especially when you’re eleven years old, for God’s sakes. Adults, too. Don’t you find it a bit worrying? It reminds me of Calvinist pre-destination, where from the beginning of time you’re destined to go to the hot place or not.

It’s like a less sophisticated version of employers who personality test all their workers.

You’re right about less sophisticated. As though you can’t be cunning and brave, as though you can’t be both scholarly and intelligent and loyal. The absolutism of the categories does my head in.

Next, we have Soul Hunters by Rane Willerslev. What’s this book about?

This is about a particular group of Siberian shamans. Now, I lay claim to no fluency of the language of Siberian tribes, but it might be worth noting for the record that the word ‘shaman’ actually comes from a Siberian tribal language. There’s now a locution among anthropologists and social scientists, the ‘California shaman’, which has obviously not a lot to do with what the Siberians thought it was. So there are people selling their services on the internet as shamans, they’re probably not from Siberia.

“Being a shaman is nearly destroyed by Stalin and his policies”

Actually, this book is fantastic is because it’s about the way in which being a shaman is nearly destroyed by Stalin and his policies. He wants to wipe it out for the same sort of reason that Protestants want to wipe out the grey areas that I’ve been describing in late medieval culture: because he wants everybody to have exactly the same mindset. Of course it fails, which is the good news. The bad news is a lot of people die, but the good news is that it fails.

The book is about the revival of Siberian shamanism since the fall of the Berlin wall and the way that these groups of tribes are coming back together and trying to rediscover the traditional practices of their forefathers. Which is great. On the other hand, being a shaman is really, horrifyingly difficult. I’d be keen to ask some California shaman if they’ve really tried the full-on method, because it’s not just about the occasional tap on a drum. Really, to be able to become a shamanic healer, you have to be able to contract the disease you’re trying to heal and nearly die of it. The closer you come to dying, the greater your power.

Sounds a bit like method acting. And Willerslev says something like that, too—he introduces and defines shamanism and then says it’s a practice of mimesis: “the meeting place of two modes of being-in-the-world—‘engagement’ and ‘reflexivity’”, “not a theory but a ‘faculty’”.

It’s important to remember that it’s not just something that goes on in your head; it’s also something you do with your body. It’s something you have to invest in as an embodied and fleshed entity. So again, that’s me not liking dualism very much, and not being very comfortable with the idea that people aren’t their bodies. People are their bodies. Nor can you really control every function of your body in the way you can maybe control electric lights.

How is the practice of shamanism reviving in these communities?

It’s increasingly to do with the relation between the Siberian people and their environment. As you probably know if you read the papers, the environment in Siberia—just like the environment all around the poles—is changing much faster. The further up you go, the more strongly climate change is happening noticeably. In Siberia, they’re dealing with incredibly scary stuff, like fields of bubbling methane.

How can you manage totally non-traditional climatic events with traditional material? The answer would appear to be that only traditional material offers you the chance to give something back to the landscape. To see yourself as a creature within that landscape—rather than as something separate that’s using or digging into or mining that landscape, which is how Western man tends to see it. What I think we’re seeing is the rise of practitioners that want to promulgate not even a green idea, but more an idea that reduces the dominance of a human to something that’s much more intersectional and relational.

How does violence enter into that, either historically or present day?

Shamanism is a violent religion. It’s also what we would think of as self-harm. In order to induce the appropriate state of mind, self-harm is sometimes involved. In terms of whether we can really say that there’s acts of violence perpetrated by shamans, I would probably want to call them acts of resistance, because they’re never going to be the dominant force in the area, even. There’s always going to be an overlay of big business, and mining companies, and various globalized entities that militate against that sense of the local and the engaged.

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I get the tendency of the California shaman to want to resist some of those forces. I also think that there’s something to be said for all of us opening up to some sort of idea where we allow nature to win some battles. Rather than insisting on making every single thing in our lives perfect for us, irrespective of other stuff. Now, you could call that violence.

And the corporations and globalized entities with real power to do harm are the ones that would have a vested interest in calling it violence, and in making witches out of individuals.

That’s right. And the responses to Greta Thunberg struck me as very much a callback to some of the kinds of rhetoric that we see associated with the young children caught up in the witch trials.

So much of that rhetoric from what I’ve seen has to do with characteristics of the body: not only her physical appearance and youth, but also her disability. All in service of making her seem more abnormal, and thus delegitimizing her message.

The easy equation of autism with madness was one of the most nightmarish aspects of the response to her. My eldest daughter is autistic, so I have to come out and say I have a vested interest in neurodiversity. But equally, I thought that a lot of it was about the same kinds of issues that crop up repeatedly in the witch trials, most famously at Salem, where little girls actually seize the opportunity to get their annoyingly, obstreperously bossy elders into tons of trouble. There’s a wonderful ballad by one of the descendants of the Salem witches called ‘I, But a Little Girl’. This is one of the things that the accusers at Salem say: “we be but little girls”.

The point that the ballad makes is that the adults let them do it. The adults don’t fight back. The fact that eleven people are executed has nothing to do with little girls per se, and everything to do with the adults who indulge them. But it’s also strikingly about a fightback by the little girls against the abusive power of adults. Adults in Salem, because it’s isolated, have total power over children. I’m not talking about clerical sexual abuse or anything along those lines—I’m talking more about the complete disregard for the feelings, the imaginations, or the emotional needs of children. It’s the effect of creating a situation like that. To some extent, Greta Thunberg is a side effect of the industrialization and globalization that we’ve imposed on the planet and basically left our kids to deal with.

And with Salem there’s a bit of the theme park aspect that you mentioned earlier with respect to the Reformation and ossuary at St. Paul’s, too. If you visit today, surrounding the quiet, quaint memorial is a town that’s a total tourist trap. It’s a little tasteless.

The town, yes. But have you been to the village? The village renamed itself in the nineteenth century, so many people don’t know it’s there. It renamed itself Danvers. It’s got a memorial to the Salem witches that lived there. The one that lived there that many people know about is Rebecca Nurse. Her house is still there and you can go visit it. Unlike the town, it has this hushed quality. It’s like walking with death. You’re right—the town of Salem is this creepy monetization of the terrifying aspects of the past. That to me is a little uncomfortable. I sometimes want to say to people: you realize actual people died here, right? This isn’t fun.

“The Salem witches were trapped in the same kind of way that you could be trapped on Love Island”

Those people were trapped—the Salem witches were trapped in the same kind of way that you could be trapped on Love Island. People don’t really realize this, but Salem was this tiny clearing in the woods. There was a town in the sense that it was a port, but it’s reasonably distant from the village. If you only had your feet, it would be very distant from the village. Say you’re Abigail Williams and you’re ten years old (she’s one of the principal accusers). You’re living with maybe 200 people and they’re the only people you know. They’re the only people you’ve ever known. There’s no television. There are no books except the Bible. And that’s your world. It’s horrifying!

But I do want to say—Abigail Williams was ten years old. I want to say it again, because in Arthur Miller’s play, she’s somehow made into a lustful teenager. That’s Arthur Miller’s explanation for the entire phenomenon. Which is, frankly, absolutely gross. Gross in a particular kind of way that often masquerades as liberalism and is actually the opposite.

That puts it brilliantly. Next, we have the poems of Edward Thomas, a poet of the First World War who one might not think of as a figure for thinking about ideas of witchcraft and the supernatural. Why did you choose this one?

Edward Thomas would be my stake in having a go at something like an English writer who deliberately wants to reconnect not only with the countryside, as we call it here—‘nature’—but also importantly with the history of the countryside and its future. It’s really an example of somebody we can think with, and somebody we can use as a guide figure, when we walk through the landscape, when we listen to birdsong, when we look at the flowers that come in the spring and the leaves that fall in the autumn. How we can think about those things as important in a quiet way that’s more valuable than huge statues on plinths or flags. How we can think of those as maybe part of our national identity and our identity as people living in this land.

I think Edward Thomas, perhaps more than anyone, was alive to the incredible strangeness of England as an entity that had been inhabited for thousands of years by people who had left ample traces, and yet those traces are still lined with other forms of life that also supersede and go beyond those local Anglo-Saxons or Romans or Celts. So it’s that mixture, again, of things that transcend time, and things that are embedded in time, that I think he’s very good at.

Perhaps that’s why he’s such good friends with Robert Frost.

Yes! He started to write poetry because Frost suggested it. Prior to that, he’s mostly writing in prose. Then, he quite literally starts turning his prose into poetry, in a really interesting way.

The poem I would want to recommend to everyone is ‘Roads’, and after that, ‘Lob’. They’re both about the way in which the countryside is strangely readable. Coming from my postcolonial background in Australia, the landscape is very difficult to read if you’re part of the white settler invasion force, as inevitably I am. Someone who’s a member of the indigenous peoples of Australia will see all sorts of things in the landscape that I don’t have headspace for.

But the English landscape is much more legible. You can walk along a little country path that’s actually part of the Ridgeway, which is a road that predates the Romans. That’s interesting and important to do.

I also wanted to look at one poem by Thomas that explicitly mentions witches, called “This is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong”. I’ll read a section of it:

This is no case of petty right or wrong
That politicians or philosophers
Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot
With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.
Beside my hate for one fat patriot
My hatred of the Kaiser is love true:—
A kind of god he is, banging a gong.
But I have not to choose between the two,
Or between justice and injustice. Dinned
With war and argument I read no more
Than in the storm smoking along the wind
Athwart the wood. Two witches’ cauldrons roar.
From one the weather shall rise clear and gay;
Out of the other an England beautiful
And like her mother that died yesterday.

Here again he’s talking about reading the landscape—not just the natural landscape that engulfs his physical present, but the landscape as a sedimentation of history, too.

And he’s explicitly rejecting other kinds of nationalism in the early part of the poem: “I hate not Germans, nor grow hot / With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.” Though, interestingly, he enlisted (and in fact died) in the First World War, even though he didn’t have to, because he was over 30. When somebody asked him why he was doing it, he picked up a handful of soil and said, literally, ‘This’. It’s gorgeous.

“Edward Thomas, perhaps more than anyone, was alive to the incredible strangeness of England as an entity that had been inhabited for thousands of years by people who had left ample traces”

From a wonderful book about the natural observations of the English forces, it turns out to be fairly typical, actually; the reason many men give is that they’re fighting for the countryside. It’s particularly annoying, then, that governments that want to weaponize their weapons and parade their own patriotism are willing to destroy the countryside they fought for and don’t think these men will mind somehow, or don’t think that they’re betraying anything.

Moving on to the witches, I agree that it’s saying something absolutely gorgeous about a refusal to judge between ill effects and good effects and to discriminate.

In one cursory view, the witches look like an image that comes out of left field, and it’s unusual for Thomas. But in another way it’s like he’s saying, Who’s to say what’s bad or good, unnatural or natural?

I think that’s right. They’re also partly there to be about English weather. Edward Thomas was really fond of rain, which you probably need to be to be successfully English. He actually loved rain, and even when he was in France in the trenches, one of the poems he wrote then was about the sound of the rain and how it made him feel like he was back home. So I think one of the things he’s doing is re-situating us where we actually are, rather than our constant tendency—very much a phenomenon of his social class when he wrote—of wanting to go to the Riviera instead.

The modern equivalent might be the constant Airbnb-ification of our surroundings.

Yes, which is just really weird, actually. One of the oddities about the English that comes from my research on food is that they’re not really very happy with themselves for a people that are often accused of arrogance. They want to eat other people’s food, adopt other people’s fashions, live in other people’s kinds of houses, and, ideally, have a completely different climate and landscape than the one they actually have.

It just seems extremely strange to me, given that I come from a country where it’s hot and sunny most of the time, and it’s becoming—let’s be honest, it probably will be in my lifetime even, certainly not long after my lifetime—uninhabitable. It’s almost tropical now, with huge evening thunderstorms and almost constant humidity. Meanwhile, the rainforests are actually burning.

Earlier, you mentioned a big Victorian shift in how we view witches, witchcraft and the supernatural, and that many of our images of the witch today are formed by pre-Raphaelite ideas. Your last choice is The Poems of Emily Brontë.

What’s fascinating about Emily Brontë that to me relates to witchcraft is that she and Emily Dickinson are probably the most confident writers ever about female desire. It’s as though neither of them have got the memo that says you’re not supposed to have desires asa woman. Neither of them get it—and yet they do both get it, because neither of them really want to publish their poems.

Emily Brontë’s poems, which are mostly written for the paracosm she created of Gondel, contain huge numbers of sorceress-like women. Multiple murderers, adulteresses, faithless queens. All of these things she knows are taboo, but whereas her sister Charlotte is constantly fretting about the ways her imagination runs away with her and the way she can’t control her thoughts, Emily’s totally comfortable with the fact that these are her thoughts. The result is these searingly beautiful and musical poems, a lot of which are female voices, speaking confidently. It intersects superbly with her very powerful sense, again of the weather, and of the landscape, and of the history of the landscape, the people who’ve inhabited that landscape. She’s interested in dialect. She’s interested in—and quite scornful of, actually—superstition, but she also believes in ghosts. Clearly, she doesn’t give a toss about organized religion.

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Just the degree to which this was even allowed, that the inner censor can be turned off and silenced, is really encouraging. Typically, when we think about the witch trials, one of the things we tend to come up with is some sort of ‘Oh my god, I feel worried, I feel thwarted, I feel like all these women who’ve gone before me ended up being hanged for their pains’. Caryl Churchill, in the play Vinegar Tom (1976), has a sort of scene where a woman is standing in front of the mirror, asking herself what’s stopping her.

The thing is, nothing was stopping Emily Brontë. She had hardly any money, hardly any paper. She wrote most of the poems on these tiny little scraps of paper that she cut out, in some cases, of family books. She’d cut the flyleaf out and write on that. She had to do the housework. (I love the way biographers still write about that was really nothing, to do the housework. Sure, they had a daily maid, but you try doing the housework for that number of people and see how long it takes you—especially with no modern equipment!) But she integrated her writing into that brilliantly, and she was fine. I’m keen to say that she shouldn’t be pathologized. The number of mental conditions she’s been diagnosed with, as though there must be something wrong with her because she didn’t want to be a bestseller as her sister Charlotte wanted to be a bestseller.

She’s my perfect image of what the witch trials might teach us. Witches, actually, nobody’s ever really going to hear everything that you have to say the way you mean it. So you should probably just get on and say it anyway.

Deepening the connection you draw between Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, we see Dickinson writing letters that are actually poems to her loved ones, some of them really charged with desire. And similarly, we have Emily Brontë writing these poems, not intending them for publication, but sharing them with her sister.

Just one sister. She shared them with Anne, but when Charlotte discovered them, Emily was furious. Charlotte took to rooting around in Emily’s writing desk. They all had these writing slopes that they used with, inside them, a kind of compartment. Charlotte was evidently curious about what Emily was doing, so she came across the Gondel poems and Emily was livid. Absolutely livid. She wasn’t happy to share them with Charlotte, actually. There’s a degree of uncertainty as to how much of the poems she shared with Anne, as opposed to the scenes that the poems were part of, which might be a separate sharing.

“Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson are probably the most confident writers ever about female desire”

It also has to be said that if there’s a villain in the Brontë story, it probably is Charlotte. Charlotte was keen to use Emily’s poems as a way into the literary world. They ended up publishing poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and the two reviews they got singled out Emily’s poems for praise. (To be fair, Charlotte did know they were better.) Later, after Jane Eyre had become a huge runaway bestseller, she refused to allow Anne’s bestselling novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to be republished, which is one of the main reasons that Anne’s now very much the third Brontë. Even though Tenant of Wildfell Hall was as much a bestseller as Jane Eyre, hardly anyone reads it now because of the decision Charlotte took.

Now of course Charlotte, being Charlotte, wrapped that up in a lovely narrative about how she wanted to save Anne’s reputation. But the fact that the novel was profoundly transgressive was one of the reasons that it was successful. It basically argued that women should have the right to leave a very unhappy marriage. And nobody knows, really, that Anne was even braver than Charlotte in these matters, and that Charlotte shut her down. But I think it’s horribly significant.

Also, separately, it’s very likely that Emily wrote a second novel after Wuthering Heights. What became of that? The terrifying thing about oppression is it doesn’t make people behave like saints. It makes people behave horribly.

Because human behavior is irrational, which I think not enough people acknowledge.

Charlotte was deeply disturbed by her own feelings, and I think you could argue that’s a pretty good index of what happens in the witch trials. A reminder: most of the accusers were women as well, in England.

So it’s a reminder that the history of witches is not only a tale of censorship—it’s also that this stamping out is only one part; the other half is a reflexive refusal to acknowledge what disturbs us about ourselves.

Right. But also, part of the ‘we’ that doesn’t like it is the same we that’s been stamping it down in ourselves, if we’re like Charlotte and we successfully manage to repress the sexy bits of our imagination, to make shades of grey either black or white. Charlotte created a paracosm as well, and its main character is this hugely Byronic male figure, one that she clearly identified with and in some respects wanted to be. And of course, that’s what made her so horrified. She enjoyed it too much. She found her schoolchildren charges boring by comparison. Emily, on the other hand, was just 100% honest—well, of course it’s more interesting to write about Augusta Geraldine Almeida than it is to write essays. Doh. When Charlotte encounters these feelings, she shuts them down. And when they explode outwards in her sister’s writings, she has to crush them again, too.

The logic about how all of this has fit together is just brilliant.

Thank you! I think a lot of what we have to deal with if we’re going to be whole people is the weird in ourselves. I don’t want to strike a note and say ‘Well, I can do all this because I’m deeply rational’. We’re attracted to what I think of as the humanities not because they’re rational, but because they acknowledge that in us there’s deep, undisclosed feelings that are transgressive. In contrast, the pressure from the more globalized, corporatized side is: Can you be more rational? Or rather, can you devote 18 hours a day to being my rational servant? That’s why there’s now a felt threat that we can be replaced by AI or something more biddable. Though I seriously doubt whether AI will be quite as biddable as people are thinking. If it does become self-aware, won’t it be just like us?

One last question, before we finish. On the topic of witches and the supernatural, we’ve spoken a lot about the idea that the dead haunt the living. Do you believe in ghosts?

Let’s just say that I think the past can become strangely visible.

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Diane Purkiss

Diane Purkiss is Professor of English Literature, Fellow and Tutor at Keble College, Oxford. She was formerly Professor of English at Exeter University. She is the author of the highly acclaimed The Witch in History, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories, and The English Civil War: A People's History. She specialises in Renaissance and women's literature, witchcraft and the English Civil War.

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Diane Purkiss

Diane Purkiss is Professor of English Literature, Fellow and Tutor at Keble College, Oxford. She was formerly Professor of English at Exeter University. She is the author of the highly acclaimed The Witch in History, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories, and The English Civil War: A People's History. She specialises in Renaissance and women's literature, witchcraft and the English Civil War.